Lynne DeSilva-Johnson, Founder and Managing editor of The Operating System, talks with Amanda [Ngoho] Reavey, author of MARILYN. Forthcoming from The OS, MARILYN features original cover art from painter Joo Young Choi, and will celebrate its release at Woodland Pattern December 5th, 2015 and in New York City in early 2016.
MARILYN began as an exploration, through somatic experiments, of what it means to stay and become a fragmented map of the immigration system, the international adoption process, and family. How do you articulate disenfranchised grief? How does a person who has no origin write herself into existence? What happens when all you have left is, as Sarita Echavez See says, “the body to articulate loss”? Framed by a return trip to the Philippines in 2011, her first time back since leaving, Reavey takes the most intense images [real, imagined, dreamed] encountered while living in-between six different countries, and expunges them in an attempt to stitch the Filipina, diasporic body. The result is an ancestral line, a path back not to the beginning of life nor just before, but rather to the primordial. To ancestral roots. To orality: a name.
Lynne DeSilva-Johnson: It’s a huge pleasure to talk to you about MARILYN, which I’ve had the honor of working on with you now for some time now. I love publishing debut volumes in particular, and this volume is just such a singular piece of writing. You have such a unique voice, a treasure for a publisher. It’s been really exciting to watch it evolve from an idea into a physical manifestation—I think I can say for both of us, too, that getting permission from Joo Young Choi to use her beautiful paintings was truly a marker of stars aligning. Finding those images, even before we knew we would be able to use them, was a real inspiration for me in visioning this book into being.
Amanda Ngoho Reavey: Thank you! I’m constantly amazed and surprised with the journey, as it appears in little bits. And Joo Young Choi—I can’t believe the synchronicity involved in that. When you sent me a picture of one of her paintings, it happened to be very similar to a dream I’d had only a couple of nights before.
LDJ: The synchronicity only served to re-confirm for me that we were on the right path, working on MARILYN together. Tell us a little about your personal path: your current bio lists you as a “poet.” When did you decide you were a poet (and/or: do you feel comfortable calling yourself a poet, what other titles or affiliations do you prefer/feel are more accurate)?
ANR: I love what Melissa Buzzeo says, “the moment somebody calls themselves a healer the potential for healing is gone.” Is the same true in writing? When someone declares themselves a writer or a poet, does it hinder the process of writing? Is the potential for writing gone? I’m not sure, but for me, it just feels like a lot of pressure. And I think of “poet” as a weighty cultural status, a title that’s given to you by the community. It’s earned. It’s a reflection of your work, your actions and may even hint at who you are. It’s both a responsibility and an honor. Though last time someone introduced me as a poet, I cringed. I don’t know why I’m more comfortable with saying “poet” in my bio than in real life. Maybe it’s a reminder. To be a poet is something to strive towards; a process of eternal becoming.
LDJ: What’s a “poet”, anyway? / What is the role of the poet today? What do you see as your cultural and social role (in the poetry community and beyond)?
ANR: To awaken “aliveness” and make sense of being human. The poet is a deep observer of life and a listener of stories, to help other seekers. Essentially, a truth-teller and record-keeper.
LDJ: I think a lot about creative practice as a space of translation and healing, not only for the self and for audience / readers, and potential audience, but for society at large. You also practice Reiki and have a deep interest in healing. Can you talk to us a little bit about how you came to a healing practice, and how it influences your writing?
ANR: I’ve always been interested in both healing and writing; for me, they come from the same place, which is both spiritual and personal. Before the MFA, I’d been working on certificates to become a journal and poetry therapist. They’ve always felt interrelated.
LDJ: I’d love if you’d talk a little about healing as it relates to MARILYN. In “Notes Towards Tesserae,” a process note about the experience of developing the text which follows the main text, you invite us into an experience with a Shaman in a coffeeshop early on in the book’s development, and go on to describe both psychological research into trauma and recovery as well as personal experiences in various healing communities. Can you share some thoughts on how, if, when, and why writing functions as a healing practice for you? → or specifically, how it did for the composition of MARILYN?
