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.

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