from Issue #6: Poetry by Richard James Allen

Photo (CC) simpleinsomnia @ Flickr

Photo (CC) simpleinsomnia @ Flickr

 *

anniversary           

yes we get on alright
no longer breathless
like young lovers
more like old folk
though not so old
for i believe i am of sound mind and body
and still capable of work
it being at such times
after work
as i’m not feeling my best
what with standing up all day
and the rheumatism in my left knee
or if i’ve been treated to an unkind word
or if there’s been a hold up in my pension
or a dear friend has passed away
that i talk to her
pondering it all over
as i powder my toes before bed
and she listens so patiently
but mostly i let her talk
nodding my head from time to time
even if i’m only pretending to listen
because there are boxes of my mother’s letters
to be read or reread sorted or resorted
or a note to be answered from the landlord
concerning the rent
or a couple of lines that want writing to the dentist to say
i won’t be dropping my teeth in there again in a hurry
not after the price he charged me for that new set last may
but there’s never a harsh word between us
forty years and nothing to complain of
we get on famously
her and me
me and the tv

.

*

.

Crazy stuff

Why did he give me all that crazy stuff –
his portfolio on UFOs and Alien Abductions,
his years of research into Conspiracy Theories,
his proofs that everything we have ever suspected
is actually true and is going on right now,
only even worse than we expected?

Why did he give me all his crazy stuff
and then disappear off into the night,
never to report back again?

Did he think I was as sane as he?

.

 *

.

The Unanswered Question

Would you have loved me as I loved you?
The great unanswered question
Which binds like forget-me-nots
The recycling souls of the human race.

.

 *

ABOUT THE POET

Australian-born poet Richard James Allen’s recent collection of poems, Fixing the Broken Nightingale (Flying Island Books) is his tenth book as a poet, fiction, performance writer and editor: http://www.fixingthebrokennightingale.com/.  Widely published in anthologies, journals and online since winning the ‘under-21 section’ of the English Teachers Association of NSW National Writing Competition in 1980, Allen has been the recipient of numerous awards, nominations and grants, as well as opportunities for presentations, screenings and broadcasts, in a unique international career as an acclaimed writer, director, choreographer, filmmaker, performer, new media artist, and scholar. Further information at The Physical TV Company website: www.physicaltv.com.au

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from Issue #6: An Interview with Judith Beveridge

Image: Devadatta's Hirelings, Jamalgarhi (CC) Photo Dharma @ Flickr

Image: Devadatta’s Hirelings, Jamalgarhi – Photo (CC) Dharma @ Flickr

 *

‘PATIENCE IS A KEY INGREDIENT’

An interview with Judith Beveridge

Theodore Ell

*

JUDITH BEVERIDGE was born in London in 1956 and moved to Australia with her family as a child. She grew up and studied in Sydney, where she still lives. After having worked in diverse jobs in offices, adult education and bush conservation, since 2002 she has taught poetry in the postgraduate creative writing program at the University of Sydney. She is poetry editor of the literary journal Meanjin.

Beveridge has published five collections of poetry: The Domesticity of Giraffes (1987), Accidental Grace (1996), Wolf Notes (2003), Storm and Honey (2009) and most recently Devadatta’s Poems (2014). Her work has appeared in many anthologies and has won numerous awards, including the Dame Mary Gilmore Award, The New South Wales and Victorian Premiers’ Poetry Prizes (the latter twice) and the Philip Hodgins Memorial Medal.

Devadatta’s Poems is Beveridge’s first collection focused on a single subject. It extends themes that have increasingly absorbed her attention across several collections: the life and spiritual quest of the Buddha and the wider dramas that unfolded among those around him. Beveridge’s first Buddha Cycle of narrative poems appeared in Accidental Grace and was followed by Between the Palace and the Bodhi Tree in Wolf Notes. These sequences depicted the wanderings of Siddhattha Gotama across India before his attainment of enlightenment. Devadatta’s Poems takes place after he has become the Buddha and is written from the point of view of Devadatta, Siddhattha’s envious and power-hungry cousin, who joins the new monastic order so as to bring the Buddha down. Devadatta even tries to murder him several times. The new sequence strikes many contrasts with the earlier poems ‘spoken’ by Siddhattha – the calculating versus the contemplative, the sensual versus the ascetic, lust versus renunciation, violence versus tranquillity – but both cousins are bound, ironically, by their longing for Yasodhara, Siddhatha’s wife, whom both have had to leave behind in their distant home city.

This interview was conducted by email in July 2014 in the weeks after the launch of the new book and was reviewed by both interviewer and interviewee before publication.

*

ELL: Devadatta’s Poems is your first book written only in one voice, telling one story. In the past you have placed narrative sequences among other work on varying subjects. Between the Palace and the Bodhi Tree was one of those cases. What was it that led you to set Devadatta apart in this way?

BEVERIDGE: I wanted to give myself the challenge of writing a book-length sequence. I’ve always loved Dorothy Porter’s book Akhenaten and Geoffrey Lehmann’s Nero’s Poems and I felt with Devadatta that there was enough narrative material to do an extended sequence. The trick was in trying to work out how long or short the book needed to be, whether or not I would do a more extensive book. In the end I opted for a shorter book, throwing out quite a number of poems I had initially thought I might include. I opted for a tighter focus.

ELL: In the poem “Dawn” in Between the Palace and the Bodhi Tree, Siddhattha reflects, ‘Not yet / am I a sorrowful man. Not yet.’ Was there a sense then that there would be more to tell, that after Siddhattha’s enlightenment there would be new trials?

BEVERIDGE: When I was writing Between the Palace and the Bodhi Tree, which traces Siddhattha Gotama’s journey over north India before he became the Buddha, I came across Devadatta, the Buddha’s cousin and thought at the time how that would be a great story to explore. Devadatta caused the Buddha a great deal of trouble and grief by trying to take over the Buddhist Order and by trying to murder him three times, so, yes, in a sense that line can be seen as alluding to future strife for the Buddha, though when I wrote that line I didn’t consciously have that specific conflict in mind.

ELL: Siddhattha’s reflections in the earlier sequence are not all contented – he is, after all, struggling to revise his whole way of living – but his motivation is essentially humane. The new sequence turns that on its head. What did it take to shape the inner life of a speaker whose motives are so much blacker, even murderous?

BEVERIDGE: At the centre of Devadatta’s Poems there’s jealousy, hatred, ambition, lust, cruelty. It’s always easier, I think, to write about flawed characters, mainly because our language for these emotions is so much richer, and because these emotions are so much more dramatic and more embedded in our literary, cultural, social and political history. Every day these emotions make the news and so inhabit our minds and imaginations very frequently, so it wasn’t that hard to depict a flawed and corrupt character. However, I didn’t want to make him so terrible that readers would be entirely repulsed by him.

