Proust Questionnaire: 17 questions with Dinah Roma
By Yong Shu Hoong
To herald Dinah Roma as a quintessential Filipino poet is in no way an indictment that she is typical or even predicable. After all, what is the Filipino experience if not happy and sad all at once, an ever-morphing blend of varied themes, and an ungraspable mystery best unravelled by a quintessential Filipino poet?
A University Fellow and Professor of Literature and Creative Writing at De La Salle University Manila, Roma is the award-winning author of four poetry collections: A Feast of Origins (2004), Geographies of Light (2011), Naming the Ruins (2014) and We Shall Write Love Poems Again (2021).
In her poetry, there is a lightness of touch, an intimacy with languages and cultures whether within the Philippines or discovered in her travels abroad and a closeness to earth and spirituality guided by unapologetic sensitivity. Yet there is strength in her exposure of political turmoil as in this tribute to martial law victims in Samar, simply titled 'An Oral History Project':
Of too much pain, one survives
by taking it in parts. So a few days after is easier
on the tongue as it is on the mind. For how
lives could be told as they unfold, ravaged
before our eyes. They are the kindest words
to stall what could pass off as history,
chronicled now behind this lens to discern
how darkness unhinges, in between the sun
setting and rising, in between breathing,
in the flesh ripping apart, in the minds losing
what it could hold, numbed into
what it could wake up to
a few days after
Roma has received international fellowships for her scholarship, with creative and critical works published in numerous anthologies and journals. Her book of essays, Weaving Basey: A Poet's History of Home, which was awarded the National Book Development Trust Fund Writing Grant for local history and culture, is slated for release by the end of 2021.
1. What are you reading right now?
The quarantine has allowed me to read several titles of varying topics at the same time, so unlike before when my (reading) time was spent mostly on updating my teaching materials. Now I'm reading the poet Ocean Vuong's semi-autobiographical novel, On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous. His language is ethereal. I'm midway through the book, How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Teaching. I'm still wrestling with many of the concepts and reading the book rather slowly. But I feel my brain cells are stretching to their maximum, which is good. Then recently, my sister in the United States sent me Louise Glück's Poems 19622012, which I enjoy a few pages at a time. With poetry, I do not really push to finish the volume in one sitting. I don't actually have a timeline for it. Slow is what I prefer.
2. If you were a famous literary character in a novel, play, or poem, who would you be, and why?
I have so many candidates in mind for this question. But there's one creative non-fiction book that really stands out in my memory. That's Stacy Schiff's Cleopatra: A Life (2010). Of course, Cleopatra is by herself a larger-than-life sort of character. She's been described as ruthlessly intelligent and charming. A sharp strategist. And she endured many ordeals throughout her life. At the time I was reading Schiff's Cleopatra, I would ask myself occasionally how I'd fare if I were in her place. But that's only because I would never survive any of what she went through. I guess, it's really the compelling writing of Schiff that mesmerised me and the way she has breathed a new life to such an enthralling queen.
3. What is the greatest misconception about you?
This assumes that someone actually wants to figure out my character. But to answer the question: the greatest misconception about me would be that I'm so welcoming. I prefer not to be around people too much.
4. Name one living author and one dead author you identify with most, and tell us why.
Again, I'd like to list as many as I can for the (living) author that I identify with the most. But I'd probably choose the Japanese writer, Yoko Ogawa. Her explorations into human memory are astounding. I read an article about her in the New York Times which talks about how she discovered The Diary of Anne Frank as a teenager. It inspired her not only to take up journal writing but to simulate writing in cramped spaces or enclosures to get as close to what Anne Frank felt at the time of her hiding. And this became an impetus for Ogawa to write her internationally acclaimed novel Memory Police (1994), which echoes the repression in authoritative societies.
For the dead author I identify with the most it would be the Irish poet Eavan Boland. I love her fluid and effortless writing. There was a time I was obsessed with her poetry that I would copy many of her poems in my journal to get a feel of their words and turns of phrases. I think what I really was drawn to in her work is the "immediacy" it gives. It's as if she's palpably present in her poems.
5. Do you believe in writer's block? If so, how do you overcome it?
When I was younger, yes. I indulged in the notion of a writer's block to procrastinate on writing projects. But that got me into trouble, especially when I take on writing projects all at the same time. Over time, I realise that productivity can only be a function of discipline. There cannot be any other way to this. And one thing I've learned to dislike is to make excuses for myself. So I really just say ahead of time whether I can commit to a writing task or not.
