My Whole Life is a Preparation for Poetry: Words with Aimee Morales
Aimee Morales is a writer living in the Philippines. She was a graduate student of Creative Writing (English Poetry) at the University of the Philippines, and is the Founder of the Freelance Writers’ Guild of the Philippines and FLOW, a community of writers who write for healing, spirituality, and inspiration. Her soul work is The #santoshaproject, her small effort to help spread the spirit of gratitude within her sphere of influence. Visit her blog for more information: yinyangnotebook.wordpress.com
What was the genesis of poetry in your life?
I was ten or eleven years old when I first received the inspiration to write poetry. My Science teacher gave an assignment to write a poem about any scientific concept/subject. I chose to write about Light. I remember it was a short three-stanza poem, with four lines per stanza. I don’t have a copy of this poem anymore, but I remember my teacher approaching me after having read the poem. She told me something like, “Next time write your own, don’t copy from the books.” Instead of feeling bad, I felt like a million dollars! Because for a ten-year-old girl, it was a big affirmation. And since that time, I felt a little more confident about writing poems.
How has your work evolved over time? What would you say is the impact of poetry on you since your ten-year-old self?
First of all, as a “serious” student of poetry back when I was working on my Master’s degree in English Poetry at the University of the Philippines, I gained a deeper appreciation of the various aspects of poetry—its evolution, styles and techniques, layers of meaning or interpretation, etc.—and experienced the voices of poets from different cultures. Deep inside, however, some form of “purification” was taking place. I learned to distinguish what I did not want, what didn’t work for me, which voice was not mine. I found that I gravitated towards the simple, the minimal and natural, and sometimes the sentimental. I am at that point in my life when I am trying to further own this voice, which means more hours reading and writing. I have a long way to go.
I recognized, too, that my whole life is a preparation for poetry, particularly for the poems that are yet to be written. And so I have my life work laid out before me, and this knowledge gives me so much peace.
The minimal, the natural, the sentimental, the surreal, the dreamy and ethereal, exactly what fascinates me about your poetry; we’ll come to that later, especially your poem ‘A House for Rent’. But let me ask this: knowing that you ‘have a long way to go,’ how do you then arrive at the personal convenience to start a poem? Do you ever setup a unique mental space before starting a poem? What is the perfect ambiance for your writing?
This is a challenge for me since there are many distractions (and responsibilities) in my daily life. Recently I decided to dedicate at least twenty minutes in the morning for poetry: reading, taking down notes, jotting down ideas for poems. (Currently I am reading Milosz’ Second Space.) Perhaps unlike other poets, it is not easy for me to just sit down and write a poem. I realize I can’t create the perfect ambiance; it comes when it wants to. The only thing I can do is prepare for it through constant observation, regular reading and reciting of poetry, and writing the obligatory crappy lines. I am constantly waiting for the moment when the verses would flow effortlessly from my pen, which happens once in a while.
It’s interesting you said that your “whole life is a preparation for poetry,” and that this knowledge gives you so much peace. This is exactly how I feel about poetry in and for my life. And it does remind me of the Zambian-British poet Kayo Chingonyi who said and I quote, “poetry is the centre of my life”. Whatever inspires such strong—and most times religious—conviction?
For me this conviction comes late in life, and I believe it is “inspired” by having gone through so many things (both literary and the unrelated events) and realizing that everything “is just as much.” I am in my mid-forties and I believe I have a little bit of authority to say that there are few things that are more worthy of spending one’s later years on than writing the lines that are, really, the recapitulation of one life’s highlights: recollection, images, insights, old-age wisdom, sentiments and opinions, traumas, frustrations, and so much more.
What poetry books do you return to over and over?
I’ll give you ten: Hafez and the Poets of Shiraz, Faces Of Love; Rumi, The Book of Love; William Blake, Songs of Innocence and of Experience; Gary Snyder, Turtle Island; Stephen Dobyns, Velocities, The Porcupine’s Kisses; Rainer Maria Rilke, Selected Poems; Jorge Luis Borges, Selected Poems; Sharon Olds, The Wellspring; Anne Sexton, Live or Die; Louise Glück, The Wild Iris.
Interesting that you mention my fave poets: Anne Sexton, Louise Glück, Rainer Maria Rilke. What’s the echo like when you read these poets? For instance, with Anne Sexton, it’s sort of an intimate reading as if physical. The connection is very strong. I once made a diary entry saying: “If Anne Sexton were alive, she and I would have been sharing letters and life right now. Call it my fantasy, whatever, I so love Anne Sexton.” No wonder she said that “poets are always writing each other love letters.” That exchange of innermost thoughts and feelings. So, what’s the echo like when you read these poets?
Allow me to offer a brief answer for each of the poets I mentioned:
Rumi, The Book of Love: For Rumi, it is the same as Hafez and the other Persian poets, even the mystics from other cultures: Zen poets, Chinese ancients, etc.
William Blake, Songs of Innocence and of Experience: Magic! Like how a young child watches an illusionist and is just rapt in awe.
