Back to article list

February 23, 2004


Take a left off the coastal road of Sibulan, a town away from Dumaguete City, then take a steep but short climp up to Montemar. When you finally locate the cliffside villa where Edith Lopez Tiempo lives, you will be rewarded with a breathtaking view of Tañon Strait and the neighboring islands of Cebu, Bohol, and Siquijor. It is nearly sunset and the eastern sky is slightly washed in varying hues of orange and purple. You can only imagine the sunrise from this view. Mom Edith, as her students call her, ushers you in. You find yourself in a spacious and long hall with floor-to-ceiling glass windows along two sides–one facing the sea, the other, the mountains of Negros. Mom Edith shows you to a sofa at one end of the hall. Beside the sofa is a neat pile of books, mostly by Mom Edith’s students from the Dumaguete writers workshop. Seeing that you are settled nicely in your seat, Mom Edith prompts you about the interview. So, fumbling, you begin

In your previous interviews, you mentioned your connection to something mystical, something from the intuitive self. Also, your poetry always has had this mystical aspect. So, since you are steeped in the New Critical Tradition, has your poetry been enhanced by your mystical experiences, experiences which you have had since, I think, your childhood?

That’s a good idea. You can even go into those essays of mine, “Despair and Hope in the Creative Act”, and “Beyond, Extensions” because I talked of how one must leap beyond the world of reason into the extensions of these ideas which are obscured by our reason. This is very strange because it is reason that is supposed to take away obscurity. But in this case, it is reason that presents the obstacle, that creates the obscurity.

 So, when you say that while the intuitive plays a very large part, it has to be tamed by the rational in order to achieve form…

 That is right.

But is not the mystical, by the taming of the rational, in fact enhanced?

 Yes, it becomes more vigorous and has more impact. That is what e.e. cummings was trying to do, and people did not understand why it was so seemingly incoherent. By doing so, people who look at it would properly feel the excitement of the first impact. It was the way he reconstructed it.

 Even if it was subliminal on their part.

 Yes, Rowena [Tiempo-Torrevillas] demonstrated that “In Just Spring” [quoted in “Beyond, Extensions”], e.e. cummings wanted to go back into the extensions of the rational idea. As a matter of fact, ironically, the rational is the extension because the original is there, beyond. The original begun in the subconscious, let us say, and then it began to take shape in the rational form.

 In other words, the rational is actually expanded when the vision is given form by the intuition.

 Yes. Or let’s put it this way you have the idea, but that idea could be traced back to a more incoherent, but very vigorous impact on the sensibilities. Let us say we are talking of light, and you saw something in the light that the rational has defined–intellectual illumination. But where did that idea actually begin? Like e.e. cummings, you jump over the finished thing, go back to that moment, to that which gave impetus to that idea.

 But that jumping back is now rational.

 You have rationalized the thing—that light is really intellectual illumination—but then, you see, that is a statement. All you can do is give illustrations, which is not really poetry. So you want to go back to the moment that gave impetus to that idea. Usually, it is an image or a feeling about something. This is what we call the crude but authentic and vigorous impact of the mind on that idea. The encounter is there. You see what I mean? That is actually more vigorous than a statement. All you can do, if you do not go back to that initial image, is to illustrate it. Which is not the way of poetry.

You have written in “Beyond, Extensions” that young poets nowadays are satisfied with ideas they come up with, and so the poetry they write are merely illustrative of the idea. Is it possible that for those who go beyond the idea, those who explore the extensions of that idea, to feel that there is something more to that? That feeling, to go beyond, is really instinctual…

 Yes. Probably, in that hypothetical example I gave you, the poet woke up in darkness and wondered, “Am I in a house?” For a while, she was in a void, until she drew the drapes and realized she was in a house.

Which reminds me of an early poem of yours, “The Pane”. In this regard, what you wrote about in “Beyond, Extensions” is really an idea you’ve had a long time ago.

 Many years ago. It all goes back to what you said at the very beginning I write about paradoxes, ambiguities, ironies, contradictions, which are all reconciliations, really, of what the truth is. Truth is many-sided. We cannot just say, “This is true.” and “That is not true.” The poet needs to see all sides. It should be there, by implication, in the poem.

What direction has this idea or principle taken?

 Well, in “Beyond, Extensions,” I work with what can be taught to students of writing. And so I have recourse to ambiguities, to ambivalence, to irony.

So this idea has been honed through all the years of writing and teaching poetry. But when you wrote “The Pane,” and I believe you wrote this in the U.S….

 Yes, and that was the very first poem of mine critiqued by Robert Penn Warren in the workshop.

 I understand that you did not write that way before.

 No. And you will see that it is all one-sided, they are all assertions. There is no irony, there is no paradox, no ambiguity. It is just all assertions that ended in sentimentality and overreaction.

 So, in that sense, you were following a different tradition.

 That is the tradition of some of the Romantics. Some of them, not all of them. Not the true Romantics.

 As you said, you were just writing about these subjects from one side, but did you feel there was something else that you were not able to express?

 Ah, that is a good question. So, I will have to think about that for a moment … Maybe subliminally. Like a poem, I remember, which I showed to Paul Engle to give him an idea of what I was writing. It is called “Dead Tree.” The tree in the poem is dead. Yet I saw something in it. Something that was not in consonance with death. I cannot remember now, but I remember that it did something to me, looking at the dead tree, something that was not sad or dead or sordid or fearful. It was a feeling that should not have been inspired by something dead like that tree. Now, that is part of seeing the other side. I can remember that particular one. But most of the poems I wrote at that time before I left for Iowa, generally speaking, are full of sensitive responses—sometimes a very strong response—but not exploratory of any other thing beyond what was predominantly there. As you say, though, I probably had the capacity, if I had been guided into paying a closer attention to things that were beyond what was there.

