Art-making does not live in a vacuum. The things we create affect and are affected, constantly, by various political and institutional forces. That’s true for fine art, and the galleries and auction houses that circulate fine art. That’s true for cinema, and the way movie houses would rather screen a mediocre American film than an amazing local film, mostly for monetary reasons.
It’s especially true for literature, what with the academe, awards, accolades, and other things that poet, teacher, and critic Conchitina Cruz has tackled in her work. She might have changed your life as your teacher, if you studied comparative literature at UP Diliman, or maybe you were forever changed by her books: Dark Hours, elsewhere held & lingered, and There Is No Emergency are all works that pierce the soul like fine, polished needles.
In this edition of OG Advice, Young STAR had the privilege to speak to Conchitina Cruz about truths that might unsettle the unseasoned, reclusive writer: from the struggles of discerning criticism, to making meaningful work in the context of a problematic system.
YOUNG STAR: Was there a moment in your youth, when you were a student, when you decided that you wanted to be a poet?
Conchitina Cruz: It still, to me, is awkward to identify as a poet, but I do engage in the activity of writing poetry, among other things. Writing was something I did in grade school that I really enjoyed, but in terms of deciding to make a life out of it? That came later. I went to med school in college, so that kind of clarified to me that maybe writing was something I wanted to take seriously.
What is the awkwardness that comes with identifying as a poet?
I suppose I think of it more of as an activity rather than an identity? When I identify myself, I tend to default to the utilitarian, what I do for a living, which is, I teach. I tend to say I’m a teacher, or even a “writer,” not really a poet. I suppose there’s just something so… artsy about it that I feel resistant to, even though of course it involves an art form. I tend to shy away from the identifier, and focus on it as an activity, if that makes sense.
Literature is not, by default, a site of resistance. We tend to assume it is out there to transform society, to empower us, which I think is true. But because literature is like anything in this world, of course it can also be a site of complicity, it can also be a site of deception.
What are your thoughts on self-publishing? I have friends who insist on putting themselves out there through chapbooks and zines, but there are people who think they have to make a debut through a university press, or something along those lines.
I think that the literary scene in the Philippines is so small, and so when you think about university presses or mainstream presses, you’re kind of also practically self-publishing, but powered by institutional resources, because so few people are involved. And they know each other, y’know? So there’s that.
Also, when it comes to young people thinking about how to get their work out there, it’ll depend on what your goals are. There are many ways to circulate your work, and one way is, especially, if you want to pursue writing as a profession, [to do]things that are legible to the profession as legitimizing. So things that you can put in your CV. Of course, mainstream or university presses are immediately legible, when it comes to being recognized. That’s the reality.
At the same time, it’s not the only way to get your work out there. I suppose one way to think about it is, sometimes we overvalue certain mechanisms to get readership. And for good reason. But I think in my own experience, it’s also — and this is why I went into self-publishing — I did also eventually see there was something homogenous about what was being published. My initial impetus for exploring beyond the few publishers that are recognized, was aesthetic. I was thinking, maybe there is something about the gatekeeping mechanisms that is making a particular kind of writing become the kind of writing. And in my own case, as somebody who did defer to that kind of writing, I felt restless about my own work. I felt that it was maybe also curtailing aesthetic possibilities in my own work.
In terms of how you negotiating publishing, it’s not an either/or. Rather than simply assume that it’s the only way to go, if you want to be a poet, treat it as one of the options, and also ask, “why is it important for me to do this?”
Like these mechanisms were compromising artistic integrity?
Something like that. For instance, with the Palanca awards. I remember thinking — this sounds mayabang — when I won it for the first time, and I was young when I won it for the first time, and I was thrilled, but at the same time I also thought, the work that I wrote, was that good enough? It felt to me also then that wasn’t yet the kind of writing that I was seeking to do. Somehow, the preoccupation with being recognizable was leading me down that same path of how to write. Part of what helped get me to write other things was to stop thinking about what was recognizable as good writing, which means also, stop thinking, ‘will this win an award?’, ‘will this win this particular prize?’. And that was exciting, to have that realization that, ‘oh yeah, if I take away that baggage, maybe I’ll get to access more of what it is I’m wanting to explore.’