Gary Snyder, Turtle Island: Here is someone I would imagine sitting under a tree with, in a cool afternoon, and just talking about everything and anything: God and destiny, the natural world and food, love and death. Like an uncle whose words and wisdom I would always look for.
Stephen Dobyns, Velocities, The Porcupine’s Kisses: Dobyns was an early favorite. I marveled at how he handled language and the way he would see (and present) things, often in a surprising manner which would always change my perspective about something. I believe the word/echo would be: original.
Rainer Maria Rilke, Selected Poems: Rilke is that poet I would always admire (listen to) from afar, like a professor. Not someone I would exchange letters with or be sitting with under some tree. For me, his exquisite poetry is like a museum relic housed inside a delicate glass box.
Jorge Luis Borges, Selected Poems: I read him in translated English but I let my boyfriend, who speaks Spanish, read him in the original language. I get the echo of stories in his poetry and most of the time his voice as fictionist is evident in the non-prose, too.
Sharon Olds, The Wellspring: Very, very personal. Some poems are like lines whispered in confidence by a dear friend.
Anne Sexton, Live or Die: She is the poet to read when it is gloomy and raining and you are alone in your room and sheets are cold.
Louise Glück, The Wild Iris: Her poems echo extreme truths: sometimes confusion or questions, sometimes wisdom or sudden insight. I suppose, it is like hearing a real voice as that of a neighbor’s (living on her own in a strange city), or perhaps like a conversation with an old writer who had seen it all. It is all flavors, all temperatures, very rich.
Awesome, Aimee, it’s a huge review you’ve sort of made here. It’s really fascinating how personal your connection with these poets. I wonder why you wouldn’t want to exchange letters with Rilke. His letters with Lou Andreas-Salome are among my best things in life.
Hahah! Only because I look up to him like some kind of god and I would be totally awed and blocked! Probably wouldn’t know what to say…
You write in both English and Filipino. In writing poems, which is most convenient?
With poetry, it’s only English. I rarely write using Filipino but when I was a lot younger, I tried writing poems in Filipino. What came out was rather disappointing. So I guess it doesn’t always follow that a writer would feel most comfortable writing in his or her first language. I find that I could express things (emotions, images, ideas) better using English.
Though I’ve not read many Filipino poets, I’ve enjoyed the poetry of B. B. P. Hosmillo, Ivy Alvarez, Marjorie Evasco, and I’ve recently started digging the works of Ophelia Alcantara Dimalanta. What is it like for you writing and living in the Philippines? Can you also speak of the poetry community?
The local poetry community is small; everybody knows everyone else and sometimes when a poet comes out with a new volume, it’s his/her fellow poets who would be the first to buy the book. Poetry books are not bestsellers around these parts so many writers are resorting to self-publishing or going with the indie presses because many publishers will not go into printing poetry books. There are also very few magazines/newspapers that would publish poetry, so the online space or international marketplace offer bigger opportunities. As far as live performances are concerned, the spoken word scene has a following, as well as performances of protest poetry. But generally, there are fewer poetry events today compared to, say, 10-20 years ago. There are poetry writing programs in the universities, as well as national workshops in different provinces—but I think it wouldn’t hurt at all if more Filipino poets are born.
To live and write (poetry) in the Philippines at this time in our history as a nation is like getting caught in between a dream and the daytime. Life is hard and many good poets are left exhausted at the end of a working day without time and energy to sit down for a poem. Yet others take the struggle as an opportunity to write about the difficulties. My situation is no different. As a single parent who doesn’t get financial support from family, government, etc., I need to rely on myself to raise my kid and pay the bills while trying to live decently and on my own terms, which means getting new books now and then, maintaining my own place, going out for coffee and meals once in a while and, most importantly, pursuing the “luxury” of working on passion projects. I suppose all I’m saying is that if I don’t deliberately set aside time for poetry reading and poetry writing, it’s not going to find its space in my day because of work and other occupations—which is to say that there is always time for the things that really matter.
You write marvelous poetry, Aimee. These lines “This house, at fifty, is old enough / To keep secrets” from your poem ‘A House for Rent’ are so striking. It’s really moving how you animate a house and its furniture with precise connection to human dispositions and emotions. Let me move a little bit away from poetry, but still around the concept of artistic organization: how would you describe your relationship with architecture or interior decoration, and how does your aesthetic preference play in your daily choices?
What a wonderful question! This relationship that you are inquiring about has a lot to do with how I grew up in my father’s old house, which was originally built in the pre-war years (1930s). I loved every detail of this house: the secret door on the second floor, the trey ceilings, capiz windows, carved walls, the solid narra dining table, our antique knick-knacks from the time of the Japanese occupation, the low roof where I used to lie down at night with my father to study the stars, and so many more. I grew up admiring these beautiful old things, both structure or interior and furniture, so to me architecture often has to do with memory and decay. It’s often a question of: When was it built? Who built it? Who lived there? What was their life like? What happened when it got old? What happened to the people? How does the erosion relate to aging or death and the deterioration of relationships, and to change in general? I am curious about these things, and I find that architecture, specifically houses, is one of the recurring themes in my poetry and prose. Today our old house is in ruins as my family can’t really afford to restore it. My upbringing and the experiences related to what I said above influence my choices in daily life. To be brief about it, I am drawn to things, places and people that have stories to tell.
