Poet Joel Toledo on exorcisms, shadowy secrets and beating the British


Posted at Aug 19 2008 11:07 PM | Updated as of Aug 20 2008 06:30 PM

 Poet Joel Toledo at a poetry reading in MagNet Cafe.

2006 Bridport International Creative Writing Prize winner Joel Toledo is the first Asian and first Filipino to win a prize in that presitgious competition in the United Kingdom since it was founded in 1973. He actually won two prizes--second and third prizes, besting entries from all over the world. 

Unfortunately, he had to relinquish the third prize, since competition rules forbid more than one prize for each winner. Toledo, who has a Masters degree in Creative Writing (Poetry) from the University of the Philippines,  teaches literature at Miriam College in Quezon City, Philippines.

Before winning a Bridport Prize, he won 1st and 3rd prizes in the 2006 Meritage Press Poetry Prize in San Francisco, USA.  Toledo has won twice in the premiere literary contest in the Philippines, the Don Carlos Memorial Palanca Awards for Literature.

Toledo recently launched his first book--yes, his first after winning international poetry competitions--recently at the MagNet Gallery (which also houses a cafe and bookshop) along Katipunan Avenue in Quezon City. He is also the founder and moderator of the Happy Monday nights, held every 1st and 3rd Monday of the month at the MagNet Katipunan's cafe.

Titled "Chiaroscuro" (published by the Santo Tomas University Press), Toledo's first opus has been garnering praises far and wide from critics, fellow literati and creative writing students. He gave an interview to abs-cbnNEWS.com to talk about his book.

Q. (abs-cbnNEWS.com) You started out with fiction. What spurred to make the shift to poetry? And when?

Joel:  I believe it was sometime in 1996, when I started my masters. I enrolled in J. Neil Garcia's poery class and, well, he said my poems were promising.  Also, when I started my M.A., I'd already been to three workshops and had always found the poet-fellows' works very interesting and even something to envy

Q. Have you noticed any difference, process-and-mindset-wise, when between writing a story and a poem?

Joel: Yes. Writing stories for me had to be preceded by a good sloid plot. In a big way, I think writing fiction insists on premeditation, whereas poetry is more risk-driven.

Q. But aren't all your poems stories as well? At least, there's always a backstory hanging around in the shadows--one could sense it.

Joel:  Yeah, exactly. Sensing is a poetic endeavor, although I think most of my poems in the book follow a narrative thread that i think came from my having written fiction before. It's more intuitve, i think. I don't really plan on writing a poem in terms of structure. But, yes, sometimes a word or phrase keeps running in my head so I note them on my [cellular] phone and work on the poem later.

Q. William Stafford said something about "following the Golden Thread" when writing a poem. Is that true for you?

Joel:  I think so. The words and their order are already charged.

Q. Are you able to identify a particular theme or concern that runs through "Chiaroscuro"?

Joel:   The discovery of theme mostly comes with the writing. Yeah. "Chiaroscuro" are mostly made up of poems that come from once-suppressed and finally dealt-with childhood themes. I wasn't conscious, of course, of all that at that time of writing.  These poems were written between 2004 and 2006.

Q. Is the book an exorcism? This question is so Freudian, I know, but bear with it for discussion's sake.

Joel: Yeah, in some way. But like I said, I wasn't conscious of that. Exorcism from childhood darknesses, like a harsh father, poor, provincial lighting.

Q. Poor lighting! Okay, poor lighting as child abuse. Go on.

Joel:   These poems are really sepia-toned, if I am to visualize them. I get this myopic vision of a boy climbing trees, watching his lola [grandmother]  fall from a table. It's really a way of subversion, but not of the political sort.

Q. You've won quite a few impressive prizes, including a British award--how does that make you feel, being a Filipino writing from English?

Joel:  It's weird to win an award that has not seen any Asian winners since it was founded...

Q. Sorry, you mean a subversion of English?

Joel:  Yeah, of the language. The thing is, it's weird that I got a prize in their language, these English.

Q. What sort of feedback did you get from the Bridport guys? About your work?

Joel:  The Bridport people are very, very supportive. Had I gone to UK, they would have taken care of the pick-up, lodging, the works. I still maintain correspondence with them. They keep sending me these application forms for the annual awards. But, sadly, the British Council office does not have funds for sponsoring entry fees anymore to the Bripdort Prize.

Q. So you didn't get anything like, as one British participant in one literary conference said, "The only real English is British English?"

Joel:  Haha. No, they were very nice.

Q. Was it a surprise for them--or at least a learning experiece--to meet someone from the Philippines who could beat them in their own verbal turf?

Joel:  I wouldn't really know, but I'm sure they were intrigued at the least.

Q.  Any suggestions for a "secret" in beating English writers/poets writing in their own language?

Joel: Haha! I don't even know why they chose that poem. I'm still amazed. Dapat nga 3rd prize din ako, but my getting it along with the 2nd prize is prevented by the contest rules.

Q. Eileen Tabios once said that Villa was so well-supported by Edith Sitwell because he was exoticized as an Oriental--nothing like that happened to you?

Joel: I don't know the answer to that one, too. Not one international poet has ever praised me naman. I think, though, that we've moved beyond being the exoticized little country, with English-speaking little indios.

Q. You teach poetry to a lot of  young people. what does it take to capture their interest in the subject?

Joel:  I keep telling young poets that they should read the lines before reading between the lines. We have been schooled thinking that poetry is a riddle with an elaborate punchline. So most people have no respect for form, only meaning. I'd like to think a big slice of enjoying poetry is in the appreciation of the craft.

Q. That's interesting, having no respect for form. Is it the fault of DVDs, cable, this generation's purely visual orientation?

Joel: It's the fault of their not reading books anymore. They want instant gratification from TV, DVDs; it's all largely due to the modern blur of our daily existence.

Q. Your poem "Literature" is a poem that's also a suspense thriller--an amazing feat. How did that come about?

Joel: That poem's really the most reminsicent of my fiction daze. If you read it closely, it pokes fun on elements of fiction, from the plot to the climax, resolution. In fact, i think that is my take on modern living and the blur of modernity,  where there is an insistence that people need to be jolted out of their mundane routine.  And there's this book that remains a mystery--the literature of the guy's life that the detective will not find.

Q. How has having your own family now influenced your writing about childhood traumas?

Joel: I think i've already "exorcised" those childhood traumas, and that having a family and kids has settled those little memory imps, haha.

Q. How do you know when a poem of yours is ready for release to readers? Or do you still revise even months later?

Joel: I am a religious "reviser". Revisionist? haha. But you just feel it, I think,  when the poem is done. I don't know why, really. I do get a lot of  "poetry workshops" from friends, though, and that helps in a big way in knowing when the poem is already done.