Last week, I got the email that every emerging poet wishes for. It said a press wanted to publish my manuscript. Sure my name was misspelled, and there was a typo that said, “after reviewing your work, [we] are interesting in publishing your manuscript,” and besides being “interesting” in my work, the only information it had was a request for a promotional plan, but still! My first reactions moved from shock, to confusion, to excitement, and back to confusion in a matter of 60 seconds.
I immediately shot the email off to two writer friends with the question, “Is this Real?” They wrote back assuring me it was and instructed me to start celebrating. I was at an artist residency at the time in North Shore Chicago, 2000 miles from family and friends and all the artists at the residency had already gone to sleep. I was left alone to ponder, Am I really going to get published?
I’ve been working on this manuscript since 2009, but it didn’t take shape until after I volunteered as a direct humanitarian desert aid worker in the “Tucson Sector” of the U.S.-Mexico border in August 2011. All summer, volunteers camp and hike in this militarized, low-grade warzone in order to patrol migrant trails, replenish water and food supplies, and act as witness to Border Patrol abuses to help end death and suffering in the desert. I decided to volunteer because, as a daughter of Mexican immigrants, an Angeleno, and a poet, I hoped that by climbing desert peaks, watching the helicopters circle, feeling my skin burn under a blazing sun, I might be able to turn the abstract “wall” into something tangible and personal for those back in California and beyond.
In August 2012, I submitted the manuscript to my first batch of contests. Every time it was rejected, I took it back into my arms and, after some necessary wallowing, started the revision process again. Four summers in a row I have faithfully repeated this ritual. About a year ago, I hired an editor to look at it and did a manuscript swap with two other L.A. poets I admire. I thought, this time, this is it! I resubmitted the MS to another batch of contests and to a couple L.A. presses and hoped for the best. So when six years and $880 later I finally got the email, I forced to myself to believe it, even though deep down I knew I shouldn’t.
The following evening after getting the email, I went out and bought champagne, put on a nice dress and platforms, put feathers in my hair, and announced to the other artists, writers, and musicians at the residency, “Hey everyone! Someone wants to publish my book!” We popped the bottles and people began to ask me questions. What’s the title? What’s the press? Is this your first book? I felt on top of the world, and I thought, maybe it will happen.
As the days went on in that week I started telling more people, and little by little it started to feel real. When I got back to L.A. on Friday night, I broke the news to my family who were all gathered at my parents’ house waiting to see me after 25 days away. The next day, I saw a friend from high school and told her. For five days, getting a little more courage each day, I told some new faction of my wide and loving support system.
And then Monday afternoon Kate Gale published “AWP is US” on the Huffington Post blog, and the first thing I thought was, I knew it. I’m not allowed to have nice things.
The initial email from Red Hen Press didn’t feel right, and then Kate Gale’s words reminded me of what I’ve always known, too many gatekeepers in this industry don’t think much of me or others in the margins like me. I’m a young(ish) female poet of color at the beginnings of my career, and I’m not important. I have no power.
When I dreamed of the day a press would say they wanted my book, I imagined an editor sitting across a desk from me. The desk is strewn with manuscripts. The editor says, “We are so excited for your book! We have big plans for it!” And then the editor excitedly shares said plans. What I did not imagine was a poorly written email from an assistant that basically said, we are interst[ed] in your book, but before we move forward, tell us what you’re going to do for it.
At first, I jumped on the opportunity. I emailed friends in the know and asked for samples of promotional plans. One friend with a book with Red Hen said, “For now, your main goal is rework your poems to get it to the level of publication.” And I thought, yeah, that makes sense. I should be editing. But who’s my editor? What’s my publication date? And what about a contract? When does that whole thing happen? I submitted these questions to Red Hen, but didn’t get a response. When I called, the assistant told me I would have to wait for Kate Gale to return from out of town (why couldn’t he say that in an email?). A couple of days later, a second email from an associate had more details and a warmer tone, but when I read Kate’s words the message I took was she chose me, so I should take what she gives me and just be happy.
And I guess this is all easy to say now. I feel like I have a lot of bravado now. Now that I’ve decided I am willing to turn down their offer (whatever it is), but for three days, I was a shaky, silent mess reading every article, post, comment, blog response and tweet thinking, maybe this will go away.
