Interview Issue 2

   Issue#2: Jan. - Mar. 2003

Marc Gaba and Allan Popa

Conversation with Marjorie Evasco

Marc Gaba (G): How's the new work coming along? How's the desk?

Marjorie Evasco (ME): I would say the prognosis is good, because of the break that the IWP [International Writing Program] had offered me. I have been mobilized here in La Salle as director of the Bienvenido N. Santos Creative Writing Center. There's so much work to do, subsob ako sa trabaho, and of course there's the teaching. The rhythm of the work is very different from the rhythm of putting a poem into its full form. So I had been very disappointed with my pace last year. It's still slow now, but if I can write one good poem a month, I would be a happy human being. That wasn't happening last year. Before the IWP, I only had six new poems -- yung poems na hindi na finger exercises. Talagang pwede nang i-publish, yung poems na sigurado ako sa ginagawa ko.

G: Is your definition of a good poem, when you're applying it to your work, different from that which you apply to the work of your students or any other writers?

ME: I would use the same standards. I'm very demanding. That's why the ones who need to have their poems read by me, they have to be my good friends first. I mean, we should be friends enough for me to tell them the truth. Kasi if I'm just going to flatter, that's not going to be good for the person or for me. The workshop environment has that structure where the student can present the work and say, "You've been in the writing business for 15 years ahead of me, maybe you know more, can you please see if this is good enough?" The young writer is giving me the opportunity to read and say something about it. But if I'm not asked, I will not touch it. And then when I read poems that are published in the periodicals, my reading is going to be as stringent, as demanding, as I would be with my own poems. I would say that there's a lot of drivel being published.

G: Before we go to the drivel, how would you explain -- although I'm sure it can't really be defined in this space, but -- how would you articulate what you mean by "good"?

ME: Well, it depends on the material at hand. Because every material -- and by material, I mean the creative concept, not the idea -- but a concept that's carried by maybe a line, or a word, a sound, an image, or a seed of a story if it's a narrative poem eventually. So depende sa form that you have chosen for it. Let's say, there's a concept I want to work on, maybe the image is that of say, a spider. My idea of "good," if it's my poem, is when I am able to see [points her finger to "the place where the third eye is supposed to be"] the image clearly -- you know this because you're writers -- yung nawawala na ang mata mo, hindi ka na tumitingin sa labas, pero meron kang tinitingnan doon sa loob na kailangan klaro -- pag nakikita ko yun at gumagalaw o buhay ito, I'd know that I have a "good" chance of catching it with words. So if I'm fully there and I'm putting that down on paper, whatever it is, it could work well. Of course the sounds have to work together. Whatever strategy I apply, when the poem is at its end and I read it through, I have to be able to sense that it is a world that is complete.

Some other way of talking about it is to say that a good poem is "structurally sound," and I'm using that on several levels. In other words, if I gave it to you, my question would be "Can you live in it for a while? and be able to breathe? grow? be? or become?" If you can't live in it, then it's probably a bad poem. I'm really talking about what they call the "talismanic world" of a poem. I read, for example, a poem by Allan, and when I lived in it, parang ayaw ko munang lumabas. Masarap siyang space. It's a space of fullness. It's a space where you can see the world again.

I know I'm not being very clear, but maybe that's good. It can never really be explained. I think technique, in the most mystical sense of it, is a sense of rightness with what you're doing. For example, if I'm working with a hammer and nail, the way I'm driving the nail into the wood should have a sense of rightness in it. I mean, if you're observing what I'm doing and you also know how to use these tools, you'd sense if I am doing it right and you'd say, "Tama ang ginagawa niya." Let's say I turn the work another way around and hammer the nail into air -- you still should be able to see that and say "Tama ang ginagawa niya." You have words like "objective correlative" or "closure," but these are items that you can describe only after the doing. But since we're looking at the process, the process essentially remains in the mysterious.

The best way of looking at a poem to see if it is good, from my point of view, is to see kung meron siyang loob, at kung pwede mo siyang maging mundo, at buo, buo siya. And the best way of testing my own poems is with my really good friends who are very good readers, like my daughter. "Ano ba itong image na ito?" -- pag meron pa siyang mga comments na ganyan, that means to say, something's calling needless attention to itself, saying there's a crack here somewhere. If a poem is good, if I can trust that it's already a self-sufficient world, I don't have to be there anymore to explain anything. It's not something that's there only because of the force of my personality.

