In this new audio podcast episode, we speak with award-winning poet Barbara Jane Reyes who hips us with insider tips to big questions facing many artists:
- Is it necessary to get an MFA?
- How does one make art and make a living?
- What does one do to get published?
She also talks in detail about suggestions in craft, her small press, the value of generosity, and multi-tasking!
- Writers Afrika
- Kartika Review
- PAWA blog
Check out the preview below. Or better yet, download this episode to your computer, phone, or iPad! You may also subscribe to ART OF HUSTLE on iTunes to get automatic updates. Please rate and leave comments at iTunes – I’d be so thrilled if you did. Thank you for listening!
[spoiler intro=”Art Of Hustle 002″ title=”Poet, Barbara Jane Reyes”]
Barbara Jane Reyes
Our guest today is the author of ″Diwata″ published on BOA Editions in 2010, recently noted as a finalist for the California Book Award. She was born in Manila, Philippines, raised in the San Francisco Bay area, and is the author of two previous collections of poetry, ″Gravities of Center″ on Arkipelago Books in 2003, and ″Poeta en San Francisco” on Tinfish Press in 2005 which received the James Laughlin award of the Academy of American Poets. She is co-editor with her husband, poet Oscar Bermeo, of Doveglion Press, and an adjunct professor in Philippine Studies at University of San Francisco and in English at Mills College.
Listeners wherever you are, except if you’re driving, please put your hands together in helping me welcome Barbara Jane Reyes.
Thank you Barbara for being here.
Barbara: Thanks for having me.
Anthem: Awesome. So I’m thinking for the folks who are just beginning to learn about your work, it might be a good idea for them to hear a sample of one of your poems if you could so grace us.
Barbara: I’d be happy to. So this poem is called ″Aswang″ and it is the closing poem in ″Diwata″. And should say I say a little bit about the Aswang first before I read the poem?
Barbara: Okay. The Aswang is a creature that the way that I was told about her was always a woman, although that may not be true. She splits at the waist, leaving her bottom half at home and her top half goes flying into the night, and with her long thin tongue, she sucks out of the mother’s womb, you know, unborn babies. So it’s this terrible horror story but what I came to learn about the Aswang is that it was Spanish fabrication. And the way that they were able to demean and unseat women from positions of religious and civic power by calling them these terrible monsters. So this is the Aswang.
I am the dark-hued bitch; see how wide my maw, my bloodmoon eyes,
And by daylight, see the tangles and knots of my riverine hair.
I am the bad daughter, the freedom fighter, the shaper of death masks.
I am the snake, I am the crone; I am caretaker of these ancient trees.
I am the winged tik-tik, tik-tik, tik-tik, tik-tik; I am close,
And from under the floorboards, the grunting black pig,
Cool in the dirt, mushrooms between my toes, I wait.
I am the encroaching wilderness, the bowels of these mountains;
I am the opposite of your blessed womb. I am your inverted mirror;
Guard your unborn children, burn me with your seed and salt,
Upend me, bend my body, cleave me beyond function. Blame me.
[from Diwata (BOA Editions, 2010)]
Anthem: Thank you, Barbara.
Barbara: And that is ″Aswang″.
Anthem: And a lot of your poetry centers around myth-making and I would love to hear more of your thoughts on why that is.
Barbara: Okay. Well, myth-making is something that you know I guess has been a regular thing in my poetry. And it’s gotten stronger and stronger, the impulse to write or rewrite mythologies. And I think a lot of it has to do with just you know where there have been blanks in my cultural or historical knowledge of my Filipino-ness or the place I come from or why certain things have come to be. It’s become the way that I try to fill in those blanks, the way I try to answer those questions of why, you know why this thing, why are we the way this is or what happened? That, and also because I think that myth making leaves us open to multiple interpretations of a story. You know and one thing that I’m interested in as a poet, and well as a writer, and as an educator is really kind of dismantling the notion of that singular authority that has this one singular narrative that we all have to buy into. You know I believe that the people all have different versions of the story and I’m interested in hearing all of those different versions. And for us deciding for ourselves you know which stories resonate most with us.
So is it about taking back a certain type of power?
Anthem: So is it about taking back or — oh yeah, you could say taking back a certain type of power?
Barbara: Oh sure, absolutely. You know if at first — you know because I think we’re apt to believe everything that we’re taught in a textbook or in a classroom. And of course growing up as Filipinos in American classrooms here, we know the kinds of things much later on we realized that we were never taught. And so I want to be able to encourage folks to question you know why it is that we just don’t learn certain things or you know just to question, why it is that we were taught only one version of a thing. Yeah, and for us to empower ourselves with our own stories really, it comes down to.
Anthem: That’s excellent. And I, that really resonates with me because that’s something I often talk about when I teach Art Of Hustle, a lot of times I give a little section on what I like to call ″Inner Game″. And a lot of it is really focused on perception, and about taking ones personal narrative and writing it, and telling it in a way that empowers yourself rather than being susceptible to what has been prescribed to you. Your levels of success in certain fields or your abilities, things like that. So that really resonates with me in that respect. And talking about taking power back and while we’re talking about this personal narrative type of thing and writing it so that it does work for you, what do you say to folks who, I mean, you’re getting selected as a finalist for the California Book Award, you’ve published three books. And the second one received the James Laughlin award. What do you say to people who maybe come from a similar background as you that basically look at some of the same things, the similarities that they might share with you such as gender, that you’re a person of color, and instead of feeling empowered by it, feel disempowered by it? Yet, you have these same things to contend with, and you’re flipping it so that it does work for you as a place of empowerment and not only are they obstacles but they become content for your work that is being very widely received.
