Mabi David: I want to start not with a question but with an observation, which you can comment on, counter, or flat out reject. The Rosegun is based on Napoleon Abueva’s well-known wooden sculptural piece of the same title, a gun that shoots roses instead of bullets. This fact, to me, points to the book as ekphrastic, although it defies conventional expectations. In the title poem, which comes in the latter part of the collection, the sensibility of the persona throughout the collection is brought to bear upon the Abueva artwork—the made thing, the object of our gaze—which is transformed from a piece of whimsy and play into “a lame and gorgeous/ vision of our future.//” Two stanzas down, you write: “Soon, what you fire are wows-/ not-bullets/ never the same/ and always spectacles.//” It is an unexpected and weighty tandem to me: ekphrasis and spectacle. Exciting, too, given the persona’s ever-present compulsion to define, fashion, and re-fashion the self as it is caught in the nervous currents of desire, boredom, rancor, and anomie. “Stamps”, “Wigs”, and “Alien” are some of the poems that come to mind. Also this stanza from “The Angry of Bliss”: “What he exalts you don’t own/ so you pamper yourself/ with reinvention of boasts.//”
Alex Gregorio: I saw Abueva’s Rose Gun in an exhibition opening at the Vargas Museum where it opened the show in place of the usual ribbon-cutting ceremony. As an artwork that literally had to work at center stage, I found the moment mesmerizing. The rifle and the moment managed to evoke in me this sense of love as danger, hesitation, and surprise, which eventually became one of the themes I would work on. And because the gun, true to my anxiety, actually failed to work in the first two attempts, I found the whole thing all the more irresistible and charming. It tickled me to write a similarly jokey but menacing love piece using a rifle that shot roses as the main image.
While I did write ekphrastic poems, I did not set out to intentionally write a whole book under this sort of spell. I simply loved the way the sculpture was forced to work, and I thought his Rose Gun best summed up enigmatically the themes and contradictions that I was trying to apprehend in the book. These poems were drafted over a period of about ten years, and many of them were rewritten without the idea of book publication in mind.
That said, there are several poems in the book that use works of visual art and literature as take-off points, such as “Alice and the Small Door”, “Rumpelstiltskin”, and “The Rat House”, as well as “Notes from a Cantina”, which was an experiment at trying my hand in painting by describing a work that only existed in my head. Not sure now if that works or if it even makes sense.
Mabi: Why not? If the Shield of Achilles actually existed based on Homer’s extended description of it in the Iliad, it’d be the size of a billboard. You’re very interested in the visual arts?
Alex: Yes I am. And in using ekphrasis as a crutch to write poetry, I think I found a way to do two things: dabble in art criticism—which to this day remains an ambition—and use words as specially and distinctly as possible to embody and enact particular states of anxiety and desire that I found in other works of art. If that’s anywhere near the goals of ekphrasis, then I may have worked with it in some way in the writing of many of the poems.
Mabi: It’s why I think the book defies our more conventional expectations about ekphrasis by extending it beyond a “poetic” description of the work into these “particular states of anxiety and desire” you mention, which Marc Gaba also takes note of in his blurb of the book.
Alex: “Angry of Bliss”, though, was a totally different experience. It was more a burst of a strange kind of energy, honesty, and forthrightness that to this day I wish I can revive. Oh, and there was also a poem with the same title on Julie Lluch’s “Philippine Gothic” that I did not include.
Mabi: In an ekphrasis, and I am putting this narrowly, the writer can privilege the artwork by its description, or the context by locating the viewer in the act of viewing. Writing an ekphrastic poem on an imagined artwork in “Cantina”, what did you choose to privilege? What formal challenges do you remember grappling with? What liberties, if we can call them that, were available?
Alex: I thought using an imagined artwork was a workable strategy for reviving and finishing a poem that had reached dead ends. That poem started as a narrative account of a month-long, drunken trip I took to Rio, where I ended up doing a lot of foolish things. I wanted to write a poem that embodied the bullish but sad and mistaken spirit of that journey, so I started with actual details from the trip, but the first drafts sounded artificial to me.
