As I was saying (writing) the other day, it takes a lot of faith.
My first book was published in 2003; I’ve been in this for a long time. I know that when I first started thinking about book manuscripts, as my mentor Eileen Tabios had noted back then, it was fortuitous how far removed I was from the “First Book Prize” culture. I didn’t know at the time what it meant. I remember around that time, talking to a fellow Fil Am poet in NYC. They — and a few other Fil Am poets — were stuck in some kind of finalist blues. That is, you submit your first book manuscript and submission fee to x number of presses, and while your manuscript has merit enough to garner finalist status, the ultimate prize, the actual book contract, is still not in your hands.
This poet said to me, and it was emotional, “There’s got to be another way,” as if those other ways of finding publication were so unforeseen and foreign. I didn’t really understand then what that was about. All I knew was that all kinds of small and indie publishers were and are all around me/us. And sure, the “prestige” of the “prize” isn’t associated with being published by all these little publishing bodies. But now, I also think — if there are a million prizes out there, then how “prestigious” is prize. Really.
I also came to hear of poets setting out specifically to write prize-winning poems. What does that even mean.
I also understood that being so deep set in book prize being the alpha and omega meant parting with a lot of money. At that time, I didn’t have the luxury of parting with money.
I still hear from other writers today that they spent much more than $100 per prize season. That’s about as much money as I’ve spent on manuscript submission fees my entire career as an author.
I want to say that faith in our own work is most important. Remembering, knowing deeply why we write what we write, is important. I want to say that excavating what we write and why we write is important, but most of all, for whom we write. How are we addressing, directing ourselves towards them. What languages, what music. How can we truly honor them if we have allowed Po Biz and prize culture to take over our what, why, and how. Especially as WOC, especially as brown girls. Nobody cares about some brown girl. Nobody cares that nobody cares about some brown girl. We write despite this. We have to care for ourselves.
Self-respect is non-negotiable. I want to say it takes tremendous lakas loob to be in this industry, when folks around us are clamoring and clambering to be noticed if only briefly. How sensational, how clever, how hip, how sexy, how now. Until the next crop of sensational, clever, hip, sexy, and now comes around.
Ultimately, what I would love to see is more publication from within our communities. And more respect and support for publication within our communities. And solid editorial work. And solid infrastructures for sales and distribution. And more mentorship and rigor — holding ourselves and one another, as contemporaries, and intergenerationally, to high artistic standards — in publication within our communities. Poetic, artistic kapwa.