Barbara: Yes, you’re absolutely right. And a lot of time, it really surprises me. I’m really grateful that I’ve been able to have as much opportunity as I have. And you know and a lot of it I think had to do with you know the fact that my work has been accepted and you know in many cases it has not been accepted. In many cases there are people who read my work and are completely resistant to it. And so there are folks who read my work in that way but I guess the point is that they’re, you know I’m even in a position to have my work be read by folks who are going to be resistant to it.
And so I — one thing that I had been struggling with in my formative years as a, you know and as an emerging writer, even a proto-emerging writer, right, was how do I write these narratives in a way that is the most sincere and the most honest? How do I write these things with the most honesty possible and not have to pander, and not have to you know really spend most of my energy and time, and text, and page explaining myself or anthropologizing myself. You know how can I do this and really be true to the poetry, right? Because I think that one thing that we do, one trap that we can get caught in is that we’re spending so much time explaining the thing rather than just writing the poem, you know. My second book ″Poeta en San Francisco″ no translation throughout and you know Tagalog is used, Baybayan script is used. There’s no explanation for these things and so that leaves the reader in kind of a lurch right that he or she has to go out and figure these things out for themselves. I’ve learned that we should really trust our readers. We shouldn’t insult their intelligence by saying, ″Okay, let me just handhold you though this thing. Its okay really″. And no, just give it to them. And people who are resistant are going to be resistant but its going to stay with them even if for years, it’s oh that reverse racist Filipino writer. You know it’s a rise that they — you know that something in my work has resonated with them. So I think that’s a lot of it. I think that we really need to resist our impulses to anthropologize, to explain, to translate, to apologize, to you know just bring it down to talking to them like they’re children, you know. And so that’s a lot of it. And you know I make it sound like it’s just something that we can just kind of flick on like a switch right. But really it was years of writing through. And you know I mean, many years of writing over explanatory poetry, many years of like trying to be manipulative with my poetry kind of you know. And yeah, it’s just really been a process, it’s been a decades long process of figuring out how to write that kind of work.
Anthem: Right. And I have to think that even though some people read your poetry, and as you describe are resistant to it, that there have to be because of the way, because of the attention that its getting, that there have to be enough people that still see a dialogue that still invites them into the work, that it’s not so much of a turnoff that even if they don’t fully get it or agree with it, that its still inviting enough for them to enter the work.
Barbara: Yeah, absolutely. I believe that there’s always a way into the work. There has to be, otherwise nobody but yourself will ever access the work. You know I can’t imagine what a poem looks like that doesn’t have a way in for somebody. Or then again, maybe there are. You know there’s some that are just so subjective, so personal, and just so self referential that you know that people can’t, you know like the writer of the poem is perhaps you know already putting up that barrier and saying, ″You cannot relate to this, you do not have these kinds of experiences. This –″ And I think that if you approach writing your work that way, it would be really, really challenging for anybody to experience empathy for you. And maybe that’s from, maybe it’s because it’s written from the point of view of someone preaching to a bunch of people as opposed to saying, ″Okay, this is a dialogue″ like you said, ″This is a dialogue that’s waiting to happen. These are just some things that I know and some things that I think, and some things that I am trying to make sense of and the poem is a way — each poem is part of that process of learning how to make sense of this thing″.
Anthem: Is there a particular way that you would say or describe how you’ve been able to ride that sort of like space between being personal, and universal enough for everybody to be able to enter the work? I mean, I don’t know if that could be answered in just like a singular way, but is there?
Barbara: For me, writing in persona has been a really powerful tool for me. So that takes me out of myself. So when you’re reading all of this ″I″ in my work, you’re not necessarily reading the autobiography of Barbara. And you know and I think that we all live relatively remarkable lives. But if all I were to write about were just you know 100% autobiography, I think that would thwart people from being able to find a way into the work. And it would also leave me amazingly vulnerable. And there certainly has to be a certain amount of vulnerability in the work because you have to take risks when you write. But for me, I just, if I take something that I think is happening in my own life or in my own head, and try to imbue that upon like one of my ″Aswang″ character or my ″Mermaid persona″ who she just keeps popping up in my work, hat I think allows kind of an openness for other people. You know?
Barbara: Yeah. So that might just be kind of a, the cheap and easy response. But you know writing in persona is a challenging thing too. But for me, it’s definitely been, it’s been a very helpful thing to be able to do.
Anthem: Yeah. That’s great advice. And I do know the challenges of writing autobiographically because I’ve been doing that for a while and I feel like using some of the advice that you just gave about writing in persona, the last show I did, my first full length solo show, that’s sort of what I did was I figured that this was a character based on me but its not necessarily me and it gave me room to interpret.
Barbara: Right exactly. And then you don’t have to stay completely faithful to the specific details of the particular experience that’s informing the work.
Anthem: Right. Because I feel like there’s an emotional truth and then there’s the factual truth. And they’re not the same. And I think as an artist, it’s important to serve the emotional truth of things.
Barbara: I think you’re right, I think you’re definitely right. And you know we don’t want to betray our own self’s right. But I feel like if our goal as a writer or as writers is to be able to touch other people with our work, then we do have to kind of loosen up a little bit. Which is kind of ironic. But I mean, it’s so crucial.
How necessary do you feel is it for writers to enter an MFA program?
