The women’s room at [variable1] tech conference in [variable2] city
The toilet seats are U-shaped sentinels
of the sparkling clean you can expect.
For some reason they are all up,
like expecting an army of men
to come pee there; but there’s only you.
As you walk you have your choice
of any stall, pick a stall, to lower
and hover over, not sure what
kind of bleach will be staining
your thighs. You can bleed
and hold your gut as long as you want.
Wrap it all in a sanitary bag,
crinkle as loudly as you like.
Outside, men will scratch their balls
through their jeans, forgetting
you are there. Outside, you
are the outsider crashing and crinkling
the world of men. But in this moment,
four walls stand firm for women like you
and you are here for a mirror
to give your game face a break.
We spend at least eight hours a day on it, most of us. It yields identity, the daily bread, a lot of aggravation, perhaps toxic experiences. But at times, it can offer up art. This is the story of that journey.
When I went to a Hedgebrook writers residency in 2014 — the longest worry-free stretch of time I have spent away from work — I was determined to write a manuscript about the part of my life I’d largely kept separate from my poems: my job in technology.
Victoria Chang’s The Boss had come out a few years before, and other writers had definitely tapped their own professions – nurses, plumbers, odd jobs – to win book contests that gave them publication. Literary poetry was wrestling with new lexicons. Scientific writings prompted poets like Kimiko Hahn to explore these new vocabularies. Perhaps it’s not so surprising that Hahn was the instructor who told me to go deeper, into the poems I was writing, in my everyday work with computational language, and see what I could find there.
Nothing about writing poetry on the side changed my work realities: I was a woman in a male-dominated field, an Asian American straight shooter from the East Coast who didn’t fit any notion of demure.
I was so used to the headwinds of male scorn and lack of promotional opportunities that I often erased myself from painful situations by not dwelling on the memories. Kept myself in motion.
Until I finally decided to start writing about being a woman in technology. Thus, the journey began to write myself back in.
By the time I pitched and won the Hedgebrook residency, I was soaked in stories –my own and other women’s — about how the tech industry treated us. To tell these stories, I created a persona — “Coder Girl.” It would be her voice singing out in defiance for the rest of us. Hedgebrook gave me a cabin in the woods to see what I could make of it. The residency staff warned me that many found new productivity, but in the solitude, all sorts of doubts and demons would also arise. Alone in a cabin for the day, answerable only to the muse and the page, each writer would be going deep. So, the staff warned us to go easy on ourselves.
Even with the demon warning, I was surprised.
Within a week I came to dinner saying “Welp, I guess I’ve got a lot of untapped rage!”
Poem after poem was rising up, noting emotional details I had forgotten, noting situations in new vividness that I thought I only remembered in outlines. My fictional twenty-something Coder Girl was covering a lot of ground, from her computer science textbooks to Charles Babbage to bodily comparisons of a woman and a computer. It was weird to be surprised by my own brain. Not so much the details – I remembered the stories and incidents – but at the time I had brushed them off, moved on, so I thought. I was Teflon Feminist and nothing was going to cling to me. “Don’t tell me the odds” says Han Solo and it sure works in the moment. You make it work because you have to.
But each time you face the odds, whether spoken or not, you start recognizing the pattern of what’s stacked against you. When you spend several weeks being told “your voice matters” – you end up facing yourself, your prior choices, your feelings left unprocessed.
Once I came back from Hedgebrook, my work brain had begun changing, whether I wanted it to or not. My day job was a rich mine of cool experiences and new information, but it was also a salt mine — full of me being salty, tears, and drenched in the biochemistry of working long hours. I couldn’t stop noticing microaggressions whereas before I’d brushed them aside, excused them as personality quirks, etc. My brain started pattern matching: who around me had it easier, whose work got taken for granted.
Newer poems fleshed out the core of what I wrote at Hedgebrook. These poems were written on nights and weekends, on vacations, on cafe dates with writing friends. They took me into deeper societal directions as well – not just literal poems about the daily life of a woman in tech but also who I was in my family: daughter of a Japanese American internment camp survivor and staunch feminist doctor. After attending the Clarion West Writers Workshop, my poems started to make speculative, “what if” leaps into Japanese folklore, video games, Witcher parodies.
I changed jobs multiple times, kept adding and removing poems, changed the title of the manuscript, kept sending the manuscript out. In 2019 I was gratified to discover that I was a National Poetry Series Finalist and in 2021 Tebot Bach selected Breakpoint for its Patricia Bibby First Book Award, which ensures publication.
In computer programming a breakpoint is something the coder inserts for the purposes of debugging. Inside the coder’s development environment, the breakpoint stops the program at the specified point and shows the values the program is carrying while at that line of code. In the title of my book, I also wanted to imply the non-code definition of breakpoint – meaning a breaking point. The book’s poems are looking at the places where we fail ourselves – in the technology we create, in situations of conscious or unconscious bias, in the moments where a person finds their breaking point has come.
[Breakpoint] doesn’t have to mean crumbling or dissolution. It can be a moment when something finally becomes clear.
“Coder Girl” weaves herself throughout Breakpoint, but she speaks most directly in “Slouching like a velvet rope,” the poem that closes this essay.
I was stunned when Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet Jericho Brown selected it as the winner of the 2021 Auburn Witness Poetry Prize. When I performed the poem at the award reading with him, I dedicated it to the folks who were the “only ones like them in the room.”
If that’s you reading this essay, the poem is also for you. May you find creative moments in your work and meaning in the exploration of what work is.
Slouching like a velvet rope
Yesterday my name was power
adapter, toaster jockey, tag spinner.
Today it’s anger and liquid mercury, evading reach.
Tomorrow I’ll be breaking the rules by showing up,
elbows on the table, scared to my sneakers of getting fired—
being the girl who leans forward into everyone’s face
instead of ornamental. If you show me your newest
phone, I might brain you with mine,
dig out your skull and put a chip in, instead.
All a gadget wants is to be turned on and stroked,
lips against its glass surface, it reflects someone else’s face.
A gadget is not a woman.
No one will notice that it isn’t you in there.
Just like no one noticed that my name isn’t that girl
And I didn’t come here from marketing, I flew in
full frontal from engineering.
*Poems from Aoki’s newly released collection, Breakpoint