‘A way of breathing together’: Winnie Dunn Interviews Merlinda Bobis

By and | 1 May 2020

WD: In your poem, ‘going ethnic’ you write:

when i met you, 
you even wished to learn 
how to laugh in my dialect

What does ‘going ethnic’ mean?

MB: ‘going ethnic’, both phrase and poem, is meant to satirise or ‘punch holes’ on the orientalist approach to ethnicity. The other’s quaintness is ‘thrilling, peculiar, ancient and really cool’ (‘going ethnic’, Summer Was a Fast Train Without Terminals, 1998) – so we want to go ethnic too and learn to laugh in the other’s dialect. We want the other (and our thrilled selves) to ‘perform’ ethnicity for our pleasure but without any interest in its context. Ethnicity then becomes simply a product to be consumed but re-contextualised first within our desires, unfortunately often stereotypically orientated. This relates to my earlier argument about listening to the others’ poetry or literature within the parameters of an ‘English-only ear.’ Ah, what true pleasure that insular ear is missing – it’s missing a whole life, a whole world!

WD: You also write novels, performance pieces and even radio plays, which is rare for poets. Do you consider yourself a poet and a prose writer? Or is all writing poetry?

MB: At heart, I probably have always been and will always be a poet even as I work in other genres. I think many readers find my prose as poetic, or even more so. Whether in poetry or prose, for me it is sensation that gifts the word initially. Most of my writing begins with image captured by my senses. This is how poetry begins, really. Some poets, including myself, argue that the image is the poem and the poem is the image, and the insight or the story that it embodies. I started as a poet, but the poem could no longer contain the image-stories that were flooding me. So, I wrote an epic poem for performance. But the image-stories were flooding beyond the poetic form. So, I went on to the short story, then to the novel. All the time, I was writing drama too, so the stories and poems came out performative. Again, my oral tradition, one that is very much part of Philippine and, more specifically, Bikol, poetry. So yes, once a poet, always a poet. One never loses that poet’s eye, whatever one looks at: one always sees something more in ‘the thing.’ There is something innately other in it, and what joy when it reveals itself to you – but only if you welcome a revelation.

WD: What is next for you?

MB: Film. I wrote the screenplay for my first novel Banana Heart Summer (2005), which is currently being made into a film in the Philippines. I tried to retain the poetic flavour of the novel in this new genre, which I’m still learning. Learning is difficult, joyful, and humbling. After I finish this next book that I’m writing, a collection of short stories on kindness, I’d like to write a screenplay from the ground up, not an adaptation but something that sprouts from place and people: the lived life and its innate poetry.

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