Sunday, January 01, 2006

Interview with Jean Vengua

Tom Beckett: If you were to describe your poetics in terms of an intersection, what would the names of the crossroads be?

Jean Vengua: I don’t have a clear sense of my poetics, other than what I discover from the conversation of poetry that I’m engaged in. I’m constantly escaping my own grasp. Maybe the names of the crossroads are the One and the Other, in the sense that, when I write, I can sometimes thankfully shed my own skin and become other. Who am I today? What road will I take? And whose road is it? Is it a private, or a public road, and do I feel like trespassing today?

I guess I’m an escape artist at heart. I don’t like being pinned down.

On the other hand, I'm always reeling myself in to face the political, the material contexts in which I exist. So maybe you could say that my poetics, as it is, rather than what I want it to be, is sort of impossibly torn, between wanting to cast myself out into the ether as far as possible, yet wanting, needing, to be fully participant in society, making a difference with my language, or hoping, at least, that that is possible.

This idea of the crossroads is so old, too, you know…It’s the fated point at which decisions are made, and bargains sealed. I think you’re very clever to bring this up in your first question. It’s a devilish question to pose to an escape artist.

TB: Funny though how the word 'ether' can so easily become 'tether'. And how in certain frames of mind 'tether' might seem a cousin of "the other." Language is like a set of those progressively littler Russian dolls all telescoping together.

I'm groping clumsily, a little like Ariadne following a thread into amazement. I've no idea where I'm going. So, let me ask: where does poetry begin for you? What sort of things, experiences instigate your poems? Does dreamwork figure in the mix?

JV: Poetry is clumsy, too, and so is poetics. Thank you for being so optimistic. I don’t know what’s at the end of this “road,” but we can go this way: “Ether” isn’t something that can be “tethered,” I think, but people can be tethered, or they can “other” themselves. When I’m inter “viewed” I want to separate from myself and become some other. But, OK, I anchor myself to some rocky shore of language, because the truth is, I don’t really want to float off too far. Besides, being embodied has its perks.

Tension instigates my poems. I don’t mean that in a necessarily negative way. But there’s some discomfort that I want to shed or explore. So let’s say poetry begins in the body for me. It begins in the body and by some magical or mundane process, that tension resolves itself into language.

The impetus is similar to that in painting. The gesture, the stroke, comes from the body, which carries tension in the nerves, the muscles, the fingertips. I’m thinking in the old-fashioned sense of handling a brush as an extension of the body, or of using the fingers as in finger-painting. Writing a poem is like the gesture of applying paint and color. I prefer saturated colors.

But it’s funny that I should think of it in visual terms, because I usually begin writing by listening; I think I’m influenced by my recent experiments in visual art (Mood Ring). My initial impulse is to want to link “poetics” to a physical, rather than an intellectual experience, even though aesthetic, and even political decisions are made in the process. I just used the passive to describe how “tension resolves itself into language,” “othering” myself from the intellectual, philosophical process of poetics. But I’m not anti-intellectual. It’s just that, for many years, my experience of just thinking about poetry has been bound up with self-consciousness and worries about how and what to think. If I don’t project the process outwards from myself to some extent, I tend to burden myself with it. So now I follow Frank O’Hara’s dictum, and try to just “go on my nerve,” at least initially.

I don’t “work” my dreams. Sure, if a dream lingers in my mind, it may emerge in the language of my poem; but not necessarily with any more urgency than the plastic water bottle sitting next to my computer, or the news report that I hear on CNN.

I feel like I’m being very contradictory in my statements. It turns out that in fact I’m very much tethered to the most material determinant of writing, the body (although that’s the road I chose to walk in this particular instance).

TB: I'm picturing you now walking in a field. A couple dozen kites are fluttering high in the sky. Their strings are taped or tied to different parts of your body. Language fragments are emblazoned on the front of each kite. Each bit of language relates in some way to the part of your body to which it is attached. You dance and so do they.

A poem is, in its way, a constellation of concerns, tensions (contradictions), projections and desires.

You've alluded to how your poetry proceeds from the body. How does your body figure in your poetry?

