talking with Marianne Villanueva

In 2005, Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt [House of World Cultures] hosted a festival of Southeast Asian arts and literatures. Organized by Lydia Haustein and Sven Arnold, it was an eye-opening experience not just for audiences but participants, Southeast Asians who had to come to Berlin to catch up on the latest trends in painting, sculpture, video, poetry and fiction in their home region. There was so much going on, so many people to talk to, one week was not enough. (As someone who wrote in Vietnamese as well as English, I was invited as a Vietnamese poet.) One person I didn’t quite get a chance to talk to was Marianne Villanueva. Born in Manila, she lives in San Francisco and is the author of Ginseng and Other Tales from Manila (1991) and Mayor of the Roses (2005), and co-editor of Going Home to a Landscape: Writings by Filipinas (2003). I emailed her recently to ask her about Filipino poetry:

Linh Dinh: How many languages do Filipino poets write in?

Marianne Villanueva: They write in as many languages as there are dialects in the Philippines (over 80). But only the English-writing poets get published abroad or in Manila.

LD: What's distinctive about Filipino poetry?

MV: I would like to say lyricism. It's an emotional poetry. I feel that we absorbed a lot of our emotionality from the Spanish. At the same time, there is also this tremendous facility in English that we find in any college graduate from the Philippines. Romantic poetry doesn't interest me, but that seems to be in our nature because we have these great examples of lyrical love poetry from our past. The Filipino poets that really interest me, however, are the ones who seem to want to explore language, who are playful. I think of R. Zamora Linmark and Luisa Igloria, two of my favorites, who are nevertheless so different from each other. And Conchitina Cruz, a young Filipina with an MFA from University of Pittsburgh. She writes these very intricate constructs, prose poems really, that play with form a lot. (One poem by her is white space and then a footnote; the only text is in the footnote.) But I don't read Tagalog poetry, which is a great loss. I grew up when English was the medium of instruction, from kindergarten to college, and where it was a matter of great pride to speak "straight English." And I feel bad that I can't read Tagalog poetry. Or, for that matter, Cebuano poetry. Or Ilocano poetry. Because there are poets who write in these languages, but who stay in the provinces and aren't even published because the presses in Manila are very oriented towards the West and are very urbanized and aren't interested in poets in our rural areas.

I think that these poets, who write in dialects like Cebuano, Ilonggo, are following in a very rich tradition. We don't have regional writing workshops that encourage these kinds of poets. There is only the University of the Philippines writing workshop, which draws from the Manila poets.

LD: Having been colonized by Spain and the U.S., how does Filipino poetry relate to Spanish and American poetries?

MV: I have read a lot of poets who make it a point to address colonization, and its detrimental effects on our identity. I don't think those are our most successful poets. I think, with regards to American poetry, Filipino poets are finding an increasing audience here, as witness poets like Eugene Gloria, who had a book out a few months ago from Penguin; and Barbara Jane Reyes, who won a big award from the Academy of American Poets. But I don't see that these poets have much in common with each other, really. I can't say there is a distinctive Filipino style of poetry, unless it's the poetry of our love ballads.

LD: Who are the major Filipino poets writing right now?

MV: OK, Nick Carbo is very successful, and Barbara Jane Reyes is becoming so. There are many fine younger poets, like Maiana Minahal, and Arlene Biala. I got to know their work when I was putting together Going Home to a Landscape. Maiana and Arlene both have books out, but they are not very well known, which is a real pity. Luisa Igloria is a major poet; she teaches at Old Dominion University, but she began writing back home in the Philippines, and her writing straddles both worlds: the Philippines and the U.S.. Landscape is a very strong component in her poetry.

There is also Joel B. Tan, a Filipino Chinese whose work is searing and raw and painful and truly unforgettable. He has a book, Monster, that didn't get much distribution but it's a powerful powerful book. And he has a manusript, Type O Negative, which I've read, which just blows me away. A narrative of growing up, in the most painful circumstances imaginable, but told in verse form. There you have the fact of being an ethnic minority within a larger community and the feelings of isolation—also, the fact that he is gay and the shame he felt, when he was growing up.