 How did you respond to the ideas contained in the three books [The Modern Poet and the Tradition, Understanding Poetry, and The Well-Wrought Urn] Paul Engle asked you to read?

 At first, I really disagreed with what they were saying. It was too intellectualized for me. It was talking about problems like sentimentality, emotionalism. You could really see that it rubbed me the wrong way. It was saying all the things that went against my [pre-Iowa] poems. But I knew I had to go through it. And further on, I began to see something in it. Then I knew that those [pre-Iowa] poems were really just assertions. They were just one-sided, they did not allow for the whole truth. If the other side was not to be mentioned at all, it should be because it is already implied in the image.

But do you think that once an idea is explored or intellectualized in a poem, it does not connect with its readers anymore?

 For instance, the poem “Becoming”…

“Becoming” is more primordial, for me. And yet, there is that mastery of the craft, the words are aptly chosen…

 Interesting, what you said–primordial–because that is where the emotions come, I think. Do you remember, to retrieve that first impact of emotion, you have to go “beyond.” So you feel that it is there?

Yes. But do you think your poems are too intellectualized?

 They are. That is what I’m afraid of because, definitely, they are intellectualized. So I’m wondering if the intellectual element has sort of dried up the emotions. But I do not think so. This is the irony of it the more properly intellectualized an idea is, the more the emotion is articulated. I do not know if I am saying that because I am a poet. But I like to think that that is what ordinary intelligent readers have. I like to believe that for the average intelligent reader, the more properly intellectualized a poem is, the more it can evoke an emotional response. I think that is really the case.

 So what you mean by “intellectualized” is an idea that is concretely thought out.

 Yes, so that the emotions can come it. It is a response. When we say response, it is something that you cannot help. It is not just an intellectual response. A true response is one of the whole being. Acceptance is already a species of emotion. But usually, the emotion that people like to think about in poetry is the lyricism of it. And I still hope that even with my very very crafted lines, I still hope that some of that lyricism comes out. I would like to show you my poem, “Marginal Annotations.” It is an ars poetica. That is what poetry is about, really, the annotations that you put into things. I’m making comments “like some invisible sage leaving his slim marginal comments on the cosmic page.” The whole thing is an ars poetica. There is the procedure of poetry you respond to a certain situation, a certain idea, and your response, when you verbalize it–that is your annotation. That, after all, is what poetry is all about–one’s response to this and that. I just put in a concrete way when we look at the sunset, we know the day is ending not because the sun is sinking, but because of the color, the redness of the sunset. And so, it is something integral to the situation, or something added by design or accident by the seeing eye. And so that is what it is all about, marginal annotations.

Would you say that your poems from Tracks of Babylon to Marginal Annotations are “marginal annotations”?

 They are “marginal annotations.”

But did you think about that before?

 I never thought of that. It is only because I dared to really look not only beyond the idea but into it, in depth, that it came to me that they are really annotations. You see, an object is complete in itself. But there is more to it that just your incomplete completeness. Some may say it is complete; for many other eyes, it is not complete until you add to it. Some Eastern philosophies, like Zen, would not agree with that. You do not even say, “It teaches me about this… ” Or “It reminds me of… ” or “It proves that… ” Nor will I, either. What I want is for you to respond to it.

But it is just a marginal annotation.

 That is a marginal annotation. It is on the margin. It is not tampering with the object. If there is any tampering, it is because the marginal comment is added to it. But it does not destroy the object itself.

I think you said something about that in your interview with Edna Manlapaz and Marjorie Evasco “The only right we have to the images is what they give to us and that is recognition. We become aware of what is in the objects that is also in us. We do not impose, we do not take away. We recognize. That is the only right we have to the poetic images, mystically speaking.” (Manlapaz and Evasco 1996).

 That is it. It does not need to preempt the thingness of the thing. In fact, because one is an artist, one wants to enhance it for himself and for others.

But what if somebody takes you literally and says, “National Artist Edith Tiempo’s works have all been marginal annotations?”

 (Laughs) Yes! But I would say that the marginal annotations are original–originally crafted and originally envisioned.

That seems to be what you have always been doing–getting at the truth in the world.

 Yes, that is why I like a prayer I came across many years ago. Now and then, a preacher would also voice something like “Lord, You are not through with Your creation.”

Is that how you look at your life, that there is always this drive to create?

 Yes! And I think everybody, every human being has it. It all depends on what direction he chooses.

 How do you look at your role in Philippine literature?

 As a teacher.

Would you consider your work in the Dumaguete Writers Workshop as more important than your writing?

 Not really. I look at its effect. In doing all of them, I do it for myself, my satisfaction, but I am always conscious of its effect on those who can respond to it. I do not hope that everybody, every average reader, can respond to the poems in the way that I envisioned them, in the way I wrote them in response to my own confrontations.

Response to confrontations. How you wish you had even just a tenth of her perspicacity to write your own “marginal annotations.” You look outside. It has grown dark. You would like to stay longer and learn more, but you contemplate the drive back to Dumaguete. Before you leave, Mom Edith says you must see the view from the balcony. There are no fishermen’s lights out at sea yet, so the few stars in the sky seem to shine more brightly.

Works on Edith Tiempo:

Alegre, Edilberto and Doreen Fernandez. 1987. Writers and their Millieu. Manila De La Salle University Press.

Breshanan, Roger J. 1990. Conversations with Filipino Writers. Quezon City New Day Publishers.

Manlapaz, Edna Z. and Marjorie Evasco. 1996. “Poetry as the Rhythm of Violets.” Six Women Poets. Manila Aria Edition, Inc.

Manlapaz, Edna Z. et al. 1999. An Edith Tiempo Reader. Quezon City University of the Philippines Press.