ASWANG NO. 2: RACHEL SIPIN ESPANOLA


A PUBLISHING ROUNDTABLE:
DEBUT POETRY BOOKS

A literary roundtable discussion
with Kenji Liu, Angela Peñaredondo, and Janice Lobo Sapigao

MODERATED BY
TAYO LITERARY MAGAZINE


WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT EQUITY

There is a roundtable discussion on  “Equity in Publishing: What Should Editors be Doing?” by PEN America that everyone should read. The results are scathing: 89 percent of the publishing industry is (still) white. When we talk about equity in publishing, what are actually talking about? Does this really mean just diverse books? (Answer is: of course not.) Pulitzer-prize winning poet, Gregory Pardlo, probes even further:

Why are there so few people of color in influential gatekeeping positions in the publishing industry? Well, why do we ask? [...] If we want aesthetic diversity in the books that come to define our culture, then I don’t buy the argument that diversifying the shape, configuration, and hue of the faces of editors and agents will get the job done. There is no reason to expect people with different phenotypes to have different cultural tastes and allegiances if they all have similar educational backgrounds. My sense is the problem is in the education.

We at TAYO Literary Magazine agree full-heartedly with Gregory Pardlo: in our minds, we must talk about decolonizing our literature before we can even begin to talk about equity in publishing. Like many have said after Publisher Weekly's salary surveys came out: of course the industry is still white; this problem isn't new. From the PEN America roundtable introduction: "Roxane Gay wrote about Janet Maslin’s New York Times summer reading list that contained zero titles by non-white writers, a moment that Jason Parham summed up as having achieved “peak caucasity.” Or when Christopher Myers wrote about the dismal number of children’s books written by writers of color (7 percent in 2014). Or more recently when Mira Jacob wrote about her experience trying to engage with an uninterested and deaf publishing industry. Taiye SelasiJenny Zhang, Cathy Park Hong—writers of color are writing about inequity, as they’ve been doing for decades. They are shouting it from the rooftops."

TAYO has always dedicated itself to the voices that have been marginalized and oppressed for decades. When PEN America listed our journal as one of the resources and publications to check out, we were honored. But it wasn't enough for us—we felt that we needed to do more, and at times, doing this kind of emotional labor—as writers who are also editors who are also volunteering their free time to this kind of social justice work—it can be tiring, exhausting, often overwhelming.

So when one of us—a writer-of-color—publishes their first book, second book, third book, and so onwe celebrate. We know how great a feat this is, how much sacrifice and love is put into that debut book, the second one, the third one, and the very next ones. 

In this publishing roundtable, TAYO talks with three poets who were once published in our pages and are now coming out with their very first books. The following panel took place via a live Google Document—it was at once: an experimental and viral discussion, but also: a conversation that is ongoing and will continue to be had by so many writers who identify as a person-of-color.

Maraming salamat for listening/reading/stopping by, and we look forward to your additional thoughts in the comment section below.


ABOUT THE PANELISTS & Their Debut Books

Kenji Liu's Map of an Onion is an altar to my family, and a poetry collection about ephemeral spaces that have real physical and psychic effects on individuals. Most evident in the book are national, postcolonial, and corporeal spaces, their intersections, and our migrations between them. The intertwined histories of Taiwan, Japan, and the United States are present throughout, not to mention references to new wave, disco, and science fiction. Map of an Onion is also a visual and physical object. This might be obvious, but the size, design, and layout from cover to cover is very important to the experience of this collection.

Angela Peñaredondo's All Things Lose Thousands of Times is a collection of body/migratory/incantatory poems, exploring the alchemy and ritual of poetics that stem from the space of in-between or realm of intersections. These are grey zones where energies that lie opposite of the same spectrum finally collide and intermingle: the intellect and the sensual, the profane and the holy, love and violence, memory and erasure. Here, there are no chosen sides, no geographical or cultural boundaries marked, no preferred first over third world, only a maneuvering through, a queering of, and a resisting to. All Things Lose Thousands of Times are feminist-oriented poems investigating the body’s fragmented memory of sexuality, gender, culture and desire gather, then finally piece themselves together to form into new shapes: a hybrid woman, a female assemblage, a history palimpsest, a transnational body.

