A small poem unexpectedly got the attention of judges in a mini competition I joined in March 2023 soon after I returned to Cape Town. (I know that I still have to share stories about my trip to the USA to attend the 2023 AWP Conference and Bookfair – one of these days I promise to get around to that.)
You Were Never Alone apologies to Sting
This is a way to mend what I did not know was broken. For how could someone missing something like a leg or an arm keep on running? Keep on flapping? Yet you did, and further than anyone ever dreamed of one born beneath an angry star. You did perhaps despite that absence or because. Too late now that all the feathers have been pushed out like titanium needles through bone, through skin, filament by filament drying in the evening sun. Sting of dawn a blessing, a promise of flight of youth and all that would be lost. So long ago. So long to go.
This is what I sent to the AVBOB people when they asked for some background on the writing of the poem:
I always look at calls for submissions to journals and entries for competitions as both a game and a challenge. It just so happens that back in December 2022 I had written a poem that I thought might be a good fit with the AVBOB theme, so I entered that one. (I also wrote a new poem, but that one wasn’t as lucky.) “You were Never Alone” is a bit like a letter to myself, but as if I were someone else at the same time. It interchanges the “I” and the “you” and looks at a personal history as something in the past and still about to happen. In the subtitle I had to say “apologies to Sting,” as I borrowed a few images from him. The title of my very first book which was published in 1992, Beneath an Angry Star, comes from his song “Fragile” which goes “For all those born beneath an angry star, lest we forget how fragile we are.”
WAKING UP TO THE PATTERN LEFT BY A SNAIL OVERNIGHT Official release a day after my birthday! Poetry lovers, friends and family in the US and Singapore can now order copies! We’re still working on editions in other territories. If you know publishers we can approach, please send me a message! The book contains poems that mention or refer to Martial Law in the Philippines, the Duterte fake drug war, Jacob Zuma, Maria Ressa, Mad Max, Björk, and Taylor Swift, among others.
I’m currently in Seattle, USA to attend the AWP Conference and Book Fair where my new book, Waking Up to the Pattern Left by a Snail Overnight, will be launched and presented alongside other writers with Asian heritage. NOTE: I now have both Asian and African roots, if you ask me.
The book will be officially released in April, but pre-orders are now open. Here are my publisher’s website and some distributors you can check:
Early copies will be available during the AWP Conference and at the following events. Here are the relevant posters:
Since I was going to be in Seattle before an audience, my good friend from my university days in the Philippines, poet and musician Zosimo Quibilan (who is now based in the US) asked if I could say something about the concept album by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim, “Here Lies Love” – about the so-called rags to riches story of Imelda Marcos. “Here Lies Love” is now also a stage musical with audience participation that was apparently performed in Seattle, among other places, and will soon hit Broadway.
I admire the early work and solo output by David Byrne. I hate censorship, so I have no right to tell any other artist, including Byrne, what they must or must not produce. But putting out anything in the world naturally opens it to feedback and criticism.
I think his concept album is a complete misfire and should be challenged. Not because he is white. Not because he played no part in the dark Filipino history he claims to focus on. But because of how the Imelda Marcos he chose to depict was never shown as complicit and even active in the abuse and murder of countless Filipinos.
Imelda Marcos has been convicted by the Philippine courts for fraud and corruption, and should be in jail (check #ImeldaIselda). Her family, including the current president of the country – perhaps president only by some magical mathematical calculation attributable to fautly vote counting machines and invisible hands – owe a few hundred billions in taxes and refuse to admit or pay for them. Not to mention their refusal to apologize for their past deeds and to return what their clan stole under martial law.
Imelda, to cite one instance, was never held responsible for what happened to the now-abandoned and haunted Manila Film Center. During construction, part of the structure collapsed. The bodies of the workers were not dug out but simply buried with quick drying cement. Those whose bodies protruded, including survivors, had to be cut to pieces so that she could open her international film festival on time. With this concept album, and now stage production, one can only expect Imelda Marcos to be hoisted up as some nearly-mythical and desirable figure who will gain more sympathy than she deserves. The whole affair, despite the few hints of failed irony in the lyrics, tramples on the bones of the victims.
Perhaps a better concept album title and appropriate work has to be put out there to challenge Byrne’s. Before I even heard of his album I had actually started putting together a chapbook of poetry (aiming for a full collection) tentatively called “Blind as Love.” Maybe I should re-think that and replace the title with – HERE: LIES, LOVE FOR MONEY, MURDER – THE REAL “IMELDA THE CENTIPEDE STORY”
New year can be seen as a new beginning, a new opportunity. It can also be seen as nothing more than a change of numbers on a piece of paper or whatever you use to keep track of the dates.