Anthem: Right. And I feel like that’s, arriving at that conclusion as an artist and as a writer is something that one would gain from having had a lot of experience with the craft. And so I’m wondering especially on behalf of the listeners out there and the younger, emerging artists, how necessary do you feel is it for writers to enter an MFA program? How beneficial is it, and at the end of the day given how expensive they can be, do you think it’s ″worth it″?
Barbara: Yeah, MFA is always going to be contended with just because I don’t know. I mean, honestly I don’t know why people are so contentious about the MFA program as a phenomenon. I think that it’s like any other graduate degree, something that will help you gain the things you need in order to professionally, to work. And for me, my own reasons for having entered an MFA program or applied to an MFA program started with, you know it started with my taking a Berkeley City College, it’s a local Community College writing class, and that was probably in the year 2000, ’99, 2000. And I had — Michelle Bautista who was a fellow Pinay author in the Bay Area, she and I had decided to take this class because for me I had never taken creative writing before, I’d just been writing completely instinctively. And that was only taking me so far. I felt like there was a lot of things I needed to learn, I felt like there was a lot of terminology, there was a lot more reading I needed to do. And you know so we took this creative writing class and our teacher was Elizabeth Treadwell who had recently graduated from the MFA program at SF State and she had asked me — because the second that I was given these assignments to do, my work blew up in a way that I had never thought would before. So I realized that I worked well in these structured environments. But also just that in my own life, I didn’t have enough people who were willing to really commit to reading an entire body of work and to give me involved critical feedback. And it sometimes can be very, very hard with friends because you don’t want to hurt their feelings and you know maybe because you know the person, where the poem is coming from, so you want to be emotionally like supportive. But sometimes that just doesn’t help the work, that kind of love doesn’t help the work. Sometimes you need a little bit of tough love right. So I really needed the rigor, I needed people who were willing to be hands-on with the work. And you know and they were willing to tell me when something didn’t work and why they believed something didn’t work. And so in my MFA program, I felt like that’s what we were learning, you know how to articulate that. And why something didn’t work was always you know subjective from everybody’s own sets of experience. So I had to learn how to sift through all of that feedback. But it was better to have like ten people’s eyes on my work and ten people kind of going through 60 pages of my poems you know and tearing it down line by line than it was to have a couple people who would say to me, ″Girl that’s powerful″. And it’s important for somebody, it’s important to hear that that your work is powerful but it’s also important that you could take this so much farther. There’s so much promise here, you can take this farther.
Anthem: Right. And so it was more, a sort of, would you call it like a boot camp type of experience?
Barbara: For me, it was. And I know people who say that they flew through their MFA programs or they don’t feel like they learned anything and that I think is, dude, that’s on you right? I mean, you get what you give right. I mean, yeah there were people in my program that were sitting in my classes with me who kind of felt like they didn’t get enough because you know I mean, we all respond to different kinds of teaching styles. And for me, having Stacy Doris, a poet, Stacy Doris is my mentor and her style of teaching really just made me flourish. But yeah, yeah, you definitely have to put in a lot, put in a lot of energy to get like the best output possible.
Anthem: I had one writing mentor that said, ″If you don’t get a scholarship, you shouldn’t go because after you graduate there’s no guarantees that all the craft and skill you pick up will be able to translate into an income″. So what would you say? Would you agree or disagree with that and what are available sources of income for people who have graduated with writing degrees?
Barbara: Okay. Well first of all, I went to San Francisco State and I’m a California resident so that wasn’t expensive. It was relatively affordable so I didn’t go to Brown or somewhere that would have just been, just way too much for me to handle financially. So in that way, I think that, I mean, if cost is one of those things that are really important, you know think about like the public, the public education system in your state. That would be the first thing I would say. If you get a scholarship to somewhere like Iowa or Brown or whatever, then you’re, dude, do it, right. But I don’t think that that should be the only reason why you do or do not go and get an MFA. I think that’s definitely something to consider; you have to figure out how to pay for the thing. I worked full time the entire time I was in grad school. I went to school at night, and then I’d be back at work at nine in the morning until five in the evening. So it’s do-able if you really want it. So that’s the first thing. Second of all, you graduate from college with a Bachelors degree, you graduate from grad school with any kind of Masters Degree and you get a PhD, there’s no guarantee period, right, you still have to hustle to get yourself into the job market. And so I think that’s kind of defeatist just to say, ″Because there is no guaranteed job for you after your MFA, you just shouldn’t even get it″. Yeah, I mean, that would just be like telling people straight out of high school, ″Don’t go to college because the economy’s bad, you’ll never get a job″. And we kind of know that’s not good advice to give a young person who’s trying to figure out what to do with his or her life. So those would be the first couple things. And in terms of a job, you know I still have my day job. You know I work in public health and that’s a job I got straight out of college as an ethnic studies major. I work in the Asian American community in public health and I was able to get these teaching jobs because I’ve published. I think with the MFA, you’re not necessarily guaranteed a teaching gig in a college. And some creative writing programs or English departments, they have a requirement or — I don’t know if it’s on paper or if it’s just an unspoken rule that you go after the people who have published at least one full length collection. And in that case, I qualify there, right. So you have to publish, you have to build up your CV that way in order to I guess make yourself marketable. Yeah, I think it’s just — I hate saying, ″Don’t quit your day job″ because that makes it sound like I’m being dispiriting. But I just, I — that’s the way I pay my bills. Yeah.
Is having a day gig an obstacle or an advantage?
Anthem: And I would love to talk more about this because some people look at the day job as a hindrance and as something, as a big obstacle to their real passion and but for you, you seem to speak about it as a huge advantage that you have a regular day gig to count on, and that you’re able to balance all of this out. Would you think of it as a big advantage and how so?
