For #NationalPoetryMonth: Oh boy, poetry is “relevant” again.

Yes, friends. The amnesiacs and apologists, and yes, also the assholes, have spoken. Poetry is relevant again, in “these times” of crisis. Alleluia.

Allow me to call your attention to this image. You and me, we too are changing culture and language, as The Bard himself did. Perhaps we won’t ever become the forebears of English language colloquialism like he is, but don’t ever let anyone tell you that our work does not have everyday, noticeable cultural impact.

You will pardon my sarcasm here. I seem to recall having the same visceral gag reflex, when poetry became “relevant” again, after 9/11, in which poets who had never professed to be “political poets,” some of whom had previously expressed derision for those of us whose poetic lives have always been political, all of a sudden were soapboxing about why poetry must be political, why it is so necessary, like it was some new thing.

Poet friends, are you feeling like that pushover, emotionally abused girlfriend? You know, the person on whom others depend for everything, but then they get all confused, hostile, and superior when you speak up and say, hi, I have always been here, taking care of your shit. They want you to stay silent, and they want to ignore that you were the one who did all that emotional work.

They use verse to teach their children how to speak and read. They use verse in their weekly worship. They use verse to consecrate their unions, to bury their dead, to mark rites of passage. They turn to verse every time something challenging happens in their everyday lives, in their personal, social, and national lives. They turn to verse to sell their products. They think this is edgy and cool, and they pat themselves on the back about it. They turn to verse because they can’t speak for themselves, but they think using the verse of others is speaking for themselves.

You, my friend, are part of that invisible but ever-present unpaid and unappreciated labor force, and they take credit for even thinking that your work is of convenient use today. They think they are so clever, tapping into your labor. They’re really not so clever, are they, otherwise they wouldn’t be trying to appropriate your work all the time.

They say, we appreciate you now, until we don’t; we need you now, until we don’t. They think what they do is so much more important than what you do. They think what you do is easy, that it’s not real work.  They think you should be grateful. I am aware this is not gracious, but you know what? I’m not grateful.

I will tell you what I am grateful for. I am grateful for poetry, for poets, for those who have always championed poetry because of poetry’s undeniable social, cultural, and historical value and weight, for those who believe that poetry has always defined us and helped us find direction as individuals and as communities, for those who have always known, always recognized, always shown in tangible ways that these “small” works are immense, for those who never belittle poetry, never just pay it lip service, and those who never, ever take poetry for granted.



For #NationalPoetryMonth, More Thoughts on Being a Filipino American in the Publishing Industry

I was having this really good e-conversation with a fellow Pinay author this morning, and we were talking about publishing. Her thinking was there were more small presses in the SF Bay Area who were interested in Filipino American writing/manuscripts, as compared to, I guess, on the East Coast, and perhaps more specifically, in NYC.

I don’t think that’s true. What small presses in the Bay Area are publishing a lot of Filipino American authors? Most indie literary publishers — in the Bay Area or otherwise — I know of, if they have any Filipino American authors in their catalogs, have maybe one. I am thinking that WordTech Communications, with its various imprints, have a lot of Fil Ams in their catalog — Nick Carbó, Luisa Igloria, Eric Gamalinda, Arlene Biala, Aimee Suzara, JoAnn Balingit are the ones I know of. And WordTech is not located anywhere near here.

So my response was that there are probably just more Filipino American authors in this part of the country. I should have actually said, there is a perception of there being more Filipino American authors in this part of the country (I don’t have any data to back this up though). So then, there are a lot of Filipino American authors in the Bay Area, but where are their publishers located? All over the country and all over the industry, including the Big Five and their imprints. But mostly we’re in the indie presses, the one-woman-run micro-press, the ad hoc ethnic-specific self-distributed press, the print on demand. We hustle our shit mostly without agents and publicists, and oftentimes, without distributors.

What I think I mean to say is that what we Bay Area Fil Am authors have going for us is our imaginations — about, within, and despite the industry. I want to say that it’s because out here on the Left Coast, we are less beholden to the NYC-centric publishing industry standards, and that emphasis on prestige. I used to refer to myself as “scrappy,” all the time. I would like to think part of me still is. Years ago, I wrote about our Left Coast being something like a frontier. We’re resourceful. We do the DIY out here — many of us got our start DIY-ing, shouting our poems through megaphones at political rallies, learning how to write in community based workshops, cutting our teeth in the spoken word scene in cafes and bars, selling our chapbooks we made on our day jobs’ Xerox machines at zine fests, long before we ever thought of getting MFA-ed. We are therefore a lot less afraid of the small and apparently un-prestigious. We can make our own scripts out here, forge our own career paths here. This has been, and I think it still is our social norm.

