AL: Can you describe your first moment of awakening as a poet? Did identity politics play any role in this initial awakening ? Can you remember what your first "serious" poem was about? If identity politics did not immediately play a role during your early calling as a poet, when did you begin to gain a more politicized sensibility and what prompted it?
N: My father was fond of reciting lines from classical and modern Spanish poets like Francisco de Quevedo, Luis de Gongora, and Gustavo Adolfo Becquer that related to every day situations and my childhood was filled with phrases like—
Por una mirada un mundo;
por una sonrisa, un cielo;
por un beso. . . yo no se
que te diera por un beso!
It was not until after my father died in 2008 that I realized that those lines of poetry came from the books he kept in his personal library. He also retold the tales of Alexandre Dumas and would add his own sound track to The Three Musketeers by singing the William Tell Overture by Gioachino Rossini. In the Count of Monte Christo he would sing Ludwig Van Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. So the words of the Golden Age of Spain and the rhythms of the great composers of Europe helped make me a poet. I remember writing my first serious poem and it was about the assassination of Benigno Aquino Jr. in the early 1980’s. It happens that my father was a childhood friend of the poet Rafael Zulueta da Costa and he often came over to our house to drink and talk about pre-war Manila. My father showed Rafael my first two or three poems and he liked my political poem so much that he sent it to a local paper, The Manila Bulletin, to be published. Of course, it wasn’t that good so it never came out. But now I know that it must have been special to be championed early on as a poet by the author of Like the Molave. Perhaps it is that book of poems by Zulueta da Costa that laid the foundation of the politics in my poems. “Not yet, Rizal, Not yet.” is a cry I took to heart.
AL: You mention in an interview (with Elisabetta Marino) that you are "Filipino by birth, Spanish in citizenship, and American by "Permanent Residence." You continue by saying: "I believe that poetry was the most immediate form of art that could express this complicated self." Can you elaborate on the last sentence? What do you mean by "most immediate" and how does that lend itself to better expressing the "complicated self"? How is poetry "immediate"? And how do reconcile any presumably opposing assumptions/beliefs/practices/tastes/etc. within your hybridized identity?
N: From my adopted father I received my Spanish passport and from my adopted mother I received my Greek view of the world. I also carry the name Stilianopoulos in my passport and that really complicates my presence in any environment. I can cook a good moussaka, delicious dolmades, savory souvlaki, and a sumptuous avgolemono soup. But what really makes me feel Greek is having access to Nikos Kazantzakis, Constantine Cavafy, Yannis Ritsos,
Giorgos Seferis, and Odysseus Elytis. I can say I may also have a very euro-centric/western love of poetry but it is a euro-centrism that is more informed than current white American poets of European descent who complain about “the loss of classic western literature.” If you were to look at my poetry through the lens of the New Critics, the Filipino, Spanish, and American would not come out in the lines outside of direct cultural reference in the texts. What I consider as immediate is an emotional connection to the lines. If that happens in the reader, the poem succeeds. So, that takes the poem from merely descriptive to unusually universal.
AL: Can you describe the genesis of 'Returning a Borrowed Tongue'? How did the idea come about, why did you decide to take on the project, how did you select the contributors, and what kinds of challenges did you face during the entire process of producing the anthology?
N: That was the first anthology I put together and I did it before email and the web became popular. Most of it was done through the post and took about two years before the manuscript came together. I still have most of the correspondence somewhere in my archives and it contains letters from many pioneering Filipino poets that are now dead like NVM Gonzalez, Bienvenido N. Santos, Edith Tiempo, Carlos Angeles, and Manuel Viray. The impetus to put it together came from the fear that I would be the only Filipino poet publishing in an ocean of whiteness so I wrote to my contacts in Manila and one poet led to another. I remember having long phone conversations with NVM Gonzalez and he helped form many of the connections.
AL: You admit in your interview with Elisabetta Marino that your editing work hinders your poetry writing. And yet, you have continued to edit anthologies on Filipino American literature because "the necessity of publishing more Filipino related material for a world where there was no previous representation takes over the creative impulse. If Filipino literature does not succeed, my own poems will have little worth without the accompaniment of my fellow writers." It seems that there's a lot to unpack in this statement. First, must poetry and other writing (especially perhaps by people of color) necessarily be approached and envisioned as a collective endeavor? Must there be an alignment of at least political (if not creative) goals amongst Fil Am writers in order to gain "success" (however that can be defined -- whether positive critical reception, a wider audience, mainstream acceptance, etc.). Why is this so?
N: My first wife used to complain that I devoted too much time on other people’s careers than focusing on making myself more famous. I think she was envious of all the attention I was getting from these young Asian women and she put a stop to some of that. But isn’t it the job of the teacher to inspire and to mentor. I believe in the raison d’etre of organizations like Cave Canem and Kundiman who foster the talents of poets of color. To experience the feeling of belonging is a natural necessity and experiencing this belonging with a bunch of poets that look like you can be mind-blowing.
