What’s the earliest experience, or a stand-out experience, you can remember that made you realize that you can be yourself, write as yourself, and write about issues that matter to you? Has this been difficult for you?
It was in 2012 when I was based in Singapore. I was deeply in love with a Vietnamese person; and that love was widely known as illegible/impossible/evil/monstrous/dirty/another word for “you simply can’t have it.” It’s been very, very difficult, quite severe to move on from that experience and maybe I’ve not totally moved on ever since. I could no longer believe that a feeling, no matter how sincere, wouldn’t destroy me. Whenever I ask myself just why was it able to change me and how I view life (and I do ask myself why most of the time), my answer has always been “because in that moment you imagined a future in which you are free.”
I’m sure I’m not the only one who suddenly realized he was dispossessed from the very beginning just because of a feeling natural in him. I think what haunted me in that moment was that I had to contend with the future I was capable of imagining; and poetry was the medium that allowed me to express my anxieties, the landscape of violence and pain and many other things I will never ever be silent about. I never saw myself as a strong person, but writing, since it is a practice, a training, taught me to intervene with real social conditions to be able to regard not only my pain, but also of those who are disfigured in advance by normative regimes of power.
Writing poetry with hardened intention to be free is not easy. It will never be.
What advice do you have for young and emerging writers, particularly of marginalized identities? What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
The most recent advice I got, a statement from a French surrealist author actually, came from my publisher, Kaitlin Rees. She sent that to me via email in a time when I had little money, when I decided never to agree to do anything other than related to writing poetry. I pasted it on my wall to never forget:
My advice for writers of marginalized identities is this: CLAIM YOURSELF. YOUR DESIRE, YOUR LOVE, YOUR BEING—CLAIM IT. DO NOT TAKE REJECTION AS THE MOST IMPORTANT THING ABOUT YOUR ART BUT JUST A COMPONENT OF YOUR CREATIVE PROCESS. WRITE EVERYDAY, READ EVERYDAY, SPEAK TO YOURSELF EVERYDAY, LEARN FROM YOURSELF, LEARN FROM BELOW, BELIEVE IN LIFE, WRITE AGAIN AND AGAIN, CRY, YOU NEED TO CRY, DO NOT FORGET AN AUTHOR OR TWO WHO INSPIRED YOU, YOU NEED TO BELIEVE IN LIFE, LEARN FROM YOURSELF, LEARN FROM BELOW,REVISE, LISTEN TO YOUR VOICE, REVISE, AND BELIEVE IN LIFE. WRITING IS A TIME TO SEE YOUR BODY DROWNING. BELIEVE IN LIFE AND CLAIM YOURSELF.
Do you think literature can influence social change, or reflect it? Or both? Are there any past or contemporary social movements that have affected your poetry? Can poetry be activism?
Poetry is most dangerous and accountable when it emerges through an activist spirit. Judith Butler was right when she said in a 2012 lecture that “every public demonstration requires its non-public support system,” and I think poetry can powerfully provide a ground to support dissent or expressions of indignation. This is why I absolutely agree that literature can influence social change, or can rightly help people perceive that certain social changes are necessary. This is mainly the reason why, in early 2016, I asked other writers of Southeast Asian descent to begin a literary journal that aims primarily to establish a platform for creative works engendered in differently reimagining Southeast Asia. The journal, Queer Southeast Asia: A Literary Journal of Transgressive Art, will have its first issue released in September 2016. We are pleased that fourteen fierce and brave writers have allowed us to celebrate their works. But I think the journal needs more time to structure itself according to its aims. In projects like this, I believe diversity is indispensable. Queerness is an open-ended category; its meaning relies on a certain ethicality where the question “who is queer” must be given an unanswerable status. Southeast Asia is not just a geographic boundary. And so at this point, I wouldn’t say our efforts are enough to build a network in order for us to speak together. But again: we are just beginning. I hope to see the day when a diverse mix of creative thinkers of marginalized background work hand in hand in understanding voices at Queer Southeast Asia. We all have to see that day. We have to struggle for it.
I think I would say the French Surrealist movement has had a strong impact on me. I was born in a country that worships God and by extension the powers that rule the land (as in Life is for god and country). My exposure to acts of surrender to a god has been in harmony with how I perform myself until integral contents of my-self were deemed anomalous by those very acts. The problem, because it is deeply personal, required me to be isolated, away from any dictum, even from the reach of my own family. It was then when I felt the French Surrealist movement had an emphatic vein, a thing that generates a rethinking of human condition and a reimagination of the body. Specific elements in the movement I carry in writing are: devotion to eliminating God and attraction to bisexuality. I once wrote a long poem, “Fragments of Impossibility,” in which a queer “I” whose lovers all named Jeremiah say this:
“Dear God, here is Jeremiah
stopping you. Dear God, here is Jeremiah getting his appetite back, separating
from taste, striving after you. Holy Father, the best of us are not yours anymore.” (Kritika Kultura, Issue 23)
What needs to change in the educational/academic world, with regard to poetry and writing? What can literary educators do to affect this change? What can students do?