In terms of how you negotiating publishing, it’s not an either/or. Rather than simply assume that it’s the only way to go, if you want to be a poet, treat it as one of the options, and also ask, “why is it important for me to do this?” And I think that kind of clarifies that there are different ways of being a writer, not just like, [being] professionalized, recognized by traditional, cultural institutions. And then there are also other writing communities, other purposes to being a writer which don’t necessarily involve winning awards or being available in National Book Store, and those are not any less valid forms of being a writer.
What are mistakes you’ve seen young writers make, whether in their craft or their career? Are these mistakes you’ve seen other established writers make?
One thing I find na challenge talaga is, when you’re being critiqued for your work, and how to strike a balance with what critique is generative to your work, and then what you can set aside. So I wouldn’t say that’s a mistake. It’s a struggle that at times can lead to writer’s block, when there are all these opinions on how to write your work. Sometimes what is not so useful doesn’t mean that it’s wrong, maybe it’s just not what you’re trying to do. Being able to weigh criticism against your own goals and intentions, not to be overpowered by other voices, I think that’s one kind of struggle.
Another would be a prolonged infatuation with prestige mechanisms. I think it’s understandable to want that, and it’s also useful and necessary. I write for a living and get jobs because of things that are recognizable in my CV. But I also think there’s a need to have a healthy skepticism, or to also create a writing life that is not too dependent on these prestige mechanisms.
Something that I continue also to struggle with that I think, if I were younger, would’ve clarified things more quickly, is that literature is not, by default, a site of resistance. We tend to assume it is out there to transform society, to empower us, which I think is true. But because literature is like anything in this world, of course it can also be a site of complicity, it can also be a site of deception. It can also disenfranchise, it can also disempower. Literature is not by default moral, not by default good.
Being able to weigh criticism against your own goals and intentions, not to be overpowered by other voices, I think that’s one kind of struggle.
I think that tapers well into my last question, which is: you’ve written and spoken before about how fraught or problematic poetry as a field can be, what with the various mechanisms that surround it, from private universities that brand themselves as progressive but actually aren’t, to parochial workshops and award-giving bodies. What advice would you give to young writers who are nervous about navigating these waters?
I think that it’s important to recognize their value but also not to overvalue them. I think that it’s important to recognize that there is no one way to write, no capital A art. When it comes to the workshops, the award-giving bodies, the publishers, these things that make up the institutionalized, professionalized world of writing. The beauty of writing is, that’s just one kind of world, in which writing thrives.
When we think of what it means to be a writer, sometimes it’s conflated with that, being in that scene. But there are other reasons of writing. There are other communities that demand the work of writers, that demand other kinds of writing.
We have to be asking, why do I think this is good writing? Who gets to be a writer? Who gets to decide who a writer is? I think when those questions are asked, you always realize that as much as these [mechanisms] have value, they also have limits.
I ask because, I think that a lot of young people, or at least people my age, are extra mindful about what it means to be problematic, and what it means for them to be associated with problematic associations and institutions. That comes from a serious, moral place, but also, it can feel, frankly suffocating.
It’s exhausting, just worrying about these things. I know you have to create that space for yourself and just write, and also ask yourself what you want your writing to achieve, and what you want your writing to be in service of. What I mentioned earlier about criticism — in my case for example, when I was in college.
I suppose it’s the stress of comparison among your peers. Somebody can be more prolific, or someone can be writing that seems more admired. Sometimes that can cause you to think that the writing that you’re doing is insufficient. It sounds like such a trite realization, but I realize there are different kinds of writers. Maybe there is a kind of writing that you admire, that is not necessarily the kind of writing that you write.
Your preoccupations, your obsessions, you politics, will lead you somewhere else that may not be the same as someone you admire. And that is totally fine.