In her fifth book of poems, “College Boy” (Bughaw/Ateneo De Manila Press), Mookie Katigbak-Lacuesta inhabits the minds and bodies of different women, and men, to paint pictures of assault and look at toxic masculinity in the eye.
The Palanca-winning poet says she didn’t exactly set out to complete a collection that eventually leaned quite heavily on women’s issues—but she knew she wanted to write about experiences shared to her by the women in her life. “I think this happened because certain key events that happened in 2020 were emblematic of what it meant to be a political casualty,” Lacuesta tells ANCX. “On a more personal scale, the same could be said about all the women I write about in the book.”
“College Boy” is sensual and chilling at the same time, with Lacuesta in full control of the right buttons to press and her language of desire. In it, she mines small moments and private flirtations so that they become sly pathways to frightening ends (a piece called “We all have one of them” comes to mind). The poet Benilda Santos calls “College Boy” a “thin, big book of poems.” “Truth-telling has never sounded more beautiful,” offers Eugene Gloria. Mikael de Lara Co says of the poet—“She navigates the discourse of desire with deftness and precision.”
What does Katigbak-Lacuesta herself have to say? It’s all in the 90-pager, of course—and in her answers to our questions below, where we ask her about the making of this fifth collection, her discoveries during the pandemic, and what keeps her committed to poetry.
1. You inhabit the minds of different women in this book. Do these women exist in real life?
Most of the women in the book are actual people, and some are fictional, but I think all exist in real life. I certainly see women I know in certain female protagonists from books I read as a kid. What made me want to write about them is how they shaped my notion of what women were versus what I was told they should be.
2. But of course, some of the poems can also be read as you writing about men. Which would you say is a more difficult exercise?
I think you’re very right about that—in this particular context, and in this particular collection, I write about women as a way of writing about men.
I think the difficulty in writing poetry doesn’t come from who it’s written about but from how much the material wants to engage with you.
3. Did you set out to write a collection of poems on women and women’s issues? And can you tell us about the book’s genesis?
I didn’t exactly set out to write a collection on women’s issues, but I did want to write about experiences women in my life have told me about, and all these narratives somehow overlapped. I started writing this book in 2019, and it was supposed to be a completely different collection thematically, but then the pandemic happened, and somehow all the poems that I started writing were written in the same vein. I think this happened because certain key events that happened in 2020 were emblematic of what it meant to be a political casualty; on a more personal scale, the same could be said about all the women I write about in the book.
4. If you were to describe the poems in this collection, how would you describe them?
There’s a poem in the collection called “Women in Books,” which is based on an essay I once read saying that young heroines have all these giddy adventures and rich interior lives that make them so completely themselves—until they grow up and get married, whether for love or convenience. And I think the poems sound like they might be written from one such woman in a book who is essentially still the same person she was as a young, headstrong heroine.
5. Where and when were these poems written? Did your process of writing change during the pandemic?
These were all written at home, most of them during the pandemic. Poetry was an escape from the horrors happening outside—but since it was poetry I was writing, there was really still no escaping the seriousness of the themes I was writing about. My process didn’t change during the pandemic, thankfully.
6. What/who have you been reading in the past year?
I’ve been reading a mix of books really. I’ve been reading the work of Lisa Taddeo and Sally Rooney. I’m currently reading “Breasts and Eggs” by Mieko Kawakami and O.B.B. by Paolo Javier.
7. Did you discover a new talent/skill during the pandemic?
No but I discovered K-Dramas, my current obsession. I feel lucky because my watchlist was guided by recommendations from writers I admire so I’ve enjoyed most of the things I’ve seen.
8. Can you tell us how you started with poetry? What attracted you to it, and what made you choose to commit to it?
I come from a family of readers—we were always encouraged to read but I could only ever geek out when it came to reading poetry. I had a very visceral reaction to it. It was the only kind of writing that gave me goosebumps, and broke my heart and fixed it at the same time. That’s still why I read and write it.
9. You thank a few writers in the book. How important is it for you to have the input of other poets?
Feedback is important to me especially when I’ve hit a wall with my writing, or when I’m too close to it and invested in it to make clear decisions about how to proceed. Having said that, I’ll listen intently to readers and peers but decide for myself what the best thing to do is.
10. If someone is new to your poetry, would you suggest they begin with this one?
Yes, I would. Rushdie says every writer should have a worldview, and this is as close as I’ve ever come to having a fully-formed one, instead of something that changes every couple of years. This makes me think that I have something real to say with this book that comes from a place of real conviction. It’s about time, too.