Angela Narciso Torres Traces Grace, Agape and Matriarchal Saints with Words that Levitate
“I love coming home. Every trip home is food for my writing. A veritable feast. The humidity, the lush green landscape, the tropical foliage, the pollution and traffic, the crowds, the rain, the relentless mosquitoes, the dust, the home-cooked meals, the way every meal is a social event—all of it. But especially the people.”
“I hope to be a braver, more generous writer, editor, and advocate of other writers, especially for those who may not enjoy equal representation in the literary landscape.”
Angela Narciso Torres is a prize winning poet whose book of poetry has garnered exceptional reviews from poets, the public and academic communities alike. She is a literary enthusiast, teacher and editor as well - basically, a culturalist who moves the needle in the literary and poetic communities nationally and globally. We had the opportunity to meet at a mutual friends poetry breakfast and I have had the opportunity to listen to her readings and also read her book of poetry “Blood Orange”. “Blood Orange” was awarded the Willow Books Literature Awards Grand Prize for Poetry. It was an interesting time to catch up with the poet who is also a recent transplant from Chicago to Los Angeles and one of the senior editors to Rhino, a prize winning Chicago journal. She had just arrived in the Philippines as she took time to read, consider and answer questions set forth.
First off, you said something of interest today as it relates to your aesthetic deriving itself from American and Filipino roots. Can you talk a little bit more about that. How it impacts you, how you view the world and, of course, your work.
If I recall correctly, we were discussing about the particular aesthetic “lens” I use when writing poems. Having grown up in Manila then living most of my adult life in the US, automatically there are these two perspectives, not unlike those 3D glasses you wear at the movies—one side red, the other blue, which allows you to see three-dimensionally. So as long as I’ve been writing poems (in my adult life), I’ve always seen the world through both Filipina and American lenses—further refined, of course, by everything else that colors and informs who I am: e.g. my being a woman, mother, daughter, my political and religious beliefs, aesthetic sensibilities, etc. It’s not like I can turn off one or the other, or prioritize one over the other—and even if I could, the picture would be lopsided, incomplete, not representative of my truth. I like to think that having this multi-dimensional perspective makes for a fuller, more encompassing, and hopefully, more compassionate view of what being human in the world means.
“In Blood Orange, which I consider a poetic memoir of my growing up in the Philippines and my later life in the US as an adult, my poems are often narratives or dramatic lyric based on lived or felt experience.”
2.) You are a senior editor for RHINO Poetry out of Chicago - can you talk a little bit more about your work with the prodigious literary journal over here on the left coast.
I’m one of three senior editors of this independent literary journal which has been running for over 45 years now. We’re a staff of twelve editors with a changing staff of interns, all volunteer. Most of us are working poets representing diverse age groups, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and poetic sensibilities. Our selection process is unique and democratic: each poem gets at least four editor-readers; the highest rated ones are brought to table and read aloud at our bimonthly meetings, then voted upon. It’s a hands-on process, which I believe is what makes our journal incredibly strong: we constantly insist on finding the best poems based not on any one poetic style or school, but looking through various lenses at once, and remaining open to each other’s sometimes divergent perspectives. Needless to say, being a “remote” editor (I’ve since relocated to the West Coast after 9 years with the journal), I’m a little removed from the editorial process, though I continue to read submissions and participate in choosing prize winners for our various contests. However, I’m about to launch two exciting programs which we’re hoping will expand our presence here on the West coast. One is RHINO Reads! West, which will be the left coast chapter of our monthly poetry reading series in Chicago, where we’ve featured both emerging and acclaimed poets as well as a regular open mic. Secondly, I’m starting RHINO Reviews!—a reviews column in our website, rhinopoetry.org. I plan to formally launch these two programs at the 2018 LA Festival of Books in April—so stay tuned!
“I think that when we write deeply about the undercurrents of what makes us human, we can transcend all kinds of barriers—familial, cultural, ethnic, or otherwise.”
Reflection, 3 a.m.
'My Father's Rib', 'Ironing Woman', 'Waiting for My Father at the University Hospital Lab' and 'Things to Tell My Son about the Moon' are all works in your widely celebrated and award winning "Blood Orange". "Family" is a powerful trope, metaphor and theme interwoven throughout your work. Can you talk a little more about that.
It may sound simplistic, but I write the poems I write because they’re the themes that matter most to me. In Blood Orange, which I consider a poetic memoir of my growing up in the Philippines and my later life in the US as an adult, my poems are often narratives or dramatic lyric based on lived or felt experience. I couldn’t do otherwise, i.e., couldn’t make myself produce willfully disjunctive or opaque poems “just because.” Poems to me are a vehicle for feeling about experiences, things, people—and to me, at least in my first book, the most important of these had to do with family. Every single lesson I’ve learned about love, loss, living and dying, I learned first at home, with the people who know and love me best, so it’s natural that my poems would start there. I think that when we write deeply about the undercurrents of what makes us human, we can transcend all kinds of barriers—familial, cultural, ethnic, or otherwise.
“When I come home I just take it all in. It’s like being the madeleine soaked in the Proustian cup of tea—everything brings back some memory I didn’t know I had, evokes a feeling I haven’t felt in years.”
“Then of course, there’s my mother’s house... I love seeing the objects, the pictures, the furniture, the setting of my childhood and growing up years: the bookcases that housed my favorite stories, a chair I used to read in as a child, the particular turn of a knob or crack in the floor, the mirror before which my mom put on her make up daily before going to work.”
Travelling to the Philippines
You are travelling back to the Philippines this holiday season. When you are there Angela, how does it affect your spirit? Where do you go? What do you see there that is not here.
