Conchitina Cruz is the youngest poet in A Habit of Shores, the third and last volume of the Man of Earth series of anthologies which spans a century of Philippine poetry and verse in English. In 1996, after studying for four years in the University of the Philippines' accelerated course in medicine, Cruz left the hospital for the Creative Writing Program in UP Diliman, where she graduated, magna cum laude, as the College of Arts and Letter's valedictorian in 1998. She has won two Palanca Awards so far, and is currently taking her MFA in poetry at the University of Pittsburgh on a Fulbright Scholarship.
Despite the immediate appreciation that her poetry enjoyed, Cruz remains an ambitious poet. Also, a critical one, no matter how politely and carefully so. Of the 'canon' of Philippine poetry, she says: "I understand the need to put together, but we end up being too preoccupied with compiling, compiling without no particular reason except to keep everything together. We pretty much have the data, the writers, the works, but then, what's going on? I'm sure something's going on, except that no one has undertaken that task yet, of identifying how this next generation is responding to the previous generation-how it's evolving, how it's changing. Nobody has really chronicled this history with that mindset. Kaya nagiging problematic when you have people proclaiming the canon. On the one hand, there are people who are proclaiming, ito yung canon, but nobody's really explaining why. Well, my own personal issue to begin with is that I think it doesn't exist."
In town for a wedding (hers-to Robert Basilio, who writes fiction) last July, Cruz met with me to talk about writing in English, her admirations, the workshops at Pittsburgh, silence, politics, the long line, the direct address, and the new directions that she wants to pursue in her own poetry. The transcript of the conversation follows the five-year-old poem below. It is an example of the kind of writing Cruz no longer wants to pursue.
Our santol tree is heavy
One day, unable to bear
Someday, my father and I
One day, unable to bear
Someday, my father and I
Marc Gaba: You've expressed dissatisfaction, in print, with what we can now call early work. Mainly it seemed that the dissatisfaction had to do with the way your poems progressed, their structures-"too neat," you said. Can you talk more about what exactly your problem was with those poems?
Conchitina Cruz: My habit is to reject and cut ties with earlier work. Which on second thought, is something I shouldn't do. I think I'm being too harsh with myself. I think that there's a kind of forgiveness that you have to exercise on yourself when you look at work that you used to think is good but no longer do.
I think that with those works I was just really 'beginning'. I was working with a kind of language that I knew I could manage. The poems were getting predictable because I was doing them all the time. But I do think that doing them all the time gave me the chance to sharpen that kind of writing, which was very defined about how it would evolve. You'd have details and images, and then you'd have that Spectacular Insight [laughs] in the end, which you would put in the guise of the Stumbled-Upon Insight, you know, that kind of thing. And I still enjoy poems like that. There are poems which you read and you understand and you discard, and then there are poems that you read, and you derive pleasure from, and then maybe 'understand'-and then you keep. Even if they're easy, there's something to them that makes them more complicated than the usual, easy works.
Anyway, I was writing stuff that I thought was predictable, lacking in complexity. I felt that I was very narrative. My early works were narrative. When I say early works, those are like a handful, like two collections-20 poems! [Laughs.] So I was doing the narrative, and there was a specific ordering in mind: I was linear. The progression is easy to locate. I felt that for poetry to be more interesting, it needs to be more complex than what I was doing, which has made me lax with language, and which has made me stick to a formula. The first few times I wrote it, I thought that they were good. Of course, you repeat things that you think work, but it reached a point when I was being formulaic. I didn't want that, it was easy. No, it wasn't easy-writing is always hard for me-but it was easier than what I'm going through now. It wasn't exciting anymore.
MG: When you were writing those poems, were you not consciously ambitious in terms of complexity?
CC: When I think now of what I was doing then, I don't consider it ambitious, although of course it was ambition for me at that time. I really wanted to manage the idea of how image can shift in meaning. I didn't want clutter. I wanted a poem with the usual economy of words, that was neat. I wanted to write poems that were tight, that were whole in themselves, that were narrative...I wanted to write poems that told stories.
I don't think that I was thinking in terms of complexity. At that point I just wanted to be able to maneuver language in ways that keep the poem easily understandable. My poems then were easy-(maybe they still are)-to understand, and yet can go beyond that kind of easy understanding. Does that make sense?
