This interview took place on Friday, November 12, at the Brogue bar in Sunnyside, Queens, New York.
Ozone Park Journal: You’ve said in past interviews—
Paolo Javier: Oh, god.
OPJ: —that your experience as an MFA student [at Bard College] was overall a negative one. As a very happy MFA student myself, I’m naturally intrigued by this ... Can you tell us what you had hoped to gain from your MFA experience that didn’t happen for you?
PJ: I got what I really wanted, which was an MFA. I got my MFA because I wanted to teach. Otherwise I was perfectly happy just living and writing. It’s an expensive degree. Bard College is not cheap, and then there was also the greater cost of being away from New York. I really do feel that my writing is not possible without this geography and this location. I kind of have this codependence with New York City.
My problem with my MFA had to do with the cultural politics, and the cultural insensitivity that I felt towards not only writers of color but also queer and transgender folks there. But I guess my experience had everything to do with race. I wrote part of my second book when I was at Bard, although I had begun it before and completed it after. That work was challenged—or not challenged—in terms of, “Are you achieving what you’re setting out to do, and really, why are you doing it in the first place?” And that has to do with folks being unfamiliar with my writing and also unconsciously being upset by the challenge that I was presenting. It has everything to do with the instability of language, specifically English. I was really opening up English. That project was met with tremendous resistance, sadly, from the writing faculty.
The cool thing about being at Bard was that I found a community amongst the musicians and the filmmakers. I’m a pretty interdisciplinary writer anyway. It gets so insular, the MFA community, and I had a life outside of it. The great thing about Bard is that it’s an intense six weeks at a time. It’s a low residency program, so you’re only there in the summer. It’s this great experiment, it’s art camp, you know? But some of us want to keep a separate life outside of poetry, have a real life outside of poetry. I blame myself partly, for being naive about what to expect. Not everybody was on an equal level in terms of why they were there and what they wanted from it. I was already teaching [at NYU], I’d been teaching for several years, and I was really at Bard to get my degree, get some feedback, get to know the artists on the faculty, be qualified to teach specifically creative writing at the university level. That was what I really wanted to do. But Bard’s a great school, with great faculty. It was easier for others.
OPJ: How does the physical space of the city influence your writing in its form or content?
PJ: I feel safe here in Queens. I feel very safe to write, I feel very safe to try new things in my writing. That’s one of the things I didn’t feel safe doing when I was at Bard. That’s always a problem with the avant garde. Bard’s conservative when it comes to cultural issues. It’s experimental, formally, but with other things ...
I feel like I can write here. I feel like I can be as bold and out there as I want. I think it has a lot to do with the fluidity in this neighborhood and the community in this neighborhood, class-wise. I go to Williamsburg and I feel suffocated, you know? And you see people of color there, too, but they’re all part of a certain class. Here in Queens I feel there’s a lot of room to live. I always made it a point to have a life outside of poetry. It feeds the poetry. I feel like I’m a full time poet, because I think and breathe poetry, but I don’t feel like it’s something I have to do twenty-four-seven and be “on” twenty-four-seven. I deliberately have other friends outside of it. Queens is great for that.
And there’s diversity here. There are a lot of Asians and, even more importantly, a lot of immigrants. As an immigrant myself, I appreciate that. I moved to the states when I was twelve, to Westchester county—which is very white. But I had a great time, I had a happy experience there. I went through the stages of assimilation. You still see that here in Queens. That’s probably the main reason I feel safe enough to write here. It’s cool that there are a lot of poets “out of the closet” here in Queens, and I’m feeling that more just over the last few months.
OPJ: Why do you think you had such a good experience as an immigrant in Westchester? That seems so unlikely to me.