ELL: Devadatta’s antagonism towards Siddhattha is quite clear (‘Some nights… all I do is scheme / to give Siddhattha schism, infighting, dissonance’) yet both cousins, in your depictions, define themselves, to themselves and to us, in quite similar ways. They are constantly searching in the details of the world about them for some kind of solace or confirmation, and both are quite lucid and self-controlled in describing what troubles them. Did you envisage a family resemblance? How did you approach contemplating that same setting from a new point of view?

BEVERIDGE: The difference lies in the fact that Siddhattha after years of struggle finds inner peace and the path to wisdom. I knew I could never write about Siddhattha after he had achieved enlightenment because it would be fraudulent of me to try and imagine what an enlightened mind might experience. Devadatta is still caught up in all the illusions, in suffering, in the mental traps, and so resembles Siddhattha in those years before he became enlightened. Devadatta too is searching for something, but does not have the discipline to let go of craving or aversion, so he seemed like a good candidate to continue on with. It would be so hard to do justice to the character of the Buddha after enlightenment.

ELL: You mentioned having to ‘throw out’ a number of poems you originally thought of including, for the sake of a tighter focus. What was in those poems that seemed to distract from that? Could you use them elsewhere?

BEVERIDGE: No, I’d never use the poems elsewhere. The poems I threw out were poems which didn’t seem to be strong enough, or that were simply going over ground I had already covered, or they were tonally similar to other poems and weren’t adding a great deal to the narrative. There are a few of those discarded poems I do like, but they will simply have to be forever part of the reject pile. I have hundreds and hundreds of poems like that from previous books.

ELL: The drama of both sequences seems to be almost all internal, with Siddhattha and Devadatta reflecting on events after the fact, in the spaces between the ‘moves’ of their lives. We’re not often inside their minds while they are in action. I’m wondering about the source of that reflective distance from events. Is it a result of how you see the personalities of these figures? Or is it more to do with finding a way into a poem?

BEVERIDGE: It’s probably a reflection of the kind of poet I am. I write reflectively and meditatively and I’m mainly concerned with human emotions. There’s certainly very little action in Devadatta’s poems. It’s mostly thought processes and Devadatta’s plotting and planning how to kill Siddhattha. This was one of the problems I had when writing the sequence: I didn’t want it to become an endless treadmill of thoughts and I was constantly worrying about how to progress the narrative, because in a way the story doesn’t go anywhere much in terms of plot. It’s more a psychological investigation. One of the most challenging elements in writing the sequence was to try to give a sense of movement in a story that essentially has little action. I’m not sure how well I’ve succeeded in creating this movement, however.

ELL: The main exceptions to that sense of distance are the poems in which both cousins long for Yasodhara – Siddhattha’s wife, whom he leaves behind, and who is the object of Devadatta’s lust. What did it take to depict this side of both their natures, this thought that overrides everything else?

BEVERIDGE: Human longing and desire are emotions that most of us feel most of the time, whether it’s longing for a person, a place, a lost time, a lost opportunity or whatever, so all I had to do was tap into that feeling. The hardest part was finding the right language and images. You might have noticed I have used Yasodhara’s hair as an element that represents her beauty, especially in Devadatta’s poems. This was one way I was able to evoke the emotions and give focus to the mood.

ELL: Is Yasodhara a character whose story you’d consider telling, from her point of view?

BEVERIDGE: It has crossed my mind to do so. I’ve not really tried a woman’s voice before, but if I do write it, it probably won’t be for a while. I’ve also thought of writing the story from Rahula’s point of view. He was Siddhattha’s and Yasodhara’s son, so there are still some options and possibilities.

ELL: What is it that draws you back to this drama, to elaborate the various sides of the story? You published the first Buddha Cycle in the mid-90s and the world that it opened up seems to have occupied you a great deal ever since.

BEVERIDGE: It’s true I’ve always been captivated by the Buddha’s story, ever since I was a child. It certainly has a much better ending than the story of Jesus. Eastern religions seem very sensible and attractive to me. I could never accept the Christian idea of original sin, but I’ve always thought that the idea of things being related on a deep level to ring true. I dislike the hierarchical structure of Christianity and find in Buddhism a more harmonious and integrated view that includes a non-exploitative attitude towards nature and animals.

ELL: Can you describe the effect that visiting India has had on you and your work? Have you written much while there, or do you tend to reflect on details after the fact?

BEVERIDGE: I visited India on two occasions, though not for any research or religious purposes. I was married to an Indian and we took our young son to meet his family. I didn’t write a word while I was there, but I tried to absorb as much as I could. I was lucky in as much as I got to experience an Indian family first hand, so I wasn’t a tourist as such, but was able to observe things on a more domestic and intimate day-to-day level.

ELL: How far has your reading taken you? The Siddhattha-Devadatta sequences look to very ancient texts. Are there any Indian writers in particular, ancient or modern, whose work has offered inspiration?

BEVERIDGE: I have read many books on Buddhism and on the Buddha and on life in ancient India, but I don’t like to know too much about a subject because I find it shuts down my imagination. I like to have imaginative room to move, so in the Devadatta sequence, there are quite a few things which are not historically accurate, and most of the scenarios I have simply invented in order to dramatise something about Devadatta’s character. I usually find that something very small, some almost trivial detail might start a poem, such as the existence of ox-toads. I have read some Indian poetry. I am especially fond of the work of AK Ramanujan.

ELL: What is it about his work that appeals to you?

BEVERIDGE: It’s a while since I’ve read him, but I’ve always enjoyed his insights and his precise use of language. He was born in South India, but wrote mainly in English and probed his culture mainly for an English-speaking audience. He died in Chicago in 1993 and there’s part of one obituary I think rings true: ‘In the quiet yet affable wit known best to his extended family of students, colleagues and friends, Ramanujan would observe that he was the hyphen in the phrase “Indo-American”. But to everyone who knew him and the passionate brilliance of his language, he and his poetry were rather a richly evocative metaphor for the human experience wherever it might be found. He was as much at home with Yeats and Tagore as he was with the classical literatures of India.’

ELL: It’s interesting that you should say you prefer not to know too much about a subject, as your range of subjects is so broad. As well as the Buddha sequences there is Driftgrounds: Three Fishermen in Storm and Honey. And in that sequence the poem “The Book” reams off the most bizarre species of fish – hardyhead, toothy flathead, rhinoceros file fish, robust pygmy star-gazer – before the speaker admits he hasn’t found ‘the right one’ to throw back at his fishing-mate when he calls him sweetlips. Is there a sense that your character’s casting about, his gathering-in of names and effects, reflects your own?

BEVERIDGE: Yes, absolutely. I love names for things and part of my interest and love of writing poetry is that you do get to name things. The thesaurus is great for this: it has long-lists of names in all sorts of categories. I am always casting around in my poems for the right word.

ELL: What is it that draws you to such varied subjects? What gave rise to Driftgrounds, for instance?

BEVERIDGE: I am always searching around for subjects, and as I don’t like to write about myself, I cast around constantly for possible characters and scenarios to write about. I think most writers are very curious people and they often have broad interests and obsessions. One of my obsessions is water, so I wrote Driftgrounds partly to indulge my love of seascapes and riverscapes and also to try to explore the brutal subject of fishing and how character and place affect each other. I like using characters in poems as they give you a way into material not your own.

