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on writing the self through poetry: an interview with nick carb˛

elisabetta marino

Filipino American artist Nick Carb˛ is certainly one of the most interesting voices of contemporary poetic world. Born in the Philippines in 1964, adopted at the age of two by a Spanish couple (of Greek origins, on his mother's side), he was raised in Manila, in a thoroughly westernized environment. He completed his university education in the US and chose to write in English, though he also wrote some poems in Spanish and Tagalog is present in some of his works.
Besides publishing four books of poetry - El Grupo McDonald's (1995), 2001 "Asian American Literary Award" winner Secret Asian Man (2000), Rising From Your Book (2003), and Andalusian Dawn (2004) - and editing four poetry anthologies - Returning a Borrowed Tongue (1996), Babaylan (2000, co-edited with Eileen Tabios), Sweet Jesus: Poems about the Ultimate Icon (2002, co-edited with Denise Duhamel), and Pinoy Poetics: An Anthology of Autobiographical and Critical Essays on Filipino Poetics (2004), he has published extensively on north American specialized magazines such as Triquarterly, Poet Lore, Green Mountains Review and World Wrights!
Among his awards there are grants in poetry from NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) and NYFA (New York Foundation for the Arts). He has taught courses at New Jersey Institute of Technology, The American University (Washington D.C.), Miami University, and he is currently visiting poet at Columbia College in Chicago.
In this interview, besides addressing issues related with the meaning of "cultural roots" and the future of Asian American literature, Carb˛ explores the origins of his poetic talent, connecting it both with his "personal" and with the "collective" experience of the Filipino diaspora, which translates into his parallel activity as a poet and as an editor of anthologies.

Nick, how did you start writing and which writers do you think influenced you the most?

One of my main influences is the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges. I remember him saying that every writer creates his precursors and I think he was right. Today, there is the common notion that literary influences are a subconscious affair. The voices of former literary luminaries interrupt the writer at his or her table and they lend a stylistic hand to the piece being worked on. Borges' notion makes the writer more of a conscious participant in the area of influences. I like the idea of letting Miguel de Cervantes through the door of my writing room on a particularly moon filled night instead of Francisco Quevedo. Or helping Milan Kundera climb up through the window to join Italo Calvino on the couch for a glass of malted scotch whiskey. As a child growing up in Manila, I was entertained by my father who recited verses from Federico Garcia Lorca's Romancero Gitano and Poeta en Nueva York, and he even acted out scenes from Jose Zorilla's Don Juan Tenorio. My father, who is about to turn 90 years old, is a bibliophile who loves to spend hours just browsing the titles of his many books in the bookshelves adorning the walls of his apartment. When we were still children, my sister and I would be shown coffee table sized books of art and he would show us the paintings of Velasquez, Goya, and El Greco, the collections of the El Prado museum, or the major cathedrals of Europe. I learned to distinguish between the romanesque, gothic, baroque, and rococo styles of architecture. On our family vacations to Europe, we made literary and artistic stops to out-of-the-way places like the time we visited Nikos Kazantzakis' island of Crete and hired a taxi from Heraklion, to take us to the hamlet of Fodele, the birthplace of Domenicus Theotokopoulos, more famously known as El Greco. At this point I should mention that, although I was born a full-blooded brown skinned Filipino boy, I was adopted as a baby by a Spanish father and Spanish-Greek mother. So the culture I grew up with in Manila was Spanish, Greek, and Filipino.
I remember writing the beginnings of poems during my three semesters at Bennington College in Vermont from Fall 1984 to Fall 1985. This is where I wrote silly love poems which rhymed a lot. Bennington was a special place because there was so much literary production done by the talented undergraduates and we had some of the best writer/teachers like Arturo Vivante, Joe McGinnis, Bernard Malamud, and Ben Belitt. There were undergraduate novelists getting published like Brett Easton Ellis and Donna Tart. The whole emphasis on the creative process and attention to the imagination gave me a solid foundation for what I was to write later on. For my graduate Masters of Fine Arts degree in creative writing, I attended Sarah Lawrence College and I learned from some of the best contemporary American poets like Jean Valentine, Thomas Lux, and Brooks Haxton.

A truly interesting and inspiring background! To what extent did these experiences contribute to your choice of "poetry" as your primary means of expression?

