Intravenous Lines: Romalyn Ante talks to Ali Lewis

AL: Hi Romalyn. How are you? What’s life like where you are?

RA: It has been a tough 2020 for everybody. Lockdown happened when my editor and I were putting the finishing touches to Antiemetic for Homesickness. I continue to work full time as a nurse practitioner. My mother and sister work as nurses on the frontline, and my brother has been shielding. My wedding has been postponed, my fiancé is a key worker, and I experienced some losses. I guess I am waiting, but I am well and thankful.

AL: What hopes or fears do you have for the near future?

RA: After everything that has happened this year, I’m not hoping for or fearing too much anymore. I just wish for myself and my family to be safe and healthy, and for Antiemetic for Homesickness to find its way in
the world and into the hands of the people who need
it most.

AL: Antiemetic for Homesickness, which is just out with Chatto, ‘offers a unique perspective on family, colonialism, homeland and heritage: from the countries we carry with us, to the places we call home.’ Do you think the current situation – with people unable to travel and see family – has changed or amplified the resonances of the book?

RA: I would like to think so. My book is not an autobiography but it attempts to paint a picture of the community and culture that I know and love. I grew up until my adolescence in the Philippines, and migrated to the UK in 2005 when I was 16. So many times I’ve felt that longing is my only lifeline. I believe everyone has felt that too, to a certain extent, especially during the past months. Our urgency to go back to the places and people who mean so much to us is what gives us strength to survive and thrive where we are now. Whether those people or places still exist when we return is a different matter. I believe that our notion of a reunion can become our source of strength, that to think of home is to also think of hope. That is the heart of the book.

AL: Reading the book, I’m struck by that longing; by the idea of separation, and the attempt to use words, spoken or written, to reach an absent other. I’m thinking particularly of the long, moving sequence of ‘Tape Recordings for Mama’. To what extent do you think words – poems – are capable of bridging such gaps?

RA: When two people are too far away from one another (and I mean it literally and figuratively) and body language is restricted, words are all we have. Words – or poems – are powerful bridges that connect distant places. In certain folk beliefs, words are used to ward off bad spirits, or to bring down towering trees, to eradicate life. In one of the poems in my collection, ‘Respecting the Nunò’, the speaker is warned by her grandfather that if she twists a bud off a twig without the nunò’s consent, her feet will ‘bulge like an elephant’s’. I believe that’s how powerful and sacred words are. Words are like incantations or invisible intravenous lines delivering medicine that could either heal or harm you. Words have the power to change something, to give and take away. To me, poetry has become the Antiemetic for Homesickness. I hope this book will help readers find their own antiemetic too.

AL: And for you? Are there any poems that have been seeing you through these hard times?

RA: I recently bought The Complete Poems of Walt Whitman, which is full of brightness.

AL: I want to ask you about language and community. In your poems, we see language creating and reflecting belonging, but also, conversely, separating and alienating. In ‘Tagay!’, the titular poetic form of drinking song ‘create[s] a community of support’ between Overseas Filipino Workers, but in ‘Mastering English’, the clichés of British English exclude and obfuscate, and, at worst, both inflict and hide violence. ‘ᜄᜓᜈᜒᜒᜆ’ seems to show both sides of that coin, describing how colonisers ‘bleached the scripts inscribed on our bamboo stems’, replacing Baybayin – and its communal memory – ‘with their hymn’. For you, and for your poetry, are these two functions of language separable? Can, and should, a community of language create belonging without exclusion?

RA: Because language is moulded and used by people from different walks of life, it will always create some sort of separation. Language is, by its very nature, exclusionary. Even language without words (the body’s language) is problematic. In some cultures, maintaining eye contact is deemed disrespectful. This could be the opposite for another culture.

But that is the beauty of linguistic alchemy. Language is there to connect and separate, to reveal and hide. As the poet exercises their own linguistic freedom, the poet can then reclaim the power that may have been taken away by the use of language itself. While language can definitely create exclusion, it does not always have to do so. This is why I believe that as a poet, knowing where you are writing from is as important as knowing to whom and for whom you are writing.

In Antiemetic for Homesickness, there are very few Tagalog words or terms which I chose not to ‘explain’. As a Filipino-born migrant who writes in her second language and came from a non-literary field and a socio- economic background that is normally unseen in the anglophone poetic landscape, I want to reclaim my power by creating a sense of ‘welcoming’ readers into my world, even into the tiny details of it. In the Philippines, when we have guests we prepare a feast for them, no matter how simple the food may be. I want to recreate that warmth and hospitality in the presentation of my work. One way of doing that, for me, is by laying out my Tagalog words (like food) to my readers.

In Antiemetic for Homesickness, the speaker’s turns of phrase, their use of syntax and punctuation, and relationship to rhythm and cadence, and choice of medium, reveal more about the book than its ostensible subjects.

Should we create a community of language without exclusion? It depends on the poet. They must know their purpose. They must believe in their stance.

AL: One last question: do you have a favourite line that you carry with you in these times?

RA: Galway Kinnell’s ‘Wait, for now. / Distrust everything if you have to. / But trust the hours […] You’re tired. / But everyone’s tired. But no one is tired enough.’

Romalyn Ante grew up in the Philippines until she migrated to the UK when she was 16 years old. Her debut collection, Antiemetic for Homesickness, is out with Chatto & Windus.