Janice Lobo Sapigao's microchips for millions, a documentary and exploratory poetry collection, is about the exploitation of immigrant women in the Silicon Valley and those who built it all — those like the author’s mother. Through the use of binary code, the Filipino language, Ilokano; personal observation, and scholarship, microchips for millions draws out the social layers of the microchip, which are central to the global economy. The book interrogates Silicon Valley as an ideal place of innovation, technological advancement, and a highly populated concentration of computer-based startups. What is not popularly known is that the Silicon Valley is also home to flagrant and covert injustice where toxic chemicals and “clean” energy risk the lives of workers.


Janice told US Y'all had a bar conversation last year about the struggles and possibilities of publishing your first book… And now, look at all of you! Each of you are coming out with a powerful book whose themes, nuances, and complexities grapple with the intricacies of being migrant / in-between / marginalized, embody the imaginations and the realities of being a body (or bodies) who are migrant / in-between / marginalized. Brava/o. TAYO is really honored to be a part of this conversation.

Before we begin, would one of you like to tell us about that bar conversation you all had? It doesn’t quite matter who goes first on this question, but we would love to hear how it went down from each of you!

JANICE LOBO SAPIGAO (JS): We met at Sarita See’s house in Los Angeles. Sarita is the Executive Director of the Center for Art and Thought in addition to being an Associate Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at UC Riverside, and she was hosting a fundraising event for families in Tacloban, Leyte, Philippines whose homes were destroyed by Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda a year before. I read my poems from the anthology Verses Typhoon Yolanda: A Storm of Filipino Poets, and after that, I think that all of the poets and creative writers gravitated towards each other. The group started to split — and I ended up talking with Angela and Kenji. We talked books, asked each other questions about writing, and even gave each other advice about how to go about publishing. There must have been magic that night — look at us now! We still talk. Haha.

ANGELA PEÑAREDONDO (AP): I remember the hefty bookshelves in Sarita’s home, and in between was were Kenji and I came together over lumpia and that was when we met Janice. It felt pretty organic. I shared with Janice that I did some disaster relief work in Tacloban, Philippines after Typhoon Yolanda/Haiyan not too long after she read her own poem about the typhoon. Fred Moten came later on and I was happy to see him there, sitting next to Sarita’s piano.

KENJI LIU (KL): I remember two other things. One, the poets Fred Moten and Kimberly Alidio were also there. The second thing is that there was really tasty dessert in the kitchen.

JS: Wait, what?! Fred Moten was there?! And yes, Kimberly Alidio is a bad-ass.

[LAUGHs virtually] That's amazing, seriously. How organic this meeting was, and how star-aligning that the three of you are now coming out with your Debut books!

Now let's get to the "serious" publishing panel questions. First one: What compelled you to write?

KL: This isn’t something that has a straightforward answer for me, and my story will probably change all the time. What I feel is important to mention though is that I was writing letters in English for my parents at an early age. They would rely on me to fix sentences and grammar on official letters to bosses and other important people. It was something I disliked doing at the time, but I’m glad now that I was able to help. I was translating—discerning what they meant to say and then saying it in a way that would be understood and taken seriously. If there’s some kind of “origin story” for me and writing, right now it’s this. That writing and communicating is a serious act with a lot of responsibility attached.

AP: I don’t know why but this is one of my least favorite questions. It’s not that I don’t think it’s an important one but whenever I am asked this question a small part of me goes pack to a significantly dark, alienated and obscure place of my youth. Yes, I know those years are difficult and sensitive for everyone, however, I can’t speak for everyone, I’m speaking for myself. I’m not a huge fan of Cat Stevens but I’m thinking of his song, “The First Cut is the Deepest,” and I relate that song to that time. Poetry was therapy and survival as well as an emotional and mental weapon. Poetry was extremely personal and because I was disconnected from a literary community for awhile, I never felt my writing would enter into a public sphere. When I learned more about poetry (such as in colleges, in community writing spaces, in my own private time), I felt it nourishing my hunger for a creative language. It probably wasn’t until 8 or more years after undergrad, after the slew of 9-to-5 jobs, and all the travel, did I come to acknowledge the burn inside was something to stop neglecting (even if I thought it would fail me).