ANR: Actually, I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. I’m not sure that writing is in itself healing; rather, writing opens the space that makes it possible. In lieu of a therapist, I’ve been working with a spiritual director. Connecting with this person has occurred over many years, through various synchronicities. We were having a discussion about the creative process; how writing is a form of spiritual alchemy. She printed out a chapter from a book on healing the soul and end-of-life care. The “well-sealed vessel,” via C.G. Jung, which I imagine is, in the writing process, both a subjective state of mind or being and a physical, architectural space. Inside this space: an “alchemical fire,” “optimal anxiety,” and “intensification,” which allows for or produces the “analytical encounter.” Per Jung, Nathan Schwartz-Salant writes that we “can enter a process whose goal is the creation of an internal structure he [Jung] called the [S]elf.” Or, in this case, the book. What this space is or looks like is different for everyone. For me, in writing MARILYN, it was the graduate program, my studio apartment, and finally, in the end, every day in the greenhouse beneath the passion flowers and a lemon tree.
LDJ: You are a Reiki practitioner, but you’ve also become increasingly involved and educated in Indigenous healing systems and practices linking you to your familial origins in the Philippines. How has this process of not only deepening your learning about but also engaging with / practicing plant medicine, etc. had an effect on you[r work]?
ANR: I’m always a little hesitant to talk about my foray into Indigenous Filipino practices, struggling with whether I’m allowed to learn them. Is it possible to appropriate your own birth culture if you didn’t grow up in it or weren’t raised with it? How do you reconcile the practices of your ancestors, the practices of where you are from, and the practices of where you are living, which may or may not all be in the same place?
I also don’t want to come across as new-agey. In the West, terms like “Shaman” and “Reiki” and “Spiritual” and the like are growing in popularity. You can get certified as a Shaman if you have the time and the money. Becoming a Certified Reiki Master/ Teacher can be done in several weekends for under $1000. There’s a whole billion dollar industry that exploits and capitalizes on our spiritual deficits. I think it’s proof we’re craving that deep connection that we lost sometime around the Industrial Revolution, perhaps even before. I’m not sure yet how I feel about Martin Prechtel, but I do like what he writes in The Secrets of a Talking Jaguar about orphanhood:
If no one knew your parents or your children, you had no home, no relationship, no link to the village dynamic. You were an orphan. The whole modern culture was an orphan culture, a place with a lot of houses and no village.
So while I’m trying to reconnect with my ancestral practices, I’m also aware that my origins are a mystery and that the Indigenous people in the Philippines, like those everywhere, are struggling to keep their lands and preserve their practices. That doesn’t mean you can’t explore them. Lagitan, an Ifugao Shaman, said that now is the time to share the Indigenous practices. The world craves them. That said, I do try to be extra mindful about what I’m doing and how I’m doing it; it’s important not to be shallow or half-assed about it. I’m also aware of the land I’m on and what that might mean: here, in Wisconsin, these are the lands of the Ojibwe (Chippewa), Potawatomi, Dakota Sioux, Ho-Chunk (Winnebago) and Menominee. I am constantly practicing discernment, am always checking in with myself: Why am I choosing to do this? What is it for? What do I want and what do I need from it? What are my intentions? Am I crediting the right people? And what can I offer in return? I deepen my learning by respectfully listening to elders and working in a way that honors ancestors and others, as well as keeps my integrity intact. Of course, I am far from perfect at it. I make a lot of mistakes and I’m not very gentle with myself when they happen.
LDJ: I couldn’t agree with you more—I often cringe about the ways spiritual materialism is running rampant in healing and wellness communities. Of course, as you say, it’s complicated—proof that people are craving something more, and a material practice of “consuming” and or “certification” is often the only access point of familiarity for many tentative seekers today. It’s a double edged sword. I know I always feel most comfortable with those in the healing community with a clear commitment to transparency, to a reflexive practice of admitting the murky areas we enter by treading in sacred spaces and adopting traditions across cultures. Humility and self-examination, like you’ve done with MARILYN, is key.
