Brain Dumping: writing and poeming (why, what, how)

"To Proceed, You Must First understand," from my forthcoming book, To Love as Aswang.
“To Proceed, You Must First understand,” from my forthcoming book, To Love as Aswang.


More variations on the ongoing theme.

I am continuing on with both the slow process of writing the next (fifth) book, and gearing up for production and PR for the fourth book, To Love as Aswang. I like this work and this pace, both slow-going, meditative, and then just faster than I can breathe and take care of things needing care and attention. I like this life, I like that I’ve chosen to write what and how I want to write. Poeming. Reveling in poem, reveling in musicality. Loving compressed language. Loving poetic lines. Loving these things well-formed on the page. (I’ve also become very pointed in my criteria for poetry, to the point that I encounter others’ poetry and quietly ask myself, is that really a poem s/he has written — apart from its being left justified and broken into lines somehow, how is it a poem.)

I’d been experiencing quiet misgivings about how I’ve chosen for the fourth book to go down. But that’s all kind of dumb to be worrying about micro-pressing locally, with exactly who I want to be working with. I should say though, that this nebulous thing called “prestige,” nags at me sometimes, this “what are people saying” when I don’t know (or care) who constitutes “people,” this “keeping up with the Joneses,” when I really don’t (or shouldn’t) care who the Joneses are.

I remind myself about “prestige”:

1650-60 for an earlier sense; < French (orig. plural): deceits, delusions, juggler’s tricks < Latin praestīgiae juggler’s tricks, variant of praestrīgiae, derivative from base of praestringere to blunt (sight or mind), literally, to tie up so as to constrict, equivalent to prae- pre- + stringere to bind fast; see stringent.

Recognition is a different thing, and it comes in many forms. And shit. If we are writing for either prestige or for recognition in the first place, then we are not writing what we want to write for ourselves. We are worrying what others think before we’ve even committed the pen to the page, we are passive to what is faddish/trendy and “publishable,” but determined by whom, using what/whose criteria?

How to keep writing, how to sustain our writing, how to sort through all the bullshit of the publishing industry, how to maintain our integrity in this bullshit industry, how to still be ambitious — and ambition is not a bad thing — on our own terms. I keep thinking, Carlos Bulosan was ambitious. Jose Garcia Villa was ambitious.

And how to be Literary and Poetic (yes, upper-case Literary and Poetic), and simultaneously honor our ancestors.

I think our community has willingly (and willfully) allowed itself to exist in a prolonged state of selective amnesia about our ancestors’ literary work and aspirations. I keep thinking of the apparently unabashed difficulty of Wilfrido D. Nolledo’s novel, But for the Lovers, not necessarily something which I aspire to accomplish, but definitely to approach understanding. Why so difficult? The writer had his reasons; they were not arbitrary or undeliberate.

“Why don’t you just say what you mean…”

I think of that criticism often deployed at so-called “difficult” writers in our community, and I have to ask, “difficult,” by whose standards?

Who told us that our kind were not capable of creating or comprehending sophisticated bodies of literary work in the first place? And what happens when we come to believe this about ourselves and our own?

So I have to respond to that question, “Why don’t you just say what you mean…”

I read painstakingly crafted and constructed literary work as doing just that, as saying what is meant to be said, with a precision of language working double-time/overtime, in narrative both literal and figurative, in thoughtful use of form. Right? Hella meaning crammed into tight, concise spaces. More bang for your buck. No pandering, especially when pandering means internalizing that absence of capability.

So maybe you are reading this, and thinking that I am contradicting myself all over the place. I will say that my ambivalence runs deep. I am still trying to figure out “my place” in all of this. I am continuing to question so many of the givens I was told to believe, not just by those invested in the MFA and Publishing Industrial Complex, but also by those who stand in absolute opposition to it.


H-U-S-T-L-E-R: Hustler

Wow, remember this? That’s me and Anthem at Bindlestiff, circa 2003, courtesy of David Huang of Poetic Dream.

Anthem recently interviewed me for his Art Of Hustle podcast (this is forthcoming in the next couple of weeks), and this was a great conversation as always. We remembered that I was the first working artist interviewed for Art of Hustle, back in 2011! Since then, I have been told that one Pinoy writer applied to (and was admitted to) his MFA program as a direct result of listening to our 2011 interview.

Also, as I told Anthem, these days, I am finding a lot of young Pinay writers who are in the hustle themselves, immersed in their own writing education and publishing processes. He reminded me that back in 2011, I was encountering a lot of aspiring and emerging writers who presented themselves to me as unorganized, clueless, and unproductive about the entire process of writing, workshopping, editing, revising, researching for publication, submitting work; and adding to these things, there felt like a lot of people who came to me out of the woodwork, to tap me as a “resource,” assuming I would hook them up with my publishers and editors, without proper etiquette, without polished manuscripts in hand, without working knowledge of the process or the industry.

What’s changed in these last three years, Anthem asked. I told him I thought all of this social media may have something to do with it, the ease of finding communities of like-minded artistic folk, the ease of creating online workshops, journals and magazines, having so much information immediately available at their fingertips. It really would be a shame for anyone to squander this kind of access and availability.

Afterwards (off mic), I told him: the difference is who I am choosing to surround myself with these days — writers and artists who are self-reliant, who are hustlers, who are proactively figuring it out, who are actively reading other texts, who are building their bodies of work with a growing knowledge of what is out there — what informing bodies of text, what informing cultural productions are out there in the physical and virtual world. So then, appropriately equipped, this idea of where a writer envisions herself, given a growing knowledge of what is out there, and figuring out what the steps are to get there.

I think these days, it’s about having a fine filter — for myself as a mentor, in terms of who I can truly/realistically support and how (see above). Perhaps it’s my growing experience as an educator in literature and the arts, which has confirmed for me what I think I have always known about who you can ultimately reach, and who wants to be educated, versus who wants to mine you for connections. I think instead of whose work ethic best matches my own. And very importantly, what is the responsibility of the student or the mentee, but to be open to the learning experience, and to work for his or her own learning and growth.

This reminds me of the times in community writing workshops, back when I was a student myself. I remember some classmates refusing to read, comment on, to process poetry that was “too hard,” which really, could mean anything. Here then, the expectation is that meaning would be simply given to them, and that they would not have to lift a finger for that meaning.

I am not sympathetic anymore with folks who espouse that belief. You arrive at meaning by using your brains, your reading skills, your thinking skills, and your empathy. Here, “reading” is surely about text, about your experience with a text, as a reader with experience reading other texts, as a human being in this world, who is paying attention to this world and handling it critically, and emotionally, and intuitively.

So, filters then. We all need to develop these. Or lenses in the process of being focused! Everything can be a good idea and a worthy goal, but then you have to prioritize. I won’t give away the whole interview! Suffice it to say, my biggest lesson as a working artist and educator is about that filter, and the support system, the like-minded community of working artists and hustlers. The filter also includes the ways in which I tend to my own work and life. Healthy ecosystems. Minimal drama.

[Addendum: Remember Diane di Prima’s talk at the SFPL Exelsior Branch back in 2010.]