Interview #101 — Darlene Silva Soberano
Darlene Silva Soberano is a Filipino poet. Their work has appeared in Mascara Literary Review, Australian Poetry, and Cordite Poetry Review.
You are currently studying creative writing at RMIT; what brought you to wanting an education in the literary arts? Was it a usual study path in your family?
I’m not sure I can do much else, honestly. My parents were never particularly insistent on any specific career, which is strange for Filipino parents, so I always let myself deep dive into whatever I was interested in. I have been interested in so much. I used to be a dedicated tennis player in my teens, mostly to be close to a girl I liked. I wanted to be the guy whopoints at my girl every time I score a point. Let me tell you this is not feasible in singles tennis. You score a point all the time, and you don’t have teammates!
I always want to be like my dad, and he’s an aircraft engineer. I always want to be like my Lolo, and he fixed electrical appliances. My earliest childhood memories take place in my Lolo’s workshop. I remember hammering nails into a block of wood for hours and thinking I was a genius. My mother has a degree in computer science. So, I do come from a practical family, but practicality was not interesting to me as a teenager and deciding post-secondary school options.
I do very much believe in schools, and I like to study and to learn even if I’m not always the best student. I also believe in language. I want to be surrounded by it. I want to be surrounded by people who hold language with the same wonder that I do. When I was finishing high school, I thought this was the only way to have access to that kind of environment.
But now I want to have a house with dark blue walls. I did not anticipate this at 18. I also did not anticipate that I would finally become a poet. My poems cannot buy me a dark blue house.
Following on from that, what did you read and listen to growing up that brought you to poetry?
Music is my first love, and so my interest in poetry was very much primed by this. I don’t see a difference between music and poetry now that I’m older.
I listened to a lot of pop music as a child—and I still do. Jesse McCartney, High School Musical, you name it, I listened to it. I was big on the b-sides of a pop album, too. I know all the words to all of Jesse McCartney’s first three albums. And I was really into late 90’s–early 2000’s R&B. And I was also really into that YouTube singer-songwriter, OPM-esque music that used to be big. Gabe Bondoc, Lateeyah. And of course I loved OPM. All of these genres have informed my preference for demotic, conversational, lyrical poetry. I’m in my feelings all the time.
I also read John Green’s novels when I was a teenager. I styled my writing voice after him back then. I thought there was so much poetry in his craft. Now, I am not so much inspired by his work. But it is important to like things when you’re young that don’t hold much for you when you get older. Like the movie Donnie Darko. I watched that for the first time as an adult and hated it, but there are people who watched it as a teen and felt understood because of it and that is real.
The first poetry collection that stayed inside my brain was Richard Siken’s Crush. I was maybe 13 when I first read it. I can try to relay how much Crush means to me, but it is difficult to express because I’ve had a relationship with it for such a long time. I will say that when I was 13 years old, I was really gay and really lonely and it was a collection that I really needed back then. I am not so lonely now.
I don’t think my deep dive into poetry was instant, though. I think I am still diving. My relationship with poetry transforms over time. When I was younger, my interest in poetry wasn’t defined with any kind of fidelity. I couldn’t tell you poets I liked except maybe Shakespeare and Neruda, but that was because I was very basic! I really loved Tumblr poetry and the poets that Tumblr loved. I was a kid, but, you know what, I still think Tumblr poetry is valid. As you can see, I love trash through and through.
Proximity to delightful, moving language was what I wanted, and Tumblr poetry provided me access to this. It is good that I was not seriously writing poetry when I was an avid Tumblr poetry fan, though. I am glad to not be writing in that style. I don’t hate it. I think it’s good that it exists for people to find and delight in, and feel understood by it—these are all the things we want from art. But it’s no longer for me. Anyway, I think many of the Tumblr and Tumblr-famous poets have graduated from that style.
