Kicking off a new series of discussions between poets, editor Omar J. Sakr and award-winning poet Lawrence Lacambra Ypil talk in-text, in real and unreal time, in a collaborative Google Document.
OJS: I wish I was interviewing you in person. We are separated by at least one ocean, however. I thought it might be best to begin by letting people know where we are, so they can envision the respective spaces being bridged. I am in a small bungalow which sits toward the back of my cousin’s chicken farm. This place is free, in the sense that I am not paying for it. I am writing at a small $60 desk bought at Kmart. There are thirty-one books stacked on it, some bought, some gifted, as well as a pen, origins unknown, an empty can of drink, bug spray, an unplugged lamp, a slain Coca-Cola branded glass and… I’m realising now how absurdly messy this desk is, so I’m going to stop here out of embarrassment.
Picture a mounted studio apartment in a field, slovenly occupied, and you have it.
LLY: What I would give to be writing in a chicken farm. I’m outdoors now, on campus, in the middle of one of the university’s courtyards where I am for the moment its writer-in-residence. This must be what it means to write-in-residence, to write where one lives, which in this case means I am here with my laptop on a table thing on a Monday morning writing for everyone to see. A student approaches. “What are you doing?” “I am writing.” “Your own work?” “Trying.” She says, “I hope you become an inspiration to yourself.”<! data-preserve-html-node="true"-- more -->
I am writing on campus, but my mind is really elsewhere – somewhere closer to the business centre of Singapore, Orchard Road, where I was having coffee last night thinking about your question. I had read it earlier in the day and it made me think of answering it in a more interesting place. I have found myself needing to be in busy, noisy places for me to write: hawker centres, malls, places where one can distract oneself with the sound of a cart or the neatly folded jeans of a stranger or the beak of a bird, there are many of them here, one of them in front of me now, but no, not last night. Last night, I was thinking about what I was going to write you in the morning and now that it is morning, I am writing this. (9:16 am)
OJS: In your email just now, you asked “how does one conduct a ‘moving’ interview”? One in which we are mobile, elastic with our time and space. Here I see you have already answered in part. Sometimes a question cannot be resolved in one place–the knowledge, the words lie elsewhere. So we move, we find other trees to bracket our bodies, other hungry sounds to fill the silence and allow us to unlimber our minds. In practice, I initiate this by walking long distances. Keep myself moving. I struggle with stillness, the sitting and the pouring-out part. I think this is why poetry is so perfectly suited to me. The longer I sit, the more I feel I lose what I have gathered with my movement. The pouring-out is quickest with poems, and thereafter I can take as long as I like to sort through and refine the mixture.
Fittingly, I have moved since the first question: I am now in Melbourne city, in a library. Another free place, using free internet. There is a man sprawled nearby on a couch-bed (it has become a new thing by his use of it), and he is releasing the most ferocious snores I have heard, long wounded noises like a wheezing elephant. By his unclenched hands are two volumes of the comic, ‘Powers’.
LLY: I imagine you moving, as I am moving myself. I am thinking about restlessness just as I have come back from a walk and spent much of the morning sitting at the nearby hawker centre: a five-minute walk to the bus stop, a few more minutes in the bus, and then a few more to find my favorite table looking into a busy intersection. I have found these quick trips outside of campus more and more necessary, the pristine and orderly and dependable conditions of the university, while perhaps ideal for other writers of different predispositions, has in many ways run counter to my impulses for recklessness, agitation, surprise. I sense that the same impulses govern your writing, your decision to be a poet, especially in the context of finding the form that best allows you to breathe and move and be.
Since I’ve begun this residency last year, I’ve been thinking about the role of poetry in the academe. I’ve been especially interested in the way failure functions in the making of poems. In an environment that prizes deliberateness, clarity, the well-formed thought of the academic paper (a form I am continuously made to reckon with in student consults at the Writers Centre) I find that poetry with its emphasis on the materiality of language and on risk, provides a necessary counterpoint to that sense of control and willfulness so prized in many other disciplines. To surrender to language—anyone attempting to write a poem understands this call, the apparent powerlessness in the writing of poems—becomes the very source of its power.
