FAQ 6: You really get edited? By editors?

Indeed, I do.

Why this question? Well, a few things. There is so much sensitivity among writers of all stripes. There is so much “us” versus “them,” in which we view “them,” the editors, as these unbudging gatekeepers, elitists, trying to keep those precious doors shut, trying to disallow us entrance into the hallowed halls of authordom.

Here’s the thing. There are amazing editors who are worthy of our respect, and then there are editors who we know we wouldn’t, we shouldn’t trust with our work. It could be “simple” aesthetic differences, in which “simple” isn’t so simple. Those aesthetics are politically and culturally informed. And here, I am not playing identity politics. I’ve had American, cis-gender-hetero-white male editors on opposite sides of the country, who are amazing, amazing readers and appreciators of my work. I’ve encountered APIA editors who want nothing more than for me NOT to send them my work; they don’t like it, they don’t appreciate it, they don’t want it. I can make assumptions as to why this is the case, but that would just be me being a royal bitch, shit talking like a motherfucker.

What I have learned is this: why even submit to those editors in the latter category, those who will never appreciate our work?

I was inspired by Eileen Tabios’s recent blog post, which included images from one of her current manuscripts. It has editorial marking and comments, which I am happy and heartened to see. Yes, even the most prolific and established authors get down with a good editing experience.

“Good” is the operative word.

I have had good, satisfying, productive editing experiences with book editors. This is, for me, one of the best reasons for either establishing a longterm-ish relationship with a publisher. There is an editor there who comes to know your work, and therefore, knows how to read you and offer you editorial input.

I have had multiple publishers, and so while I do not have this longterm-ish relationship, I have met and worked with editors who are great readers of poetry, who have so much experience, and so much insight. After seeing Eileen’s blog post, I went back over my old exchanges with Peter Conners over at BOA Editions, Ltd. His reading was very hands on, line by line, page by page, and then big picture. I have to trust that an editor who I believe has edited Li-Young Lee, Naomi Shihab Nye, Sean Thomas Dougherty, would have a thing or two to teach me. We even talked through the dreaded italics talk, which we multilingual poets anticipate, know well, and have to grind through.

Our exchanges were so thorough and respectful of the work, its intentions, and ambitions. I look at what Diwata was when I first submitted to them, and what was ultimately published — two different things entirely, with a finished product that was, indeed, finished, polished, clarified, so clean.

Let me back up and talk more about my earlier experiences as an emerging author. Eileen Tabios edited my first book, Gravities of Center. This was back when I knew nothing about nothing. I was new in my MFA program; I hadn’t published in many journals or magazines. I knew nothing of the First Book of Poetry hustle that my East Coast Filipino American counterparts were undergoing, with the book contest circuit and all that stuff that I still generally keep the hell away from. All I knew was that Marie Romero at Arkipelago Books was offering me an opportunity, and that I had to take it. Eileen was both loving and rigorous with the work, taking into strong consideration the kinds of tributes I was trying to make to my poetic elders as well as to my closest friends. She knew my aesthetic concerns, the “why” of my experimentation, my cultural and political concerns.

I believe Gravities of Center is an accurate reflection of where I was at, aesthetically and poetically at the time that it was published. The work, while emotionally cringe-worthy for me today, I believe is technically sound. A young poet who was still quite naive and unexposed, at the very beginning of her long, ongoing poetic education, wrote that.

Poeta en San Francisco was taken through the wringer over the course of three or four semesters of MFA workshop with colleagues who really got to know my work, and one more semester of MFA thesis advising, with Stacy Doris at the helm of each of those workshops and advising. I loved Stacy so much, and I miss her so much. When I write, even today, I think, what would Stacy tell me now. All of those times I was so exhausted with my own work, that she would let me plead my case for being “done” with Poeta, how she would really, truly hear me, only to gently tell me, “Nope. It’s not done yet.” There was no coddling, no placating, just a straight up, “You know this needs more,” layers, complexities, an obvious gaping hole needing attention, my need to come outside of my head to read and speak from a different angle (or angel!) or POV of the growing monstrosity that was the work.

By the time I’d submitted Poeta en San Francisco to Susan Schultz at Tinfish Press, I’d already submitted it as my MFA thesis, and there was so little to be done to it except hunt for a heap of money to get it produced, so we did that.

With my chapbooks, those were also as done as possible by the time I’d submitted those, such that the editors — Carrie Hunter, Brenda Iijima, and Anisa Onofre, of Ypolita Press, Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs, and Aztlán Libre Press, respectively — were really just contacting me to ask me for clarifications. Same was true, working with Edwin Lozada at PAWA, on To Love as AswangSo, it’s nice when editors enact their confidence in me to submit a finished product. But, as I prepare for Invocation to Daughters to go into editing and production mode (which will happen at some point soon; I am actually in no rush), with Garrett Caples and City Lights Publishers, I look forward to what this editorial experience is going to look and feel like. I already know from the work he’s done, something about his aesthetics, and then from our email exchanges, and from our few but cool in-person encounters, how he works, and what he liked/found interesting about my work, and about the manuscript in the first place.

So then, my point in discussing all of this is not just to be open to being edited, but to be discerning about which editors to whom you are submitting your work. If you already know that editor’s repertoire, then you should know if your work may be a good or good-enough fit. If you don’t know that editor’s repertoire, you must do your research, which is as simple as looking at the publisher’s catalog. If you decide it’s not a good fit, then don’t waste your time and energy, getting worked up over unnecessary and avoidable bullshit.