I am suspicious of critical judgments that are based on extra-literary considerations say, the poet is a likeable or popular person. I really am very suspicious of that way of "reading." Kasi, baka nga, it's merely because I'm charming [laughs] -- this has nothing to do with the poem! It's just PR! And that's the end of it.

G: It's certainly not reading, it doesn't deserve the term.

ME: Yes, it's maybe our personalistic culture. Hindi ako naniniwala sa ganyang pagbabasa. I don't read fast. I can't even write blurbs just like that. I know it's a marketing thing but it's not a marketing thing for me so I have to say: please give me your entire collection Allan, lahat ha, and could you give me at least a month? And I read all of Allan's works. When I say that this poem or this collection is good, I mean it because I've read it carefully. Ganyan ako ka-crazy. [laughs] I have to hear the music, I have to see it clearly, I have to follow its thought process, I have to understand it's heart, I have to know its intestines, I have to live there.

So when I do that I can't just accept anything. When Ophie Dimalanta invited me before I left for Iowa to write the introduction to Passional, I asked for a copy of the entire collection that I could bring with me, and I begged to be given time. The easy way would have been to say I can't do it, or I won't have time to do it. But I don't take the easy route. I felt Ophie was asking me to read her poems because she trusted in my judgment. There is always something in any writer that asks for a mindful reader. And I thought, maybe I can be that to her poems. When I accepted the invitation, I committed myself to paying full attention to Ophie's poems.

In that concentrated time in Iowa I really locked my door for one week to re-read and live with the poems for a while. "Ano ba talaga ang ginagawa ng mga tulang ito?" After one week, naiintindihan ko na yung storya ng Passional. I wrote the draft to show how each poem works with what Ophie was trying to do in the collection. I could now write the intro. Of course, she really doesn't need any introduction anymore; in fact, I protested at first and said: But you're Ophie Dimalanta! That one week I locked my door, I was really focused, as focused as I can get on my poems. I didn't send the finished essay to Ophie right away. I sent it to a friend who cares about Ophie and I requested her, "Read it with your sharp critical eye and tell me if I'm doing the poems justice." It's not about Ophie. It's not about flattering her. It's about doing service to the poems. Those are two different things altogether. If I said this one here or that one there is a good poem, it's not to flatter her. Since she knows her art, she will take critical readings in that context and in that perspective. Ophie's poems have a free-flowing cadence, almost formless, but very disciplined yung "formlessness" na ganyan. So it's really a trick, no? She even has a poem on this trick she plays on readers. In effect, maybe I was able to read close enough to see kung paano niya kino-construct yung poems niya. I think I did a good reading of the poems and I'm quite happy with the essay. I took the time that was needed to focus on it and nothing else.

G: Now. As for drivel. What would you like to see less of in contemporary poetic practice?

ME: Maybe because of my training and my persuasion and my temperament, I go for poems that have a good mind to them, a tough mind. It's good to have emotions, but the raw feeling that we experience in the daily world, it's not anymore that which gets into the poem. That's why we have the device called tone, because tone is emotion that has been put into thought. Tone is felt thought. In other words if I read a poem, the feeling is already in the tone. A lot of poems now are tone-deaf. These are poems that go by the force of just saying "I am sad." Hindi ganon, mas grabe ang ang trabaho sa poetry kasi it really demands a leap of faith. A poem can say "I am sad," but it shouldn't say it that way; instead, it should suggest that sadness. You have to be a technician of sound and sense to know how to do that.

G: Do you subscribe to Gemino Abad's idea of Native Clearing? Do you believe that you're writing within set boundaries?

ME: His main contention is that we're using language not "in" but "from" English. In other words, I'm using English now, but this is the English that is in my culture. Not divorced from our culture, but something within it already, something appropriated. Therefore, I think the nativist argument is problematic.

G: Ma'am, I just would like to add that when we use the word "from," that's practically saying that it's a tie cut off, that their traditions aren't operative here anymore, and that we've begun our own.

ME: I don't know about that. My problem with criticism or theory is that it's not the kind of writing that I want to do. But the best criticism informs the best writing. I read the critics because of their ideas of how to read, how to approach writing in our time and as well as those of the past -- you can read as far back as Lu Chi and know how the Chinese read their own texts. I want to be informed. The critical idea of Jimmy Abad is not the sole idea that informs my craft. But there is something there in what Jimmy writes that speaks to me, that I understand, and I say, "Tama ang sinasabi ni Jimmy."

