Interview | Marne Kilates
Marne Kilates contributed "Diaphanous" and "A Discourse of Red" on BenCab's "The Kiss" and Carlos' "In My Dreams," respectively, for Issue One.
Marne Kilates has published four books of poetry, the latest of which is Pictures as Poems & Other (Re)Visions (UST Publishing House, 2012), and has recently completed his fifth collection of poems. His ekphrastic work may be found distributed in his five books so far, though the last two contain the most. He has also published numerous translations of works by leading Filipino writers, including National Artists Virgilio Almario and Bienvenido Lumbera. Pitik-Bulag, an art and poetry coffee table book with ekphrastic interactions between Filipino artists and poets, which he co-edited with national artist for literature Rio Alma and translated into English, is a major work published by the government insurance agency, GSIS, featuring its Museum collection. Kilates has won the Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards, the NBDB-Manila Critics Circle National Book Awards, and the 1998 SEA WRITE Award given by the Thai royalty. Recently, he was the holder of the Henry Lee Irwin Professorial Chair for Creative Writing at the Ateneo de Manila University. He publishes and edits the online literary journal, The Electronic Monsoon Magazine, at www.electronicmonsoon.com.
But talking about the process or medium in this poem also provides the contrasts with or among the delicacy of the subject matter (love), the materials being depicted (the diaphanous cloth called jusi), the medium (charcoal, pastel, Ingres paper, the tones of sepia or brown). And the fact that the title The Kiss, to the art enthusiast, brings up at once the image of the Rodin bronze-cast sculpture, in complete contrast with Bencab’s airy “version.” The cloud on Makiling or Mayon is my own way putting a Filipino tag on the work, a “local color” element of sorts. That is obligatory for me, and in this poem it inevitably concludes with the characteristic Filipino preference for elaborateness, the baroque, the all-spaces-filled manner of art which may be seen in callado embroidery or jeepney décor. To be able to evoke this in a few chosen words about the painting was for me the ultimate experience of going throught the process itself of recreating, by ekphrasis, the work of art, which I thought should be the parallel experience of the reader himself, as if he was “writing” the poem together with the poet.
How did you approach "In My Dreams" by Carlos as you wrote the poem A Discourse of Red?
There is really no “approach” or method that I can speak of. I usually “confront” the subject of a poem (either in ekphrasis or in any poem at all) without any preconceived notions of the subject. I usually study the subject, read up about it if necessary, but also forget everything before sitting down to write. So the approach or method or the process itself creates or reveals itself gradually during the writing. Most of the time the only motivation for me is to really want to write the poem. I must be itching to write it so much already so that when I sit down I am simply impelled to write it by that desire to write it and nothing more.
So, after the first few lines (maybe corresponding to the first numbered section of the poem), I knew there would be two points of view in the poem (not necessarily in the painting). And there would be a “dialogue” between the artist, as it were, through his painting, and the poet as persona. (The numbering corresponds to the speaker; when the number changes, the speaker changes. But I didn’t want it to be so obvious.) We were bringing each other’s experience into the poem; it was as if were together re-creating the painting by “writing” the poem together (similar to what I want the reader to experience, that’s why I felt the need to call the painter by name towards the end of the poem. We were both going to “sign” it at the same time).
As you can see, from the opening lines the poem has already taken a life of its own which is quite separate from that of the painting. Ekphrasis does not necessarily mean always “descriptive” of the painting or work of art. In fact, critics name at least three or four ways: the poet describes, the poet reacts, the poet makes the painting “talk,” the poet struggles or wrestles with the painting (agon), etc.
The title is also emblematic. It is not a “discourse in red” as might be expected, which is to engage in conversation in a certain manner, but a discourse “of” red, the dominant color of the painting. It is an exchange of the color red, or of the many shades of red (scarlet mainly, and the generic red). Again, this is my way of paying homage to the medium.
Carlos’ work is often described as joyous, an escape, depiction of happy places. It was a wonderful, interesting surprise to find the tone of the poem quite different yet still quite apt. As a creative, how do you explain, welcome, or observe the subjectivity of art? What do you dislike or enjoy about the different interpretations for one work of art (painting or poetry)?
There are real or objective circumstances about the painting (unknown to the poet or not), but the ekphrastic poem has to invent its own narrative.
So, like the subject painting, the ekphrastic poem is by itself a sort of enigmatic or mysterious process. One will never know (the poet included) where it will end, or what hidden elements (insights, gems of information or even trivia) will surface or will be dug up as the poet recreates the painting for the reader. And it's as much about the painting as about the poet himself.
When and why did you decide to become a poet?