JV: The body, for me, is often the emotional body, or even the thinking body. I don’t make much separation between those states, at least in the process of writing. Some scientists assert that the body remembers in some cellular way, remembers trauma, love, desire, lack, and anger. I’m looking at a poem I wrote in
The Nightjar recently:


In the mean time four chairs
and i occupy a fitf. period

correct the spelling i try to
make. what emerges : shoulder

are the knobs of bones under
flesh. distance from nail to

palm of hand fingers type
along a mind surface. breath

see short intake of curtains
table and shouldering of tens

ion. I try to make. trying
to make. whate watter what

ever i try to hammer takes a
breath. takes ten shoulder

ing the effort to try to
make. this where with all i

try to make. but then the an
arbitrary decisions cuts the

line. many lines bisecting
neck shoulder trying to see

i try to make the weight sett
led on one side skews the

other. warming up shifting
from one side to th other.

In “Mean Time” I wanted to take into account both the body and the language as they emerged, and merged, in process. There were “mistakes” in spelling, and I wanted to incorporate them into a poem, along with awareness of my breath, and the felt tension in my body. I was having a difficult time getting the words out, and there was a sense of my choices being arbitrary, that, initially, I was choosing words for no special reason; they seemed to be emerging from my fingertips, or my hand, my skin. And yet the choices of words and cuts in syllables shaped the line. By the end of the poem, much of the focus seems to be on the shifting weight of the body, as though that’s what I’m left with.

I think the body has simple needs, though. Basically: desire, satiation, lack and pain. But these states can lead to, or be connected to more complex states. I occasionally get migraines. So – why put so much responsibility on the brain?

Sometimes the body figures in my poetry in a more erotic sense, as a container for some memory content, or as a way, again, to connect to the “other” or to connect the experience of the body to various elements of language:

the intermittent rain you see over a series of days drifts
down and i am porous too the signs shelter doves i hear
them under the bridge waiting for the signals to change

often she thinks of sex while riding on the bus the way your
hands your fingers considering gauge viscosity seek pathways
in this is the vowel and in this is the verb to be to press

the case a little lower now higher up where it is permitted
to bite the mouth is an o and all parts together stem the o
there is a line to be traced and saying with impatience how

the hair gathers here darkens in the wet a formal allusion
to nature obscuring the fold which we say with hunger words
we all say in our porosity but for love, hold back a moment

Maybe all this stuff about the body seems sounds solipsistic.

I don’t want any mediation between my direct experience, and the act of writing.

It’s a matter of listening through the skin, and then you make a gesture, a stroke, and it comes out as writing, a constellation of letters and words, voices, fragments, more often than not clustered around some discomfort, pleasure, desire or lack.

But I will say that this constellation of letters and words, etc., tend to cluster around certain problems. That is, the “discomfort” I speak of is not completely of the body, but also of the mind or psyche, and of “knowledge.” And I think that “mediation” is one of those problems; that is, the problem of being mediated, of existing within various frameworks of knowledge, and assumptions that are sort of written on my skin, so to speak (I’m thinking of Kafka). And which I wish to shake off, through direct experience of writing. No -- not just shake off, but to become aware of, to see it for what it is, something separate and historical from direct experience – even though that’s not even possible. But to write it is to hope that one might see it and read it, and record it.

TB: Mediation, meditation: two words differentiated by only the consonant 't' (visual emblem of an intersection or crossroads).

'Media' is mediation's larger part. Or, should I say, "the media" are?

You, I gather from your blogs, have struggled with what medium to best express yourself. You are (have been?) variously, musician, visual artist and poet. I envy the multi-dimensionality of your talents. Could you speak, he asks awkwardly, to how these impulses coexist in you?