R. Zamora (Zack) Linmark is important because his writing straddles the worlds of poetry and prose. He has a very distinctive voice, employs pidgin a lot (He grew up in Hawaii but lives half the time now in Manila), and wrote a fantastic voice-driven novel (parts of this are like prose poetry), Rolling the R's. The Filipino presence in Hawaii is problematic—they are supposedly the "lowest" of all the Asian groups in Hawaii. Zack grew up poor, and his poetry is about what it's like to grow up poor, gay, and Filipino in Hawaii. He also writes political poetry, but in a completely irreverent way, which I enjoy.

LD: With so many Filipinos living abroad, please describe the relationship between stay-at-home poets and those of the Filipino diaspora?

MV: I don't think there's much of a relationship, really. I'm not sure how welcoming stay-at-home poets are to the ones who have moved away. I think there's a sense that the ones who go to the States have cut themselves off, but it's really the ones who stay at home who cut them off. I know I feel this when I go home—this feeling that I'm being excluded, even though I feel so very very Filipino, and always describe myself as Filipina rather than as "Filipino American."

LD: One thing I've noticed in Filipino literature, the little I've read, is the hip factor. Filipinos know how to be hip, they know how to subvert (American) pop culture. Thai writers also. I'll conjecture that Thai and Filipino writers have a more seasoned, complex response to American cultural hegemony. That's why they're hip. Vietnamese are still going gaga over their fake pairs of Levi's, thanks to the isolation they experienced after the war. Your comments?

MV: The "hipness" factor: yes, Filipinos are absolutely obsessed with being hip. At bottom, we're all entertainers. It's like, if there was an American Idol [a television singing contest] for international poetry, and the only criteria was who could "perform" best, I think Filipinos would win hands-down! The hipness is very facile, and doesn't interest me at all. We've always been great mimics, we are chameleons, another legacy of our mixed-up colonial past.

One poet who is hip, who does fascinate me, is R. Zamora Linmark. His poetry comes out of an impulse to explore what it is in the Filipino psyche that makes us such—"bastards" of world culture!

You'll notice that in spite of our being so "hip", we are still largely invisible, that is, as a writing community. When compared to the Chinese Americans—who have their powerhouses, Amy Tans and Gish Jens, and even the Vietnamese Americans, who have you—and by the way, you are very very hip, so how do you do it? I mean, your hipness is not facile at all!

Maybe you are asking the wrong person because I personally am not hip (if you asked anyone in the Filipino community who they would rather read, me or some other person, I guarantee you 99.9% of the time they would choose the other person. I am so lame that I finally had to start my own blog, which has helped me enormously to figure out what I am really about).

LD: Talking about the (supposed) absence of Filipino powerhouses, you forgot Jessica Hagedorn! She's one, no? She opened vistas for me.

MV: I am not forgetting Jessica Hagedorn. I deliberately kept her out of the conversation because she is the one everyone refers to when they talk about Filipino literature. But I admire Jessica a lot. Dogeaters is a great book. And she literally saved me when she picked my story, "Lenox Hill, December 1991," to be in the anthology, Charlie Chan is Dead. Until then, no one had known I could write like that. One critic in Manila, whose name I've forgotten (ha ha ha!) said my first book, Ginseng, was like Jessica's (because I dealt with politics in that book) but with "a light touch.” There is another writer I enormously admire: Ninotchka Rosca. Her first book, The Monsoon Collection, published in Australia, literally changed my life. The writers I read now, who influence me a lot, are: Luisa Igloria, R. Zamora Linmark, Joel B. Tan.

LD: I noticed that you made no distinction between Filipino and Filipino-American literatures. This blurring is possible because both groups are writing in English. The same cannot be said of Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American literatures. All of the Filipino writers you've mentioned are also living in the U.S., so they are, or could easily be considered, American writers. Next question: in Berlin, the Filipino ambassador showed up at your presentation and had a rather testy exchange with you. I was surprised that she bothered to come, and even more surprised she had strong opinions about contemporary poetry. I didn't see any Vietnamese diplomat when I was talking, although they might have sent a spy or two, to sprinkle anthrax onto my wiener schnitzel. What's your take on the episode with your ambassador?

