AUTHOR SPOTLIGHT: Pierra Calasanz-Labrador Shares her Universe through Poetry

Pierra Calasanz-Labrador, author of poetry book Dear Universe: Poems on Love, Longing, and Finding Your Place in the Cosmos, shares a few tips on how she finally found the courage to put her poetry out into the universe.

How did you conceptualize Dear Universe?

When Andrea approached me with the idea of creating a sort of sequel to The Heartbreak Diaries, I took a look at the poems I had on hand, to see if there were themes I could build on. So while The Heartbreak Diaries is mostly about the journey from heartbreak to hope, Dear Universe continues the theme on love, but it’s also about sisterhood, self-discovery and all the secret hopes, fears, wishes, anxieties, and glorious revelations that come with it. There’s even a whole chapter dedicated to introverts. And ultimately, it’s about finding your place in the world.

Can you share with us your writing process?

Hmmm, I don’t have a formula—I pretty much just rely on my muse and write when inspiration strikes; that way it flows really naturally and I finish a poem in one go. I love it when that happens, because words just fall into place and it’s exactly what I want to say, no rewrites. There are times, though, when I only have bits and pieces of what I want to express, and so I write them down on my phone or notebook or random Post-it and revisit it another time when the mood is right. If a deadline looms and I need to cheat, I turn to my hugot playlist or ugly cry movies to get into the mood. I guess that’s a long-winded way of saying I need to feel what I write.

How would you describe your writing style?

I write everyday poetry—quiet, straightforward, relatable poems on seemingly mundane things that can mean the world to someone else.

What’s your favorite part in creating the Dear Universe?

There were so many significant moments for me—digging into my diaries to find poems that didn’t work for The Heartbreak Diaries but were perfect for Dear Universe; seeing the poems come together; working with Fran Alvarez and then literally seeing my poems in full color through her intuitive, whimsical illustrations; and, a bonus I didn’t expect, working with the Anvil Audio team and Joyce Pring, whose heartfelt narration really brought Dear Universe to a whole new level.

What were the challenges in putting Dear Universe together?

Poems are tricky because one word can throw the whole thing off, so Ma’am Edith Tiempo’s advice to me always rings in my ear: “Make sure every word is inevitable.” That every word is meant to be there, that it’s the best possible way to convey what I want to say and no other word will do. So when I craft a poem in one go, by gut feel, without ever having to look at a Thesaurus, I know I have it.

Then, there’s the challenge of wondering how a poem sounds to someone else—does it make sense? Does the message come across? I had lots of help from wonderful friends who read my drafts, and a brilliant editor, Randy Bustamante, who respected my voice and just gently steered it in the right direction, illuminating my path so the poems sounded better yet still personal and not contrived. Oh, and I had to ask permission from some friends if I could use their experiences in my poetry!

What/who influenced your writings?

I guess it begins with a love for words, and growing up surrounded by books—at home, school libraries (where I spent many lunch breaks), exchanging books with friends, from Sweet Dreams to Jane Austen… I’m inspired by so many wordsmiths: Neil Gaiman, Emily Dickinson, Maya Angelou, Erica Jong, Mary Oliver, Chingbee Cruz, Roald Dahl, Rainbow Rowell… And also, passionate high school English teachers, and meeting mentors who encourage me to “keep reading, keep writing,” like Dr. Cirilo Bautista, Bienvenido Santos, and Ma’am Jing Hidalgo. I didn’t pursue literature or creative writing or even journalism in college—I honestly didn’t think that I could make a living out of writing, but I guess you really do end up doing what you love, and thankfully there was a place for me in magazines. And now somehow, amazingly, there’s an audience for my poetry.

What made you fall in love with poetry?

Dr. Seuss? Mother Goose? Watching Romeo and Juliet as a kid (long before the Leo di Caprio version)… I can’t remember the exact moment; I just knew I loved words, but especially the economy and powerful impact of poetry, how you could say so little but say so much, so eloquently. Then, in high school, I came across a poem by a Chinese poet called “The Wind Blows North,” and I remember being so moved, my heart aching and I hadn’t even experienced heartbreak like that yet, and wanting to write just like that. I still have that English textbook!

What’s your favorite poem of all time?

i carry your heart with me (i carry it in my heart) by e.e. cummings. It’s tender, it’s bizarre, it’s not bound by rules, it’s beautiful. When someone can take your feelings and express it in a whole new, amazing way that speaks to you, it’s genius.

Any advice for aspiring poets?

I don’t know if I’m in a position to give advice yet—but the one thing I do know, is that it pays to keep trying. My mentors always advised to keep reading and keep writing; and I clearly remember Bienvenido Santos telling me to keep submitting my work, no matter how many rejection slips I get, he got so many himself but kept trying anyway. Also, workshops and classes and mentors can help hone your skill, but remember to believe in yourself, because not everyone will like your work. Just keep writing in your own voice, and you will find the audience it speaks to.

If you could give a message to your readers, what would it be?

In the chapter To Whom It May Concern, it opens with the poem “The Beautiful and Strange,” which is essentially my message to readers, to embrace everything that is vulnerable and brave and beautiful and strange about them. I wish I had learned much earlier in life that it’s ok to be myself; so this book is kind of reaching out to kindred spirits, to those who feel secretly broken or incomplete or invisible—that they are so much more than they think, and that they are not alone. Also, be kind—to others, but especially, to yourself.

Finish this sentence: “Dear Universe . . . ______”

Thank you for everything.

Join us for an afternoon of poetry reading and book signing with author Pierra Calasanz-Labrador, illustrato Fran Alvarez, and audiobook narrator Joyce Pring. See you tomorrow, June 23, 4:00 PM, at The Podium.

Dear Universe is available for only P395  at National Book Store and Powerbooks Store, and online at Dear Universe audiobook is available at Audible, Amazon, iTuenes, Google Play, Kobo, Scribd, and all e-retailers.