Get to know Pierra Calasanz-Labrador, one of the talented authors from the After Nine Keeper collection who wrote and self-published The Heartbreak Diaries.
HK: How long have you been writing? How did you transition from being an editor in chief (Meg and Enjoy Manila Travel Guide) to publishing your own book, The Heartbreak Diaries?
PCL: Looking back, even as a kid I was always writing poems, essays, stories, or just recording everything in my journal. I never realized that I could be a professional writer [because] back then, the more “creative” pursuits weren’t as encouraged as they are today. I was on a different career path, but eventually ended up in publishing anyway! I guess you really do end up gravitating toward the things you love.
Even back when I was EIC of MEG, publishing a book was already a big dream! It was only after shifting to freelance [writing] that I seriously began working on The Heartbreak Diaries, but my magazine background really helped me figure out how to put together this book project. Fun bonus: I love how some of the readers of the book still remember me from my MEG days!
HK: What compelled you to create and compile this collection of poems?
PCL: When I finally gathered up the guts to self-publish, I knew that my first collection would be something close to my heart, and something almost everyone could relate to as well—heartbreak and hope. The giddiness of having a crush, the despair of unrequited love, the destructive games you play in relationships, falling to pieces, putting yourself back together again… People dismiss romance as fluff, but it’s something that affects us deeply. It shapes us, and I hoped I could capture all those feelings and put it together in a book that would resonate with others. Also, I already had two decades’ worth of material. I just really needed to figure out which poems would make it into the collection.
HK: Do you remember the first poem you fell in love with?
PCL: Yes—“The Wind Blows From The North”—a classic Chinese poem written in BC 718 [by an unknown poet]. I stumbled upon it in a high school English class, and I remember being so moved and wanting to be able to write poetry as subtle yet compelling as that.
HK: What about the first poem you ever wrote? Can you share how it came about?
PCL: Gosh, I can’t remember anymore! But my parents say I used to make up songs about being eaten by sharks and crocodiles as a kid. I know, so morbid, right? For The Heartbreak Diaries, the earliest poem in the collection is “Stars,” and it’s about meeting someone for the first time who you feel you’ve known forever—I hoped the intimacy of the poem created that feeling. I was very into “soul mates” at the time. I still believe that the universe is strange and beautiful and we have magical connections with certain people, but now I also know that we create our own destiny.
HK: How easy or difficult is it for you to write about heartache? Do you have a process?
PCL: Unlike with professional writing assignments, I have no process when it comes to writing poetry. I wish I could write on demand, but a poem randomly comes to me when I’m struck by a feeling, an idea, or a memory. That’s why they’re written on random scraps of paper or on my notes app on my phone; the thought or feeling comes, and I need to write it down and articulate it immediately, even if no one else reads it but me. Sometimes, if it needs a little nudge—especially if it’s about heartbreak—I put on my trusty melancholy playlist to get into the right mood. Most of the time the poem is completed in one go, though there are a few that remain just fragments of a poem for years and years, maybe until I experience a situation—whether firsthand or vicariously—that gives me a deeper insight and helps me complete it.
HK: What’s the best comment you’ve received about the book? On the flip side, how do you deal with negative feedback?
PCL: Negative feedback is such a scary thing, especially in creative fields where opinions are so subjective. It’s always helpful to see things from someone else’s perspective, realize the areas where we can grow and improve, but we also have to know which things we absolutely won’t change, to keep being true to ourselves. We can’t please everyone.
A lot of my poetry is very personal, so I was so hesitant to put it out there, but now I’m happy I did—the feedback on the book has been so heartwarming and encouraging! When my friend Cat Juan-Ledesma said that her husband caught her crying while reading my book, I thought my heart would burst. And when kind strangers reach out to me to let me know they’ve been moved by a certain poem or even been inspired to write their own, I’m just so amazed and grateful and awed that I have this opportunity to connect with people.
HK: If someone stumbles on your book and only had time to read one piece, which one would you tell him or her to read and why?
PCL: I think the poem “Warm” aptly captures all the hugot contained in the book! But the flip side to that poem is “Magic,” which speaks of hope and recognizing real love in everyday gestures.
HK: Aside from poems on love and heartache, what else do you write about?
PCL: I hope I don’t get pigeonholed for writing about heartache! I write about everyday things, really—gratitude for simple joys, friendship, loneliness, nostalgia, dysfunctional families, travel, odes to my cats… I hope to share more of these other poems, eventually.
HK: Who inspired you to write?
PCL: Gah, too many to mention! My first teachers were books. As a super shy kid, libraries and bookstores were my favorite places in the world, and The Cat in The Hat, King Arthur, and Anne of Green Gables were my playmates. In college, I took up business management and psychology—remember, I didn’t think I could write professionally—and in my last year, I needed to take an elective so I picked poetry. I had the fortune of being under Filipino poet Cirilo F. Bautista (incidentally, he was named National Artist for Literature this year!) who introduced the class to some of the great classics. He wasn’t really a fan of my poetry, but he did encourage me to keep writing. He also recommended me to the National Writers’ Workshop in Dumaguete, which really unleashed a passion for writing and introduced me to some of the best local writers out there—from workshop mentors like Jing Hidalgo and Butch Dalisay, to super talented batch mates like Chingbee Cruz and Lourd de Veyra. And then there are literary idols, like Emily Dickinson, Erica Jong, Neil Gaiman… Okay, I should stop now!
HK: Any tips for aspiring writers or poets or people who’d like to self-publish their works?
PCL: A few years ago, when self-publishing was still frowned upon, I attended the self-publishing workshop of Mina Esguerra, which gave me a totally new perspective. Times are changing, and apart from traditional publishers, there are now new avenues through which you can get your works to readers.
And when my sister-in-law Chinggay Labrador self-published her children’s book Zeke and The Pirates [also included in the After Nine Keeper roster!], she encouraged me that if you want to be in complete control of how your book comes out, self-publishing is the way to go. It can be tedious and expensive; you have to think about all sorts of details, from assembling a proper team of editors/book designers/printers, to how to fund it and which stores can stock it. You’ll have to be really thick-skinned and do a lot of self-promotion, too, but seeing people actually enjoy and connect with your work is totally worth it.
It also helps to attend writing workshops to give you an idea of how people react to your work. When I attended Randy Bustamante’s writing workshop at Ayala Museum recently, it actually gave me the confidence to share my work with a wider audience.
HK: How does it feel to be a part of the After Nine Keeper selection in the Hey Kessy shop? Is there anyone else from the other contributors you’d like to meet?
PCL: I love how Mansy Abesamis is practically the poster girl of the local “handmade movement,” and she was one of the very first cheerleaders of The Heartbreak Diaries, which includes the dreamy artwork of Celina de Guzman. Hey Kessy was the very first store that carried my book, and it will always have a special place in my heart! It’s such an honor to be part of Hey Kessy’s After Nine Keeper roster alongside amazing local artists and makers. I follow a lot of them on Instagram—I’m a stationery and crafts hoarder, you see, so I turn into such a fangirl when I meet them in person!
HK: What are your future endeavors? Any plans of releasing a second volume?
PCL: I hope I can manage to work on more personal projects: maybe a children’s book and a second volume of poetry, about a broader range of topics this time.
Let us know which After Nine Keeper you’d like to read about next!