Barbara: I mean sometimes I think, ″God, wouldn’t it just so awesome if I had a full time job in creative writing and all of my work, and all of my life would be this nice cohesive bundle.” But those aren’t guaranteed, especially in this state or in the Bay area, you know I don’t know how many creative writing jobs there are, and how many MFA candidates or people with MFA’s on the job market there are. So the odds don’t look very good. But again, this is no reason why you should not go get the MFA first of all because you’re getting that for yourself to become a better writer. As far as the day job goes, no, it’s never been a hindrance to me. I actually appreciate having my head in a different place for x number of hours of the day and to have meaning there. You know the work that I do is meaningful for the Asian American community and the agency that I work for. And I never talk about them publicly because that’s you know. But they do really, really good work for the community, and I’m glad to be a part of that. That’s really, really rewarding and it also kind of keeps my focus on the people as opposed to always kind of just being in my little vacuum where all I’m thinking about is writing, and all I’m doing is writing, and I have no kind of conduit to the real world.
And then of course, I have to pay my mortgage, it’s good to have health insurance. And those things are so important, they really, really are. And I just, I’m a relatively healthy person, but it’s the second that your health insurance goes away that all of a sudden something traumatic happens to you and then what are you going to fall back on? If all of our friends are artists then we don’t have anyone to financially bail us out of anything. I think we just have to really learn how to take care of ourselves and have shelter and eat.
Anthem: I am a huge fan of everything you just said.
Barbara: Thank you.
Anthem: I really believe sustainability begins with self. So what would you say to the person — now I guess this is a productivity question — what would you say to the person who says, “Well I work so much, I have no time to focus on my craft?” Yet you have worked this entire time since college full time and still are able to give workshops to produce on Doveglion or for Doveglion and you teach frequently. And you have so much to offer all the time. So what do you say to folks who say that their time is scarce because of their job, their regular gig?
Barbara: Well you know what I think that if there’s something you really, really love and are that passionate about, you will make the time to do it. Yes, in addition to the regular job, I teach usually one class either at USF or at Mills. Next semester I’m going to be crazy and teach one class at each college, so two classes and a full time job and I’m trying to write the next book. And I just think that if that’s important to you, you will make that time. Where? I know there’s only 24 hours in a day. You just have to fit it in somewhere. You know I’m not one of those people who get up at five in the morning, sit down at my writing desk and write for two hours and then get ready and go to work. You just have to make the time, which means that I’m on all the time, which doesn’t mean that I’m never just sitting on the couch zoning out on TV because I do plenty of that too because I need to. But I think that you will just make the time.
Anthem: Do you have a particular scheduling tip that works for you? I mean how do you make that time? You have so many hats that you have to wear throughout the course of the day.
Barbara: I don’t know if it’s a scheduling tip as much as it is just really learn how to multitask. I was raised by a working mom who had four kids. She was the bread winner in the family for at least the last couple decades or so, and she made it happen. And so that’s my role model, so shout out to my mom. She thinks I don’t appreciate her but I do. But that always was kind of was my role model for how to do things. So just too really just know how to multitask. Just use every single bit of your time. And learn how to do things efficiently because a lot of the time we sit down and we go okay what do I need to do now and we problem-atize the process. I think we just have to nail that down. The more efficient you are at a thing, the more time and energy you have to be able to do the thing. So if I have my 15 minute break at work or my lunch hour, I’m doing Doveglion stuff or I’m writing down my notes for my next poem or I’m reading something that I might be teaching next semester. So even those little 15 minute chunks of time, I’ve got scraps of paper all over my desk that have, I’d like to think, little gems of poetic wisdom all over them. But I’m just always kind of thinking what are these things I need to do and how do I nail them in the most efficient manner possible? Which doesn’t sound like — I mean because we think artists are supposed to be able to have all this time to kind of be whimsical and to kind of muse on things, we don’t live in that world anymore.
What is Doveglion?
Anthem: I don’t know if we ever have. When I look back at some biographies of artists, there is a lot of discipline required and you definitely practice of that and it’s inspiring. Let’s talk about Doveglion in more detail. For folks who are new to it, what is the website and what is it all about?
Barbara: Okay, doveglion.com D-O-V-E-G-L-I-O-N.com. And Doveglion for folks that don’t know is the pen name for the Fil-Am poet Jose Garcia Villa and it is a contraction of the words dove, eagle, and lion. So here’s this beautiful, kind of fantastic hybrid creature that he made up to be his persona. But then also I think that he, later on in life referred to Doveglion as a country. So it’s this place that kind of knows no ethnic or national boundaries. And I think that’s wonderfully poetic but I think that also kind of solves the problem of that neither here nor there thing that we experience as immigrants or as bilingual people or as whatever. So that’s where the name for the website came from. What we’ve been doing is, what Oscar and I wanted to do is start a small press. And you know everybody’s publishing these days and it’s good. I think technology is such that being a publisher is no longer impossible and cost prohibitive. But one thing that’s been holding me up in terms of actually producing a book is how to, number one conceive of the idea for a book. Number two, how to solicit submissions. How to do so in a way that is — let me put it this way, you include some people and it’s awesome. And if you include some people, you don’t include everybody. And the people that you don’t include —
Anthem: Don’t think it’s awesome?
