Success and Failure in Po-Biz: What I am talking about

Invocation to Daughters, City Lights Spotlight No. 16.

I just posted two things on Facebook the other day. The first was about “success” in this industry: My idea of success is to write and publish what I want, where and how I want. To teach what I want, where and how I want. To live comfortably (not struggle to barely make ends meet), to have my own time and space, to have family who – for the most part – get it, and respect my space and aspirations, and who – for the most part – share my political values. To have my motivations be my own.

The second was about “failure.” Yesterday, I verbalized for the first time that I believe To Love as Aswang is/was ultimately a failure.

Some background. It took me an uncharacteristically long time to write Aswang.

A large part of this long time was about a kind of paralysis. A few years ago, I got myself confused. Whereas my idea of success had always been as I’ve written above, writing and publishing what I want, where and how I want, a few years ago, I found myself in a weird rut. I found myself writing in anticipation of editorial and reader rejection or acceptance. I found myself outside of myself, and it was a weak point, if not the weakest point at which I had ever found myself, taking a backseat to industry expectations totally outside of my control.

Poeta en San Francisco and Diwata, I had deemed as “successes” — Award-winning or award-contending work. And/or. Published by “prestigious” publishers of American Poetry. I found myself passively careening in that direction. The awarding. The prestige. I found myself suppressing and second-guessing what and how I wanted to write.

Here’s the thing though. I knew I wanted to write a Pinay-centric work. I did not know of anywhere in the industry that a Pinay-centric work could exist. I did not know any Pinay-centric spaces existed in the industry. There weren’t any. So then I didn’t know what to do with the work. In the revision and editing process, Aswang went through so many failed iterations.

I kept mitigating the intensity of my own poems. I kept smoothing out its jagged edges. I kept trying to make it “beautiful,” in service of others’ ideas of beauty. And lest you think this is about racism here, I also mean the kind of Filipino American reader who recoils at unflattering depictions of our own, and who subsequently reprimands me for being so angry, and for not focusing on the inherent beauty of our people.

In hindsight, it would be more apropos to say that Aswang went through a rather normal if not robust revision and editing process. But at the time, I was so uncertain. Of course, I put on a brave, stoic public face. Of course. I believed people believed I was “set,” in the industry.

Manuscript rejections happened in a way I had never before experienced. And mind you, I don’t submit any of my manuscripts to a lot of places. I’m not a manuscript submissions blitzer. If you want a ballpark figure for what “a lot,” means for me and my work, it means barely in the double digits. Seven to ten queries is a lot for me.

I reiterate: Pinay-centric spaces in the industry did not exist.

As a Pinay in the industry, it is implicit that you conform to industry standards.

And then Edwin Lozada at PAWA approached me and made a very generous offer. He said that when I got tired of the grind, of the rejections, if I wanted to just get Aswang published already, if I wanted Aswang to exist on my own terms, that PAWA was there for me.

I resisted for a short time, and then I finally said, Fuck it. Yes.

This is Pinay-centric space.

As production began on this work, I began seriously and rabidly writing Invocation to Daughters. I could never have written Invocation without the purge of Aswang.

All of this work coincided with my father’s rapid decline in health, and ultimately, his passing, and my grieving. I could not bring myself to make events happen. I could not bring myself to get myself “out there.”

Aswang sales are not shooting through the roof. Industry people barely acknowledge its existence; there is no literary prestige in this kind of Filipino American, West Coast, home grown operation. And the stereotypical non-book-buying Filipino American is still not buying this book. None of this is news.

It is my series of failures that brought this book into the world. It is my insistence on Pinay-centricity, #Allpinayeverything Poetics, #AswangPoetics, which the industry will never give a shit about, that made this book happen, and that made me write the poems in Invocation to Daughters — poems I wrote on my own terms. These are poems focused on Pinays that the world does not give a shit about, as long as these Pinays clean your fucking house, or pleasure you. As long as Pinays obey. These are, and have always been, my motivations for writing and publishing. I can’t compromise this. Not one fucking inch.

In the meantime, Invocation to Daughters is not some kind of endpoint for me. I’m not “done” yet. I do know I hit one of my longtime major markers; before I knew anything about anything in the industry, when I was a suburban Bay Area teenager who was secretly an aspiring writer, who would have rather died than shown anyone anything I had ever written, I wanted to be a part of City Lights Publishers.

They published Howl.

This really does mean something to me. So already, a success.

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What I am getting at. Something Oscar and I have talked a lot about is the kind of failure one must allow oneself to experience, in order to get to success. I am not boo-hoo-ing, as much as I am tracing a trajectory. Thinking also about the distinct lives of each of my books. Is it possible that Aswang is a bridge, a structure you take for granted even as you are stepping all over it to get to where you need to get to. And then a storm obliterates it, and then you are fucking stuck. And then that bridge becomes everything. The book has a lot of life ahead of it still. And so.

I am reaffirming that I am doing exactly what I mean to be doing. Failing my way towards the next success.

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