Myra and Iphigene here.
When Sir Jimmy agreed to be interviewed for our Poet’s Sanctum here in GatheringBooks, I knew that we had to veer away from the usual Q and A that we do. I told Iphigene and Fats that the questions needed to be ‘thoughtful,’ ‘whimsical,’ and ‘strange.’
I don’t know if we can manage that, but we shall try. We won’t be including a poem from Sir Jimmy, because his responses are already brimming with poetry’s life and vitality.
Wonders of Childhood
Myra: As I was reading through Ordinary Time, I couldn’t help but smile at your recollections of your childhood – and how ‘life was like back then.’ If you were to describe your ‘youth’ in a song, what would the music be like? And do share with us why you chose that song.
“Moon River” (1961; lyrics by Johnny Mercer, music by Henry Mancini) evokes my boyhood and youth. When I was 8 in the town of Dumanjug in Cebu, I would sometimes walk home alone at night, and look up and see the moon following. Like a lonely banca adrift without a boatman. I might have wondered then, Is there perhaps a river of stars in the immense darkness of sky? “Wherever you’re goin’, I’m goin’ your way,” says the song. In the early ‘60s, I had my first girlfriend, and it seemed then that together we would cross the river of time and reach the rainbow’s end. Yet, basically a loner, I had perhaps, even then, a vague, melancholy sense that the moon, like the girl I had fallen in love with, is dream-maker and heart-breaker, both.
Myra: I loved reading your Imaginary Letter to my Twin Sons – there were several references as to how different their realities are from yours when you were growing up – if you were to characterize the difference in shades of color – how would it look like?
Shades of green, our Earth’s living color – green in the early morning light, green when acacia leaves close as night descends. When I reflect on my sons’ wandering youth in our troubled world – when was there ever a world of universal goodwill and peace? – I do not lose heart because, as it was with my father, my parents’ honest toil, our own family’s affection shall be “the tree to their morning.”
Myra: When did you fall in love with poetry?
I fell in love with poetry in U.P. High School during my third year there in 1952 when our family moved to the UP Diliman campus. UP President Vidal A. Tan had requested my father to organize the Department of Spanish. At a Christmas party, during an exchange of gifts, a classmate who signed her name as an ice-cream cone, gave me Louis Untermeyer’s pocket book anthology of Robert Frost’s Poems which had Untermeyer’s commentary and John Cosgrave’s drawings of country scenes. I thought then that after graduation I would go to UP Los Baños – I would please my father, whose hobby was poultry, but also, I would be a farmer-poet like Frost!
Myra: Between parables, academic writing, and poetry – which one would you choose to save from a burning bush?
It would be my poetry, Myra, that I would “choose to save from a burning bush.” A burning bush! – where a hidden god speaks, I might plead my case, for in my poems is my only voice.
Myra: I have read your “What for Me a Poem Is” and I wanted to ask – how do we find that clearing in the medium of verse? How does one capture that inner spark?
One need only be honest with one’s own self – it has no Theory to fathom itself, only words that one strives to forge anew for a clearing within a given language’s own fastnesses: resistances and retreats. One needs a sense for language, which is the basic poetic sense: then only is that forgery possible, in the triple sense of “forge” – to form or bring into being; to counterfeit, mimic, or simulate; to advance (to forge ahead) or transcend the limits of language by its own evocative power (through imagery and metaphor). One draws from memory of the living of it – a moment that has been lived, or even a lifetime whole as imagined. Memory is the Muse (in Greek mythology, Mnemosyne is the mother of the muses), and imagination her sovereign from whom is the gift of insight: that illumination of thought which no idea, no abstraction, is able to convey; that radiance of feeling that no thought can encompass.
Iphigene: You write in the preliminaries of your book Getting Real that in a poem you look for a lived human experience, insight, and power of expression. If you were allowed only a singular human experience before being isolated from any form of life experience – and as such would form the basis of your poetic life – what experience would that be?
It has to be, Iphigene, the experience of first love. I have written about it under the title, “First Love,” in State of Play: Letter-Essays and Parables (Manila: Kalikasan Press, 1990). Out of print, so let me quote a little from it: “Think now about your first love, imagine all its throbbing splendor and bitter anguish. … Being past and beyond change, it seems to be the haven of all lost beauty. … There [one’s] soul had foretaste of the infinity, but also, the incompleteness, of human love. Perhaps, the first touching of hands, the first kiss, wasn’t even love but its very ground, the elemental passion of man for woman. How else can one understand the lightning and halcyon breezes of that season by which man and woman first reach together intimate knowledge? … How strange that the glory of that late flower called love has root in a youthful sorrow.”
Myra: In all your years of teaching in various academic contexts and institution – could you cite a few anecdotes that made you feel that teaching poetry is meaningful and worthwhile – how do you nurture those young struggling voices so that they find their own song?
A few anecdotes, Myra – I have always enjoyed teaching poetry in our academic courses in UP, and every summer, in the UP Baguio workshop and the Silliman University workshop in Dumaguete. I think one’s joy in teaching (whatever one’s field) is infectious. One writes to get real, I would often insist. I would recall Franz Arcellana looking over a writing fellow’s manuscript and crying out, “Get real!” and Jose Garcia Villa in our poetry writing class in 1962, returning our drafts (none ever found satisfactory) with the injunction, “Clean up your lines!” I am gentle in my critiques, choosing carefully my words, never wanting to hurt anyone, for there are so few writers who persevere “in that craft or sullen art.” I remember Gina Apostol coming up, after a few attempts, with a piece that I truly liked; soon after class, she whooped in jubilation down the corridor at the Faculty Center.
Iphigene: Are ‘muses’ real – do they exist? Or are they well-loved myths and old wives tales writers use as rationale and justification once they become less prolific and get stuck in a piece?
Iphigene, the Muse is real – as Santa Claus is. One might wish all writers well, saying, after Star Wars, “The Force be with you!” Imagination, Memory, Language (whatever one has a mastery of) – they are the Force. There is no writer’s block, one need only persevere: one’s mind is never at rest, its permanent condition is state of play.
Myra: Do share with us what the experience was like for you, Sir Jimmy. We are hungry for your words and your vision as to how that evening went. We get to see the photos, yes, and a detailed account in the papers – but we’d love to hear your heart’s whispered words during that evening, if we are to have that little privilege.
During that evening for the Premio Feronia, I stood proud for my country, and recited from memory the very poem that I wrote soon after the EDSA Revolution, “Where No Words Break.” During that dark regime of Martial Law in our country, a long period of monstrous deceit, greed, savagery, and corruption, I had promised myself a hundred poems for my people. Today, more than ever, I would – as the world reaps the whirlwind from colonial times – recite to myself, as my poet’s creed, what I wrote for the young poets’ anthology, Under the Storm (Q.C.: Antithesis Collective, 2011), “That Space of Writing.”