Nick Carbó is the author of three books of poetry, El Grupo McDonald's (1995), Secret Asian Man (2000), and Andalusian Dawn (2004), and the editor of three anthologies of Filipino and Filipino-American literature, Returning a Borrowed Tongue (1995), Babaylan (2000), and Pinoy Poetics (2004). This interview by Ivy Alvarez is a companion to an interview with Nick's partner Denise Duhamel.
Ivy: When did you start writing poetry?
Nick: When did I start writing? I started writing ? hmm, in college, I think, when I went to Bennington College. There was a very supportive atmosphere. There were lots of poets and writers. There were college kids, like seniors and juniors, who were getting published and getting their novels published. There was Brett Easton Ellis, and he was a senior and he was getting all this press. And there was Jill Eyston Staff, who was a young novelist. So, it was a very literary atmosphere.
So, I thought, okay, I'll try my hand at poetry, and I did. And then after that, in the summer, I went home to the Philippines to spend the summer there and then my father showed some of my poems to his friend, who was a Filipino poet. He was still alive then. He was Rafael Zulueta da Costa and he had written the famous poem ‘Like the Molave'.
He was the one who gave me the books to read. Two books were English: one was Philip Larkin's High Windows, and The Visit by Ian Hamilton; and then Wallace Stevens' Collected Works, and Ariel by Sylvia Plath.
It was very interesting that Rafael Zulueta da Costa, a Filipino poet you know, lived there all this time, knew about Sylvia Plath. He won that Filipino prize in the 30s [the Commonwealth Literary Prize in English poetry], and in the 40s he was still famous – that Sylvia Plath would reach Manila! That was really interesting.
I kept writing with poetry workshops in the States in college. After that, I went to get my MFA in Creative Writing at Sarah Lawrence College.
What prompted you to persevere with writing poetry?
When I started writing, then I got better and better at it, and I just said, ‘I think I will continue.' And then getting a degree validates that. Now, you have to do it. Yes, that's your career from now on.
I know some people who got their MFAs and then went on to do something else, like law or medicine. But I also know people who are doctors and lawyers who went to get an MFA, started writing creatively, so it goes both ways.
But I think the ones who succeed, the ones who keep going, keep writing, even though they have a normal job – I mean, they go home and write poetry. That's what most of us did.
Denise and I just keep writing. You know? That's what sustains us. And publishing, too. That's important.
You were never attracted to any other areas of creativity?
In terms of creativity, my parents made me do things like get guitar lessons, and I learnt how to play ‘Three Little Indians' on the guitar! Now I've forgotten completely.
In the Philippines, they put me in a Chinese elementary school where I learnt how to sing the ‘Hail Mary' in Chinese. [laughs] All the little weird things … See, whatever your parents push you to do, you always don't do well.
So that's when I started writing poetry. My parents said, ‘Oh, very nice. Do whatever you want.' They didn't encourage or discourage it. ‘Okay. Do it.' That may be one of the things that also helped. Unlike Denise's family, who were sort of against that kind of creative expression – they didn't understand probably. My parents were, ‘Yeah, okay.'
Then my father told his friend who was a poet that his son was writing, so that sort of helped, you know?
And that was a form of encouragement, anyway.
Yeah. I think it was.
So what would you say is an enemy to the writing of poetry or to poetry itself?
The enemy to the writing of poetry is work. [chuckles] Or money! Or the need for money to sustain?
That's why we have to work, to find the time to write. And that's the biggest enemy, having no time to write.
And for me, it's very hard to write when I'm teaching, because teaching is a totally different energy. Teaching people how to write, focusing more on their creative output, giving them that energy – it's weird because you're handing them the knowledge, the techniques for putting the poems together, telling them what they did wrong or what they did right. It's like meditation. You meditate and build up the energy – and in the classroom, you give it out. So when you go home, you're exhausted.
It's like a battery, you know. There. No more.' You're spent. All that psychic power you use to write your poems is spent on teaching. And it's like acting, too. You're being on stage, really. You're on stage. It's exhausting.
Sometimes blissfully spent – but then sometimes you have student who don't do well, and you worry about them. [laughs]
What does the word domestic conjure up for you?
Domestic, for me, is loaded, because in the Philippines, there are a lot of domestics – that's what you call the maids, domestic help.
It's something to do in the house. It's also the idea of staying home; you're sort of trapped. Domestic is trapped. So trying to escape the domestic life is something a poet would want to do. Go out. Like Denise said, travel and go to different places, and experience the world outside of the domestic. So maybe being domestic is bad – that is the enemy, I think.
What do you do to ensure your domestic environment is conducive to writing poetry?
