Interviews, Recent

Interview // “Language as a Map to a Future Destination”: A Conversation with Ina Cariño

by Aditi Bhattacharjee | Contributing Writer

Ina Cariño’s Feast (Alice James books, 2023) is a fearless debut that combines their personal story with the political history of the Philippines to express the aftereffects of colonization and migration. The collection explores a hunger for identity, ancestry, geography at the intersection of liminality, among other things. The poems in the book are replete with beautiful food images that help in creating the worlds that the narrator enlivens for the audience. The raw authenticity of the narrator’s voice brings us closer to navigating questions of otherness at different levels that people of color feel on a daily basis. I was very grateful to be able to have a conversation about their process in writing this collection via a Google Doc.

Aditi Bhattacharjee (AB): I am fascinated with the universe you have created in “Feast,” which is rich with mountains, loam, archipelago, tropical fruits, milk, vines, butterfly, beetle, finches, sari-sari stores, haranas, dandelion-clocks, dreamsongs and, underneath all of that, one also finds the images of nicked thumbs, swollen bottom lips, haggard breaths, scraped elbows, and skinned shins. This juxtaposition can be seen in each poem in the book. What went into building this layered narrative?

Ina Cariño (IC): You’re right that food and natural landscapes are integral motifs of Feast—and there is a certain kind of the innate yet visceral experience that I wanted to showcase in this book. Visceral, as in the wounds we carry as brown bodies, through time and space, through diaspora. How do these wounds inform our ideas of nourishment, whether it is for the self or for others? How do these gritty, dirty things reconcile with our emotional landscapes?

Layering these ideas was not entirely easy—the language had to be nuanced enough to convey musicality while still interweaving these grislier images. I got into this sort of mindset of balance while writing each poem. How humans and the world are both ugly and beautiful all at once.

AB: This is a very nuanced collection of poems that talked to me about the intersectionality of identity, childhood, desire, sexuality, intergenerational grief, homeland and heritage. Can you share a little about the process of putting together this collection? At what point, did you decide on the title and if at all, what constructive/critical part did the title play in completing the book?

IC: Poets and readers often reduce a collection or a body of work to what it is “about.” Poetry is a bit different from prose—its “aboutness” is not always so clear, so straightforward. Rather, I like to think of poetry’s exploration of themes as a topography of language, reaching towards those landscapes I mentioned: the tangible, outside world, as well as our inner lives.

So these intersections you speak of are part of this topography, are they not? Roads crossing at a certain point to inform and to direct. Putting this collection together was like seeing where to move through language, at this crossing point. How the body can move through time and space and beyond to manifest intergenerational nourishment through trauma. The title is a reflection of this. The word “feast” brings to mind abundance. In Feast there is abundance of motifs of food, an abundance of rhythmic language and enjambment, abundances upon abundances that nourish and perhaps even heal.

AB: Often in your poems Tagalog words are mentioned and then they are explained in English in the following phrases. However, there were places when they were not explained. For example, the end of the first poem, “Bitter Melon” has the line, “huwag mo akong kalimutan”, then in the poem, “Names are spells, & I have four—” has the line “tao ako.”  What informed your decision to explain or refrain from explaining in the making of these poems? Was it a difficult decision to make?

IC: In my work I want to nonessentialize words “foreign” to English—words in Tagalog or Ilocano, for example—in order to disrupt the notion that these words are foreign at all. Poetry isn’t a research dissertation in the most academic sense. Poetry is a more personal, intimate endeavor. So when I wrote words in my languages, I also decided not to do direct translations, because these words are not foreign to me.

It is 2023—Google Translate exists. Brown bodies have had to do the work for centuries—the labor of working to understand a canon text, or a white text, or an academic text. Etc. Why is it so far-fetched for the white reader to do the same? I believe this facilitates an even more intimate understanding of the work. Is that a bad thing?

AB: I think it’s an incredibly good thing! I do believe multilingualism is a necessary ingredient for diversifying perspectives. The language in the poems is often spare yet you manage to paint a vivid picture and drive complicated emotions home with the use of couplets and tercets. I’d love to know how you achieve this economy of words. Does it entail multiple revisions?