Incredible, I must say. And interesting you mention ‘memory and decay’. Still on that poem, I wondered if it was a struggle baring your mind especially from a point of remembrance. Do you ever struggle with what memories (and imageries of them) to allow in your work?
The writing of that poem came more from imagining the possibilities of the past (my point of view), but yes, remembrance from the perspective of the old house. In my experience, the images/memories almost always present themselves to me, sometimes during the writing or more often, even before I begin. This way, I wouldn’t say that it’s difficult to pick which images and memories to include. There are many poems that were written because powerful memories wouldn’t leave my head.
I see that even with the decays, some sort of resurrection happens and a telling of it or writing about it grandly keeps a record of it. And so I think of the house or the architecture: if money doesn’t restore them, words will. ‘Cos from your poem I instantly had pictorial concepts of your house form in my mind. And who knows, time will tell, not only will your words restore the house, a generation will find the house largely monumental to their story and accomplishment.
Reading this now makes me wonder why I did not have this realization before, especially because I am also a writer. But this should have been a pretty obvious conclusion for me, and I’m truly grateful you brought it up. I always had this heavy feeling about being unable to restore the old home, but now I think I will begin to see things in a new light.
Rain, air, plants; you’re also an environment-person. Can you speak of your take on or say the significance of surroundings to you and your writing?
I find that there are poems wherein surroundings play a stronger role, where environment creates the mood in the poem, moves things around, influences which details and images must be present, makes the reader feel things, or brings the reader to specific places and moments in time. I have written certain poems, on the other hand, wherein keeping a smaller focus is more necessary.
What other art forms are you quite at home with? And yes, I’m aware you make necklaces, bracelets, prayer beads—and very beautiful ones at that. I really loved the ones I saw; they’d really fit my flowing gowns. Can you speak on your beads? They’re so charming to be left unsung. How did it all start? What’s a typical moment while creating an ornament? And wha’s the market like for you? How can people from faraway countries get your ornaments?
I love this question. I like photography, although I wouldn’t say I am good at it. I don’t have formal training and don’t even have proper equipment but I appreciate this art form and also love taking pictures once in a while. I also practice a couple of martial art forms: tai chi/qigong and eskrima/arnis/kali. I have been a long-time student of tai chi/qigong, probably for almost two decades already. I am quite new at eskrima; I started learning it only last year (2017).
More than two years ago I started making mala prayer beads, but with a kind of twist. The inspiration came to me after a spiritual exercise. It is essentially an effort to encourage more people to practice gratitude on a daily basis. To widen the ripple of thanks so to speak, and help increase the good energies around the earth. I make personalized 108-bead Santosha gratitude garlands (also, 18-bead and 54-bead). Santosha is a name that was also “given” to me through divine inspiration. It roughly translates to “deep contentment.” By “personalized” I mean that I work on the garlands while thinking about the receiver’s personal intentions, and so the mala itself would be infused by thoughts and feelings and energies that carry the would-be wearer’s intentions, which means that if I make it for one person, then it belongs only to that specific person. The Santosha is supposed to be used daily by going through the beads while giving thanks for blessings received on that particular day. The idea is to give thanks for 108 blessings every day.
Santosha gratitude garlands are being worn and used by people from different places all over the world. I have received orders from Europe, Asia, the Americas. In exchange for a garland, people would give me donations in cash or kind, an exchange in the form of service (like yoga lessons, for example), etc. I have not assigned any monetary value for these sacred objects and I would accept any form of payment that a person would like to offer in exchange for a Santosha. However, if shipping fees would be too pricey, I’d appreciate it if the wearer would pay for courier. If some Gainsayer readers would like to request for a Santosha, I can be reached by email through email@example.com
A very beautiful background there, Aimee. And I can’t wait to hear of exhibitions of your work to wider audiences. My last question: when should we expect your book? Any word for fellow creatives?
Haha! I also don’t know when it will come out, but I’ve had the collection for publication for some time now. However, I’d like to add more new poems and maybe change some of the old ones. Because of new inspiration, basically. I want to work on it this year, perhaps until early next year. So hopefully, the (self-published) book will be out in 2019.
Here is something I said recently to my fourteen-year-old son, who is a passionate musician. I suppose this could very well be a message for other creatives, too: “Don’t overthink, just do it already. And don’t expect too much from other people. Learn to depend on yourself and do things alone. Finally, love yourself. Don’t work too hard, spend some time doing what relaxes you. Play the violin, make yourself a nice cup of something and go to your room to watch funny videos on YouTube. I wanna hear you laughing.”