Dear Poeta, Dear Pinay, Why Do You Want To Write Books?

I remember once, some years ago, I and other authors came as guest speakers to Willie Perdomo’s VONA Poetry class. A couple of the questions from students that I remember, and the discussions that stayed with me were as follows:

Why do you want to write books? Why is writing and having books published important to you? For me,  my initial reaction was, why is this even a question? One of the other guest authors, Roger Bonair-Agard, responded by saying, “because it’s tradition.” Yes, this made all the sense in the world to me then, and it continues to be one of my go-to responses. I did think hard about why this tradition is important to me. Here’s my go at it:

As young people who think we have a knack for telling story, for composing verse, we inherit so much of this from our families. I don’t know if it’s because we have a particular “ear” for story, or sensitivity for where and how stories are being told in our families and by whom, but I think/I believe we grow up with something pulling (or pushing us) in that direction.

I remember all my little notebooks full of ditties and rhymes. I don’t know if this was actively encouraged, my keeping these notebooks, but it was surely not discouraged. Regular visits to the library and the bookstore were definitely encouraged. We had some books in the house. Not really “high literature,” but I don’t think that part mattered so much.

I just knew I came from a family who did read some books, and who did actively, enthusiastically make kuwento.

When I started to feel simultaneously attracted and frustrated by canonical literature in middle school and high school, I don’t know that I was feeling “pushed out” of the world of books and high literature, but I do remember trying so hard to find ways in. I don’t remember being particularly “good” at English class. I wanted to be an insightful reader, and to say deep, profound things about what I had read. I wasn’t there yet.

And when, in college, I found myself immersed in literatures of folks of color, immigrants, feminists, indigenous communities, things really clicked. I understood. I learned to articulate those deep profound things I’d always wanted to. I wanted this. Whether it was books by Amy Tan, or Maxine Hong Kingston, or Leslie Marmon Silko, or Gloria Anzaldúa, or Jessica Hagedorn, or Carlos Bulosan, or Audre Lorde, I wanted that. I was hungry for that.

Tracing some of these authors’ lineages brought me to The Beats, to Whitman, and so forth. And I was opened. I wanted that. When I finally connected with other aspiring and emerging writers of color, one thing we had in common was that hunger. We struggled to find our way into multiple literary worlds. Some of us struggled to better our craft.

The books I was reading became increasingly diverse (ethnically, aesthetically, etc.). I didn’t know much about the publishing industry, but I did know what poetry books I was actively seeking out and drawn to — poets whose books were published by New Directions Publishers, poets in translation published by Copper Canyon Press, and the City Lights Pocket Poets. I also knew that a lot of my literary Manangs and Manongs were getting published by Kearny Street Workshop. When Jaime Jacinto’s Heaven is Just Another Country dropped, I was there on the mic, a young college drop out serving as guest poet dropping some spoken word, thinking, I too could one day do what Jaime had just done.

When I was selling my first Kinko’s produced DIY chapbook out of my backpack at Bindlestiff Studio, before I ever went to grad school, Jaime Jacinto, along with Eileen Tabios and Marianne Villanueva, were there to receive it and to encourage me to keep at it.

A few years ago, I was in Seattle, and Jon Pineda and I were finding our way to a Seattle Filipino American literary event. We were talking about what our publishing prospects were, and I told him about City Lights. We both went, they published Howl. And then we had a fan-boy/fan-girl freak out. Though, today, I would also say, they published Juan Felipe Herrera. They published Diane di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters. They are here, on the Left Coast, in San Francisco, the place which has defined me and my poetic voice and political values, and the city whose shadow I always felt concealed me. Right next to Manilatown. Boom. I am telling you where I would like to place myself in literary tradition.

Yes. Wanting to become a writer of books has everything to do with tradition. And everything to do with our love for the object called the book. Its thick card stock matte covers and thick off-white/cream stock interior pages, super clean serif font for the body text, spines’ perfect binding.

Keepsakes. Gifts. You always take them with you.

My home is filled with them. My ceilings are nine feet up. my walls are entirely covered with book shelves.

I was educated by veterans of the Third World Liberation Front, mentored by Kearny Street Workshop elders. I have made my home where the Black Panthers were birthed. I am here, in Oakland, working for the health of a growing, changing Chinatown community, especially its children, girls, and women. I am educating young Pinays to find their voices, and not to be afraid of how capable they are of working towards social change.

All of this is why I am an author of books.

How about a good poetics talk: On translation and experimentation in Poeta en San Francisco

You know, it’s been a really good couple of days of literary discussions.

The other day, I went into Dean Rader’s Literature class, where they have just read Poeta en San Francisco. I’d originally had some anxiety about revisiting a work so “old,” in my literary life. I didn’t know that I knew how to talk about the work anymore.

I was so young when I wrote Poeta. This is not to say I am ashamed of it. Quite the contrary. I see a young poet who wrote some hella bomba, walang hiya poetry there. She was so brave. And some of the reason why she was so brave was precisely because she was young, writing from the margins of the margins, with little self-consciousness about how the “big world” would receive such a work.

With the class, we talked about how the work was received, where was there push back, how does a reader read a work that contains these ‘foreign” elements. As readers, we are already accustomed to seeing translation; we see, for example, Neruda’s original Spanish on the page, and then we see the translator’s crafted translation on the facing page. We view the languages as discrete, i.e. not really in interaction with one another.

We can, with bilingual editions, if we like, read back and forth between the two. If we look hard enough, then we see how one-to-one translation has not occurred. Then, if we look at two different translators’ translations, we see how there can potentially be two different poems that have come from the same one poem.

