Olive Casareno and Thomas Fink
Thomas Fink: What is the significance of the “or” in the title, ESL or You Weren’t Here (Nightboat 2018)?
Olive Casareno: And what did you want this title to convey to English-speaking readers while knowing the power of your own language?
Valdez: The “or” comes from a splitting that creates a “here” and “there.” When I came to the U.S. as a child, I knew very little English. I would become really anxious when speaking out loud, especially to teachers and other authority figures who were white, and to a classroom full of students, who were also primarily white. That environment deeply instilled in me a fear of being misunderstood and humiliated. I learned to rehearse in my mind what I would say, so as not to make a mistake. I’m sure everyone experiences a form of anxiety over being misunderstood. Mine is rooted in having felt alienated and powerless as a child who was thrust into a place drastically different from Manila.
I wanted the title to convey a sense of childhood loneliness in not knowing words and how to pronounce them, and in the fear of being abandoned in a foreign language as an immigrant. Your entire world being completely upturned. I’m thinking of the phrase “mother tongue.” It holds so much significance and touches on many relationships—to origin, to one’s country, to one’s mother—to how a child begins to understand the world around them. If language is home and as a child I am in some place where barely anyone speaks my language, then on an essential level I’m lost somewhere and alone.
Fink: Since “Shuffled Slides of a Changing Painting” is a long series or sequence, it is highly understandable why you would make it the fourth and last section of ESL or You Weren’t Here, but what were the criteria for your decision to group particular poems in “Isa” (one), “Dalawa” (two), and “Tatlo” (three)? In other words, I’m wondering about the overall architecture of the book.
Valdez: One of the joys of making this book was seeing its present shape come into being. And that’s mostly hindsight joy! I didn’t begin with knowing that I wanted some kind of chronological order, but I knew I wanted to tell a story. I was internalizing criticism that it’s cliché to open with childhood, but that childhood timeline and its blurriness were the driving force. The order is not quite linear and no one else has told this story so I was like, okay, I give in. I think part of what makes this process a joy is the relinquishing of a critical voice that has grown stagnant and unproductive. So I just went with the flow. I began with my grandmother in Manila in the first section, then poems about her death after my siblings and I had already moved to the U.S. Then shifting to the Purple Gender section which is still childhood but with this growing awareness of, and language for, the present-day legacies of American colonialism. How those legacies might be embodied by a Pinoy child coming of age in suburban Long Island.
The overall architecture of the book is also guided by numbers and the measurement of time, hence the chapter titles. Children are taught how to count and those number-words help them construct a basic understanding of beginnings and endings. I’m thinking also of the ways in which time can become fractured and split and rearranged through memory and trauma, so that beginnings and endings blur.
Casareno: “Two little baklas” (10) are words that I know to carry negative connotations in the Philippines for the LGBTQ+ community (alongside bading). Does the limit of your own language frustrate you as a Queer author and do you think there is any resolution for this frustration?
Valdez: I think the limits of language in general frustrate me lol. But as a queer Pinoy author, what frustrates me isn’t the limits of Tagalog per se, but the limits that Western—and especially American—imagination imposes on Tagalog—and on language-making for that matter. The topic is really complicated and gnarled, so on that level of discourse, too, it is frustrating. There are so many nuances that people might not be open to imagining.
Bakla does carry negative connotations because it is a word that can speak truth to power. I still bristle at hearing it from cisgender hetero Pilipinos (especially family). The word has a silence attached to it, so that when I speak to those Pilipinos and casually use Bakla to refer to myself, I get a sense that it’s a word they don’t often say because they know that what the word conventionally connotes and defines is deemed shameful—and which they themselves believe is shameful, even if they don’t want to believe it. I’m not immune to that shame. I still trip up sometimes when saying Bakla because for a very long time I had experienced its primary significance and purpose to be one of shame.
Now I’m beginning to speak it to name my gender and sexuality. One of the nuances that gets erased through an American-centric imagination is the multiplicity of Bakla. Many Americans think it just means gay, as though it’s easily translatable. The word can mean gay for many people. And for many others, the word can also be a way of giving language to a gender identity—to realities—outside of a Western binary.
Casareno: In the poems, “Blue Bakla”, “November” and “Sagad”, your mention of the colors blue and yellow are consistent, despite each carrying different emotions. Why are these colors so significant to you in this book?
