Filipino poetry

INTERVIEW: In ‘Amigo Warfare,’ poet Eric Gamalinda reckons with the empire

Lé Baltar

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INTERVIEW: In ‘Amigo Warfare,’ poet Eric Gamalinda reckons with the empire

Photo by Edric Chen

Eric Gamalinda talks about the ‘distinctly postcolonial reality’ of the Filipinos: ‘Whether we like it or not, for better or worse, America will always be part of our national psyche’

MANILA, Philippines – Nearly two decades after its first printing, Eric Gamalinda’s poetry collection Amigo Warfare encounters a renaissance, this time in the Philippines. The Ateneo de Manila University Press has come up with an expanded and revised edition of the book for a new generation of readers because, as the author explains, it has been unjustly underseen.

The work’s latest iteration also marks a homecoming of sorts for Gamalinda, who grew up in Manila, where he also published several titles to great acclaim, among them: Planet Waves (New Day, 1989), My Sad Republic (University of the Philippines Press, 2000), and Lyrics from a Dead Language (Anvil, 1991). 

Reymart Cerin’s cover design not only pumps new life into the collection but also renders it expensive, sharp, and textured by harnessing the power of the photograph by Guatemalan photographer Luis González Palma. The artistry in many ways attends and attests to the temper of the time when most of the poems were conceived – in the wake of 9/11 and amid George W. Bush’s fraught regime. “It represented the reality and fragility of love, which comes with an element of risk and danger,” Gamalinda said.

The same image becomes the stimulus for one of the 12 fresh poems in the book. The collection is now divided into four sections, all prefaced by quotes from artists who have influenced Gamalinda. A particular section, the author states in the book’s preface, he dedicates to the memory of his late mother, hence the notions of life and death overarching most pieces.

There aren’t many poets quite like Gamalinda, with how he wields language to track the fine margin between what is obscured and what is revealed in the world around us. In Amigo Warfare, the attempt feels particularly spiritual and luminous not only in ways he invokes the divine in nearly every poem, but how he tries to diagnose our many inner lives and how they have been eroded by forces often cruel that even he at times can’t quite name. He searches for a cardinal point, only to be taken elsewhere. “Grief is a nation of everyone, / a country without borders. / I roam the avenues of it / out of habit,” he writes in DMZ.

At times, he talks about memory (“(13) Forgetting, like water, doesn’t have its own / shape.”), desire (“(4) We are born / full of love. (19) Then the world intervenes.”), our country’s tragedies (“I searched for the origin of my country’s sorrow / like an explorer looking for a river’s source.”), or the empire’s many faces (“America is not a noun, / a verb, an adjective. It is empty / until you fill it. With yourself. With others. / With indignation. With mettle.”).

At others, he toys with form, like how he mines a wealth of meaning in “Daisy Cutter,” which can or cannot be read according to cardinal numbers assigned to each line; or hints at his own poetics. “Poems are dead things, / a slow process of decomposition. If they don’t / decay, something terrible has gone wrong,” he declares in “Sprung Pidgin.”

But the poems are at their most terrific when the author does not shy away from being facetious and deeply decadent. “I would like to be able to walk inside a bar and tell everybody / the next round of lust is on me,” he teases in “Ego > Lust > Guilt.” And after all the deciphering, there is grace, an insistence of hope, as if to render what is broken whole again.

In this interview, Gamalinda reflects on his process and how, through Amigo Warfare, he reckons with his “postcolonial love-hate relationship with the empire.”

In the first edition, the poem “Plan B” closes with the line, “In the beginning was the Word. The rest is noise.” I think it is a very brilliant ending, but you’ve altered this line and added a couple more in the latest edition. Why make this change, and how tricky is it to revisit and update a poem as old as “Plan B”?

That ending always felt like a throwaway line to me. Looking back, I don’t even remember what I meant by it, and the dual reference to the Gospel and Shakespeare no longer makes sense. It wasn’t that difficult to let it go. I never think of a work as completely finished. Whenever I re-read any work of mine, I have to resist the urge to revise all over again.

