In other news

In other news: my poems appeared in High Chair's Issue #18.

What is Poetry?

A friend and I are discussing Ashbery's What is Poetry? and I think conversations like these are effective in jumpstarting thoughts that I've long since put on the back burner.

Back in college, I was friends with this guy who always has this tendency to discuss to me his plans about his research paper, or any paper, due next morning. From my perspective, it initially sounded like sheer ranting, to the point that I've grown tired of hearing his plans. It turns out that he's well aware of this, but that he really is the kind of person who thinks it's essential to lay your cards on the table in front of another person. Sort of performing a magic trick to yourself and, well, discuss the logic behind it.

A while ago I felt like some really awkward guy discussing Ashbery to another friend, and I had this thought that maybe I was ranting in the same way my old college friend used to do on Facebook, during those wondrous hours of cramming. Judging from how absorbed he is with his plans, I even thought that he wasn't reading anything during our chat.

I guess this is the logic behind writing workshops. Most often we never really talk largely about theories or fiction, as we usually focus on the smaller details. But come to think of it--I always get this good kind of headache just by hearing everybody in the circle discussing, countering each other's points. I often arrive at a certain conclusion with lengthy footnotes and paragraphs supporting claims, good enough for an essay.

Moving on.

Ashbery's What is Poetry? is his "answer" (or an answer posed as a rhetorical question, at the very least) on what poetry means, and what its predefinitions are in the reader-writer relationship. Ashbery has been controversial ever since the publication of his masterpiece, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975) because of his non sequiturs and his penchant for anti-climactic lines. His poetry is described as postmodern, but only to some aspects: for instance, this particular poem's metafictive style of addressing itself as a poem, along with non sequiturs, are very much his style. In his interview in The Paris Review, Ashbery said that one of his inspirations are overheard phrases (the line also appears in this poem):
In a bookstore I overheard a boy saying to a girl this last line: “It might give us—what?—some flowers soon?” I have no idea what the context was, but it suddenly seemed the way to end my poem. I am a believer in fortuitous accidents.
In this poem, he starts with a classical image; a medieval frieze. But how random to couple with the next line: the sound of "Nagoya", and the idea of boy scouts becoming a frieze, are amusing. I like how he wants us to fall for a beautiful idea only to fool us that it wasn't such a beautiful, complete idea.

The poem becomes self-reflexive:  "The snow / that came when we wanted it to snow?" This reminds me of that cliché on TV shows and films: it almost always rains when the protagonist feels lonely, or isolated. Is the weather sympathetic to the protagonist's feelings? Is poetry always about loading meaning on each and every word? Should poetry be about "medieval friezes" and "beautiful images"?

Whereas the "traditional" poem would be sentimental over the fact that it snows, Ashbery wants us to reconsider the reason behind its penchant to associate certain sentiments towards objects--sometimes over and over again, exhausting the association--to the point that readers feel sick about it. These lines become clichés, and eventually, the emotions it elicits become on cue, canned, cheapened.

From this point, the joke dissipates. "But we / go back to them as to a wife, leaving" is something grave; this time it's about our (the "we" is probably the reader and the writer) departure from ("them") meaning that would bring us back to meaning again. The poem started from a laughable image--a medieval frieze of Japanese boy scouts--but the poem dared us, line after line, to break free from meaning, only to find ourselves on similar terrain.

The poem likens our relationship with meaning as ambivalent as that to choosing between the wife and the mistress, as something inevitable. That very line is indicative of the tension: "go back" shares the same line with "leaving". This line conjures the sort of interplay meaning has casted upon us, that irresistible spell to shed light on something, to choose one meaning over the other, to go for depth than surface meaning, the confusion the way we verbalize dance steps--step, no, step.

From there, meaning is finally present again. "Now they / will have to believe it / As we believed it." We, the reader and the writer, who were formerly convinced and unconvinced, are convinced that there is meaning, and that we've extracted it from and exhausted it (as in "All the thought got combed out") through repeated discussions, translations, interpretations.

The end starts with conclusive statements: "What was left was like a field." But the poem relents on having assigned meaning to everything, that the poem feels like a snow globe without the snow. I think of the field as an eerie place devoid of objects, as if it was cleaned by a gigantic vacuum cleaner. There is contentment, but not much as before we have extracted everything from it.