Can you talk about the process of how this body of work came to be? Obviously, you’ve talked extensively about this in “Notes Towards Tesserae,” but just to share with our readers: Tell us a little about the influence of Bhanu Kapil’s course, where the book was born, as well as of [Kapil’s book] Schizophrene.
ANR: Oh, I was so completely clueless. For a long while, it felt like every third person I met suggested I go to Naropa. I tried as hard as humanly possible to avoid it, but eventually went, primarily on faith. As an undergrad, I studied Italian language and literature so I didn’t know much about the Beats, never heard of experimental or somatic writing, never heard of Bhanu, whose mentorship has meant a lot to me. In her Experimental Prose class, our first assignment was to “walk towards the most saturated red we could find.” Having no reference point, I was unsure if she meant a real walk towards actual red or a metaphorical red, and what is red? I remember staring at a red chair in my studio apartment for much longer than necessary, and writing a terrible piece about mothers and the Philippines and a tree. Then I picked up Bhanu’s Schizophrene. It came at exactly the right moment. Obviously, my experience is different, but there was something about it: a recognition. Can a book recognize its reader? Per the book, I became obsessed with “light touch,” or “touching something lightly many times” (61). It felt like, in the reading and processing of it, the book and I were having a telepathic conversation on the “blanked-out jungle space” (25).
Then something happened. I wrote another short story, received helpful feedback from classmates, went home and promptly fell apart. In my journal, complete sentences came: “It started with walking. But I wonder if most things start with walking. Walking. Towards red. The catalyst” and “In the jungle there is a foreboding that surrounds a sentence. It lactates. It drowns.” It felt like an invitation and an incantation. “A barefoot girl in a black dress twirls in the moonshine.” A haunting image from the Tyrrhenian sea. I wrote every day and all night that week; its energy was exhausting and amazing. The next week I turned in my short story accompanied by 19 or 24 pages of process notes detailing my travels, my adoption, et cetera. And the following week, Bhanu gave it all back, but she had torn up the short story and put it in an envelope with red tissue paper. What is red? Those process notes were the beginning, the foundation for MARILYN. Later, in July 2013, I ask her to sign my copy of Schizophrene. She quotes from her book, “‘Reverse migration. . .’ Is psychotic,” and next to it, writes: DISCUSS.
LDJ: Beyond the course you were in at the time, can you tell us more about any formal structures or other constrictive practices you use in the creation of your work? Have certain teachers or instructive environments, or readings/writings of other creative people (poets or others) informed the way you work/write?
ANR: Generally, I write in large spurts at 3 a.m. and then not at all, though I always carry a notebook and write down sentences or thoughts as they come. And I try to set aside time for journaling every day, a practice I began in second grade (or year three) in England. My first journal was made of loose leaf paper stapled together. I kept it on a window shelf next to my cot, which overlooked my Aunty’s garden. Incidentally, I edited and rearranged MARILYN in the greenhouse on the Naropa campus. Hmmm, that’s interesting. Right now I’m working on turning my apartment into an indoor garden, with herbs, vine plants, and succulents placed in and around various antique bird cages.
Anyway, I did quite a bit of reading to think about sentences and how to put them together, to learn how to incorporate other creative practices, how to make a living text: Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Sei Shōnagon, Cecilia Vicuña, Lisa Linn Kanae, NourbeSe Philip, Clarice Lispector, Cixous, Tschumi, Barbara Jane Reyes, Trinh T. Minh-ha, David Abram, Meena Alexander, books on Babaylan poetics—to name a few. In thinking about trauma, particularly concerning adoption, my main texts were Healing Developmental Trauma by Laurence Heller and Aline Lapierre, and Journey of the Adopted Self by Betty Jean Lifton.
A few months ago I came across the book Ethnoautobiography by Jurgen Werner-Kremer and Robert Jackson-Paton. In hindsight, I think writing MARILYN was an exercise in ethnoautobiography, which is described as “a visionary and imaginative process that grounds itself in time (smaller and larger planetary and celestial cycles), place (ecology, history of place), history (stories and myths), ancestry, and stories of origin and creation.” I’m interested in origin stories, one’s place in the macro- and microcosm, and the act of writing oneself into existence. How do you begin to exist?
