Keiko O’Leary’s Recipe for Hamburgers

While the kids at Keiko O’Leary‘s school ate McDonald’s hamburgers, her mom made teriyaki hamburgers at home. We love her poem, “Recipe for Hamburgers, 1985,” and look forward to performing it on June 17 at Our Stories, Ourselves, as part of San Jose Museum of Art’s Third Thursday series.

Keiko first tried non-teriyaki hamburgers in fourth grade. She writes short pieces, including poetry, fiction, and marketing copy. She is also involved in a new online writing community, Prolific Writers Life. A fellow writer from San José, Lorraine Haataia, started the initiative with the vision of a writing community that’s always there when you need it. Writers can share their expertise by offering workshops and events, and they can benefit from the expertise of others by attending. 

POWSJ fans will remember Keiko from our New Year, Nouveau show, in which Alex Draa performed her piece, “The Golden Beauty of Carlina Johansen, Author of Milliner’s Dreams.” She was kind enough to answer a few questions for us in advance of our June 17 show.

Keiko O’Leary

How did you hear about Play On Words?

Wow, it’s been so long. I feel like you’ve always existed. I’ve been involved in San Jose’s literary community for many years. Maybe I heard about you through the Flash Fiction Forum, or the San Jose Poetry Slam, or the Santa Clara County Poet Laureate program, or Poetry Center San Jose … It’s wonderful that we have so many vibrant literary organizations, including ones focused on performance. 

How has your creative practice changed during the pandemic?

I’ve experienced a deep change during the pandemic. I still do mostly the same activities, but my relationship with them is completely different. 

I used to view my creative practice as something I needed to force myself to do more of. I was forever trying out new routines and challenges in an effort to conform to some ideal work level that I could never reach. 

During the pandemic, with my kids at home, I lost all my professional time. At first, I tried to make the sacrifice gracefully, but I failed. 

I came to realize that the only way I could be a good parent was if I made time for self-care. I’m not talking about baths and pedicures. For me, self-care is writing, teaching, making art, giving workshops. Now I view my creative activities as vital to my health and my family’s happiness.

I still do challenges and try new routines, but I approach them with joy instead of with a whip.

What does “immigrant heritage” mean to you?

I’m fourth generation on both sides: all eight of my great-grandparents were immigrants to the United States. But they didn’t all come from the same place. 

I grew up in a multicultural family, so switching from culture to culture seems normal to me. But when I was a kid explaining sushi to my friends at school, I hoped that one day I’d experience being part of a group where everyone was the same. This turned out to be impossible. Even within groups I have chosen, I always find myself to be a voice of diversity: a poet among engineers or an engineer among poets. As an adult, I’ve come to accept this as normal and good, and to understand that I’m not alone in being different. 

Everyone has something unique to offer in any group they belong to.

I met Sandra Cisneros when her novel Caramelo first came out, and she gave this advice for writers: think of a group you belong to, say women or actors, and write down ten ways you are different from other people in that group. Do this for ten groups you belong to. Multiply all those differences together, and that’s the place you write from. 

I believe our differences are valuable, and we should not deny our heritage — any of our heritages. 

I claim my heritage in every line I belong to, not just as a person of Japanese descent and Irish descent, but also as an American, a writer, an artist, a computer scientist, a linguist, a woman, a queer person, a human being, a life form of the planet Earth.

What else should we know about you?

I love sending real mail, especially postcards and handmade pop-up cards. I also have an email list where I send (digital images of) handwritten letters. I write letters of encouragement and practical tips for creative people who want to improve their craft, organize their life, and see the big picture while taking meaningful action today. People can sign up at http://keikooleary.com/list/signup.html.

Join us June 17 to hear Keiko’s poem performed aloud.

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