ELL: Your previous collections have usually included both longer sequences, like Driftgrounds or the Buddha poems, and sets of diverse ‘single’ poems, but it seems to me that with each collection the sequences have been growing longer. Between the Palace and the Bodhi Tree made up a large portion of Wolf Notes and Devadatta’s Poems is, of course, a single book. Has ‘narrative’ been occupying you more than the writing of ‘single’ poems recently?

BEVERIDGE: Certainly for the last couple of books it has. I find that having a larger project to work on helps me generate poems more easily because I can slot into the character or ready-made narrative, not every single poem has to be begun from scratch because of the established setting or mood. However, for my next book, I am deliberately going back to single, unrelated poems as I want to have the challenge again of a broader range of subjects and forcing myself to start from the blank page with each new poem. It’s uncomfortable, but I don’t want to fall into easy habits.

ELL: What is it about a narrative sequence of poems that attracts you, as opposed to rendering the same story as a novel?

BEVERIDGE: I just love writing poetry. Writing prose doesn’t especially interest me because I like the fine detail and focus that a poem demands and I enjoy working with sound and rhythm and metaphor and texture of language. This is not to say that novelists don’t also work with these things, but they don’t work with the line or the line break and I love working with lines, finding out what they can achieve. I also love the intensity that a single poem can have and a poem can often say in a few words what it might take several sentences to say in prose.

ELL: Another trait one can sense in your work is that often once you’ve settled on a subject, you draw image after image out of it, elaborating the possibilities into long chains. “How to love bats” is one example: you tell the reader to ‘Begin in a cave’ and ‘listen to the floor boil with rodents, insects,’ but before long the poem has brought those sensations into the human world: ‘Visit op shops. Hide in their closets. / Breathe in the scales and dust / of clothes left hanging.’ You use the same technique of elaboration in Devadatta’s Poems as well, especially in conveying Devadatta’s dreams of Yasodhara. I’m wondering to what extent this ‘cataloguing’ and elaborating reflects the way you shape a poem. Do you list different attributes or qualities first and then build them into a shape, or do they trigger and grow from one another, while you are writing verse?

BEVERIDGE: Definitely the latter. For me writing is always a process of discovery inasmuch as I don’t really know what it is I am going to say before I write. I discover as I go along. One thing I do consciously is to try to push my material as far as I can imaginatively. I like poems that have imaginative reach. This means my poems go through many, many drafts before they are finished, as I often take wrong turns or produce material that I end up scrapping before I can discover the true or meaningful poem. But I like this. It makes for hard work, but it gives me a strong sense of vocation when I’m writing, a sense that the poems are quite often hard won, as I believe they should be.

ELL: Is there a sense in which you are also attempting to win over yourself in writing poems? The discomfort you mention in relation to writing about your own life calls to mind another much earlier poem of yours, “Fox in a Tree Stump,” in which the speaker of the poem recounts being forced into flushing out and killing a fox, and recalls, ‘I was nine years old. All my life / I’d stuck close to my yelled name.’ Your work has travelled away from the brutality described in that poem, but it seems to me that ideas of threats to oneself, and of oneself as a threat, have persisted, especially in the case of Devadatta. I’m wondering how you negotiate your degree of involvement with characters. How complete do you think they can be as masks?

BEVERIDGE: There is a paradoxical relationship between myself and the characters I use because they are both masks and not masks. They are masks in the sense that the emotions I give my characters are all emotions I have experienced, and I imagine most human beings have experienced, as they are the usual ones. What I change are the settings and the circumstances and this allows me a distance and perspective I wouldn’t get if I were writing directly from my own life. But I love the idea that I can move away from my own particular experiences and enter them in a more universal way. So, yes, I am attempting to ‘win myself over’ in my poems by trying to understand my own emotions through a more general lens. And what I get from this process is a sense of shared humanity.

ELL: With all your varying characters and subjects, is there a centre to your poetry, something that will set you writing where something else may not?

BEVERIDGE: Always the motivating and centralising factor for me is language. My poems always start with a desire to play with language. It’s the hardest thing in writing, to get the language right. It’s easy to have ideas for poems, but getting, as Adrienne Rich said, ‘the language that’s adequate to experience’ right in a poem is always a challenge. I don’t mean that I play with language in a postmodern sense, such as in L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poetry, where the intention is to leave the meaning up to the reader, or that I break down syntax, because I do essentially want to communicate and I want to communicate emotion. I still believe the lyric has a lot to offer and still has relevance for the reader and writer, and that inflecting emotion into a poem is a serious task.

ELL: Has your recent turn back to single, unrelated poems altered your working habits?

BEVERIDGE: My working habits have always been pretty much the same, no matter what I’m working on. I need long stretches of time before me. Six or seven hours is a typical stretch for me to get anything done. I’m painfully slow and plodding. I’ve never been able to work at white-hot speed, like some poets. And I do enjoy those long stretches. They give me a strong sense of vocation, that I’ve worked hard.

ELL: How far off may your next collection be?

BEVERIDGE: Hard to say. I think my next book will be a New and Selected Poems, so my intention is to write the ‘new’ section, which is why I’ve chosen to work on miscellaneous poems, rather than a coherent project. But I’ll take my time. Patience is a key ingredient, I think. I’d rather produce a work I’m happy with than rush into publication.

*

from Issue #6: Poetry by Penny Florence

Photo (CC) Joscelyn Upendran @ Flickr

Photo (CC) Joscelyn Upendran @ Flickr

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 SELECTIONS FROM ANT HILL

Introduction

Ant Hill presented itself, complete, when I returned to the UK following a month in Australia at the invitation of friends. The month was spent with people I have met in diverse ways and contexts, but I have spent little time with any of them, if you measure a lifetime. Yet their significance is not at all ordinary.

The relationship between Australia and Britain can, perhaps, like other post-colonial affinities, be compared to this. We have formed each other for a brief moment, but that split second has left structural traces, like a slide from geology to topography to topology.

The harbinger of the sequence of poems was “Tangent”. While staying at Pittwater, I had begun a rare conversation. I did not know if it would continue. I sat down to send an email about my projects in digital poetry, and wrote “Tangent” in 5 minutes. It remains virtually unchanged.

I take no great credit for this. I find the best things happen unaided, gifts from that miraculous and elusive space beyond self.

This collection is about these things: people who matter to you way beyond the amount of time you spend with them; places that become part of the imaginary landscape that is your unknown blueprint of home; the lightest of touches that your body knows until it dies.

A final word about ‘Pair for Paolo’. It grew out of a poem by Paolo Totaro, sent by email, which became the basis, set in standard type. My line by line response is in blue cursive. Imagine the lines playing off each other in a visual dance. Read freely, following your eye and inclination.

