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 4]

It takes so much courage.

When Poeta en San Francisco made its way into the world, way back in the day, I got trolls. Ron Silliman had posted up some cursory review on his blog, along with one of my poems from the book, and an author photo.

The hate flowed so thick and relentless.

People in this industry, or maybe I should say, people who want badly to be recognized in this industry, all came out of the woodwork, not to criticize the book or the poem he posted, but to say hateful, racist, sexist, hurtful, immature bullshit. Silliman did not do anything to intervene. I don’t know that it was his “job” to intervene. But it says something when some old middle class white man doesn’t appear in any way upset or affected by this kind of hatefulness in his own internet space. It was just like a water off a duck’s back.

That’s called cis hetero white male privilege.

I learned who weren’t my allies in the industry.

I recall this now, because that incident was exactly when I decided not to put my personal “business” out there on my blog, and especially in my poetry, if I was going to continue being in this industry. I started working heavily in persona, discussing my poetic speakers as exactly that, personae and poetic speakers. I rarely said “I,” when referring to the work, except to say I constructed it. I did my best not to talk about myself and my personal feelings, my personal emotions. It was all about the personae, and speaking in this amorphous “we.”

I should also say that the kind of painful, lovesick, fed-up “I,” in Poeta en San Francisco, I think, has something to do with its being the lasting work it appears to be; it opened up readers who maybe didn’t know they needed this work. It was also that kind of speaking from the heart that made classroom visits for the book so contentious. I was also quite young, so my filters weren’t so fine. But for sure, the most noticeable of the students who found me off-putting were in fact white students. Some of them said offensive stuff to me, asked rude racist and sexist questions; others white-splained me, all openly, in front of their professors and classmates. I was socially shunned and belittled in literary academy events, literally told I could not sit at the table at which I had rightfully earned my place.

I regularly received mean-spirited emails and blog comments. I learned to mediate my online presence very carefully. The people in my community who were aware of all of this trolling — they felt attacked themselves, they went into internet flame wars, few of them ever asked me if I was OK. A lot of them propped me up as their symbol in their clever little internet battles. So this is a kind of objectification and pimping too.

This is not to say you cannot and should not do this, write and speak from the heart. For me, this becomes the place where my professionalism becomes something of a hindrance to connecting with the community. I think a lot of young POC and WOC, especially young Pinays hoping for connection and resonance, found a hard-nosed, salty Pinay who was all business to the very damn bitter end. Sure, there is something to be admired here, this persistence and hard work despite very real obstacles. But it is hard to love. I know this; I have been hard to love.

Poeta en San Francisco became a long lasting trauma for me; speaking from the heart made me so vulnerable to attack, and so I had to close myself. And I believe I am only coming out of it now. It’s been over a decade. I am older, more experienced. I’m at the point where I can say I’m OK now. I’m OK to publicly write from the heart. I have a number of books I have yet to write. I mean to continue having a long life in the literary world.

If there should be any takeaway from this post, I will say it’s this: know who you can really, truly trust in this industry. Be strong, and be real. Acknowledge there is trauma; do not let anyone including yourself speak as if it’s not a thing. Where it is toxic and hate-filled — those spaces do not deserve you. Where your community are pimping and objectifying you — call them on it. Don’t let them.

Finally, I still believe we can and should be ambitious and brave in this industry. I still believe we should propel one another into our successes. I still believe in abundance and generosity over scarcity and jealousy. If I did not believe in these things, I would have given up and disappeared a long time ago.

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.