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Tim Tomlinson Talks About Oral History in Poetry

"I wanted to shine a light on that poetry -- the poetry of Visayan or Waray or Filipino English. I also wanted to capture the poetry of survivors, of witnesses to extreme events."
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Tim Tomlinson is a co-founder of New York Writers Workshop, and co-author of its popular text, The Portable MFA in Creative Writing. Yolanda: An Oral History in Verse, is in pre-sale with Finishing Line Press until August 21. It will appear in October, 2015.

Loren Kleinman (LK): In your latest collection of poems, Yolanda: An Oral History in Verse, you write in first person. This POV reminds me of what Sue Monk Kidd once said, "I have an affinity for writing in the first person. I love the intimacy of being dropped inside the character." Why does first person point of view work when writing an oral history?

Tim Tomlinson (TT): I imposed 1st person on this work in order to highlight the lyricism of ordinary speech. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Kundera says that we've lost the ability to recognize the poetry of our own lives. I wanted to shine a light on that poetry -- the poetry of Visayan or Waray or Filipino English. I also wanted to capture the poetry of survivors, of witnesses to extreme events. My job was to gather the accounts of survivors of Super Typhoon Yolanda, and then to reconfigure the accounts into poems of various shapes and sizes. The words originate from the witnesses. I cut, whittled, re-shaped, re-ordered and sometimes repeated them. But I didn't write them. They belong entirely to the speakers.

LK: What was it about the typhoon that made you want to tell its story?

TT: In July 2013, my wife (who's Filipino) and I visited Tacloban. We offered creative writing workshops, primarily for university students. We'd visited many places in the Philippines, but this visit was one of the warmest. Four months later, Yolanda struck. Tacloban was devastated. We didn't lose any friends, but everyone who lived there lost many. The catastrophe was huge. We wanted to do something positive, and this project grew out of that impulse.

LK: What is the "giant claw" and how does it tear everyone apart?

TT: Japanese prints of tsunamis depict the lead wave or waves as giant claws -- huge swells that taper, then curl into something talon-like, because when the wave hits, it rakes everything in its path out to sea. Technically, Yolanda didn't produce a tsunami, but the surge on Leyte's west coast, from Tacloban north to San Jose, was very much like a tsunami. Some people saw water go out before it started rushing in. Many witnesses observed the surge's first wave, and they called it the "giant claw." You can imagine, right? The surge was ten meters high -- it topped second story roofs. I call part of Beatrice Zabala's account "The Giant Claw." Beatrice was sixteen years old at the time of the typhoon. She lost eleven of seventeen family members, but she quite literally saved her mother's life. That rescue occurred after the giant claw had washed over them, and then raked things back to sea. Beatrice told her story utterly dispassionately -- I don't mean like a zombie, but with no emphasis on the heroics. That made it all the more powerful. While she spoke, her mother sat by her side. We were all emotional, but Beatrice remained cool.

LK: Talk about the power of oral histories. What is gained in oral traditions and what is lost?

TT: The truth of an event, a time, a culture, is in its sound, in the voices of its witnesses or participants. That is its music. If you can capture the music, the words are nearly irrelevant. The authenticity of the sound will transport the listener right into the heart of the experience, or right into the consciousness of the speaker (as Sue Monk Kidd observes). The first oral history I read and loved was Edie: An American Biography, about "it girl" Edie Sedgwick. The panoply of voices captured something much bigger than Edie's story.

Regarding oral traditions: literary people tend to be conscious of the way they sound; the unschooled, the "ordinary folks," tend to be more colorful -- if you can get them talking. In the Philippines that's complicated because those who speak English -- as many of our witnesses did -- often become even more self-conscious when talking to an American. Laura Augusto's account is one of the more free-wheeling -- she's a shrewd, you might say, folksy entrepreneur. She does a lot of work as a vendor of sorts. She's non-literary, and her speech was idiomatic and inventive. In comparison, some of the accounts of the educated read a bit dry. In the poems I've constructed, I try to keep all the accounts lively, but I also try to capture the speech of the witness. That was a fine line.

LK: For me, this collection was about surviving in the "really hard" situations of nature, about coming to terms with the idea that humanity is a "sack of sardines," "mother's treasures," and made up of "everything of the past." Does tragedy make us realize we are made up of one million hearts?

TT: In The Grapes of Wrath, Preacher Casey says we're all part of one giant soul -- another way of expressing your idea. I think the answer is yes. Great calamity engenders great sacrifice, great courage, great re-affirmation of the human capacity for great good. But there's the cynical, Robert Altman angle, too. Look at the hideous profiteering that followed Katrina, that follows any catastrophe as Naomi Klein shows us in The Shock Doctrine, and you see how the good certainly has its match in the evil. That's also true of Yolanda's aftermath. We didn't see the evil up close, but we heard a lot about it. But you can't let that sour your heart. This is the lesson, I believe, of one of our most forceful witnesses, Father Hector of San Jose, whose character resembles Father Barry (Karl Malden) of On the Waterfront.