*

*

Tangent

.

to a touch
of one life to an
other.

short. scribe
in infinitesimal eternity

(strange word, of beauty and fear).
 .

brevity and sightlessness
no match for a lifetime.

exactitude. perfect. match
a moment, fleeting and sure
like flight,

like the flash of a wing

light glints, water moves in
constancy.
 
 .

They flee from me.

.

*

Muse

a muse meant,
once upon a time, a lady
sat, alone, aloof, like
patience. smiling at no-one,
nothing altered, especially
not her.

a poet, she.

no taster of success, she. just, she

kept her own counsel. knowing

one day, once upon a time, later,
a poet, met by chance by the water,
would be her muse; the hope and delight
gently, lightly, show
her her way. because, being
no fools

they had no desire to talk to emptiness.

.

*

Pair for Paolo
(With Paolo Totaro)

Translation
(from P’s idiolect to P’s idiolect)

My leaf of gold, my truest, my routinely checked
gold flutters, autumnal, regular and random
mail each day each hour, like water you take the shape
as words weave magic trees out of ether
of the vessel you are poured in, like ice you are
frozen to form. Or rock between rivers, green
stone, like a meadow you link two rivers that flow

one east one west. Yet, the one source is forever
space, compass lost.
for both, lost. The mountain that is behind

Seated, soaring promontory recedes
continues to be seat, passage, road, landscape
from all to nought. O. Recall
finally to disappear. From all but the memory
draws all to the event
where all converge and somersaults in, is then
horizon
centrifugued, until the scions of years – forgotten
descending years of meanings
meanings – draw to a close. One stone after
successively
another stone, the building that is mind
as a house of cards prettily shatters
sheds floors. In the outside memory remains
to harvest only leaves,
my sheaf of mail, my routinely deleted
remaindered.
mail of these last days last hours, like tombstones.

.

*

Mapping 

(the motion of water inscribed on veined stone veins my vision,
blurred pearl)

I see everything that was here before, but the map must have been wrong.
Following it, I bump into things.
Perhaps it is upside down?

Well, that helps,
but it’s not enough.

I shall remember that there are rivers and forests, seas and deserts,
and draw my own

green

.

*

Nomadic Variations

I. Kernow, An Lysardh (Cornwall, The Lizard Peninsula), Australia

Purple The Lizard, long, low
reaches to Brittany
long lost matrix, earth joined
by splitting sea

South, Europe lies, and North
ghost continent
actual and ungraspable
as myth, as Mu

Gondwana, Pangea
roots of mountains, basal layer,

Cornwall’s granite, Vesuvius spit
of land liquid like sea.

Mining the deep
belief, child-like,
to Oz & Ayer’s Rock

Uluru

strata as truth, perhaps,
.

stone

mineral culture
a mine is a mine is a mine …

.

II. (Tutankhamun, Valley of the Kings 1336 BC, Cairo 1922 AD, London 1972 AD)

It must be here
It must.

searching plinth, shelf,
panic rising, absurd

I stop. It’s this size, I say
(holding a hand at hip height,
my size when first I saw)

alabaster, incandescent,
artfully lit on its full page
when book bound colour was rare.

Wonders of the Past
entombed millennia
the country of my birth
where I do not belong. But.

A perfume vase, I say, handles, carved, round,
waisted. It must be here. It is, he says, with an odd smile.

And I see. Two inches, three,
Where feet once were.
We laugh. I turn away,
hiding my grief.

My father, born there, too, and his
in Scotland, generations gone.
A common sort of story,
Once.

Aunt Cissy died stateless,
relict of colonial adventure.
Love of Cairo holding
when Suez bade her leave.

Not for her the straitness of a canal.

.

III: Alexandria, Gwithian (Kernow), and beyond

………………His legs bestrid the ocean
………………[…]
…………………………………………………………………………his delights
……………..Were dolphin-like; they show’d his back above
……………..The element they lived in.
…………………………………………..(Cleopatra, Shakespeare, Antony & Cleopatra V ii)

 

High tide and the dolphins

a crab shell at my feet,
horned carapace starred like the prehistoric moon,
scarred with extinct light.

…….Shift sideways, sidereal
…………weed wedge to belly, tail, flicker
………………clear of the horizon

.

childhood windblown voices down the dunes
hollowed in recessive horn,

……..What do you see at the end of the sea,
……..When the sun shines through, and the sand
……..Stripes rippling stipple the yellow scree
……..Is it light, is it sea, is it

land

is elsewhere, though beneath
to touch, just touch

……..as the sea the sea-sunk wave-hill

then, like dolphins, in air
……..to dance

.

*

What’s What

Mud and stones polished by bright water,
The air bruised with the scent of wild garlic
Pelted with hail. That lies white, speckling the green and brown.

Small opportunist birds flit excitedly in the intermittent sun,
Knowing it seems what
Mud and stones polished by bright water,
air bruised with the scent of wild garlic,
pelted with hail, are.

White, speckling the green and brown,
small opportunist birds flit excitedly in the intermittent sun,
knowing, it seems, what

.

*

ABOUT THE POET

Penny Florence currently works primarily with digital poetry, exploring translation and visual art. She has published on a range of academic interests, most of which concern poetry or painting, or how they relate (she is Professor Emerita at The Slade School of Fine Art, University College London). Ant Hill, from which this selection is taken, is her first collection of poems. Although she has always jotted poetic notes, she has rarely properly written poetry. These 5 poems are the first she has published. She lives in Cornwall, on the Penwith Peninsula, in the far South West of Britain.

from Issue #6: Poetry by Ouyang Yu

Photo (CC) Sam Sherratt @ Flickr

Photo (CC) Sam Sherratt @ Flickr

 *

Perhaps

Perhaps it’s all wrong
Perhaps one should have stayed poor and enjoyed it more
Perhaps one should never have been born to live the multiply lived lives that
…………are essentially the same the world over
Perhaps one should have been born with an ambition to become a top-
…………grossing international movie or a zero-adding movable asset
Perhaps it’s all wrong
Perhaps one should remain a never-ending cigarette that burns its time till it
…………turns into time-honoured ashes as long as life
Perhaps poetry should not have been allowed to exist; instead, poets should
…………have been set free to become birds or insects or some as yet to be
…………discovered creeping creatures
Perhaps the earth should suicide-bomb, leaving words as radioactive waves
…………for light years to decipher
Perhaps it’s all wrong
Perhaps nothing ought to be judged along the faultlines of good or evil or
…………good or bad or good or better
Perhaps one is a bin, once unleashed into the universe, is but a self-
…………proliferating bin tumbling into fragments of being doing in its undoing
Perhaps love is evil spelt backwards wrongly, good is gag, and life should
…………never have been lived for that single purpose of making money or else
…………why, I mean, one could have simply swapped one’s life for that of
…………being a piece of gold, waiting to be dug, like Australia
Perhaps it’s all wrong, after all

*

Planning

Not to write short fiction, spending time on things that may interest others,
but not self

Not to write drama

Not to write mere fiction that demonstrates to the world that one is merely
alive, from a few years of death to another few years of death

But to follow the wandering heart wherever poetry takes it and to bend over
the bow in the shape of mind designed to let loose a skyful of stars

*

Death

I think that’s quite nice a way of dying
Suffering so much senile dementia
One doesn’t even know where one is till one is gone

She said this in her 3rd or 5th-I don’t remember which-floor
Apartment where one could gaze past trees and rooftops
At the corner of what looks slightly like the Opera House

Followed by my own remark that it’s more preferable
To die like the Polish poet who dreamt into death
In bed, found dead the next day, and better still

If everything financial is organized pre-death
She agreed and started talking about the significance
Of facial features, such as the deep valley between

My brows that cuts my way to success
A thing, according to her, one can’t go without
Or else one’s life is pure death

It so happens that today I’ve received a magazine
Carrying a poem among many with a line that says
Something to this effect: Why have there never been successful birds?