Barbara: — don’t think it’s awesome. Thank you. And so I’m still kind of figuring out what to do about that. So that’s been holding me up mentally. But in the meantime we’ve got this website. So I like the idea of something being that easy to just put up. It’s a WordPress interface I guess. And so it’s just real easy. If you know how to blog, then you can do this thing. And work started to, our ideas for writing started to come to us organically. A couple of things that Oscar and I are interested in is political poetry, oral tradition, and how are folks around us tackling those subjects? And so we just started asking around if people were interested. We began with the idea of the manifesto and I think we should be writing more manifestos these days. Here are the things that I believe and here are the things that I want my work to do.
Anthem: And so would you think of it as sort of a radical poet site or what would be your one tag line that would best describe it?
Barbara: I’m shy to use the word radical. But definitely political poetry which we’ll just leave it at that in terms of — political, it means so many different things to so many different kinds of people, whether it’s in the language or if it’s in the subject matter or if it’s in the way that you tweak form or whatever. So all kinds of folks have different ideas of what that is and we’re interested in exploring a lot of these different ideas.
Anthem: Very cool. And I understand that at the moment you are actively soliciting folks to contribute work. And so if anyone visits the site and they’re turned on by it they might be bummed that they can’t submit anything right now?
Barbara: Yeah, unfortunately I just haven’t, you know again that’s another thing I haven’t been able to figure out how to deal with. Open submissions could mean that you get tons and tons of stuff to sift through and I don’t know if that is a good use of my time. So that’s kind of the thing. Yeah it is a bummer, sorry guys. Yeah, right now I just don’t feel like that’s a very good use of my time given that I have a million things that I’m doing. But also that I like the idea of being able to hand pick folks to create work for us. Most of the stuff that’s gone up on the site or that is going to be going up on the site are going to be or have been specifically created for this site. Like here’s some ideas that we have based upon our interest in your work, would you be interested in writing up a thing? And folks are usually pretty cool about it. So right now, I hate to say this, but it’s true that I just don’t work as a democracy. And that’s a hard thing to have to explain to folks when you’re involved in community because inclusiveness is supposed to mean these things but right now I just don’t have the energy to deal with that.
Anthem: No, that totally makes sense and I believe in equality but I don’t believe, when it comes to leadership positions, I don’t believe in democracy either.
Barbara: Okay, oh it’s not just me.
Anthem: Yeah, just to relate to that, when I was in art school I had a teacher who welcomed the entire class for one experiment to paint on one giant sheet of paper, we’re all going to paint on this one giant, we’ll basically share. Everything would be equal and we’ll just share this space. And everyone just attacked. And what ended up happening was all the colors of the rainbow, when you mix them together turn into mud. And it was literal and figurative that we just got this muddied collection of ideas and so I think there is something to be said for true leadership meaning you’re going to have to make decisions and they’re not going to make everybody happy. But sometimes they’re the best given whatever the format or project is.
Barbara: You know what, you’re right. You’re absolutely right. And I think that I wonder if your professor had made it such that everybody had a square on this huge sheet, what kind of order would have emerged from that. And so a lot of it does have to do with ordering the noise. But I think a lot of it also — and I say this to justify my position but also because I think it’s true that folks can rise to the expectation. They really can. I feel like when we’re telling young artists “Anything goes. Whatever you feel it’s real. It’s real and it’s valid and that’s a poem.” And I’ll say sure, but that doesn’t necessarily make that young writer a poet, yet. And anybody can write a poem but not everybody is a poet. So what kind of work are you as an emerging artist going to do and commit to in order to better your craft, to become more articulate and clear? I would like to think that being selective and then also working as an educator, that those kinds of things are promoting the belief that I have that people are capable and they will better themselves, that they will really make their art amazing. That we don’t just pop out of our mom’s wombs and are amazing already. We have to work at it.
Anthem: I totally agree and Malcolm Gladwell in his book ″Outliers″ talks about the 10,000 hour rule where I think he talks about Mozart composed his first something at eleven and everyone was so in awe. But then he also adds that he was rubbish and he didn’t really make anything good until later on in his adult life. So there is something to be said, again going back to the discipline thing and really focusing on your sense of craft. But now when people are preparing themselves to be ready to interact with high quality or high caliber artists and arts communities, how would they begin to prepare themselves, besides workshops and the MFA program? If they want to start learning about the submission process, what kind of advice would you have for them for instance?
What advice do you have about the submissions process?
Barbara: Well first of all I think that before I even get to the submissions thing, it’s so much about craft and so much about education. I’ve been doing poetry readings and I’ve been publishing for over 20 years now, so that’s been a couple of decades of work and education and reading, lots and lots of reading. And I think that a lot of folks, if they’re ready to start submitting their work places, they should tap into resources these days. You don’t have to go to a bookstore and buy this poets market book or Writers Market. I don’t know what that book is, but there are list serves that are dedicated specifically to submission’s calls.
Anthem: For instance?
Barbara: It’s called CRWROPPS. It’s a Yahoo group. And it is Alison Joseph the author is in charge of that. Yeah, CRWROPPS, something like that. I’ll have to look it up. But they’re a Yahoo group and you just sign up and you get four or five submission calls a day. There’s the New Page’s website, just newpages.com and they update their calls for submissions page on a regular basis. If you want to be a little more specialized, asiawrites.org, Writers Afrika and Afrika is with a K, Femministas, F-E-M-M-I-N-I-S-T-A-S. Those are all blogspot blogs so not only are they putting up submissions calls but they’re also putting up funding opportunities, that kind of stuff, book contests. Just get to know your resources online because most of us are on our computers 25 hours of the day anyway. So I think that and really get to know the publications that you’re considering submitting to. And that’s a lot of subscriptions, that’s a lot of reading a lot of websites but it’s just a lot of reading period. There are some places I will never submit my work regardless of how prestigious they are because I just don’t thing I would be a good fit for them. And that’s no knock on my own ambition. I think I’m pretty ambitious, but there’s some places that just wouldn’t be worth my energy to submit to. So those are four resources that I’m constantly on. And that’s where I get a lot of the information that I pass on to the PAWA list serve and blog and Facebook page. Read your submission guidelines thoroughly and carefully. There’s a deadline. There’s contact information. There are requirements for how many pages, how many poems, what format, sometimes even what font to put it in. Always read your submission guidelines and give them exactly what they are asking for. Otherwise don’t cry about rejection.
