Filipino poetry

INTERVIEW: In ‘Nail Down the Sky,’ poet Jam Pascual redirects grief to the page

Lé Baltar

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INTERVIEW: In ‘Nail Down the Sky,’ poet Jam Pascual redirects grief to the page

Poet Jam Pascual at the launch of their debut collection ‘Nail Down the Sky’ last March.

Katrina Santiago

In this interview, Pascual gets intimate about the journey to completing 'Nail Down the Sky,' their take on content warnings in poetry, and how it feels to redirect all their grief to the page

MANILA, Philippines – “Sculpting the manuscript took about seven years,” writes Jam Pascual in a blog post about their debut poetry collection Nail Down the Sky, published recently by local independent press Everything’s Fine.

The impetus for the book, much like the route taken by most writers, began when Pascual became a fellow for a couple of national writing workshops and started submitting, often in spurts, to different literary journals, local or otherwise. 

“The underlying teaching of these workshops, I think, is that all that blood and breakage has to culminate in a book. I keep in touch with a handful of friends from that time, and we look back at all that with the sober bewilderment of like, why did any of that shit matter,” shares the author.

But it was when Pascual lost their father in 2017 to cancer that the material found real shape, as if to distill all the hurt into something meaningful, if not less painful. “I was under the impression that there is a correct protocol to pain, that metabolizing the grief properly meant pouring all of it into writing, which needed to be good, which needed to be in a book,” they explain.

In many ways, Nail Down the Sky, which comes with a terrific cover from photographer Renzo Navarro, exhibits this fraught and fragile juncture in the poet’s life – this proclivity to parse the tiny, private acts of violence that are part and parcel of the healing process, this need to seize the ephemeral so as to let the feeling rip and linger way more than one intends it to. “I ought to / nail down the sky, it keeps getting away from me,” they declare in the titular piece.

At turns quiet then vivid, sparse then buttery gorgeous, most of the poems in the collection observe the quotidian – fake band names, the cityscape, the influencer life, to name a few – that speaks of both personal and grander histories, resulting in such a painterly depiction of our collective griefs as people, as a country. “I watched so many of you stab flagpoles into where you used to be happy,” they write bluntly in “I posture like a sun and disappear behind the world.”

In Cool, the poet talks about ghosts or perhaps the routine existence of corporate life: “In other news, everyone I’ve ever loved / in this life steers the wheel that turns the millennium.” In 154, they seemingly invoke a love long gone: “Enmeshment would rather section / into separate encounters / to downcut the urgency / of company. I wanted / quite badly to be holdable.” At others, they simply seek for something more: “Nothing is wrong but something / is incomplete.”

Here, Pascual gets intimate about the journey to completing Nail Down the Sky, their take on content warnings in poetry, and how it feels to redirect all their grief to the page.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Photographer Renzo Navarro on the cover image. Photo courtesy of Katrina Santiago.
First, I want to share one of my favorite pieces in the book – I posture like a sun and disappear behind the world. I find it sprawling but at the same time lush in the way it maps images. How did you come up with this one?

That’s very kind of you to say, thank you! In my college years, I looked up to spoken word poets like Andrea Gibson and Anis Mojgani, who tended to be highly cavalier with their imagery and employed rhythm for rhythm’s sake. Wildness first, congruence second, come what wreckage may. I imagine there was a lot of stylistic carry-over when I shifted more of my focus to the page. But looking back at the state I was in when I wrote I posture like a sun, I wanted to write something that had an aggressive, pugnacious quality to it. A volley of shots. When I write, I’m often thinking of momentum, and what it means for a poem to have muscle and speed, or at least be paced well. You can probably tell there’s a lot of belligerence there – I’m employing a vague, composite “you,” made of both people I love and despise. It’s a major piece in a book about grief, and with it I wanted to demonstrate that it’s not always melancholy and softness. In fact that’s rarely the case.

Can you share how the idea for the collection began? How long did you have to work on it?

The collection took around seven years to write. After becoming a fellow for a couple of workshops, fresh out of college, I got it into my head that the natural course of things, the archetypal pipeline, was to eventually put out a book. That’s what the old guard did, after all. At the same time, I didn’t want to do that thing of shackling myself to my desk and writing every day, rushing myself, squeezing water out of a rock. Agony! So I wrote when I could and let the collection organically assemble.

Or at least that was the plan. My dad passed away in 2017 due to cancer of the kidney, and, I don’t know, there was this misguided, Bruce-Wayne-in-the-dark-alley compulsion to turn that pain into something, or else I’d go crazy. I was listening to a lot of A Crow Looked At Me by Mount Eerie and Holy Hell by Architects at the time. That’s when the book’s themes of grief, loss, and crisis of faith started to become clear, and I realized I had been grappling with ideas like broken faith and the collapse of metanarratives for most of my life. Religious angst will do that to you.

I finished putting together a manuscript by the tail-end of 2021. That was when I contacted Stefani Tran, a poet and a friend of mine whom I’ve always looked up to, who tackled similar themes as me when it came to the divine. I got in touch with her to be both my editor and sensitivity reader to make sure I was handling certain themes, like death and all the bull that comes with it, delicately.

When did Everything’s Fine enter the picture?