Economy and Gift Economy

I want to say it’s because of social media that the increase in free labor requests has flooded my in-boxes. Perhaps this is true. Back in the day, when I was an aspiring writer who didn’t know anything about anything — how to “get started,” how to make my writing “better,” whether I was ready to publish, and if so, publish where — I could never have imagined getting Jessica Hagedorn’s contact information, contacting her out of the blue, telling her I want and need her to help me, and expecting a response.

I did, however, learn to do a few things:

  1. Try and fail miserably. At writing weak sauce poems and pretentious poems I eventually scrapped. At writing stupid cover letters. At submitting and getting rejected.
  2. Recognize when mentors, Ates, Kuyas, were openly and willingly giving me free advice. When Michelle Bautista and I met Nick Carbó at his reading at Cody’s Books in Berkeley back in the 1990s, that was one of the best things. He recognized us as these former Maganda magazine editors-in-chief who had published some of his poems from El Grupo McDonalds. He had all kinds of things to tell us about submitting work, publication, self-publishing, indie presses. I was a sponge. He invited us to submit work to the Aunt Lute anthology Babaylan. I did. He then sent me a note in response, asking me for 10 more poems. I panicked. I failed. See #1, above. When Eileen Tabios moved to the Bay Area and reached out to those of us who were accepted/included in Babaylan, there was no way I was gonna play hiya. I was there. To do book events, to meet and hear other writers from the anthology, to hear and heed her publishing and writing advice. When I found myself on the same literary event roster as Jaime Jacinto, I would listen to every damn thing he would say, every nugget of wisdom. When I would run into him on campus during grad school, if he had time, I would sit with him and listen to him talk. Jaime, Nick, Eileen seem to have tracked my progress over time, as this kid who knew nothing, into an aspiring writer, into an emerging writer, into an author. I took every one of their reading recommendations and submissions recommendations they offered me. All of them challenged me to write more, to step up my game, to try things I’d never tried before. I wrote reviews of their books, did my best to include them in events I organized.
  3. Recognize when there were opportunities to learn, and to prioritize them. When $50 was a ton of money for me, when I was barely making any money at all, I set that money aside, and paid to take a KSW class with Brian Komei Dempster, on submitting to publications, on applying to writing programs. I still use Brian’s cover letter format today. When my writing stagnated, I considered VONA, but I couldn’t afford it. Instead, I enrolled in a creative writing course at a local community college, back when classes were $6 per unit, so $18 for a three-unit class. Elizabeth Treadwell was my teacher. I read everything she assigned and recommended. She put it in my ear to apply to grad school, and so I did.
  4. I DIY’ed my own chapbook. Used Microsoft Publisher to lay it out, took it to Kinko’s and copied and stapled a bunch. This cost money. I wasn’t making much at the time, but I prioritized it. I sold the chapbook out of my backpack. I applied to participate in KSW’s APAture at the zine tables, and sold my chapbooks there. Five bucks a pop. Marie Romero at Arkipelago Books recognized this, sold some in her bookstore, recognized how they sold there, and offered me my first shot at publishing my first full-length book, Gravities of Center.
  5. By the time I finished grad school (I did this while working 0.8 to 1.0 FTE in a public health job), I had a full-length manuscript called Poeta en San Francisco, my MFA thesis which I wrote under the direction of Stacy Doris, and which I submitted to Tinfish Press, upon the recommendations of Paolo Javier and Shin Yu Pai. I’d blurbed and/or reviewed their books. We talked via blogs and emails about aesthetics and venues. Susan Schultz at Tinfish Press accepted the manuscript, told me it’d be great if we could find some funding, and so we submitted Poeta en San Francisco to the Academy of American Poets for the James Laughlin Award. The Academy covered the entire first print run, 7000 copies, red ink, red pages and all.

I write frequently about these formative experiences, because that’s exactly how I came to be an author. I had a lot of teachers, a lot of help. I had a lot of gift economy going on here. You do something for me, and I will do something for you. Reciprocity. Blurbs, reviews, letters of recommendation, course adoption. Many times, editors invite me to submit work, or event organizers invite me to be a feature author. I do a lot of recommending here, fellow writers whom they should also contact and invite. I bring other authors into my projects, events, classes. I try my best to get Filipino American artists’ works on the covers of my books — the works of England Hidalgo, Maria Urbi, Christian Cabuay grace the covers of Gravities of Center, For the City that Nearly Broke Me, and Diwata, respectively.

These days, I am grumpy. I am so grumpy. I field so many requests for stuff. From so many people who seem to think I am important, who think I am well-connected, but who can’t even find it in themselves to read my blog and every piece of free advice I put down out there, and can’t find it in themselves to shell out $15 for my book, or take one of my classes which I have offered via PAWA (I have stopped doing this, due to scheduling and time issues). They try to butter me up with compliments; “you are so important,” “you are so inspiring,” but they can’t tell me about anything I have ever written which is published in a free, online journal. They offer me nothing in return. Absolutely fucking nothing. And they want, need, and expect so much personalized and detailed attention. They want a direct through-line to my editors.

Perhaps these are folks who think they have no collateral or capital. I know what that’s like. The only thing I can say in response is that you have to build it, piece by piece. You have to see what you have inside of you, and in your own circles. Once upon a time, I had perhaps two, three friends who were also aspiring writers. We tried and failed together. But we also created venues for ourselves, attended literary events together, talked about art and literature together. And we found like-minded artists in other media, and we mutually inspired one another. We did a lot of foolish shit together, in the name of art and cultural production. Once upon a time, I had nothing but a vague idea that I wanted to be a writer, and no plan on how to get there.