#AswangPoetics, Redux

I’d had this wonderful vision in my head, of a cadre of fierce Pinay writers and authors taking this #AswangPoetics thing, and running with it. Where? Well, wherever they needed to go. That all these fierce Pinay voices would unleash themselves fearlessly into curses and prayers. That so much amazing and necessary work would be written, published, and shared.

Lots of things have ended up taking a backseat to the constant outrage of this administration and its nonsense, shenanigans, and corruption. Lots of folks have ended up publicly shutting down, because social media has made these times unbearable to be connected.

That was something I was hoping would not happen.

I am a poet, I am a citizen, and I am a witness. I am an educator, and I am a mentor. I am a worker. My work consists of asking questions. My work consists of questioning convention and institution, social standards and expectations, and power. I am thinking about “problem.” I am thinking about complexity. What is explicit and implicit in language.

I am looking inside most of all. I am examining my work. Why I work. What I work for. What do I believe. This is one of my only remedies to clickbait, disinformation, and internet outrage.

This is what I believe. That our power as Pinay writers and authors is in our bravery to write what needs to be written, how it needs to be written, free of apology and pander. And if it is scary, that’s because it’s supposed to be scary. It has always been scary to speak, to voice the unpopular viewpoint, and to fight for its space. People ignore you, and so you must amplify. People want to be obstructive and destructive (thereby wholly bypassing constructive and instructive), and so you must either find another way — your own way, or you must move that shit right out of your path.

This is what I have tried my best to do. This is what I will continue doing.


On writing the book: “inspirations” and process

People do ask a lot, “How do you write a book?” People also ask, “How do you publish a book?”

These are hard questions to engage, because they are so non-specific. Which part of “how,” do you mean. “A book,” or “this book,” or do you really mean, “How can I write my book,” and “How can I publish my book.”

Once, when someone asked me, “How do you publish a book,” with no context at all, I started to talk about the submissions process to different editors for different publishers, figuring out who to send to (i.e. who would be a “good fit”), then including cover letters, and then manuscript excerpts versus entire bodies. This person proceeded to snap back at me with impatience. “That’s not what I mean.” And then stormed off. That was awkward, and I felt like an asshole.

And then of course there are the numerous times that I refer an aspiring author to different websites that collect and organize publishing information, and tell them their research — getting to know what’s out there and figuring out where they may fit — begins there. I either get in response the internet version of the blank stare, or the super angry, “You’re no fucking help at all.”

So I go back to the good conversations I have with other writers, with some of my graduate students, people who already know there’s more to publishing than snapping their fingers and thereby, magically making it so.

These fellow writers, and my graduate students, are the people asking me questions about how a manuscript comes into its form, how a manuscript coalesces into this thing ready as can be, for an editor’s eyes. How do you go from a germ of an idea for a single poem, into a body of poems that can be envisioned as a book manuscript. This “germ,” can be so many things, so many seemingly “small” things. That’s the thing about germs and germination.

Maybe instead of something so concrete (albeit metaphorical) about the beginnings of a life of a thing that grows, you want to use a more mythical word such as “inspiration,” here. Sure, whatever suits you. Although I will say, there is something passive about “inspiration,” as in, waiting for inspiration to hit you. Most serious writers I know are not so abstract, and are actively seeking and pursuing “inspiration,” in ways that address work ethic and actual practice.

I’ve seen the look of utter fear on my grad students’ faces when I say at the beginning of the semester that we are going to write and build bodies of work; submit 10 pages minimum in the next three weeks, and let’s go. And that by the end of the semester, you will have a minimum of 25-30, maybe even 45 pages.

And then they learn that it’s an exercise in purge, in temporarily suspending their internal editors, and then in writing what is most currently important to them to be writing, how many different approaches and angles there are, how many different poetic voices they can muster, how to follow tangents and more tangents, so much connective tissue. This is a body, and the logic of its structure starts to become apparent to you, the more deeply you get to know it.

I see it this way: the “thing” is in the center of the room, and you are looking at it from various angles, from different vantage points and distances. You are writing about it in its static and dynamic states. You are interacting with it. You are building it, filling it.

So your manuscript in progress: You start to question how important it is. This is good. You start to question your own ideas of importance. This is also good. You start to question your confidence in your own poetic voice. This is excellent. You start to realize that countless other authors have gone through this before, routinely and thoroughly, and so you are not alone, and your struggle isn’t all that unique, and so you start to actively find out how they did what they did. This is hella excellent. (This last part might also be the beginning of the answer to “How do you publish,” by looking at what the authors before and around you have done.)

And that — to me — is how you write a book. That may not be a good enough answer for some people.


Success and Failure in Po-Biz: What I am talking about

Invocation to Daughters, City Lights Spotlight No. 16.