More to the point, we can still afford to keep our wildness out here.

And thank goodness for that.

For National Poetry Month then, a shout out to Filipino American authors and our wildness. In praise of our wildness!


For #NationalPoetryMonth, more thoughts on being a poet in the “industry.”

Hello all, do you remember “Dear Sugar,” over at The Rumpus?

Years ago, Sugar wrote this awesome response letter to a writer who wrote that perhaps they were a bad person because of this:

Even when I pretend to be happy when my writer friends get good news, the truth is I feel like I swallowed a spoonful of battery acid. For days afterwards I go around feeling queasy and sad, silently thinking why not me?

I loved Sugar’s response, because it was so real and no BS. Yes, Sugar wrote, you are a bad person, and your friends know you’re not really happy for them. Yes, we all experience jealousy, and then we make a choice to stop, to move on, and to keep working. If writing is what’s truly the most important thing to us, if it’s the thing that matters most, then we continue writing, industry be damned.

Sugar wrote: “Your cause is to write a great book and then to write another great book and to keep writing them for as long as you can.”

Of course, there is the industry/commerce part. We write these books that we hope are great. But then, what if no one reads them? In other words, what if it’s never published? And then of course, without publishing, there is no distribution, and there are no reviews, course adoptions, and book clubs. In other words, no book sales.

I too get caught up in industry. We all do. Could we keep doing what we are doing, writing one “great” book and then another, if not for industry and commerce. For myself, what would I do if there was no publisher of any kind (indie, small, micro) to publish my books?

I think back on the DIY-ing so many of us did, before we ever found ourselves on any publishers’ radars. For some of us, it is precisely our DIY-ing that got us noticed, by people who wanted to read more of our work, by people who could mentor and direct us, and in my case, by someone who wanted to publish me. I wonder whether I could spend my entire life as a writer DIY-ing. It’s labor intensive, and it can get costly, and there is no guarantee of financial return. You have to hustle.

But where does “prestige,” fit in this conversation? Sugar calls out this jealous writer on their use of “prestigious,” to describe themselves and their credentials. So then, prestige is related to accomplishment? Prestige dictates the ability to have accomplishment?

Surely, one can become accomplished without prestige, no? Through grinding away at the work of writing. Surely, one can become accomplished through publishing in non-prestigious venues. Surely, one can become recognized by others in the writing world and even in the publishing industry through their deeds, for example, because they have been writing amazing poetry for years, because their writing has been growing stronger and more impactful — and perhaps, even important — with practice and maturity.

And within this arc, a writer can gain readership and audience simply because their work comes to matter to the people who read it in books, and/or hear it in performance/live events, in which this “mattering” to people can be personal, and it can be social, cultural, historical, and political.

I think the publishing industry, and prestige are two different things.

I think of my entry into the world of publishing as the thing that amplified my work, brought it into the hands of so many unforeseen readers and students. Publishing has changed my life, and it has changed me too. I have developed the ability to be outward directed, in which “outward” means outside of my familiar circle. I’ve become articulate and confident in representing my poetics. I’ve had to become self-reflective while simultaneously inhabiting public space. I haven’t always handled these negotiations well. I am a work in progress. Who knows what kind of author I will be when I’m in my 50s (this is sooner than you think), in my 60s, and so on.

I keep thinking that when I’m old, it might be nice to hunker down and exit the hustle, to write my piece, and just DIY everything. Who knows.

For #NationalPoetryMonth, Thinking About “Career” in/and Poetry

I am writing this, knowing that there are a lot of other important things happening in the world. I am aware that some of you may be reading this as braggadocious and self-absorbed. There’s definitely a gender expectation that women, especially WOC not speak confidently about their abilities and accomplishments.

But what I am thinking about today, regarding poetry and Poetry, especially as one of my Pinay Lit students (a freshman) from last semester has come to tell me she is being published for the first time, in Maganda magazine. She, and a couple of other Pinay students, have really been coming to me a role model they have been looking for, as Pinays who are aspiring writers. I take this very seriously, not merely or simply laying out a blueprint for them to follow, but to articulate for them the work and most of all, the possibility.

I don’t remember when I started calling myself a Poet, without any kind of reticence, half-joking, or self-effacing.

I do know that in this country, a lot of people do not know what to do with you when you tell them you are Poet.

“Poet,” is something you call someone who you think said something clever, or nebulous.

In 1989, when I was a freshman at Berkeley, I remember seeing the women of the WOC lit and art magazine, smell this. They were these throaty, deep-voiced, smoking, Doc Martens wearing Pinays who intimidated the hell out of me. In my mind, they all performed profanity-laced political spoken word like they were breathing fire, and that also intimidated me as much as it repulsed me, the lover of English Romantic poetry.