So, I imagined a collage, a painting of a rowdy everyman’s pub that I went to in Barra. In my fantasy, this “painting” housed some of the most memorable images and emotions of that trip, and I guided myself from there. It became an image that did not enter the visible world even as a form of ephemera, so it was totally up to the poem to give the effort some justice and credibility.
I’m guessing, too, that it made it easier to create a fiction out of a real-life event. I did not avow the process, though, maybe because I thought would-be readers would find it silly. I ended up referring to the poem as notes, instead of a collage.
Mabi: Conversely, to me, “Cantina” with its casual, nondescript phrase of “the room’s only art” makes for a moving counterpoint to the portrait of transience and intimacy between two people meeting, and the significance we can assign to these passing encounters. And as for the “liberties”?
Alex: The process made it easier to put in things that were not factual but representative of what I experienced or wanted to articulate—pretty much how many poets write without needing this sort of prop. When I was writing this, I thought of myself more as a fiction writer, and so I guess I needed fantastic passes or methods to enter the world of poems.
Mabi: Do you write when you travel?
Alex: I tried to write when I was doing a lot of traveling before, but I never finished anything during the actual trips, so I stopped doing it altogether. I also wrote journals, daily accounts of trips, but I have stopped doing this, too. I realized traveling and writing at the same time is something I can’t do well. I usually just end up with a lot of notes and carelessly written drafts. In fact, I have written only two or three poems so far about trips.
Mabi: You were in engineering. Tell us about your shift to poetry.
Alex: I did not shift to poetry immediately. I eventually found out that engineering school was not for me, and that, yes, I wanted to write creatively, but I thought of myself more as a fiction writer than a poet. In fact, my first publications were short stories. I discovered I wanted to write poetry while I was already a student in the creative writing program of the College of Arts and Letters. While I was doing my thesis on the short story and writing short works of fiction for academic credit, I was also actively writing poems. I thought of them as very private works, harsh and scandalous confessions à la Plath, and so I kept them private even though I already had the license, as a creative writing student, to present them to peers for discussion and critique.
Also, my poetry classes under Neil Garcia soothed my apprehensions about poetry and inspired me to write poems. Allan Popa was also an important influence. Allan’s the most insightful reader I’ve ever met. He’s very gifted. We’re lucky to have him around. The works of Chingbee also encouraged me. I remember reciting from memory those “Caterpillar” and “Killing A Frog” poems to Allan and other friends back in ’93 or ’94. I think she’s one of the best poets writing in English here today. There was also this great gift from a friend, Michael Roberts’ The Faber Book of Modern Verse, revised by Peter Porter, which did the trick for me. That collection introduced me to amazing possibilities in poetry in English, startling and utterly original work, especially those by D.H. Lawrence, Elizabeth Bishop, George MacBeth, Laura Riding, Ted Hughes, and Plath.
Mabi: Your enthusiasm for Simeon Dumdum’s poetry introduced me to his works. Thank you.
Alex: Yeah, thanks, I was excited back then about his poems. I liked his humor more than anything, those subtle, quick comedies. I also thought of his poems as unique and indifferent to the fashion and popular styles of their contemporaries. I like poems like those—poems that assert their real selves, no matter how unfashionably so.
Mabi: Pardon this rave, but your skill in the use of modifiers amazes. Very few can get away with “pretty pink”, “sassy”, “large lovely”, “perfect”, etc. They can very easily turn insipid and weightless if handled badly. Your relentless use of modifiers in the book is not so much brave as defiant of our inhospitability to them, living as we are in this world where such claims—Lovely! Perfect! Wonderful!—are suspect. The book is a commentary, and I mean it in the best possible terms, on contemporary life. Your use of adjectives shows up an alluring but inimical tendency for apprehending our experience a certain way, one that erodes at meaning but is justified by boredom, pleasure, and appetite.
Alex: Wow, thanks. Yes, I am very much attracted to adjectives and adverbs. I think of them as flavors or attitudes. They can dramatically change the sense of things and introduce new directions. They also remind me of ornaments, costumes, and embellishments. Sometimes one accessory especially defies or defends an entire garment, and overpowers the dress. In poems, I like the way adjectives and adverbs introduce character and flair in a line. I like the way they hint at distinctions or lacks thereof. In many of the poems in this book, I think I relied heavily on modifiers to give these poems some character, some sort of accuracy and distinction relative to what I wanted to embody, enact, or say. Also, I think the modifiers were allowed to shine because I liked moments when they gained prominence, so usually at the start or end of lines.
