INTERVIEWS

The Bluebird's Cry: an Interview with Christine Villa
Interview by Margaret Dornaus
Published in Ribbons Journal (Fall 2016)


M: Chrissi, before we begin, I want to congratulate you on the recent publication of your first collection of poetry, The Bluebird’s Cry. Both the design of the book and its content are beautiful, moving readers through an emotional arc from opening to close as they follow your journey as caregiver and spouse after your late husband,John, contracted cancer.

I first became aware of the work you were doing in response to John’s illness and death three years ago when I published one of your early tanka prose poems on my website as part of an annual Day of the Dead call I put out to celebrate and memorialize loved ones. When I received your poem (an earlier, untitled version of the tanka prose piece “Sanctuary” in your collection), I was touched not only by its tenderness, but also by the honesty you displayed in exploring the riot of conflicting emotions that accompanies the death of a spouse who has suffered through a debilitating illness. The tanka that concludes that piece

this morning
nobody fills up
the birdbath . . .
the blue jay and I
thirsty for you
 
is such an evocative portrait of grief—one that manages to be both universal and specific without being maudlin. How do you maintain that sense of balance without giving in to the temptation of sentimentality?


C: When I was much younger, I used to write cheesy poems that rhymed and sounded like Hallmark greeting cards. I was a prolific poet then, but one day I just got tired of this writing style. It was because of Kathy Uyen Nguyen’s post online that I discovered the beauty of tanka. I craved for more, dared to become a beginner in this form of poetry, and read a lot of examples.

 
Ever since I started writing about my grief, tanka has served as a poetic diary for me. I do exactly what Basho said to do when writing haiku, “Learn the rules; and then forget them." I write from the heart, usually based from my own experiences, and after I’ve written down what I feel, I double check myself to make sure I do not sound overly dramatic the way I did in my old poems. I write by showing rather than telling.

  
M: I see from your bio that you have a background in math and business administration, but I know that you also write children’s books as well as Japanese short-form poetry. How and when did you come to realize your passion for writing? Was it something that you held from an early age?

C: Have you ever heard of someone who loved something so much but was too afraid to pursue it because of fear of failure? That’s me. When I was in high school, I loved writing poetry and after college, I enjoyed writing short stories, a few of which were published in magazines. I knew for sure that I had the penchant for writing, but I couldn’t commit myself. I always made excuses. In short, I had an off and on relationship with writing poetry and short stories until that relationship became . . . more and more distant. It was only in 2009, a few years after I migrated to the U.S. from the Philippines, that I realized my passion for writing children’s books. Witnessing the lives of a family of robins outside my window made me come full circle. I started writing again, and this time it was for children. A year later, I stumbled on “Berryblue Haiku,” a children’s journal which introduced me to the joys of haiku writing. Soon I discovered some outstanding poets who led me to different international journals and Facebook groups. I found NaHaWriMo and Tanka Poets on Site, two homes that have helped me hone my skills in haiku and tanka writing.

 
M: You’ve told me that writing this book provided you with a way of dealing with your grief. I wonder how John’s illness might have given you the impetus to explore your writing more fully   . . . and the role that played in your healing process?

C: At first it was just my way of dealing with all the overwhelming emotions I was feeling when John was diagnosed with cancer. Then it helped me cope with my grief. The more I wrote, the more it became a healing balm for me. Writing this book was a channel to release the heaviness in my heart and at the same time, it preserved all the memories, including the ones I thought I had forgotten. It made me more grateful of each moment and more connected to the natural world.


M: By far the greatest number of poems (more than sixty) included in your collection are stand-alone tanka or tanka sequences. It seems to me that the tanka form, which traditionally compresses feelings associated with romantic or courtly love into five-line word paintings, is particularly effective in portraying the sense of longing you experienced after the death of your husband. But I’m wondering what drew you to this form (versus, for example, haiku) as a way to express your emotional reaction to John’s illness and subsequent death? Can you speak to that?

C: I have a tendency to gravitate towards tanka because its form allows me more freedom to explore and release my emotions. The extra two lines also give me more words to play with, thereby providing more dreaming room for the readers, allowing them to relate to the poem.



M: Although many of your tanka have the kind of lyrical quality readers might anticipate from the form, there are others in The Bluebird’s Cry that you tackle with a Postmodern grit which turns that expectation on its head, leaving readers, at times, gut-punched and breathless. I’m thinking of poems like

 
they tell me
to take you to a nursing home
I don’t hear anything              
just the counting in my head                        
of pills and diapers

which ends your tanka prose called “Another Purpose”; and this stand-alone tanka

icicles
stabbing the pavements—
I tell him
his cancer is back
as if I feel nothing
 
Knowing that the range of emotions accompanying grief cannot be candy-coated, I also recognize how difficult it is to own emotions others might erroneously interpret as “unfeeling”—especially given our society’s tendency to push those emotions down. How difficult was it for you to present these aspects of your grief in such an honest fashion? And did you find that poetry provided you with a way to express those feelings that, otherwise, you might not have expressed?

C: Grief has many stages and faces. It has no specific order. When I write my grief tanka, I let my thoughts and emotions flow naturally. I express what I feel at the moment, or I think of a recent memory. When I was writing these two tanka, I remembered holding myself together.  I couldn’t break down and cry because I had to be strong, the pillar who made sure that John was going to be taken care of the way he wanted to be. Tanka provided me a vehicle to express not only bottled-up feelings but also feelings of being numb or “unfeeling.” The brevity of this form of poetry provided just the right amount of words I needed to say and could say.

 
M: You also have haiku interspersed throughout your book, such as

twilight . . .
under the red oak tree
more dead leaves 

            and

fall leaves                     
still touching each other                     
our clothes in the closet

What, if anything, led you to choose haiku instead of tanka in such instances to express your grief? Was the choice instinctual? Or did the form itself dictate the content of your selections?

C: The choice was usually instinctual. When I found it too difficult to be overtly emotional or subjective, I turned to haiku. I implied my “aha” moment in fewer words and most often, that turned out to be more effective than stretching the poem out to five lines.

 
M: Several of the pieces included in The Bluebird’s Cry are examples of your haiga/taiga (images combined with haiku or tanka)—a form that, as editor of the online haiga journal  Frameless Sky, you are particularly adept at creating. How do you think your work as a visual artist has influenced your poetry, and vice versa?

C: Sometimes my visual art sparks an inspiration to write a haiku or tanka or the other way around. When I combine both, I make sure that the poem can stand alone and is not a mere description of the visual art. It should also be able to add depth to the experience by conveying those other sensations that the visual art leaves out. I try to achieve an end product that creates a bigger impact, an added layer of meaning which cannot be achieved by the two parts alone.
 

M: Finally, what advice and/or encouragement would you give others who might approach a similar endeavor to deal with their own grief?

C: For anyone who might want to use Japanese short-form poetry as an aid to deal with his or her own grief, write down in words those tears that need to be expressed. Keep a notebook or small index cards handy so you can jot down a thought, a feeling, a memory, or any concrete image. Even if closure is impossible, it will help you explore, discover, release, understand, and express your thoughts and emotions. Always remember that your grief is unique. Take as much time as you need and always be kind to yourself. You don’t have to force yourself to write every day. Let grief itself lead you to its different forms. It might come in snapshots, snippets of haiku, or in a string of tanka sequences. Not everything will come to you in chronological order. Just listen to your heart.

tumbling leaves . . .
I drift where grief
takes me today


M: Thank you, Chrissi. And congratulations again on the publication of The Bluebird’s Cry. I wish you every success as you move forward with your new life.

 

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