I guess it makes sense to mention that I studied visual arts too. I dig the arts. I like what it does to me and does to people around me. One of my favorite visual artists, Julie Mehretu said (on the markings in her paintings), “these marks could not exist with just rational thinking.” Mehretu makes me feel comfortable about my poet self and about my creative process. In his 1961 interview with Studs Terkel, James Baldwin said his famous line, “artists are here to disturb the peace.” So true... even within ourselves.

JS: I’ve had a diary since I was six years old (the story behind this is my second book). I’ve always loved writing, yet I didn’t know how to do it, much less how to make a career out of it (I’m still trying to figure that out). I’ve kept a blog since high school, and I didn’t take my writing seriously until after I co-wrote the script for a Pilipina/o Cultural Night celebration when I was an undergrad at UC San Diego with my friends Edward Delos Reyes and Jet Antonio. After writing that script, seeing it come to life, and realizing the possibilities that could come with creative writing, I decided that I wanted to get an M.F.A. in Writing, since I had majored and minored in Ethnic Studies and Urban Studies & Planning. My writing now combines those two loves and areas of study: 1) understanding power through people and place while 2) documenting the everyday moments of witness, understanding how injustice operates, while pushing back by writing. Also, I’m currently on this tip with my writing right now: celebrating and recognizing difference while also reimagining its manifestation in our world. Yes. This is, to me, the work of a good writer. I want to write this way.

What's your relationship with publishing, and what was the process in publishing your debut book?

JS: I didn’t really know how to publish at first, but I had friends who encouraged me to do it. Folks would send me calls for submissions once they’d learned that I wrote and was, like, good or okay at it. Publishing wasn’t so much my entrance into wanting to write books more than it was my wanting to perform poetry. When I listened to spoken word artists’ poetry, I always wanted to support them by going to shows or readings, buying chapbooks, CDs, or books. I realized then that publishing was one way to let the poetry live longer than three minutes of performance, but we poets have always existed with or without publishing, especially traditional, exclusive forms of publishing. I also wanted to write poetry as vulnerable, urgent, and political as what I saw from other artists. Published writing was one way for me to ‘see’ them again.

AP: My experience with publishing is very similar to Janice, in terms of it not being an entry point into poetry. It wasn’t until I was in an MFA program at UC Riverside that I started to submit work like a madwoman. Previous to my MFA experience, I never planned on going back to school, so when I surprisingly did, I thought better make it count before I’m back in the daily-work-grind again.

Sometimes I’m still on the fence about publishing. I guess it was Chris Abani who taught me that poems are not these highly precious objects waiting for that big publisher or contest to discover them. It can’t always be strategic. Yes, it’s necessary to publish so you jump into that ring but you also move on to that next story, that next project, whatever.

Juan Felipe Herrera also influenced me a great deal when it came to a kind of organic navigating. This concept inspired me to separate my earlier work into a smaller manuscript, which eventually became my chapbook, Maroon (Jamii Publishing 2016). Allison Hedge Coke was pivotal during that particular development. All Things Lose Thousands of Times is a compilation of new work, which I delved into voraciously and curiously for about a year and half after Maroon was finished.

KL: Though I do have a graduate degree, I don’t have an MFA and the networks/resources that come with it. I came to creative writing through activism and my graduate studies in postcolonial anthropology. So I started tentatively, sending work out in dribbles to places I found by accident. But once I got my first couple of acceptances, I learned how to research potential places to publish. Some time after being published by Kartika Review, managing editor Sunny Woan invited me to join the editorial board. After that my education accelerated, and my networks grew—especially after joining the VONA/Voices summer workshops for writers of color. It was the poet Suheir Hammad who told me I was ready to publish a book, and I began to believe her. I started with a chapbook, You Left Without Your Shoes. And now, almost a decade and a good chunk of money later, my full-length poetry collection Map of an Onion is finally in the world.

