A Note On These Pages


Better Living Through Xeroxography

Literary Patricide by way of the Small Independent Press

I just lived through the first annual Taboan Writers Fest, a three-day mostly national but actually international (made “inter” by the presence of a Vietnamese writer and a Thai filmmaker) summit of writers, mostly under forty years old, set to talk about the various issues that surround the cultivation of one's literary existence in this quite flippity-floppity literary world of luckers and losers and lousy lolo layabouts. I was chosen to talk about one of my major worries, Self-Publishing, and one of my minor preoccupations, Criticism of Speculative Fiction. Those three days were in turns uplifting and exhausting—sometimes both at the same time—like a marathon orgy of what most of us felt as exuberant virility. It was great. “I came five times,” I would’ve said if I was six years younger. This essay is a putting to print some of the things I said in the panels—specifically my thoughts on the Small Independent Press, and why it’s the Future of Philippine Literature.

My general poetics can pretty much be summed up as such: Literary Patricide. From claiming that the Future of Philippine Literature is in the Small Independent Press to proposing for the Obliteration of Genres—pretty much every single thing tossed into these essays—are my various How-To’s on killing our Literary Daddies and Mommies, and yes, these are things that I truly believe in, the rules I’ve lived my literary life by, causes that I truly rally behind: they really have to die various deaths—and by our hands—because really, things need to change, for the better, for the greater whole, as the current state of affairs in literary production is thus: it is intellectually bankrupt, and idiots can only really do idiotic things.

One of the many things our Daddies and Mommies have choke holds on is Publishing, be it as minor as seeking the Silliman Tiempos for approval of having our poems printed on the Philippines Free Press or as major as having Ophelia Dimalanta and Cirilo Bautista police—excuse me, referee—the books we give to the Mainstream Presses. They have been doing this constantly for thirty years now, some even for fifty years, and most of the time the people who did it in the Beginning are still the same people who are doing it Today, all in the name of Setting the Standards when it’s really just to pass on their Literary DNA without regard of what we really want to do in our writing lives. The sadder thing is that most of us have been led to believe that this is the only way to live our writing lives: we’re all brought up to be Mama’s Boys with Daddy Issues, always seeking for Parental Approval (I’m looking straight at you, SpecFickers!!!), dogs being fed yesterday’s table scraps. If this isn’t reason enough for us to rethink the things we have been taught—the things we have been led to believe for so long, now—you should all just stop reading this essay and move on to writing about growing up as a temperamental sensitive misunderstood artiste and calling it creative nonfiction.

All official talk of Mainstream Publishing reduces things to market values and set audiences and sales strategies and brand recall, and all unofficial talk of Mainstream Publishing reduces things to Literary Patronage and the maintenance of the Status Quo, which are very very very staid very very corrupt ways of looking at what is the be all end all of any act of writing. People write so that people read them. It can't be any simpler than that. It is how and where the Art and Craft of Writing feeds back into the Culture that beget it. It is Public Service, “giving back to the community.” Writing is as much about Selling Prices as it is about Winning Prizes. And access to it is being denied us, or dangled in front of us tied to a string just always out or reach unless we sit up or roll over or stay or shake.

But of course, that's not the kind of talk you'll hear from the Mainstream Publishers as Publishing for the most part really is a business, and a business really is dictated by market values and set audiences and sales strategies and brand recall, thus these things dictate the production of the manufactured product that the business is trying to sell, and that I understand, but the problem begins when these things begin to infiltrate and dictate the Art and Craft of Writing itself.

Which is why more people should rethink the relevance of Mainstream Publishers in the System of Literary Production, in the evaluation of Literary Worth. Is one thing really better than the other because Bienvenido Lumbera says it is? Is it better because it sells more? Mainstream Publishers talk about the teeming unwashed masses as a great potential reading audience, people we should try to write for, and at the same time disparage and insult them and the books that they buy when they do decide to read. Is it better because it sells less?

The contemporary average Pinoy reader is not Ester in a duster eating crackers by the shower. The contemporary average Pinoy reader is a twenty-something undergrad reading Twilight in the dark, with enough foundation in grammar (in English, at that) to read and understand and be absorbed by a novel-length elaboration of undersexed teenage angst filtered through post-Victorian emo goth vampire horror (after all, market hype can only go as far as making people buy the book; they have to read it, too). If they read and love Bob Ong, they understand the basics of satire, of sarcasm, of parody. The contemporary average Pinoy reader is not an idiot. They just don't know any better, having a limited choice in reading material. What ought to happen is that we stop giving them idiotic things.

