Romalyn Ante grew up in Batangas, Philippines. At the age of 16, she migrated to the UK, where she now works as a nurse and a psychotherapist. Her work has appeared in a variety of magazines and e-journals in the UK, USA and South East Asia. We first met her at the launch of her brilliant poetry pamphlet Rice & Rain and fell in love with the beautiful way in which she weaves love and longing for the Philippines in her poetry, we had to know more. Read our deeply frank and personal interview and meet the poet and the nurse.
“Tagalog still seeps out of my system and is still a massive part of my identity. To completely eradicate it from my writing voice would be a great pretence”
You moved to the UK when you were 16, tell us a bit more about your journey and life here in the UK.
My mother had already been working in the UK as a nurse for two years when she brought us over. At that time, I thought ‘UK’ automatically meant ‘London’ and Harry Potter. So for a 16 year-old girl, the idea of a new life in a city like London was extremely exciting.
My first morning in the UK was spent looking for London Bridge; little did I know that we lived in a town called Wolverhampton, in the West Midlands. Hahaha – I can be so naïve like that.
As a teenager, it was quite a struggle to start a new life in the UK. To begin with, the UK educational system did not acknowledge my qualifications and I had to study GCSE/A-levels again – so it felt like I lost three years of my life doing stuff I already did in the Philippines; plus I terribly missed my high school friends.
I also found it hard to get used to Black Country accent, the food, the people, and the way of life. However, over the years, I learned to adapt to the ‘English life’ and UK does feel like home to me now. Sometimes when I go back to the Philippines, I’d miss a Sunday roast, or walking in the woods, or the weather (Kidding! I never miss the weather). I’d like to see myself as a ‘true-hearted’ – as poet Basir Zultan Kazmi said: The true-hearted can settle – no matter which land. A flower wants to bloom, wherever its garden.
Rice & Rain is your first pamphlet, tell us about the process of putting it together?
The poems in Rice & Rain were one of my earlier works (written 2-3 years before Jerwood/Arvon and Primers). I don’t think there’s an exact ‘beginning’ in this process. That’s because the poems in this pamphlet were developed over the years. When I submitted the manuscript to V. Press in 2016, I amalgamated the themes of migration and my profession as a nurse as the core of my pamphlet. I also received a grant from Arvon Foundation which enabled me to attend an Arvon course in 2016 with tutors, Mimi Khalvati and Ian Duhig; this also helped me create more poems for the pamphlet.
I guess the hardest part of the process was the editing and the “letting go” part. I started to extremely criticise my own work for improvement. There was a point when I would look at a couple of poems in Rice & Rain and cringe, thinking, They’re so bad! I was always seeing flaws in a poem. But then, to ‘let go’ is an art too, and I guess every poet does it. It’s been such an exhausting but fulfilling journey. I got to work with a good editor, Sarah, and a talented illustrator, Ruth.
Did you always want to be a poet? How did you get into writing? Can you describe the time when you first realised that you wanted to be a writer?
I think my ‘body’ knew it wanted to be a writer even before my ‘conscious’ mind realised it. I did not grow up reading poetry (or any books). We were not well-off, and books weren’t included in our basic needs. However, I grew up in a neighbourhood where one of the people’s past-times was gathering around a table full of gin bottles and pulutan (snacks to eat while drinking. i.e. balut, chicken intestines, pork scratchings, etc.)
I remember my uncles and my dad playing their guitars and singing throughout the night as they drowned themselves in alcohol. Tagalog folk songs and American rock & roll drifted like night breeze through the jalousie windows. I would lay on the woven mat listening to the music. I think that was what facilitated me to fall in love with words and lyrics, and beautiful images, of course.
It was only in my second year in high school (I was around 14 years old then) when I started reading English poets and writing poetry; and it was only because we had to – as part of our English curriculum. And since then, I’ve kept writing, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Do you have a favourite poem in the pamphlet Rice & Rain?
It’s a hard question – I don’t really want to be unfair to other poems.
But I guess one of the poems that stand out for me is Mother’s Revelation. It’s about that time my mum told me to pretend that there was meat inside a grain of rice (because we were so poor and we didn’t have anything to go with our rice.)
Anyway, the poem goes on, taking the readers to the ‘current’ time – the family is in England and mum is preparing the dinner, and a grain of rice is compared to the tiny fistula forming inside my brother’s arm.
A fistula is an access for needling patients for renal dialysis. When I was writing it, my brother was undergoing that treatment. We have bad kidneys – it killed my grandma, and made my brother suffer. And the fact that my mum and I both worked in a renal dialysis unit previously didn’t really help. It was scary to know stuff.
I think I like that poem because that grain of rice both symbolises hope (with imaginary meat inside) and desperateness (as a fistula for an ill patient).
“I think a poet must know how to write pain,
and make sense of the world in pain”
You often weave in Filipino words in your poetry, why?
Because after all, my first language is still Tagalog (Filipino). This means Tagalog still seeps out of my system and is still a massive part of my identity. To completely eradicate it from my writing voice would be a great pretence. And I want to be true to my work, as well as to my readers.
Rice & Rain is beautifully laced with love and longing for home, how do you cope with homesickness? What do you miss the most?
Thank you so much for that comment!
I think it was not very difficult for me to cope with homesickness because I moved to the UK with my whole family. I did not come here alone. However, I cannot imagine how I would feel if I were to move to the UK on my own, which was what happened to my mum and to the earlier ‘batches’ of Filipino nurses in the UK. My mum spent 2 years in the UK before she managed to bring us over – she lived in a flat on her own, leaving the flat and going back to the flat alone.
