1. Can you talk about the inspiration for "Things I Learned From My Sons While Driving Them Home From School" and “My Father’s Ribs”? What was on your mind while you were writing these poems?
Ferrying my sons to and from their daily activities takes me away from my writing desk more than I would like, so my car has become a combination mobile writing studio, reading room, and listening station (audiobooks are great!). While driving, I keep my eyes and ears peeled to anything that might find its way into a poem. As a writer I often find myself listening in on others’ conversations; my sons are not exempt from this, especially because they tend to be uncommonly tightlipped and laconic when I ask them, “So, how was school today?” I’ve found that fading into the background like a chauffeur yields better results than direct interviewing. ”Things I Learned from My Sons While Driving Them Home from School” grew out of a collection of interesting and odd snippets I saved from overheard conversations during the innumerable daily runs to and from school.
Regarding “My Father’s Rib,” I’ve always been intrigued by family lore, those stories that in their retelling eventually become part of one’s identity. One of the stories my mother often repeated when I was young was how I was born missing a rib. In the same breath she’d tell me how my father had an extra one. I found this information both terrifying and fascinating: here I was, a child like everyone else, but with this dark secret, this void that captured my imagination, making me feel a kinship with mythological or biblical characters: Athena springing from Zeus’s brow or Adam being fashioned from Eve’s rib. I was a shy, introverted child, more of an observer than a joiner, often standing at the fringes of a group. Growing up, I identified with my father, also an introvert, in many ways. This story, with its equal parts biological fact and mystery, reinforced this identification and strengthened the bond I shared with my father even more.
2. A good list poem like "Things I Learned From My Sons While Driving Them Home From School" seems to have a summation effect, where the different pieces come together to build a narrative, define characters, and mean something essentially larger than the parts. In this particular poem, the ending has a substantial weight, distanced from the humor and realism of the other parts. As I was reading, I let my guard down, remembering some of those facts, like the paper folding, from my own childhood, and when I reached the ending, I was both caught off guard and ready for such an astounding idea. How did you hope to construct this particular list poem to have that powerful impact as a whole?
I’m always pleased when I come across a list poem that creates something larger than the sum of its parts, so I appreciate your saying the poem “builds a narrative and defines characters,” which is what I’d hoped as I constructed this poem. The gathering of list items was the easy part; the bigger challenge was choosing and ordering the list. A poetry teacher once said, “You want a list poem to seem, but not be, random.” I was aiming for an inventory that was varied yet cohesive, that had something of an underlying narrative arc, and that left the reader with some universal truth that transcended the mere accumulation of fact—how to do all this in a seemingly random list? Mostly, I proceeded by intuition, by trial and error. As in most poems, I don’t think I could have planned the overall impact in advance any more than I can point to a set of rules that would make the process repeatable.
3. In “My Father’s Ribs,” the religious symbolism is obviously very strong with the mention of Eve’s creation and the juxtaposition of the speaker’s father and God, often thought of as The Father. Did this influence of religion come because of the idea you wanted to impart upon readers or is it a common influence in your writing?
Like it or not, our familial influences inevitably infiltrate what we write. My father was a huge influence in my development as a writer. He also happens to be a deeply religious man. If this religious influence comes through to the reader, it is not meant to be didactic in any way. We all write from our particular lens; this is what makes one voice distinct from the others. But I think that aside from being raised by devout Catholics, it was my father’s rich inner life, his love of books and music, and his deep compassion stemming from an unshakeable faith in the inherent goodness of human nature, that nurtured the life of the spirit, and eventually, the writing life. Through our growing up years, he’d somehow come up with the perfect books for my sister and me, at any age: Enid Blyton, C.S. Lewis, Little House on the Prairie, Anne of Green Gables, The Secret Garden. As we grew older, Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Carson McCullers’s The Member of the Wedding. From his personal library we discovered Shakespeare, Cyrano de Bergerac, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Somerset Maugham. Relaxing after work, he played violin, my mother accompanying him at the piano. From his collection of LPs or those giant reels he played on an 8-track tape deck, we heard everything from Beethoven to Keith Jarrett; from The Sound of Music to Jesus Christ, Superstar. He invented stories to go along with Beethoven’s symphonies, pointing to illustrations in his medical books to accompany the scenes he conjured up. He also kept a file folder of our school compositions, poems and essays that he felt were worth saving. I remember the surge of pride I felt when one of my pieces went into the file. From him I learned that the inner life, and particularly, the writing life was something to be valued, protected, and nurtured.
4. You grew up in the Philippines and have been included in the anthology Going Home to a Landscape: Writings by Filipinas. How did your upbringing influence your writing?
Many of my poems are obsessed with memory, with recording and bearing witness. This has always been and perhaps will always be an obsession, as often happens when someone writes at a remove from their homeland. Though I was born in New York, I grew up in Manila and lived there my first 23 years. When I left for graduate studies in the US, I did not know that I would never go back. Machado writes, “Love is in the absence.” How does one survive the absences wrought by leaving home? Writing is one way. Often the remembered place becomes more significant in memory because it has been lost. Even in my poems that don’t necessarily describe the Philippine landscape, there is a sense of recapturing what might otherwise dissolve into oblivion.
5. What other writing projects are you currently working on?
I just finished my first book of poems and am getting ready to send it out into the world. Reading and editing RHINO magazine (www.rhinopoetry.org) for the past two years has been and continues to be an enriching and humbling experience. I’m pleased to have poems in two upcoming anthologies, one featuring Southeast Asian women writers and the other, an anthology of persona poems.
6. What great books have you read recently? Are there any upcoming releases you're excited about?
I enjoyed Kyoko Mori’s new memoir, Yarn: Remembering the Way Home. I liked how she used her knowledge of knitting—both the craft and its history—to illuminate and weave together her fascinating, devastating, and ultimately triumphant personal history. On my nightstand are two very different, but equally captivating books: Lydia Davis’s short story collection, Break it Down and Antonio Machado’s Border of a Dream: Selected Poems, the latter a fine translation by Willis Barnstone recently recommended by a poet friend.
I’m eagerly awaiting the release of these upcoming first books of poetry: Karen Llagas’s Archipelago Dust, Rose McLarney’s The Many Broken Plates of the Mountains, Dilruba Ahmed’s Dhaka Dust and Shadab Zeest Hashmi’s The Baker of Tarifa. Nothing thrills me more than when deserving poets get their first books into print, and each of these poets is definitely worth watching for.