Last day to pre-order Paper Trail Projects books!

Today (16 Feb 2022) is the last day to pre-order Paper Trail Projects books! Our March 2022 catalog is a mix of poetry and nonfiction–some old (reprint editions) and new, in English and Filipino and bilingual. Here’s the list of titles:

Conchitina Cruz, DARK HOURS

Conchitina Cruz, MODUS

Faye Cura, PUNAN


Mabi David, YOU ARE HERE


You can read excerpts from the books, fill out the pre-order form, and learn more about Paper Trails Projects here.

Everything and more: Poetry 101 with the Beatles

The Beatles Get Back documentary is comfort viewing for me these days, and it reminded me of this essay I wrote more than a decade ago for a now-defunct website, the first (and as it turned out only) part of a series that was supposed to serve as a primer of sorts for reading poetry. Apparently, I didn’t have this little piece saved on my computer, but thanks to Wayback Machine, I was able to retrieve it.

To the Beatles I owe a childhood animated by a psychedelic vocabulary and schooled in the sonorous seductions of gibberish—pataphysical and polythene and toejam football and walrus gumboot jabberwocking with obladi-oblada and jai guru deva om and soe-leh-moe-kee-von-tre-byan-awn-sawm; a childhood adrift in a shape-shifting playground at times featuring macabre slapstick, murderous silver hammers clang-clanging and falling on heads, or coded trips assisted by plasticine porters and fixated on the euphemistic Lucy in the sky, or surreal travels at sea, in a yellow submarine, if not an octopus’s garden in the shade, or hyperbolic critiques of taxmen taxing everything and your feet; a childhood of excessive repetition and casual encounters and vivid visuals and non-sequiturs—from so much twisting and shouting to so many hellos and goodbyes, from Lovely Rita to Sexy Sadie to Doctor Robert to Father McKenzie, from words like endless rain into a paper cup to two of us riding nowhere spending someone’s hard-earned pay, from I read the news today, oh boy to I’d love to turn you on; all this effortlessly acquired on slow summer days spent lounging on an itchy red couch or playing dead on the marble floor or obsessively watching the record on the turntable spin, spin, spin, in the company of an ever-changing cast of stray cats and two sisters prancing about, practicing their latest dance moves.

The Beatles were, for the most part, background music, the soundtrack to a quiet and relatively unremarkable childhood, but there was something in those songs that, despite physical evidence to the contrary, kept me awake and listening, and what was meant to accompany the day became the point of the day’s unfolding. Which is to say that the Beatles taught me not just a love for music but a love for words, and the love for words was not unconditionally given and granted but elicited and earned by the acts of language they made available to me and to which they made me pay attention, since what they offered was an elastic and diverse repertoire. Which is to say that John, Paul, George, and Ringo were my early teachers in poetry.

One of the Beatles songs I knew most as a kid was “Blackbird”—I listened to it often, played it on the piano, memorized the words, and then one dreary summer day when I was seized by the realization that I would have to go to school forever, that the foreseeable future was all about extended periods of monitored boredom, the song became pertinent to my life. The blackbird, its color notwithstanding, was not a bad omen; it was misunderstood and prejudged; it was vulnerable and sympathetic. The blackbird was not just a literal bird; it was also something else. Without teaching me the actual terms, the song taught metaphor and paradox and symbol and pathos. The blackbird was me at ten years old, hating school, and then at fifteen, wanting to move out of the house, and then at eighteen, doing equal amounts of worthless and worthwhile things, and then at twenty-five, moving into my first apartment on the other side of the world. And by this I mean to dwell less on the self-centeredness of a reader/listener who relates to a text because it confirms or conforms to personal experience and more on the capacity of a poem to abstract experience so that it simultaneously speaks to you and permits you to be the voice of its speech. I have on my playlist “Blackbird” by the Beatles, Elliott Smith, Sarah McLachlan, and Sarah Vaughn; they are the same song and at the same time four different songs because they are voiced differently, the way “Blackbird” is the same song I’ve known since childhood but also different with every attentive encounter because I am different at every such point, and what I draw from it when I listen to it or what I invest in it when I sing it is not redundant.