When I became a student nurse at 19, I remember walking to the hospital at 6am for a long day shift – it was dark then as it was winter, when I finished the shift at 8:30pm, it was still dark! I hated that feeling; it was just so sad; I never got to see daylight.
I guess whenever life in the UK hits me hard, I try to remember the happy memories I had back home, and all the advice I got from my elders. Wherever I go, I carry my culture and my loved ones with me. There’s no point wallowing in sadness for too long.
What I miss the most? My hometown – Lipa, Batangas and everyone in it.
You are travelling back to the Philippines to work on some more poetry, tell us about that?
Yes. I will go back to the Philippines as a fellow in the 57th Silliman University National Writers Workshop – apparently the longest-running writing workshop in Asia. I will be on a 2-week ‘retreat’ with writers from other disciplines (such as fiction, play, etc.) and will be having masterclasses/workshops every day and some mentoring sessions with reputable writers. Hopefully, I will create more poems whilst there; and learn from other writers too.
What can we expect from your forthcoming work in Primers 3 and Jerwood/Arvon anthology? Tell us more about how these mentorships helped develop your writing.
There will be stronger poems in both anthologies, and work that will resonate to everybody, I hope.
Jerwood/Arvon has tremendously helped me develop as a person. Pascale’s teachings really did magic to my work, it’s unbelievable! Since Jerwood/Arvon, I have been able to edit my work more maturely as a poet. I have been winning poetry prizes too (such as the Manchester Poetry Prize, together with poet Laura Webb) – something I never thought would happen to me at this stage. I have also made supportive and encouraging friends – my Jerwood/Arvon sisters Yvonne Reddick, Alice Hiller, and Seraphima Kennedy. They are very strong poets and everyone should look out for them!
In terms of Primers 3, I really feel that Hannah Lowe has given me extra tools for my kit, especially when it comes to editing my work. She’s so cool and funny; we met up at the British Museum to edit my poems and that was a fantastic experience. Jane Commane’s guidance and advice as an editor has always been invaluable. She has been a great inspiration – she is the kind of editor who really cares about your work and what you have to say; and she’s the kind of editor (and friend) who will make you truly believe in your voice.
Do you have any routines or rituals when it comes to writing? What inspires you?
I don’t really have any routines or rituals. But I find myself more eager to write in the early hours of the morning. I also find that listening to Japanese songs inspires me (even though I don’t speak Japanese).
What are you reading right now?
Mostly Cognitive Behavioural Therapy books because I am taking a course as a CBT trainee to hopefully work with children and young people who suffer from different mental health disorders. Having said that, I have started reading a Tagalog collection of poetry, Pali-palitong Posporo by Benilda S. Santos. And I managed to come out of hell (in The Divine Comedy).
Are there any Filipino/a writers whose work you particularly enjoy?
Yes, of course – I love the epic, Florante at Laura, by Francisco Balagtas, and the works of Jose Corazon De Jesus. I also like Dr Jose Rizal’s novels, Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo which he wrote as a way of revolting against the Spaniards and their cruel sovereignty over the Philippines in the 1800s.
With regards to modern poetry, I love the work of Marjorie Evasco, Rio Alma, and Carlo Villanueva (Philippines) and R. A. Villanueva and Aimee Nezhukumatathil (USA).
Is poetry a form of spiritual practice to you?
I guess to some extent, yes. I use poetry to make sense of the world around me, and perhaps to translate the world in me into something tangible.
Your poetry speaks a lot about food. Do you find inspiration in food? What’s your favourite Filipino dish and why?
I think I write a lot about food because I love eating. To be fair, all Filipinos love their food. Having been occupied by the Spaniards, Americans, Japanese, etc., we really appreciate variety in our food as well. It’s so hard to say what my favourite dish is; it’s like asking me which I need, oxygen or water – I need both. I need all food.
I think I include dishes in my poems because even though Filipino food is influenced by other countries, it still speaks of our identity, and identity is one of the themes I am passionate to write about.
What would you say is the hardest part about living in the diaspora?
I am tempted to say missing home, but reflecting on it, I think it is harder (initially) to adapt to your ‘new’ place.
What has the reception to your poetry been like, both from Filipinos and non-Filipinos?
I feel very humbled and grateful – so far, I think my poetry has been widely accepted. Recently, Vogue featured me in their article, 9 Poets to know for World Poetry Day, while FourHubs named me as 1 of 10 Poets Bound to Shape UK Poetry.
In the Philippines, my poems have been used in variety of workshops, and at university/college programme. A couple of students from the Philippines have emailed me, commenting on and asking questions about my poems. It’s so nice to realise how poetry can make people ‘connect’ with each other and how it can speak to people, near or far.
Do you write exclusively in English or have you written in Tagalog (or any other dialect)?
I do write in both, but I have been writing in English more recently as I want to share my poems to a wider audience.
“a poet or a nurse must also know one thing –
how to write about or give the antidote to pain –
You are a nurse as well as a poet, do the two influence each other, if so how?
Yes, definitely. In nursing, I have witnessed a lot of pain (death, loss, separation); and I think a poet must know how to write pain, and make sense of the world in pain, whether it’d be health-related, war-related, etc.
On the other hand, a poet or a nurse must also know one thing – how to write about or give the antidote to pain – kindness. A great sensei once said (I am paraphrasing) ‘When people get hurt, they learn to hate… but pain also allows people to be kind. Pain allows people to grow, and how you grow is up to you.’
What are you working on at the moment, what can we look forward to this year?
Primers 3 and Jerwood/Arvon Anthology will come out in April and June, respectively. Aside from that, I’m just trying to write new poems.