AL: It's curious (and rather sad) that in all three anthologies of Fil Am literature you've edited, you've always seemed compelled to provide an overview of Filipino history and its colonial ties to the U.S. in order to combat invisibility and cultural amnesia while at the same time stressing Fil Am lit's importance and inextricable connection to American lit. You also suggest (by quoting Oscar V. Campomanes -- p. XIV of Borrowed Tongue) that America's unwillingness to acknowledge and confront the hypocrisy in its imperialist history is one reason for the persistent, pervasive, and perhaps blatantly intentional ignorance of Fil Am history and literature. So here's the question: how can we (Fil Am writers, or Fil Ams in general) change that overall dogged American unwillingness to confront historical hypocrisy? What do you think is/are the secret ingredient/s for transformation? In what ways do you think the tipping point will manifest? And why should Fil Ams even have this sort of "moral" or "ethical" obligation or responsibility or burden to educate whites or others in the first place? (p.s., I know there's a lot of big questions here, but mainly I'm just trying to get at your philosophy or ideas on Fil Am lit as a "movement" -- so again, feel free to approach this section in any way you like).
N: Yes, with the first anthology I did not know what I was doing. In all honesty, it was a tabula rasa where I could create anything I so desired. So, I read as many anthologies of Filipino writing I could get through inter library loan and also a few world literature anthologies. I decided on an alphabetical format which was as straight forward as possible. My publisher, Allan Kornblum of Coffee House Press, insisted on an introduction that would provide an overview that a junior high student in the United States would understand. It was challenging to come down to that level of exposition. If some parts sound like a junior high book report on the Philippines, now you know. Educating the colonizer by the colonized is one of the important tasks of the postcolonial citizen. We must continue to publish books, present our work in conferences, hold rallies, and do some civic protest actions. Why must litterature engagee be the sole province of white western writers? Jean Paul Sartre would have loved it if Fil-Am poets stormed the Poetry Society of America or the Academy of American Poets and had a sit-in reading poems of Jose Rizal and Carlos Bulosan for 24 hours straight. Fil-Am and Filipino literature in English already is in the throws of a movement, so many are publishing novels of importance like Gina Apostol and Sabina Murray, short story collections like Veronica Montes and M Evelina Galang, and poetry books like Barbara Jane Reyes, Sarah Gambito, Eileen Tabios, and Sasha Pimentel. Did I just mention all women writers? Well, that’s how powerful our women writers seem to be. The men are just as talented like Oliver de la Paz, Vince Gotera, Bino Realuyo, Eric Gamalinda, Eugene Gloria, Mike Maniquiz, Miguel Syjuco, Tony Robles, Jon Pineda, and Joseph Legaspi. And that’s just to mention a few names from the top of my head. There are many more coming out with really good books that I haven’t bought yet. Well, if ALL aspiring Fil Am poets and writers were to buy the books of just this amazing list, our invisibility could be resolved for good.
AL: Another thing I find interesting is the difference and change in tone that you take in your editor's introduction from 'Returning a Borrowed Tongue' to 'Pinoy Poetics.' In 'Returning a Borrowed Tongue,' you're more of a patient educator. But in 'Pinoy Poetics,' you've become downright grouchy and just plain indignant and frustrated. If you were to put together another Fil Am lit anthology today, how do you think your editor's introduction would take shape? Would you still feel a need to provide an overview of Fil Am history? Would your complaint of invisibility and amnesia still be as intensely presented? What would be different this time, what do you think has changed in the realm of Fil Am lit and its treatment (or what do you think has NOT changed)?
N: That’s funny that you would characterize it as downright cranky like some septuagenarian with a corn pipe in one hand and a shotgun in the other. I’d had reached the point where I wanted to shoot ignorance in the ass and have a good smoke afterwards. It’s not a question of “if” I will publish a follow up to Returning A Borrowed Tongue but when. What is telling is that none of my compatriots has had the gumption to put one together.
AL: As a pioneer, mentor, and advocate of Fil Am lit, what advice would you offer aspiring Fil Am writers? Poets? Community/movement/social justice leaders?
N: Now I feel really old but If I were to die in the near future I would advise the aspiring writers to fall in love with the act of writing and find the never ending joy of the act of reading. Don’t restrict yourself to reading poetry books, read novels, plays, essays, detective novels, comic books, science fiction, even erotica. Watch foreign films, go to the Opera, attend a symphony, anything can inspire poetry and the more details you include, the better. It has been noted that the Fil Am community in general does not read or buy our books. That’s not the excuse because I know some Fil Ams that devour every book we put out. I would point to the larger general culture of willful ignorance and anti-intellectualism in American society that is the problem. That, plus a hefty dose of “colonial mentality,” we are fighting on three fronts.
AL: What excites you now about new Fil Am writers and recent developments in Fil Am literature?
N: What excites me most is the creation and continued success of organizations like Kundiman. What may have been a doubly isolating experience of being a writer in America is less so, if you seek community.
AL: How would you characterize the evolution of your own poetry? You've mentioned that your collections have "humor, the same sense of irony, and political conviction" running through them, but do you think anything else has changed apart from the "setting"?
N: My own written poetry will continue with all the hallmarks you mentioned and it will continue to be in search of the most refined metaphor. In the past ten years I’ve also moved into the realm of visual poetry and film poetry and inter-media poetry. I think you can access some example of these in the internet or on YouTube.
AL: What types of writing or projects would you like to try or undertake in the future that you haven't done yet?
N: If I had the funding, I would like to make a feature length film poem. 70mm with surround sound and paid actors. To dream is to keep living.
AL: What's in store? What's keeping you busy these days?
N: I am trying to stay alive for the poems that demand a seat on the front row of life.
AL: What kind of legacy would you ideally like to leave behind (I posit this as broadly as possible)?
N: I would hope that a thousand years from now my poems will still be read, performed, and visualized.