It takes more than you know you know, more than you think you are capable of. You must be brave, to commit yourself to your pages, despite what the world expects from you.
I had a great discussion with my grad students yesterday evening, about how we resist becoming “sardines,” as D.A. Powell writes in his manifesto, “Annie Get Your Gun.” There, he is saying we poets come together as schools. Think about schools of fish, sardines, schooling together for safety. We are sure that each sardine is a unique specimen, but how is it that when we look at sardines packed for our consumption in their neat rectangular tin, each sardine appears exactly alike.
Against centrism, Powell says. More eccentricism! And I am so totally with this. But there’s this industry that claims to value diversity, but then insists upon packing each of us into uniformity, that doles out some kind of consequence for refusing to conform.
Our poems, in their charming and interchangeable quantity, do not presume to the status of “Lycidas”—for that would be elitist and un-American. We write and publish the McPoem—ten billion served—which becomes our contribution to the history of literature as the Model T is our contribution to a history which runs from bare feet past elephant and rickshaw to the vehicles of space. Pull in any time day or night, park by the busload, and the McPoem waits on the steam shelf for us, wrapped and protected, indistinguishable, undistinguished, and reliable—the good old McPoem identical from coast to coast and in all the little towns between, subject to the quality control of the least common denominator.
And every year, Ronald McDonald takes the Pulitzer.
To produce the McPoem, institutions must enforce patterns, institutions within institutions, all subject to the same glorious dominance of unconscious economic determinism, template and formula of consumerism.
The McPoem is the product of the workshops of Hamburger University.
How do you resist, if you want to be in the industry. Or is this an inherent contradiction. Not to mix my metaphors, but is it that to consent to being a part of this industry, you consent to becoming one of Powell’s identical sardines, you consent to mass producing Hall’s McPoem.
What happens to our lakas loob when faced with the possibility of rejection, from editors and publishers, from our “peers,” and “colleagues,” from who’s who in this industry that would drop our names in the “right” place and the “right” time to the “right” parties.
Yes, as a Left Coast, Wild West Pinay I think about these things. I want to say that we just write what we must write, how we must write it. This is what I try my best to do, even though the shadow of manuscript submissions looms on the horizon.
I know from experience that those “who’s who” in the industry types won’t bat a fucking eyelid at my work when it’s published by a SF-based, Filipino-specialized publisher. I know these same “who’s who” types wanna know me when my work is published and/or recognized by an industry “big heavy.”
Yes, you are telling me, fuck those “who’s who” types, those AWP lanyard gazers. And you are right to say so.
(Hey, what happens when those AWP lanyard gazers are people of color. Jus sayin.)
So then, what’s become important to me as a writer is to keep on writing what I want and need to write, how I want and need to write it. I have to continue developing the thickest skin ever. I have to find others whose world view is not lanyard gazing.
More importantly, how does one truly fight against that culture. This is the kind of wisdom I need for my own peace of mind, but also the kind of wisdom I wish to impart on my students and mentees. How do you truly fight that power, that institution, rather than consent to becoming the token, well-behaved colored people –See? They do like us! We do belong among them! BJR, will you please stop being so “reckless” and “dangerous.” — whose work is deemed acceptable by that culture, and the token colored people whose edginess is used as evidence of the institution’s tolerance of our wildness and otherness — See? We do value diversity! Lookit the little brown people we’ve taken into our fold. Aren’t we benevolent.
So this is where I am today, here on the Left Coast and the Wild West, and proud of it.
It takes so much grit.
This is a difficult time to write the kind of poems I want to write — poems filled with Pinay love and bravery and sass, audacious grrl power poems.
But there’s never a good time. And so I have to find a way. I believe I have resolved that for every poem that I am currently writing for some brown girl, that calls out Filipino/APIA/POC desires for whiteness (and proximity to whiteness), I am going to write the flip side of that (“flip side,” get it, get it?). I don’t exactly know what these new poems will look like yet.
I have to do this, otherwise I’m just going to crawl into a dark space.
Yesterday, I submitted my edits on the last round of Invocation to Daughters proofs. The read was incredibly difficult. There is so much historical and contemporary atrocity and violence, and then there’s my grief. I read my very soon to be book with the biggest pit in my belly, and a lump in my throat. (And here, I haven’t even addressed the anxiety of its being out there, how it will be received, criticized, and even ignored.)
Perhaps this is another way of saying this is what a poem can do. Or this is where poetry can bring you. The intense emotional darkness, the way outrage comes in waves til you’re dizzy, the constant ache of grief, it is important that we give these things their proper space, yes? It is important that we honor these, in all their difficulty and complexity.
I don’t know whether or not writing, completing Invocation to Daughters has purged my system. But I do know that I want some brown girl to actually contain joy. I am struggling with arriving there, that place of joy.
I do want to add though, that if I were not actively writing right now — whether freewriting with my 0.7 mm mechanical pencils in my soft black Moleskine notebook, or furiously typing in my some brown girl Google Doc — in addition to prepping for fall semester, and working on my various work projects, as well as checking in on baseball (alas, Bay Area, what happened), feeding my curiosity with Game of Thrones fan theories (Ser Jorah Mormont as the undead specimen our Magnificent Seven bring back as evidence for the mad queens; Gendry legitimized by King [Jon] Targaryen, bitching about the deadpool odds for Tormund Giantsbane, and so on), I would be rotting with the 24-hour news cycles.
It takes so much heart.
I have been using this phrase, the “heart’s language,” for the last few days. I’m not exactly sure what it means, but my instinct tells me it’s important, and that it is one of the languages I think in, use, and write.
Where are those places where the “heart’s language,” and the technical, poetic “skill,” both happen. As you probably know (if you know me, or if you know anything about me), that is the place (places) I want to be. Or maybe that’s a place I instinctively go.
While I was writing the poem, “Psalm for Jennifer Laude,” I got myself stuck. I did not want to dwell on body, and I did not want to hover at this superficial place, a so-called neutral news report.
Why would one write a “psalm,” in a news report voice, especially when the news reports dwelt so much in the details of the horror, and the spectacle of her body’s transgender anatomy.
Psalm is song. Dwelling in reportage felt wrong. It felt low. And it felt terribly unpoetic. What happens when you decide not to write about, but for, and to. What happens when you insist on bringing the unpoetic back to the poetic.
Somehow, I found myself arriving at this line: “Draw a picture of your own heart’s double chambers, its perfumed twinning atriums.” It felt like the right poetic course. There’s that thing again, poetic instinct.
It is easy to forget, and this is sad to say, that poetry can be poetic!
So much statement making in American poetry, because “the times,” seem to demand it — it was like this immediately post 09/11, and it’s like this now, in the Trump era. So poetry institutions want to see this response to the times, because otherwise, those arguments about poetry’s irrelevance will nag at us, and dry up funding.
And POC in poetry demand we write our prescribed identity pieces, our pride in the beauty of our cultures pieces, our sadness at our loss of culture pieces.
Not to do this makes us little mythical monsters. Not even pretty ones like unicorns or mermaids. Just awkward, weird monstrosities.
So much statement making, with the “poetic,” artificially set up as the binary opposite. I am an in-betweener, a refuser of this either-or.
But at my best, I would like to think of myself a finder of other spaces and other ways. And my interest is in poets and readers who want to find those other spaces. And as an educator, I suggest this to my students. Because many students have been so inculcated in those binaries — if they come to know anything about poetry at all — they may never have had the space and opportunity to think of other spaces.
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.