By Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé
I write, because I think I will go crazy if I don’t. I am possessed by some spirit, what has been called the duende, that drives me to write in verse. It is a gift that I am grateful for and that I would like to cultivate.
Tell us about your most recent book. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?
In my second book, After the Fall (dirges among ruins), I was trying to grapple with various motivations for war and violence and exploring how victims could pick up the pieces from the resulting brutality and destruction. I did so in dialogue with great souls such as St. Augustine who posited that adversity is not an end but a means to refine one’s practice of virtues. He saw the good as forging ahead and achieving some peace. Another major influence on the second book was Walter Benjamin who talked about giving witness to war’s horrors as a lifelong commitment. He described destruction through a witness’s perception of objects and nature scenes in the act of loss.
Describe your writing aesthetic.
I am a storyteller in verse. I write lyrical and narrative poems about people in all sorts of existential predicaments. I approach my work as a director of a music video. I harness a lot of images, which could be direct or allusive, to convey feelings. At the same time, I try to incorporate rhythm into my work. I sometimes use vernacular (Filipino or Chinese) expressions in my work, because English cannot quite express a certain depth of feeling or capture an experience as well. There is no equivalent for the Filipino existential declaration “Heto na ako” or the Hokkien “Wah piang.”
Structure is secondary to what I do. I start out with feelings or ideas and experiment with poetic forms until I stumble upon an adequate structure for a particular poem. I’m trying to be less direct and rely more on imagery, an act of world building, in presenting themes.
Who are your favorite authors?
I have several writing heroes whose paths I’m consciously treading for now. I like the understatement and occasional irony of Elizabeth Bishop in her work about the destruction of the Amazon rainforest and tenuous relationships. Thom Gunn displays elegance and drama in his poems about AIDS victims. Pablo Neruda shows spontaneity and rhythm in his depiction of the exploitation of Third World workers. Federico Garcia Lorca exhibits concentrated power in his poems of the deep song about gypsies and the downtrodden in pre-civil war Spain. Seamus Heaney exemplifies warmth and simplicity as in “Requiem for the Croppies.” There are also plenty of poetry and deep insights into human nature in Flannery O’Connor’s short fiction about everyday traumas in the dynamic Southern US.
What’s the most challenging piece of writing you’ve attempted? Tell us why.
I find it most challenging to write persona poetry. That involves emptying oneself in order to explore some mysterious other. It also requires research. I try to adopt the other’s viewpoint and strive for some balance between matter and form.
What’s your idea of bliss?
Bliss is when I am fully alive in the moment, when what I do corresponds to what I intend. I can achieve that as easily on a writing retreat as by eating chocolate ice cream.
What makes you angry, and I mean all-out-smash-the-china raving mad?
I am angered when people habitually don’t turn up for appointments or don’t follow through with what they promise. A long wait is like being subjected to water boarding.
What book/s would you take with you on a three-month retreat in the boondocks?
The Bible, Flannery O’Connor: Collected Works (The Library of America) and The Norton Anthology of Poetry. Reading these should keep me busy in the boondocks.
Your house is burning down. What’s the most important thing you’d want to take with you?
My passport: It’s such drudgery to recall all trip details for visa applications and permanent residency renewal.
Describe your life philosophy. In a sentence.
God’s will is our peace (from Dante): It would be such a waste of precious time and resources to do otherwise. I would like to serve others and to write something uplifting and mildly entertaining.
Eric Tinsay Valles draws inspiration from all the places that he has called home. His poetry has been featured in & Words, Reflecting on the Merlion, Ceriph, Southeast Asian Review of English, Routledge’s New Writing: The International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing and other journals. His critical essays have appeared in The Asiatic and Writing Diaspora. He has been invited to read poetry or commentaries at Baylor, Melbourne and Oxford Universities. He has taken up writing residencies at the Vermont Studio Centre, Centrum (Washington) and Wellspring House (Massachusetts). He won a Goh Sin Tub Creative Writing prize for poems that form the core of his second poetry collection, After the Fall (dirges among ruins). His previous poetry collection is A World in Transit.