What is the genesis of your first book? Where did it come from?

AP: Juan Felipe Herrera’s presence as a guide was vital to the genesis of All Things Lose Thousands of Times. He wholeheartedly supported my transnational tendencies, artistic interests, vivid imaginations and nonlinear, sort of divination creative process I took on when writing it. He allowed me to be lost in all of it. He told to remove my “chemical headband.”

I was very much inspired by the works of Eduardo Corral, Dawn Lundy Martin, Sophie Cabot Black and Carmen Gimếnez Smith (who later blurbed my book. So honored). I engrossed myself in a lot film and music that I intuitively felt informed the book’s material. All Things Lose examines what I like to call “multiple points of contact.” It’s the layers of identity, culture, feminism, womanism, gender, desire (both physical and spiritual) through the scope of a transnational, queer, immigrant, brown, Filipinx, human-animal. What a mouthful! I would not have been able to infiltrate these personal subject matters in a horizontal, unswerving or unbroken way.

JS: I don’t think that I’d have my first book without two things: 1) getting love and 2) giving it right back (Blue Scholars, anyone?). I wouldn’t have gotten involved in the Filipina/o American literary scene in the Bay Area if it weren’t for my friend Maia Almendral and her mother Gemma Nemenzo — who is a writer, journalist, and the organizer of the first Filipina/o American International Book Festival. I was one of the first FilBookFest interns, and I met so many Filipina/o writers whose books I’d read in college. FilBookFest introduced me to Philippine American Writers and Artists (PAWA, Inc.), and that’s where I met poet Barbara Jane Reyes and writer Edwin Lozada. Because of PAWA workshops, I decided to go to VONA, and because of VONA, I was prepared for my MFA program. After my MFA, I attended the Summer Writing Program at Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics because I saw that there was a communal exchange between the programs. I believe this process, especially considering my week at Naropa, is how I got to publish microchips for millions. I got hella love from these people and spaces, and now that I teach and write and am finding success, I believe it is my responsibility to give it right back.

KL: That’s another question with multiple answers. I definitely have to thank Suheir Hammad as I mentioned earlier. But I also have to thank my graduate education in postcolonial anthropology, in particular two of my professors, Angana Chatterji and Richard Shapiro. It was through them that I was introduced to exciting scholars from the Global South and North whose influence is threaded throughout the book. It took multiple iterations to come up with the book’s final form, but for me, what ties it all together is a deconstructive exploration of my family history(ies) and identity(ies). It intersects “social construction” theory with Buddhist no-self theory all while examining race, gender, culture, class, colonization, and more. But in a simpler way I can say that the collection came out of my 2009 chapbook, You Left Without Your Shoes. I continued on the thematic paths started there, and this is the result.

How has growing up as a person of color influenced the way you write?

JS: I identify as a Pinay — which is an intersectional way of identifying. This is my lens, and I am acutely aware of how my social identity impacts my writing. Because of this constant work to figure out who I am — an endeavor I’ve done as a student and community organizer and teacher — I want to see this in my writing. I believe that writing is like looking at a mirror: the page reflects back to us our whole selves, including what we know, what we don’t know, our shortcomings, and what we want or have yet to learn. Growing up without these mirrors, or books, not only influences but necessitates writing as a political act to influence others who do not have these mirrors, or cannot see me in theirs. These books, writings, and mirrors will say: I am here. And, shit, I see you, so do you see me back?

KL: Being bi-ethnic, Asian American, and a cis-gendered man are important aspects of where I write from. Race, ethnicity, and culture are practically no-brainers for me, but staying aware of gender and male privilege is more of a practice—I have to constantly work at excavating them, read feminist scholars and poets, etc. So where my writing delves more explicitly into gender, it’s because I’ve made a conscious effort to dig. I didn’t think about being a person of color or even being “Asian American” while growing up—that was a political choice and act of alliance-building I took on later—in childhood I was just “Asian” or “Taiwanese” or “Japanese.” But all of these different positions are part of my writing now in some way, even if implicitly.

