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.]

What does it mean to decolonize the creative space #2


Who makes the rules? Are we OK with that? Do we follow the rules? Do we break the rules? How do we get what we want, as individual and community artists? How do we get to do what we love to do as artists? And then finally: are we interested in social change? If we are interested in social change, what are we doing, how are we participating in movements towards social change?

First Post of 2014: Thoughts on Publishing, Publication Advice

Well, we’re halfway through January, and I’ve finally decided I have time to blog.

First, I am in what I call publication limbo. I’ve submitted my manuscript to one editor, and am waiting to hear back. What to do in the meantime? I am not doing a submissions blitz, and it’ll take however long it takes. I mean to be selective.

In the meantime, I am thinking of picking up another poetic writing project. I haven’t thought too deeply about this to actually nail down what this project would be.

It’s not like I don’t have a project of some kind on the table. This year, I am editing the Pinay poetics anthology I’ve been thinking about for the last few years. I’m just waiting for submissions to start rolling in. I’m glad this anthology will be a PAWA project. Let’s see what we can continue to build with this org. We have a lot of good people there; we’re just generally overextended, working, teaching, doing our art, trying to run an org. It’s a lot of multi-tasking, but I believe we’re doing good things.

Anyway, more on publishing. There’s an interesting conversation happening on my friend’s FB wall, re: vanity/subsidy publishers. In his case, one publisher in particular, which I won’t name here because I have no experience with that publisher.

My friend’s question though, very interesting. If a publisher requires you to pre-sell a certain number of books before they actually get to producing your book or chapbook, is that a vanity/subsidy publisher? But let me back up. Is there any difference between vanity publisher and subsidy publisher? As far as I know, a vanity publisher is one which requires as a contractual term that the author to pay for production costs (and other costs, such as publicity, etc?). I don’t know, but I am guessing it is also primarily the author’s responsibility to market and distribute. In traditional publishing models, it’s already a lot of work for the author to push their own product. Imagine if there’s no one else shouldering this task.

OK, if publishers do require you to pre-sell as a contractual term, then they (should) straight up state that as part of who they are, what they do and how they do it. This way, you make informed decisions as a potential author. I’m not saying anything radical or new here. The FB conversation has just got me thinking more and again about the publishing industry, and how we navigate it. Or how we choose to navigate through it, where we place ourselves within it. And most importantly, whether we choose to learn about how its various components work, what different ways it works, and then how it works as a whole. And also what the consequences are of choosing certain types of publishers over others. If you decide to self-publish, for example, and then find out your self-publication does not qualify you for certain awards, fellowships, positions, etc., these are things you should have already researched and considered before making your decision.

Lots and lots of emerging writers presume I possess insider knowledge, and thus have asked me tons of questions about publishing, and once I open my mouth to answer, I seem to be speaking some kind of alien language. Can I talk about the publishing industry without using any “jargon,” and are these terms really jargon — open reading periods, contests and prizes, query letters, manuscript submission guidelines, distributors, and then researching which publishers publish what and whom.

(It might be time to hold another PAWA publishing workshop, but we see how few people actually come through for those; I wonder if we held it as a “clinic,” if more people would attend.)

In the past, I would do my best to dissuade Pin@y aspiring authors from self-publishing. I would do this because of the usual complaints we hear from Pin@ys about Pin@y books being hugely unavailable, invisible, easily dismissible — i.e. seemingly non-existent and not taken seriously. These days, I want to say that perhaps technology is making my arguments irrelevant. Wouldn’t it be something if that were true. There are too many Pin@y writers I know who seem to me to be rather frustrated with the state of their publication.

These days, when people ask me about publishing, I ask them first, who is your reader? Who do you want, who do you envision reading your book? What are your goals as a writer, and for your specific publication project? And actually, I’ve become more reticent about giving advice. For full length poetry collections, my opinion and experience favors traditional publishing models over self-publishing; given what I wrote in my previous paragraph, I am biased against vanity publishing. In other words, I have my own publishing value system. Rather than talking shop, rather than manufacturing pithy bits of “wisdom,” I just encourage more writers who haven’t already, to think hard about what their publishing value system is, and have that inform their actions.

Notes on Anthologies Proposals

Pacita Abad, Filipina: A racial identity crisis (1991)

Pacita Abad, Filipina: A racial identity crisis (1991)

Yeah, I am putting this out there now, as a way to keep myself accountable.

I know that anthology editors I know, have advised me that editing anthologies is a lot of politics and hurt feelings.

I know also, that anthology is a loaded conversation, about inclusion and community. Two things about which  I am not eager, and perhaps even loathe to be pulled into conversation. See above, regarding politics and hurt feelings.