MG: Yes it does. The way you responded to that question, though-on one level you were talking about aesthetics, and on the other, about style. You mentioned economy of words, and the poem as a whole. I suppose accessibility can be part of an aesthetic too. Have you abandoned-do you have a wish to abandon-such an aesthetic?
CC: I'm not sure yet if I want to abandon that. At this point, I'm trying to write poems that are not necessarily accessible in the ways the previous poems were accessible. I think the goals I started out with continue to be goals except that they've been modified. I still want to write poetry that's tight, that's very important to me. Except that this time around, I'm more conscious of other ways to be tight that still generate complexity, as opposed to before when I was pretty much just playing with images and narrative. Now I'm more conscious about line-lengths, sounds. And I'm pretty excited by the way poetry can remain at the level of idea, without necessarily transforming it into something more digestible like story. That's what I want to pursue.
MG: So whose poems have you been reading recently with great joy?
CC: I just read, again, Robert Hass, Human Wishes... Seven Ages, Louise Gluck... Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts, which I think is wonderful... I keep reading and reading Robert Hass's Human Wishes, that's what I'm obsessed with right now... Mark Strand, Dark Harbor.
MG: When you change your style, the way you read the poets you used to read changes too. Are there any poets you've been rediscovering because of this stylistic interest?
CC: Sylvia Plath, who is this icon of the angsty young woman poet. But I don't wanna deal with that anymore. I think her life has preceded her poetry, and so it just screws things up for many people; they end up idealizing the poet and not really looking at the poetry. Well, I started as that teenage groupie, which is a horrible part of my past. [Laughs]
I was looking more into the kind of raw energy that was going into her poetry, the intensity, the very astute, very precise, sharp, peculiar use of the image. But I recently read her again, and I see how there are other things to look at aside from that. Now, the main thing I value more about her work is her loyalty to symmetry, in terms of line-lengths, syllabication. She does not miss a beat. Before, in my earlier days (last year!), I wasn't looking at that. I sensed that there was that kind of effort, that auditory, breathing kind of effort. That was there, but it only jumped at me now. I encountered maybe twenty poems and they were all doing that same thing, and I think that kind of attention to language is amazing. And to be able to do that without even being explicit. I think that's a great value in her work, which people like me didn't really notice before.
MG: So it doesn't have all that much to do with angst then? I ask since your early poems use the idiom of the confessional/autobiographical poem.
CC: When I first read Plath, I was drawn-as someone who is trying poetry out 'for the first time'-to the way she could forge a poem out of chaos, which I associate with emotional energy, emotional intensity. I was very interested in how she could impose a discipline on that chaos. I was pursuing a confessional strain, but even then, I wasn't putting premium on the angst, which I think young writers tend to do. And so I wouldn't say that those poems are infused with the experience or the angst because even then I've always approached poetry with the mind. It's not therapy. I understand how it can work as therapy but that's just not my process, or maybe that's not what I'd call it. It's more of a thinking-through of something. It's really articulation: being able to articulate, being able to work with emotion, or experience, or story, by trying to hit, in the spectrum of sadness, a particular increment where it's not just sadness all over the place. It's formal work. Even though I started with the young writer's drives and motives in mind, I've always been a formal person. I think I resist the early work because my concept of being formal was small, and I'm no longer satisfied with the parameters that I set then.
But then that's my problem, because part of me-maybe a lot of me-does see that kind of poetry as something a younger writer would do, something a developing writer will forego. On the one hand, I see that as something I want to move away from. But on the other hand, the line of thought makes me ask: Am I seeing that then as a lesser form? "Confessional" does have a derogatory aspect now. When I say I've gone beyond that (and sometimes I say that), it makes me then feel that I'm putting down that kind of writing. Kasi nga may hierarchy, you start out with that and then you move on. The workshop keeps me in check because I think I'm limiting myself when I sustain that kind of attitude. It helps clarify to me the kind of poetry that I want to do. At the same time, it reminds me of the possibilities that other writers can do within that kind of mold, possibilities that maybe I can't pursue in that kind of writing.
MG: If you decide to be a poet here, the choice of what language to write in is crucial, so why English?
