How a Brown Girl Makes a Book Happen [Part 5]

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.

How a Brown Girl Makes a Book Happen [Part 3]

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.

How a Brown Girl Makes a Book Happen [Part 2]

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.

How a Brown Girl Makes a Book Happen

It takes so much faith, and grit.

Yes, and alas, if only it were that simple. This morning on the way to work, I was thinking to myself, what if I’d never entered the “Po Biz.” Would the work be “pure.” And then I thought, what does that mean anyway, for the work to be “pure.” The poetry itself? The sincerity with which each poem is written? That it is unsullied by ambition?

People ask me all the time about how one becomes an author. I’ve held workshops on how to seek publication. I’ve talked at length about researching publishers, those who would be a “good fit,” for our work. I’ve talked about what that “good fit,” means.

Sometimes, these discussions are the sobering discussions that an aspiring author says she needs, that she is ready to jump into the hustle. Sometimes, I am grateful for those times.

I’ve also talked about the process of “killing your darlings,” jettisoning dead weight, making the hard decisions of what to keep and what must go. That maybe something we wrote at the beginning of it all no longer serves its purpose, though it might have been the germ that spawned dozens of poems.

I’ve also talked about the kind of long and involved writing and growing, writing and growing which making a manuscript entails. That I may have started in a certain place with a certain plan or vision in mind. That this certain plan or vision has metamorphosed over time, with realization after realization, with new facets of the original vision being unearthed, with muddles and clarifications, and with new pieces of inspiration along the way. New information. New language. New form and uses of page.

Yes, we start in a certain place, and then as we read, and write, and rewrite, as we live our lives in this world, things move and drive us. Sometimes we can’t readily articulate in specific language what has happened. Maybe duende is happening here, propelling us.

*

I’ve been thinking about what it means to write for my community, envisioning them as the readers, not institutional approval as my primary audience. I’ve been thinking about how this discussion feels so binary and reductive. If you write in the language of the community, in terms they will understand, in verse they will immediately “get,” is the work unsophisticated and oversimple? Somehow, this attempt to write concisely and clearly in an effective and emotionally accessible manner means you’re oversimple. How to do this, without “talking down,” or stripping/robbing the poem of its necessary complexity and music. I would think this requires more literary mastery rather than less. Maybe a writing of the heart’s language is happening here. Maybe duende is happening here too.

Is speaking of “poetic instinct” permitted? I have used this term a lot, when I read emerging poets’ works, and they already know how to execute metaphor, how to break the line, how to negotiate the page, how to say, how to versify with minimal awkwardness. I love nudging these emerging poets, just a tad bit, to the margins of their comfort zones/known universes. I love nudging away from what is expected.

I do this to myself too, remind myself to honor my poetic instinct rather than what’s “correct,” and vogue, and I nudge myself a lot.

I have also been thinking that too much time in Po Biz spoils poetic instinct. Because it can make writers unduly timid and insecure and neurotic, and because it can derail them, heap too much business and not enough poetry. Make folks die to fit in with the “right people,” the acceptable people who can be used to get you in the “right places.”

I want to always be not the right people.

What does any of this have to do with making a book happen. I am so tired of Po Biz cliques and people who demand you fit in their little box. I do my absolute best when I note that they can all go fuck themselves over there somewhere far away from me; I’ll be immersed in writing my next book over here, doing the hard work of growing my own poetic world, fostering relationships with other like-minded writers and editors, finding places and communities and venues where my work it respected on its own terms.

A friend recently wrote on Facebook that publishing has made them really learn about respect. I add that publishing, being in this place, has also taught me a lot about self-respect. And faith.

 

Essay: On being an immigrant poet in America

Some Brown Girl: Notes on Pinay Liminality manuscript building continues! I wrote this essay in around 2014, as I was invited to submit to the anthology, Others Will Enter the Gates: Immigrant Poets on Poetry, Influences, and Writing in America, edited by Abayomi Animashaun, and published by Black Lawrence Press in 2015. There’s some amount of retreading in my essays, as if I am corroborating my own stories. I think this is apt.