I believe that every poem presents its own theory of poetry, and thus, there are as many theories of poetry as there are poems themselves. What I hope to do in this series of short essays is exercise attentiveness to various acts of language, where poetry is as much an attitude and lens as it is a genre. The essays are not about why poetry matters, since that is already given, but how it does, and every poem this series invites you to become attentive to is meant to serve as an illustration.

Happy birthday, old friend.

It’s my dear cat’s birthday today. He would’ve been 21. Here’s something I wrote for him.

Minggoy (2000-2017)

Minggoy died a few months short of his seventeenth birthday, a few hours before we were to take him home from the vet. That he didn’t die at home is among my biggest regrets. That we weren’t beside him when he passed is another. On what turned out the be our last visit, Minggoy was detached from his IV in the inner room where he was confined and carried to the tiny consultation cubicle where we were waiting for him–me, my partner Adam, and Anon E. Mouse, an abandoned kitten we plucked from a tree along Anonas months earlier. Anon was wild with fear that we were at the vet to have him checked and was yelping while running in circles. Minggoy could hardly lift his head but his eyes remained alert, and from the stainless steel exam table where he lay, he watched Anon try desperately to find a way out of the cubicle. Amid the ruckus raised by our new ward, Adam and I took turns stroking our old cat, who purred and purred and purred. Minggoy was never a purrer, so I took this as a sign that there was hope his failing kidneys would pull through and he would get better. I made the call to keep him plugged to his meds and supervised by the vet for one more night. A few hours later, as we hugged his still-warm body, I began to tell myself that the purring was his version of a proper goodbye, a way to tell us that he loved our life. That he was happy with us, happy with me. That there were, there should be, no regrets.

The rest of the essay is here.

from You Wish (3)

I thought it was a poem

but it won an award

Cheers to your militant vision

through channels

from You Wish (2)

How in control you are of your curls

You must be someone to model cruelty after

Five drinks in and I am still not amoral

Should we take that chiseled jaw elsewhere?

I’ve got so much sugar to burn

from this roomful of commissioned art

from You Wish (1)

It’s all fun and games

until someone loses it on the highway

Nothing an overpriced piano can’t fix, but that’s just me

Let’s fuck like strangers for old times’ sake

I’d watch you google “happiness”

but there are books from your to-move pile

I need to steal

Old/Forthcoming (1)

from Partial Views: On the Essay as a Genre in Philippine Literary Production

pre-pandemic work, forthcoming from DLSU, maybe this year

The lines of inquiry I pursued in writing this monograph on the essay as a literary enterprise were in no small part prompted by a controversial essay and the debates it stirred in circles well beyond the literary. In 2017, The Atlantic posthumously published Filipino-American journalist and author Alex Tizon’s “My Family’s Slave,” which details the lifelong exploitation of Eudocia Tomas Pulido or “Lola” as a maid for the author’s family. Lola served the Tizons for more than half a century, beginning in the 1940s in Tarlac, when the author’s grandfather “acquired” the young Pulido as a “gift” for his motherless daughter, and continuing for decades in the United States, where, lured by the promise of an allowance that she could send back to her family, Lola agreed to move with Tizon’s mother and her young family. Throughout decades of service, however, Lola was overworked, unpaid, and physically and verbally abused. A veritable prisoner of the Tizons, she was cut off from her own family, whom she could neither support nor return to, and denied a life beyond her indenture, isolated from the country and culture to which she was forcibly taken. Without the financial means, without any social circle and possible source of support, and, soon enough, without the legal status to opt out of the Tizon household, Lola lived a life of enslavement. In his lengthy first-person account of what he recognized, even as a child, to be a shameful family secret, Tizon narrates his own lifelong struggle to apprehend and, eventually, make amends for the exploitation suffered by Lola in the hands of his family.

Available for free online, Tizon’s essay was so widely read that it earned the distinction of being “the most-engaged story on the internet in 2017.” Accounting for the essay’s popularity, The Atlantic editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg invoked features often attributed to creative nonfiction, the go-to category for essays that foreground subjectivity and literariness: “People value story, great writing, and honest emotion.” Although the “tragic, very personal story” was written by a relatively unknown veteran author, “the marketplace still rewards quality,” said Goldberg, flagging the commodity-status of the literary text. Readers bought (into) the Tizon piece because it is a true story told sincerely (a nod to the admirable humanity of the author) and skillfully (a nod to the admirable virtuosity of the author). Based on the discourse published online in response to the essay, however, the public’s reception of it could hardly be characterized as uniform. Some readers were touched, and others offended. Praise for the heartbreaking narrative of Lola’s suffering was countered by outrage over the author’s perceived reticence in putting a stop to her abuse. The one tenuous thread that arguably held otherwise polarized responses together was Tizon’s masterful writing. Amid impassioned debates over what the essay says, admirers and critics agreed on the faultlessness of how the author says it, employing the logic of the age-old division between form and content.