Let's see. I have a nice computer, internet access – wireless internet access would be even better, to improve the domestic situation. We've both had computers, we found that we could use wireless, and then connect everything. That would be so much better because we could be in the living room or in the bedroom, and still go on the internet at the same time.
Just the comforts of home? Just making sure we have everything there, like our books! Yeah, you find books at home, so that's the domestic thing, but then having to dust the books, that's a domestic chore. And then cleaning?
At home, at our apartment, I clean the floor, but we do the laundry together.
That's when I ran into you in the laundry.
Yeah, yeah! [laughs] See!
[Denise interjects] That's true!
We were doing laundry together. Yeah! So we just share our domestic duties.
Do you think you have a common domestic enemy? You mentioned chores.
Not really. I don't think so. Just the everyday thing? Going to the supermarket.
I like going to the supermarket. Denise doesn't like to spend time at the supermarket. I like to look at things. Take out what you need. But Denise is swish swish – she's fast. Throws everything in …
I can spend like hours in a supermarket. I can also spend hours in a bookstore, just looking at the titles, looking through the books. It's almost the same thing, supermarket and bookstore, for me. And I'm like, ah!
And I like discovering new products. In a supermarket, things always change; in a bookstore, all the new books – so you have to handle them and look and see, ‘äOh, sugar-free, fat-free?' The things you discover. But sometimes you have to go through too fast!
Do you have an ideal reader? Would you consider Denise your ideal reader?
No, Denise is one of the readers. Hm? The ideal reader is anyone who would want to read, who would be silly enough to read the poems. [laughs]
But I would change it to ‘Do I have ideal critics?' See I think that's more important. An ideal critic would be – there're some people in the Philippines who've really got my work, and have written at length. Alfred ‘Krip' Yuson is one. He really got it, you know. He went in-depth into the themes and images, the relationship with history. He was very good.
Another one who did a review was Victor Velasco. He did something for the Philippine Daily Inquirer. I think it was two newspaper pages of my book, Secret Asian Man, and it was really detailed, and it explained the Filipino context – and Filipino-American – aspect of the book. And then compared to the reviews that I got in the States, they were much more in detail. Of course, they understood more, they knew the Tagalog references, for example. But in the States, it was almost like a superficial treatment. They considered post-colonial attempts at reading the book. They have their concepts of what the book should be. And the Filipino critics who read the book, I thought they read it as like a friend from there – it's hard to explain. It's a cultural reading, I think. And I valued that more.
Maybe I'm writing for Filipinos. Filipinos around the world! You know? And it's not necessarily Americans – it's true.
What do you think of Denise's talent? Would you compare your talent to hers?
Yeah, Denise is the best poet in the world! [Denise laughs]
Okay, I'll put that in.
[laughs] Well, that's how we were attracted to each other – through our poetry! And it was like that, and if that falls apart, everything is not worth it. [more laughter]
Better keep it up, Denise!
And if either of us produces bad poems, then it's – ‘uh-oh, that's not good! You're going to have to make it better!' [laughs]
That's why as readers, we don't let each other fall into bad poetry. Sometimes I catch her repeating herself, in some poems: ‘Ah, you've done that already.' And she goes back. Sometimes she doesn't just revise – she just goes on to the next poem.
Yes, there're a few poems that she's had that I've helped her develop into better poems, and she's also helped me with that. She helped me put my books together. It's because we just admire each other's talent. We want each other to have the best work out there.
Influence doesn't just run one-way, does it? It runs both ways.
Yeah! Influence in the mechanics, and also in the inspiration. You know, love poems. You know that poem ‘Yes', a poem about – in the Philippines, if a husband says ‘yes', it can mean five different things. [laughs] Denise, what was that one? It could mean he agrees?
Denise: Oh, wait, it could mean: I can't remember.
Or, the last one is?
Denise: The last one is, ‘I hope I said “yes” unenthusiastically enough for you to realise that I mean no.' [laughs]
Denise: It also means, 'If you say so!'
Yeah! 'If you say so!' So there are many meanings in agreeing, and it's just things that we have to negotiate.
So do you think you share common concerns in your poetry, common themes? Or is your work totally separate?
I think it is separate – not completely. What we liked about each other's work, in the beginning, were direct treatment of the thing – not ideas about the thing, but the thing itself. And we were honest. We talked about sexual matters, direct instead of veiled with metaphor or images. You know, just talk about it! That was rare. Like Sharon Olds was direct, and before that Anne Sexton was also direct. Even now, American poetry is sort of timid, in that sense, writing about sex, and stuff like that. That was something in common for both of us.