I’ve always thought I’d become a painter like my eldest brother, Manuel. From the province in Bicol (Albay), he went to Manila to take up fine arts at UST. After a while he drew for the comics but had to come back to Bicol due to poor health. He became a weekend painter, more or less, apart from being employed as a draftsman in the provincial government.
When I began to write, as a grade-six pupil, it was always with illustrations. In high school, a friend and I tried to outdo each other making “comics,” illustrated booklets drawn and scripted by each of us. He wrote and drew Prince Valiant and Crusades type of stories, I did Flash Gordon and space type of stories. When I had my first crush during my fourth year in high school, I gifted the girl with a booklet of my first collection of poems (or what I thought were poems) accompanied by my ideas of abstract art.
I was appointed one of the editors of the school paper by the priests and the English teachers when I was a junior in high school. Our school was the Divine Word College in Legazpi City, an SVD institution. The Order has its own printing press at Catholic Trade School in Manila, and we made trips there for every issue of the high school organ. This became my introduction to the printing process, trade, and technology.
It was in college when I more or less knew I wanted to become a poet (and had been practically sidetracked from my fantasy of becoming a painter). I had become a voracious reader. I went for a semester to the University of Nueva Caceres in Naga City. Then Martial Law was declared. When classes resumed had I enrolled back in my old school in Legazpi and was soon involved in both the college paper and the underground movement. My crude poems at this time were of the activist as well as the philosophical type. When most everything had settled after the Declaration (school had resumed as well as regular school activities, including the publication of the college paper), there was again a wave of arrests and I was included.
I spent a full month in detention at the provincial PC headquarters, a light “sentence” then. Most of my friends spent a year at least and were “graduated” by being transferred to Fort Bonifacio. I had a girl friend by then. My main request of her while I was in detention was to keep re-borrowing for me two books from the well-stocked college library: an anthology called 20th Century American Poetry edited by Oscar Williams, and a huge tome called A Treasury of the Theater, which sampled plays from the Greeks and non-English speaking Europeans to the Existentialists and the Theater of the Absurd. My month-long detention was well-spent, more or less.
During my last semester in college I was mainly completing my graduation requirements and had a very loose class schedule. I spent almost the whole semester at the library in a sort of literary reading program that I had drawn for myself. Apart from poetry and novels, I read theater, including finishing the rest of A Treasury of the Theater that I had started to consume inside the detention center. When I got the chance to work, one of the first books that I bought with my own money was the paperback, The Voice That is Great Within Us: American Poetry of the 20th Century, edited by Hayden Carruth and now that I’ve searched it at Amazon, I find that it is described as “the best of its period.” (In the 1970s, we had a big little book store in Legazpi City, situated behind the sari-sari store of its owners, the Paglinauans; their daughter, who was studying at University of Michigan, was sending in all those great and latest titles from literature, politics, to philosophy and popular culture, from bestsellers to the most erudite books of the decade.)
Before I graduated, I joined (actually was recruited to) the information department of the local branch of the National Food Authority (NFA). We published an office and trade journal whose name escapes me now. Before a year I had transferred to the NFA central office to join its staff of writers, and to take advantage of the official field travels needed to produce articles for its many publications.
Subsequently, I joined another government agency, the National Home Mortgage Finance Corporation, which was part of the then Ministry of Human Settlements. I had expanded my writing trade by then: as corporate writer of press releases, feature articles, speeches, editor, and publications designer. When I left government service in 1989, I joined advertising, first as a copy writer and had an early retirement, 14 years later, as an executive creative director.
Throughout this employment history, the visual or graphic arts were never far from my trade. I follow art (the visual arts as well as theater) as an avid fan or enthusiast. When I left regular employment for freelancing as a writer, my projects were mostly combinations of text and visuals—communication campaigns and coffee table books. Many of my friends are either painters or writers or fellow poets and professional graphic artists.
Your body of work includes a substantial collection of ekphrastic poetry. What is it about ekphrastic poetry that appeals to your creative energy?
I became a poet but my early love for painting and the visual arts never faded. It fed my poetry, it continues to be a source of my creative energy.
I don’t know when anybody pointed out to me that some of my poems were “ekphrastic.” I didn’t know the term then. My first poem of the type was a long one titled “That Luna Woman,” a sort of explication and re-imagination of the Luna’s “Parisian Life.” I think I wrote it as an indirect reaction to the controversy then surrounding its purchase from a foreign collection by GSIS Museum. This poem and maybe a couple of “picture poems” as I called them (the term “ekphrastic” was a bit pretentious for me) were included in my 2007 collection Mostly in Monsoon Weather (UP Press).
