Rina Garcia Chua is the editor of Sustaining the Archipelago: An Anthology of Philippine Ecopoetry, the first-ever ecopoetics anthology in the Philippines, which will be released later this year by the University of Santo Tomas Publishing House, a Manila-based university press.
I recently spoke with Chua, in part because the anthology speaks to many of the same environmental themes as Age of Blight, my short story collection from Unnamed Press that grapples with humanity’s role in the destruction and possible restoration of the natural world, among other things.
Kristine Ong Muslim: Tell us about ecopoetry and what inspired you to anthologize ecopoems by Filipinos. What makes Sustaining the Archipelago stand out from other poetry anthologies that tackle ecological themes?
Rina Garcia Chua: Ecopoetry has been constantly fluid in its definition, but I will begin by quoting from Greg Garrard’s essay (who will provide the foreword for the anthology) entitled “Images Adequate to Our Predicament: Ecology, Environment and Ecopoetics” that ecopoetry is that which adopts the stance that all human actions should be guided by what is the common good for all species in the entirety of the biosphere.
I will elaborate this further by saying that ecopoetry is a complex term that stems from three terminologies: nature poetry, environmental poetry, and ecological poetry. Borrowing from Anne Fisher-Wirth and Laura-Gray Street’s Preface for The Ecopoetry Anthology, I will define these: nature poetry has been around as long as poetry has been; thus, this is poetry that describes and is inspired by nature or the environment.
Environmental poetry was conceptualized during the 1960s (sparked by the end of the World Wars and the Industrial Revolution), when the effects of environmental degradation started becoming evident. Poets began to write with a politicized environment and activism in mind—delving into topics of social and environmental injustice, postcolonialism, gender studies, and such. Ecological poetry has been described as experimental for it exhibits what the environment is in poetry. It is metacognitive in the sense that it thinks about how poems can be ecological and what ecology can look like on page, sort of like biomimicry.
That being said, ecopoets work among different disciplines to create the space for those that are unknown in our environment—ecopoetry does not only talk about the environment using form, meter, and/or content, but it also brings you into the environment and makes you, as a reader, more knowledgeable and intimate with the space recreated through the poet’s words. To paraphrase Timothy Morton in Ecology Without Nature, we identify with the unknown monstrous thing. Even better is when we believe that we have BECOME the monstrous thing, thus rendering what is unknown as a crucial part of us, which is how it has been for ages. As Deep Ecologists say, “the world is my body.”
The inspiration for the anthology, Sustaining the Archipelago, was from David Jonathan Bayot, the Director of the De La Salle University Press, who advised me to anthologize Philippine ecopoetry for my master’s thesis. My mentor, Charlie Samuya Veric, who was assigned to me much later on, later said that writing a sustained environmental criticism of ecopoetry was more pressing than the anthology—it could wait. A few months after graduating from De La Salle University, I decided to continue the dream project of anthologizing contemporary Philippine ecopoetry.
Throughout my two years of studying ecopoems (specifically those of biologist/poet Abercio V. Rotor, Simeon Dumdum, Jr., and Merlie Alunan), I discovered that there was an audience for ecopoetry here in a country that experiences a catastrophe year after year, that is rich in its megadiversity, and is a strange mixture of North and South Places (as Val Plumwood terms the urban and rural areas, respectively). Specifically, people want to read about disasters and survival—how we have survived these and how we continue to remember them. People want to remember, and want to learn from these disasters. These ecopoems preserve our environmental history, which has never been done before. I want a track of that environmental history through this small project. I want us to remember how it was, how it can be, and how it will be.
As to what makes Sustaining the Archipelago different from all the other ecopoetry anthologies out there, it is easy to say that it is the “first” in the Philippines. But I digress, since I have always appreciated a challenge: the anthology is a much-needed voice for the Philippines, which is directly affected by the environmental crises we are going through. Not only is our country directly affected, but it is one of the MOST affected: we have the highest rising sea levels in the rest of the world (two to three times the global average since we are coastal) and we have experienced the most weather related disasters since 1994.
