The Poet, N, in conversation with The Reluctant Publisher of Poetry, A
Updated: Jul 4, 2022
Nick Carbó is a presence online—and a presence in Asian American literature, with three collections: Andalusian (WordTech Communications, 2004); Secret Asian Man (Tia Chucha Press, 2000); El Grupo McDonald’s (Tia Chucha Press, 1995). He won the Asian American Literary Award (2001), an award won by people like Jhumpa Lahiri, Yi Yun Li, Eric Gamalinda, Bino Realuyo, Luis Francia.
I am a reluctant publisher of poetry. The first poet I published—and the first in Milflores’ history of 23 years, I think—is Simeon Dumdum, Jr.’s Why Keanu Reeves Is Lonely and Why the World Goes On As It Does. I was not really in a rush to jump into my next book of poetry, but he posted a Want Ad for publishers. He said:
"Time to ask: To my FB friends out there who are editors or publishers at literary presses that are willing to consider my last poetry manuscript. Drop me a no
te here or firstname.lastname@example.org. I am at end stage renal disease doing dialysis three times a week, have congestive heart failure (20%out flow), and have beginnings of dementia. If not now then never! Nick Carbó
"PS, If you want to read up on my condition, please click on this conversation I had with Rick Moody.
A Literary Conversation: https://writersatlarge.com/riff/tag/depression/ ."
I ignore this call until Ninotchka Rosca brings us together, introduced anew as it were, by sharing his ad, and tagging me. So he sends over his manuscript—and an incredible pitch letter where he said he was aiming for a Nobel prize, and can I imagine what a prize like that would do for the book, and my company? I swear. What a pitch! In my head, really? The Nobel? Ha! But you have to love the ambition. I google him, and he does appear in the right places. I read his manuscript, and think: What is he trying to do with his work? Is this Asian American? But it feels so... unhyphenated Filipino. I wonder if my influences are too American. His poems are bold, out of the box, pop, political, historical; he turns Epithalamion on its head. He has images (literal pictures) that are poems. I’m thinking: I want these poems taken up in school. His CV has bonus points like: MFA from Sarah Lawrence College; PhD from the University of Manchester. He’s received endowments from everywhere. Now, he’s posting photos of beautiful places he can no longer visit. I'm in.
In the process of publishing, I get emails from him like, “As I sit here doing my dialysis, I’m wondering how the world is revolving around me. How are we doing, A?”—and I would email him the cover studies. This is a lesson on pressure for anyone who wants it. Now, with the book out, I get to ask Nick questions for an irregular blog:
A: You’re going through treatment—and a lot of pain. What is your schedule like these days? How does writing figure in your schedule?
N: The treatment is dialysis and I have that MWF at four hours starting at 12 n00n. Those days are pretty much taken. I can read books the whole time or dream about poems. Writing. That's harder.
A: You have been credited as developing contemporary Filipino-American literature as a genre. How did you go about writing about identity and fashioning it into literary genre?
N: I suppose that came about when I edited three anthologies of Filipino writing; Returning a Borrowed Tongue (1995); Babaylan Co, edited with Eileen Tabios (2000); and Pinoy Poetics (2014). If you haven’t come across any of these books in your library, then ask the librarians why these books are in Oxford University’s Bodleian and Cambridge University’s Library, and not here?
A: What is the world of literature like for you to respond with your writing in this manner?
N; My sage advise to younger poets is better not live to respond to outside literature about your work. Take it all with a grain of salt.
A: Except for a few titles, Philippine literature is still largely invisible in the world, what do you think will make our writing stand out?
N: Only the great live on. To seed other poems. (A: I am laughing at this short answer, wondering if people would take this as an insult or a challenge.)
A: I like the characters in your poems: Little Brown Brother, Secret Asian Man, the Boy In Blue Shorts, and—most especially--Ang Tunay Na Lalaki, which is like a joke people have somewhat taken seriously here and write quotes/memes about. They’re self-deprecating, powerful observations of the Filipino in the world. I love this, for example: Ang Tunay Na Lalaki Is/Addicted to New York/ Fantasy phone sex/And he swims/The voodoo/Of her voice/@$4.99 a minute/Asking her to repeat/ “I am a possessed witch....” Then there’s “Ang Tunay Na Lalaki Meets/Barbie At The Shark Bar/ on Mulberry and Spring on a rainy night/Her head sticks out of some woman’s tote bag/placed on top of the bar, she winks/ at Ang Tunay Na Lalaki. He looks at his gin and tonic,/looks back at the doll and hears her tiny voice/even though her lips aren’t moving. “Hi there,/big guy. I was made in the Philippines. You look/like you were made there too....” Where did these characters come from?
N: They came from my imagination, of course. My ex-wife had written a book with all things Barbie, so I wanted to write something different. Ah, from the Filipino perspective!
A: What was going on in your head when you wrote them?
N: What was going on in my head was Franz Kata. I wanted the absurdist influence and so Barbie becomes the Cucaracha!
A: Who and what were your influences? Who are you reading these days, and why do you like them?
N: I am reading a lot of Krip Yuson and Jenny Ortouste these days. One thing in their astute reading of the poems that they missed is the true nature of the poems in circles. The words are color-coded and one has to hang the words in a three dimensional pace and follow the colors that form a sentence. One of my influences is the ouvre of John Waters and Stanley Kubrick. Films are composed of images. And so is poetry.
A: Your condition makes you very conscious of your mortality—yet you are also conscious of the power of your distinct voice that is capable of eluding death. In the powerful last poem My Last Sestina, you say: “...I don’t regret being born a nobody—/given
up for adoption. An accident of an affair, a failed/canvas of russet promises, an unexpected break of breath....” Then you say, “...Anybody/ can resist death even when one step away. I died/eating alone on my failed birthday in the picaresque night./My life fell in and died in that bowl of bouillabaisse, a breath moving from bridges to the spray of fountains—burdened by a body.” The poem, though questioning the self for choosing “the blurry wrong of driving my breath all the way to Parisian Ponts, rescinded rings, stopped fountains from overflowing./...a desiccated body/uninterested in writing a line of verse. Was I a failed poet, spouse, son, brother?” The consciousness of the spirit triumphing over the material body is quite powerful here, and seems to answer the question of self-doubt with an adamant no, acknowledging the triumph of the poet. Is this how you feel about the life of the poet, of poetry? How has life as poet been for you, and do you have any regrets having lived such a life?
N; Apres le deluge cest moi! After the great flood it is me! The poet always triumphs. I have no regrets of living this poetry life. In all my endeavors, I aim for the max. And I have had some spectacular failures, at least I did not settle for the lower fruits where the Juan Tamad fruit lie heavy and low.
In the Philippines, Epithalamion is available at milflorespublishing.com, Shopee, Lazada, Fullly Booked, Mount Cloud, Popular, Solidaridad and other indie bookshops. In other parts of the world, Epithalamion is at Barnes and Noble, Amazon, Abe Books, Book Depository, and many other online bookshops.