JV: I’m still thinking about that crossroads “t.” I guess we’re back at the intersection again. My writing also relates to my interest in Buddhist meditation, in which the body, mind and emotions, everything, can become objects upon which to focus awareness. In any case, I have always worked in a variety of mediums, so this business of crossing boundaries is just what I do. It’s a struggle when I feel constrained to work in a certain way, or stay within a genre or category. My recent work in Mood Ring, for example, is based on paintings I did a long time ago, which were about the act of physical gesture, using the brush like a calligrapher. I think brush work is much more amenable to spontaneity than working with pen and ink, and I need spontaneity to at least get started writing. I can’t sit around and think about poetry, or it never gets out into the world. I have to just do it; then later, I can and do think about it. Ironically, now I am re-framing the physical gesture of that early painting through digital media, as I break down those strokes into segments, tear them apart (literally), re-position the pieces and play with them, via my image program. The pieces on Mood Ring, then, intersect between the world of the body and its physical gestures and materials, and the digital, conceptual world of the computer.

I don’t see myself as a musician, although I played piano and guitar a lot when I was younger, and I was influenced by my father, who was a guitarist. Now I just mostly listen. And music provides conceptual models for me in poetry. Certain types of music and musicians ahve helped me to give myself permission to be dissonant, or disjunctive, or awkward, and Nathaniel Mackey’s book, Discrepant Engagement, helped me to see my own incongruities, and even my tendency to evade categorization, as a form of contestation.

For me, the word, categorization, contains echoes of the American colonization of the Philippines in 1898, its takeover of the communications infrastructure of the Philippines, its invasion by anthropologists and ethnographers, educators and scientists, who then set out to photograph and categorize the people, plants and animals of the Philippines, and publish their findings in journals and books for U.S. and European consumption and “education.” That colonial mediation created a disorienting, violent cultural and social shifts that continue to be felt by a lot of Filipino artists, even several generations later. I think that a lot of Filipino poets are struggling to escape from that gaze, still, trying to keep from being pinned down like a moth to a board.

I suppose my poetics is also a practice of accepting and staying with my own awkwardness, that discomfort I mentioned earlier, of leaning into the dissonance.

TB: What do you worry about?

JV: I worry about simplifying things too much. I worry that my references to “direct experience,” “gesture” and the body may be interpreted as romantic and regressive or nostalgic, although nowadays, I’m less concerned about that. Perhaps more significantly, I spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about out how to pay my bills. A lot of my life is taken up by thinking about and strategizing how to keep myself in the black. I worry about getting older and staying creative. My writing and my poetics do not exist in a vacuum, in other words. My everyday worries about physical and creative survival have a great impact on my writing, and I get annoyed by those who write as if their poetics exist in a category separate from family life, or work, or what have you.

TB:What does poetry do?

JV: It records, it makes visible and audible – sensible; it makes the interior apparent to the senses. It’s another way of bringing forth awareness within the matrix of language and living and dying. It begins with a state that for me is childlike and playful, seemingly grounded in the body; and it often branches out into the ludic, the ludicruous – which is delightful when it happens. Poetry reports back to me (I mean that in a broad sense, of course, but in my blog, Diaryo I literally shaped my poems from news reports), it tells me what’s going on, and sometimes what’s going on is funny, lyrical, erotic; sometimes it’s full of despair, and I see the language breaking up inside of me or turning cold, becoming self-centered, cliché, awkward or lonely; disappearing into dead space, self-censorship, silence. When I say that poetry is a practice of staying with the discomfort or dissonance, I include in that also terror.

This reminds me – I had a nightmare recently: I had left a door open, which let a killer into the house, whose large presence blocked a doorway. And the horror was in his implacableness, his utter confidence in the rightness of his role as killer, as if it were a given, pre-ordained— and my helplessness in the face of that. And the only way I could pull myself out of that was through verbalizing, vocalizing or screaming—which was the only way I could create a rift between that illusion and the waking world. It’s as if part of me was lucid, and knew that only some primal utterance would break the continuity of that power. There’s the mediation again, the “as if already a given” aspect of life.

Although I mention the body as having some kind of primacy in the poetic process, in fact, how can I separate that from my mind, or from the possibility of a larger awareness? I can’t. But poetry as practice teases me into shaping it, too—this is the real “eros” of poetry; the part that may occasionally write about eros is bullshit, or secondary anyway—because in making “adjustments,” by playing with and manipulating and loving the various elements of language (as I do with visual art in Mood Ring), something more important emerges, a “poem,” and there’s something so satisfying in that.