Do you find yourself approaching works of art in the same way? Or do different works of art hold a different attraction?
Yes and no, because each piece of art will invariably call for an approach or treatment all its own, or the subject matter itself of the work will dictate the poetry. The more “narrative” the art work contains, apparently the more narrative or back story of sorts the poetry will imagine or re-imagine for itself based on the painting. Thus, a landscape will produce a different ekphrastic poem from a tableau or scene from an epic or play, for example, as may be seen in classic art. Abstract painting, to my mind, does not lend readily to ekphrasis since it is already a poetic treatment of its subject by itself. But there will always be exceptions.
If you can, please give us an idea of your process. Does your process change?
I’ve always said that writing ekphrastic poetry is like the creative process itself. Art (at least the conventional painting) “frames” its subject. Poetry or the creative process for any art, is a sort framing by itself. You select a part of reality and make your observations of it. Or, as an extension of the act of mimesis (as the Greeks called the basic process of any art, the imitation of nature or experience), this framing defines the reproduction or reinvention of the experience of reality. The postmodern artist will say, you can actually take objects from reality, or excise or “excerpt” textures from it via found objects, or even a photograph. As the last “remove” in Plato’s mimetic stages, ekphrasis takes the epitome of an object to the fourth dimension. It is both dynamic and static—it brings the art work back to life, making the images and experience move in our imagination, and yet it is same recreation or description over and over again. Thus it is very much like painting itself, which takes us back to Horace’s ars poetica, ut pictura poesis, as is painting so is poetry.
Can you cite a favorite ekphrastic poem by another poet (living or dead)? Why do you like it very much?
History tells us that the very first ekphrastic poem in literature is in Homer’s Iliad, specifically Book 18, where he describes the finished shield Haphaestus made for Achilles, at the request of his mother Thetis, after he had lost it when he lent it to Patroclus and Patrocluse is killed in battle (where Achilles pervious shield and armor are taken as part of the spoils). Incidentally, I am reading a new, modern translation of the Iliad by Stephen Mitchel, one of the most respected translators now, and I am eager to come to Book 18 and perhaps compare it with existing translations.
But my favorite ekphrastic poem has always been “Musée des Beaux Arts.” It is for me the first modern ekphrastic poem, in the mode of “alienation” that our generation is familiar with. It demonstrates for me what a poet can do with his material, with its expanded and roundabout references before coming to the point of the painting itself. It also teaches me by example the actual creative process, not just ekphrasis. For comparison, William Carlos Williams takes the same subject and titles his poem eponymously, “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.” It shows another kind of treatment, in accordance with Williams’ poetic practice of Imagism and minimalist poetry.
(June 1, 2013)
In the poem, Diaphanous, there seems to be an alternation between the very light/fragile to the very weighty and massive ("timid/audacious; charcoal-pastel/Rodin’s bronze; a cloud around Makiling/Mayon"). One also sees it in the fragility of "a crinkle of jusi" and a "fold of pina." What did you intend for this technique to say about love or the picture of love or its expression in the lithograph?
With these lines I wanted to establish an analogy or metaphor between the love that the artist wanted to convey and the material textures of his medium and the objects being depicted in the artwork itself: that it was a pencil sketch, that it was depicting the cloth jusi, and the sensual erotic love between the figures (as well as the “diaphanous” nature of this love), and the process of transfering it by lithograph (a “heavy” process using blocks of stone or metal). For me, an ekphrastic work must also be (on occasion, not always) about the artistic process and the medium itself being used by the artist. It should pay homage to that. It also indicates the poet’s knowledge about art, artistic medium, and art history as part of the greater esthetic world he inhabits.
Click on the painting above to see "The Kiss" by BenCab and read "Diaphanous" by Marne Kilates.
[There isn't] one single approach, no preconceived notions about the subject or the subject painting...[and] I [didn't] know the circumstances of the painting or the artist. It was my first encounter with his work. The “tone” of the poem will come both from the poet and the painting, so the poet immediately becomes a new element in the equation. Inside the poem, there are hints to the process. The poet asks where the artist’s “love” is. The scene is, after all, an empty garden. Here’s where the invention starts: “The love of one’s youth…” etc. “The poet imagines the lover for the artist” once again referes to the creative process in the poem itself. The specific references (place names “Bolinao or Balearic,” plant names, etc.) are the poet’s contributions to the narrative. Less a description or an interpretation, the ekphrastic poem is an invented narrative.
Click on the painting to see Carlos' "In My Dreams" and Marne Kilates' ekphrastic poem, "Diaphanous.