In 1991, I saw my first publication in Maganda magazine.

In the mid-1990s, for Filipino American student orientation, right before fall semester, I remember three of us from Maganda magazine did a faux-beat poetry performance for the students, and few knew that we were performing parody, with our all black attire, our flowing body movements, and spoken word cadences.

I also remember that the Filipino American student group had end of the year awards, with yearbook-like, “most likely to succeed,” types of categories.  There was a “Thinks s/he is a Maganda poet.” And the people who “won” in this category were the ones who were most flamboyant, maarte. This was also the mid-1990s.

In the mid-1990s, I wrote from instinct, trial and error, and mimicry. And then I stagnated.

In 1999, I wrote a total number of one poem.

In 2000, I took a poetry class at Berkeley Community College.

In 2001, I DIY’ed my first poetry chapbook on Microsoft Publisher, did the Kinko’s copy and staple by myself during my lunch break, and sold it at a table at Kearny Street Workshop APAture.

In 2001, I applied to exactly one MFA program. I was accepted and enrolled in the MFA program at SFSU.

In 2003, my first book was published by Arkipelago Books in SF.

In 2005, I won the Laughlin, and then just like that, there were 7000 copies of my TinFish Press book, Poeta en San Francisco in the world. And two years later, there were 2000 more.

In 2010, BOA Editions, Ltd published Diwata.

In 2015, To Love as Aswang was not accepted by the publisher I was fully emotionally invested in, and so I made the decision to have PAWA publish it.

In 2017, City Lights Publishing will publish Invocation to Daughters.

I never knew any of this could ever happen for me. I never knew anyone would ever want to read my poems.

A large part of my own disbelief is about being a Pinay in this industry, and writing Pinay-centric, multilingual work.

Once, a few years ago, when a fellow WOC author told me her book was just picked up by Wesleyan University Press, I asked her if she ever felt like we were entering the spaces we didn’t even know we were allowed. She knew exactly what I was talking about.

Somewhere along the way, I realized this is something I must be good at. Somewhere along the way, I became comfortable with calling myself a Poet, and envisioning something like a career as a Poet.

Before I ever knew I would go this route, I remember the late 1990s debates folks would have on this Filipino writer listserv, about whether one must go get an MFA in order to write. I remember the racial “horror stories” of my predecessors, being the only Filipinos in their respective MFA programs. What’s funny to me is that these days, while it feels like you can throw a stone and hit a POC with an MFA, the narratives haven’t changed so much.

Those who are adamantly anti-MFA. I get this, only because I also do not believe MFA’ing is the only way for one to become a writer. But I also know that those POC who do choose to go this route do so for a variety of reasons and motivations. There are careerists and prestige chasers. And there are folks who just want to write better and write more.

There is the ever-present burden of being the minority in the MFA program, anywhere in this country.

And there is the burden many POC take upon themselves, to “represent,” their entire community, speak for their people. Be a “voice” for the “voiceless.” I think I used to be one of these people, charging myself with “representing.” What I tell my students now, if/when they ask, is that what I write is my own responsibility. What I put into the world I have let go, and it is a gift; read it and take from it what you need.

I don’t know that this blog post is adding any wisdom to the discussion. I think what I want to say is really about calling yourself a Poet, figuring out how to do the thing, committing to the thing, doing the thing every day, persisting through the thing, driving yourself through all of it. Regardless of what other people say and do. Regardless of how other people decide to do it. Whether or not people regard you or ignore you. Regardless of what the climate and trend dictate. Doing it because this is what you love. And that because you love what you are doing, you do everything you can to be good, to be awesome at it.

And maybe this is what it means to make it a career.

On Teaching Filipinx Lit to Non-Lit Majors

The above flier is for this semester’s class (which we’re 10 weeks into), and which I am already thinking about how to amend for the next round.

Is three novels too much? Especially when the first two novels are America is in the Heart, and Dogeaters, both of which call for copious amounts of scaffolding. Certainly, in the case of Bulosan, we first read a selection of his essays and poems from On Becoming Filipino, so that is appropriate scaffolding itself. With Dogeaters, perhaps I need to think about which previous writings of Hagedorn can serve as appropriate scaffolding for the novel. We did read, “Homesick,” and an interview in the Missouri Review. Still, the novel was challenging to access on its own. Anyway.

These two novels take up the entire first half of the course. “Everything else” must fit the second half. This feels disproportionate, though I get it when my (non-literary) colleagues tell me, “But those are canon,” “But those are historically important.” This is why I have been asking exactly why is Dogeaters historically important for undergrads in 2017 to be reading. And if not, then what is an appropriate substitute.