I regularly teach “My Family’s Slave” in an undergraduate literature course on creative nonfiction, and a passage that students often cite to illustrate the author’s skillful narration involves the whipping of Lola by Tizon’s grandfather, an incident that precedes the author’s birth but is relayed to him by his mother and corroborated by Lola herself. The scene is doubly violent because Lola is beaten for an offense she did not commit. It is Tizon’s mother (at the time still a young unmarried woman) who has broken her father’s rules and, in the face of his wrath, declares Lola to be the substitute recipient of her punishment. Accepting this proposition without question, the father punishes his daughter by whipping her maid. In class, my students point to this brief scene to demonstrate the power of Tizon’s storytelling: the brisk pace of the narration, the tension produced by minimal detail, the onomatopoeia generated by punctuation, the impact of italics used strategically. Of course, the story itself is appalling. The corporal punishment is stark evidence of the patriarch(y)’s control over women’s bodies, and the class privilege that “saves” Tizon’s mother from patriarchy’s violence is at the expense of Lola, whom she designates as her proxy. Doubly marginalized by gender and class, Lola literally suffers in silence. She is wordless when her amo, Tizon’s mother, uses her as a pawn to escape punishment, and she is soundless when her amo, Tizon’s grandfather, subjects her to his belt. But even as we feel repulsed by the situation, we also recognize the deft hand that crafted a tightly narrated sequence, the outcome of bare exposition accented sparingly by an adjective here and an adverb there. We trace the terror we feel from the grandfather’s violence to the strategic use of repetition, in which the severity of one statement (in this case a reprimand), written twice, creates the effect of amplification. The story is appalling, but the storytelling is not. There is beauty in Tizon’s telling of the story. It is this beauty that moves readers to say, in response to a narrative about a woman’s sustained abuse as a maid and migrant worker trafficked in the United States, “ang ganda.”

This suspension of the reader in the realm of the aesthetic encounter is, on the one hand, a marker of the essay’s success as a literary text. We dwell in its literariness, finding pleasure in the text in and of itself, a whole constructed from interlocking formal elements. On the other hand, the eloquence of Tizon’s piece could be regarded as a grave flaw. “Underneath the poetry, something was up,” writes Andrea Malaya M. Ragragio in Davao Today, suggesting that good writing as we know it could obfuscate rather than clarify. So finely crafted, the essay’s sheen as an art object distracts from its disturbing content, that is, Lola’s monumental suffering, which deserves the reader’s undivided attention, and not because it has been aestheticized in a literary work. Walter Benjamin said as much about the duplicity of art when he observed how photography “has succeeded in transforming even abject poverty, by recording it in a fashionably perfected manner, into an object of enjoyment” (230). The backlash that plagued the Tizon piece soon after publication indicates an awareness among readers of the need to see “underneath the poetry” and go beyond the boundaries of an aesthetic response. This was evident in the diverse pool of early respondents to “My Family’s Slave,” who were not limited to writers, critics, or that abstract figure that is the general reader. People responded from extraliterary points of view and framed their responses in relation to their identities, whether as historians, sociologists, and anthropologists; or as advocates of women’s rights, workers’ rights, and human rights; or as Filipinos living in the Philippines, Filipino-Americans, and Americans.