How did the partnership between you and Ateneo Press begin?

The press’s former director, Karina Bolasco, and I have worked together for decades since her tenure at Anvil. So when she moved to Ateneo Press, it just seemed logical for me to follow her and broach the idea of re-publishing my novel, My Sad Republic, and this collection, which she passed on to the current director, Rica Bolipata Santos.

You’ve added a new section in the collection that you dedicate to the memory of your late mother. How does it feel to somehow immortalize her through your poetry? Is it hard to share something this private to your readers?

I do hope I manage to honor my mother’s memory through my poems. She taught me everything I love about poetry, and her favorite poems, which she shared with me, remain my own favorites to this day.

In the book, you also reference auteurs like Andrei Tarkovsky, Abbas Kiarostami, and Ingmar Bergman. Are there any parallels when it comes to your relationship with cinema and poetry?

I’ve always been moved by certain filmmakers, perhaps as much as I’ve been by some writers. I’ve used cinematic techniques especially in writing my fiction, and poetry has an obvious connection because of its use of imagery. These and other filmmakers have inspired me to look at the world – and life itself – from a fresh perspective, with wonder and hope. You can’t get any better than that.

The image in the cover, titled “No sabia que ella estaba pensando en,” is taken by Guatemalan photographer Luis González Palma. A new poem in the collection is also based on it. What draws you deeply to this photograph?

I first encountered González Palma’s photographs at the Robert Mann Gallery in New York. I just happened to be in the neighborhood and wandered in. I thought his images were so haunting and his themes resonated with my own cultural background. This one photograph was especially striking. (The cover doesn’t show the other half of the diptych, which shows an old piano, a music stand, and some sad-looking balloons). I loved the tenderness of the couple, as well as the edginess of the spikes coming out of their backs. It represented the reality and fragility of love, which comes with an element of risk and danger.

You mention that the book is “a reckoning of [your] postcolonial love-hate relationship with the empire.” What do you mean when you say “postcolonial,” and how do the many faces of the empire continue to inform your work?

I refer to the repercussions of a colonial history that persist in the present moment. In our case, we do have a distinctly postcolonial reality, which is obvious in our culture, languages, politics and global demographics. Whether we like it or not, for better or worse, America will always be part of our national psyche. 

Would you ever label your poetry, or work at large, as “diasporic”? And how do you contend with its complexities as someone who lives in the Global North but writes about the Global South – its politics and its material struggles in particular?

“Diasporic” as a label seems odd and arbitrary to me, because it became applied to my work only when I moved to the US. It just seems like a catch-all term for anything produced outside of Philippine territory. But would that mean that the books I wrote and published in the Philippines are now diasporic, or am I cleaved in two? Or am I “diasporic” only when I write about life in the US? In the same way, I don’t think it’s complex at all to write about the “South” while I live in the “North” – I write about what matters to me, no matter where I am. Our history never leaves us. It’s part of our identity.

There’s a hopeful note in the preface, where you talk about love as a possible antidote to the world’s self-destruction, and the first line of the opening poem “DMZ” immediately reflects on this: “At the end of my life I must stagger back to love.” With this declaration, do you think love can ever be revolutionary?

I think of love in the sense of agápe or philia, or the Christian caritas, or even the Buddhist sense of bodhisattva, which I find to be the highest but hardest form of love to accomplish. Whether that love can be “revolutionary,” look at those who first proposed those ideas and how they changed the world. –

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Lé Baltar

Lé Baltar is a Manila-based freelance journalist and film critic for Rappler. Currently serving as secretary of the Society of Filipino Film Reviewers (SFFR), Lé has also written for CNN Philippines Life, PhilSTAR Life, VICE Asia, Young STAR Philippines, among other publications. She is a fellow of the first QCinema International Film Festival Critics Lab.