PJ: In terms of being the “token,” I probably went through that but I don’t’ remember it. It has to do with the fact that I grew up speaking English, in the suburbs of Manila. I was raised speaking English at home, my parents’ philosophy being that I would learn Filipino in school. So I had no problem mimicking and absorbing the accent when I came here. And I was very garrulous, very talkative. Initially it was tough, but I think it had more to do with being small, being the new kid, and folks were like, “look at the Asian kid.” There were a few other Asians there, some cool Asian dudes who were popular, and there was an Asian guy on the football teams. That helped. “He’s Filipino too, don’t mess with him or you’ll get your ass kicked.” I made friends relatively quickly. I think my fast talking abilities got me out of a lot of trouble. Oh, and I was good at basketball. That’s really how I won the respect of the guys. And I was good at wrestling in high school.
OPJ: Earlier this year, in June,
you were named Poet Laureate of the borough of Queens. The act of creating
poetry is generally perceived to be personal and private, even if its product is
shared with the world. For some poets, even the fact that they write poetry or
identify themselves as poets isn’t part of their public identities. In your
experience so far, what does it mean to be officially a “public poet”? Has the
appointment been a significant change for you, and does it affect the way you
PJ: Yes, it changes how much I get done. Because I’m spending a lot more time reading now—I’ve never read so much in the ten years that I’ve been seriously writing. I’ve always written throughout most of my life, and seriously pursuing poetry has been something I’ve done for the past fifteen years. Since I got this appointment, being professional helps my poetry in a way that I expected I would eventually experience, down the road, if I were to achieve a certain level of success. I never really looked for it. But now I’m having to articulate what I do a lot more. That’s something I’ve had to negotiate. You have to put yourself out there, it’s a different psychic energy.
And giving readings is hard work! I think I gave five readings in three days, in October, over one weekend. I gave three in one day, on a Sunday. I gave a reading at the public library, and then I read for Topaz Arts, and I had to make an appearance at the Queens Museum. So that’s been really exhausting. In terms of working, I really haven’t had a chance to work on my stuff as much as I would like, but I’m not too worried about that because teaching distracts you from writing anyway. During the semester I write when I can, and that’s been my M.O. for years now. So there hasn’t been too much of a change in terms of productivity, but in terms of the energy, and how I have to engage publically, that’s been a huge adjustment.
OPJ: How does your background in visual art contribute to your writing life?
PJ: I have an amateur background in visual art. I’m a proud amateur.
I’m a pretty restless poet on the page. My writing insists on breaking away from traditional form and moving all over the page. I don’t think I’m a narrative poet. If I’m a narrative poet, the narrative emerges in all the senses—visually, how it sounds, not just in content. And this has a lot to do with having a short attention span. I’m easily distracted. I probably go to more art shows, I see more films, and I read more comic books than I go to poetry events and go to book launches and read books of poetry.
I used to read only poetry. Then I said, I like viewing art, I like my cinema, my comic books, my music. It’s all a developing thing, that you find ways to write. I let all these things absorb me, and I let myself be absorbed by them. That’s when I started to write really interesting poetry. It’s nothing new. The Dadaists, the Surrealists, the New York School—that’s part of why I decided to come back to New York, the New York School of Poets. Frank O’Hara, Ted Berrigan, Alice Notley, Joe Brainard. It was so fluid, the identity of the author, the collaboration. I’m all about collaboration.
It’s not conscious, being influenced by visual art. I write poems when I’m at an exhibit, but I’m not conscious that they’re going to be poems. The fancy term for it is ekphrastic poems, but they’re really just notes. I take notes when I’m watching a film. I have a new book coming out in October next year and there’s a piece in there that I wrote during and after watching “The Dark Knight.” I watched “The Dark Knight,” I think, three times. I wrote while watching it. If I really like a film, I don’t get it, and I watch it again. Something about that film stayed with me, stirred me. I wrote this piece that’s sort of a quasi-essay as well as a poem.
OPJ: You’re a playwright and filmmaker as well as a poet.
PJ: They’re generous when they describe me as a filmmaker.