The genre in which Tizon wrote played a crucial role in determining the provocation it engendered, both intentionally and unwittingly, and in compelling readers to engage with it in ways above and beyond the exclusively literary. “My Family’s Slave” is an essay. The woman whipped in the text was whipped in real life. The woman who worked for no pay in the text worked for no pay in real life. The woman who suffered for over half a century in the text suffered for over half a century in real life. The family that abused her in the text abused her in real life. The author really tried to make up for his family’s transgressions after his mother’s death and really brought her ashes home to her family in Tarlac. This direct line between what happens on the page (or screen) and in real life spells the difference in the reader’s reception of the text and clarifies the stakes of writing in the genre. If Lola Eudocia were in a short story, the reader would receive her as an imaginary character: the pivot around which a domestic drama unfolds, the foil to the mother and key executor of her abuse, the object of the narrator’s affection, guilt, and remorse. She would be, for all intents and purposes, an analog for millions of Filipino maids and migrant workers, many of whom, like her, are trapped in the formidable machinery of modern-day slavery and many of whom, like her, are silenced and suppressed to the point of invisibility, resurfacing only in narratives written by others about and for them.

In an essay, however, the reader’s engagement includes and exceeds these forms of analysis. Lola Eudocia is not mere representation but actual victim. What the text discloses is not merely an unsavory family secret, but the real-life commission of a crime. In reading Tizon’s account, we become secondary witnesses to the trafficking of Lola (by a consular officer, no less) and the sustained violation of her human rights. We know the identities of the victim and the perpetrators. We know that the victim, in life, never saw justice. There was no rescue from slavery, no repatriation and reunion with her family, no back wages for decades of labor, no recompense for the lifelong ordeal. (There is charitable treatment from the author, which is framed, perhaps unintentionally, in the essay as the result of coming of age in the U.S. and imbibing liberal American values, in sharp contrast to the author’s parents, whose formative years and early adulthood were spent in feudal and patriarchal Philippines.) As readers of nonfiction made privy to a crime punishable by law, our engagement leaps off of the page and into the world where we, together with Lola Eudocia and the Tizons, reside. That both Lola Eudocia and Alex Tizon are dead (the former in 2011 and the latter in 2017, a few months before the publication of “My Family’s Slave”)hardly deters readers from debating what is to be done with their case, how some form of justice might be arrived at, what the obligations of the perpetrators’ family are to the family of the victim, and how we are implicated in the system that permits the enslavement of Lola and countless others.

Despite the lack of Tizon’s own account of his motives in writing the essay, it is reasonable to surmise that the public confession of his family’s secret was partly prompted by confession’s promised rewards: relief and rectification. “I do not want to valorize the master,” writes Filipino-American poet Barbara Jane Reyes, for “to do so would be to valorize generations of class-based and gender-based institutional violences. I do want to give [Tizon] credit as a writer, for attempting to tell this story.” Honoring the divide between form and content, Reyes distinguishes between Tizon the writer and Tizon the master and treats their actions as separate, which permits the credit given to one to be simultaneously withheld from the other. In contrast, a statement issued shortly after the publication of “My Family’s Slave” by the Damayan Migrant Workers Association makes no such distinction: “[j]ust like murder, labor trafficking cannot be waived by a heartfelt apology, by a cathartic journalistic exercise, or by taking the victim’s remains back to her relatives.” Writer and master are intertwined in an essay that is literally a master narrative, where the slave, silenced in real life, continues to be silent and silenced on the page. Even in narrative, Lola exists only according to the terms set by the author, and the continuing power of the master over the slave in art makes his benevolence as portrayed in the essay, to say the least, self-serving. While Damayan is blunt about the insufficiency of the text in itself in addressing, let alone compensating for, the suffering that Lola endured, Ragragio contends that something can be done with the text in itself to make it more productive despite its fundamental inadequacy as a form of action. It is Tizon’s work as a writer that she demands more of when she writes, “given his talent for writing and his sense of the injustice done to Lola Eudocia, would it be unfair to look for more than painful family memories and a road trip narrative?”


Another version here.


I share a tiny apartment on the fourth floor of a low-rise with my partner and three cats. It’s a one-room affair, far from ideal for two people attached to too many things, though it seems a pleasant enough set-up for the felines—there are shelves to scale, books to perch on, infinite sheaves of paper to poke and pull and rip and shred, a shape-shifting terrain of clutter that lends variety to their daily routine of chasing after each other. We live near the university where I teach—two quick jeepney rides, there in twenty minutes. This proximity is hardly useful to me now, though I continue to think it makes up for the tiny space and the insufferable landlord.