I cold-emailed them. Katrina Santiago (of Everything’s Fine) and I have looked back at this and laughed about it, how I, sheepish as all hell, basically said in the email, hello, I’ve never done this before, I have no idea how these things work, but if you could read this little thing and let me know if you rock with it, that’d be great. They took a gamble on me. A vote of confidence from Katrina and Oliver Ortega meant the world to me. I happen to be the first one in their roster of EF titles that fall into the poetry category. Honestly it’s just an honor to be nominated.

Jam Pascual with Everything’s Fine co-founder Katrina Santiago. Photo courtesy of Katrina Santiago.
I’ve observed that in some poems, like in Votive and Cool, you fixate on a word and sort of build your images around it. Has this always been your process?

Sometimes a word is all you need, if we’re being honest. I realize that my periods of creative stagnation are broken whenever I encounter an interesting word or a cool sentence. It’s rarely ever so deep. I’ve realized though that the way I go about my writing process, I establish a center  – whether that’s a word or an idea – and then spin centripetally outward, and catch whatever’s in the flight path. But always, there’s that anchor. That might be the “fixation” you’re talking about.

I’ve taken a look at Votive and Cool again, though, and I realize I do fixate quite a bit on ghosts. I’m fascinated by the idea of creatures that wander the earth restlessly, the possibility that we could become such creatures (locked out of heaven or hell), and the third-eye-witness accounts of friends who’ve encountered an apparition one way or another. I’m just thankful I can only engage with the restless dead in theory and not, well, practice.

Content warnings are included in the book. Some poets might consider this as ruining the reading experience. But why add it?

Stef was the one who first suggested that the book ought to have a page dedicated to content warnings, and I remember thinking “Oh, of course!” like, I was embarrassed at myself for not thinking so earlier. Katrina and I had a short conversation about this one day, after the launching of the book, how it might be a generational thing. I think one generation of writers believes that a poem has to present itself and its truths on its own terms for maximum effect, or a “pure” aesthetic experience, while another generation is more cognizant of the fact that certain triggers can cause adverse reactions (some of them physical), and that if we’re all going to be accommodating of each other’s embodied experiences, a little page of content warnings is a courtesy. I’m not a shock poet by any means, but some of the themes in the book are no joke, like self-harm and suicidal ideation. I know I’d appreciate some kind of heads-up from the author if I were the reader.

Personally, I don’t believe in “pure” aesthetic experiences anyway. And if I could push back with a little more force, if a writer thinks that their work’s strength is diminished with something as marginal as a content warning, well, doesn’t that betray a weak resolve? Aren’t you confident in your work’s ability to make an impact even with a warning?

I’m thankful that no one’s had any major beef with the decision to include content warnings, but the page also handily acts like some sort of litmus test. Whether someone’s cool with it or finds it peculiar lets me know where they’re at. But that’s just me.

About the cover image, how did you arrive at it?

Renzo Navarro is the photographer behind the image. There was a certain era of his I was a big fan of, where he was capturing these landscapes in such a painterly way, and I related to the solitude that those works evoked. But he showed me the cover as it is now, a shadow pinching at the wrinkle of a fabric, and I loved the way the image communicated with my work, the sympathetic sense of emptiness. It certainly didn’t hurt that it reminded me of the cover of Wet’s Don’t You record. Oliver of EF came in with the neon green back and red spine. The vibrance of it felt very rock ‘n’ roll.

The author signs copies of their book. Photo courtesy of Katrina Santiago.
Can you name any poets, writers, or artists that had a significant impact on your work?

The two writers who generously provided the blurbs at the back of the book, Gian Lao and Pet Magno, are poets I read a lot back in college who really crystallized in my head how sublime and sincere the lyric can feel. Hanif Abdurraqib is a poet and essayist whose name you might recognize  – he wrote a lot about his experience in the emo and punk scenes, and I think of him as one of the writers who pioneered that small literary movement of canonizing Carly Rae Jepsen’s EMOTION album. It was from him I learned how rewarding it can be for a poet to write in a manner that is true to their life, however much it doesn’t sound like the other shit out there. The poem Song by Brigit Pegeen Kelly is a poem I constantly come back to, the way the feeling it yields is the truest thing about it, even though the dramatic situation is fantastical. Then there’s Marie Howe, who often forgoes metaphor to reckon with the thing itself, and the language still comes out luminous. I’m not at that level yet. I still aspire.

The poems in the collection are relatively brief. When can you say that a poem is already complete?

Y’know what, this was asked at a workshop once. “How do you know when you’re done?” The poets, the fictionists, the essayists, the playwrights, all of us were dying to know. We asked the question collectively. And if I recall correctly, it was poet and professor Dinah Roma who said to us, “You just know.” I remember me and the other fellows letting out this resigned sigh through the nose like, yeah, you’re absolutely right, and when you get right down to it, that’s all it is.

Regarding the collection, each poem felt done when I felt empty and wrung out, like there was nothing left for me to say. I guess it worked, but for my money, I think I was wrong. When a poem is complete, the writer should also feel complete. Right? I’m excited to test this framework for the next book. I’ll let you know how it goes. –

‘Nail Down the Sky’ is available at Everything’s Fine and on Lazada.

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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.