CC: Now we're getting political! [Laughs.] As much as... [Pause]
MG: Or let me put it this way: Do you think it's important? Is it a problem? Actually, you could derive a problem out of anything, so it's silly to ask that question that way. So here: Should the question be asked at all? Choice of language: is it meaningful?
CC: I think it's meaningful, I think it's important to ask, especially when it comes to writers from former colonies. I think it is a relevant question, even if people end up saying the same things-you know, how English is the language of the colonizer, and we got it and we lost our language. So it becomes a political choice. During Martial Law, it was a choice to write in Tagalog or Filipino, or write in English. In my case, sadly, I cannot write in Filipino. It is something to be sad about, but I don't think that it should be reason therefore to feel guilty about writing in English. It's given, but the given is never just given. Pag given, parang fact na yan. What do you do with it? That's the important part-that's what we're meant to talk about! [Laughs.] But I think to be aware of what made it a given, and why we think of it as a given, or why we should think of it as a given, those ideas, those themes, are important-are especially important-to us.
This has become more of an issue for me because of studying abroad, and how people always ask you "Where did you learn your English?" (You would wonder, if a foreigner came here speaking Tagalog, you would wonder, where did you learn your Tagalog?) And you know, we would feel offended, how come they asked that? We were a colony!.... It just makes me realize how this is a language I love, it's the language in which I think, in which I write, but I think it's also a language that has become mine because of a troubled historical period. I'm not about to make that great leap into saying I choose Filipino over the other and cutting off ties.
But still, when people say we've claimed English, I'm not too sure I know what that means. I guess I'm not thinking in terms of writing when I'm saying this, but in terms of culture, which is messy thing, I wouldn't know what to say about it. But I don't think we can blame ourselves for turning to the West, to America, to the colonizer, whatever, for influence, because, well, it's a new language, relatively, just one hundred years. It's not like we already have a history of English to speak of, and so if we do want to push the language, to reinvent it, we do turn to a history that isn't ours.
MG: Let's go back to the fact that you're finding a new form now. Were your recent poems incited by the new forms you've been trying?
CC: Yeah, that's my little experiment; it's nothing huge. I've always written fairly short, fairly symmetrical lines, and now I'm trying to do away with that, because I think there's a kind of mess that's exciting with the long line. I'm actually trying to talk more in the writing because when you do the long line, the use of silence becomes more challenging, because its function is not as explicit as when you read a more contained poem.
It started with really trying not to do what I usually do. And the most obvious decision for me was to expand my lines. To be more aggressive with the use of words, because I just tend to be contained. And I think there's a wonderful fear that goes into trying to say more, to risk clutter, and to risk disorder. Which I don't think I've reached yet because if you look at my poems, they're still very orderly. [Laughs.] But that's what I'm trying to do. I think that if there's anything useful that we can derive from this discussion, it's my being a writer who isn't too sure yet what my style is. Or at least who isn't too sure yet what my style of the moment is! [Laughs.] So I think the most obvious way for me to alleviate my being tired with the work I was doing was to do work that wasn't that at all.
MG: A different surface? Is it that what you're trying to come up with? The same thing using an entirely different surface?
CC: I don't want to come up with the same thing, you see that's my problem, because I feel that I'm still coming up with the same thing. But I think I'm working my way to something different. I just think that I'm not maximizing the language as much as I should because of some very basic problems like privileging situation too much. I'm working with language and all that, but that's something I can't seem to get out of yet. You asked me a while ago who the poets I've been reading are-imitation is the key, right?-and I noticed that with the writers I really admire, I admire them because they're ambitious, because they're able to remain at the level of the abstract. They're able to theorize without paring things down to particulars, in opposition to work that privileges the particular and where the abstract evolves in the reading from that. The poets I admire are challenging in that sense, exciting to me as a reader because they begin and stay at the level of the idea. Or even if even their poems are populated with particulars or situation, they are beyond that. That's one thing I'm trying to learn to do.
I also admire the confidence with which, because they're at the level of the abstract, the confidence-or maybe the arrogance-with which they make propositions, which I think is more difficult to do if you're a writer preoccupied with particulars. The poems are able to propose a kind of thinking, are able pursue it without ending up trying to particularize it. But, I don't know. Does that make sense?
MG: You can end with just "the pursuit of the idea"... because they never seem to end with restfulness. They don't end the...