Then, my idea of writing about sex was talking about the Filipinos piercing their penises. That was a tradition in the old days. And hers is more talking about female things: breasts, and vaginas, and blablabla [Denise laughs in the background]. So we take on different aspects, but do a treatment of the same subject. That's what we do.
Also, [in terms of] political affiliations we are sort of liberal. Or progressive.
Have you found, with working so closely and having been together for so long, that you adopt voices or mannerisms, or do you even parody??
It's funny – sometimes when we're walking along and we just recite a line from each other's poems, and I'd be quoting her. 'Wait a minute, who's that?' 'That was you!' And then, all those lines, it's weird; they end in your head.
Okay, we go to each other's readings. Sometimes I drive Denise to all these places, to schools, and then I go with her, and she sits there, and probably we've done more than a hundred readings already, together, and most of the time, they're the same poems. We hear them. But somehow we don't get bored with each other's work, listening to them. Because every time, it's different!
And it's interesting as well – the audience is different. So it's like every audience is a different experience. Like last year, both of us went on the Ohio Poetry Circuit, and it's a tour of nine colleges, in seven days, so some days we had to do two colleges. And there's a reading every day. Each one was different. Some were really interested, and some you thought they weren't going to be interested, and they were really enthusiastic, and the others were dead. They couldn't get it. So, it's interesting. We had all those reading-things!
We did that tour separately. I did it in the fall and she did it in the spring before. But also had many others recently, here, for Poetry Ireland. One of the comments from somebody in the audience afterwards said, ‘Yeah, we had a hard time listening to the accents. Just the English, the English is so different.' That was very interesting. And they said, ‘It will take us awhile to fully comprehend that poetry.' So even here the audience – we don't want to sound Irish or read in an Irish accent, but we want to them to understand us. It'll be interesting to see how our poetry changes by being in Ireland for just one month.
Even in like blogging, I see my English changing. I don't know, more formal construction – it's weird. Just because I'm listening to the sounds here!
You've done collaborations with Denise and other people?
Yeah, collaborations with Eileen Tabios, and also Eric Gamalinda, he's a Filipino writer who lives in New York. Yeah, it's an interesting idea to write, get out of yourself, and try to produce this third voice. This third person coming out – I don't want to do too much. Just an exercise, you know, we'll do it.
I don't think I have enough stamina like Denise and her friend Maureen Seaton, because they've actually published a whole book and three other chapbooks of collaborative work. That can be a whole different career for somebody else. A third voice. I wonder what that other person would look like? One book and three chapbooks – that's amazing. And they even publish in magazines, in very good magazines in America. Wow! So they're one of the leading voices in collaboration.
So for me, the use of collaboration is not that important, but it was in my early development, in college, I used to do that all the time. I used to do it with my good friends. We'd do, you know, like an exquisite corpse, a round? We didn't take it that seriously but it was a way of getting creative as a group.
What are your latest projects? What are you working on at the moment?
I've just finished my third book, which was really my second book, and I got that out of the way. I finished my anthology project of Pinoy Poetics – that was a big one. Threw that in the Published pile. I've several things going all the time.
Another one, with a friend – actually he's a student – is an anthology of Asian-American images of men, so it asks what does the world see in Asian-American men, as appropriated by Hollywood. You know, Dr Fu Manchu, the evil Dr Fu Manchu, and Charlie Chan – and Charlie Chan in the movies was played by a white guy! Yellow face, you know. And Jackie Chan, he is the only male lead who's Asian, but all they can do is king fu, right? Kung fu and comedy. There isn't really an Asian romantic male lead. If you want to see that, you have to go into the Hong Kong movies, you have the Japanese movies, the Korean …
Yeah. The recent controversies, well … There was an advertisement in Details magazine: 'Gay or Asian?' Just because you're Asian, they think that you're gay, because you're stylish or something. And there were protests about that. And also making the Asian male effeminate, the emasculation of the Asian male, too – all that, we want to tackle in this anthology. So we're calling it The Son of the Dragon. We're going to breathe fire onto you. So that's my next big anthology project, co-edited with Marlon Unas Esguerra. He's a young performance poet – very interesting.
The last time I co-edited an anthology was with Denise Duhamel. [laughs] It was called Sweet Jesus, the poems of Jesus as an icon. Very controversial?
What's happening in the States is the second, third and fourth generation of Asian-Americans are finding their place. The writers are writing about the racist aspects of their lives. They're coming out and telling their stories. It's coming! This anti-immigration thing – watch out! Who's that woman in Australia?
I won't say her name. But in the future, she will be a laughing-stock.
In Australia, when these groups have settled, the children, when they go to university, some of them might want to be writers. There'll be some horrific situations – and writers will write about it. Twenty years from now, it'll bite them in the ass.