We have gotten by, barely, so far, but we do survive. I loathe using the word “resilient,” because that means that we do not learn anything from these disasters. We do survive, and we do so because we are the archipelago: a unity of many ecosystems and voices. The archipelago can never be truly central, for it is occupied by many environments—by multiplicities, to borrow from Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. We need to look at that reality: what may work for one island may not work for the other, but what can work in one island may also work for the other.
This is what the anthology will offer—an opportunity to see ecopoems as islands themselves, as independent spaces of knowledge, thought, and images, but these islands are communicating and interrelating with one another to form the archipelago. Without one of these islands, the archipelago will not be the same nor will it be. In compiling these ecopoems, we have a thumbtack of our environmental history and we remember. More than that, these ecopoems also define the ecological literacy of our local environment, which I believe may greatly resonate in a transnational way in the global environmental discourse.
KOM: How many submissions did you receive and how many did you publish from the slush pile? Can you also describe your process—from selecting the poems to ordering your selections?
RGC: It was a pleasant surprise to receive a hundred submissions—I have around seventy contributors, so there’s the math. However, I also solicited some works from ecopoets I have studied about and worked with before.
The process was tedious. I think my selective memory has blocked out parts of it because it was traumatizing to have undertaken it alone. Honestly, I did not expect the bulk of work that needed to be done and the pressure that I had to withstand from those who were either too eager or skeptical of the anthology. I am thankful to have had many friends in the literary community who helped me go through the selection and ordering process. I read each poem submitted to me one-by-one, and chose based on these tick points: the poem had to be based/about the Philippines; it should not use the environment as a metaphor or a framing device; it has to adhere to poetic standards and correct scientific facts (if present). That was it. I did not choose based on relations, literary communities, or affiliations. I tried to be as inclusive as possible—even welcoming contributions from environmentalists, scientists, activists, and young poets.
The next part of the process was to order them—but how? This was when I returned to my master’s thesis. Written as separate journal articles (and most of them published or presented locally or internationally), the chapters of my thesis all adhered to certain issues in our local environment: place, species (flora and fauna), disaster and survival, and environmental justice. These were some of the bigger issues of the local environmental discourse, and I decided to separate the ecopoems according to these. I have also envisioned the anthology as a probable teaching tool for scientific, literary, historical disciplines, so this was also taken into consideration when I classified each ecopoem in its subgroup.
The exhilarating thing is that all of the ecopoems I have chosen fit into a subgroup, despite never intending to classify them in the first place. Then came the more technical parts of the anthology: how to order them under each subgroup – I once more returned to my roots as an educator and thought that as a teacher, if I will be using this anthology as a teaching tool, I would like it to be arranged alphabetically under each subgroup so that I can easily find which poet I am interested in and their ecopoem. That was what I ultimately did.
KOM: In the Philippines, the struggle to maintain ecological balance is inextricably tied to social justice. A striking example of the manifold evils of environmental plunder in the country is the case of the pro-conservation indigenous people of southern Philippines, many of whom have been displaced from their homes and murdered for opposing mining and logging. As an editor and as a writer, do you believe that what you’ve set out to do with Sustaining the Archipelago, a unique and extraordinary addition to Philippine literature in English that had not seen one volume of eco-themed creative work until now, can affect change? How so?
RGC: I wish I had the proper funding for the anthology (I applied for one in a government organization, but was rejected—I think I have an inkling as to why), because I have always intended to include indigenous poetry like the Ambahan or folk songs in the anthology. I envisioned a comprehensive anthology that would have indigenous, historical, and contemporary ecopoems that have been published or chanted in the Philippines. In the end, Sustaining the Archipelago became an independent project that came to reality because of those who believed in it.
I will jump off from this—belief. I do believe that poetry can affect change. I will go back to my friend Greg Garrard’s essay. He says that poetry expresses “close personal involvements,” pertaining to the way we human beings respond to our own environmental matters. It then challenges us to the point of asking ourselves, what is my own response to my surroundings? This is the way we have responded to our surroundings—it is mapped out in this anthology. Then comes the question of have we done enough?
