APWT Panel on Tomorrow’s Poetry, 22 Oct 2015, UP Diliman

The poetry I write has no value. I write poetry of no value. I write poetry despite its lack of value. I write poetry because it has no value. By value I mean money. I think poetry as a genre is most indisputably incompatible with profit. It’s a losing proposition to mainstream or commercial publishers. I don’t earn from my books of poetry. Often, when I publish work in small journals, I get a free copy or two of the issue (if they are print journals). If the journal is online, I get a link, which I’m happy to pass around. I am part of two small presses, to which I, like everyone involved in them (all writers), contribute money and free labor (editing, proofreading, coordinating with printers, promoting, selling, delivering books). What we earn from our books, we use to publish more books. One of these collectives might be described as any marketing person’s nightmare because it is a poetry press; it publishes only poetry. That poetry press has been around for thirteen years; it runs a journal online and has published close to 40 books. Its existence and endurance prove not that poetry is profitable, but that the profit motive is not the only motive there is to invest in art. The tendency of poetry to resist commodification, when regarded as a capacity to be harnessed rather than an obstacle to be eliminated, is potentially time away from capital, and in a world whose spaces are relentlessly consumed by capital, poetry can be a pocket of resistance, a glimpse into an ‘other life,’ a world other than the given one. Which is why when I think of the work of poetry, I also think of the work of independent publishing. There are aesthetic and political gains in writing not compelled to abide by or serve the interests of industries and institutions.

I say this with poetry in mind but I suspect there is not much money either for those of us here in the Philippines who produce work that falls under the category of ‘literature.’ I have yet to hear of a Filipino writer practicing in the country who no longer has the need for a day job because he or she can live off of advances, or royalties, or fees. I was recently contacted by a prominent publisher for permission to reprint an essay of mine in a textbook, and when they sent me their contract, it did not include compensation. I needed to remind a leading corporation in a multi-million peso industry that it should pay me for my work.

Given these conditions, I find it illuminating that my most memorable encounter of a price tag attached to a literary text here in the Philippines involves the threat of a lawsuit. In April of this year, my partner, who is also a writer, was threatened with fines and jail time by a mainstream publisher and two editors for a work of appropriation and criticism that he authored in response to one of their anthologies. 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. He was given five days to delete his ‘crime of writing’ else he would be taken to court, which could impose the following penalties on him as mandated by law: “for each count of copyright infringement [there were four], the penalty is imprisonment of one (1) to three (3) years plus a fine of PhP50,000 – P150,000. This kind of online infringement could also be punished under the new Cybercrime Law.”

I was struck by the numbers cited in this cease-and-desist letter. There is such a thing as fair use, but as it turns out, the selected sentences in the anthology were a commodity so precious, a property so private, that their repurposing by another writer to comment on the the anthology in which they appear was valued at over half a million pesos in fines and over a decade of jail time. Apparently, here in the Philippines, where writers are poorly paid, writers could be excessively penalized: what we lack in compensation is made up for in regulation. A publisher and its editors could quote a six-figure amount for your work, but only to fine you for it, with jail time thrown in for good measure. In an industry that seems to lack the resources for remunerating creativity, there are apparently resources for policing it. Policing is an apt word here, because the turn to litigation is after compliance, not discussion. In fact it forces compliance by assigning a financial cost to discussion, by removing it from the free and public space in which literary debates often take place, and relocating it to the costly (and time-consuming) arena of a legal battle, whose outcome, when reached, involves the imposition of punishment. In light of such litigiousness, it seems pertinent to ask the members of our community of writers how you appraise your own work, since it plays a part in determining the climate in which literary practices can evolve and thrive. When does the value of your work become commensurate to the imprisonment of another writer for its use? In what instances does your work attain a value that justifies your pursuit of the forcible erasure of another writer’s work and the outlawing of another writer’s artistic methods?

Early this year I gave a talk to undergraduates in UP Mindanao on poetry and plagiarism. The invitation for me to visit came with the context that plagiarism was on the rise among their students, and there was a need to put a stop to it. My talk was meant to help clarify the difference between the utterly lazy, utterly unimaginative, mercenary, and run-of-the-mill plagiarism that plagued their students and “the creative and innovative means with which writers and artists appropriate the works of others.” In flagging the difference between plagiarism and appropriation, the invite implicitly and usefully acknowledges that the two also overlap, which suggests the possibility that what students do when they do the former could be meaningfully transformed and mobilized to result in the latter. In the age of cut-and-paste, the meme, the share button, the re-tweet, the torrent, along with all other technologies post-mechanical reproduction, it is unsurprising that many of us are casual, cavalier, or careless users and movers and copiers and displayers of data. In our context too here in the Philippines, where, through piracy, we are able to bust the barricades, so to speak, and gain access to knowledge and culture and information which would otherwise be unavailable, inaccessible, or unaffordable to many of us, it is an oversimplification to vilify our poaching ways.

When I talked to the students, I focused on how the cut-and-paste reflex could be turned into a deliberate method in the work of appropriation, which is as old as art itself. The art we make is necessarily engaged with the art that is already out there, and what varies is the extent to which we disclose these engagements in the artwork itself. Using mostly the work of Filipino writers, I showed them examples of interdisciplinary, multimedia, cross-genre efforts that work directly with pre-existing texts and manipulate, alter, and transform them into new texts. I showed them erasures (texts produced by deleting portions of pre-existing texts) and collage poems (with lines drawn from other sources). I showed them constraints-based rewrites of a pop song. I showed them a poem made up of lines from the subtitles in English of a pirated dvd of an American movie. These pieces, which are outcomes of methods that engage technology and new media, reconfigure what it means to be an author and to produce a text in this place and time. They are also the first to go, it seems, if literary production were to be overseen by an increasingly corporate mentality, committed to privatizing ideas at the expense of writing itself, for literary works are never untouched by the works of others. I think it is important to interrogate the gestures that transform the literary arena into yet another domain that supports the survival of the materially fittest, molded in the image of the status quo. While I’m sure that this arrangement enriches, I am also sure that what it enriches is not literature.

It isn’t out of the ordinary to say we turn to literature for things other than money, so it doesn’t seem to be a stretch to end this talk by inviting you to explore literature that skirts or tries to operate outside the circuits of capital. I encourage you to explore the work of independent or small press or self or DIY publishers, or whatever else you call efforts that strive to forge alternative routes for creating, circulating, and distributing literary work. These aren’t particularly preoccupied with breaking into the national or international markets, or being backed by the major stakeholders in the publishing industry, or receiving validation from institutions of art, through which most of the limited resources to produce art here flow. The work is out there. It doesn’t have the machinery, it doesn’t have the mechanisms, it’s not recognized by award-giving bodies, it’s not supported by prestigious grants, it’s not sponsored by government institutions, it’s not represented by agents, it’s not being sold in the big bookstore chains, it’s not reviewed in the major broadsheets, and that’s okay. It’s available online, through independent bookstores, through small press/DIY expos, through street fairs, through its creators and collaborators. It circulates via word-of-mouth, via readers who pass it on to other readers, via teachers who encourage their students to read widely. It’s bartered, it’s cheap, it’s free, it’s limited-run, it’s printed on demand, it’s handmade, it’s ephemeral. It circulates differently, and it just might be a different kind of literature too. It’s out there and I encourage readers to look in its direction.