CC: There's that other, very basic thing: closure. I'm so attached to that idea. Again it's something that I've tried to challenge. That ability to stay restless within the poem and to remain at the hunt, and also if you look at bodies of work, the ability to switch hunts, or debunk the previous hunt. It's something that I want to develop in my own work.
In The Seven Ages, the vastness, the expanse in The Seven Ages, you have Louise Gluck dealing with Life and Death! Huge subjects! You have her being able to deal with such a huge subject utilizing specifics, even her own specifics-the writing makes you feel that she possesses these specifics. She's very grounded, but she's not afraid to reach very far. And I think I'm especially drawn to her because I am attached to being grounded, and I would like to try not to do that, not to be as attached. (Sometimes I think you can't be totally unattached.) With her, you can see how she's very grounded, and yet the expanse that each poem is able to traverse is vast. That's the kind of writing I want to do.
MG: What ideas are you interested in pursuing?
CC: Let's start with the basic thing. I was trying to do something thematic at the start. I went through a phase-maybe I'm going through it still-where my thematic obsession was to write poems where there is an attempt to elude inevitable chaos. And well, this is just another thing that I just ended up adding, this method of trying to elude chaos. Since I'm writing poems which are trying to elude inevitable chaos, or trying to create order out of chaos, by turning to artifacts, usually written: maps, manuals, bodies-things that seem to provide a sense of geography, which can somehow counter the chaos. So that was what I had in mind thematically. And I suppose that's why I've ended up writing poems that keep turning and turning in on themselves. I'm not necessarily saying that this is a cause-and-effect thing, but with that in mind, and my stylistic goals which are to do everything that I haven't really been doing, I'm working with longer lines, more detail, less situation, or a situation that's less explicit. When I think of the steps I'm taking, they're really minor, but I think they're helping me evolve into the kind of writer I would like to be.
MG: In the five poems that you've allowed us to read, there's always that element of the written thing. Were you conscious of that as you worked on them? How does a poem begin for you?
CC: In my experience, I do believe in the given. So the first poem I wrote that made me think of that was "Geography Lesson."
Next to herself, the body was all
The body was a different matter.
But naming could not keep its landscape
Another siren howled in the city
The body was a different matter.
But naming could not keep its landscape
Another siren howled in the city
It's funny because I just decided to write a poem with a girl, a city, and a body. And that was the poem that came out of that. And it got me into thinking of the kinds of things in which we ground ourselves in order to make sense of chaos. And then it became a conscious effort to write the other poems.
MG: The act of looking, the methods of framing-you seem to be negotiating with them in the new poems. Given that element of the written thing, do you think of language or poetry as salvational? It seems to be that logos is our way out of-fate? If you call it "inevitable chaos," then it's probably fate.
CC: Don't I just love the written word? [Laughs.] In the poems that I've written, I found that I may have that mentality of seeing the word as salvation. Now that you're phrasing it, it makes me wonder why I believe it, because apparently, I believe it. So the answer is yes. [Laughs.]
MG: What about silence? Do you think of it as chaotic?
CC: I'm trying to do this weird thing of writing longer lines but working with silence, I'm trying to talk more, but I'm trying to sustain the unsaid within the said, which I think is more difficult. It's more difficult with the longer line or the prosy poem. You take up more space that could've been set aside for the unsaid.
I wouldn't say that silence is chaotic, I wouldn't think of silence in terms of chaos. But I think that silence is a vital device when it comes to thinking of the presence of the reader. I wrote a paper on John Donne and his use of allusion. I was talking about the "Holy Sonnets" and how he was using all these allusions to propel his poems. I thought that in the reading of his work, allusion is a form of silence. It is present precisely because there is something unsaid. And I was thinking how wonderful it was for Donne to be able to suppress information because of either the conscious or unconscious knowledge that there is another party involved in the poem: the reader. He was writing arguments in his "Holy Sonnets", asking if God is really good, that kind of thing. He was writing these arguments, they were progressing logically, in a Greek kind of logic, and they were making propositions and then trying to rationalize these propositions.
MG: I suppose the fact that he chose the sonnet form...