In the Philippines, there’s almost no support toward writing. It is just so difficult to be a poet, to be a writer, to be an artist in the Philippines. Art doesn’t just happen because one is inspired to write or paint or take a photograph. One needs time and support to do research; to engage with people and communities. And so I usually apply for external funding from any international association that can provide the help I need. I’m sure I’m not the only one who constantly faces this pressure. But we persist because, again, we believe that art and literature can enact social transformation.
With regard to what particular areas in the academic world that has to change, I think first the conservative view of writing, i.e. the strict definition of what literature is. It is not necessarily bad to have model texts, but we have to be suspicious of what aims we want to inculcate in employing model texts. In the Philippines, our model texts are usually written by white, male, Eurocentric authors. In my opinion, this has led our students not to exercise their capability to be critical and to fully appreciate the kind of writing we produce. More importantly, in a time when desultory economic reforms, such as the ASEAN integration, attempt to homogenize the region, thus obscuring aesthetic practice critical of globalization, it is crucial that Filipinos are aware of Southeast Asian writing, or how such “grouped” writing is even possible. However, I don’t see any systemic effort in reinforcing a literature syllabus, for example, that has an exhaustive list of Southeast Asian writing. We barely discuss, if at all, the nature of English in the “Global South” or the role of translation in making the literatures of the region. It is problematic and will remain problematic if the academic world in the Philippines will continuously nurture our readers with authors who died not knowing what it means to be brown and colonized!
We can bring fundamental re-structuring in the academe if we dare to challenge the canon. I say we read the forbidden. Understand what it means to be vulnerable, why there is censorship, why some writers have to do it “underground,” how precarity is represented in literature. I suggest we transform classrooms into community-based incisive thinking hubs, a little detached from the Socratic model in which the teacher is the center of everything. And again, challenge the canon.
VIDA has recently expanded their annual count to include race, LGBTQ+ identity, and ability, using self-identification surveys to collect some of this data. What are your feelings toward self-identification in author bios? Do you feel editors and readers approach your work through a lens that you don’t control?
I think as authors, it is our right to appear in our biographical statements according to how we want to identify. But that should not be used against us. In fact, it has to help editors or readers in understanding our creative work. An inclusive publication needs to admit its biases and correct its publishing decisions when it has to. Let me share this experience:
I don’t give that much attention when my work gets rejected, but I do know how it feels to be rejected. And so as an editor, I’m more meticulous, more apprehensive of my reading. At Queer Southeast Asia: A Literary Journal of Transgressive Art, we use anonymous submissions, though we qualify our publishing decision according to what I should refer to as “the need to maintain a representational balance” and we are ready to disclose our readings or reasons why a specific work is rejected. I feel that because we want to be able to imagine a community of marginalized writers, we have to honor their presence and so we have to talk to them when we need to.
There’s this instance when I gave the reasons to an author why we decided to reject their poem. Although the author accepted the reasons, they pointed out a possible misreading. I immediately asked my co-editors to reread the poem in question and provide me with a final decision after considering the possibility that we may have embraced our biases rather than tried to appreciate the poem. We, then, concluded that the poem should be accepted WITH a sort-of corrective note from the author just to guide our readers. It really felt good that as editors we were so gracious in admitting an accidental mistake, certainly a biased reading, and correcting it immediately. It is not easy to talk individually to writers who submit their work. It is really not. But it helps a lot to know that we are doing our best to change the literary landscape in Southeast Asia. And we need that kind of change now beyond Southeast Asia.
B.B.P. HOSMILLO is the author of two poetry collections, The Essential Ruin (forthcoming) & Breed Me: a sentence without a subject/ Phối giống tôi: một câu không chủ đề (AJAR Press, 2016) with Vietnamese translation by Hanoi-based poets Nhã Thuyên & Hải Yến. A previous recipient of research fellowships/scholarships from The Japan Foundation, Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore, & the Republic of Indonesia, his writing has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Assaracus, Palaver Journal, The Collapsar, SAND: Berlin’s English Literary Journal, Transnational Literature (Australia), minor literature[s], & The Nottingham Review, among others. He is a guest poetry editor at Cha: An Asian Literary Journal & co-edits Queer Southeast Asia: A Literary Journal of Transgressive Art with Cyril Wong, Hendri Yulius, J. Pilapil Jacobo, & Pang Khee Teik.
This interview series is conducted with authors from the anthology, Bettering American Poetry 2015. As Bettering’s editors wrote in their call for nominations, “Our efforts will intentionally shift favor so that the literary landscape within this anthology reflects a ranging plurality of voices in American poetry and illuminates the possibilities of sharing space … This anthology represents just one concerted effort to better American poetry, but it is one that we hope will resonate.”
Bettering has sought to delve deeper with the poets selected for the anthology. These questions are composed collectively by the editors, with the belief that the literary community needs a polyphony not only of poems but of poets’ voices.