I’ve been neglecting this blog for a while. My apologies. I think I got overwhelmed by 2022. When the year began one of the things I was almost sure to happen was to finally see my very first book get published in South Africa, my home since 1994. Then, after the launch of the book in May things just got crazy.
I managed to share on this blog some of those unexpected events and bits of recognition, but not all. Listing them now might seem like boasting, and I was taught to think tooting one’s horn – or, magbuhat ng sariling bangko (lifting one’s own chair?) – is really uncool.
But I’d like to think that mentioning such blessings should be a good way to show appreciation and thanks to whoever made such miracles happen. Also a kind of reminding yourself that a journey is never truly a solitary thing. Sometimes it’s just not that easy to see who is supporting you, who’s there to help you on your path, who might feel it worth their time to clear the path for you so that you can travel better, further, to stages and places you maybe never thought possible with the barest that you have.
So in no order, and with apologies if I may have left out some names, I owe a debt that I can never repay to the following:
Robert Berold of Deep South for BLOODRED DRAGONFLIES, Quaz Roodt and Ismail Mohamed of Poetry Africa, Jee Leong Koh of Gaudy Boy, Yeow Kai Chai who chose my manuscript for the book prize, Marianne Chan and World Literature Today Gary Cummiskey and Stanzas, the organisers and judges of the Poetry in McGregor Festival, San Anselmo Publications and the Santelmo Journal team, the readers and judges of the Filipino Readers’ Choice Awards, the Johannesburg Review of Books for publishing my essay, and the generous donors to the ongoing crowd funding campaign.
I’m writing this on a second hand phone which I bought with funds from one of those gifts I received in 2022. I’ve had less time in front of my laptop (personal reasons I’d rather not explain here), so this phone has become a kind of refuge, another way to keep writing. My previous phone was a bad hand-me-down, but I was also using on the side a phone left behind by my brother-in-law. That one could take good photos and make decent audio recordings, but it wasn’t really mine and is also fairly old, I now have to give it up.
With this phone I found myself posting more on other platforms, Instagram and Facebook, short bits of writing or photos with a bit of text. Rambling and random stuff that may one day become a poem or story. Like the following paragraph.
People remember either the darkness or the light. More difficult to recall what was in between, the moments before, when there was no certainty that what would follow should be welcomed or not, when it was unsure that who became visible from the fog was friend or someone intent to end your hopes.
I posted that on Facebook today.
For now the thing that is making me uncertain and uncomfortable is the scheduled trip to Seattle. Honestly don’t have all the funds yet. It’s in March!
If you read this post, please share it and the crowd funding campaign. Donate if you feel inclined to do so, but at least spread the word.
I’m still hoping to keep going to wherever this writing life may lead, even if the Seattle plan falls through.
Here is part of what I said during the Zoom event (watch it on YouTube) for the announcement of the winning manuscript for the 2022 Gaudy Boy Poetry Book Prize:
This September marks the 50th anniversary of the declaration of Martial Law in the Philippines by the late deposed dictator Ferdinand Marcos. The lies that continue to be spread by Cambridge Analytica-trained social media handlers of the Marcoses will keep trying to decimate the memory of those who fought the regime.
My manuscript doesn’t just tackle martial law, but I chose these particular poems today to highlight the anniversary of the declaration.
There are four sections – Bound by Wood, The Belly of a Termite, Something in Its Grip, and Resonate. The first three sections deal with nature, politics, and departures respectively. The fourth has all three, but the themes are bound together by a single line from a song by Icelandic musician Bjork, a line “misheard” in different ways becomes the title of each poem in the final section.
“Injured in the Night” is among the poems I read, written for Joel Pablo Salud who has many interesting stories about those martial law years.
Injured in the Night for Joel Pablo Salud
September is a war of memories in the home country. Roads and alleys, unmarked cemeteries. Billboards are nothing but metal skeletons hiding behind the clash of colours on tarpaulin. The promise of whiter skin looms over the patchwork maze of shacks.
No one mends a bullet-ridden car. It becomes fodder to the crunching jaws of scrap machinery, not a piece of evidence.
Who will remember those injured in the night, the disappeared? Are we only here to scavenge a landscape where smoke coils long after the last burning?