We can't expect Mainstream Publishers to change the present condition for us, because the present condition is a condition that benefits their bank accounts. The present condition is a condition that benefits their egos. Mainstream Publishers will publish anything as long as there is money to be earned in it, if it maintains patronage, quality of thought and writing distant second and third concerns.

What we should be focussing on is creating and providing new venues for alternative attitudes in Reading and Writing, creating and providing new venues for ourselves and our “unmarketable” material, for our “unrefereed” efforts. What we should be focussing on is developing and cultivating an audience that will read and understand and actively seek our work. We should stop writing down to Mainstream Publishers’ standards of marketability and literariness and start writing up to raising the quality of available reading material, and the only way to do those things and remain untarnished—remain honest to ourselves and to our art—is to do the publishing ourselves.

Of course, not everything about self-publishing—about the Small Independent Press—is as rosy as I seem to be putting it, as for now actual physical publishing of pristine quality remains a costly effort, but there are already cost-effective ways to having our precious words available in print, as cost-effective as how much of our pride we can swallow down and not gag:

  1. we can have our books in websites as downloadable PDFs that readers can either print out on scratch paper or read in their PSPs and Blackberries and 3G cellulars, the technology is actually already here for such things, and it's only a matter of time before they become really cheap as to enjoy widespread distribution across social classes all over the country, if not the world (one more notion up for revision: the book as artifact);
  2. we can have our books as staple-bound photocopied publications serialised in twenty-four page chunks that can be made and sold at a fraction of what it would have been if made and sold as proper books, and “photocopied” isn't as bad as it sounds as Print Technology steadily advances providing public access to quality reproduction of the Printed Page at the price of two pesos or less;
  3. we can have our books published via Print-On-Demand services like Centralbooks or FujiXerox or Océ (which FYI aren't sponsoring me [although I wish they would {attention Centralbooks/FujiXerox/Océ!!!}]), basically running books through big brother versions of an office desktop toner printer, the print quality impeccable, only really dictated by the sort of paper grade used, which thickness and which grain;

Option #1 only costs as much as what we already pay for Interweb Access. Option #2 means we can sell our serialised novels in twenty-four-page chunks for fifty pesos each. Option #3—the most expensive option, and the one closest to Mainstream Publishing's aesthetic (even surpassing it most of the time)—means we can have one hundred pieces of our one-hundred-page poetry collections out for at least twenty thousand pesos.

The only real problem is Distribution: there are still no stable systems in place as alternatives to bookstore placement, although there ought to be seeing as to how oppressive bookstore policies are to small independent publishers. One possible way is to find indie-friendly stores we can shelf our books in, like the Filipinas Heritage Library, or Cubao X's Sputnik, or the various Comic Odysseys and Comic Quests across Metro Manila, but that's just really covering Metro Manila (and maybe Cebu). Another way is to hook-up with an online bookstore like Avalon.ph, which I know has a system in place for online selling.

One other option is the Direct Market, a system that ought to be part and parcel of Print-On-Demand, which works on the concept of Advanced Solicitations: solicitations of our books are given to sellers in advance, and they order only the set amount that they feel they can sell, and that number dictates how many copies of the books are published. If we get orders for one hundred copies, we only publish one hundred copies. Theoretically, in the Direct Market, there are no unsold books, no warehouse stocks waiting for orders.

The problem with this system is finding the seller with the market we can solicit to. One solution is to sell the books via the classrooms, by asking teachers if they can use the books as required readings, but this can limit the type of book that can be made available, dictated primarily by curricular relevance, which can really be just a different sort of pandering, but it works. The other solution is to completely ignore such worries and publish our books blindly and then look for the sellers willing to sell our books. We can print a minimum amount of copies and sell those and keep the money in a bank so the earnings from the previous printrun will pay for the succeeding one.

But all of these things will only be possible once we make that initial step of deciding it’s okay not to earn big money, if at all, that it’s okay to not have Krip Yuson’s breezy blurby blessings or Marjorie Evasco’s limning reaction paper introductions in our books, if it means we get to have our way, untarnished and honest and true.

The old ideas do not work anymore. The old machines are in the back yard, rusting in the rain. We need to think new thoughts if we want things to change. We need to build new machines. We should all move our parents to retirement homes by the Silliman beach where they can play volleyball in their geriatric pace, if not kill them outright in their drooly siestas. We only owe them as far as we can throw them down an empty well of nostalgia that we often mistake for respect.