I love coming home. Every trip home is food for my writing. A veritable feast. The humidity, the lush green landscape, the tropical foliage, the pollution and traffic, the crowds, the rain, the relentless mosquitoes, the dust, the home-cooked meals, the way every meal is a social event—all of it. But especially the people. And the food. Did I mention the food? Then of course, there’s my mother’s house, which is where I grew up. I love seeing the objects, the pictures, the furniture, the setting of my childhood and growing up years: the bookcases that housed my favorite stories, a chair I used to read in as a child, the particular turn of a knob or crack in the floor, the mirror before which my mom put on her make up daily before going to work. When I come home I just take it all in. It’s like being the madeleine soaked in the Proustian cup of tea—everything brings back some memory I didn’t know I had, evokes a feeling I haven’t felt in years. Every conversation with a friend brings back a piece of me that I otherwise may have lost. It’s particularly rich this time because I have my three boys with me and it’s Christmas, easily the biggest holiday of the year in the Philippines. The last time we spent Christmas in Manila with my folks was 18 years ago. Like the poem you referenced, it’s like experiencing my home all over again, but through my children’s eyes. A rich, rich time indeed.
Educating and Writing
You are a full time writer? Which do you find more fulfilling the life of an educator or writer? Why? Are they related? How are they different?
Teaching and writing require opposite energies; each nourishes me in different ways. In teaching, energy is directed outward. Writing requires going inward, into the self. Being naturally an introvert, I lean more towards the latter—or perhaps I should say I feel more comfortable inhabiting that inner space. This is not to say I don’t love teaching; just that the energy it requires from me is tremendous, though every bit worth it—the rewards are immeasurable. There’s no way to give any less than 100% when I’m teaching and I wouldn’t have it any other way, yet it also saps me not just physically but mentally and emotionally as well. In teaching poetry you’re really teaching life; you’re drawing not just from books and knowledge but from heart and soul as well. Teaching requires so much self awareness, and this is how writing, which is so much about exploring and knowing the self, is truly the best foundation for the teaching life. Whether I’m teaching older adults or high school students, I’m in awe of how much I learn about poetry from them. I get inspired by the persistence and courage of adult students who have just started writing poetry and are undaunted by the blank page. It thrills me to see young people taking risks, or discovering the magic of a poem—whether centuries old or just published. I’m encouraged by my young students’ spontaneity and candor, and by the wisdom older students share from their lived experience. I take this all down to “where all the ladders start—the rag and bone shop of the heart” (Yeats)—and am grateful for the inspiration and creative energy that teaching generates for my own writing.
“I suppose this is true for Filipino society as a whole—women are often empowered and revered as sources of wisdom and power, all beginning with the Grandmother who is the center and the driving force of the family”
How long the day seemed, how little
we knew of what our mother hoped
to forget, their cares kept hidden
like coins we buried in the vacant lot
In Night Jasmine, Ironing Woman, Lucky and Sheer you refer to the wisdom and ways of matrons; specifically women who have immeasurable wealth in the form of old ways or ancestral troves. What is your relationship to these women? Why do their ways configure so prominently in Blood Oranges and other work?
I grew up in a matriarchal household where women held sway not just in the family, but also in business, in academia, in medicine (my mother was a physician and head of her department), and other fields. I suppose this is true for Filipino society as a whole—women are often empowered and revered as sources of wisdom and power, all beginning with the Grandmother who is the center and the driving force of the family, but also in the realms of politics, business, art, etc. Since Marcos fell in 1986 we have had two woman presidents (Corazon Aquino and Gloria Macapagal Arroyo) which means women have ruled for at least half the time since Marcos’ dictatorship was toppled. My poems celebrate this universe where the women in my life have a voice, have agency and power to make change. My mother taught me by example that women have say in a world that may often show us otherwise. At age twenty-six, an immigrant from Manila with two toddlers, she was the only woman AND person of color in a well-regarded medical residency program at the Jewish Hospital in Brooklyn. She always spoke up for injustice in any situation and taught me to always stand up for what is right. From her I learned that hard as the world might try, it cannot put a good woman down.
“Having just moved to Los Angeles a few months ago, I’m currently working on getting grounded within a writing community here, in part through my efforts with the RHINO Reads! West”
What are you currently working on and what is on your radar for 2018 as an artist, thought (or literary) leader and poet?
Having just moved to Los Angeles a few months ago, I’m currently working on getting grounded within a writing community here, in part through my efforts with the RHINO Reads! West reading series and RHINO Reviews! for which I will be the editor. In my experience, the art world is fueled best by the generosity of its citizens. I’m grateful to have been a beneficiary of that generosity from the RHINO editors when I moved to Chicago, and being an editor for them in turn has given me the opportunity to give back. I hope to continue to do so here on the West coast. As far as writing goes, the time is ripe for me to hunker down and organize my next book of poems. I’m very excited about this process of choosing and ordering poems for a manuscript—it’s much like the process of writing a poem—usually I don’t know what the final shape will take and part of the thrill is allowing myself to be surprised. In 2018, I hope to write a lot, and to write deeply and fearlessly. I hope to be a braver, more generous writer, editor, and advocate of other writers, especially for those who may not enjoy equal representation in the literary landscape.
Angela Narciso Torres’s first book, Blood Orange, won the Willow Books Literature Award. Recent work appears or is forthcoming in Nimrod, Spoon River Poetry Review, and Water~Stone Review. A graduate of Warren Wilson’s MFA and Harvard Graduate School of Education, Angela has received fellowships from Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Illinois Arts Council, and Ragdale Foundation. Born in Brooklyn and raised in Manila, she serves as a poetry editor for RHINO and a reader for New England Review. She currently resides in Southern California. www.angelanarcisotorres.com