The development of "self" in my world is owed to my father and his library of books. There were many nights as a child that my father would sit my sister and me after dinner and read us passages from Don Quixote de la Mancha. I learned about Sancho Panza and his ability to distinguish what was real and what was imagined. The figure of Don Quixote became something to be admired, the idealization of Dulcinea del Toboso was an admirable trait. It was an upbringing based on the literature, art, and ideals of the golden age of Spain. In essence, my identity is also Spanish. I am a citizen of Spain and I carry a Spanish passport. My psyche feels at home walking the back streets of old Madrid. I even listen to and keep up with the latest Spanish pop singers and groups like Jarabe de Palo, Oreja de Van Gogh, Alejandro Sanz, and Ana Belen. But all this does not make one a Spaniard, I look in the mirror and I see a Filipino face. What is most important is that I feel Spanish and no one can take that away from me. I am Filipino by birth, Spanish in citizenship, and American by "Permanent Residence." I believe that poetry was the most immediate form of art that could express this complicated self. I tried painting in college but that did not suit my imagination, I attempted modern dance but what I really needed was a stillness that would let the creative energy flow onto a blank piece of paper instead of a wooden stage floor.

So, you speak about "poetry" in connection with writing the self. In your view, what is the difference and what are the advantages of using the "poetry form" rather than the "narrative, non-fictional form"?

The first examples of poetry that I encountered were in Spanish and they were the poems of Federico Garcia Lorca recited by the legendary flamenco singer and dancer Lola Flores. Her recitation of La Muerte de Ignacio Sanchez Mejia just shook me to the bones. I wondered, if poetry can do this to me, maybe I could learn how to do the same thing - shake people to their core. I set out to write poetry because it was immediate and full of emotion. It could set off bombs of knowledge in one's brain with words as the combustible material and a metaphor as the spark. I tried writing fiction or non-fiction to express these complicated emotions but it took too long to develop the main ideas. I fell in love with the economy of words in poems.

How do El Grupo McDonald's and Secret Asian Man reflect what you are saying?

In El Grupo McDonald's and Secret Asian Man I do try to shake the reader to the core with the emotional and intellectual force of the poems. I also use irony to couch the politics behind the poems. The inclusion of political content in my poems comes from having survived the Marcos dictatorship as an adolescent during the 80's in Manila. Family friends being exiled in the US or Europe, relatives disappearing or being "salvaged," the censorship of the press-all had an impact on my development as a person and a poet.
I'd like to think I am following in the tradition of Pablo Neruda with his dedication to his art and to his cause in Chile, or Luis Cernuda, Jorge Guillen, and Rafael Alberti in their effort to resist the dictatorship of Francisco Franco in Spain. In this regard I also admire the poetry and feminist politics of the Mexican poet Rosario Castellanos, the North American Adriene Rich, and the Canadian Margaret Atwood. I still believe in the principles of Jean Paul Sartre's literature engagÚ even though this literary mandate may be out of fashion in the "New World Order" of President Bush's American century. The use of Tagalog, the national language of the Philippines, is a very deliberate device in my poems. It is not only a response to being forced to write in the colonizer's language (English), but also a form of infecting that language like a virus and make the larger body politic take notice of us. American literature will be forced to pay attention to our words or it will die.

So much of Filipino history and cultural issues are present in your poems. Could your works be interpreted as the expression of a collective identity besides your own? Could they be viewed as some kind of "collective biography"?

I use as much historical data in my poems as I can from research and personal reading. The history of the Philippines belongs to all the Filipinos past and present and when I include certain events and leading native figures in my poems, I am writing a "collective biography" as you point out. Some of the historical facts I cite were never important to the general American reading public so I also see myself as a constant educator of the historically deficient.

Speaking about collective identity, you edited two breakthrough anthologies of Filipino and Filipino American writers (Returning a Borrowed Tongue and Babaylan, which you co-edited with Eileen Tabios). Could you explain the origin and intention of these works and expand on the choice of the titles?

