On writing the book: “inspirations” and process

People do ask a lot, “How do you write a book?” People also ask, “How do you publish a book?”

These are hard questions to engage, because they are so non-specific. Which part of “how,” do you mean. “A book,” or “this book,” or do you really mean, “How can I write my book,” and “How can I publish my book.”

Once, when someone asked me, “How do you publish a book,” with no context at all, I started to talk about the submissions process to different editors for different publishers, figuring out who to send to (i.e. who would be a “good fit”), then including cover letters, and then manuscript excerpts versus entire bodies. This person proceeded to snap back at me with impatience. “That’s not what I mean.” And then stormed off. That was awkward, and I felt like an asshole.

And then of course there are the numerous times that I refer an aspiring author to different websites that collect and organize publishing information, and tell them their research — getting to know what’s out there and figuring out where they may fit — begins there. I either get in response the internet version of the blank stare, or the super angry, “You’re no fucking help at all.”

So I go back to the good conversations I have with other writers, with some of my graduate students, people who already know there’s more to publishing than snapping their fingers and thereby, magically making it so.

These fellow writers, and my graduate students, are the people asking me questions about how a manuscript comes into its form, how a manuscript coalesces into this thing ready as can be, for an editor’s eyes. How do you go from a germ of an idea for a single poem, into a body of poems that can be envisioned as a book manuscript. This “germ,” can be so many things, so many seemingly “small” things. That’s the thing about germs and germination.

Maybe instead of something so concrete (albeit metaphorical) about the beginnings of a life of a thing that grows, you want to use a more mythical word such as “inspiration,” here. Sure, whatever suits you. Although I will say, there is something passive about “inspiration,” as in, waiting for inspiration to hit you. Most serious writers I know are not so abstract, and are actively seeking and pursuing “inspiration,” in ways that address work ethic and actual practice.

I’ve seen the look of utter fear on my grad students’ faces when I say at the beginning of the semester that we are going to write and build bodies of work; submit 10 pages minimum in the next three weeks, and let’s go. And that by the end of the semester, you will have a minimum of 25-30, maybe even 45 pages.

And then they learn that it’s an exercise in purge, in temporarily suspending their internal editors, and then in writing what is most currently important to them to be writing, how many different approaches and angles there are, how many different poetic voices they can muster, how to follow tangents and more tangents, so much connective tissue. This is a body, and the logic of its structure starts to become apparent to you, the more deeply you get to know it.

I see it this way: the “thing” is in the center of the room, and you are looking at it from various angles, from different vantage points and distances. You are writing about it in its static and dynamic states. You are interacting with it. You are building it, filling it.

So your manuscript in progress: You start to question how important it is. This is good. You start to question your own ideas of importance. This is also good. You start to question your confidence in your own poetic voice. This is excellent. You start to realize that countless other authors have gone through this before, routinely and thoroughly, and so you are not alone, and your struggle isn’t all that unique, and so you start to actively find out how they did what they did. This is hella excellent. (This last part might also be the beginning of the answer to “How do you publish,” by looking at what the authors before and around you have done.)

And that — to me — is how you write a book. That may not be a good enough answer for some people.

 

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.

*

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.

FAQ 6: You really get edited? By editors?

Indeed, I do.

Why this question? Well, a few things. There is so much sensitivity among writers of all stripes. There is so much “us” versus “them,” in which we view “them,” the editors, as these unbudging gatekeepers, elitists, trying to keep those precious doors shut, trying to disallow us entrance into the hallowed halls of authordom.

Here’s the thing. There are amazing editors who are worthy of our respect, and then there are editors who we know we wouldn’t, we shouldn’t trust with our work. It could be “simple” aesthetic differences, in which “simple” isn’t so simple. Those aesthetics are politically and culturally informed. And here, I am not playing identity politics. I’ve had American, cis-gender-hetero-white male editors on opposite sides of the country, who are amazing, amazing readers and appreciators of my work. I’ve encountered APIA editors who want nothing more than for me NOT to send them my work; they don’t like it, they don’t appreciate it, they don’t want it. I can make assumptions as to why this is the case, but that would just be me being a royal bitch, shit talking like a motherfucker.

