Honoring Identities: Why and How I Write Poetry
For many poets, the commitment to writing poetry begins with a sure and eager appreciation of expression. That appreciation may be in the reception of another’s work—as when one discovers the work of a talented poet, an experience that compels many to produce work of the same caliber (whether that attempt is successful is another question)—or in the more personal, visceral desire for artful expression: “I have something to say, and I would like to say it beautifully.”
Writing poetry began in this fashion for me. I started writing poems in 2001, after I discovered poetry through an introductory course in university. I was a sophomore then, and had almost no knowledge of the genre. Previously, the closest I came to approaching poetry was in an English class in high school, where a standard-issue textbook presented a Robert Frost poem, “Mending Wall”. Little was done with the poem besides reading it aloud in class. Our teacher fed us an interpretation: the poem was not literally about mending walls, she said. It was about building and repairing relationships, and that was that. We answered as much when the question was asked in subsequent exercises:
“What was the meaning of Robert Frost’s poem, ‘Mending Wall?”
“Taking care of our relationships.”
In my undergraduate class on poetry, however, my experience was radically different. Our instructor, Dr. Pesigan, showed us the many ways that a poem could be appreciated. I remember being stunned in class—not just at my ignorance of poetry relative to my peers, many of whom had read Shakespeare in high school—but also at the spectacular revelation that each poem represented.
Initially, I expected quizzes on the meaning of each poem; instead, what we got were spirited discussions on how a poem spoke to us, why the poem was an achievement, and what we ourselves had gained from reading it. I raised my hand several times to recite. I had never been so annoying in all my life.
Exposure to such skillful poetry impelled me to write my own. I didn’t recognize until university the possibilities for beauty in the written word, and I didn’t recognize—until that introductory class—the revelatory nature of poetry, how it holds a mirror up to the self and the larger world. I wrote poetry then because I found that poetry could be so good. But as a seventeen-year-old, I also wrote poetry because I felt I had something to say and I needed to say it. I saw that a poem could potentially be greater than its own thoughtful enjambments, greater than the page it occupied, and much, much greater than the fact of itself.
This basic appreciation of expression—whether that expression is actively produced or inspired by other brilliant voices—is most pronounced in the tradition of confessional poetry. Here, poetry is driven by personal experience and the need to convey that experience through poetic expression. And indeed, insight from personal experience is an abundant resource for poetry, accessible even upon briefest reflection.
What did all of this mean for me? As with many of my contemporaries, my early poems were decidedly confessional, their construction built upon experiences most immediate to me. Confessional poetry was the most intuitive entry point. Frankly, however, I had no true aspirations: I liked poems, therefore I would write them, and I would write them with the tepid hope that they would turn out nicely. And poetry, really, was a way to belong; I did not always fit in when I was in high school, but the literary community in university was a small world I could assume a place in. We were all teenagers once, weren’t we.
When I think of it now, the greatness I then saw in poetry was a greatness I longed for myself. Even my application to the 44th Dumaguete National Writers Workshop in 2005 was not a matter of craftsmanship; it was—hilariously—a way to get back at a former boyfriend who had broken up with me, and who, I discovered, gained entry to another national writers workshop. I was lucky, though; despite the fact that there was little integrity in my application, I was accepted anyway. Suddenly, writing poetry was no longer fun and games. Sure, I had always loved the written word, but in the three weeks I spent in Dumaguete, I found myself surrounded with people who had devoted nearly all their lives to the achievement of literary and artistic merit. No one was there to get back at ex-boyfriends, except for myself. It was almost embarrassing.
Even more embarrassing was the fact that my poems were well-received. I had come to Dumaguete anticipating a bloodbath. I thought of the panelists ready with their sledgehammers of critical theory, my poems gasping for air, my work fracturing under narrow-eyed scrutiny.
Instead, what I received was approval, and the praise threw me into a tailspin. By the time I flew back to Manila, all I could think was, “How could these people like my work?” I believed then that my poems—which were exclusively confessional—were not meant to show what the panelists had seen. I seemed to have forgotten that confessional poetry is one of the most liberal forms in the genre. Not only does it answer to the necessity of expression; it is also drawn from a self that—one can reason—is of near-limitless capacity for insight. That near-limitless capacity for insight, uniquely human as it were, also permits near-limitless variety in poetic expression, and consequently, near-limitless potential for meaningful identification with and interpretation by any reader.
Almost immediately after participating in the Dumaguete workshop, I found myself unable to write poems. During this period, however, poetry never left me. Ideas for poems came to me left and right, but I usually rebuffed them when they appeared, anxious that if I did start writing again, the resulting poems would be shit. In commutes, I thought of the poems I wasn’t writing. I surrendered myself to just reading poems, but the poems that moved me only reminded me of the compulsion to write—a compulsion I ignored as stubbornly as it persisted.
Not writing, as it turns out, was worse torment than writing itself. Seeking clarity, I began to read essays on poetry, and along the way, I stumbled upon a few pieces written by Donald Hall. Although somewhat rambling and curmudgeonly, Hall’s essays were some of the most vigorously reassuring and enlightening tracts on ars poetica I had ever laid my hands on. Most influential on me was his essay, “Poetry and Ambition,” which begins with a statement that sounds as much a directive as an admonition: “I see no reason to spend your life writing poems unless your goal is to write great poems.” This sentence showed me not only why I had so much trouble going back to writing poetry: I had so effectively convinced myself that my work would be terrible, and therefore not worth the attempt. However, there was a curious redemptive quality to Donald Hall’s statement that caused me to resume writing. Greatness in poetry, Hall suggested in “Poetry and Ambition,” is an ideal and thus completely unattainable. What matters now for every aspiring poet is the long and sustained gesture towards that greatness, to do justice to the unachievable by pursuing it ambitiously.
