I don’t really think much about my creative process. As someone prone to excessive analysis, which counts among its worst side effects, paranoia, and on relatively good days, humorlessness, I am uncharacteristically disinterested in the paths I take to get to a poem. Not that disinterestedness has always been my default; it took some thinking (yes, analysis again) for me to arrive at this stance, this temporary suspension of self-awareness. When in the thick of writing, I need not to think too hard. By this I don’t mean my writing is driven solely by instinct (though surely, this plays a part), or by feeling (though I admit I emote a lot in my poems). What I do need as I process a poem into existence is to maintain loose contact with my ideas and let them meander their way down the page. I find that when I handle them with a firm grip, they turn into puppets rather than poems—limbs limp, movements mechanical, steps predetermined. Immoderate calculation on my part renders the poem lifeless; things hold together for the most artificial, reductive reasons, and the poem becomes its own prison—unable to reach beyond itself.
And so, if I equate creative process with the very act of writing a poem, my approach is easy lang. Napangungunahan kasi yung tula kapag masyadong nangungulit at namimilit. Certainly, I write because I have something to say, but the more attached I am to my original ideas and intentions—the more I know what I want to say, treating it as a script to be followed—the more the poem assumes the qualities of summary, diminishing in its potential for becoming an experience in itself. In this case, no discovery for myself, and by extension, the reader, awaits, because to begin with, no journey takes place. I need a particular impetus to sit down and write—an image, a vibe, and always, a keeper of a first line—but beyond this, I prefer to keep myself in the dark. As I make my way out, the poem gets written.
This isn’t to say I don’t make plans before I write because I do. Naniniwala ako sa sulat-kutob at tingin ko, may libog na nawawala kapag walang bahid nito ang akda. But I’m also a believer in art as willed, and I’m most productive when I have a couple of clear-cut goals in mind, which, in my experience, are fueled by risk and restlessness, that is, my inescapable need for collision with dilemmas played out in the expanse of a book, my container of choice in which to execute thought. In other words, I like giving myself problems, both craft- and content-wise, separate threads at the onset which ought to merge beyond unraveling. I really don’t see the point in writing what one already knows; nothing is more insufferable than cliché, which, for the writer confined to comfort zones and habits, takes the form of repeating oneself (if not a million others) again and again. I also like taking time and space to work out these problems, which is why, so far, I see myself as writing books of poems, rather than individual poems collected into books. When I wrote elsewhere held and lingered, I had in mind a novel in verse—narrative in arc yet unfolding in lyrical increments, driven by plot yet developed through collage. I wanted the poems to be read in sequence and against each other; I wanted the form of the collection as a book to be necessary.
The idea of writing a book of poems—rather than one poem after another—was for the most part invisible to me when I was starting out as a writer. I used to be interested in perfecting the individual poem. I aspired to write poems that had a finished quality to them—the language tight, the images adding up, the beginning-middle-end discernible. I still believe in such things, but back then, there was something unsettlingly mathematical in my approach; at best, I wrote poems that were crystal clear, but more often than not, they were reducible to formula. When the idea of a book finally presented itself to me—this happened maybe two-thirds into my manuscript of what would eventually be Dark Hours—it had the quality of revelation almost instantly brought down to the level of common sense, similar to the first time it hit me that I didn’t have to be Catholic if I didn’t want to. I didn’t have to equate writing with perfecting the individual poem. There was also writing a book of poetry to think about, which opened up to me, for example, the exciting possibilities of poems in relation to rather than in isolation from each other—drawing their energies from each other, employing recurrences, echoes, patterns, and functioning in sequence (thus contesting ideas of individuality and perfection, and entertaining ideas of continuity, and, well, mess). This created a radical shift in my writing process. From the snail’s pace I was used to, tirelessly obsessing over a single poem and imposing upon it the burden of fulfilling a plethora of goals, my writing sped up; I started writing poems simultaneously, allowing the poems to share the weight of my artistic burdens, to refer to each other, depend on each other.
I was already conscious of it then, but I became all the more sensitive to the way the poems functioned on the page when I saw them as material for a book, triggered, perhaps, by a heightened awareness of them as physical things with physical appearances that could be arranged one after the other. The necessity of my work assuming book form extended to the necessity of setting the poem on the page—making it a thing to be looked at and not just read. If poetry is thought shaped on the page, then I needed to understand how the three components—thought, shape, page—worked in relation to each other. To begin with, why write a poem down? We can recite poem, we can sing a poem, why do we have to see a poem on the page? I needed to account for the poem as written down; the convergence of the three components had to be crucial, not mere convention or accident.
