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.

Critical Pinayisms: Panel of Pinay Artists and Writers at SFSU

Critical Pinayisms. Photo by Valerie Francisco-Menchavez.

Thank you to Maria Vallarta for curating this fantastic panel of Pinay/Pilipinx writers and artists for the National Association for Ethnic Studies Conference at SFSU.

My co-panelists were Angela Peñaredondo, Melissa Sipin, and Karen Villa, and all of us discussed our processes of critical thinking, about practice and praxis in our respective genres. There is so much here, so rather than rehash the amazing and important work each of us is doing, I wanted to talk about a question from Professor Valerie Francisco-Menchavez, about the burden of representation, the reticence and difficulty in telling stories of Pinays — lives and bodies — that have endured trauma, some that have not survived. If you look closely at Valerie’s photo above, you will see in the bottom panel, a list of names that I wrote on the white board:

Jennifer Laude

Izabel Laxamana

Norife Herrera Jones

Julieta Yang

Mary Jane Veloso

I told the attendees/audience to Google these names. And I said a few things about each of them. These are some of the Pinays who inhabit the pages of Invocation to Daughters.

Some background: when I was in college in the 1990s, the names were Flor Contemplacion, and Sarah Balabagan. Filipino women who had fought back against their abusive employers and suffered the consequences of doing so. I told the attendees that when I was an aspiring writer, there were so few Pinays publishing; a full length book authored by a single author who was Pinay was so rare, and so when Jessica Hagedorn became known to me, her very existence made my career as a Pinay author possible. And then some years later, Catalina Cariaga’s book Cultural Evidence was published. Her poem, “Excerpts from Bahala Na!” had Flor Contemplacion at the center, as the speaker sifted through media sound bytes, advertising, emails, and ethnographic text, for any tiny bit of information about Flor’s fate.

I am part of this continuity of Pinay authors, artists, and scholars, working to sift through both the noise of mass media, and its sensationalized and biased reporting of these Pinay lives and/or deaths. If they are reported at all.

To the list of the Pinays I provided, we may add the two Pinays who were central to Karen Villa’s work:

Jacqueline Toves

Abigail Tapia

The challenge is always going to be in the telling. There will probably always be disagreement about how. But it is always necessary that telling happens. This is a point I will not negotiate.

Valerie’s question ultimately came down to how we tell these stories without perpetuating the victim narrative, the suffering Pinay stereotype. In response, Angela talked about complexity and nuance, we all agreed it was about honoring their humanity in our work. I discussed the stereotype being that of erasure, silence, and invisibility. Are these Pinays’ stories ever even told in the first place? I said also it becomes about perspective, and direct address. Asking, addressing. Placing these Pinays in the center of the narrative not as objects to be examined and spoken about, but as people to be asked, to be spoken to as humans are spoken to.

I think this is something we can “get away with” in creative work. We can speak to our “subjects,” cast them as heroines, open space for them to speak.

I am thinking of Valerie’s question some more, and am troubled by the assumptions of thesis and dissertation advisors to caution our Pinay scholars about perpetuating victim narrative, especially when there’s so much erasure and invisibility, and young scholars really trying to figure out how to do right by these Pinays. There’s the horrible truth of their experiences that must be spoken, and we must get past our fear of, aversion to unpleasantness — here, I would like to add the discussion of the ugliness that was a common thread in all our presentations. And as we hone our skills as writers, as we become much more adept at craft, we can better handle this terribleness with compassion and sensitivity — otherwise the work becomes suffering porn and cliché.

Do we own these stories? I don’t think I do. Their stories don’t belong to anyone but them. We are all just doing our part in their telling.

#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.