OPJ: You’ve written at least one full-length play (“Lunatic”) as well as some shorter works for the stage. Can you tell us more about your dramatic writing and how you got started with it? I hugely enjoyed the short dialogue (“A Play, A Play”) that appears in 60 lv bo(em)bs; how would you place that piece in relation to your playwriting?
PJ: I do more poet’s theater than theater theater. When I was an undergrad, I majored in creative writing, but I was very restless. Part of my major was screenwriting and theater, in addition to translation, poetry, and fiction. I love theater. I’m particularly interested in experimental theater like Richard Foreman. He’s a huge hero of mine.
I ran a theater company for a year, a one-act theater company.
OPJ: That’s quite an undertaking.
PJ: Yes, and I eventually
realized that theater isn’t for me. I was the executive director, and that was
a lot of babysitting, a lot of psychology, stuff that I knew I wasn’t very good
at. Theater comes up in my writing, but it’s not something I necessarily set
out to do. I don’t set out to write a theatrical piece. I did a piece recently
that I thought was theater, but it’s sort of poet’s theater. It’s called “Wolfgang
Amadeus Bigfoot.” Four voices, four
characters. But usually it’s not something I plan. I’m an amateur, a dilettante.
I have no aspirations of making it onto Broadway.
OPJ: In 60 lv Bo(e)mbs you refer to several characters (outside of the dialogue that "Paolo" has with "Love," "Nietzsche," and "Villa"), such as "Alma," “Mia," and "Kai." There are many other words and phrases that are repeated and echoed throughout the book. What are you hoping that this accomplishes?
PJ: The more I think about them, the less I know. I knew specifically who they were when I was writing it, but I didn’t know by the end of it. I don’t think Paolo is autobiographical. They’re people I knew at the time, perhaps, but they’re characters. The book is kind of a biological experience of language, how when you’re reading it, it has a life of its own. I didn’t want to ascribe a specific narrative to these characters. I don’t’ know who they are, who they were, who they will be. I was working with the unconscious in the initial writing. Of course you go back, you revise. I was thinking about language, privileging how words look and sound, and how words mean only comes in after I’ve written them. One reviewer really nailed it, saying that the book makes a certain sense for folks who don’t’ speak another language, and won’t ever. There’s this awareness that language is slippery. I wanted to have that be a location for the writing, as opposed to it being this mess that you have to clean up and sanitize. So I think these names are not necessarily intended to be fixed, but you can sense them, they’re there, just as all the words are there.
OPJ: So when you use repetition of particular words and phrases in the book, would you say that’s about a certain kind of sound that you’re going for?
PJ: Yeah, it has to do with the
experience of language, how you remember words, how you retain language. If you
don’t understand language, how do you recognize it? Unconsciously, the reader
experiences language the way I do. Which makes it intimate and personal. I
think you get really close to how I experience language. When I finished
writing it, I felt so vulnerable, because you’re seeing my language turned
inside out. It’s exposed. But I’m also very much influenced by the Surrealists
and by writing that is de-centered, that is paratactic rather than syntactic. I’m
interested in writing where the reader isn’t told what to think of it, but invited
to experience it in a way that they can make it their own, and the reader
becomes kind of like a writer. And that has everything to do with writers I
admire. Gertrude Stein is one my all-time heroes. The Surrealists, Breton, Claude
Cahun. I like work that operates in translation. There’s a political experience
that isn’t didactic.
OPJ: O Books calls you a “bilingual heretic.”
PJ: [laughs] That’s in the book [60 lv bo(em)bs]!
OPJ: Yes, you describe yourself that way, actually! You take “impure,” hybrid linguistic opportunities to utilize English in ways that are “heretical” to its imperialist uses, and Tagalog in ways that acknowledge its contact with “English." Based on your work in your chapbook, The Feeling Is Actual, can you talk about the different Englishes you encounter and how they affect your writing, how you include or exclude them in your writing?
PJ: My new book, The Feeling Is Actual, has everything to do with other Englishes. 60 lv bo(em)bs is in many ways so tortured. It has everything to do with the buildup to the war in Iraq, how language was used by the government, and we’ve since learned that it was used effectively. It worked. 60 lv bo(em)bs was meant to challenge that.