TB: Could you speak to your method(s) of composition, perhaps by taking me through a poem you've written ?


Here are a couple:

Monday, November 21st, 2003

Break bread, simple rite; occasional lapse of memory
Allows for a fold in time where in the narrow border

Settings of nourishment create an order between
so many relations linked for good or ill, embarkations

occasions, turning out what was inside, flung open
doors, weather creating a momentum breaks up

ingredients: sugar, eggs, flour, the prayer for wheat

I wrote this on The Nightjar a couple weeks after my mother died in 2003. I often write either in prose poems or in couplets, for some reason. In the prose poem form, there’s a sort of breathless momentum that carries you to the end of a paragraph. Couplets allow for a more formal sense, moving from one set of thoughts or images, to another. My mother baked bread. The priest brought up a passage from the bible about wheat. (That’s ironic, though, because she often used rice flour). I was watching myself, how a lapse of awareness, a little mental leave-taking allowed for rest. Similarly, there are the “rests” between beats in music, and rests between stanzas. I realize now that in a prose poem, I don’t get that pause, that sense of rest. And then the “weather” comes in, breaks things up. You make a brief order, and then all the ingredients disperse, even the prayer.

It was just what was circulating in my life at that time; rituals, anchoring to some material thing seemed necessary. And beginning with the body is not so different from beginning with bread.


so maybe it's not death yet, although we are tired; it's true. empty empty alone with space and the furniture is worn out. she don't feel like cleaning up. there's an alien in the house and it is we. faces devolve one to the other not even goodbyes, and one can barely keep up the pretense. we are psychic phenomena. the paranormal beauty of cyborg flowers breeds intense sadness. creases develop along my lines of unfolding.

I wrote this prose poem recently on The Nightjar, and it’s pretty raw still. Meaning that I haven’t messed with it much, yet. It started out with a feeling of being tired and worn down; that was my impetus, my basic discomfort. I decided to make it a prose poem, because when I’m tired and just running on emotion, the long lines of prose set up a momentum, and that seemed more important to me at that moment, than setting up a form using line breaks.

A father of a friend of mine suffered from bipolar, and sometimes engaged in what is called “pressured speech.” And this is what I feel like sometimes when I write. I let the words run on ahead of me, and I encouraged a disjunction or rift in feeling or meaning, because the shift keeps me from identifying too closely with the words, which would hinder my being able to play with them in ways that are interesting to me.

It’s a kind of automatic writing, except that I don’t surrender to it completely. I may have even introduced the term, “psychic phenomena” to further a disjunction that starts with the change in syntax, "she don't feel like," which is not "me." The "we are psychic phenomena" sounded a little silly, but I wanted that, something off-kilter with the mood, because I was afraid it was becoming maudlin, and I knew I’d have to create a dissonance, or a shift in the language, for it to take me somewhere more interesting.

“Paranormal” follows because I think it is a beautiful word/object. It ripples. And I was thinking of it because of Stephen Vincent’s recent “Ghost” poem/photograph series, which he has been writing on his blog. But that reminded me of the cyborg flower that I saw on the Workshop page of the Tokyo Plastic 2 website a gorgeous white flower presented in Flash, that seemed frighteningly alive, despite its digitally constructed "plastic" parts. So I was allowing both emotion and tiredness to carry me through this, and hoping that I would get somewhere. For some reason, the cyborg flower stimulated “intense sadness.” I wanted to connect the intimacy and interiority of being human with something alien and exterior. That’s why I ended up with “creases” and “my unfolding,” both signs of wear in humans and paper art objects.

So again, it’s simply a matter of “going on my nerve,” but I’m also betting on something; that there is, as Tom Fink and Stephen Paul Miller discuss in Fink’s book, Gossip, something leading or continuous, even under the seeming discontinuity, even if the poem ends up not working for me. I want to believe in the vibrancy of an interior life that can find some bridge to the exterior, to the world of empirical objects and measures.

