Lawrence Ypil is mulling over three images from a bevy of black-and-white 3R photographs scattered on the wooden table at a coffee shop on a sleepy street in Cebu. “These pictures are included in the new book,” he says, running his fingers on the three old pictures that feature a group of women in baro’t saya, men in all white suits, and a family in a colonial house.
For 20 years, Ypil has been living away from his hometown. Most of his academic years were spent in Manila. He had to relocate to the capital city from Cebu to complete a degree in biology at the Ateneo de Manila University before enrolling in a medical course at the University of the Philippines in Diliman. On the year he was supposed to graduate, he quit.
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“I was obsessed—or possessed. I realized it was poetry and writing that I wanted to do and that some other people can do medicine,” Ypil says laughing, now taking a distant memory of indecisiveness with ease. In 2003, he left the country to take up his Masters in Fine Arts in Poetry at the Washington University, and another Masters in Fine Arts this time in Nonfiction Writing at the University of Iowa. In 2010, he released his first poetry book The Highest Hiding Place, which bagged the Madrigal Gonzalez Best First Book Award and the Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature.
Ypil has returned to Cebu to launch his second collection of poems The Experiment of the Tropicswhich he had printed in New York City. Now available on Amazon,it was his contest entry to the Gaudy Boy Book Prize. For three years, he focused on slimming down the selections, while making the occasional appearance at the Cebuano Study Center at the University of San Carlos to research about local history whenever he was on a quick family trip.
The original title of the collection is There—which was its title when it won the award. “I was interested in the idea of there (pointing to a distance), not here. I was conscious about what it meant to write about home while you’re away from it. The poems are really about Cebu. Thus, the poems are about photographs,” continues Ypil who is a literary professor at the Yale-Nus College in Singapore. “I have always been, in many ways, discontent that our notion of poetry is just tied to the love song or like the hugot. The poem can do so much more.”
The featured pictures in the book are those of old Cebuano society in 1930. He explores that fertile past of his hometown with a question: What if history was about you? What started as something akin to caper humor slowly and startlingly recalibrated into something far starker. Maybe even erotic.
We sat down with Ypil to talk about his new book and the role of poetry in a world obsessed with status updates.
What’s new with The Experiment of the Tropics?
I am interested here in the unfinished. I am interested here in the rough, the poem that does not really seem to close well. In the first book, the poems there are quite tight. They want to end very cleanly. The lines are very sharp, and in certain ways, this new book has poems which I feel are quite loose, rough and rugged and unfinished. I like them. As an artist, I think it was a way of understanding that there could be this kind of poem. Technology has something to do with that. Living in the United States has something to do with that.
How did you curate the pictures in the book?
I proceeded through my gut and my instinct. I felt like I stayed with the photograph that caught my eye. I was also influenced by the French writer Roland Barthes, and he writes about photography. He has a term “punctum.” For him, the “punctum”—like puncture—is in every photograph, the part that stays with you. Sometimes, it’s not even the central part of the photograph. It might be the fold of a shirt, the shape of a face, the shape of a river, something random. I was less concerned with the historical veracity. At some point, I just stopped doing the research; I stopped caring who these people were. I just indulged in what it meant to look and allowed the photograph, whatever it stood for, puncture me. I would use that as a jump-off point to write the poems.
Why old photographs?
I was interested in history, the Cebuano-American period. I think there was something very powerful about that period. We know it as “peace time.” We were taught that it was better than the Spanish period. I think there’s a lot that’s underneath all that. I don’t think it was as peaceful as we like to think it was. I think people underwent radical change during that time. It was really an exciting period. Linguistically, we learned English during those decades. We started writing in English. Looking at these photographs, you can tell visually.
Talk about the “experiment” part of the book.
On one hand, I was interested in the experiment that is our history, the experiment of colonialism, the experiment of the American period. In certain ways, we were the experiment that the American government was trying to make. It’s also the experiment of—what will happen if we allow photographs to look us in the eye? What would happen if you wrote history not in a factual way but in an emotional way? What if you wrote poems as captions to photographs? What if the photographs are not really about Cebu in 1930 but was really about you looking at it in 2017? What if history was about you?
Why did you choose poetry as your medium?
It forces you to engage in language in the most intense way. It’s the space where you are allowed to find your voice in the way you would hear a song you identify with. In many ways, you develop a signature or a style, and that for me has always been important. In your encounter with language, there is a way in which your writing leaves a mark on the language because only you would have written it that way. To me, that is the most exciting part. It’s not only an aesthetic act. I think it’s even almost a political act because you’re saying that language cannot be tamed. Language cannot be homogenous, and that if we become true to our human instinct—if we allow to be sensitive to it—we leave our mark. That is the human mark: You use words different from everybody else.
Tell me about quitting medical school.
That was the huge detour. Since then, it is important to me to go where the art takes you. You go by the day and see if the day pushes you to write a poem. If it doesn’t, you wake up to another day. There’s something exciting about that. For me, it is being attendant to chance, to feeling, to urge.
How do you see poetry in the Philippines in the future?
I think the poem would exist in conjunction with the visual—whether that be a meme, a digital thing, whether that be comic books or zines. We are a very visual culture. I think good writing in the coming years would be interfacing with the visual. We check phones. There’s always something we’re seeing and reading. We’re always messaging each other.
In the era of social media, are poems still relevant?
It’s revealing to me the kind of contradictions that are also important. On one hand, poetry suggests you treat words sacredly. I believe in that. But on the other hand, I also do believe in the kind of tearing apart of language, that technology has allowed us to rip language apart. That’s one thing I’ve come to terms with in the past 10 years. I feel that is good.
By allowing and giving ourselves permission to rip language apart, it brings us to a more human, personal and intimate relationship with language. Only in that way can we actually hope the poem can embody what we wish for it to say because we have feelings, which acceptable language can never express. I love poetry in a way that it allows us to cut lines, to change words, to play around with words. Poetry allows us to define what the normal sentence will never be able to say.