Essaying Manila, or, Nothing Happened



At her APWT panel on The Poetry of Tomorrow Conchitina Cruz told us a story that shed some light on the monetary value of poetry, sharing how, on one hand, poets get paid next to nothing for their efforts, and on the other how publishers and editors invoke copyright law, which imposes fines of PhP50,000-150,000 for each count of violation. They had threatened her partner:

His work, which meant to demonstrate the rather limited range of style and substance curated in this anthology of flash fiction, was available for free on blogger, and it was what he called a ‘randomizer’: he chose and copied sentences from the stories in the anthology and plugged them into a Javascript machine which he coded. The machine, in turn, produced what you might call fast food fiction: a virtual assembly line of short short stories produced by randomly combining sentences from the source text. Click on a button, and a machine-generated text is instantly flashed on the screen, delivered, so to speak, to the reader. My partner was charged with copyright infringement for this technologically enabled parodic critique of the anthology.

Meanwhile, in Singapore, another literary brouhaha is brewing, again to do with copyright, but this time over a now-infamous serial plagiarist of poetry and other writing. I’m hearing stories from the other side of the fence, those who would police this act, and about how they aren’t receiving enough institutional help to extract a public apology. Where do you draw the line between creative appropriation and plagiarism? Aaron Lee, who was also at the conference, and handily, a lawyer, says it boils down to attribution. If an ur-text were properly cited, there wouldn’t be a problem; if not, then an infringement of moral rights has occurred. What really matters, therefore, is the clarity of the writer’s identity.

Even that is under assault. At least once during the conference someone mentioned the #actualasianpoets hashtag and the Best American Poetry scandal. Too much has been written about it already—suffice to say that, during a conversation with my colleague Jackie, I suggested we stop trying to proclaim what is the “Best of,” stop trying to canonise, based on identity, whether by gender or ethnicity or age. Be open about the fact that all anthologies reflect an editor’s tastes. Rename BAP Great American Poetry, or even better, Poetry Sherman Alexie Thinks is Awesome. Part of the wonder of art is that there’s simply no accounting for taste.

The danger of that view, though, is forgetting that art is also inherently local, rooted in what the artist sees, knows, is. Plagiarism is more than just taking words, it is taking experiences, insights, wisdom, style, poetic history, and calling it your own. These things are worth nothing in the same way poetry is worth nothing, but just as poetry survives, the mind of the writer is a testament to survival of all kinds. Yesterday, Romi Grossberg read a heartwrenching story of her time working in Cambodia with street kids. She locked a boy up in the dance studio; he was hurting, with no support from his family, teetering on the verge of ice abuse, and he krumped to exhaustion right before her eyes, forgetting she was there, forgetting she was crying. Then he said: “I’m ready to talk now”.

I suppose the writing conference is another way of making connections and sharing stories. After Romi, I read a poetic sequence about my experiences in Cebu when I was there last year. All good travel writing, I feel, reveals more about the traveller than about the place travelled to, and should be self-critical about its intentions and desires. Too many travel poems are about showing off, I said to a group of DLSU MFA students I had the pleasure of lunching with later. When the time came to leave for UST, they (half-jokingly) offered to bring me around, to eat street food and try lambanog, the local coconut liquor. Had I gone with them, I would simply be continuing what I already hope to accomplish in my writing.

The day before, Kim and I had launched the latest issue of OF ZOOS, where we again tried to showcase writing as a collaborative process, a moment of sharing, of reviewing. With every business card I handed out, I made sure to speak about the journal and its ethos; I made sure to direct people to Sarah and Schooling, who designed the card and my books. Networking is so much more enjoyable when you are doing it on behalf of others. And at the end of the whole thing I gave Lily Rose Tope all the unsold copies of my chapbook, where it will find its way into the university libraries (this will happen before it appears in Singapore’s National Library, no doubt).

And what has Manila given me? Right before I read, I was in a workshop conducted by Francesca Rendle-Short and David Carlin. Essaying Manila. A chance to leave the DLSU campus and see more of the city apart from traffic, malls, and conference halls. Quiet, because we had all sworn a vow of silence, we wandered off the main arterial road, all the way up to Singalong Street. I encountered a building, no, its back wall, lined with air-conditioning units and half-blocked by a fence. That wall was decorated in an almost ornate fashion—small circles bisected by crosses over whitewash. Who had put in all this effort, and who would be interested in admiring his or her handiwork imprinted, as it were, ignobly, on the ass of a building?

Who reads poetry? What’s poetry worth? What’s it worth tomorrow? Poetry makes nothing happen, and therefore by definition poetry makes poetry happen, which is enough, and is already too much.

Hao Guang Tse