AP: Gosh, I’ve always felt I’ve had a kind of disobedient and non-committal relationship to gender and race, but it doesn’t mean they were not important or vital to me. They were highly personal (just like poetry and art) but they also elluded me and I did the same. Now they take on different personas, more public and necessary. I agree with Kenji in what he calls a “political choice and act of alliance building.” I could not have said it more clearly. Yet, I’m also invested in what Tisa Bryant so eloquently expresses in an afterword she wrote for Body Forms: Queerness & the Essay. She says, “To be everything, in solitude and in exuberance with others, to find parts of yourself through writing, within the writings of others… Let us be the medium in the medium. Let us write writing. Let us have vibrancy, and exuberance and excess. Let us be everything.” Secretly, I’ve always wanted that kind of fluidity, accessibility and hybridity but poetry implodes that secret. All of it becomes necessity... thankfully.

We (TAYO) were inspired to have this discussion with you all after reading PEN America’s “Equity in Publishing: What Should Editors be Doing?” (linked above). Hafizah Geter brought up points that struck us deeply: “And I’ve heard white editors/curators discuss the problem of “finding” writers of color, which begs the question, what does it take to be “found?” Moreover, as a writer of color, what does it take to be found when the “seeing” eye is whiteness?”

We still think of Gregory Pardlo’s hard-hitting question in The Guardian: “I won the Pulitzer: why am I invisible?” What are your thoughts on these concerns? We have movements like #WeNeedDiverseBooks that push toward equity in publishing, which is great and a needed step forward, but what, in your opinion, needs to be done? What are your experiences sifting through the publishing world clouded with these systemic issues?

KL: The idea of writers of color being “found” by white editors is somewhat colonial. It implies that they are in the center/metropole and we are lost in the periphery/colony. We’ve been here the whole time making great, innovative art, even before they thought it might be important to “find” us. Yes, our voices need to be heard everywhere, but on our own terms. I think of Viet Nguyen’s recent Pulitzer win and how he, like Toni Morrison, purposefully did not write for a white audience. I don’t need more diverse books, though that’s important too. What I really need is a decolonized publishing industry (and everything else). I don’t need equity within an imbalanced system, I need reallocated power and resources.

AP: Writers of color being “found” or “discovered” by white editors and curators is highly colonial indeed. I agree. The gatekeepers, the audience members, the space of neutrality, the dictation of what’s en vogue is all centered and passes through the zone of whiteness. Invisibility, erasure, generalization, fetishization, tokenization of artists and writers-of-color; the resentment that can fester among writers of color (Jenny Zhang) because of these elements. How can I put it? It sucks. All schools and educational programs need to make it a mandatory requirement to read and study more diverse books and art, written and made by past and most especially by living people of color that challenge and present racial and identity politics as nonbinary and decolonized. In “Equity in Publishing: What Should Editors be Doing?”, Alexander Chee says diverse reading is a lifelong commitment. I’m all for inspiring and implanting that kind of commitment very young. I think this is somehow linked to what Kenj expressed as a reallocation of power and resources.

JS: We need to read more. We need to listen more. We need to enact, embody, and be critical. However, I don’t know what we could do within this system. We need a different system. I’m also thinking of lyrics by one of my favorite rappers, Rocky Rivera, who so definitively raps, “Fuck you” and “pay me.” That’s kind of how I feel about current publishing systems right now.

Last question! If you could give advice to an emerging writer, what advice would you give? What has writing given to you?

JS: Keep going.

AP: This is the part that sounds like something written in the back of a high school yearbook. I love it! I would say it’s key to stay curious and open. During one of her workshops, I asked Allison Hedge Coke if she knew or could recommend an up-and-coming writer who she felt had “award winning” potential. She told me if there was one, that writer is not published or “discovered” or enrolled in any graduate program. I like that.

KL: Seek out your peers, develop a support network, read widely.


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