Still, I am thinking there is still good reason to think about editing new anthologies, especially of Filipino and/or Filipino American, and/or Pinay writing. Perhaps all poetry. Perhaps not. Perhaps specifically as a course reader for teaching Pinay Lit: how else to find in a single publication the following: Marjorie Evasco’s “The Writer and Her Roots,” and “The Other Voice: Reply to Anzaldua.” Estrella Alfon’s “Magnificence,” Gilda Cordero-Fernando’s “The Dust Monster,” Yay (Panlilio) Marking’s “My Filipino Mother,” Helen Rillera’s “The Filipina in Filipino Society,” Rashaan Alexis Meneses’s “Barbie’s Gotta Work,” Melissa Chadburn’s “Here We Are Becoming Champs,” and “The Throwaways,” Nice Rodriguez’s “G.I. Jane,” Catalina Cariaga’s “Excerpts from Bahala Na!” M. Evelina Galang’s “Deflowering the Sampaguita.” Marianne Villanueva’s “Overseas,” and “Opportunity.” Ninotchka Rosca’s “Sugar & Salt.” Melissa Sipin’s “Walang Hiya.” Selections of poems by Fatima Lim-Wilson, Joi Barrios, Elynia S. Mabanglo, Rachelle Cruz, Yael Villafranca, Gizelle Gajelonia, Aimee Suzara. Graphic narratives by Niki Escobar and Rina Ayuyang. Speculative fiction by Nikki Alfar, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz. And so on, so many others I have yet to read, be confounded by, to adore.

Outside of my Pinay Lit course, other anthology thoughts: I was talking to a fellow WOC poet this past weekend; I told her that through no fault of the previous editors of Fil Am Lit anthologies, I feel previous anthologies not quite “doing the job,” specific to my teaching. Let me restate and be perfectly clear. No fault of previous editors. Some time has passed since the last round of anthologies, and new voices have emerged (as I’ve partially enumerated above).

Also, as a poet, I am deeply interested in poetry with an acute sense of line and form, both very thoughtfully deployed. I am deeply interested in deliberate, distilled language — however the poet decides to handle line and form, whatever specific set of rules the poet has created, whatever register the poet has decided to use. Verbal, artful, “heightened” in “means” and “ends,” as the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics says. Or as Luis J. Rodriguez has said, that poetry is meant to be read and heard many times, that it is a special intense language, a very important way of using language.

So this is the harder part, the part clouded by inclusion and community and politics. And then, of course, is the question of publishers and distribution. So that’s many things, much potential crap, lots to think about. And I have to remember to be undeterred. But I am putting it out there because it is on my To Do List. And it needs to get done.

My First Book is Ten Years Old and a Hat Tip to Henry Rollins

gravities of center

“A snake is crawling along a desert trail that parallels a straight, black paved road. Over the horizon walking down the road in the opposite direction is a woman. The two get closer and almost pass each other, but each stops in time. They both step into the area that runs between the trail and the road. The wind gusts suddenly, and the snake is instantly transformed into a man. He has dark hair. He is marked with scars and symbols, patterns of his tribe. The two walk toward each other and embrace. Another gust of wind comes and blows all vestiges of clothing off them both. The sun holds still for a moment and starts to slowly rise, and as it rises it turns a deep crimson and gives off a low, metallic whine. The couple are fully embraced and perfectly still. Their bodies fit together like two parts of a jigsaw puzzle. Another gust of wind comes and blows the flesh and organs off the man and woman so all that’s left are two skeletons locked in embrace.”

– Henry Rollins, from Pissing in the Gene Pool & Art to Choke Hearts

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Filipino Americans, Publishing, Reading, Listing

fil books

Some thoughts, given all the manuscript matters, list-making, list-H8erade, and syllabizing.

Tomorrow is my first day of teaching, and it promises to be a relatively mellow semester; a co-worker noted that my having gone from three prospective classes to one, and my having been run ragged by my last semester of running around and running aground, that “someone up there” must be looking out for me. That’s a nice thought.

I’ve also sent my manuscript into “the system,” and like every other writer in waiting, I’m waiting. No guarantees, just waiting and contingency planning.

That said, Spring 2014 is already buzzing around in my head. One thing I want to do for future classes is try to rely more (almost solely?) on books, and less on frantic PDF-ing, which is always so fragmented and so labor intensive.

One thing this means is that if I really have an anthology project in my head, especially if few existing anthologies meet my needs, I need to get going on this.

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Fil Am Writers: Stuff To Know?


OK, yesterday I received another email forward from a Fil Am writer whose name was not familiar to me, which simply means I do not know this person’s writing at all, what this person writes, where this person is based, who is this person’s direct community. The email was a very belated response to Bino Realuyo’s Huffington Post write up from a few months ago, “Dear Filipino Immigrants Who Will One Day Read Our Books.”

I am glad the article is still resonating, really. I want to keep talking about our community of readers and writers. I really do believe we do have a community (or communities) of readers and writers.

The email was a complaint about Filipino Americans who are not readers, but people who “gossip,” “watch TV,” and “dance.” The email was also a complaint that no one was buying this writer’s book, and that word of mouth was slow, mostly through family. So, these complaints are related. I think the first of the two, the accusation and judgment, is a result of this person not being able to move his/her books.

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I Write To Stand My Ground: What Makes This Possible


I write to stand my ground. (That’s from yesterday’s blog post.)

As tellers of story, use your creativity, perform generative and imaginative acts of storytelling, to counter the destructiveness, silencing, and invisibility ongoing in this world. Deploy your words, your voices, your talents and honor our stories — however difficult and painful, they are beautiful and necessary; craft stories that are brave, empathetic, compassionate, and true. (That’s from my commencement address.)

The image above is Jessica Tarahata Hagedorn’s first book, Dangerous Music, published by Momo’s Press in 1975. I’ve got a first edition at home. It’s one of my treasures. I am able to be a writer and author because of its existence, and what must have gone into creating it and getting it into the world.

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