But it can't not be problematized either. I can problematize it as a Boholano writer who speaks a variant of Cebuano, and who now writes in the Cebuano lingua franca. I also continue to use English for communicative and literary purposes. So can I claim that in my poems, I'm actually enmeshed in my Boholano culture? That is not for me to say. That problem's in the realm of the reader. My concern as a writer is to write the best way I know.

Now, maybe I know the English language well enough to feel it supple in my hands. If it's not supple, then I wouldn't be able to handle it. It would come out wooden, very stiff, and maybe even sound Victorian. Imitative. It would not yet be on the inventive level. The art of writing is both imitation and invention. Imitation, meaning, you know your tradition and you know how the best of it tasted for various publics through time. To some extent, therefore, we model after the best of the best that have survived. But at the same time, you can't stay there; you have to contribute something entirely your own. This is an old idea, I mean, T.S. Eliot said it already. Your poem takes its place in the world of poetry. So: will it stand side by side Lorca's? Will it stand side by side Edith Tiempo's? Will this stand side by side Jimmy Abad's? I'm thinking of the best of the best -- those that someone had written that could last longer than her or his lifetime. I would like my poems to be like that. So maraming concerns sa pagsulat that have to do with giving your best at a particular point of your development. I think I'm maybe better with certain techniques now than I was ten years ago. Although if I read my earliest poems, I can say the technique of economy of words is still very big with me...because I don't like wasting words with my poetry. Yung technique of sharply drawn images, hanggang ngayon, ganyan pa rin yon. So meron akong certain practices that have to do with composing a poem well.

G: Do you have a book project now? And when you were working on Ochre Tones, were you consciously trying to avoid some of the things that you were doing in Dreamweavers? Was there self-revision involved as you moved from Dreamweavers to Ochre Tones, and is there self-revision now as you go from Ochre Tones to what you're about to do next?

ME: I don't work with an idea that's already done in my head, kung baga parang meron nang kahon, then all I have to do is to put the poems there. Hindi ako ganyan. I don't even know when the next book will come. I really don't think of the book until I have a sizeable collection, and this has happened with both books. Dreamweavers has an organizing principle, may mga chapters, may mga titles ang chapters. It's the same with v, I think the book concept there had to do with the elements. But the concept did not come before the poems. The poems are written as they come. It took 12 years for all the poems inOchre Tones to come in, and then when I looked at them I said, "Okay, how does one make this into a book?" Hindi naman kasi pwedeng ilagay ko lang silang chronological lang ang principle of organization. You're making a book and saying "I thought this out." Even the way one poem follows another, it's not a random arrangement -- there is some kind of story in it, but I'm not going to give it away.

Now going to the idea of revisions. I don't think it is self-revision, inasmuch as it is growth, development. The creative process is like that of a tree, you grow annual rings. On the outermost layer is Dreamweavers. Nearer the core is Ochre Tones. The poems here are still related to the poems in Dreamweavers but they are also different because I'm not anymore where I was when I was writing the poems in the first book. As for recurring themes, what else is there to talk about except love and death?! Eros and Thanatos! Point A and Point B! [laughs] It's still the same story, except that the particulars arrive differently for everyone.

I was just reading the poems given for Ubod, for the NCCA first book series awards. There are a few brilliant collection. But the rest are cliché. You have, let's say, love poems. You look at it and you say "yeah yeah yeah, same same same." By "same," I mean clichés, the familiar things that you do not even need to think out well anymore. I would hate my poems to be like that, to say something cliché.

Now that I'm older, I'm more exacting of myself. Maybe it's another expression of my arrogance, but I try to practice something that may not have been apparent when I was younger. I want to say, this product of a writing life will someday take its rightful place in that magnificent city of Baudelaire, where all the writers of the world have built shelters for the human spirit. I want my poems to go there even if I myself cannot; I'd be dead by then and be with the worms, di ba? We still immortalize Shakespeare but we don't know all the personal circumstances of his life; we don't even care to know anymore. What was his life like? Did he eat gruel? Did he have a garden? -- questions that refer to the little accidents of life. I see gardens in his poetry and that's enough for me. Only that life called the poem is the life that is important in that "magnificent" place. Maybe I'm crazy and wacky enough to think perhaps people will remember me for what I say. B ut that's a very finite wish. Limited.