Many live, only to die
Many live a death of life
And many live, successfully, but no one remembers them, it seems

*

Binru

…………………….Translated from the Chinese by the author

Some people are sure to be completely forgotten by history
Not written into any books
Or local chronicles
Not mentioned online or offline
Such as Dad
Even I have almost forgotten him
But for the fact that the hazy Shanghai
Is not so hazy today
And that my footsteps back from the vegetable market
Are not so hurried
The sun, even if it is in China
Even if it is in early November
Still has the power, at its end time
Of stripping one off his jacket
The man, a poet who never wrote a poem
The man, who called everything names behind a closed door at home
Was amicable enough as soon as he went outdoors
At peace with the world, and who managed to get his three sons
To go to college within the same year
Two of them becoming foreign citizens
Within twenty years
The other one, Oh, the other one
Has since become a symbol of something hopelessly spiritual
Dad had a single first name before liberation: Cheng
And, after liberation, he was categorized as a ‘Historical Counter-
revolutionary’
When he changed his name to Binyu
Yu for Zhou Yu, a piece of beautiful jade
Mom called him, in a strange local dialect
Binru

(Zhou Yu, 175–210, courtesy name Gongjin, was a military general and strategist serving under the warlord Sun Ce in the late Eastern Han Dynasty.)

*

Old Zuo

……………………Translated from the Chinese by the author

It’s a bit hard to write about Old Zuo
Some called her Big Sister Zuo
Some called her Mother Zuo
Some called her Aunty Zuo
And most of them would call her Old Zuo
Old Zuo smoked
Old Zuo didn’t cook and she preferred to eat at the canteen
Steamed bun and congee for breakfast, lettuce for lunch and a soup of turnip and
vegetables for dinner
When her sons came back on Sundays
Old Zuo would get up early and buy pork ribs and lotus-roots
To stew a pot of soup with them over a slow fire
Two of her sons she left in someone else’s care
The other one was away most of the times and went overseas later
Old Zuo loved smoking and she had many male friends and colleagues
She worked at the Third Front
She worked in the mountains
She was a good ping-pong player in her youth
Old Zuo wasn’t choosy about things she ate
But she was most particular about manners
Not allowing us to make noise while chewing food
Not allowing the tips of our chopsticks to be stained with a single grain of rice
when picking the dishes
And not allowing us not to hold our rice bowls steady at the dining table
Old Zuo was a stickler for cleanliness
She peeled whatever she ate
Including sesames
According to her daughter-in-law, married to her third son
Old Zuo was not happy in her old age
Suffering from senile dementia
To the degree that she did not recognize him when her oldest son came back from
Australia
Old Zuo now sleeps a calm sleep under the ground
Old Zuo is Mom
By the name of Zuo Zhen
A name not findable online
Right across the world

 *

ABOUT THE POET

Since his arrival in Australia in 1991, Ouyang Yu has published 73 books of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, literary translation and criticism in both English and Chinese. His latest novel in Chinese is Taojin Di (Land of Gold Diggers), published by Jiangsu Literature and Art Publishing House in 2014 and his latest novel in English is Diary of a Naked Official, published by Transit Lounge in 2014. His latest translation into Chinese is The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes, published by Nanjing University Press in 2014. He is now professor of English at Shanghai University of International Business and Economics.

from issue #6: An Interview with Jose Dalisay

dalisay

MUCH OF MY OWN FICTIONAL WORK HAS DEALT WITH LOW LIFE:

An Interview with Jose Dalisay

Noel King

JOSE DALISAY is an English professor and director of the Institute of Creative Writing at the University of the Philippines. He is the author of more than twenty books, including novels, story collections, plays, and essays; a recipient of the National Book Award from the Manila Critics Circle; and was named by the Cultural Center of the Philippines Centennial Honors List as one of the top 100 most accomplished and influential Filipino artists of the past century.

Noel King caught up with Dalisay at the Pan Pacific Manila on 19 August 2013.

KING: Jose, you are a professor here at the University of the Philippines in Manila and a writer of more than twenty books of fiction and non-fiction. How did you come to be involved in this Manila Noir anthology, how were you approached?

DALISAY: I was asked to do a story for this book by its editor Jessica Hagedorn, with whom I’ve had an email conversation of sorts over the past ten years or so, but we have never actually met. I’ve read some of her work and she’s read some of mine, and so when this project came up, I suppose I was one of the first authors she approached to write a noir story. This must have been more than a year ago. And the idea appealed strongly to me because much of my own fictional work has dealt with low life, shall we say, and I’m fascinated by the idea of Manila as a noir or noir-ish city, it’s always had that appeal for me. And so I thought, this isn’t going to be too difficult a concept to execute, and I thought Jessica would have a number of possibilities to work with depending on the authors she approached. She asked each contributor to choose a district of the city that we were familiar and comfortable with and my natural choice was my residence, my corner of Quezon City called Diliman, which is where the University of the Philippines is located. I live on campus, in campus faculty housing. And so I thought, all right, I’ll do a noir story based on campus and involving a professor. So that’s how it began.

16057198

KING: That trope of suburb-city-story applies across all of the books in the series so far. When you say you are familiar with noir, do you have any particular noir writers you admire?

DALISAY: Not prose writers in particular, it’s really noir film that’s interested me all these years, because as a graduate student in the United States many years ago I was a Teaching Assistant for a professor who taught film, and many of the movies that he chose were the noir genre, like Orson Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai. And so that stuck in my mind.

KING: Where was this?

DALISAY: This was at the University of Michigan, in the mid to late 1980s, and since we were doing Orson Welles that film came up. I liked that whole idea of something being black and sinister, but also with profoundly human motives behind its workings, not something supernatural. I’ve always been fascinated by the notion of the darkness within people, and how people might seem utterly normal but when pushed to a certain limit that black side of them will emerge. And there’s something very stylish about noir. It’s really an angle or a way of looking at things, and I thought that for me this would be a fun exercise, and that’s the spirit in which I took this invitation from Jessica.

KING: And how was the commissioning process? You were the first writer approached, and the book happened within a year, which is quite fast.