The problem with patricide, of course, is that it produces orphans. But orphans are only orphans if they remain as children, diapered and single-toothed and crying for their mothers, when really, a parent's absence can be seen as an occasion for children to grow up, to take their fathers’ places in the table, to be the woman of the house, to be actually adult. It’s time we stop pretending at playing grown up in our mommy’s blouses and daddy’s pants and actually consciously decide to grow up. “Maturity” just doesn’t mean you get to swear at people. It also means living up to your swearing. So stop your whining and drop your linen, children: grow up already. Independent life is actually good for you.

Previously published in the Philippines Free Press


Class Struggle

Alienation, Alma Mater,
and Artbooks as Art in
Angelo Suarez’s Batch ’97 Haiku

On the night Angelo Suarez’s planned-to-be-latest book s&wich – five years’ worth of cut/ups and drawings that simply failed to cohere either by accident or by design – culminated with its PR-heavy deletion, Batch ’97 Haiku – a project arguably in the making for thirteen years but only really assembled in the span of a few weeks – enjoyed a quiet launch among other books on an unassuming table in Cubao. B97H, in brief, is a collection of haikus assembled by way of Suarez’s gradeschool batchmates’ yearbook profiles, specifically their answers to the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Each haiku consists of three lines, the first being the batchmate’s name, the second being what s/he wanted to be when s/he grows up, the third being what s/he turned out to be. For further clarity, some excerpts –

AMBITION: To be a successful person
PROFESSION: Volunteer nurse/Healthcare specialist

NAME: Pamela
AMBITION: To become an architect or engineer
PROFESSION: College student/Retail store employee

– and so on. Despite its more literary thrust, B97H enjoys the company of books like Ian Burn’s Xerox Book art piece – a book made up of pages that are successive photocopies of each other – and Fiona Banner’s various book constructs – a stone etched with its own legitimate ISBN, an ISBN tattooed on her back as a tramp stamp – basically, conceptual art books that query notions of books as objects. This is Suarez’s second book under this conceit, the first being s&wich, the next either Circuit – a book made up of blurbs written about the book itself – or Joint – a book that has only one word written in it – but with B97H, notions of books as objects are not only queried figuratively but also literally: of all of Suarez’s books so far, B97H reminds the readers the most that a book is a construct – a product – of labour: the most instantly recognisable thing about this book is that it was reproduced mechanically via mimeography, on newsprint, which gives the book a handmade look as it is actually handmade.

The recognition of this reality – books are products of labour – opens itself up to even more concerns readers don’t normally associate with books, namely that of the alienation of the worker from the products of his labour, the “worker” here now either the author – Suarez himself – or the ate or kuya who ran the paper through the mimeograph machine’s feeder and manually cut and stitched and bound all five hundred copies of the book. For the ate or kuya, the answer is clear: the money they got for the work they put into the book’s production is simply part of what they get from their paychecks for being employees of the establishment that owned the machines that printed the book; that is, regardless of the quantity of copies or the quantity (or even quality) of work they put into producing B97H, they will always get the same amount (pending things like tips and bonuses for exceeding their quota, etc etc), however far away that amount is from minimum wage; that is, they don’t get anything from B97H by way of royalties or namechecks in the acknowledgement page regardless if they helped make it into a book, regardless if they prettied it up or not.

For Suarez, though, the artist who laboured on the book on the intellectual level, the answer is murkier, as in art, the weighing of quality of artiness with regards to its proportionate quantity in monetary terms has always been determined by indeterminate factors – popularity, tradition – thus are always shifty at best, ultimately funnelling down to just one question, really: just how much are you willing to pay for art? This is a fundamental question as this is how the concerns of the alienation of the worker as artist to the fruits of his labour is addressed, how everything is addressed in our age of the free online market: through purchase. So, just how much are you willing to pay for art? And this being a conceptual art piece, its territory is more in ideas and less in material things, so what you’re really paying for in B97H – a fifty-six nearly-4”x4” mimeographed-newsprint-page book with each page having at most four lines each – is not the poetry – not the actual book, even – but its concept, and Suarez is saying the concept is worth P200, all takings to him (with maybe P50 going to the store, granted).