But what of the multilingual work which does not treat languages as mutually discrete bodies? I told the students that when I was new in my grad program, that was one of my first questions about writing. The multilingualism that exists in my life, in my head, in Bay Area open spaces (not just the bustling urban, cosmopolitan areas) — I just hadn’t at that point figured out how to put that on the page yet. It was more than opportune; it was fortune that Stacy Doris and Chet Wiener found me in grad school. I do not know that I could have written what I did, without them, precisely because they were translators.

I bring this up now, because code switching in my work is always treated as such a spectacle. Or as this specimen called poetic experiment. Which I’m like, I guess. It’s just figuring out how to put on the page the languages of one’s real life, which I think of as ongoing work on one’s craft (which could mean, figuring out how to do it well, whatever “well” means). I was told a couple of years later that Poeta en San Francisco had become an example to a group of Latinx poets of how to code switch in poetry.

(And actually, after class, one of the Latinx students did come up to me to tell me they could see why my work would resonate with Latinx writers/poets, as they were having a similar reading experience.)

I was able to also talk about the baybayin translations I included in the book. That the section called “[noo, nyoo],” (pages 43-51) was what I can now call a “failed experiment,” because (1) the parameters I provided for myself, which I adhered to, were flawed at the onset, (2) the re-translation from baybayin back to Roman alphabet yielded something entirely unreadable. But there’s also a (3) the actual visual presence of the baybayin is something to consider on its own, as producing some kind of affect on the reader/their reading experience.

I asked them to compare the baybayin in this “[noo, nyoo]” section, to the baybayin that appears later in the text (pages 95-96). That would be an example of a more successful translation, in that the original source material was in Tagalog (modern, in Roman characters), and so adhering to the writing rules of baybayin, the resulting translation is actually readable to one who knows how to read baybayin.

We talked also about the poetic form of the prayer, and how rosaries, novenas, and processions (Stations of the Cross, semana santa) do indeed come with identifiable form and lines of verse. These are the kinds of rhythms that feel like they’ve seeped into my pores, into my bloodstream. You can drop out of that life and practice, but when you find yourself there again, you know exactly where to pick up and carry on as if you’ve never left. And you can speak and move as one body with so many other bodies.

Anyway, this is a lot for now. Let me stop.

How a Brown Girl Makes a Book Happen [Part 6]

It takes more than you know you know, more than you think you are capable of. You must be brave, to commit yourself to your pages, despite what the world expects from you.

I had a great discussion with my grad students yesterday evening, about how we resist becoming “sardines,” as D.A. Powell writes in his manifesto, “Annie Get Your Gun.” There, he is saying we poets come together as schools. Think about schools of fish, sardines, schooling together for safety. We are sure that each sardine is a unique specimen, but how is it that when we look at sardines packed for our consumption in their neat rectangular tin, each sardine appears exactly alike.

Against centrism, Powell says. More eccentricism! And I am so totally with this. But there’s this industry that claims to value diversity, but then insists upon packing each of us into uniformity, that doles out some kind of consequence for refusing to conform.

Related: Donald Hall, “Poetry and Ambition,” and the notorious “McPoem.”

Our poems, in their charming and interchangeable quantity, do not presume to the status of “Lycidas”—for that would be elitist and un-American. We write and publish the McPoem—ten billion served—which becomes our contribution to the history of literature as the Model T is our contribution to a history which runs from bare feet past elephant and rickshaw to the vehicles of space. Pull in any time day or night, park by the busload, and the McPoem waits on the steam shelf for us, wrapped and protected, indistinguishable, undistinguished, and reliable—the good old McPoem identical from coast to coast and in all the little towns between, subject to the quality control of the least common denominator.

And every year, Ronald McDonald takes the Pulitzer.

To produce the McPoem, institutions must enforce patterns, institutions within institutions, all subject to the same glorious dominance of unconscious economic determinism, template and formula of consumerism.

The McPoem is the product of the workshops of Hamburger University.

How do you resist, if you want to be in the industry. Or is this an inherent contradiction. Not to mix my metaphors, but is it that to consent to being a part of this industry, you consent to becoming one of Powell’s identical sardines, you consent to mass producing Hall’s McPoem.

What happens to our lakas loob when faced with the possibility of rejection, from editors and publishers, from our “peers,” and “colleagues,”  from who’s who in this industry that would drop our names in the “right” place and the “right” time to the “right” parties.

Yes, as a Left Coast, Wild West Pinay I think about these things. I want to say that we just write what we must write, how we must write it. This is what I try my best to do, even though the shadow of manuscript submissions looms on the horizon.

I know from experience that those “who’s who” in the industry types won’t bat a fucking eyelid at my work when it’s published by a SF-based, Filipino-specialized publisher. I know these same “who’s who” types wanna know me when my work is published and/or recognized by an industry “big heavy.”

Yes, you are telling me, fuck those “who’s who” types, those AWP lanyard gazers. And you are right to say so.

(Hey, what happens when those AWP lanyard gazers are people of color. Jus sayin.)

So then, what’s become important to me as a writer is to keep on writing what I want and need to write, how I want and need to write it. I have to continue developing the thickest skin ever. I have to find others whose world view is not lanyard gazing.

More importantly, how does one truly fight against that culture. This is the kind of wisdom I need for my own peace of mind, but also the kind of wisdom I wish to impart on my students and mentees. How do you truly fight that power, that institution, rather than consent to becoming the token, well-behaved colored people –See? They do like us! We do belong among them! BJR, will you please stop being so “reckless” and “dangerous.” — whose work is deemed acceptable by that culture, and the token colored people whose edginess is used as evidence of the institution’s tolerance of our wildness and otherness — See? We do value diversity! Lookit the little brown people we’ve taken into our fold. Aren’t we benevolent.

So this is where I am today, here on the Left Coast and the Wild West, and proud of it.

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.