DALISAY: Yes. Actually, we had much less than a year to write our pieces. If I recall correctly, I had about three months or so within which to come up with a story, and I delivered on time. I like deadlines. If I had been given a year I might have done it in the eleventh month! So I recall that I liked it so much that I drafted a story pretty quickly, and there was a back and forth between me and Jessica about some things that had to be edited here and there. That was perfectly fine by me, she is a very capable, sensitive editor. I stood my ground on a couple of points which had to do with how a man looked at a woman. I remember, and I told her, trust me on this, this is how we males see, this is how I would see this woman. And to her credit she accepted my explanation for that.

And we didn’t even talk about whether or how much I was going to get paid. We all did get paid, $200 for each contributor. To me that was really just a bonus, and I suppose I can speak for the others when I say that this was really more of an honour for us, especially having learned that so many world cities already had their own noir books. And we all thought, hey, Manila should have been right up there on that list much, much earlier, like Mumbai and Mexico. I can’t think of a city that reeks of noir more than this place.

KING: So you were familiar with some of the other titles in Akashic’s series?

DALISAY: Just the titles. I’d never actually seen the books. As it happened, last year on a visit to New York, I did stumble on some of those books at the Strand Bookstore, and it was amazing just how many there were, which amplified again the pleasure for me of being part of Manila Noir.

KING: And were you familiar with Johnny Temple, the founder of this independent press?

DALISAY: Not at all, I knew nothing about the publishers. I liked the name, Akashic Press. And the name, Johnny Temple, I mean how much more Hollywood-ish does it get? Johnny wrote to us and he was very nice about everything. The whole project was done very professionally, and with Jessica being on top of it, she made sure that everyone delivered. Some authors, at least one I knew of, were late for delivery and so didn’t make the cut. Jessica was very strict, didn’t care who you were, if you didn’t come up with your story on time, you were out of the project.

KING: I have the US edition of Manila Noir but since arriving here I notice that there is a Philippine edition of the book.

DALISAY: The Philippine edition was produced by Anvil Books, the country’s leading literary publisher. They are a subsidiary of the National Bookstore, which is the country’s largest bookstore chain, so the book was in good hands here. They made sure that we had a kind of splashy rollout for the book, they invited as many authors as they could round up, and we had the launch a couple of months ago at the newest National Bookstore branch in Makati, at a mall called the Glorietta. There was a pretty big crowd. I have been to a lot of book launchings here, and this was pretty sizeable. That particular day, we signed about 250 books, like an assembly line. The launch was advertised to take place from 4 pm to 6 pm and we were there until 8 pm signing books. Many of the people who attended were in their twenties and, as you might already have gathered, the main crowd-draw was the graphic novel aspect of the anthology.

KING: Yes. Well, I imagined that would be the case: Budjette Tan and Kajo Baldisimo.

DALISAY: I’d never met them, I’d heard about their work, so it was a great pleasure to meet them. They are very pleasant, unassuming people.

KING: And that’s not their day job, it’s their night job.

DALISAY: Yes. Actually, there are very few people in this country whom you might call ‘professional writers.’ I might be considered one of those although officially my full-time job is that of a professor at a university. But in terms of my income, most of it really comes from independent or commissioned work, work done outside of the university. I write biographies and histories and that sort of thing. So, like the other contributors, this project was a pleasant diversion for me. There were maybe six of us at that launch, and we all read very short excerpts from our pieces and there were a lot of questions asking how we’d conceived of our particular stories, what were our inspirations?

KING: In your case, you as a young man.

DALISAY: Yes, along those lines. I’m not sure that even half the audience really knew what noir was about, as a concept, but they were willing to discover and learn. The choice of bringing different authors together to bear down on the same general subject probably made the book quite marketable. And also, I think everybody wanted to read what their favourite authors had written for this particular anthology.

KING: I’m guessing it might also have been a little bit to do with specific urban locales. For example, if some young hipsters are hanging out in particular areas of Manila, they might want to find out how that locale is depicted.

DALISAY: Yes. And like I said, a couple of those authors, the graphic guys, and Lourd de Veyra in particular, have strong followings. Lourd has become something of a media celebrity here, partly because he’s on TV, he’s on radio, and he also has a rock band. So aside from being a serious novelist, he’s a huge draw for any kind of cultural event like this.

KING: Which could explain the demographic at the book launching?

DALISAY: Yes. I think this project was very well conceived and of the people they put together, I wasn’t exactly the oldest guy there. But I think it shows in the work too. I haven’t read the whole book, I’ve read about three-fourths of it, and from what I gather, my piece is rather different from many of the others in its sensibility.

KING: It’s also interesting that they chose to use the classical term of noir, rather than get caught up in neo-noir, post-modern noir, and so on.

DALISAY: That’s true. I think if you talked about noir in a Manila context, the first thing that will occur to people is just crime. And it’ll be crime in a very gritty, realist sense. Of course some of the other guys did their own takes on that, the graphic novel piece was notable in that respect. But that’s still, in a sense, hard-core crime.

KING: The description in a couple of stories in the collection of what we in Australia call ‘shopping centres’, and you guys and the US call ‘malls’, intrigued me. The Greenbelt Mall in Makati depicted in Lysley Tenorio’s opening story reminded me of an old friend who died recently, Mike Presdee. Many years ago in Australia, he coined the term ‘proletarian shopping’ to describe the way young people in a suburb called Elizabeth in Adelaide, South Australia, would move around the shopping town there, to be in air conditioning in a very hot summer, or warm in winter, and when it became clear to the security guards that they were not going to purchase anything, they would be moved on. So there was a resonance for me in that respect. And as a boxing fan from way back I loved reading, in Gina Apostol’s story, about the currently run-down state of Ali Mall, Cubao, whose origin dates from the Ali-Frazier “Thrilla in Manila” bout in the 1970s.

ali mall

Ali Mall, Manila. Photo: When Owel Plays

DALISAY: Yes, Ali is part owner of that mall. He invested in it, and recently it’s been refurbished. It had gone down the tubes over the many years since its beginnings, but now it’s like a brand new mall. This is a city of malls. I don’t know if you’ve been to the Mall of Asia yet, which is a five-minute taxi ride from here.

KING: No. Yesterday I walked through Robinson’s Mall, on my way to Solidaridad Bookshop but the bookshop was closed, so I’ll go there tomorrow.

DALISAY: Yeah, well, that would be a teeny weeny mall compared to the Mall of Asia, which is one of the world’s biggest. And Filipinos love malls, because of the air conditioning, it’s literally just a matter of going in there to cool off, you don’t have to buy anything, but of course inevitably you do buy something.

KING: I’ve been to Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur recently for the first time, and it’s the same thing, a story of malls, the presence of famous European brands and local Asian high-end brands and people drifting around. And of course there is the famous US example of the “biggest mall in America” being in the Midwest where at one point Japanese tourists would come to play golf and shop and use it as a sort of one-stop tourist destination. Don DeLillo writes wonderfully about malls in his book White Noise.

DALISAY: But particularly in the Philippines, what sustains our malls is the fact that this is a consumption-driven economy. We don’t actually produce anything much, we just get all this money from our overseas workers, and that’s all to be spent at the malls.