Anthem: Right, because probably when someone is reading all of these submissions, it’s an easy way to disqualify people —
Barbara: Probably, yeah.
Anthem: — when they’re just not following basic instructions. So if you want to even be in the running to begin with, it’s a good idea to definitely follow the guidelines. So probably also there will be hundreds of things to submit to. How does one begin to figure out which is a match? I mean, there’s so many. Which ones are worth it, if there’s a way to qualify that?
Barbara: I started out, the very first place I was ever published was Maganda Magazine at UC Berkeley. And I thought well maybe this is about Filipino American publications even though there aren’t that many, or Asian American publications, or writers of color publications. So for me, that was a good place to start. That isn’t necessarily where you should stay but that’s part of it right there. Like if for example Kartika Review, they’re an API writers and artists publication, so if you identify as an API writer, that’s kind of a, assuming already, that’s going to be a good place to submit your work. So there are those kinds of guidelines and then also who is publishing work that your own work resonates with. And who are publishing the writers that inform your work? So there’s that. If you write in the vain of, I’m just going to throw a name out there. If you write in the vain of Li-Young Lee, well he’s published everywhere now, but maybe your work would be a good fit with places like that.
Anthem: So basically finding folks who are published who you feel like you share a sort of, I don’t know if you’d call it lineage or genealogy, poetic genealogy?
Barbara: Yeah, lineage and those things can be based upon aesthetics or politics. For me, and this is now about book manuscript submissions, but one of the reasons I submitted my second book manuscript to Tinfish Press was because I think the manuscript fit what it is that Tinfish Press says in their mission statement about innovative poetries from the Pacific rim area. So that kind of thing, you just have to read very carefully what these websites and what these publishers are about. And they had published Linh Dinh, they published Yunte Huang, people that I thought I had some thing in common with, if not aesthetically, definitely politically.
Anthem: Can I, because this is so much information, let’s do a quick review. So we talked a little bit about craft, how important that is, getting your MFA, workshopping a lot, creating time in one’s busy schedule for making things happen, overcoming regular, social, and political barriers that may exist. Participating in a submissions process which means that you’ll be needing to be doing as much reading as you are writing, finding your community, reading instructions, following those guidelines for submissions, and there is just so much required of a writer. And I feel like that a lot of times for the beginning writer they’re first turned on by the image or the romantic idea of the writer.
Barbara: Yeah, the rock star poet.
Anthem: Yeah, and too often folks don’t consider all of this work that actually needs to happen for your work to finally get published.
Barbara: Right and I grew up enamored by Jessica Hagedorn too. That woman is a rock star to me. She makes it look really easy, but you know she’s hustling. I had checked in with her because I had asked her actually to write a blurb for Diwata and she had to say no because she was so busy. She was like, “My publisher gave me a deadline. I need to work on this book, ″Toxicology” which is out now so she had to shut herself off to everything but writing this book. But I grew up enamored by Jessica Hagedorn and later on by Zach Linmark, R. Zamora Linmark. And Zach makes it look so easy that sometimes I’m just “how do you do it?” But I think that’s part of it, that he isn’t publicizing to the world how much he’s struggling and how hard it is, not because people shouldn’t know that it’s hard work, but because you know, you also kind of just want to be positive all the time that your hard work is going to pay off in very good concrete ways. So I think that’s a lot of it.
Anthem: I want to read something that you wrote recently in your blog that talks about sort of how you take the seed of inspiration and what’s required for you to drive it to completion. “I do not work well with people who start with a big bang, end up with an obscure, unfinished project; in other words, whose big ideas fizzle away because they have no concept of orders of operations, follow-through, or how to delegate or ask for help (it has to be concrete — it can’t just be “make this thing happen,” it must be specific tasks), or because they exhaust themselves with the grandiloquent start, with no regard for the nitty-gritty, unglamorous, even tedious aspects of the work.”
Barbara: Yeah, okay that’s a whole mouthful right there. Let’s see, what can I say about that? I think that we definitely — you know you have to start with an idea. You have to start with an amazing idea, sure. But I just believe in follow through. The thing is not going to happen just because you will it to happen whether it’s a book manuscript or a poem or an event even. Somebody had said to me recently if you can plan a wedding, you can plan a literary event. You think about all the things that go into wedding planning for example. If you don’t call the caterers, if you don’t agree on a budget, if you don’t get your tux fitting, all those things need to happen before you can have this production. And that’s basically what a wedding is, it’s a production. So again that’s a real world application for me. And in fact because I know how to plan events I was able to plan my wedding. But I think that a lot of it is that. This is real world stuff and so we need to be able to handle these things as they exist in the real world.
