Economy and Gift Economy

I want to say it’s because of social media that the increase in free labor requests has flooded my in-boxes. Perhaps this is true. Back in the day, when I was an aspiring writer who didn’t know anything about anything — how to “get started,” how to make my writing “better,” whether I was ready to publish, and if so, publish where — I could never have imagined getting Jessica Hagedorn’s contact information, contacting her out of the blue, telling her I want and need her to help me, and expecting a response.

I did, however, learn to do a few things:

  1. Try and fail miserably. At writing weak sauce poems and pretentious poems I eventually scrapped. At writing stupid cover letters. At submitting and getting rejected.
  2. Recognize when mentors, Ates, Kuyas, were openly and willingly giving me free advice. When Michelle Bautista and I met Nick Carbó at his reading at Cody’s Books in Berkeley back in the 1990s, that was one of the best things. He recognized us as these former Maganda magazine editors-in-chief who had published some of his poems from El Grupo McDonalds. He had all kinds of things to tell us about submitting work, publication, self-publishing, indie presses. I was a sponge. He invited us to submit work to the Aunt Lute anthology Babaylan. I did. He then sent me a note in response, asking me for 10 more poems. I panicked. I failed. See #1, above. When Eileen Tabios moved to the Bay Area and reached out to those of us who were accepted/included in Babaylan, there was no way I was gonna play hiya. I was there. To do book events, to meet and hear other writers from the anthology, to hear and heed her publishing and writing advice. When I found myself on the same literary event roster as Jaime Jacinto, I would listen to every damn thing he would say, every nugget of wisdom. When I would run into him on campus during grad school, if he had time, I would sit with him and listen to him talk. Jaime, Nick, Eileen seem to have tracked my progress over time, as this kid who knew nothing, into an aspiring writer, into an emerging writer, into an author. I took every one of their reading recommendations and submissions recommendations they offered me. All of them challenged me to write more, to step up my game, to try things I’d never tried before. I wrote reviews of their books, did my best to include them in events I organized.
  3. Recognize when there were opportunities to learn, and to prioritize them. When $50 was a ton of money for me, when I was barely making any money at all, I set that money aside, and paid to take a KSW class with Brian Komei Dempster, on submitting to publications, on applying to writing programs. I still use Brian’s cover letter format today. When my writing stagnated, I considered VONA, but I couldn’t afford it. Instead, I enrolled in a creative writing course at a local community college, back when classes were $6 per unit, so $18 for a three-unit class. Elizabeth Treadwell was my teacher. I read everything she assigned and recommended. She put it in my ear to apply to grad school, and so I did.
  4. I DIY’ed my own chapbook. Used Microsoft Publisher to lay it out, took it to Kinko’s and copied and stapled a bunch. This cost money. I wasn’t making much at the time, but I prioritized it. I sold the chapbook out of my backpack. I applied to participate in KSW’s APAture at the zine tables, and sold my chapbooks there. Five bucks a pop. Marie Romero at Arkipelago Books recognized this, sold some in her bookstore, recognized how they sold there, and offered me my first shot at publishing my first full-length book, Gravities of Center.
  5. By the time I finished grad school (I did this while working 0.8 to 1.0 FTE in a public health job), I had a full-length manuscript called Poeta en San Francisco, my MFA thesis which I wrote under the direction of Stacy Doris, and which I submitted to Tinfish Press, upon the recommendations of Paolo Javier and Shin Yu Pai. I’d blurbed and/or reviewed their books. We talked via blogs and emails about aesthetics and venues. Susan Schultz at Tinfish Press accepted the manuscript, told me it’d be great if we could find some funding, and so we submitted Poeta en San Francisco to the Academy of American Poets for the James Laughlin Award. The Academy covered the entire first print run, 7000 copies, red ink, red pages and all.

I write frequently about these formative experiences, because that’s exactly how I came to be an author. I had a lot of teachers, a lot of help. I had a lot of gift economy going on here. You do something for me, and I will do something for you. Reciprocity. Blurbs, reviews, letters of recommendation, course adoption. Many times, editors invite me to submit work, or event organizers invite me to be a feature author. I do a lot of recommending here, fellow writers whom they should also contact and invite. I bring other authors into my projects, events, classes. I try my best to get Filipino American artists’ works on the covers of my books — the works of England Hidalgo, Maria Urbi, Christian Cabuay grace the covers of Gravities of Center, For the City that Nearly Broke Me, and Diwata, respectively.

These days, I am grumpy. I am so grumpy. I field so many requests for stuff. From so many people who seem to think I am important, who think I am well-connected, but who can’t even find it in themselves to read my blog and every piece of free advice I put down out there, and can’t find it in themselves to shell out $15 for my book, or take one of my classes which I have offered via PAWA (I have stopped doing this, due to scheduling and time issues). They try to butter me up with compliments; “you are so important,” “you are so inspiring,” but they can’t tell me about anything I have ever written which is published in a free, online journal. They offer me nothing in return. Absolutely fucking nothing. And they want, need, and expect so much personalized and detailed attention. They want a direct through-line to my editors.

Perhaps these are folks who think they have no collateral or capital. I know what that’s like. The only thing I can say in response is that you have to build it, piece by piece. You have to see what you have inside of you, and in your own circles. Once upon a time, I had perhaps two, three friends who were also aspiring writers. We tried and failed together. But we also created venues for ourselves, attended literary events together, talked about art and literature together. And we found like-minded artists in other media, and we mutually inspired one another. We did a lot of foolish shit together, in the name of art and cultural production. Once upon a time, I had nothing but a vague idea that I wanted to be a writer, and no plan on how to get there.

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