LDJ: Just listening to you talk is making me want to dive into all these books …. it’s hard not to take notes and get inspired …!
But back to MARILYN—can you give us a sense of how the book evolved, once the idea for it was born? Was it linear, or more of an aggregate process? Did it involve copious research, editing and rearranging? I often find that once work is on the page, if you listen to it, it has a force of its own not dissimilar to music, and can have very strong energy encouraging me to arrange, combine, and dissolve in specific ways. Does that sound crazy to you?
ANR: Not crazy at all! The work is its own music. The person writing has to have the courage to follow it. And it may not be linear; nothing for me is ever linear. I like to think of each sentence or fragment as a tile (a tessera) in a mosaic. Some tesserae are scattered, others are in clumps. Some, if you’re lucky, line up in rows. Almost eerily perfect. As I said before, the notes for the first part of the book, “Tesserae,” happened in a week, in my garden-level studio apartment in Boulder. The notes for the second part, “An Architecture of Doorways,” happened in a night, at my friend’s kitchen table in Lafayette. It felt channeled, like it was writing itself. At the same time, there was a lot of preparation for it. There were the lived experiences, quite a bit of journal writing, research, mulling things over in my head, meditating, thinking and deep conversations with others. And there was still editing and re-arranging, which is always required, no matter how complete it feels in the initial writing. I think this goes back to discernment: how to balance control as a writer and letting go as a channeler. Music is the same way. Musicians spend all this time preparing to play the piece. They practice scales, they learn to read music, they learn finger placement and bow techniques, they practice the piece over and over again. But then when it’s time to perform, it’s important to let go, to forget everything you’ve ever learned and just play. To feel the energy and go with it. It’s an act of mutual trust. The writer trusts the words and the words trust that the writer is ready.
LDJ: Speaking of music—you’re also a Cellist and a sometimes dancer, if I remember correctly. How do you feel your relationship to other creative practice(s) influences how you use and interact with language? When and how is this most present in your writing practice? How have other practices influenced the genesis of MARILYN specifically, and how has working on—and now finishing—MARILYN influenced your work in other disciplines, if at all?
ANR: Language influences our perceptions and it is everywhere: everything is sound and vibration, a subtle energy. Everything is movement. Everything has a musicality about it. It can’t not be interrelated. If the work isn’t working, it feels wrong. In your body. It sounds weird, but it’s true: if something complementary needs to be done, the text will not only tell you, it will also generate the performance. I never planned to dance. But then it was there and I knew if I ignored the nagging, I’d regret it. So I danced barefoot in the snow in the Colorado Rockies, a precursor to the graduation performance, which I also didn’t exactly plan. I almost backed out. The night before the reading/ performance, around 10 p.m., my anxiety was unbearable. Shaking, I called my friend hoping she’d dance with me. She immediately hopped on the bus to my place, we talked it through, and decided it was best to dance alone. She was right; the culmination of the work couldn’t have been done in any other way. In class, Bhanu talked often about “discharge,” the trauma energy leaves or is “loosened.” The heart shudders and then you have to figure out how to release it. How to come back to yourself. That dance was both a release and a coming-back-to. It can’t ever be repeated. I tried a version of it last Spring, almost a year later. It failed miserably. I spaced out, mid-performance; it felt like I was appropriating something. It felt wrong because the text didn’t require it. In The Decolonized Eye, Sarita Echavez See asks, “What happens when all you have is the body to articulate loss?” I know in my body that a performance or a reading or a complementary creative practice is right when it disappears in the instant that it’s made. I’ve learned my lesson. From now on, unless a text absolutely requires it, I refuse.