Valdez: I’m finding it challenging to answer this question. It’s giving me flashbacks to art school critiques when a teacher or another student would ask about a painting, why did you pick these colors? And I’d be ashamed to say, I just felt them. But having learned to see feelings as holding so much possibility and power, I think attributing the significance of those colors to a “feeling” is valid. The book is so much about memory and embodiment. Looking back at those poems and how I came to write them: yellow and blue are what I imagined in my mind’s eye as I remembered my grandmother, as I remembered Manila, as I remembered seeing my father mourning his mother in private. Maybe this experience of color is a form of spirituality, in the colors being seen and felt and remembered. There’s a lot here that I’m just beginning to piece together and articulate. I want to explore more of it. And I would like one day to be able to speak more confidently about the spiritual without fear of being shamed by some figure of reason that I’ve internalized wagging its empirical finger at me. Lol.
Casareno: What is the purpose for the repetition of the phrase “My grandmother is my mother”?
Valdez: The phrase speaks to realities in the Philippines where relatives might take on a maternal role to a child whose biological parents are working abroad. For me that was my grandmother. Repeating the phrase in the book is my way of insisting against the American paradigms that I’d encountered growing up. The nuclear family as an ideal family unit. Who fits that ideal even in the States, even among American families? When people belittle other people for living with their parents as adults, it reveals the traditions we learn to value and the traditions we learn to devalue, which are based on class, race, gender, sexuality, ability, citizenship, and other systems that can be used to exclude. It’s very normal among Filipinos and many cultures here and elsewhere for a household to include family members outside the nuclear family. And in the Philippines, I never thought of those relatives as “extended” family. They were just family. There were many of us living in one house supporting each other.
Casareno: In “Apat,” you highlight your process with english as one that went “at a slow pace” (6). In the last stanza, what did you intend to communicate by leaving those spaces?
Valdez: For me the spaces in the last stanza indicate silence. Not necessarily silence as emptiness or without language, but silence as a physical, visual space on the page. Something material that affects the act of reading as the eye moves. I realize I’m making an ableist assumption here that the reader is sighted and I wonder how a blind person or a person with low vision might interact with the spaces if they encountered those spaces in other forms, like Braille for instance. There are so many ways a poem can be experienced.
Fink: Indeed, your book features a variety of strategies for placing words, phrases, and sentences on a page. You include poems that are center-justified and right-margin justified, as well as prose-blocks interspersed with verse. Some sections of “Shuffled Slides” are dense with print and others have very few words on the page. In poems like “Tagalog,” “Blue Bakla,” “Bumigay,” “Wearing a Skirt on a Sunday Afternoon,” and “Faggot Phonetics,” there is an “allover” composition of lines of varying lengths that begin in various places. It’s not a regular, stepped pattern like William Carlos Williams’ variable triads, and it visually resembles Charles Olson’s “projective verse” or “composition by field” more than it does “concrete” or emblem poetry or contemporary viz po, though I don’t sense that it relates to breath pauses, as Olson’s work does. How would you characterize the process of developing these visual effects and making them part of your overall intention?
Valdez: The reasoning behind word placements varies from poem to poem, and sometimes within the poem. It’s been a while since I last read that essay by Olson. Parallel to his ideas, I think in some of the poems, the visual effect is similar to what he describes as projective verse in that the breath is a focus. This is true for poems like “Crossing”, “Sagad”, “Divination with Utensils”, and many of the other poems in the third section of the book. The shifts between Tagalog and English call for changes in breath and pace. If you place two different languages together, what energy field might be created? How would their friction move the breath for a Tagalog speaker and for a non-Tagalog speaker?
In other poems, my intention is similar to drawing. I’m struck by the phrase “all-over composition”. It reminds me of the language ascribed to Abstract-Expressionist paintings, which was happening at the same time that Olson wrote that essay. My experience as a painter shapes the ways I think of the page as a field and of the book as an object. Some of the decisions to have a lot of open space are intuitive and bodily. Shout out to the poet Lara Mimosa Montes! who gave me feedback on an earlier version of the manuscript. She encouraged me to imagine how the poems would move, how I might move, across the page. Writing and reading are physical acts, too. In one of her poems she urges the reader to “write something worth performing.”
A poem on the page is one form of that poem. Another is how the poem might be performed. I do think of performance as I write because I’m thinking of sound and breath, as much as I’m thinking of the text on the page.
Casareno: In your last poem, you end the book with hope for another beginning: “And still/ And still/ And still/ Another Beginning could go like this: You held my hand. The painting changes” (106). Will the palette remain the same or will you create colors on a page more vast than this?
Valdez: Wow what a gracious question. I would hope the palette changes as I change. More colors and more colors across many different kinds of pages. I’m currently making hand-bound books into which I’m painting and collaging text. I’m excited by what’s happening, about the possibilities in story-telling, lyric, abstraction, in deciding what to obscure and what to make explicit, and more.