So, are you willing to pay P200 for an art concept? Is it too cheap or too expensive? The general consensus so far is that it is too expensive, in context with the quality of production of the container of the concept – the book looks cheap, so it should be sold cheap – but that argument focuses more on the material aspects of a product that is immaterial. So again, how does one price a concept? By day, Suarez is an ad kid, a copy writer, transacting (and thriving) in a cutthroat industry where concepts are bought and sold in insanely large amounts of money, so one can see how Suarez justified it to himself. But in advertising, the returns of the buying and selling of concepts are concrete, material, in cold hard cash, but in art, the returns from the buying and selling of concepts are less concrete and material and more in their memetic proliferation, in their enriching art’s history and production. With B97H, Suarez is making an effort to have his art function more like his work, and he wants his concept’s worth not only in its influence and viability but in pesos, too. Suarez believes the concept is worth P200 of your money, and his defense seems to be that B97H – a book questioning books – does not only contain art but is art in and of itself in all its rustic glory (maybe even because of its rustic glory) – so when you buy the book, you’re not just buying a book, you’re not just buying a concept: you are buying art.

And it is art – it’s a book of haikus – and yes, even in and of itself – it’s a book of a concept, it’s a book of a concept of haikus, it’s a book of a concept of haikus conscious of itself being a book of haikus, and it’s a book of haikus that are not actually haikus but actually are haikus!!! – most definitely, only it is art that seeks merely to legitimise and celebrate itself. This is hardly news nor even hardly new, even for Suarez, ie, Dissonant Umbrellas, but how it sets about doing this – asking questions about our notion of poetry, poetic form, books (specifically art/artist/art manifesto books) as form by deciding to run the book in the cheapest means possible and sell it at an insanely bloated price compared to its material quality, the reader is forced to think – seemingly for her/himself – just why s/he had to buy it for that price, it’s all just three or four lines per page, and they’re all crummily misaligned and shoddily printed! What is it about this book that warrants its very expensive price? But what’s really being asked is Is poetry defined merely by its formal concerns?; and Is an artbook defined by its curatorial framing scheme and its ability to fit itself into the continuum?; and most importantly, Does quality in art equal quality in price equal quality in form? – by way of how it was actually physically reproduced is what makes it a slightly different – and more important – book from Dissonant Umbrellas.

Only B97H does not make any real efforts to answer these questions, merely elaborating on them, complementing the ongoing discussion, and that, in and of itself, is merely okay; that is, it jumpstarts the discussion among people who haven’t been thinking about these things in any relevant way. One may see this as fence-sitting, may see this as a wrong move – I know I would rather B97H made stronger louder and clearer pronouncements about its concerns rather than wink them towards the readers who are already in the know – but asking questions even if only for the sake of asking them has value even if it only means continuing the interrogation.

Its only clear and maybe-irreconcilable misstep – for me, at least – is when it starts conflating poetic craft with physical labour and champions ultimately art for art’s sake: “The writer’s labor of writing, especially w/in the framework of poetry, is comprised of the attempt itself to divorce writing from labor; that is, the poet’s work is to strip poetry of work; that is, the poet can neither be considered poet nor labourer when decontextualized from a history of poetry that detaches itself from the history of class struggle,” a statement prefacedly labelled as an “impasse.”

The statement itself is formally a haiku, or at least argues itself in the form of a haiku, only the jump required of the reader between lines two and three is to me too big by virtue of the third line being too confusing: it is not very clear what it is trying to say – it is an elliptical statement that spirals down itself, confusion compounded even more so by its use of three successive negatives – and it is also not very clear as to whom it is saying these things. It seems to be saying that poets cannot/should not claim themselves to be poets or even more pointedly, to be labourers, if their poetry is not generated from the position of doing it purely for itself. If this is what it means to say, well then yes, poetry is indeed work, meaning, you work on it, only, you work on it to be better with it, meaning, you just don’t do it for money alone if at all as labourers in fact do, meaning, the poet just doesn’t do it for himself, meaning, the poet just doesn’t write poetry for its own sake, meaning, the artist-labourer analogy is a false one, a misleading one, maybe even a tasteless one. If this is what it means to say, well, then this statement remains to be both very confusing and very confused, and spits on the faces of all the uncredited labourers who actually assembled this book, this art object.

There are people who refuse to acknowledge the argument of/for committed art, “selfless” art, of art for society – only, they may not believe in it but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’d see it as an impasse: clearly, even if one is a staunch denier of the mingling of art and society – thus a staunch defender of art for art’s sake – that person cannot ignore the origin and presence of dadaism, the Situationists, Bataille’s DOCUMENTS, or to be closer to home, Gay Lit, Gat, Bien Lumbera, Joaquin’s ransoming of Lacaba, etc etc, all occasions of art – politically charged or not – stemming from societal concerns, ie, concerns other than art, ie, not merely for/from art for art’s sake.