Tumblr poetry is useful for exercising voice. I am trying to be optimistic about Instagram poetry also being good exercise, but the difference is that Instagram is big on brands and money to be made through brands. So. I am not sure this makes for good poetry. I would like very much to be proven wrong.
I used to be a dedicated tennis player in my teens, mostly to be close to a girl I liked.
As of now, who are the poets and the poems that are foundational to your experience as a poet?
Discovering Richard Siken was so important for me because he was the first living poet I read. I learned that poetry didn’t have to be wielded by the dead. I learned that I could wield it, too, even if I was not yet comfortable doing so.
I definitely turn to Kaveh Akbar’s wisdom in his poems and in his ideas about poetry. I dedicated ‘Digging the Dancing Queen’ after him. Specifically, I borrowed a lot from his poem, ‘Portrait of the Alcoholic Floating in Space with Severed Umbilicus’.
Ocean Vuong’s ‘Seventh Circle of Earth’ changed my whole life. I know where I was when I first read it: on an afternoon train to Footscray in 2018. That poem changed the way I think about margins, about using events in poems, the ethics of using events in poems—especially if people died, or were murdered. In Vuong’s collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds, he has a poem called ‘Into the Breach’, which opens with an epigraph from Jeffrey Dahmer! How wild! How risky!
Oh—and look, I do have to list Frank Ocean as a foundational poet for me. The danger is that I will want to add more musicians than is probably acceptable, so I’ll allow myself just him. I have tried very hard in the past to make poems that sound like a Frank Ocean song. It’s impossible. But they make for important exercises. I learn a lot from failure.
Siken, Akbar, Vuong, and Ocean’s works tend to shuffle between damage, danger, and tenderness. Often toeing the line, often blurring these lines. This is what I seek as a reader and am learning, little by little, to seek it as a writer. Their works are also heavily underscored with longing. Longing for real love and recovery and goodness.
In your poem ‘Digging the Dancing Queen’ in Tell Me Like You Mean It vol.2, your ‘ruins are so foreign’, you explore the nature of time as we grow into our first adulthood. Would you speak on that?
Recently, I read a poem that’s about two years old now. It’s called ‘You Like The Smiths?’ I hadn’t looked at this poem in a very long time and I’d found that I no longer had the same relationship with it compared to when I first wrote it. I realised that all of my poems rely on the present. Everything is happening right now, right now. I’ve changed so much since the writing and publication of ‘Digging the Dancing Queen.’ I am smoking again, for one. The poem used to be a spell against relapse. Now, the poem itself has become a foreign ruin.
The full quote goes: ‘these ruins are so foreign // I could believe they were put in me // by aliens, ancient / enough for my old aches to return’. The narrator marries the past with willpower. How you made the promise to quit while you were this person, while you smashed your cigarette case in your backyard while your close friend ate a sandwich. The narrator is thinking: I can’t access that memory anymore. I’m not there anymore. All that willpower erodes because I’m not that person anymore.
And now, even further, I am someone who has learned that you have to ask for help from more than yourself. You have to open yourself up to being cared for by many people. You can’t get better and not be vulnerable. You learn this. You grow older. You no longer believe that you are made of ruins.
You can’t get better and not be vulnerable. You learn this. You grow older. You no longer believe that you are made of ruins.
In your beautiful collaboration with Eloise Grills for Cordite Poetry Review, ‘Dispatch from the Future Fish,’ the river is a place that holds your identity and the place where you can transform, with the subject of the poem eventually declaring ‘I am they’. What has your experience of gender fluidity been like as an Asian Australian?
It’s a lot of searching for affirmation by reading and learning from trans literature and ideas. I spoke before about self-sufficiency. I lack self-sufficiency when it comes to self-affirming my identity as a South-East Asian trans person. The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson is particularly close to my heart. Recently, I read Mira Schlosberg’s essay, Dick Talk. I felt really seen by that essay. I was affected by Jack Halberstam’s essay, Unbuilding Gender, so much that it just dominated my headspace for weeks. I quoted it all the time. I quote it in the critical statement that goes with mine and Eloise’s collab! And the idea for the words portion of Dispatch from the Future began while I was listening to Eileen Myles for The Wheeler Centre last year, who said, ‘I am a they lesbian,’ and cracked me entirely open.