MV: The Ambassador came to my reading at the invitation of my mother, who knows her. My mother is very famous in the Philippines. She has played in Berlin as a concert pianist. She's like a cultural ambassador, playing all over the world. I had never met this Ambassador in my life, and when she walked in, with her whole entourage, I had a gut feeling we would not see eye-to-eye. I mean, just the arrogance of her coming with all those hangers-on! Later, when I had dinner with her, she was very condescending (to her German driver) and talked about the other people on the panel in a very insulting way, and then blew smoke in my face the whole time I was eating, so that my eyes teared up and I had to excuse myself to go to the bathroom. I had to have dinner with her because, in spite of everything, she had come at my mother's invitation, and I was worried about my mom getting some backlash if I turned her down. Perhaps subconsciously, I was hoping to extract a story from the disaster. She doesn't know anything about literature.

Four poems by R. Zamora Linmark, from his forthcoming collection, The Evolution of a Sigh:


ADULTS: 50 PESOS; CHILDREN: 25 PESOS; CADAVERS: SUBJECT TO NEGOTIATION, signboard nailed onto the Superferry kiosk in Cebu.

BLOCK & WHITE, best-selling skin-whitening cream. “IT BLOCKS THE SUN AND WHITENS THE SKIN.”



ee plumbings, chief rival of Christopher Plumbing.

FELIX THE CUT SALON, located right beside to SINE QUA NON convenient store.

GO INN, love motel with early bird specials from 5 to 11 a.m.


“IT’S CHEW GOOD TO BE TRUE,” ad for Kaboom bubble gum.



Mid-March Midnight Madness sale at WALTER MART.


OVID’S ORGANIC CLINIC naturally treats Hepatitis, TB, AIDS, Leukemia, Leptospirosis, Meningitis, Venereal Warts, Malaria, Toothache and other Tropical Depression.



RIBISCO, Philippines’s answer to Nabisco.









Morning Rushes

Post-exile Odysseus said, “Shit.
The world is still cut-and-paste.”

* * *

Pass me the salt,
My wig is on fire.

* * *

SPAM on sale at Longs,
Have you seen my husband?

* * *

I heard a fly –
Hush: trees are in session

* * *

Induce Barthes if swallowed.

* * *

Tetanus-proofed tilapias;
What color is my panty?

* * *

Thousand-year long noodles,
Read Japanese backwards.

* * *

Keep left cow elevated
If burnt toast recurs.

* * *

Virgin Mary live at six
Apply Foucault.

Our Ek in Filipino Gayspeak

Your love for me: is it truly wa na as in was to the wiz power?
Or are you just wishy-washing with my mind?
Because it feels like your heart doesn’t dub to my lub
as a-flang a-fla-flu a-falangganita to my pharynx as before.
It’s only obvious you’re doing the sunken, but not in my garden.
You’ve stopped spooning my sleep and making special effects and other che-ness.
You don’t even fish-filet me up anymore
or make chika-dee como chikadora over my chicken drumsticks
fried extra crispy a la K to the F to the C.
And I’m not etching either, or making ka ek ekan when I tell you
the last time we touched you pulled the flying trapeze kiyeme on me.
You came, yes, but in dew drops, and like a mouse muzzled in Dolby.
Cha-ring! as in Charito Solis I’m not; may she rest in peace.
If only I had the time and all the ek in the world
I’d spell out each and every chuva, chenilyn, and che che boreche.
But it’s only minutes until I become just another Holy Week celebrity.
Crayola me a river na lang, and say va-voo and chuva-chu.


Means hey it’s just me thinking of you
as usual about us in this crowded train
where I know just about everyone is whispering
I’m your heart’s biggest yesterday’s hit and
your world’s worst blind spot right now
they can read my face today’s tragic news you
haven’t been waking up on our side of the world
it won’t be long now before you leave me
just like that Billie Holiday song say it isn’t so
so I’m going home try and not cry especially
the part where Billie half-wails how
everything is still okay because you’re still my
every still my everything even when
the door grows tired of my hurt my only

*Nick Carbo just edited an Asian American issue of Mipoesias. Among those featured are Filipino-American poets Luis H. Francia, Eric Gamalinda, Luba Halicki, Paolo Javier, Joseph O. Legaspi, Mike Maniquiz, Lani T. Montreal, Oliver de la Paz, Barbara Jane Reyes, Eileen R. Tabios, Joel B. Tan and Marlon Unas Esguerra.

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