Mabi: At the same time, the attractive modifiers work to make us doubt madness, hostility, paranoia, or disguise that malevolent streak, which are present in your poems. Our encounter of the adjectives, when foregrounded as ornament and they serve as design to the afflictions and corruptions you tackle in the book, disturbs.
Alex: True, the poems have that streak, and I think I can deal with it and question it or describe it only through poems. Otherwise there’s real life, and a malevolent or mad streak in an artless, actual world is nothing else but that: simply ugly and nuts. Somehow, to me, poetry has become some sort of “elevator” if you will. Also an ultimate arbiter, some sort of final, moral battleground that I must return to periodically when I need keep myself in check, especially when confronted with life-changing questions.
Mabi: Who were you reading when you were writing these poems?
Alex: I was a big fan of Sylvia Plath and George MacBeth—mad and highly original writers both. I was also attracted to Laura Riding’s work, many of her poems achieve distinction without making particular references to objects of the actual world. Later on, I was drawn to Elizabeth Bishop and her amazing powers of description and observation—amazing too that acute childlike sense of morality and love. I also tried to emulate her discerning standards of what a poem should be. But those standards are difficult to live up to.
Plath, MacBeth, and Riding introduced me to uncommon ways of apprehending a subject using one’s distinct self as an overriding force. Bishop introduced me to ways of tempering my mad attention and scrutiny of myself by looking outwardly for solutions, and always in an ethical way. Ultimately, I believe poems, while rising above human folly, must surprise with their distinct selves and unique perspectives. All these poets taught me that, and at the same time they satisfactorily responded to my personal problems and dilemmas that I had naively and romantically thought resisted any sort of definition.
Mabi: Reading your book over and over, I am surprised by how often you used possessive adjectives, most especially the word “your”. Three poems have it in the title: “Your Son”, “Your Manila”, and “Your Face and the Voice”. That word “your”, and also “my”—“my anger”, “my gripe”, “my object”—they’re all quite conspicuous. Possessive adjectives root the poems in a particular experience, a very distinct sensibility. But at the same time, by their energetic presence in the book, the subjectivity is increased tremendously. A wedge is driven between the self and the world, the persona and the people around him.
Alex: I used the second person primarily because I found it difficult to use the first. The “I” to me was very problematic back then. I either found it difficult to progress because I thought I was risking my real self to inquiry or mockery, or I sounded like a Plath or MacBeth copycat. I had no confidence in myself as a poet, as a poetic “I”, and so grounding some very personal poems in the second person made the whole process less excruciating and subjective, more like an objective quest for a truth, and also a discourse. I did not notice this strain of “my,” though, good thing you pointed this out.
Mabi: And then there is the poem “A Stopping Place”. The self in Rosegun obviously privileges the distinct and unique to the point of cultivating extreme situations, making a fetish out of the fantastic, the appalling. The exhibit of scabs in “The Rat House” comes to mind, also from “A Memory”: “a fidgety animal/ caged in delight/ wetting and wetting its whiskers/ to remind.//” The poem “A Stopping Place”, when held against compulsion and the relish for the unappeasable that the book almost valorizes, well, the poem is startling for the tenderness, serenity, and the charity it casts upon circumstance. Tell us about this poem.
Alex: I’m glad you noticed this. Perhaps “A Stopping Place” is the most tender and “charitable” among the lot, yes, and it’s one of my favorites among all I’ve written, ever. I was surprised myself that I was able to write in such a tender way. This poem, if I remember correctly, was written the most quickly. It took me months to finish a poem, but this was done in its present form in five to ten minutes, and until now I feel no need to revise.