I want to read Emezi’s Freshwater more than anything in the world, so I’m waiting for enough quiet time to read it and let it take over my life.
All of this is to say that most of the time, for me, being a trans person of colour is made up of a desire to feel real. Even now, I’m thinking: Should I even be calling myself trans? Wouldn’t it be more accurate to call myself non-binary? I don’t want to be misunderstood. I don’t want a potential romantic interest to seperate me from my lesbianism, etc. What about this, what about that? If I were talking about this in a room full of trans POC, I would be like: Yes, I am this, I am that, I don’t have to explain myself.
Following on from that, what is the role of collaboration in your creative practice?
First of all, I am so grateful for Eloise. We told a story that was personal to me and they made me feel safe—which I think is key to collaboration.
I consider collaboration to be vital to my creative practice. But I’m cheating because I really do define collaboration so loosely. I am very much somebody who wants to celebrate the works of my peers. So for me, being in conversation with them, interviewing them, asking for their recommendations, tweeting about their work, turning up to their events, are all types of collaboration. Being influenced and talking about my influences is a collaboration.
What role does the personal take? How do you balance autofiction, memoir and fiction in your poems?
My work is fuelled by the personal. We connect to other people when we come as we are. I think what I really want through my poems is connection. I want to understand and to be understood. So I try to be as specific as possible while protecting my privacy. This is maybe the most Libra/Scorpio cusp thing I’ve said in months. I wanna be a mystery and I wanna be understood. Libra/Scorpio through and through. I’m reading Alexander Chee right now and in his essay The Writing Life, he talks about what he’s learned from Annie Dillard: ‘You can invent details that don’t matter, she said. At the edges. You cannot invent the details that matter.’ And Shira Ehrlichman said in a podcast once, ‘I think intimacy is what is missing with most things that are stigmatised. We only have the caricatures. If you can create intimacy … then you have this ticket to understanding and empathy.’ I turn to these ideas from Chee and Ehrlichman to help me to balance all of the moving pieces in a poem.
How do you see the poetry scene as a whole right now? Do you think it is reflective of your Australian experiences? What importance does representation hold for you? How do you see the community of your contemporary emerging poets? Do you feel like you are in a greater conversation with them?
I want to talk about an observation I keep turning over in my head as of late. A lot of the Australian poets whose work I connect with most—off the top of my head: Chi Tran, Saaro Umar, Eunice Andrada, Mindy Gill—are people of colour and belong to a diaspora. These poets all have distinctly different styles, are concerned with distinctly different themes and motifs and events. What they do have common is that they tend to write about a place, or from a place, but they don’t really name those places.
In her collection, ‘Flood Damages’, Andrada doesn’t call on distinct images in Sydney. Umar’s poem, geography test, doesn’t have any distinct Narrm references. Both works are largely preoccupied with space. This technique of omitting names is a clever dodging of space that is uncomfortable to inhabit.
I know for me, when I was a child and trying to write stories, I never set them in Australia. I never set them in the Philippines, either, because it felt wrong to set a story somewhere I didn’t live in. Australia never felt like the right place to set my stories, though, and yet it is the country in which I lived and experienced everything. I would have much rather created a fake country to fill with characters. I think this comes largely from immigrant melancholia. André Aciman wrote in his essay, Parallax: ‘I am elsewhere. This is what we mean by the word alibi. It means elsewhere. Some people have an identity. I have an alibi, a shadow self.’ How do you write a place when you were never really there?