TB: I love your blogs--and you have several! I can't think of better evidence of someone trying to find a bridge between inner and outer than the truly committed blogger. Could you speak to what blogging means to you in terms of your practice as an artist?

JV: Blogging freed up my writing like nothing else. I started blogging when I was experiencing writer’s block, and feeling very disconnected from my creativity. Maybe blogging tapped into the exhibitionist in me, or something – it’s hard to say exactly. But I began blogging both as a way to break through isolation (I was staying at home taking care of my mother who was ill and dying at the time), and as a challenge to myself to write whatever I wanted to write in a very public way. Blogging kept me from imploding, from breaking down. My first blog was the Nightjar Logbook. The only time I had to myself, really, was after about 11 p.m., so I often wrote late at night, or early in the morning.

Initially, my poems were often hyperlinked, because it was a way to extend the life of the poems outwards in ways that were very open. I’d write something, then pick several words, Google them until I found interesting connections, however bizarre, then link to the sites in the poem (not flarf, by the way). Leny Strobel’s writings on community and loob and Michelle Bautista’s Kali practice got me thinking about the relational values of Filipinos in writing. As I wrote back then:

“Lo-ob. If you say it correctly, separating it into two syllables, with a slight emphasis on the second, you'll feel the word in the center of your diaphragm… Loob is a Filipino term that refers to the center of power within a person. But it's also important to know that this center is intensely relational, and associative.

The website itself is a center, a vortex, a world, which provides links or "doorways" outwards, to other worlds, other centers and vortexes, tributaries of thought or being. As such, it's open to flow…”

With loob, there’s that connection with the body again, or at least the need to figure out where you are positioned in relation to everything else at any one time. I still see the blog— or poetry, for that matter— as a kind of doorway opening in and opening out, like the breath. Oh…I just remembered that nightmare I mentioned earlier, in which I had left a door open, and a killer walked in! Well, it’s not without its risks.

Anyway… I did blog pretty much in isolation for awhile. Then one day, Eileen Tabios linked to that first blog, which gave me a chance to really test the loob of my blog, and my poetry.

TB: What is at risk for you in your work?

JV: One can start with one’s own tender ego—which at my age is perhaps not such a bad thing to put at risk. More risky is when one’s writing begins to be taken seriously by others—then one starts to feel a certain responsibility to write with some sense of “integrity.” By that, I don’t mean that one must take up a certain poetics, and defend it, but…the responsibility and the risk is to the senses, not to cheat them out of awareness, not to escape from this painful and beautiful world entirely—despite my claim of being an escape artist (and not a very good one at that)—not to lapse into polemic, forgetfulness, or habit in one’s writing. As you yourself said recently, it’s important to be present and attentive to even the little things.

TB: And, finally, what is on your proverbial plate now? Are you working on any special projects?

JV:Well, The First Hay(na)ku Anthology, which I edited with Mark Young, just came out. So I’m basking in the glow of that (Mostly it’s the glow of the contributing poets and vispo artists, including Eileen Tabios, who invented the form). I’m trying to find time to do more visual art myself, some of which I’ve put up on Mood Ring. I’m working on expanding a long poem into a book-length manuscript. Also, I’ve got so many poems in my various blogs, that I realize I could put together a book manuscript of shorter poems, or maybe a couple of “chapblogs” so I’m hoping to do that, too. I’m keeping busy.


Blogger EILEEN said...

Reading this interview was simply an uplifting experience. Thank you Jean, and Tom.


8:07 AM  
Blogger Sheila Murphy said...

The first 10/14/05 visual piece on Mood Ring seemed to link quite beautifully to many of the comments made in this fine interview!

5:58 PM  
Blogger Jean Vengua said...

Thanks so much, Eileen & Sheila (now I feel like putting more art on Mood Ring tonight)...

1:17 AM  
Blogger Jim said...

What a revealing and intimate interview. Thanks to both of you for sharing this.

8:52 AM  
Blogger Ernesto said...

Just found some time to read the interview. It's beautiful. I agree it's uplifting, intimate and revealing.

An inspiration.


6:36 PM  
Blogger Jean Vengua said...

Thanks, Ernesto & Jim!

11:40 PM  

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