But Tuesday night something changed. I was driving through Koreatown to meet some friends for dinner. Maybe it was the older gentleman I watched slowly shuffle through the crosswalk with his cane at MacArthur Park. Maybe it was all the different languages streaming by my door as I drove down Wilshire. Or maybe it was all this playing in contrast to the 25 days I had just spent in an affluent suburb in North Shore Chicago—the most homogenous place I had ever experienced.
Everyday of my residency, I would take long walks through town panning the sidewalks for other people of color. Often, I noticed drivers revving their engines as they impatiently waited for me to cross through an intersection. On one afternoon, I was crossing the street into the town center when a man in a shiny SUV started making a right turn into the crosswalk I was occupying. When I threw up my hands and said, “Hey, what are you doing?” he yelled back, “I have the right of way.” I pointed at the ground, “This is a crosswalk.” His answer was to honk at me until I moved out of his way so he could zoom by. As I walked on, it hit me that I may have been in danger, and looking back now, I wonder how much more dangerous the encounter would have been, if I spoke with an accent. My point is somehow all this compounded as the sun set over the traffic of Wilshire Boulevard, and suddenly everything was clear. Publishing with Red Hen isn’t something I can do at this point even if it is a press I’ve admired for years with writers I love and respect like Eloise Klein Healy, Doug Kearny, Veronica Reyes, and Terry Wolverton. Publishing with Red Hen isn’t something I can do at this point, if I am to have any credibility in my own community.
And then I screamed and punched the steering wheel.
My best friend left me a card at my front gate to cheer me up. She wrote, “You’ve always been strong,” implying that I will be strong this time too, but you know something about us strong people, we get tired of always having to fight. And sometimes, sometimes, we want to believe that we can have what we’ve worked our asses off for, but then there’s always a Kate Gale around ready to remind us we are only getting the scraps.
I find it ironic that Kate’s piece beautifully illustrated what those in the underrepresented communities of the lit world are fighting for. She has since apologized (a second time) for her words, and Red Hen writers—people I respect and who’ve been hurt by this—have begun to write responses, but I still want to make something clear.
You want to know why we want on AWP panels and essentially more visibility and credibility, Kate (and David Fenza)? As writers, we want the power over our own narratives because without that our histories, struggles and peoples are in danger of being reduced to despicable, two-dimensional jokes, and we are not jokes! A friend pointed out on a Facebook thread, “She’s not the only one. She never was.” And so many of us know this has been going on for too long, and we’re all tired.
A coworker, a woman I trust and admire, advised me to pray on my decision. I don’t pray, but I promised her I would keep my eyes and ears open for divine intervention.
Then I went to the Wednesday Anasi Workshop at The World Stage. At the start of the night, when no one volunteered to workshop, the host, J. Malaika James, took out her newly published poetry collection to read a couple of poems. She shared that others at the World Stage started thinking about how they weren’t getting published, so they decided to create their own press.
Later the feature, Margaret Elysia Garcia, shared she chose the press for her book, Sad Girls & Other Stories, because SolsticeLit Books was the first press not to say her characters were unrealistic. “My characters,” she said to the room, “were Latinas in college.”
As it often goes in my life, divine intervention came by form of community and poetry. I realized that I don’t have to be anyone’s token or take anyone’s scraps because if it doesn’t feel right, it’s because it isn’t right.
I don’t know when I’ll publish this collection, but it feels good to know that I am not alone. Other writers are struggling to be heard, to be valued, and many are bravely seeking and creating alternative options. Red Hen is the biggest independent publisher in L.A., but it isn’t representative of all L.A. There are many spaces, publishers, and editors taking community seriously in this city like Blk Grrrl Book Fair, Kaya Press, Leimert Park Village Book Fair, Mujeres de Maiz, Tia Chucha Press, World Stage Press, and Writ Large Press.
I’ve been thinking lately, What happens after I publish a book of poetry? It isn’t going to make me any money. Maybe it will get me some prestige, but for what? I’m not even sure I want to teach at the college level full time. “AWP is US” reminded me why I write poetry in the first place. Because privileged, white America isn’t going to tell my story, or the stories of those around me. Because writing poetry is my way of claiming space in a world that wants to push me out of the way. Because writing poetry gives me the power to create and build the world I want to see. I build this world with words, and I’m not giving those up to Kate Gale. I can’t! They are the only power I have.
The last thing my best friend wrote in her card was, “I’ll always support you, publisher or not.” I know I am privileged to have a wide and beautiful community behind me, and I couldn’t write any of this without them, and it’s because of them that I do.
*If you are looking for a way to help promote change, please check out this petition calling for AWP to make some immediate changes.