IC: Ezra Pound said that “poetry is language highly charged.” As in, the brevity of (most) poems, as opposed to the length of a novel, limits the space for words, and thus demands this economy of language. To have words that are highly charged with meaning despite saying something with so few words—that is in itself an element of craft. So, I compress syntax. I get rid of extraneous words, of redundant phrases. The loose “and”s and “the”s that one doesn’t necessarily need. I usually take the time to compress in just one session of revision, but I still keep an eye out for things that I can cut even after that.

AB: Food is such a nostalgic and effective carrier of cultural stories. Has food always played an important role in your poems? What was one surprising food discovery/realization you had while putting together this collection?

IC: While food has not necessarily been in all of my poems before I wrote this collection, it certainly played a big role in my own lived experience as an immigrant. I was born in the Philippines, and I lived there until I was about eleven years old. I have fond memories of sitting in a warm kitchen with my grandmother, peeling off the strings of green beans as rice and stews were cooking on the stove. Food, in many cultures, is so communal. It surprised me, in the end, that this book is something I wanted to be communal, too. I wanted it to be a piece of community that marginalized people could take with them wherever they went.

AB: In poems like “When they gleam, when they clatter,” “Milk,” and “When I sing to myself, who listens?” space as an ingredient is used differently each time. Can you share a little about the role that breath on the page plays for you as a poet and the considerations you make while making those choices in a poem?

IC: Rhythm is important in poetry. Poetry is lyrics, after all. Think of ancient Greek tragedies, where the chorus sang the story out loud. I also have a background in music performance, which informs my sense of rhythm in language.

I do write in free verse straightforwardly on the page, but I also consider different forms that I make up as I go. And I read these poems in those new forms out loud to hear the starts and stops, the white space—the way the eye is controlled by the spacing, which in turn affects the breath and the sonics.

AB: In the opening poem, “Bitter Melon,” you write:

+++++.,+unfurl your own crush of vines.

after you tip it onto a mound
+++++.,+of steamed rice, as you chew,

the barb of it will hit the back
+++++.,+of your throat.

Halfway through the book is the poem “Yesterday’s trauma, today’s salt” which has lines like “& rice, don’t forget the rice” and “I salt the rice heavy when the meat is low.” And then in the final poem of the book, “It feels good to cook rice,” there is a sort of revelation that happens and suddenly rice seems like the main character in Feast. I am curious as to how you sequenced these poems in a way that a humble image became transcendent?

IC: These poems have a certain tone in each of them. I wanted this throughline to be felt rather than evident—something subtle and not too on-the-nose. In particular, rice is especially significant in Asian cultures. It nourishes on the cheap; it is the foundation of every plate, whether scant or heaping. And so, with the last poem in the book, I wanted to express a bit of hope along with the loneliness. How it feels good to eat rice even by myself.

AB: What does your daily writing practice look like? Do you usually have a destination in mind while you are starting out on a piece of writing or does the discovery happen along the way?

IC: I don’t have one! I don’t write daily. But I don’t find this discouraging. That’s just how my mind works. A mentor told me: as long as one is curious, constantly looking at the world around them, you’re a poet in your own right, no matter the lengths of time between writing one poem and another.

AB: That is really good advice and quite encouraging! What is one poetic theory that you have found most helpful in your writing practice? How has it changed your craft and/or helped you evolve as a poet?

IC: Again, that idea of disrupting language has been very formative. I now feel freer to write as an Asian poet, as a Filipinx American poet, without thinking about how I’ll be pegged as just a token writer. And I feel free to write outside of those identities as well. To disrupt language is to claim agency and claim one’s voice. It’s one of the things that’s kept me writing this whole time.

Ina Cariño is a Filipinx American poet. They are a 2022 Whiting Award winner with an MFA in Creative Writing from Carolina State University. Their poetry appears in Guernica, Diode, Poetry Northwest, Poetry Magazine, The Paris Review Daily, Waxwing, New England Review, and elsewhere. They are a Kundiman fellow and the winner of the 2021 Alice James Award. In 2019, they founded a reading series, Indigena Collective, centering marginalized creatives in the community.  

Aditi Bhattacharjee is an Indian writer, currently pursuing an MFA in Writing at The New School, New York. Her work can be found in/upcoming at Lunch Ticket, Evocations Review, Pile Press, Alipore Post, The Usawa Literary Magazine, SLAB Magazine and elsewhere.