The idea for Returning a Borrowed Tongue came to me way back when I was attending Sarah Lawrence College as an MFA poetry graduate student from 1990-1992. My sense of "self" as a political person was already well developed but my "self" as a poet was still being refined. There I was, a young Filipino training to be a poet in the United States and I realized that I had no knowledge of a Filipino poetic tradition to look back to in order to gain a sense of my being as a poet in this world. Through all the colleges I attended as an undergraduate in the U.S. I had not run across one mention of Philippine literature in my English literature, World Literature, or Poetry classes. It seemed to me that our country was erased or just not included in the world literature map. In my heart I knew something was wrong, there were quite a few Filipino writers of note like the poet Rafael Zulueta da Costa and the fictionist Bienvenido N. Santos. I knew they existed because these two writers had visited my house for dinner parties my parents gave in Manila and Legazpi, Albay. I began a flurried pace of research to unearth this tradition of poetry which was not talked about or even considered worthy of being called a literature by the American academic and publishing world. I asked my father to go to National Book Store in Manila and buy me any books on Filipino poetry he could find. The most important book that arrived was the ground-breaking anthology of poetry in English Man of Earth edited by Gemino H. Abad and Edna Z. Manlapaz. From this all-important text I learned that Filipinos had been publishing books of poetry in America as early as 1925 (Azucena by Marcelo de Gracia Concepcion) and some of them like Jose Garcia Villa (Have Come, Am Here) and Carlos Bulosan (America is in the Heart) had books published in the 40's and 50's. Villa and Bulosan had also been publishing regularly in the most prestigious American magazine of verse, Harriett Monroe's Poetry alongside Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore, and Wallace Stevens. I also discovered that in 1934, Harriett Monroe had accepted a trio of poems from a young Imagist poet from the Philippines named NVM Gonzalez. This young poet from the island of Mindoro went on to become one of the Philippine's most famous short story writers. In the early 90's I tracked down NVM Gonzalez while he was still living in northern California and interviewed him about his experiences as one of our "pioneer" writers in America. I told him I was putting together an anthology of Filipino and Filipino American poetry and he was the one who suggested the title.

He must have been very pleased about the enterprise! Did he contribute in any other way to the volume?

I remember NVM Gonzalez as one of the most generous writers I'd ever met. He helped the anthology by giving me the names and addresses of several old-timer Filipino poets living in obscurity in the U.S. like Manuel Viray and Carlos Angeles who are now dead. With NVM's help, I was able to catch the tail end of this pioneer generation of important Filipino poets and talk to them and publish their last poems. So, when the anthology was published in 1995, NVM and his friends were very pleased to see the beginnings of this Filipino literary renaissance.
As for Babaylan, that came as a gift of sorts. After putting the finishing touches on Returning a Borrowed Tongue, I noticed I had received very good poems from Filipina women poets like Maria Luisa Aguilar Carino (now Luisa Igloria), Marjorie Evasco, Fatima V. Lim-Wilson, and Rowena Torrevillas and I wanted to show-case this very unique female perspective in our Filipino literature. If Filipino literature was not talked about in general, Filipino women's writing was hardly mentioned even in a blue moon by the Americans. So I took on this other mission to bring to the world a beautiful aspect of Filipino writing. The title itself is the word for priestess or curandera for the Visayan natives of the Philippines. The babaylan was the one who presided over important ceremonies of the community, healed the sick and dying, provided magic words to cure someone, or cause a person to fall in love with you. She was and is a symbol of the many roles of power a Filipina can have in the Philippines.

In the very title of Babaylan and in poems such as "Mal Agueros" it is therefore possible to gather the strong connections of your work with Filipino roots and folklore. Could you explain the contribution these ties gave to the articulation of your own identity and the role they could play in the molding of Filipino American identity? Moreover, what is their meaning in a global society?

That's a very interesting question. I believe that all our native folklore (from around the world) contain the seeds of what makes us unique in that particular culture. Filipino folklore and myths are full of blood and baby sucking monsters that fly (aswang), tree-dwelling half man half horse creatures (tikbalang), mischievous dwarfs (duende), ghosts (impacto), animals that talk, lovers that defy their parents and are punished by the gods, petulant children who are eaten by ants, and much more. Some of these tales come to us from the distant pre-Spanish past (before 1521) and they carry explanations of our current cultural traits. One of my favorites is the story of Juan Tamad who was the laziest man in the village. He was so lazy that when he was hungry for a piece of fruit, he would place his hammock under that fruit tree and wait until the fruit dropped into his open mouth. Filipino identity is molded by these folk stories that have been passed on from generation to generation. There are also legends like the Ilocano Legend of Lam Ang and the Bicolano Legend of Ibalon where heroes go on adventures in search of a beloved figure and in these stories we learn how to win the love of a woman in the native society, how to treat the elderly in our homes, and what ways of behavior are acceptable for small children growing up in a household. These folktales, myths, and legends are mirrors of past Filipino societies as well as the present ones.
Even though there are many second-generation Filipino children growing up in far-flung parts of the world like Australia, South Africa, Italy, Saudi Arabia, Germany, Spain, Canada, and the United States, there are these basic Filipino folk tales that parents and grandparents tell their children. These are the roots of what makes us what we are and keeps us connected to a home culture.