LDJ: Let’s talk a little bit about names and naming and their importance in this volume: where did the title MARILYN come from, and what do you mean by “Notes on Tesserae”? You write that the “thread” through the labyrinth of your text (with nods to Cixous and Tschumi, beautifully) exists “through the stories embedded in [your] birth surname, Malinao.” Can you tell us a little bit about the role of names in this book, and this/your journey? Does a process of naming (poems, sections, etc) influence you and/or color your work specifically? I often find it an interesting moment of assertion, as if the reification of this thing has somehow made my process real.
ANR: It started as a somatic experiment, trying to get into the space required for the writing to happen. My birth name is Marilyn Ngoho Malinao, but I couldn’t bring myself to be called Marilyn. It was very off-putting, so I asked people to call me “Ngoho” instead. I took notes, and placed “Ngoho” as my main character. But somewhere along the line, I gave in and changed the name to Marilyn, and it was suggested I rename the manuscript “Marilyn.” It made me want to throw up, that’s how I knew it was right.
Naming is an initiation process. To receive a name is to receive an identity. As is written in the book: “Marilyn, remember your name. Malinao, remember your story. Name and story and tribe are the same thing. A name is a story and a story is the tribe’s identity.” Fr. Albert Alejo says we have a “narrative identity.” Our narrative is a circle that includes time, place, personal history, the history of our families and cultures, our origin myths. My understanding of narrative identity originally came from M. Scott Momaday’s The Way to Rainy Mountain. I love the notion that identity is a story, which is a form of pilgrimage. To ancestral memory.
LDJ: It’s hard to talk about naming in MARILYN without talking about translation and the many languages, and yes, a sort of pilgrimage, in the many physical spaces and places we travel through with you within its pages. Is it safe to say that in the process of coming into your own identity as an adult, grappling with rectifying history with current, you have sought both refuge and escape, simultaneously, in not staying too long in one place—and in translating and re-translating yourself, participating in and experiencing life and space in a cacophony of sounds and variations on word = meaning?
ANR: That’s a tough question. As in, let’s run off to one of my favorite Irish pubs and drink Jameson. Then, we can have an uninhibited conversation. What does it mean to stay? This is the starting question that guided me in writing MARILYN. The epigraph invokes Hélène Cixous: “What time is it, I mean to say where am I, I mean to say where have I gone—I don’t know anymore, in this instant when I call out to myself, where I’m passing or where I’m going.”
There comes a point when running away from something becomes running towards something. I’m not sure when the switch happened. Perhaps in Italy and Greece, where I was an art student on a tuition scholarship. There I met a Pinay poet from Cebu, who invited me to return to the Philippines. It was terrifying, but it was a “now or never” situation. A defining moment that frames MARILYN. I’m not sure why at that particular time I felt the deep urge to go; growing up, I never showed any interest in it. I wasn’t aware of—or blocked it all out—how adoption affects my experience and identity. The energy with which Marilyn was written shocked me. Eileen Tabios, on her Poets on Adoption blog, writes, quite beautifully:
Poetry: it inevitably relates to—among others—identity, history, culture, class, race, community, economics, politics, power, loss, health, desire, regret, language, form and genre disruption, love … as well as the absences thereofs. The same may be said about Adoption.
MARILYN, however successful, attempts to work through some of these subjects, or at least, it begins to touch them.
LDJ: I know it’s hard to consider our own work successful, but as a reader (and an editor, and a picky one), I can say that MARILYN is extraordinarily successful in working through these subjects, and their juxtaposition—as well as words can arrive at those ineffable spaces, after all.
So, now that the volume is complete and almost in our hands, what’s changed? Where have you been, where are you now, and where are you going? Is it much different from where you were while in the process of completing this book?
ANR: Looking back at my experience at Naropa, I realize all the ingredients at that particular moment and time were just right. It was a crucible, a unique container for spiritual alchemy and magic. For me, to create a book is to have equal parts form and content and spirit. Spirit is what animates the form; form is what allows us to experience spirit. What is the content? Perhaps it’s the optimal anxiety and alchemical fire. Creating the book was an intense, internal re-structuring of relationships and identity, which I’ve learned are fluid and always fleeting. What the book is changes too, with each new reader and reading. And writing …. It captivates me. It’s still completely mystical and mysterious. Hi-D Palapar reflects it beautifully in her poem; she writes, “you are breaking open/ the dark and coarse/ earth whose heart/ is a desert.” What happens after the breaking?