It must’ve been some time in May when I mindlessly switched on my commute playlist while doing laundry in the bathroom sink. It wasn’t a good idea, I realized five seconds in, but my hands were already wet and turning my phone off too complicated. So I stood there, washing a couple of shirts and masks, and followed the songs back to early March, down the four flights of stairs to the corner of our street, to Kalayaan Avenue on a speeding jeep, to the store in Philcoa that I liked to stand in front of while waiting for my next ride, its sentinel cat sitting still by the candy jars, to the breezy route around campus and the jeepney stop nearest my building that I could never be quite certain of, not since stops kept getting relocated to adjust to all the construction projects in the university.


On what turned out to be my last day of teaching on campus, I remember having a somewhat uninspired American lit class on Nella Larsen’s Passing, which I resolved to make up for the following week.


The nook I claimed in our studio to have a semblance of privacy in an un-private space is farthest from the doorway, nearest the bed. It includes the larger of the apartment’s two windows, which looks out to the street, two apartment compounds, and a jaundiced mid-rise. This egress window leads to the fire escape—a steel ladder that gets you to the awning above the building gate. Since March, birds have been docking daily on this ladder, sometimes mayas, always Maria Capras. It’s become routine for a visiting bird to flutter about and for the cats to stalk it, both parties slamming against the glass. By the window are other watchers—a gold solar-powered lucky cat waving two paws, a yellow papier mache horse, a garden gnome picked up on our way home from La Union early this year, the news of the Taal eruption reaching us as our vehicle entered Manila.

These days I barely leave this nook, stumbling to the couch from bed first thing in the morning, rising only to get to the fridge or bathroom. Within arm’s length I keep a small wooden folding table I use as a laptop desk, a plastic storage cart on wheels for files. I am the fixture around which the cats trade sleeping spots. Behind me, shelves of books. Before me, shelves of books. A cocoon within a cocoon that the screen sucks me out of.


After the shock of staying put, the shock of going on, the shock of scaling down work to the fit the screen, the shock of the tape peeled away from the camera and the camera switched on, the shock of the screen awake at all hours, an unblinking eye, the work an endless stream. After decades of textbook-resistant pedagogy, I am compelled by the powers designated to manage education under the current crisis to convert immediately to regimentation as the only approach compatible with remote learning. In each pandemic-era course I construct, I struggle to imagine a life of teaching writing and literature not completely hijacked by learning outcomes and study guides and bullet points and checklists. Asleep, I sink into the disciplinary logic of rubrics and rehash losing arguments against copyright compliance. I begin each workday working my way out of dreams of work. I will my mind to construct a flimsy partition to subdue the chatter of a podcast emanating from the other side of the shelf, the background noise my partner needs to focus. I assemble myself for the screen, open multiple windows I hopscotch around, keep up with the news dispatched by the second, the ever-rising numbers of the dying and the dead, the reckless, ruthless counterinsurgency script. In my correspondence, I apologize and promise, I hope and understand. In front of the camera, I am well, thank you. Whenever possible, I am a blank screen among screens—off camera, on mute. I would also rather stay off the record, but the pressure to document often prevails over the anxiety of surveillance. In this joyless version of interaction, I ask my students how they are doing—their college life unceremoniously ripped from the pleasures of campus life and reduced to schoolwork done in isolation. When I assure them that we are “in this together,” I wonder what good this is to the names blinking on and off the screen, distress calls across the ether.


When the Faculty Center burned down, taking with it a sizeable portion of my personal library, it also took away parts of my job that I loved: the privacy of my own office, spontaneous visits from students, cheap pancit bihon from the cafeteria. I learned to hold impromptu consultation hours immediately after class, while walking from the classroom to the classroom-turned-department office, learned to plug in my earphones and play wordless albums on full blast to get work done in the space shared with colleagues displaced by the fire. Now, newly displaced from our four-year-old makeshift common office, I realize that things could be worse. I consume hours composing in writing what would take minutes when said out loud in a classroom setting. My exhaustion grows with every stuttering discussion facilitated by the mute button, every monologue delivered to a grid of black screens. Are you there? Can you hear me? I miss students casually co-piloting class discussions, all the thinking paths unexpectedly taken because somebody blurts out something that just occurred to them. There are no sidelong glances, no conferring with the one sitting next to you, no “we were just talking about this” to preface a response to a text. I miss eye contact, laughter, the unremarkable presence of ambient noise.