I wrote this when I was living in Hungary, after I took an impulsive, evening trip with a friend to Lake Velencei. It was nearly the start of winter. My friend and I were in a pub in Budapest, bickering about life, and then we had this crazy idea of taking a two-hour drive to the lake to test who could endure the cold water longer. I chickened out and did not take the plunge, and my friend was out of the water after a few seconds. He had a gas burner and a small pot used for camping in the car trunk, so afterwards we bought a bottle of wine and ingredients to make a soup, right there beside the lake. It was around 2:00 a.m. and we were alone in the open. I had never been so calm and happy I thought, and the whole event felt like a great seduction, which I had to write and account for immediately. The honesty and tenderness of that evening, despite its silly assumptions and sexual innuendos, baffled and delighted me.
Most of the time, I pick up my copy of the book to read this poem, especially whenever I feel despondent or full of gloom. The title, by the way, and the context of the poetic moment, was lifted from and inspired by Plath in the final line of “Berck-Plage” part V, in Ariel: “It is so beautiful up here: it is a stopping place.”
Mabi: Aspects of our childhood often shape or affect our writing. Do you remember something that did? In a letter to Gustave Thibon, Simone Weil wrote, “If you should sometimes happen to think of me you will do so as one thinks of a book one read in childhood.” I think it’s one of the sweetest regard to have. Is there a book, a poem, you read in childhood that has stayed with you?
Alex: As a teenager, I loved the plays of Tennessee Williams, those strange and magnetic female characters on the verge of breakdowns. As a kid, I adored the books Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and Alice and Wonderland. Until now, these fantasies and dramas stay with me as fact. I think of them as reality or my own personal mythologies. Give me any new version of these works and I will surely watch it or read it. I saw and enjoyed all the recent cinematic re-makings, those references in Almodovar to Tennessee Williams were lovely, and the spirit of those recent Alice and Willy Wonka flicks was in the right place.
Mabi: You are not part of the academe here. Do you believe that trying to make a living outside the university is lethal to the practice of writing? You worked in foreign affairs and the Supreme Court here, then in an international environment agency in Hungary, then back in Philippines, in Makati with the one of the biggest business houses in the country, Ayala. How did all these shape your writing?
Alex: I think poetry ultimately is a highly personal and solitary act, both as writer and reader. This is why I am not a fan of poetry readings or any sort of performance using poetry. Also, I think writing poetry happens whenever it needs to, that it can strike anywhere, and that one need not be part of the academe or any organization or grouping to write poems. If one wants to do it professionally, though, or on a more “sophisticated level”, then I think the academe or a discerning group of colleagues, while perhaps still unnecessary, will nonetheless be very helpful and encouraging.
I also think it’s inevitable that some of the organizations I worked for influenced my view of things. That stint at the Supreme Court especially was full of discovery. I had to read, among other tasks, around two to three decisions every day, and summarize each of them correctly in two to three pages for the news people. Some of the conflicts I encountered there were profound and amazing. None as surprising and fresh, though, as the dilemmas being enacted in poetry today, but only in terms of the lack of restrictions in textual precedence, references, and presentation, or form.
Mabi: Can you talk briefly about the poems that are pretty overt in terms of characterizing Philippine society and its afflictions?
Alex: There are five or six of them in the book. Back in college there was good talk on the necessity of English poetry in the Philippines, whether it was relevant or inconsequential, an escape or merely pretentious. I was asked this question once by a writer I admired, and I had no answer, as I had and still have no real idea of a public. I’m guessing these poems rose up to the challenge and were hazarded as serious guesses and an eventual reply to that question.
Mabi: It’s been six years since Rosegun was published, and you are writing new poems these days. Is there anything about these new poems that you can tell us? What are you preoccupied with?
Alex: I tried to write new poems, or rehash abandoned drafts that seemed suddenly promising again, in the past months. Not really sure if those are poems yet, but they seem to be getting there. They somehow manage to describe or enact things that I feel are necessary to define, and they remind me of the process I had back when I was actively writing poems. I’ve stopped publishing poetry since Rosegun and I’m beginning to try my hand in it again in the last couple of months, mainly because of the great encouragement I’m getting recently from people I admire. This act of writing poetry is something I still find very scary, though, particularly when one considers the idea of an audience, no matter how small.
Mabi: Thank you very much.
Alex: You’re welcome.