The artist as producer
Anthem: And I think that has something to do with artists putting him or herself in the position of producer which I feel like doesn’t happen often enough. But when an artist does do that, then we’re able to see what’s required of us. And also when people like Jessica Hagedorn have to say no to you, you don’t get hurt. You understand because you yourself are a producer. And there’s something, again going back to the empowerment thing, there’s something empowering about putting yourself in the drivers seat and recognizing what’s required of you and all of us to really move the ball forward.
Barbara: Absolutely because again whether it’s because you’re trying to produce your own body of work or if you’re trying to produce events which I do for PAWA. I think that if we spend all of our time wondering why a thing isn’t happening versus troubleshooting how to make a thing happen, then we’re going to be back to what you had been saying earlier about being in this position where you feel that your differences are disempowering you. So despite being a Filipina woman of color, whatever, I have still been able to do these things and make some amount of head way into what I would call the American poetry community which is big and scary to me, but I’ve just had to do that not by focusing on that kind of big and scary American poetry community, but to really just focus on each and every single poem I’m writing. And how each one of those fits into this book manuscript and how am I going to make this — the tedium comes in like all the editing and what’s capitalized and not capitalized. Are my lines broken in the right places? Does this poem look better here or after that poem? Does this order make sense? And then who am I submitting this thing to? What are their guidelines? How many different versions of the one manuscript do I have to send out? BOA wanted one point five space, somebody else — You know what I mean? You just have to, if you’re not — and if my work is being not accepted because I can’t follow these basic instructions, but I’m not keyed into the fact that there are these basic instructions, then I am insisting on keeping my blinders on, that there’s stuff that is just preventing me from getting in.
Anthem: Right, because instead of blaming the fact that you could have done something better. It feels like there’s something inherently wrong with the world.
Barbara: Well and you know there are all kind of things wrong with the world, but as artists we’re always kind of envisioning something better. And if we don’t get our work out into the world, then that’s one less Filipino author in print. One less Filipino authored book that you can bring into a classroom full of Filipino students. And that’s sad.
Anthem: And there is something transformative about looking at things from a production point of view to recognize that those things are manageable. Those things can be worked better and despite your background or your given circumstances, your ability to make your presentation tighter is something that’s totally up to you.
Barbara: Absolutely, yeah. And I think a couple of things. Like I know a lot of people who don’t want to sully the art by saying this is a project. Here’s how I’m going to work at this thing efficiently because they want the art to be about vision. And it is, it is about vision. So I think that you probably can be the most efficient person in the world, but if you don’t have a vision, well maybe you’re not creating awesome art. I don’t know. But I think that you have to have both, vision and this ability to work in a concrete way and move this project forward and work it to completion. I think that if we don’t have both then — if we don’t have both I don’t know that we can make it in the world period because that seems to me just kind of basic coping skills, like getting stuff done as grown ups. But I think that also we need to be able to take responsibility for the things that we do and want to see in the world. What’s the cliché? Be the change you want to see. It’s totally true.
Anthem: It’s totally true.
Barbara: That’s why these clichés kind of persist because there’s truth to them.
Anthem: And so all these things that we’ve talked about so far require really strong sense of will but given that, you often definitely as of recent talk about the importance of practicing generosity. So while here we are, each of us really practicing our sense of steel to get through our projects, you also talk about generosity. And what do you have to say about that?
Barbara: Yeah, I realized that there were a lot of people who had been asking me, “Where do you know how to submit work? What places?” And so people are asking me these kind of things all the time and here I am tapped into all of these different list serves and I know these different websites, which I can assume that anybody can access them if they have a computer and internet, but if you don’t know where to go then, right. So a lot of it was just that. I had approached Edwin Lozada a while back and I said, “I’ve got all this information. Can I just start a blog for PAWA so I can post this somewhere?” And he said, “Sure, yeah that’s a great idea.” So that’s where that came from. There’s all this information that I have that I may not necessarily use. I do not submit to a fraction of the places that all these submissions calls come from but they’re there and somebody in our community might find that useful and appropriate. So that was kind of the initial impulse for me. And in fact a lot of people, and I’m grateful when folks do this, a lot of people have back channeled me and said, “Thank you for putting that call of submissions up on the blog because now I have a piece coming out in this publication.” I’m like that’s awesome. That’s totally awesome. So that was useful to somebody. So it was just that. I’ve got all this information, I should share it. There’s really no reason to hoard it. And I just feel like if we’re not doing that enough, I think that any step of “the game” that we’re at we access to some kind of resource that could be useful to other people. And I think that it comes back to you. I mean if all you do is just your own thing, by the time you need a gig, some people may or may not — You know I think that people are more likely to be open to somebody who’s been doing stuff that has benefited them. I could be wrong, but that’s certainly not the primary motivation for being generous, so that you get something back. But I think that it’s just like basic Karma I guess. And again back to what I was saying about my time in grad school, you get what you give. I just think that we can’t afford to be stingy especially when we’re talking about practicing community. And when we talk about being part of these artists’ communities, what does that entail, being part of a community? And a lot of it for me is sharing resources. So it could be these submissions calls. It could just be like folks asking, “I’m looking for a certain type of poet to teach for or is there something good that I should be reading because this is my interest.” And it’s nice to be able to share those pieces of information because it might enhance somebody’s class that they’re teaching or something that they need for their own writing process. Or they might need a venue or they might have a venue that will come in handy for other people.
Anthem: Right. And it’s not a competition after all is it?