I just posted two things on Facebook the other day. The first was about “success” in this industry: My idea of success is to write and publish what I want, where and how I want. To teach what I want, where and how I want. To live comfortably (not struggle to barely make ends meet), to have my own time and space, to have family who – for the most part – get it, and respect my space and aspirations, and who – for the most part – share my political values. To have my motivations be my own.

The second was about “failure.” Yesterday, I verbalized for the first time that I believe To Love as Aswang is/was ultimately a failure.

Some background. It took me an uncharacteristically long time to write Aswang.

A large part of this long time was about a kind of paralysis. A few years ago, I got myself confused. Whereas my idea of success had always been as I’ve written above, writing and publishing what I want, where and how I want, a few years ago, I found myself in a weird rut. I found myself writing in anticipation of editorial and reader rejection or acceptance. I found myself outside of myself, and it was a weak point, if not the weakest point at which I had ever found myself, taking a backseat to industry expectations totally outside of my control.

Poeta en San Francisco and Diwata, I had deemed as “successes” — Award-winning or award-contending work. And/or. Published by “prestigious” publishers of American Poetry. I found myself passively careening in that direction. The awarding. The prestige. I found myself suppressing and second-guessing what and how I wanted to write.

Here’s the thing though. I knew I wanted to write a Pinay-centric work. I did not know of anywhere in the industry that a Pinay-centric work could exist. I did not know any Pinay-centric spaces existed in the industry. There weren’t any. So then I didn’t know what to do with the work. In the revision and editing process, Aswang went through so many failed iterations.

I kept mitigating the intensity of my own poems. I kept smoothing out its jagged edges. I kept trying to make it “beautiful,” in service of others’ ideas of beauty. And lest you think this is about racism here, I also mean the kind of Filipino American reader who recoils at unflattering depictions of our own, and who subsequently reprimands me for being so angry, and for not focusing on the inherent beauty of our people.

In hindsight, it would be more apropos to say that Aswang went through a rather normal if not robust revision and editing process. But at the time, I was so uncertain. Of course, I put on a brave, stoic public face. Of course. I believed people believed I was “set,” in the industry.

Manuscript rejections happened in a way I had never before experienced. And mind you, I don’t submit any of my manuscripts to a lot of places. I’m not a manuscript submissions blitzer. If you want a ballpark figure for what “a lot,” means for me and my work, it means barely in the double digits. Seven to ten queries is a lot for me.

I reiterate: Pinay-centric spaces in the industry did not exist.

As a Pinay in the industry, it is implicit that you conform to industry standards.

And then Edwin Lozada at PAWA approached me and made a very generous offer. He said that when I got tired of the grind, of the rejections, if I wanted to just get Aswang published already, if I wanted Aswang to exist on my own terms, that PAWA was there for me.

I resisted for a short time, and then I finally said, Fuck it. Yes.

This is Pinay-centric space.

As production began on this work, I began seriously and rabidly writing Invocation to Daughters. I could never have written Invocation without the purge of Aswang.

All of this work coincided with my father’s rapid decline in health, and ultimately, his passing, and my grieving. I could not bring myself to make events happen. I could not bring myself to get myself “out there.”

Aswang sales are not shooting through the roof. Industry people barely acknowledge its existence; there is no literary prestige in this kind of Filipino American, West Coast, home grown operation. And the stereotypical non-book-buying Filipino American is still not buying this book. None of this is news.

It is my series of failures that brought this book into the world. It is my insistence on Pinay-centricity, #Allpinayeverything Poetics, #AswangPoetics, which the industry will never give a shit about, that made this book happen, and that made me write the poems in Invocation to Daughters — poems I wrote on my own terms. These are poems focused on Pinays that the world does not give a shit about, as long as these Pinays clean your fucking house, or pleasure you. As long as Pinays obey. These are, and have always been, my motivations for writing and publishing. I can’t compromise this. Not one fucking inch.

In the meantime, Invocation to Daughters is not some kind of endpoint for me. I’m not “done” yet. I do know I hit one of my longtime major markers; before I knew anything about anything in the industry, when I was a suburban Bay Area teenager who was secretly an aspiring writer, who would have rather died than shown anyone anything I had ever written, I wanted to be a part of City Lights Publishers.

They published Howl.

This really does mean something to me. So already, a success.


What I am getting at. Something Oscar and I have talked a lot about is the kind of failure one must allow oneself to experience, in order to get to success. I am not boo-hoo-ing, as much as I am tracing a trajectory. Thinking also about the distinct lives of each of my books. Is it possible that Aswang is a bridge, a structure you take for granted even as you are stepping all over it to get to where you need to get to. And then a storm obliterates it, and then you are fucking stuck. And then that bridge becomes everything. The book has a lot of life ahead of it still. And so.

I am reaffirming that I am doing exactly what I mean to be doing. Failing my way towards the next success.