But where and what is home in our world, characterized by constant migratory fluxes and definition/redefinition of cultural parameters? How can the "roots" you talk about be translated and usefully adapted in a new context?

The Filipino's "home" will always be the islands of that archipelago in Southeast Asia called the Philippines. There is no other historical home other than those 7,000 islands. If the Jews of the Jewish diaspora can call Israel "home", we Filipinos of the Filipino diaspora can call the Philippines home. Do the Italian Americans of New York City call Mulberry Street in Little Italy, home? No, they call Italy HOME because that's where their ancestors came from. Home cannot be adapted or translated by any dominant culture.

In 1993 Jessica Hagedorn wrote that "Asian American literature" was "too confining a term" and that writers should be heading towards "world literature." You mentioned the connection of your works with "the world" several times in this interview. How do you view the current literary production? Where do you think Filipino American and, more generally, Asian American literary production is heading to?

Yes, Jessica Hagedorn was right in her notion that we should be considered as part of world literature. But since that time, only one US anthology of "world poetry" has included Filipino poets within its pages. I understand that these categories are made up largely by the big publishing companies and the giant bookstore chains to sell the books. In the chain bookstores like Barnes & Noble and Borders I can now find whole bookcases of African American, Asian American, and Native American literature. I believe that this also coincides with the rise in the number of courses being taught on these ethnic literatures in the colleges and universities in the US. With the rapid rise of Filipino American literary production, I can be sure that within thirty years there will be a whole bookshelf of Filipino and Filipino American literature in American and world bookstores. Am I dreaming?

No, you're not... even though I think that sometimes writers of ethnic origins "hyper-exoticize" their works for the very purpose of pleasing the "big publishing companies"...So, you think there is still "a future" for ethnic literature and that it will not simply "disappear" in the new globalized melting pot of the world. I am now asking you to use all the imagination of a poet... which themes do you think Asian American writers will be dealing with in the future? Do you think the "roots" you were referring to beforehand will still play an important role? Do you think writers will adopt a transnational perspective?

Well, if I told you I once heard an American academic say that Umberto Ecco and Eugenio Montale were purposely "hyper-exoticizing" their work as ethnically Italian, you would laugh and call that American ignorant. We know that these Italian writers are much more and their writing is universal while being fed by Italian ROOTS. I completely reject this idea that our "emerging" (I hate to use that term because Philippine literature has been around for more than two centuries. Who are we emerging to?) literature needs to be "hyper-exoticized" to be accepted by the mainstream American publishers. This idea of hyper-exoticization is stupidly repeated by academic critics around the world and only serves as another way to shut us up and stop ethnic writers from writing about their culture. Ethnic literature cannot be stopped, if Isaac Beshives Singer can hyper-exoticize his Jewish ethnic Eastern European culture so beautifully in his novels and stories and win a Nobel Prize for literature, then there is so much hope for us Asian Americans. I don't know what themes the other Asian American writers will touch upon but I know they will be universal as well as particularly ethnic.

Speaking about transnationalism, do you think the internet plays an important role in the Filipino and, more generally, in the Asian diaspora?

The internet has been an important tool in reaching out to the diaspora of Filipino poets and writers toiling at their craft around the globe. In the late 90's my good friend, the poet Vince Gotera and I started an email literary listserve group called FLIPS (flips@uni.edu). The list has grown steadily and we now have participants emailing us from Australia, Peru, Panama, New Zealand, South Africa, Germany, Spain, Italy, the Philippines, and the US. There are also many web sites which promote and display Filipino and Filipino American literature. So, when one of us has a new book published anywhere in the world, many of us are there ready to buy the book and enjoy the pleasures of this Filipino author.

