Lawrence Ypil: ‘Just because there’s some kind of drama, doesn’t automatically make it a poem’

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Award-winning poet Lawrence Ypil talks about his latest book, “hanging out” with his younger self during the lockdown, and how “secrets and surprise” guide his work. Illustration by MARIA SARAH ORLINA

Creative's Questionnaire is an interview series where artists, writers, filmmakers, and other creatives talk about their work, the challenges that they face, and their inspirations. For National Literature Month, we’re featuring writers, poets, artists, and playwrights.

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — It is a strange feeling to become an unwilling participant in a major historical event. As the COVID-19 virus changes the way we live, we’re left longing for the kind of life that once was, and imagining what kind of world we would be living in when this is all over. What would remain the same? How would we have changed — individually, collectively — when we emerge from this tragedy?

It is perhaps the best time to read something like poet and essayist Lawrence Ypil’s “The Experiment of the Tropics,” a rumination on the intersection of poetry, photography, and history. In the book, Ypil takes a close look at archival photos taken in his hometown of Cebu during the American occupation. Though he says the initial draw of the photographs was seeing a “past version of the city I grew up in,” Ypil says he was mostly interested in “the ways in which poetry would be able to say something about them, different from what history would,” how the photos revealed a different time and way of living, and how they revealed something about himself in the process.

This March, “The Experiment of the Tropics” was announced as a finalist in the Lambda Literary Awards, one of the most prestigious awards for LGBTQ+ literature. Ypil’s fellow nominees include Ocean Vuong for one of last year’s best reviewed novels, “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous,” and Bernardine Evaristo for her Booker Prize-winning experimental novel, “Girl, Woman, Other.”

“To have ‘Experiment’ nominated for this was really quite an honor,” says Ypil. “I felt like this expands our notion of what we think of as ‘queer lit.’ I imagine that queerness informs many parts of our lives — including the way we look at history and our relationship to the past. By recognizing this book as a Lambda Finalist, it made me see the book in a wonderfully different light.”

Aside from the Lammy nomination, the book was included in the editor’s shortlist of the 2020 Believer Book Awards. “I grew up reading The Believer magazine, so this was quite exciting too!” says Ypil.

As part of CNN Philippines Life’s series of Q&As with creatives, we spoke to Ypil about "The Experiment of the Tropics," “hanging out” with his younger self during the lockdown, and how “secrets and surprise” guide his work. The interview has been edited for clarity.

What do you think are the essential traits of a creative person, especially in your field?

Anyone who works with words understands that they always mean more than what they say. They are attuned to language’s different shades and shadows, and the best ones are especially interested in their silences: what they reveal, but also hide; the stories we like to tell about ourselves; and the ones we are only beginning to realize are really ours.

What is the core philosophy that guides your work?

Secrets and surprise. I didn’t really grow up writing, but I grew to love poetry because in it I found a way to say things without fully giving them away. I found that, on the page, if one allowed oneself to explore the possibility of breaking a sentence, or turning a phrase, differently, one would finally be able to articulate things that were hard to talk about in real life — the violence of history, the mystery of sexuality, a different way of seeing and saying the world.

And how does that relate to your current project?

My latest book of poems, “The Experiment of the Tropics” (Gaudy Boy Press), examines archival photographs from the early twentieth century during the American Period. I was interested in the photos because they showed a past version of the city I grew up in, but I was mostly interested in the ways in which poetry would be able to say something about them, different from what history would. While I was curious about the story behind the photographs, I was more intrigued by how they revealed a different way of being in the world. I was also interested in how they revealed a lot of me, in the process. We reveal who we are by what we notice. By looking at the photographs, I ended up looking through them, and eventually discovered myself. It felt like looking at beautiful, deep, dark mirrors.

What does a typical day look like for you?

I teach poetry and Philippine Literature here at Yale-NUS College in Singapore. So teaching gives a bit of structure to my days. I enjoy working with student writers and artists and a good part of my week is working with them on their different projects. Without the civility of this discipline, all hell would break loose. I love writing most in the late afternoons, at dusk, leading into evening. I try to find any alibi, to sit on a chair somewhere I have a view of the changing light of the sky, in order to write. Anything before or after this is merely prelude or afterthought to this most exciting part of the day for me.

Do you look back at your past work? Why or why not?

Since the start of the lockdown, I’ve been reading essays that I had written 10, 15 years ago. In a way I have been hanging out with my younger self. And what a joy it’s been! To read this very, very serious young man’s thoughts. We always feel we are old when we are young. I can barely wait until the time when I read what I just wrote today and think — oh, what was he thinking!

I’m hoping to come out with a book of my essays by the end of the year. Otherwise, I don’t think I would be reading my past work. I think I would be too scared to come face to face with how much better they could have been written.

Do you have a mentor? Do you think it's important to have one?

I have been blessed to have had mentors in my life. And yes, I think it’s important to have one. They challenge us to become more than what we are. In a way, they believe in us, more than we do ourselves. At certain points in our lives, we need that challenging guidance. In other points, we are best left alone to our own devices. A good mentor comes at a good time.

How important is social media in your work?

I started writing personal essays when I started keeping a blog and the feedback I would get gave me a strong sense of what worked for readers and what didn’t. It made me value the importance of audience in my work. In poetry, though, I am quite ruthless and secretive. You won’t see any of it, until it’s out in a journal or a book.

What skills do you wish you had?

I wish I could sing. I wish I could do computer programming. I wish I could cook well, because I don’t. Unfortunately my life skills are quite limited to the page. I wish I knew how to make more cocktail drinks. [The] lockdown makes us want to wish the many lives we could have lived.

What do you think are the biggest challenges faced by people in your field today? How do you overcome them?

The manipulation of information to serve purposes of oppression is the true enemy of language. It leaves bereft any possibility of the beauty of mystery and subtlety. In its wake, it leaves a long trail of deceit, which is the true opposite of the truth of poetry.

What myth(s) about your field of work would you like to debunk?

Just because there’s some kind of drama, doesn’t automatically make it a poem. Poetry comes from the exciting dialogue between form and feeling. If you have just one of these you either have merely a meltdown, or a writing exercise. You need both to make magic.

What have you learned from work that you've applied to other areas of your life?