This class is an upper division course in a Philippine Studies Program (i.e. not a department). On the organizational chart, I think students can major in Asian Studies with an emphasis in Philippine Studies? I’m not sure. Anyway, so my point is that it’s a tiny little corner in any university, in the very few American universities in which Philippine Studies even exists.

This is why I worked really hard to get those CORE requirements for my Filipino and Pinay Lit classes. Even though students always voice interest in taking these classes, the largest and most insurmountable obstacle is the very real need to graduate in a timely manner, which makes taking electives in one’s personal interests impossible, unless these classes are associated with those university breadth requirements.

That said, the students who enroll in my classes are rarely (if ever) literature majors. I rarely get humanities-focused students. They are usually in accounting, business administration, nursing, et al. All of which are perfectly good majors, but then I have to shift their brains to talking about literature deeply and in detail, rather than the kind of cultural and historical sweeps to which students have grown accustomed.

Most of my students tell me on the first day of class that they have enrolled in my classes because they want to learn about Filipino culture. I always think it’s an amazing thing, that they would go about doing so via a literature class. I suspect this has to do with them needing to take classes fulfilling breadth requirements. And this is totally great; I am so relieved we got the classes plugged into the university requirements, though dealing with curriculum committees was my least favorite but necessary thing I’ve had to do in my capacity as an adjunct professor.

To add: not only must I teach literature, and all things literary. I must teach within a Philippine Studies context. Though I understand the term “Philippine Studies,” within the context of traditional area studies, what we do as a program is really more aligned with how we teach in Ethnic Studies (such as, how I teach Filipino Literature within an Asian American Studies Department within an Ethnic Studies College at SFSU). Interdisciplinary, community-based.

That said, last night, we did have a good poetics discussion, while reading To Love as Aswang. We talked about poetic lines, and the significance of poetic techniques in deepening and complicating emotional understanding. When, for example, we are reading the poems, “To Give It to God,” and “To Bless the Meek,” where we’ve got two disparate voices/speakers, are we working somehow in the figurative mode, even the way metaphor works, sticking two different things together for the reader to draw the connections between the two things.

And really, the above was my preferred method while writing/constructing To Love as Aswang, both the book itself, and the poem of the same title, the joining of multiple voices in one poem, in some kind of dialogue with one another. So my students talked about these voices, and the positions of the speakers in relation to the Filipina. Deep inside, self-representing Pinay voice? Or external, someone viewing from a distance, making assessments and assumptions of the Pinay, and these assessments and assumptions based upon whose claims?

We also had a good discussion about pronouns, specifically, the “they,” and “we,” in “To Violate Convention.” And especially when tayo/kami do not have specific English counterparts, then who constitutes “we,” in that poem? Are we a part of that “we”; in other words, are we as Americans so distant from our wars, complicit in torture and committing acts of human atrocity? Can we pick and choose which “we” we belong to as Americans?

And then we talked about “Sweetie,” and the alliterative-s in combination with the short, singsong lines. Tongue twister and nursery rhyme, appropriate forms/mediums when trying to get into a childlike mindset. But then the dissonance as the poem’s subject matter is so difficult. This is another way of thinking about the joining of different perspectives or voices in a single poem, in order to deepen and complicate a reader’s emotional understanding.

Let me back up and say that the text which preceded To Love as Aswang on my syllabus was Lysley Tenorio’s Monstress. This is a great book — to read, to teach, to talk about. The characters’ relationships with one another and with their social worlds are both complex and clear in their complexity. I had told my students before entering the book, to focus on the narrators and protagonists, and their position in relation to the stories’ central conflicts/problems. And then to think hard about the choices they make. One story that really held our interest as a group was “The Brothers,” and then just talking about why the author would title that story that way, when one of the siblings was transgender, and that the story was about rejection and possible, eventual (posthumous) acceptance. There was so much questioning of the mother’s strong sense of hiya, something that a lot of students — including many of Filipino descent — just don’t understand. While I refuse to believe that our communities have worked it out and moved past our hiya, this is such an interesting thing I’ve encountered.

I was able to take the theme of the monstress, the female monster, the wife who initially takes a backseat with her own ambitions to support her husband’s public career, but who changes into a woman in America, thinking of her own career. This is the monstress in many ways, the woman and wife who no longer puts everyone before herself. This was helpful in transitioning into To Love as Aswang, and the many ways our communities historically label women as monsters, when we decide we no longer want to comply with those rigid, self-denying social standards.

So anyway, thanks for reading this brain dump. I am exhausted. It’s week 10. Next week, we’re talking about Jason Bayani’s Amulet. I am looking forward to how my students receive and read these poems. For the most part, I think these literary discussions with non-literature majors is going pretty well.