Electronic publications can also be a good means of bypassing the "big publishing houses" and their demands; what do you think?

Yes, more and more poets are publishing e-chapbooks or e-books of their poems which can be easily downloaded in Word or PDF files onto any computer. I have recently published Rising From Your Book, an e-chapbook of my experimental poems with an electronic publisher based in Helsinki, Finland. The site is called Xpressed (www.Xpressed.org) and it has several chapbooks by many experimental poets from around the world. The internet has leveled the publishing field with its easy access of information, and now, contemporary literature.

Good to know! Speaking about other aspects of your artistic career, you have recently co-edited, with poet Denise Duhamel, your wife, a collection entitled Sweet Jesus: Poems about the Ultimate Icon (The Anthology Press, 2003). Could you tell me more about the genesis of this collection? Which are the threads connecting this volume to the rest of your literary production?

Well, my editing work has mainly been about Filipino and Filipino American literature. The Sweet Jesus anthology was a way to get me into the other fields where our American poet friends were grazing in their fine green grassy fields. I grew up a Roman Catholic in Manila and went to church every Sunday. Denise, my wife also grew up Catholic but in Woonsocket, Rhode Island in the U.S. Her background is French Canadian and they also have a healthy respect for the Catholic church and the Pope. With this anthology we wanted to gather all the poems that had Jesus as the main character in the work. We chose poems from many different perspectives like African American, Native American, Asian American, gay, lesbian, married, divorced, and even atheist. Working with my wife as co-editor on this anthology is the only thread connecting with the rest of my literary production. Editors of anthologies generally don't include their own work in the anthologies they edit. This is the case with Sweet Jesus. I'd like to make it clear that the main impulse of being an editor of an anthology, being the one to put it together and shape the book, is to bring attention to the work of a group of other poets. I wanted to bring more attention to Filipino poetry so I edited Returning a Borrowed Tongue. I wanted to bring closer attention to Filipina women's writing so I collected the works for Babaylan and co-edited the anthology with Eileen Tabios.

I see that your editorial work is an important facet of your being a poet in this world. In the poetry arena not many famous poets have been great anthologizers. Does being an editor help or hinder your writing poems?

My main concern is having enough time to complete all these projects. Yes, I do think being an editor does hinder my poetry production somewhat. I would much rather be writing a series of sonnets instead of proof reading a 400 page galley of another anthology but 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.

This seems to be a very selfless act you are doing. What I find compelling in the poems in El Grupo McDonald'sand Secret Asian Man is that there is a strong sense of "self" in every poem. Do you find this contradictory?

I think I agree with your assessment. My first book El Grupo McDonald's had quite a few autobiographical poems in it like "In Tagalog Ibon Means Bird" and "The Boy in Blue Shorts." The "I" in those poems was definitely a version of myself as a boy growing up in the big house in Legazpi, Albay. I did have several maids in the household teasing me one night about "my little bird." This is a poem about sexual awakening and the innocence of a child's imagination before he learns that certain parts of his body are "dirty" and becomes ashamed of it the rest of his life. In Secret Asian Man, the "self" is more imaginary because the main character Ang Tunay na Lalaki is completely made up. He does have a strong personality and sometimes forces the action in the poems to his benefit. In the poem "Ang Tunay na Lalaki's First Assignment" he takes charge of the situation and gives chase to the kidnapper's car without any prompting from the author. I can honestly say that the characters in this book contain several aspects of my (Nick's) many emotional states of being. In the poem "Sally Speaks," she opens with the line "You're damn right I'm your anima!" The Sally character can be seen as my anima and Lalaki as my animus (according to Carl Jung's female and male theory of psychology).

One last question: what are your artistic projects for the future?

I have just finished editing my third anthology related to Philippine literature. It is entitled Pinoy Poetics: An Anthology of Autobiographical and Critical Essays on Filipino Poetics (Meritage Press, 2004) which will be available starting from this summer. I have also finished my third book of poems called Andalusian Dawn (Cherry Grove Collections, 2004) which will also be available starting from this summer. The poems in this third book will showcase my Spanish heritage and especially the history and culture of Andalucia. This book is admittedly a sharp departure from the Filipino related first two books of poems I've published but if you look closer, the "self" in these poems retain the humor, the same sense of irony, and political conviction of the other books. Only the setting has changed.

Thank you, Nick!

May, 2004

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