What I have learned is this: why even submit to those editors in the latter category, those who will never appreciate our work?

I was inspired by Eileen Tabios’s recent blog post, which included images from one of her current manuscripts. It has editorial marking and comments, which I am happy and heartened to see. Yes, even the most prolific and established authors get down with a good editing experience.

“Good” is the operative word.

I have had good, satisfying, productive editing experiences with book editors. This is, for me, one of the best reasons for either establishing a longterm-ish relationship with a publisher. There is an editor there who comes to know your work, and therefore, knows how to read you and offer you editorial input.

I have had multiple publishers, and so while I do not have this longterm-ish relationship, I have met and worked with editors who are great readers of poetry, who have so much experience, and so much insight. After seeing Eileen’s blog post, I went back over my old exchanges with Peter Conners over at BOA Editions, Ltd. His reading was very hands on, line by line, page by page, and then big picture. I have to trust that an editor who I believe has edited Li-Young Lee, Naomi Shihab Nye, Sean Thomas Dougherty, would have a thing or two to teach me. We even talked through the dreaded italics talk, which we multilingual poets anticipate, know well, and have to grind through.

Our exchanges were so thorough and respectful of the work, its intentions, and ambitions. I look at what Diwata was when I first submitted to them, and what was ultimately published — two different things entirely, with a finished product that was, indeed, finished, polished, clarified, so clean.

Let me back up and talk more about my earlier experiences as an emerging author. Eileen Tabios edited my first book, Gravities of Center. This was back when I knew nothing about nothing. I was new in my MFA program; I hadn’t published in many journals or magazines. I knew nothing of the First Book of Poetry hustle that my East Coast Filipino American counterparts were undergoing, with the book contest circuit and all that stuff that I still generally keep the hell away from. All I knew was that Marie Romero at Arkipelago Books was offering me an opportunity, and that I had to take it. Eileen was both loving and rigorous with the work, taking into strong consideration the kinds of tributes I was trying to make to my poetic elders as well as to my closest friends. She knew my aesthetic concerns, the “why” of my experimentation, my cultural and political concerns.

I believe Gravities of Center is an accurate reflection of where I was at, aesthetically and poetically at the time that it was published. The work, while emotionally cringe-worthy for me today, I believe is technically sound. A young poet who was still quite naive and unexposed, at the very beginning of her long, ongoing poetic education, wrote that.

Poeta en San Francisco was taken through the wringer over the course of three or four semesters of MFA workshop with colleagues who really got to know my work, and one more semester of MFA thesis advising, with Stacy Doris at the helm of each of those workshops and advising. I loved Stacy so much, and I miss her so much. When I write, even today, I think, what would Stacy tell me now. All of those times I was so exhausted with my own work, that she would let me plead my case for being “done” with Poeta, how she would really, truly hear me, only to gently tell me, “Nope. It’s not done yet.” There was no coddling, no placating, just a straight up, “You know this needs more,” layers, complexities, an obvious gaping hole needing attention, my need to come outside of my head to read and speak from a different angle (or angel!) or POV of the growing monstrosity that was the work.

By the time I’d submitted Poeta en San Francisco to Susan Schultz at Tinfish Press, I’d already submitted it as my MFA thesis, and there was so little to be done to it except hunt for a heap of money to get it produced, so we did that.

With my chapbooks, those were also as done as possible by the time I’d submitted those, such that the editors — Carrie Hunter, Brenda Iijima, and Anisa Onofre, of Ypolita Press, Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs, and Aztlán Libre Press, respectively — were really just contacting me to ask me for clarifications. Same was true, working with Edwin Lozada at PAWA, on To Love as AswangSo, it’s nice when editors enact their confidence in me to submit a finished product. But, as I prepare for Invocation to Daughters to go into editing and production mode (which will happen at some point soon; I am actually in no rush), with Garrett Caples and City Lights Publishers, I look forward to what this editorial experience is going to look and feel like. I already know from the work he’s done, something about his aesthetics, and then from our email exchanges, and from our few but cool in-person encounters, how he works, and what he liked/found interesting about my work, and about the manuscript in the first place.