But maybe the artist-labourer analogy is actually fairly accurate, at least between the covers of B97H, with its elaboration on the haiku. The book proposes a reductionist approach, a coldly formulaic understanding of writing poetry – which the haiku as a form is perfect for, being more often than not made up of strictly three lines, each line having its own function: line one is concrete imagery, line two is abstract imagery, and line three is the convergence of the two previous lines, with dramatic tension occurring between lines two and three – and the book does have a point, only it effectively transforms the artist in his writing desk making art into the labourer in the factory floor assembling products that are identical and mass-produced. And this dehumanisation is reflected on the products – the haikus – themselves, where the subjects – Suarez’s batchmates – are all rendered anonymous, all defined by and reduced to their jobs, to their functions in society, nothing more.

There is a meanness inherent in the assembling of the haikus. The blankness of obvious emotions creates a void that is filled by a suspicion that somebody is insulting somebody else somewhere. The terse lines don’t give much in terms of intent, in terms of what it wants you to feel about it, and that is almost always taken by the reader to be a sinister thing: if it isn’t blatantly saying you should like it or hate it, readers tend to hate it by default. So upon finishing the book, if and when the initial dust of bewilderment settles and clears, I predict most of the feelings for this book will be somewhere between anger and estrangement, primarily fuelled by its P200 price being in direct opposite proportion of its material quality, secondarily by its debasingly frigid and logical take on the haiku, tertiarily by the fact that all the haikus are irrelevant to anyone and everyone who is not part of the graduating gradeschool UST Batch 1997. And when any of those feelings settle even more on top of the preceding bewilderment, a majority of readers will either simply hate it or simply have no feelings for it, a situation that again leads to another question about poetry and art: basically, Do we have to like it – does it have to be likable or say likeable things – for it to be considered as good art? Or maybe it’s only really relevant to Suarez’s batchmates, and maybe for those people, the book’s value as art is only as good as an itch in the neck. So maybe it’s not worth the P200.

B97H is a very sad very mean very funny book. In between all the artiness (or lack thereof), the book effectively tightropes the line to and fro comedy and tragedy rather wobbyingly, unsurely, throughout the book’s reading (and subsequent rereadings, which I recommend everyone ought to do), as some haikus read sadder than usual one day and somehow funnier the next. The difference between the comedy and tragedy is not that big, and this book is yet another testament to that fact.

But it is certainly more sad than it is funny and/or mean: the haikus function as odes, as meditations on loss, as they chronicle unrealised dreams, thwarted potential, adult reality’s cold hard slap in the face of youthful idealism, and all this off-page drama, true to the haiku, is what keeps this book from suffering Dissonant Umbrellas’s, or even s&wich’s, fate – underneath all the insular art stuff, there is heart, even when seemingly mean-spirited or cold.

In short, what the book really is about is waking up one day and realising you’re not a kid anymore; that is, it’s about waking up one day and realising your life didn’t pan out the way you wanted it to when you were twelve years old; that is, it’s really about you failing yourself. Our reactions to these occasions are in constant flux, determined by indeterminate things like already having had your breakfast or how your mother raised you before you left for college or if you woke up this morning beside someone you love, determined by all of our various ways of consoling ourselves. On top of everything already stated, B97H is, in the final analysis, a P200-kiss-sabay-hug to your one and only you.

Angelo Suarez's Batch '97 Haiku is available in Sputnik, Cubao, where it is now priced at P100. Somehow somewhere, someone won the struggle.


...in the prom...

“…you’re in the prom now!”

At least you’re invited. Most Filipino-language writers are relegated to the patio that just happens to also be the smoking area standing around in their barongs and saya drinking lukewarm beer and talking about showbiz tsismis and smelling like ashtrays. Me, I’m bilingual, but really, I don’t care much for the prom. Yeah, I’m one of those kids.

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...already in...

“It is already in the center!”

But I ask again: why bother with the center?

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...the Palancas...

“…the Palancas…”

But really: why bother with the Palancas?

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...intellectual stutterings...

“…intellectual stutterings…”

A more friendly variation of one of my Dad’s many priceless expressions: “ngongo ang utak”.

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“…retroactive imperialist orientalist pilfering…”

Which is a bit like Kael’s colonization of thought, but instead of forgetting the native in favour of the foreign, it’s more how the foreign informs the native, and vice versa.

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