KING: The Lonely Planet guide mentioned that, all those (mainly) female Filipinos working overseas and sending billions back to your economy. To shift to a genuinely productive domain, what do you teach at UP?

DALISAY: Creative writing, Philippine literature in English, and the short story. And when they are short-handed I teach American literature, again particularly the short story, but it’s really mainly creative writing, fiction and non-fiction.

KING: Can you give me a sense of your student cohort, who comes to your university, and whether they do a three year undergraduate degree and then a discrete fourth honors year à la England and Australia, or is it more like the States?

DALISAY: It’s the US system, four years. The University of the Philippines is the largest government university in the country. It’s a university system much like, say, the University of California system, with many campuses, and the English Department is one of the university’s largest departments. I think we have about sixty people full-time on staff, and we also have a large number of creative writing majors. We offer creative writing from the bachelor’s to the PhD level.

KING: How does it work at the PhD level? Do you have an exegesis to go alongside a creative work?

DALISAY: Yes, they are required to produce a substantially comprehensive critical introduction to their own work, locating themselves within a certain tradition and so on. So the doctoral creative writing thesis or dissertation would be a book-length work accompanied by that exegesis, and a slightly smaller version of that for a master’s thesis. Since UP is a rather difficult school to get into, I tend to get pretty good students. Of course, when it comes to creative writing, the whole ball game changes. You might all be good at some basic level, but some of you will be much better than others. That said, at the graduate level, typically I will teach a class of eight to ten people, and about half of them will produce work that is worth publishing.

KING: How many have gone on to publish works as a result of having done the master’s or doctoral degree, turning their dissertations into published books?

DALISAY: Well, I would say that out of about ten thesis projects, eventually three to five are published as books, so it’s not bad at all. This is a country with some talent, and at the moment it’s not all that difficult to get a book published, although ironically nobody really earns much from book sales here except for textbook writers. And the scale of publishing is still horribly low as a ratio to the general population. Let’s say we have a population now of 95 million, close to 100 million, and for most authors, a typical initial print run will still be 1000 copies.

KING: And what number of sales would constitute a best-seller or fast-seller?

DALISAY: Maybe 10,000 books. That would probably be some so-called inspirational book, or a cookbook, not a novel.

KING: In Australia it might be sports anecdotes, or gardening books. An Australian novel is seen as a best seller if it achieves sales of 30,000. And our population is only 25 million. Is there an issue here, a real question, involved in universities continuing to think of creative writing as the novel, novella or short story, when you might now be encountering a generation that wants to do graphic novels, film and TV scripts, music or some hybrid-combination of things? Some years ago I read about the first novel that was composed to be read on an iPhone, a mobile or cell phone, and it did very well, it attracted a readership of 300,000 or so; I think it was Japanese. If those sorts of forces are in the contemporary world, and therefore informing the kinds of subjectivities that you get as aspiring writers, how do you deal with all that?

DALISAY: Well, all I can say is that it hasn’t worked its way backwards far enough to affect the way I write, or my purpose for writing. But I know for some people it does. You might write shorter pieces for the Net and so on. We’re definitely aware that that’s the way the market is going, and many of us have embraced that. I’m kind of protecting myself from it.

KING: Yet your cell phone says you’re available 24/7!

DALISAY: I was the former chairman of something called the Philippine Macintosh Users Group, so I like these new technological things. More and more of our work is being made available in the e-book format and this can only be good for us, if that provides more numerous and more convenient distribution channels. Of course the romantic in me says I’d still like a book that smells, has pages, a cover and that sort of thing. But the kids these days all come to class with iPads, and that’s how I distribute my own reading material. I just have them go to DropBox and use PDFs.

KING: I like the fact that in the wake of Baz Luhrman’s film of The Great Gatsby, not only were there huge flow-on sales of Scott Fitzgerald’s book, but also enormous numbers of e-book sales.

DALISAY: Yes, I think that’s fantastic, that Hollywood was creating this kind of backlash that brings people back to the original material!

KING: I actually liked the film. Once you got past the shift of making Nick Carraway Scott Fitzgerald—which gave an acting gig to iconic Australian actor Jack Thompson—things went along very well.

DALISAY: I liked it too, I enjoyed the film.

KING: Though I did wonder why so many hundreds of thousands of people in the US needed to be reminded of The Great Gatsby by way of Baz’s film!

DALISAY: Luhrman did a great job with that film.

KING: To return to the Manila Noir collection I see there’s another writer in there whose name is F. H. Batacan.

DALISAY: She was my student, at university.

KING: Her story in here involves the two characters that she earlier set loose in a short novel, Smaller and Smaller Circles. I really liked that book.

DALISAY: That book was begun as a project in one of my writing classes years ago.

KING: Well, it was in manuscript in 1999, received awards, was published in 2002, so it must have been a project with you even earlier than 1999.

DALISAY: Possibly. I hadn’t seen Ichi, as we call her, that’s her nickname, for some years, because she was based in Singapore and only recently came home. She was there at the launch, so I was glad to see her there. There were a few people I had known from way back, she was one of them, I had also known Lourd de Vera for some time, and R. Zamora (‘Zack’) Linmark is a frequent visitor to the Philippines, and several others.

KING: It’s really nice to see that people are, variously, graphic novelists plus poets plus playwrights, novelists, non-fiction writers. Another question I wanted to ask concerns publishing in the Philippines; do you have subsidies, is there a sort of nationalist interest in subsidising work by Filipino writers?

DALISAY: Well, there are grants, yes. We have the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, and they release grants on a competitive basis to applicants, authors, who apply to them directly. But mostly the support comes in the form of grants for workshops, for gatherings, for the teaching of writing and of literature.

KING: Does any funding go to publishers?

DALISAY: Not that I know of.

KING: I only ask that because back in the 1980s Ken Worpole in London, long before New Labour, in the time of ‘Red’ Ken Livingstone, wanted the freedom to start funding publishers directly rather than writers. He felt that would be a better way of getting books moving about the culture. I have no idea what happened to that initiative, whether it was adopted and, if so, whether it was successful.

DALISAY: I’m not aware of that being done here. Nothing substantial for sure. The National Book Development Board has recently been very active in pushing, in supporting both publishers and authors. Andrea Pasion-Flores—herself an excellent writer of fiction and also a lawyer—just left the job of Executive Director for that body. It used to be pretty much dormant, and she made a very dynamic intervention. So I think things are looking up, from the Filipino perspective.

KING: Could you briefly say something about how you came to be imprisoned during the Marcos years? Decades later it generated your first novel, Killing Time in a Warm Place, which I see recently has been republished in an edition with your second novel, Soledad’s Sister, becoming In Flight: Two Novels of the Philippines. I should add here for readers unaware of this time in Philippine history that Martial Law was introduced not to protect the people, as one might usually think of its use, but rather to protect the Marcos dictatorship.