OJS: It’s funny you say that about dependable orderliness, when so many writers would no doubt find that ideal. There is a balance to this: today, I am back on the farm, and since leaving it yesterday, my cousin has installed a beehive near my bungalow. This morning an alarmed bee interrupted my writing, and there followed frantic minutes of dodging and weaving, until I got the door open and a gust of wind carried it off. Then, I noticed a spider, and had to deal with that. Nature with its interruptions, my mind with its distractions, my desk with its mess. Now I think writing has less to do with the place, be it orderly or chaotic, and more to do with the entering and the leaving of it. We return to movement.
Given the active nature of this, the way we prick at the tension that threads the body when travelling between two points, can we claim poetry as surrender? But I know exactly what you mean. My true joy is the blanket unknowing I feel when I begin a poem; there is no source to cite other than life itself, no parameters to heed, only the leap into unexpected knowledge. In that sense, you absolutely give up control – you leap, but only after a long run-up. Tell me about the run-up to ‘The Hour Is A Dirty Pocket.’
LLY: ‘The Hour’ is a little sort of tribute to the TV contests I grew up watching in the Philippines, mostly on Sundays, right after family lunch, before I would go on siesta mode for the afternoon. Those shows always seemed to me like sad spectacles of hope in my otherwise poor country. Fleeting, glittering, the sheen of the hair of the show’s host. This poem automatically came to mind when I read about your issue’s theme, ‘Capital’.
OJS: Was it a show like The Price Is Right? I remember watching that as a kid in my aunt’s housing-commission home, and on reflection, there is something nauseating about the extreme excitement, the jumping joy of people winning household items they likely couldn’t otherwise afford. Not-having-enough being dressed up in lights. This is something you capture in your poem, but maybe you can tell me a bit more about life in the Philippines? Are you worried about how things are turning out now under Duterte?
LLY: To live in the Philippines, as it is to live in many other parts of the world, is to live with unpredictability, whim: yours, your neighbor’s, someone around the corner, someone “up there”. It thrives on and even prides itself in an aesthetics and ethics of improvisation. You make do. You bend backwards. You go with the flow. You very early on understand that you belong to a history of someone “up there” bending the rule to his whim – whether that be a colonizing power of three hundred years ago or a dictator. You watch in horror, as one would perhaps the game I watched when I was young called Kwarta o Kahon (roughly translated into “Money or the Box”), as the contestant gambles the stakes that have been piling up in the past hour in exchange for whatever the box may contain: the papers for a house and lot, a household showcase including a washing machine you can’t afford to pay the electricity bill for, a pile of leaves. You watch, you watch, and hope. You hope especially for the sense of humor that will tide you through the wrong decisions: the kind of laughter that comes from the gut, liberating, Bakhtinian, not that staid and hollow laughter you give because you are scared that if you don’t snicker it will cost your life.
OJS: I want to say, “surrender, in this context, feels like a dangerous word” but in this context every word becomes dangerous. Every word becomes both run-up and fall, every word redoubles its speed, moving into and out of bodies. It is too easy–in a distant country where words are meaningless, where the truth is a rag too sodden to make out its marks, and everything is denied or distorted–to speak of what is dangerous. Is this why we give ourselves over to poetry, to reinvest meaning into a language wrung dry of it? It feels facetious to even suggest it. Life’s vulgarities make a joke out of everything, honestly. So yes, it is important to have a sense of humour. Laughter, at least, is free.
LLY: And when earned through the care for language that is found in all good poetry, then perhaps it frees us.
Omar J Sakr is The Lifted Brow’s poetry editor. His first collection, These Wild Houses, is published by Cordite Books.
Lawrence Lacambra Ypil is the author of The Highest Hiding Place. He recently received an MFA in nonfiction from the University of Iowa.