G: Does your empathy for the feminine point-of-view reveal what your material is to you, so that the agenda, when you write, is no longer an issue?

ME: When I wrote my first book Dreamweavers Grace Monte de Ramos had to tell me, "You know, you're really using the female point of view." I really mulled over that observation. Tiningnan ko lahat, yung mga disembodied poems, like the one with the sage and the stone entitled "Tektite." Even if I did not give any clue as to the gender of the speaker, no pronoun to say that it was a female voice, nakita ko rin yung nakita ni Grace. I would explain it in terms of my process and not in terms of my politics. My poems come out of a lived life. It can be the life that I experience in the world where something happens and triggers the creative composition, or it can be from my reading life and there's a word or a line or a really beautiful way of looking at things that becomes a living part of me.

Allan Popa (P): How do you view the natural world since it's very present in your poems?

ME: You hit on something very, very important to me. In my soul, I'm pagan. Nature is very important to me. In fact Allan, you see this room? I cannot write here without plants. In Iowa, same thing. I didn't have a room with a view and it was good for the writing. The other side had a view. If I were there I would have just watched the view and felt good about myself. Watching is a part of writing, anyway. I had the gravel roof in front of me and a white wall, so I said, magiging monastic ako sa Iowa. But I felt there was something lacking: I didn't have anything living. I needed a plant. So bumili ako ng halaman -- arboricola capella. I brought it to my room and took care of it everyday. Why did I do that? I grew up in an environment like that. My grandmother had gardens. I was always surrounded by plants. Flowering trees. You've been to my house, haven't you? I could have a car in the garage but I'd rather have a garden. Is my life lesser? Hindi naman. Am I happier? Yes. I face my garden when I write at home, it's very important to me.

P: Do you see it as wild or untamed? Ang feeling ko pag nagbabasa ako ng poem mo, it seems to summon a presence na unknown or amoral and somehow, it reminds you of mortality. Although pag na-reach mo yung end, it's still a wilderness...something you conquered...

ME: That's a very good insight. In my imagination, a forest lives inside me. It's that space that's primal, untamed, it's still in that stage. I think it's good to have it.

P: Do you consider yourself ambitious? And does ambition have to manifest in formal inventiveness? Is that the only way?

ME: Yes. Ambition in art does not have anything to do with winning prizes or getting acknowledged. I think one metaphor would be my father's work. He worked with wood, crafting furniture, fine furniture, with his hands. He would go to his workshop almost every day of his life. If I asked him, "Pa, anong ginagawa mo?" He would say, "Ah, I'm making a four-poster bed for a friend." At that point, yun ang ambisyon niya. I take ambition as the project that you are going to fund with all the good that is in you and all the good that you will discover in the process. You grow, there are things you discover. If I use that metaphor then I would say that ambition has to do with the project at hand. Another way of looking at it is to ask yourself what your biggest challenge is now. My answer would be the next word. The next word. I heard something like that from Beth Yap, our resident writer here. When we asked her what her most challenging project was, because we knew she was working on this novel that's been taking her about ten years, she said, "The next line." That's how ambitious her project is. Hindi yung, we have this term in Cebuano, pinadalagan, just kind of letting it run easy. Hindi ganun.

I have this ambition to write an epic based on the first recorded Boholano poet, Baylan Karyapa. I haven't started the first word yet [laughs]. But I'm researching about her, I'm looking into many sources, I'm looking into imaginative ways of dealing with the Baylan concept, I'm dealing with the history of the Sandugo. Baylan Karyapa was actually prophesying in the 16th century that strangers would come to this land. The kingdom of Dapitan in Panglao would be destroyed. There would be other people who would take over. The Jesuit and Recollect priests were already in Bohol at that time and this extant text of only 8 lines are in the cartas annuas. Very ancient Bisaya with Spanish in it. It's a beautiful concept to work on and maybe because I'm from Bohol it's very near my heart.

Maybe it will come out, maybe it will not. I don't know if it's going to be a verse monologue. Malou Jacob suggested I could use that form. Yun ang ambisyon ko pero hindi ko pa kasi nilalagay sa work table. Pag nandiyan na ang materyales ko, masusulat ko na yung invocation. I'm looking into the epic tradition and I'm thinking, kaya ko kaya yun? From the poetry that I know how to write, how to pay attention to, kaya ko kaya iyon? Magaling ba ako sa narrative form? Can I already tell a story? Many questions!