1. You are a poetry editor for HaluHalo Journal and a graduate of literature from the University of Santo Tomas. How has writing played a role in your life? What initially drew you to poetry?
When I was an undergrad in literature, I came from a background primarily founded on fiction. Going into the academe, I had initially thought I would formulate my bachelor’s dissertation on fiction, too. It wasn’t until I met my friend Eli, who at the time empathized with my reservations with poetry and its many forms, introduced me to poetry written by Filipinos. They sent me a list of readings containing, mostly, a poem or two per writer. Because I loved Eli, I read all of them, and I encountered and experienced the poems the way one might peel open and eat fruit. It turns out I really loved poetry, and to echo something John Green said in the debut video of Ours Poetica, many of us have loved poetry for a long time, we just didn’t know it yet.
Poetry, fiction, and the literary essay all share the same literary tools, and the deeper you are in reading the more you realize the boundaries between them are thin. It was poetry that moved me the most because of the bizarre and sometimes obscure forms you find them in. My first encounter with poetry is through the form of exam sheets and prayers, poems with lines that reappear and disappear. I’m always excited about poetry because of how deeply it can be contained within itself: the pronouns shift metaphysically, you can put yourself in the footprint of the persona and the apostrophe, often the addressee or the “you”, can be anyone you want it to be.
2. How has your relationship with writing evolved over the years?
It was mostly a journey of scribbling prose on the back of notebooks and word files until I made a decision to take poetry seriously in university. I used to not make such a big deal of writing, and in most cases I think this relationship of neutrality with writing is echoed with everyone else. When I was in undergrad I realized how deeply underread I was, and in an attempt to remedy this I read insatiably. I wasn’t thinking about writing at all, but I kept bouncing between books and, later on, would start repeating phrases or sentences I made in my head. In a way I think this is also writing. So I was writing while washing dishes or cleaning or running. In front of the screen, that’s when I started laying out the words in my head. I think writing is a response to the different literatures you’ve encountered, and I think it’s healthy to read more than to write.
3. What authors have influenced your writing?
The writer Eli primarily introduced me to was Conchitina Cruz, also known as Chingbee, who’s very popular in the local literary scene. Chingbee’s recognition with writers, readers, and students is, I think, mainly because of how much she challenges the status quo. She’s written against the clutches of the neoliberal academe and the local publishing industry, and advocated and wrote in support of the alternative methods of (re)producing and circulating art. I know you’re not supposed to hold real people on pedestals, but my friends and I take her words as sacred. She helps us challenge and problematize the Filipino quotidian. She has four books, and three of them are available online for free. “elsewhere held and lingered”, her second book, was the first collection of poetry I finished.
When I started writing poetry, I had to chew on a lot of literature to find my voice. I think I have mine, but I’m still trying to see if it has other pitches. I read a lot of Mark Anthony Cayanan, Frank O’ Hara, Anne Sexton, Mookie Katigbak-Lacuesta, Ada Limon, Cole Swensen, Ilya Kaminsky, Robin Coste Lewis, and others. It’s a big list of influences, I think. A lot of contemporary American poetry is circulated and therefore easily accessible than others, but I try to get my hands on as many writers as I can, and I read them the soonest that I’m available.
4. What does poetry mean to you as a queer, Filipino poet? How do you define your work in the canon of Filipino literature?
I love poetry and always gravitate towards it because it can be anything you want it to be. Poetry is so deeply embedded in our quotidian, and it comes in the form of graffiti, pop song lyric, prayers, et cetera. It is also deeply liberating because it cannot, inherently, have any monetary value, therefore cannot be colonized by the vitriols of capitalism.
I love discussions of queerness, both in art and in the webs of the theory and the academe, but also in my poetry, while it is present, it isn’t completely defined or limited by it. The canon of the queer Filipino will always be developing, and I owe a lot of my writing autonomy to it, too. From J. Neil Garcia I realized just how much queer people like to write about mythology—sometimes playfully utilizing the lyric poetry and adding anachronisms to make the myth, often Greek, more relatable to their “I”. From Jose Garcia Villa I admire the sage-like vision of his aphorisms. I think it’s a little premature to say where I stand with the work I want to make in the canon of English Filipino poetry. I’ve gotten really interested in cultural texts and cultural studies in my country, and I want to see where I go from there. Wherever I might end up going, though, I’m carrying all the lessons from the writers I read.
5. What do you look for in a submission?
All of the submissions I’ve been given the permission to edit are read by me at least three times before I start laying out comments / suggestions. I try to be more inquisitive about how the elements of the poetry are laid out—why the form, why the manner of speaking (syntax), why say this word when this word makes more sense sonically (diction)—so as to not trouble another’s voice with mine. Intention is always key, I think, which is why I take long for each poem. I love my job as a poetry editor, so despite the length of time I take per poem, I edit pretty quickly because I read and devour as much as I can.
I reflected on a lot of the poems I gave the green light to, and I’d say I really love the technique behind them. I recall giving the go signal to three poems, each different from one another in terms of theme, syntax, and form. I was surprised when I realized this, but also relieved by the diversity. I was worried I’d be giving my editors poetry that are all artistically unified. I really look for technique and craft aspects, poems that, despite my repeated readings, make me go “mmm” or “oh!” out loud. I get excited at poems that have a lot of craft planned behind them, like unifying themes and images, strategic digressions, and so on.
When someone submits their work to a literary journal, it can feel overwhelming. That’s how I felt when I first started submitting poetry. I was worried editors might dislike it or brush them off, and I made sure, going forward from my days of submissions, to never do that, to trust the poems and the person behind them. I take seriously all the craft elements and techniques and, when I feel like a poem is ready, when it has that essence of existence, I give the green light, I say this poem works and succeeds.
Justin Andrew Cruzana is a graduate of Literature at the University of Santo Tomas. His works have appeared in Alien Magazine, MudRoom, Cordite, Voice & Verse Poetry, TLDTD, and others. He lives in Metro Manila.