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.

Manuscript Progress: some brown girl

I am 44 pages of prose poems into this manuscript. I thought of submitting it as a chapbook, but it’s not done yet; it needs more.

I take this stance in my poems, a POV that perceives itself as superior, looking down upon my some brown girl. This POV, this voice is judgmental, prescriptive, insensitive, and then straight up mean-spirited. It berates my some brown girl, it judges her body. It threatens her with violence.

The other voice in this manuscript is the some brown girl herself, speaking from a thoroughly internally oppressed POV. She is compliant, unreasonably so in some cases, motivated by fear and social pressure. She regurgitates the many terrible things others say to her. I am thinking of the archetypes Marjorie Evasco outlines in her essay, “The Writer and Her Roots,” and I think my some brown girl is tragic. I don’t know yet, exactly how self-aware she is of her own plight, so I don’t know how naive she is. I am writing her as “drinking the Kool-Aid,” though we know that is also a strategy. You don’t know, from appearances, what is brewing beneath. She could be making plans. She could be silently waiting for her moment to murder you. You don’t know.

All this to say, my some brown girl exists under harsh and unending public scrutiny, always “under the microscope,” for a viewer who is actively, aggressively fault-finding. Who is reprimanding, scolding, setting up expectations so unrealistic, anachronistic, and contradictory. My some brown girl can never live up to these.

That said, I recently spent a lovely weekend at the Auerbach Artist Colony in San Francisco, and during the course of that weekend, I thought more and more about what I wanted this manuscript to do (and/or what I want to do with this manuscript). I thought about the inner voice of my some brown girl. It was a villainess’s inner voice, something like my Pinay/aswang’s inner voice, but more rooted in the domestic and contemporary/urban scene. Some of these poems already exist, and the voice of these is a tragic. But she could be “bad,” right? Transgressive, IDGAF about your expectations for my domesticity, and here’s exactly where you can put them. I think I’m done with the tragic, especially as a means of garnering reader sympathy. I think I’m at straight up fed up, straight up fuck you for shoving me into your bullshit gendered little box. I see you and your patriarchy and rape culture.

I think this is why I say “villainess.”

So then it sounds like in addition to the outside voice reprimanding and judging, I have a couple of some brown girl speakers: the one who’s speaking in that internalized oppressed voice, mimicking her oppressor and tragic or to some degree naive (at least on the surface); and the transgressive one.

Anyway, also, I am not in a rush. Let’s get Invocation to Daughters into the world first.