CC: Right-the form lends itself to that. And it seems to be that in that form, in that argumentative kind of writing he was preoccupied with-silence at first to me didn't seem to play a role there. When you make an argument, you state everything. But then his heavy use of allusion, of the unsaid in the form of the allusion, made me see how his use of that made his poems more complex than the usual arguments you would think them to be. And I think that was what made me particularly conscious of the idea of silence in my poetry, the idea of withholding, the idea of trying to write expansively, to write beyond what is written. I'm trying to think of the reader now. I'm not too sure how that'll work. I think silence is a means of acknowledging the presence of the reader, acknowledging, recognizing his or her presence in the poem and respecting it. And so now I'm wondering, is that why I want to maximize or really work with silence, because I'm very conscious of the reader? Ikaw, do you write with a reader in mind?
MG: If there's a reader I'm conscious of while I'm writing, it's capital-R Reader, what language pre-supposes. In other words, I can stop using that word and just use Other, since it's an Other that you're trying to converse with in the process of writing, and the Other comes in the form of silence. So you supply the words that move toward that blank thing at the end of the line-almost unknowable territory, which is why, I suppose, I associate silence with chaos, because it's the part where you have absolutely no control. Even if it's a real reader, I have no control over what you will think of my poem, how you will receive it, make sense of it.
CC: On the one hand, it is the uncontrollable or the unknowable, but on the other hand, you do make conscious decisions of where... You do know the unknowable, so you know, ok, this is as far as I will go. So you do recognize-we are able to recognize that boundary. This is where I will stop, and the Other will take over.
MG: You just got married, and most of your poems...I'm sorry that we have to go to this! But I think it's relevant because most of your poems seem to address a certain beloved.
CC: Yeah, that wasn't planned, but I realize that I do end up addressing somebody, a you, all the time, practically. See, another thing I wanted to outgrow was the use of the I, but now I ended up switching to the you. So what I got by trying to leave something was the presence of the addressee, I don't know why that happened. I'm not really sure how to rationalize my tendency to use the direct address, and use an unnamed "you", nobody really specific in the poem.
Now why do I use the direct address? I don't know. I guess given my need for groundedness, or the need for that groundedness to be very explicit to me, would be to talk to someone. To pursue these ideas in tandem with another. Which isn't necessarily my husband. [Laughs.] Maybe it's also a sign of my uncertainty as a solo speaker. I need the presence of another.
And I suppose it's also an indication of my writerly need for resistance to whatever it is I'm going to say. I think that one of the forces that help propel the ideas in my poems is the presence of a resistance to it in the form of the addressee. And just as your line is defined by what is said and what it no longer says, the ideas in the poems in my case, are defined also by what contradicts it.
MG: There's that often abused term persona. What it originally referred to-I just read this recently-is the mask that actors in ancient Greece used to wear. In that sense, would you say that the speaker in your poems is a persona? How much of the speaker in the poems is you?
CC: Persona really muddles me, I think no matter what way you look at it, it's ultimately you, in either explicit or inexplicit ways. In my most recent workshops, the direct address was an issue. I was getting some flak, it wasn't stylistic, but some of my classmates found a speaker they didn't like, let's say in "Tourist", in "Instructions", where the speaker is placing judgment on the "you", that wasn't particularly pleasing. Not that everything has to be pleasing. But I suppose bottom line is that the presence of the speaker and the addressee seemed to them very prominent, seemed to be the ground for the poems. And since I've taken on direct address and judgement, it puts a lot of pressure on the speaker to establish the authority to judge.
Yan yung mga discussions na nagiging muddy in workshops, when you set out with a goal to preoccupy yourself only with sylistics, and then the content gets the better of you, and you start asking, Bakit kasi ganito yung speaker? It's always a problem, in the States especially, where they're so political in terms of race, in terms of gender. Even in workshops where we say we will stick to form, these things come in, and I've had my share of horrible comments, which weren't stylistic.
MG: Do you think it's valid, or healthy, that workshops are beginning to concern themselves with the politics of the persona, etc, things that you won't ordinarily associate with style or form? Would you call it progress?