6. What qualities do you admire most in a writer?
Stamina, perseverance. I cannot imagine how novelists, for instance, can write hundreds and hundreds of pages about several characters and still keep track of their unique characters and roles. That's sheer attention and focus.
7. What is one trait you deplore most in writing or writers?
Arrogance, particularly, among younger writers. I always recall the words of a Japanese theatre master when I'm in the presence of an overly confident writer "Everything that an artist does before his 60s is just a rehearsal." So, chill.
8. Can you recite your favourite line from a literary work or a piece of advice from a writer?
Give me a little less
With every dawn:
from the poem 'Prayer' by John Burnside.
9. Complete this sentence: Few people know this, but I
cannot declutter my room.
10. At the movies, if you have to pick a comedy, a tragedy, or an action thriller to watch, which will you go for, and why?
I'd always go for action thriller. Some of my favourites are film director Sidney Lumet's Dog Day Afternoon (1975) with Al Pacino in leading role, the Godfather series, Heat with (again) Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. Then there's Taken with Liam Neeson. I cannot get over the line, "I will look for you. I will find you and I will kill you." There's something cathartic about it. Comedy and tragedy, I often get the feel of these in the texts I'm teaching in my classes. And many of the comedy films around are slapstick. But action thriller is an entirely different world. It's probably all the chaos, the chasing and the calm after. All in a span of 90 minutes.
11. What is your favourite word, and what is your least favourite one?
My favourite word: "petrichor". I love the smell of the soil after it rains. It's so unique and refreshing. I did not know that there is such a word for it until I encountered it. And I am happy for it. My least favourite word: "nice". So flat.
12. Write a rhyming couplet that includes the following three words: prey, zone, glow.
Beneath the blue patina of glow,
Zones of prey, dead bones, lit the flow.
13. What object is indispensable to you when you write?
I like to litter my writing table with different coloured pens. Not that I use them when I'm writing. I just like picking up something when I'm in the middle of a thought and holding it till perhaps I've gotten something to push me past a deadlock.
14. What is the best time of the day for writing?
I like writing late at night. This would begin around 9pm until midnight. Before this I'd just putter around my place to mentally prepare myself for writing. I'd be happy if I can come up with an outline or parts of an essay or a rough draft of a poem. Then I'd wake up early in the morning, around 6.30am to look at what I've come up with the previous night then just start revising. I think for many: our minds work best in the morning when we've gotten a good sleep.
15. If you had a last supper, which three literary figures, real or fictional, would you invite to the soiree, and why?
Dmitri Karamazov of the novel The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Anna Karenina from the novel of the same title by Leo Tolstoy, and Pilosopong Tasyo (Tasyo, The Philosopher) from our very own Jose Rizal's novel Noli Me Tangere. I'd really like to add in one or two more literary figures to round off the energy, so to speak. The three characters possess distinct intensities and would probably have no common topic to talk about. Pilosopong Tasyo is considered the town sage or "cordial madman" in the Rizal's literary masterpiece. He can probably draw up an existential exchange with Dmitri. And, hopefully, they can talk Anna Karenina out of her melancholic state. Just a thought anyway.
16. On your Facebook page, you commented on your recent fascination with "bioluminescence" can you explain how this can feed into your new writings and find relevance in our present-day concerns and strife?
My interest in "bioluminescence" has something to do with a poem I tried writing after a night of firefly watching down Abatan River (Bohol) many years ago. It was the first time I witnessed such a luminous display of nature. I was fascinated with how a throng of fireflies would light up in unison. I wanted to understand a bit of what was happening. So this got me to "bioluminescence". I watched tonnes of videos on YouTube about it. And was hooked all the more on the phenomenon. I envision the dream project related to this would be a collection of poetry and paintings. The paintings would recreate the "bioluminescence" in the poems. This is as far as it gets at the moment. It will probably take me a long time to even get around to writing the poems. So I'm not really giving myself any deadline for this. But regarding the point of your question about "relevance in our present-day concerns and strife," I guess I'd say we still have so much to explore about the wonders of our world.
17. What would you write on your own tombstone?
QLRS Vol. 20 No. 3 Jul 2021
"Here lies Dinah the woman who tried to account for everything."