But I do want to write with detail, especially now that I’m a poet and not really concerned with writing fiction. I want to say that this event took place on this street or that street. This suburb. Most of the time, I ask: ‘What for? Why name a place? What’s the point? It’s a technique I use to create intimacy, okay, but I need a better reason.’ A lot of diaspora writers are concerned with these questions, whether or not we consciously consider them while we’re writing. This is a greater conversation that I am interested in right now.
All of this is to say that most of the time, for me, being a trans person of colour is made up of a desire to feel real.
What has been your experience studying writing in a Tertiary setting? The American system of MFAs has been famously documented to be somewhat hostile to non-white European perspectives. Has that been your experience? Is it difficult to be Asian and Australian and study writing?
I will say that it is difficult to be one of the few people of colour in the room. I am always cognisant of hostility because I once had someone say to me something like, ‘You’re so good at writing, I hate you.’ I think this happened in 2016 and I was fresh at university. I’m not trying to humble brag! It was not a good ‘compliment’! I understood this comment was more about the other person than it was about me. When you’re a ‘talented’ writer in a class full of people similar to your age, you can become a beacon that receives projections of insecurity. ‘Talented’ is such a cop-out compliment; when you call someone else ‘talented’ as an explanatory comment, you are attaching natural gift to their abilities rather than actual, difficult work.
Then, when you are a person of colour and you are ‘talented’ in a room full of white people, there’s less understanding. Many white writers in a creative writing course don’t want to own up to their mediocrity, so they deflect. I am sympathetic to this, I promise, but I am not appreciative of receiving jabs that contain the sentence, ‘I hate you.’
So, it can be lonely, especially when I am someone who wants to be in earnest conversation with my peers. That being said, this is a harsh picture. Most people are not mean-spirited. And most of them find their chill after first year.
Then there is, of course, the academic side of the situation.
I’ve never had a teacher of colour at university. Though, I’ve adored many of my teachers. I am somebody who gets obsessed with my teachers—but teachers of colour are so vital. I think that their absence in tertiary institutions is terrible, especially their absence in the creation of a syllabus. The syllabus is crucial to the way that a studying writer thinks. You are what you analyse from what you read. Who chooses what you study? Most of the time, white, elite academics choose.
And lastly, I’ve not always been a poet. I didn’t figure out I could write good poems until I had to write poems for university in 2016. I didn’t become a poet until then. That is an experience that has changed my whole life, and is the single experience that, for me, makes going to university for creative writing worth it. A writing course will often ask that you write outside of your regular genre. I think that’s so important.
What are you working on now? What do you dream the future will be like for you, for your work and for the wider Australian Literature scene?
The more poems I complete the more I understand what makes a finished poem for me, which is good, because then it means I will write more good poems. I went to the John Mayer concert this year. A very little know fact about me is that I am a big John Mayer fan. Anyway, he played two setlists and I thought to myself: I don’t have enough poems to make two setlists. I can’t make a narrative arc in a reading like Mayer can make a narrative arc with his songs. I’d like to be able to do this. And honestly, I want more teachers of colour at the front of the room. That’s a great concern of mine. I am surrounded by such incisive, hard-working writers of colour who are so quick to give advice and recommendations. I wish they got more opportunities to run workshops and classes.
Do you have any advice for emerging writers?
The only reason I’ve gotten anywhere is because of the encouragement and enthusiasm of my teachers. When you receive encouragement, let it move you. And later, when it is your turn to be somebody’s guide, do so as generously as you can manage.
Go make friends. Be a part of a community if you can, and not even writing communities—although they are a good choice. Definitely seek them out if you don’t want to take the university option. Overall, find a way to be among people who make you feel safe.
To be a good writer, you need to move towards healing and recovery. In the words of Hanif Abdurraqib, ‘No one is making their best work when they want to die.’ Watch out for anyone who tries to tell you otherwise.
I know the narrative of the artist’s life is that it is a life that moves towards toxicity. I am saying you don’t need that. You don’t have to wake up alone in a ditch to write a good poem. You don’t have to scream at rivers at midnight anymore. You can watch cartoons, you can cook spaghetti, you can turn to your favourite dog and marvel at their existence.