I’m working on a new fiction manuscript about a girl named Luzviminda, who first appeared in MARILYN. She’s a foster child in the Philippines who believes she’s divine, or is perhaps a changeling. She deals with her situation by living in a fantastical world, one that is not unlike the dark faerie worlds I made up as a child. The work explores Philippine myths, Spanish colonization through Catholic missionaries, and the practice of private rehoming, an underground market, of adopted children. Recently, I attended the Babaylan Symposium in Ohio, hosted and organized by The Center for Babaylan Studies. It was wonderful and difficult and healing and fantastic. I want my next work to start from that space, a space of community with every one and every thing. Inspired by one of the keynote speakers, our battle cry became “lamuwan kata!” It means, “we are one.”
LDJ: A space of community with everyone and everything is a place I seek often—I find more akin to Notley, Oliver, Rumi, Simone Weil and others who have a natural mysticism seeping in at all times than almost anyone, often more than people I know. It’s exciting to hear about you finding yourself there, about this progression in your life and work—I’m looking forward to following Luzviminda’s story.
As we midwife Marilyn through its final pre-publication months, what’s on your mind most? As she prepares to fly off to audiences and bookshelves and eyes and ears and this frustrating anthropocene moment, what do you want potential readers to know or keep in mind? Is there a passage you’d like to leave us with as a teaser?
ANR: In these pre-publication months, I try to temper my extreme anxiety and my equally extreme gratitude. This book is for my mentors who have made this writing possible, for those who have supported me, for those who may read it, and for anyone who has been on the brink of something—hope, despair— where the edges shimmer. An excerpt:
It started with walking. But I wonder if most things start with walking.
Walking. Towards red. The catalyst.
Not finding red. Instead. Abyss. Abysmal. A bay. A bahay. A bahay kubo. In
Cebuano, this means “house-cube.” It is a house-on-stilts. My friend’s uncle
won’t leave the bamboo house-on-stilts.
Where am I going? I am getting there.
In the jungle there is a foreboding that surrounds a sentence. It lactates. It drowns.
They say that by the time a child is one year old her brain has been wired to know
and understand only the phonemes of the language that surrounds her.
I spent eight years in speech therapy learning how English letters and words
should be formed in my mouth. Hollow. The tip of the tongue placed behind the
back of the top teeth. Bared. Legs – I mean, lips – spread. A slight vibration as the air pushes out.
Unlike Tagalog, the ‘S’ is voiceless. Like the /s/ in ‘self.’ Or ‘citizen.’
But what if you have something to say and can’t understand an English tongue?
A barefoot girl in a black dress twirls in the moonshine.
Will English never be mine?
Born in the Philippines, raised in Wisconsin, Amanda [Ngoho] Reavey is a poet, a Reiki practitioner and a cellist interested in plant spirit communication and healing. A graduate of the MFA Writing & Poetics program at Naropa University, her work appears in Construction Magazine, Galatea Resurrects #23 and The Volta, among others. Reavey currently works as Marketing Director at Woodland Pattern Book Center. MARILYN (The Operating System, 2015) is her first book and is currently available for special pre-publication order direct from the publisher. Find her at spaceinsideborderline.com.
Lynne DeSilva-Johnson is the Founder and Managing Editor of The Operating System, a slinger of image, text, sound, and code, a frequent collaborator across a wide range of disciplines, and a regular curator of events in NYC and beyond. She has served as an adjunct in the CUNY system for a decade, and as a K-12 teaching artist since 2001. Also a social practice artist and poet, Lynne has appeared at The Dumbo Arts Festival, Naropa University, Bowery Arts and Science, The NYC Poetry Festival, Eyebeam, Undercurrent Projects, Mellow Pages, The New York Public Library, The Poetry Project, Industry City Distillery, Independent Curators International, and the Cooper Union, among others.