This is metafiction in its finest: now that I've written this, the poem feels like that field. Reading it becomes as mechanical as prose, without the wonders of poetry. No slow reading. No observance of line cuts.

All throughout the poem, the question mark nags us, insists us to answer it before proceeding to the next line until the poem finally closes (open-endedly?): "Now open them on a thin vertical path. / It might give us--what?--some flowers soon?" It is unsure if it has struck a chord at all.


This was a May 4, 2013 draft. I thought this was still a work-in-progress.

What fiction is

The good kind of fiction takes you to places. It puts you in front of a washbasin magically filled with water from Maldives, sparkling blue, for you to dip your face into, and you soak your entire face in it for thirty minutes, an hour for a longer short story, weeks for reading a collection, and months for reading novels. As soon as you finish reading the story, you lift your head up from the washbasin--the way you lift your head up from the bathroom sink after barfing and swearing you'll never drink tequila again--that kind of lift, shockingly powerful. You move on with your daily commute, with the passersby and the occasional look they do, thinking, is this guy looking at me? But you don't think the same way again: the world becomes lighter, so much bearable. You see things differently. You begin to forget about distance and walk aimlessly instead. The story runs in your head; it wants you to go back and remember the lines people in real life would never say, unless you're lucky, or in unusual circumstances. The story wants you to think that the guy looking at you might be someone who just vomited a bird that morning, in his bedside table, curled up and flustered with the entire thing. That bird will mean something more than a bird, and the sky will be more than a sky--it will be from a painter; it will form the letters to make up your uncle's name, the one who was shot while walking down a street; things would mean so much more; it's as if you've just bought a new lens for your eyes

Triptych for the earthquake

Wonderful Wilhelm Sasnal paintings. From top to bottom: Untitled, 2009; Forest; Landscape. 

"Cubao Station, Cubao"

We were packed like sardines in the train--or as the man who would be the laughingstock in the train inaccurately puts it before the incident happened: we'd be canned like corned beef. Funny thing that this man, and like every other commuter who didn't have any choice but to grasp anything--anything to keep his balance inside the train, to ward off the bane of inertia--he happened to grasp this plastic casing that houses the fluorescent lights. It almost fell on his head, so he had to support it with his right hand for fifteen minutes.

Good thing another man decided to help him and found the screw which turned loose from the plastic casing and fell somewhere. The entire process of screwing it back took them about two minutes, and all of us--old couples, smartphone-clutching women, corporate slaves scratching heads--gawked at the scene, marveling at how our trains, and public transportation in general, have arrived in such embarrassing conditions.


I remember this quote about everybody starting out without money. At times I wanted to write a novel, or add pages to my thesis. In the train, I close my eyes and commit things to memory, and when I get past the turnstiles, the thought goes away, drowned by the sound of rain in October. I am resentful of the weather: October means something else. I have been to twenty-one Octobers, most of which had accustomed me with rain, damp mornings, class suspensions, phone calls from loved ones. On a bus ride I eyed this girl for thirty minutes because she looked like my wife. I am losing my touch with cooking, with a couple of friends. Lately I tell myself I have lived a good life, and if I die, it's okay, I have lived my life the way I wanted to--at least most of it. I choose gianduja over bacon, or Maldives over bacon, maybe I could list down a lot of things I would choose over bacon, maybe even Beijing, or that shakshuka I ate at Hummus Place in New York that summer, or the summers I've spent in Hawaii, or my mother--just my mother in her early forties. There is so much going on in me, and so little at the same time. Book reviews are keen to use "at once" on descriptions: at once sprightly and tame; at once heartwarming and  wicked; sometimes is "at times", as in "at times funny, evocative, and sarcastic." I dream of working in a cattle farm, waking up early to herd cows, to use walkalators, and to hose them with water. Just this afternoon I googled the difference between try and try out. I have read lengthy articles today. I like Dave Egger's story, The Circle. I assumed it was an excerpt while reading it on the NYT Magazine. There is also another article about fathers and writing, I read it some two days ago and I was six "pages" short to finish it. I can't help but anticipate the earthquake Manila will experience in this decade: where will I be during that time? Surface than depth, I tell myself to make this my mantra.