CC: I wouldn't call it progress, in the sense that this has always been part of the workshop, people ending up talking about extra-formal elements. I wouldn't say it's bad for this to come up in workshops. I think that poems will and do affect people not just by style; it isn't just style that affects people when they read poetry: people are bound to respond to the kinds of speakers in the poems, to the content, or to the politics of the poem, and I do think that it's healthy for these things to be talked about in the workshop. It just gets unhealthy when people can't get out of it. It should be, I think, secondary, and these things should function, in the workshop at least, just as asides. Well, not really asides. I think it's valuable for people to respond in that way, but I think the workshop is not the venue to thresh out these responses. Maybe in criticism. In the workshop, I think the primary concern should really be the form, and I think its healthy for people to express what they feel about the issues of persona and things like that, but it shouldn't take over the discussion. And somebody's bound anyway to say, "Okay, moving on..." [Laughs.] I guess what I'm trying to say is that it's useful for such concerns to be expressed in the workshop, but when it comes to revision, when it comes to the writer working out these comments in the writing, such comments are usually the least useful.
MG: Are you more conscious of the politics of the persona because of such an aspect to the reception?
CC: Oo. Being away positions you, even if you're the most socially unconcerned person in the world. Once you, Filipino, are put in the American setting, you will be placed in that position. People are bound to ask 'Filipino' questions about what you're doing. It does make me realize how that will come into play. In the workshop where I'm the only foreigner there, it becomes part of the discussion, like content.
MG: Does this inform the poems you've worked on after?CC. Two things again. In a way it's become a pressure to locate identity in the writing. So when people read and think, So how is this Filipino? which wouldn't get asked if all of us were Filipino, it comes into play when working with American writers. And also, I think my being away has made me write about where I'm from. It makes me realize how American my influences are, and therefore when we're reading my work without my name, some or most of my poems really wouldn't point at an identity that isn't American.
MG: Do they sense a difference in terms of how the poems sound?
CC: Wala. The comment that I get that most alludes to un-American authorship, they say that my use of language seems a lot more careful, which doesn't necessarily pin me. Only when it comes to subject matter, yun lang ang nagiging indication. Being away has made me uncomfortable, or more conscious of, the fact that most of the poems I write don't point to a specific location, which is not to say that poems should do that, but given that I am the only dislocated person where I am, it seems that it's something to wonder about.
MG: Now, can you read the poem you're most happy with at the moment?
CC: This started maybe three years ago, and took many forms before it landed. First, it was just chunks, and then it became a paragraph, and then it evolved into this. Because I'm so slow, I'm able to see the kinds of steps that I'm taking, or the kinds that I want to outgrow, or that I'm attached to.
Inside the story is a garden with a pear tree, the view from the windows of a house with a staircase and mahogany desks. Inside the house is a woman with her back against the windows, her body bent over her child inside a crib, her body leaning against a table as she fixes the fruit in a bowl.
From the back of the room, somebody mentions the term foreshadowing, somebody makes distinctions between image and symbol. The board is filled with words.
Inside the story is a dinner party the woman hosts, the idle talk of guests, the moment her husband leans toward the body of another woman. She watches her husband and his small gesture, the drawing room unable to contain her sudden knowledge. Inside the story, the woman turns away from the climax, turns to the windows and the pear tree outside, the symbol of her life, the tree in full bloom, the tree caught in shadows.
We talk about the tragedy of false notions, the link between discovery and despair, the joy of understatement. When there is a knock on the door, a request to take a minute of our time, I say sure. We are inside the story, and to the students outside, I say, sure, come on in.
What they pass around is a can, a sheet of paper, a request for loose change and volunteers to dig for bodies. A few miles away, the residents of a dumpsite are dead, their bodies buried in an avalanche of trash.
Inside the story, the woman cries, what will happen to me now? On the first day, the dying tried to raise their voices above the weight of their own tin roofs, rotten food, the thin legs of flies. The digging was slow, the voices stopped. Inside the story, the woman fixes fruit in a bowl-apples, oranges, and grapes. She arranges and rearranges the fruit, draping the grapes on the rim, balancing the oranges on apples.
The relatives need bodies for a proper burial. The can grows heavy. The students pause heavily upon the sheet, and the others say think about it, we have a booth on the third floor, you don't have to sign up now. Inside the story there is a woman, a house, a man, a pear tree. Inside the story is a house, a bowl full of fruit. Some students are braver than others. They write their names down.
The woman leans the sadness of her body against the window, tries to look beyond the pear tree. Inside the story, she sees nothing but darkness. She is ungrateful for the luxury of despair.
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