Pinay Poetics, Persisting, Persisting, Walang Hiya

What I’m doing these days.

Well, I am starting to get itchy, restless again. Either from my addiction to jumping into shit and doing, related to my aversion to folks who are (culture that is) perpetually talking about what they’re planning to do. Or because where we’re at as a nation is vile, trashy, intolerable. Being an educator, and being in a field that is about coaxing people into creativity and thoughtfulness means something I should not be taking for granted or squandering.

I have been editing (curating) e-chapbook anthologies of political poetry; I — and many others — have been trying to open what “political poetry” is, what it means to write from a place of political consciousness, from a place of critical and historical awareness, from a place of personal inquiry and intersectionality. So far, one poetry e-chapbook anthology of Pilipinx political poetry, one of women’s political poetry with one more on the way. I want to take this  e-chapbook format to PAWA.

I like this “small” venue, and in general, I like the “small” poetry venue, the DIY ethic, independent of institutional prestige. I like the kinds of intense convergences of aesthetics and poetics that can happen there. Perhaps the term is cross pollination. But am also thinking of the metaphors I’ve been using for my students to understand some elements of the postmodern — mosaics, collages, fractures and fragments that force you to step far back to assess and understand the larger, more apparently cohesive picture.

I have poems and essays forthcoming in a whole bunch of diverse maybe even disparate types of publications both print and internet based, and it’s a matter of patience. I am grateful to be sought after by editors, to have my words mean something especially during such political difficulty. I was told that my bluntness, my clear calling out to the community to be accountable to one another is welcome. Yes, I am grateful, and I also think, finally, and if only this appreciation for my brand of honesty lasts.

Abigail Licad of Hyphen has just written high and critical and personal praise for Poeta en San Francisco, over a decade after its release, and I am reassured that my work is doing good things, reaching the people it needs to reach.

Invocation to Daughters is due for release in November, and its book description continues to floor me. It’s a tall order. I’m up for it. Can poetry matter. I have to believe it can.

Poem for Today: Carlos Bulosan, “Song for Chris Mensalvas Birthday”

Something I often think of, as a poet, this binary social attitude that poetry is both frivolous, excessive, then that poetry is so necessary, especially in times of strife and turmoil, such as now. As poets, we are tasked with taking the temperature of the room, and putting it down on the page with eloquence. And then as poets, we are accused of being too little in the world, too much in our own indulgent heads, not doing anything of social relevance because we are seen as sitting in our safe little writing studios, agonizing over muses and love. In the academic world, we aren’t seen so much, because we’re not perceived as doing any heavy lifting like those who toil over producing factual, institutionally sanctioned bodies of work.

If we are regarded, it is with disdain for being so “poetic,” elliptical, flippant, somehow un-serious because of the relative brevity of the poem, because of tone, because of the artfulness of the genre. And because of the oft-made error that even many academics make, that the “I” is not lyric and expansive, but personal and individual, hence small. And that the love poem is always a poem of personal and self-serving eros, certainly not of larger social significance, even when we are talking about Filipinos, guided by kapwa.

“At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality… We must strive every day so that this love of living humanity will be transformed into actual deeds, into acts that serve as examples, as a moving force.” ~ Che Guevara.

That said, today’s Valentine’s Day poem is “Song for Chris Mensalvas’ Birthday,” by Carlos Bulosan.

Song for Chris Mensalvas’ Birthday

How many years did we fight the Beast together,
You in your violent way, in your troublous world,
I in my quiet way, with songs of love?

Over the years we fought apart and together,
Scarring our lives, breaking our hearts,
For the shining heart of a heartless world:

For the nameless multitude in our beautiful land,
For the worker and the unemployed,
For the colored and the foreign born:

And we won, we will win,
Because we for truth, for beauty, for life,
We fight for the splendor of love…

They are afraid, my brother,
They are afraid of our mighty fists, my brother,
They are afraid of the magnificence of our works, my brother,
They are even afraid of our songs of love, my brother.

So on this day of your birthday,
I am happy that the glissando of time has compacted,
At last,
Our early promises in that faraway city of our youth,
That I alone can totally remember,
That I alone can destroy with stroke of my hand:
So joy to your world and all that lives in it,
Joy, joy to your coming years,
Joy to your unrelenting heart and mind,
Joy to your brown hands that suffered so much,
More than mine did, having suffered another terror,
The terror of the mirroring soul:
Joy to your wife,
Joy to your children,
Joy to your friends,
Joy, joy, joy,
Joy to all the world,
And for all this joy let me have one little joy
To guide my mind that remembers her always,
The quiet little one that moved my heart
To remember, always to remember, the song of love…

They are afraid, my brother,
They are afraid of our mighty fists, my brother,
They are afraid of the magnificence of our works, my brother,
They are even afraid of our songs of love, my brother.