Barbara: No it’s not. And it’s ironic because — well that’s another reason I don’t do the writing contest thing because I don’t like the concept of the contest but already it’s this place where it feels like there’s a ton of artists and these limited seats or limited places. So whether you’re applying to a graduate program, whether you are a prospective adjunct professor or you’re a prospective author and there’s a press you really want to be on but you know they only take five manuscripts a year, how do beat out the other hundreds to be one of those five? I just don’t like the idea of being underhanded and mean to other people because there’s enough crap in the world. The last thing we need to do is inflict that on folks in our own community.
Anthem: I totally agree. And I think it’s really interesting because it is just a shift in perspective that needs to happen between being competitive and just being generous. I had a friend of mine, and this just happened recently so I have to mention it. A friend of mine called me and said. “You need to know about this photo contest. It’s really exciting.” So I said very cool, thank you for telling me. I’ll post the link at the Art Of Hustle Facebook page. And she said, “No don’t do that!”
Anthem: And it cracked me up because she was under the impression that if all these people know about it, and I don’t even have so, so many people on the Facebook page right now, but she was under the impression that it would hinder her chances of winning or whatever. And the funniest part of it is the way she learned about it was that she saw an ad on television.
Barbara: Oh okay, so all kinds of people saw it.
Anthem: All kinds of people know about it anyway, but again because of this interesting perspective that some people have absorbed from, I don’t know where, culturally from their, and I don’t mean that in a ethno-specific way, but culturally in however, what kind of tribe you were raised in. Some people are more about hoarding the resources rather than sharing them. But again, if it’s on television seven billion people on planet earth already know about.
Barbara: Could potentially see it.
Anthem: Yeah, so it’s not a big deal.
Barbara: It’s crazy, it really is crazy. And it’s interesting because I get people like that all the time who are like, “You’re so generous. Thank you so much.” And again, it’s like well again, this is information that’s just out there. I’m just being my own kind aggregator of this information. But for me what it means is if there are more Filipinos published in these journals and more Filipinos that are actually submitting their work places, that can’t be anything but a good thing. We’re constantly, people are always saying Filipinos don’t read or we’re just not published or we’re not publishable and I don’t believe that. I think we just have to tap into these resources and if we have really good work, then you can make this connection. And I certainly don’t have a 100% submission record either. I still get rejection letters today and that’s totally fine because number one my skin is pretty thick these days but also just that all of us are trying and failing and trying and failing and I don’t even see it as failure anymore. It’s just part of the process. It’s part of the work.
Anthem: Yeah, absolutely. In the very first Art Of Hustle podcast episode I went over all the basics of what Art Of Hustle is and just to basically introduce people to why I’m doing the work and how they can begin to enter this work. And I named four things as the pillars of the hustle and they would be action, empathy, optimism, and education.
Barbara: Those are good pillars.
Anthem: And if you had to give a tip or piece of advice to any writer out there who’s listening now, in any one of these categories, what would you share with them that you feel like they could apply immediately?
Barbara: The first would be education. And by education I don’t mean go apply to a MFA program now. I honestly do not believe that having a MFA is a prerequisite to being an author. Again the very first poetry writing class I ever took was at Berkeley City College at the time when it was $11 a unit to take a class. That was something that was totally affordable and I was making so little money at the time. So I think just that. If you want to step up your poetry game and I’m talking specifically as a writer, take a writing class. You don’t have to pay through the nose for it. But for me it benefits because again you get folks’ eyes on your work and it’s folks that are going to — they’re not going to mince words. They’re going to get straight to what works and what doesn’t work. And also education in terms of reading, to just being open, really being open to different modes of expression, different aesthetics that may not necessarily be your set of aesthetics. I think that being a good writer has to do with being flexible and just having a really kind of — at the same time really getting to know well what your own voice is starting to emerge and sound like and what kinds of things you’re constantly coming back to in your work. I think it just really helps to just be really well read, expose yourself to all kinds of art, all kinds of cultural productions. Just make it like a muscle that you’re in a constant process of toning. For me these days writing comes a little bit slow, but when I’m in the thick of it, everything is inspiring me, a conversation on the bus, an art exhibit, all kinds of things are finding their way into my work. And because I’m listening to language, because I’m listening to the stories people have about their lives in the city, the smells of the city, just really be open. And I think a lot of that really does come with education. I know a lot of folks who say they don’t want to sully their own voice, there’s that word sully again. They don’t want to adulterate their own voice with other people’s voices but really, I think that we just need to cut that out and just be, anything is potentially good material for you as an artist.
Anthem: That’s excellent advice, thank you. Where can people learn more about you or keep up with you and where can folks buy your books?
Barbara: Okay, barbarajanereyes.com, that’s my website and my blog. And there are links to my books there. Let’s see Arkipelago Books in San Francisco, they carry my books and chat books so you can buy online from them. And in the Bay area, try some local Indie book stores, I’m at Pegasus, Eastwind Books, City Lights Books, Moe’s, places like that. And definitely support your local Indie book stores, not to say you shouldn’t buy from Amazon because my book is available. Diwata is available as an e-book.
Anthem: Which is awesome —
Barbara: Which is awesome.
Anthem: — for us iPad owners.
Barbara: So there’s that possibility. But definitely just roll into your local Indie bookstore and check it out there.
Anthem: There is something classic and beautiful about a book in paper.
Barbara: Absolutely. In fact I had just recently met another BOA author at a reading she did at Kim Addonizio’s. When we traded books, the first thing we did was just feel the covers of each other’s books. It was a tender moment. It was like wow, that’s a beautiful book.
Anthem: Very cool Barbara. Thank you so much for spending the afternoon with us.
Barbara: Thank you.
Anthem: And we’ll be hearing more from you at your blog.
Barbara: Thank you.