The fear of becoming a casualty of: sickness, sadness, loved ones unseen, vendors unmasked, second jobs, unpaid bills, air-conditioned vehicles, cops on the road, laws passed, SUVs bulldozing their way down bike lanes.


I move between window and screen to monitor the super typhoon, the strongest to hit the planet in 2020. The typhoon coincides with reading week, the mandatory break from classes to give everyone time to catch their breath. If it isn’t one disaster, it’s another. I normally ease my fatigue from the screen by looking out the window, but today they are one and the same, the catastrophe on the news pounding on the glass, the glass turned opaque by rain.


When I think of R, I think of being young: beach-hopping and stargazing and dolphin-watching in Dumaguete, where we met; spending languid hours in the Faculty Center in Diliman laughing and talking about unimportant things in between his classes as a new instructor in the English Department and mine as a med school dropout and new recruit to the writing program; watching a saccharine coming-of-age flick at the Film Center and jointly concluding, like the protagonist, that we (now colleagues in the same department) needed a way out of the same old same old life that we seemed to have ended up signing up for; getting on different planes to different states for graduate school in the US, he in MA and me in PA and us vowing to meet up in NY, which we did, for a day. When I met R, I was a skittish teenager so tentatively undoing over a decade’s worth of miseducation from an all-girls’ Catholic school and he was a soft-spoken Atenista who was bookish about spirituality. I was new to writing, painfully unsure of my attempts, easily undone by the cutting appraisal of my work by the editors of the campus paper that I was part of, easily swayed by the tastes and preoccupations of the campus poets I so admired. R was a good (writing) friend to have around–intense but not overbearing, smart and not a show-off, capable of being silly and not taking himself too seriously, talkative without ever talking over you. I was at ease with R–a big deal, if you are a bundle of nerves.

We lost touch when he stayed on in the US and I went home. Eventually, he moved back, but we didn’t pick up where we left off. Different lives, I guess. We did occasionally bump into each other, and these occasions were always light and easy, just talking and laughing. I saw him last in August.

It’s strange to be in a world where it is no longer possible to bump into R. The brutality of these days is made even more stark by impossibility of coming together to condole with those who loved him best.



Day 40

When she first appears in early March, she slams repeatedly against the window for hours. It is exhausting to watch. I try to get back to my reading, ignore the relentless thud thud thud. The three cats give her their undivided attention. Two of them chase after her. I can’t tell if she can tell that they’re there, following her every move, clawing at the glass. Periodically, she (and they) take breaks from her spectacle of self-flagellation. She perches on the steel ladder that is our fire exit, hops and flutters about, looks around, flies off, returns. And then the ruckus resumes. By late afternoon, only one of cats is still interested in her.

A. says Maria Cafras are bossy and territorial. The bird was charging at her reflection in the attempt to drive what she presumed to be another bird away. It took sunset for her reflection to disappear and the battle to end.

My bird book lists her Tagalog name as Maria Kapra, which makes me wonder if we’d just assumed that she and the Pinoy rock band from the 70s shared a name. Google does call her Maria Cafra, or the lowercase maria cafra. Other names for this “showy and energetic flycatcher,” according to my bird book, are: Pandangera (Ilokano), Balyala and Bilad-bilad (Visayan). Scientific name: Rhipidura nigritorquis. Philippine Pied Fantail. I name her Piper on the fourth consecutive day that she visits, and as if in response, she disappears for a week. When she returns, I figure I shouldn’t call her anything.

I don’t know why I think of her as a she, but that’s that.

Shortly after mid-March, she brings family with her. Sometimes there are two of them, sometimes three. When I look at them closely, I’m able to tell them apart (sort of). There’s the tiniest one, the chunkiest one, and the one who isn’t the tiny one or the chunky one. I am reminded of the possibility that the bird who visits daily, the one I’ve grown to think of as a particular bird, may actually be different birds docking at the fire exit one at a time. I’m unable to tell them apart if I don’t see them together.

The slamming-against-the-window routine still happens, but not too often. The poster we put up, it seems, has also served as a deterrent to bird self-harm.

These days, I get up before sunrise, sit on the couch, have coffee. A bird stops by. I wonder when I’ll see anyone again.