DALISAY: Well, I entered university in 1970, and very quickly got involved in the student activist movement, which was both anti-Marcos, anti-dictatorship, and also to some extent Marxist. For all these reasons I got imprisoned in 1973 for a little over seven months, and yes, that experience formed the basis for my first novel that was published in 1992, almost twenty years later. My experience is shared by many others of my generation, coming out of that Martial Law period. I didn’t get back to university until ten years later, so I graduated with my bachelor’s degree pretty late, but as soon as I did, I decided that the university would be the best place for me, to write, study and teach. It’s a great place for writers I think. I’ve done work in both fiction and non-fiction, I actually started out as playwright and as a screenwriter.

SoledadCover

KING: You wrote screenplays for Lino Brocka. The Internet Movie Database lists twenty or so stories and screenplays for which you have been responsible.

DALISAY: I did maybe about twenty-five movies from the 1970s until the early 2000s, quite a few of them with Lino Brocka, about fourteen I think, but mostly they were forgettable movies. We had to churn these out. I used to write a script in three weeks, the shortest was three days.

KING: That great old classical Hollywood B movie thing! And in this region you would also have the example of Hong Kong cinema’s mode of production, the Shaw Studios.

DALISAY: Oh, yes, Run Run Shaw, that whole scene.

KING: No union, no overtime paid as shooting days extend.

DALISAY: Exactly, sometimes I’d get paid and sometimes I wouldn’t.

KING: Well, you are in distinguished company. Bernardo Bertolucci tells of how in his early filmmaking days he didn’t get paid properly for his scriptwriting on some spaghetti westerns, one of which involved Sergio Leone!

DALISAY: Basically, I’ve always been writing for a living, and the academic side of me is really just the icing on the cake. I had to do an MFA and a PhD to validate my university credentials.

KING: Were they both done at Michigan?

DALISAY: No, I did my PhD in Wisconsin, at the Milwaukee campus, because they didn’t have creative writing in Madison at that time.

KING: Did Milwaukee have their Centre for Twentieth-Century Studies running then?

DALISAY: I think that was just getting started when I was there, although we didn’t have too much to do with it. When I did my MFA at Michigan, I had a great time, working with people like Charles Baxter. I had very good mentoring there, and I’m grateful for that. I would have been writing anyway, but going to university gave me deadlines to meet, and that was good. I was like a house on fire in my twenties and thirties, that’s when I produced much of my best fiction. Then in my forties and fifties I kind of tapered off into doing basically commercial work, although I’m always at work on one novel or other. And at the moment I’m working on my third one, which again is about low life. It features a call centre agent, call centres being the thing of the day here in Manila.

KING: Can you elaborate a bit more on that, because I see stories in newspapers saying that X spent some time working in a call centre, graduated from somewhere, and went on to become a successful writer; I think in that particular case, the writer was Indian.

DALISAY: Well, we’re right next to India, if we have not actually overtaken them, in the call centre business. Filipinos are fairly proficient at English, so it’s a huge plus for us. Over the past ten years or so the call centre industry has been one of the fastest growing industries in the country. Call centres here service western clients on the other side of the world. Most call centre people work at night, and that in itself is very noir-ish, because it’s created what I call a ‘vampiric culture.’ These kids are up and about, wired at 3 in the morning. They get off work and look towards the nearest open bars, and a whole economy has grown up around these call centres: bars and shops, and little strip malls that cater to nothing but these night-time work agents coming out after their work finishes. And for many young Filipinos, it’s a logical next step after graduation. You make good money quickly until you settle on what you really want to do. My sole remaining vice is poker and I play in all-night binges a couple of times a week, and it’s always 3 or 4 in the morning when a crowd from the call centres comes into the poker room, so that’s the milieu I’m working with in this novel-in-progress.

KING: And how close are you to finishing your version of The Cincinnati Kid?

DALISAY: I’m about a third of the way through, it’ll take me another couple of years to get this done.

KING: It sounds like a great example of what Godard was up to when he was trying to persuade Diane Keaton and Robert de Niro to do a movie with him, a movie about Las Vegas, casinos, the Mob, Bugsy Siegel. Colin MacCabe’s book, Godard: Images, Sounds, Politics (London: BFI/Macmillan, 1980), has a couple of pages where Godard has collaged some images of the two stars, and there is a great sentence where Godard says, in effect, “People have been working all day long for the industry of day, in factories and offices. Now they’re going to work for the industry of night: the money earned during the day will be spent on the night of sex, of gambling, and of dreams.” So why not call your book The Industry of Night and toss in Scott Fitzgerald’s much-quoted remark that “in a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning, day after day.” That could be your epigraph.

DALISAY: There you go, there you go. I am fascinated by that 3am crowd at the poker room. Because you’ve got these call centre agents, you’ve got off-duty cops, you’ve got female impersonators, I mean transvestites, also coming from their shows, and all kinds of, you know, the strangest birds, and you see them gathered in that place at that time.

KING: On this matter of poker and gambling, is Filipino culture as fanatical about gambling as Chinese or, at least, Hong Kong culture?

DALISAY: Not that fanatical. It’s hard to match the Hong Kong people. Here I probably should add that there are many new young Filipino writers coming up, and what we have begun to discover is the international market. I keep telling my younger writer-friends that they really should start looking at finding agents, and going through that whole process, because we’ve been writing in English for over a hundred years now, and surprisingly, in terms of making our presence felt in the international literary market, we have been left behind by the Chinese, the Vietnamese, the Koreans, the Indians of course. And I suspect that in some strange way the fact of our writing in English is actually pushing us back rather than forward, because it’s a suspect English. I think people would rather find something in Chinese and then translate that, and that would be more saleable than something written by a Filipino in an English that sounds neither American nor British. So that Filipino proficiency in English could actually be a liability. In any case, I think we have very interesting material here.

KING: Were the Marcos years leading up to Martial Law the defining experience of your generation?

DALISAY: For my generation, born in the early ‘50s, yes, but the defining experience for the Filipino of today is the diaspora of our workers, about a million of whom now work overseas. That’s why I wrote my second novel, Soledad’s Sister (Manila: Anvil, 2008) about that experience. And I think that is also changing Philippine society and Philippine politics in a very strategic way. Some of that experience will be negative in the sense of the social price to be paid for all of these absentees, fathers and mothers, but of course economically it’s a boon. I think in the long run politically that will be a positive thing in the sense that all these people will come home with raised expectations. They’ll say, you know, that if trains run on time in Germany or wherever, then we expect things to happen here like that.

KING: As a Filipino male who is hard working, clearly very industrious, could you, as a closing comment, give me some indication of why the Filipino male enjoys the status of being pretty much a wastrel, dilettantish, in respect of a whole range of Filipino women who do all the work?

DALISAY: The Filipino male is a pampered creature. We all like to think of ourselves as macho men, but actually we are all babies here. And it’s fun if you are a male. I think we are all somewhat ashamed of the fact that we rely so much on our women to do the heavy lifting for us. That’s also a message I try to put through in my own writing, that when push comes to shove, the women take care of the important things in this country, and we Filipino males should be thankful for it.