The anthology is a concrete voice for us in the Global South in the environmental discourse—this is what had happened to us, this is how we have responded, this is what you can learn from us. We are more than just the smiling faces on top of rooftops in international media, and this is our environmental history and reality. When Al Gore came here for the Climate Reality Leadership Training, which I was a part of, I was moved to tears when he used a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson to denote the fight against climate change deniers and fossil fuel capitalists. This is a demonstration of the power of words, of poetry.
Ecopoetry can discuss many topics—environmental justice is one of them. Ecopoetry can stir a response from those who were previously unaware of the injustices in their environment—including those of the indigenous peoples in the Philippines who are being driven away by both the government and capitalists. I remember hearing the songs of the Lumad when I was part of the Fluid States conference in De La Salle University – Manila and how much it struck my core. This is the power of the arts. It can instigate discussions, start revolutions, and clamor for change. Of course the anthology can never be change itself, but one spark may be all that we need for things to turn a hundred and eighty degrees around, and I want it to be one of the many sparks that I am expecting will be the result of this continuous endeavor.
This is the reason why I am enjoining poets, writers, activists, and young scholars to write for/about the environment. It is the crux of our society right now; it is the topic we all must be talking about because in a few years, we do not know if we will be able to survive climate change or not. Whenever I am asked about my being an ecocritic in the Philippines and the editor of the first anthology of ecopoetry here, people always compliment me and say that, “You are the trailblazer; you are establishing something important.” I respond otherwise by saying, “I need others with me.” The issues of the environment are those that cannot be undertaken alone – this is why I need young scholars and ecopoets to write along WITH me. The more we are, the stronger our voices are, and there will be more opportunities for the world (including the government and capitalists) to listen to us and the voices we wish to represent, like the Lumads.
KOM: Can you share an excerpt from the anthology and tell us why you chose this piece for us to read?
At this point, we have already discussed the Lumads, so it is fitting that I share with you an ecopoem by Kei Valmora Bughaw under Environmental Justice:
by Kei Valmoria Bughaw
In the city, time moves to the beat
of footsteps along crowded streets.
Here every minute is counted
and exchanged as gold.
For this we rush hurried, harried
by bosses hundreds of miles away
and smile on Skype—we’re okay.
Tomorrow is payday.
We steal breaks enough for coffee.
At the pantry the talk is small:
the weather back home, who’s married,
who’s gone bad, the recently buried.
Our mouths sigh the names of farmers
who lost crops to wind and rain.
Our heads shake at the poor Mamanwa
whose gods were killed by cranes.
As if we too didn’t lose ourselves,
didn’t lose our selves.
In the city, time moves. Abruptly—
we do not have time to speak of
neighbors who eat only at noon, or
forgotten parents staring at the moon.
As we get up to go, suddenly
I think of the muddy or dusty paths
linking the hills to the towns.
On those paths time does not fly.
On them the poor carry the world
in sacks on their shoulders.
I did not only choose this ecopoem for its content, but also for this poignant line: “As if we too didn’t lose ourselves, / didn’t lose our selves.” The multiplicity of the archipelago is evident here—the Lumads have lost their land, and we in the city are losing ourselves too, in an existentialist kind of way. There is unity there in the loss, a connection that exists despite being divided by miles of land and water.
The ecopoem does not degrade either the struggles of us in the city or the Lumads—we suffer the same, no matter where we are in the archipelago; thus, there is more reason for us to fight for what we believe we rightfully deserve. Here is the perspective aside from the one Bughaw has intimated in the ecopoem: the interconnectedness of all in the archipelago is evident, and in this interconnectedness, we learn to seek one another so that we can become unified in our fight for survival.
KOM: What are you hoping readers will take away from Sustaining the Archipelago?
RGC: I want the readers to know that there IS hope—that we can and will survive the challenges of climate change. We can learn from each other, like how the archipelago functions without a central unit because it recognizes and respects how each island contributes to its multiplicity. We can learn from ecopoetry. I also want the readers to see the archipelago as not but the land they live in but as a part of them – that the archipelago is their body, and that these are our words spilling out from our body so that we can finally be heard by the rest of the world.
POETRY – ANTHOLOGY
Sustaining the Archipelago: An Anthology of Philippine Ecopoetry, edited by Rina Garcia Chua
University of Santo Tomas Publishing House