To be a good writer, you need to move towards healing and recovery. In the words of Hanif Abdurraqib, ‘No one is making their best work when they want to die.’
Who are you inspired by?
I am inspired by the queers whose work makes the image of myself more sharper in my brain and more precious. Heather Love, Jack Halberstam. Richard Siken, Ocean Vuong, Loma. Maggie Nelson. Alexander Chee. Tarell Alvin McCraney. Frank Ocean, Janelle Monáe.
What are you currently listening to?
I’m always listening to Carly Rae Jepsen, Frank Ocean, Billie Holiday, Lorde, and John Mayer. I really dig the Old Town Road (Remix) by Lil Nas X with Billy Ray Cyrus. It’s a song so wondrous that it makes me feel grateful I get to be alive on this planet. I love Mitski’s cover of Let’s Get Married by Bleachers. Mandy Moore’s 2007 album, Wild Hope, has been on a loop. I’ll wake up in the morning and not know what I want to listen to that day. Hey Siri, play Mandy Moore’s 2007 album, Wild Hope. Selena’s Dreaming of You has been stuck in my head for a few days. I am very happy that Beyoncé’s Lemonade is now on Spotify. What a joy to be able to revisit it so freely. And, of course, Carly Rae Jepsen’s new album, Dedicated, just got released. I’m not sure I’m going to talk about much else in the next few days.
What are you currently reading?
I read multiple books at the same time, for different purposes, without really meaning to. I started out this month reading I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara and planned to read Ann Rule afterwards. Then I cracked open Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel and was absolutely caught in its whirlwind.
I turn to Brené Brown’s books whenever I need that extra shot of resilience: Daring Greatly and The Gifts of Imperfection.
I read Sarah Waters’ Tipping the Velvet before bed because it’s stimulating, but not so much so that I’ll stay up to finish it.
I’m also reading a lot of essays about Carly Rae Jepsen right now because I want to know everyone’s thoughts on Dedicated. In a similar vein, I’m always on the lookout for essays about Mitski. I’m clearly a huge fan of Jia Tolentino.
How do you practice self-care?
I burn incense. I cry. My psych told me, ‘Crying creates self-compassion,’ like, hello? What great advice? Now I’ll never stop. I watch Moonlight for the hundredth time. I love Paddington and Paddington 2. My favourite funky little immigrant bear and his funky little sandwiches. I go to churches. I don’t like to attend mass at all, but I like sitting in pretty churches. They do have to be pretty or I won’t go near them. In St. Francis’ Church on Lonsdale Street, they have this little alcove full of Mary paraphernalia. The Hail Mary is my favourite prayer, and Mary is my favourite Biblical character, so I really dig that space. I just sit there and cry and work things out in my brain.
What does being Asian-Australian mean to you?
I’m not sure that I am. When I first heard this term, I didn’t know what it meant. I’m not sure I know what it means now.
I’ll tell you this, though: I am not alone. I create my experience of Australia with my dearest friends, who are all Filipino. We’ve all know each other for over a decade, since we were children and figuring out how to be children. We play boardgames and we fight. We eat chocolate cookies. We go to a McDonald’s and end up staying there for over three hours. Our brains melt from having stayed in a McDonald’s for over three hours. We play Call of Duty: Zombies and I’m the best player. Most of the time, I think they play for my sake more than their’s. We drink beer and we don’t like it. We watch the Avengers movies, and we don’t really like those, either. We yell at one of our friends to not rent Baby Driver on iTunes. He rents Baby Driver on iTunes. The only person who understands the Mike Myers joke in the movie explains it to the rest of us. I still don’t get it. We have barbecue and rice at our birthday parties, without fail. We pick each other up from a train station at 2 a.m. We pick each other up off of the floor of a train station at 2 a.m. We don’t live in Australia without each other, but someday we might.