On being an immigrant poet in America

“Imagine an entire culture that is passed down for thousands and thousands of years through the spoken word and narrative, so the whole of experience is put into narrative form — this is how the people know who they are as a people, and how individuals learn who they are.” — Leslie Marmon Silko

I immigrated to San Francisco in 1973; I was two years old. My parents had previously moved here, in 1969. They rented a small unit in an apartment building near Mitchell’s Ice Cream in the Mission District, decades before the area became hip. My mother flew back to Manila in 1971 and gave birth to me. She returned to San Francisco, leaving me and my older sister in the care of our grandparents, aunts, and teenage uncle, who we thought was our older brother. My parents dove into the American grind, saved up, and two years later, my sister and I arrived here, into the arms of our parents, two people we did not know.

The story I’ve always been told is that back in Manila, and sensing our impending departure, I hid my uncle’s car keys under my grandmother’s spinster sister’s bed, and that upon arriving in a dreary and rainy San Francisco, I cried for days and days. A trip to Disneyland did not assuage me. Other stories of that time entail me throwing up and ruining the interior of my mom’s brand new Toyota Celica.

My parents, hardworking immigrants that they were, bought their first home a couple of years later. We moved to the suburbs, Fremont, to be exact, just north of Silicon Valley before it became widely known as Silicon Valley, and where we had a backyard, a cat, and a garden. My grandmother came from the Philippines, lived with us, and took care of us as both my parents worked. In the 1970s in Fremont, among my classmates’ parents, my mom was one of the only moms who actually worked full time. My sisters and I attended private schools, took Honors English, Advanced Placement History, and Calculus. We scored high on the SATs, attended big (maybe even prestigious) universities. Decades later, we are paying mortgages and property taxes.

I tell you this story, not to brag, but to give you an idea of what I think was my parents’ American Dream. And I am thinking about this American Dream, and American Dream as mythology, because I am thinking about being an “immigrant poet.” Stories about my family and the English language, of my parents being apprehensive to speak English in public spaces, of me being tongue tied hence shy and bookish around my American classmates, all of these stories belong in the realm of mythology now.

And that’s what’s happened to my poetry. It’s entered the realm of mythology.

My interest in writing about “the homeland,” and “my culture,” has not faded in my four decades of privileged American living, or in my two decades of writing and publishing in this country, or in my three years immersed in my MFA program, and not because of nostalgia or familial obligation.

My history, and my family history have always had documents and artifacts: posed and candid photographs, home movies, report cards, detention slips we forged with my parents’ signatures, diplomas and degrees, marriage certificates, evidence of immunization, naturalization papers, Philippine and American passports, Facebook posts, and Instagram accounts.

My family history also has its share of lore and folklore. Oral tradition has ruled our self-knowledge, and with oral tradition has come multiple, sometimes quarreling, versions of “truth”; has come hearsay, from which all those wonderful stories that begin, “I wasn’t there, but I heard that…”; has come this wonderful phenomenon called tsismis (chisme, gossip), in which everyone gets to speak, some with authority, some with the power of speculation, some only under the condition of anonymity.

This is the largely subjective, undocumented substance that interests me — the quarreling, multiple versions and interpretations of events, reliable and unreliable narrators, secret tellers, disavowers, eyewitnesses, fabricators, yarnspinners. Rather than dismiss any of these artful tellers, I think of how much they must know, what wisdom they contain and how much they withhold, either because nobody has ever asked, or because the message they have accepted and internalized is that their stories are not legitimate, that they are petty and superfluous, because their stories do not conform to the master narrative.

Oral tradition has made me suspicious of single, authoritative texts and master narratives. Instead, I am drawn to what persists and survives despite mainstream cultural insistence upon single, authoritative texts. I love and value the stories in which asides lead to more asides, tangents lead to more tangents, oftentimes with no hope of returning to the original narrative. Consider that sometimes, the narrative asides and tangents are indeed the point of the story.

To be a poet is to be a very good listener. To be a poet is to piece together some kind of musical or artful narrative from official and unofficial documents and undocuments, and to do so in all languages available to me.

Most importantly, I have come to know that some stories take decades before they are ever told, and that in order for me to ever have access to these stories, I must offer something to initiate the exchange. I recently told my now retired mother about one of my dreams, in which her deceased father appeared. I told her this, not in any kind of formal setting, but while she was sweeping the kitchen floor. In return, she told me about how her mother, my grandmother, once had dream foretelling her own miscarriage. This miscarriage was not something I ever knew. Some stories must wait decades to be told, and when they arrive, they do so spontaneously.

None of what I have written here is specific to Filipino immigrant poets in America. But perhaps it can be said that my work ethic and aesthetic preferences as an immigrant in America emphasize exchange/sharing, hearing and writing multiple voices speaking simultaneously.