Earlier, I mentioned expression—both the appreciation of and compulsion towards it—as an initial impetus for writing poetry. And confessional poetry was, for me, the most forgiving jump-off point for the development of my craft as an aspiring poet. I believe too that confessional poetry was a necessary exercise in my growth both as a writer and an individual. In the years I spent producing confessional poems, I was also in fevered conflict with myself. One can then argue that the confessional approach, wherever it is employed in a poet’s career, is a useful instrument when the self seeks to be revealed to itself. In this manner, poetry becomes a vehicle not only for expression, but also for the discovery and resolution of an identity. It is a process not without pain, but it is essential.
The dry spell I described earlier—where I couldn’t seem to write anything—finally ended in 2011. Since then, I have come upon my own creative process with more conviction, having struggled with the act of writing poetry for so long. It used to trouble me that I was not as prolific as my peers, who seemed to write poems as frequently as several times a week. In the meantime, I averaged at around five to six poems a year—slow going for sure, but an encouraging start after six years of writing practically nothing.
I am making peace with this pace, because the speed at which I write is, at the moment, central to the process I have designed for myself. Upon writing a poem, I refuse it an audience for an extended period, usually four to six months (a year in more extreme cases), during which I subject the work to constant revision. I do this because I want the poem to settle into itself without the early intervention of praise or criticism. Received too soon, praise can lead the poet into thinking that the poem is finished, when it is not and never will be—no poem is ever finished, and always within it is enough room for ceaseless revision. Premature criticism, on the other hand, can also stunt the growth of a poem that has just been drafted. Tell a budding poet that his fresh draft isn’t good, and injured pride might cause him to toss the draft altogether. Alternatively, he might work at the poem with greater determination, but he risks doing so with the misguided purpose of soothing the tutting critic.
I am convinced that the development of a poet and the maturity of his or her poetry is commensurate to the hours of solitary revision one is willing to put into the poem. Once enough time has been spent in reworking the original draft, the emergent poem—and the emergent poet—will have the creative integrity to properly receive criticism or praise. Faced with inevitable criticism, a poem wrought with conviction will not fold or take offense; instead, it will allow the poet to sieve the comments for criticism most beneficial to the poem. This way, the act of future revision isn’t to serve the interests of the critic, but rather, the interests of both the poet and the poem itself.
Now, if praise is forthcoming, then it will have been well-deserved, because considerable labor has gone into improving the poem. The poet’s talent is acknowledged, but more important than this talent is the commitment to honing the craft—which, as we know, is what makes the great poets great. Any discussion on talent can easily feed the writer’s ego, an ego that, if left unchecked, might cause an otherwise promising poet to lapse into mediocrity. But every discussion on creative rigor impresses upon the poet the necessity of revision, a process that requires the ego to be stilled, so that the poem’s own growth can proceed unimpeded by the desire for recognition.
These principles, as I have developed and embraced them, are already guiding me into my current project. I am now venturing into other forms of poetic expression beyond the confessional approach, specifically by exploring stories beyond the purview of my immediate experience. Confessional poetry has its own noble aims, but I intend to direct my poetry this time to a different purpose: that of telling seldom-told stories, that of honoring identities outside my own. Doing this will require me to regard the world as I regard the self: a boundless reserve for literary material and poetic expression, but this time, without the comfort of a familiar subject.
Since 2015, the world I have chosen to focus my poetry on is still close to me: my country and its history, and the plenitude of stories within those realms. Of greater interest to me are stories that have arisen from conflict, beginning from the Spanish occupation to present-day unrest. Already, I am meeting some considerable challenges. If I am to proceed successfully with this project—one I began in 2015—then I must make adjustments to the creative process I’ve become accustomed to since 2011. It will no longer do to write only five poems a year; I will have to accelerate the writing process without compromising the creative integrity of my work.
To ease my writing into a brisker clip, I have decided to work on at least one poem a month beginning on December of 2016, and with a subject that I have long thought about: the Spanish occupation, with one poem written from the perspective of the conquistador and another from the point-of-view of the Filipino. The latter poem, for example, will specifically be inspired by recorded events in 1577, where a Filipino concealed himself in the nighttime dark and yelled to Spaniards, “What have we done to you, or what did our ancestors owe yours, that you should come to plunder us?”
Such accounts are little-known. Now, more than ever, I believe it is upon us to know these stories, to invoke from them the voices that have been lost to time, and to relay their message with this understanding: that the narrative of our people’s identity is continuous and evolving, unbroken by the centuries or the constraints of our geography. In knowing these accounts, we can urge the Filipino narrative towards more hopeful and resolute prospects.
The poems I have already written for this project have preserved some elements of confessional poetry, although their outward-looking vision will be obvious to the reader. To show the transition in my creative process, I am also including previously written poems that are themselves confessional.
Altogether, I believe that poetry—and poetry as I might be capable of—is an apt vessel for the stories of our people. We live in times of intense self-interest, where the welfare of the self is judged superior to the welfare of a clearly wounded world. I want my poetry to be a denouncing force against such dangerous self-interest, against the subversion of identities hard-won or yet to emerge. It is time, I think, for art to be less about the self, and more about a world vaster than our individual selves—as vast, perhaps, as poetry truly is.
 William Henry Scott, Cracks in the Parchment Curtain (Quezon City: New Day Publishers, 1982), p. 20.