In light of these concerns, a craft question I had in writing elsewhere held and lingered involved rediscovering the function of the line in poetry. After working on Dark Hours, where, among other things, I turned to prose, I needed to get to know the line again and to recover its relevance to me. In Dark Hours, where I constructed a world fraught with urban despair and populated by anonymous, isolated characters, I thought it best to abandon the artifice of the line (poetry’s most blatant signal in presenting itself as artful), favoring instead a more unobtrusive, low-key form, and also one which could be read at a greater (however minute the difference is) speed, sans the more pronounced stops and pauses supplied by verse. I wanted the uniform blocks to mirror the undifferentiated quality of the landscape, with its disdain for proper nouns, overall grayness in color and mood, and the unanimous, non-hierarchical presence of despair. Of course the risk of so much flatness was monotone, a difficult battle I had to fight then, especially given my habitual sentence structure, made more predictable by repetitive block text. This risk, in particular, haunted me all the way to my second book, which is why, aside from the return to the line, another project I foisted on myself in writing elsewhere held and lingered had to do with writing more elaborately musical lines.
It can be very difficult to bestow the line with the integrity it deserves, what with the many poems out there which use verse as mere ornament, a crutch to proclaim its poem-ness, a supposedly easy fix to clumsy combos of sound and flow. Knowing that so many poems disregard the potential of the line even as they use it became an occasion for me to make pertinent the technique as used in each poem in the collection. I also pushed the experiment further by doing away with default conventions—the poem shaped as a column, the lines roughly symmetrical in length, and the obedience to the left-hand margin. Instead I went for longer lines, indentions, uneven lengths. In elsewhere held and lingered, the setting and characters are far more contained—involving only a handful of rooms and three main characters—even the subject matter is fiercely focused on infidelity. Expanse, then, I thought, became the province of the form, which in this book, I sought to be more varied, beginning with the tension of syntax and line as carried out on the page. The asymmetrical lines, the far more intricate sentence structures, the prominence of dashes, and the longer poems, a number spilling from one page to the next, were all meant to push the poetry beyond the containment of its small world, to capture the uncertainty, the sudden shifts in thought, the hysteria constantly breaking loose and being fought against by a lead character in search of stability in the face of multiple manifestations of fracture (this is a slight rip-off of Mabi David’s blurb for my book—as I mentioned earlier, I don’t really think that hard in the midst of writing, but her description, in retrospect, seemed pretty convincing to me). Hinayaan kong maging malikot ang mga linya sa pahina, na naisip kong maging paraan ng pagpapalinaw ng gulo ng isip—madalas na kalagayan ng pangunahing tauhan sa koleksyon. I wanted the lines to be musical visually, to leap off the page in their being so erratic, jittery. This drove me to write poems which leapt in sound from phrase to phrase, not written following traditional templates in rhyme and meter, yet musical by virtue of sounds tossed from line to line, allowing them to morph and shift and carry meaning from one set of words to the next. This exercise, which I carried out in a handful of poems—any more would have been exhausting to me—made me especially conscious of the tandem of sound and structure, the poem on the page literally a visual counterpart of the poem as read.
And finally, my awareness of appearance on the page led to continuing and pushing further a preoccupation begun in Dark Hours—that of appropriating non-literary forms into poetry. The idea of employing forms in ways outside their typical functions is extremely seductive to me (a couple of books by Essay Press, Mark Z. Danielewski’s novels, and John D’Agata’s The Next American Essay are bibles to me for this reason), and I thought this could be another way to engage with the fracturing that is a preoccupation of the collection. I already used footnotes to a non-existent text in Dark Hours, but in elsewhere held and lingered, I attempted a wider vocal range in the stand-alone notes, which also happen to be lengthier than in Dark Hours. I also made use of unexpected templates as shapes into which I fit thought on the page—a multiple choice exam, and an index, a prose poem with footnotes attached to it. The appearance of these poems on the page is so necessary that they cannot be divorced from it—I would be hard pressed to read these poems aloud in a poetry reading; it is on the page where they truly reside and come alive.
Already, I feel like I’ve talked about my work too much. I am a firm believer in my work being its own best explanation, despite evidence to the contrary, what with all this chatter. I do hope these notes are helpful to you in thinking about your own work. And I hope the page doesn’t automatically fade into the background—the way it often does—next time you decide to write a poem down.