So then, my point in discussing all of this is not just to be open to being edited, but to be discerning about which editors to whom you are submitting your work. If you already know that editor’s repertoire, then you should know if your work may be a good or good-enough fit. If you don’t know that editor’s repertoire, you must do your research, which is as simple as looking at the publisher’s catalog. If you decide it’s not a good fit, then don’t waste your time and energy, getting worked up over unnecessary and avoidable bullshit.

 

Letter to a Young Poet: Pinay Style

This is a different time in which we’re writing. Remember when we would have to hand write, or type our words on a manual typewriter, with a carriage return and no correction tape. Remember handwritten drafts, remember the neatness of penmanship when approaching a final version, careful consideration of paper stock and finish, of choosing a writing implement. Part of my lament is about access and ease, but more so, it is about process and thoughtfulness. Yes, thinking before one speaks, painstakingly crafting one’s thoughts into something complete and cohesive. There is a respect to this process, the time it takes to compose. Being meticulous.

I once had a Waterman Laureat mineral blue fountain pen, with a gold-plated steel nib. I used this fountain pen to transcribe my finished poems into a matching hardcover, blue marbled, perfect-bound journal with gold leaf edged pages. I loved the sensation of that scratch — gold plated nib onto paper. Each page had to air dry before I turned the page or closed the book.

I am writing all this now, because of the kind of time involved in this kind of process. It’s about time, and it’s more so about thoughtfulness. About drafting. About composing, discarding, and beginning again. About making careful, well-considered choices.

Surely, when I was 19, my poems were precious, they were overwrought, they were cliché, they were derivative, they were sentimental. The language was abstract, fancy, pretentious. But I persisted. I read everything I could. I came to identify works I “liked,” and works I didn’t “like” so much. In other words, I grew into a discerning reader, identifying aesthetics, forms, languages that resonated with me. Still, I continued to read work I thought “offputting” at the time, because it was useful in my learning to identify and articulate what I did not “like” about a piece of literature. This is still an active process for me. I pick up a piece of literature, and I see how long it holds me, and why. Or why not.

So much, if not all of the above I did in private. There were few people to give me “thumbs up,” that I was on the right path with each and every nascent idea which became a first draft. There were few people, if any, who told me, “Yes,” yes, I could become an author, yes, my work was good enough to see in print. I hadn’t found my role models and mentors yet.

I am writing this all in first person, rather than phrasing it as, “You should,” because, as irony would have it, those who ask me what they should do, also resent my telling them what they should do. I have my own lived experience as evidence of how one aspiring writer may become an emerging writer may become an author. There are many paths to authordom, the most rewarding of which are the paths not of least resistance.

As I’ve written, this is a different time in which we are writing. Technology may make our words and works disposable, and at the same time, technology makes our words and works instantly public. So little incubation space, so little time for reflection, and then our words are out there before we are emotionally ready or mature enough to handle public reception of our words.

Technology also makes publishing so much more accessible, fast, cheap, and easy. These things, I still have to remind myself to resist. In social media, we may amass syncophants and enablers, in lieu of working on our craft, styles, and work ethics. This is also something we must resist.

Leslie Marmon Silko wrote, once story is “turned loose… it can’t be called back.” There is consequence, no? To our psyches, at handling this kind of responsibility before we are able, before we have developed our lakas loob. And in the spirit of Rainer Maria Rilke, who has inspired this post, I will end this by saying that we must go into ourselves, into the “very depths” of our hearts, spending proper time there: Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write.

This is a proper place to start. Know the process is long, and difficult. If it were easy, none of you would be clambering and clamoring at my in-box, demanding I bottle myself and give myself to you.

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.