The Feeling Is Actual is lighter, in a way. It’s more interested in the love part than the bomb part. It’s a lot more personal. When I was growing up, and to this day, the English that I hear spoken at home is not grammatical. American English is so standardized compared to British English. The British love puns more than Americans do. Thank gosh for hip hop, it makes English more interesting. Growing up, Filipinos, we loved to pun. It has everything to do with covering up your lack of understanding of English, compensating for the class that you belong to, because English is still very much about class. It’s a gift, being able to pun.
With lv bo(em)bs, I wanted to get inside not just language but how I work with language, the in between, the hyphen. I think I was also very resistant to a lot of political poetry being written post 9/11. It worried me. It’s been pissing me off. I thought it was grief porn, and there’s no implication of the reader or the writer. We’re American, we live in the states, we’re part of the empire.
I’m always thinking about other
Englishes. There’s guilt in there, too, because I know it’s the language of the
educated, where I’m coming from, but it’s lingua franca because of American
imperialism. And here I teach diverse classroom settings, and why can’t I teach
bilingual classes? I’ve got a lot of Chinese kids, Latino kids. What are the texts
that they’re gonna read? They’re in English. Why? So all of these things, I’m
constantly thinking about English. It has to do with my obsessive writerliness.
It’s shifting from me feeling so pained about having to choose, to being comfortable
moving in and out of different languages and moving in and out of different Englishes,
and looking on the bright side of things. I don’t have to choose one English or
the other. Although, for this new book, I did choose certain types of Englishes.
OPJ: In what ways do you try to subvert the "glitzy appeal of U.S. cultural products" as far as your books and marketing them?
PJ: I don’t know if people think of them as US cultural products because they’re not sold all that much, and you can’t acquire them very easily outside of the US. You’ve seen the cover of lv bo(em)bs, it is aware of capital. I think, specifically in the poetry community, I’m trying to get better at supporting the book. I come from the New York School ethic of: you get published, and that in itself is an end, and then you let it go. Also, I’m bad with money, I always feel—and this is romantic, I guess—but I always feel bad about promoting my book in terms of, I’m going to reach out to so-and-so and see if I can get an interview. If I want to do a reading, it’s because I haven’t done it in that place before. I’ve never been to Chicago, for example. But I wouldn’t seek out certain venues or events just to promote myself.
For the first two books, I did very little in the way of promoting them. I’d do a launch amongst my friends and that’s it. I felt guilty, I guess, like I didn’t want to sell out, but at the same time I owe my publisher. I want to sell the book. But I’ve never been a Time Out New York kind of guy, putting a face to the book. I’m embarrassed about author’s photos, I don’t like mine, but I’ll definitely get behind this next book and perform with it. It has to do with the fact that the book performs as a script.
Poets, we have our own economy. It’s a gift economy, especially within small presses. Most poetry publishers are small presses, and the people who buy our books—we have each other. So it’s not so much of a capitalist structure with books of poetry.
OPJ: It seems that most poets publishing today, it’s all about community support. It’s everybody feeding everybody else’s work.
PJ: Which has its pluses, definitely, because there are more poets being published these days than ever before. I’m trying to be more professional these days. I hope to do readings across the country—Chicago, California, Seattle—but I’m also obligated to be here.
I don’t know if that answers your question. I don’t know if I can think about most poetry as a US cultural product because it’s so esoteric, what poets do. Unless you’re Billy Collins.
One soft: my daughter holding the main sheet;
my son pushing the tiller back and forth. The sailboat
on light winds tolerates their energies.
One hard: way to handle wind, meaning way to handle God.
New on my first ship I was told never to trust a bight—
will cut a grown man in half, meaning, imagine what it’d do to you.
There are always two meanings: life and death—
god that we name twice because we have two
identities and neither understands the other.