Two years ago, I met Romalyn Ante for the first time at the Jerwood Arvon Totleigh Barton retreat, in Devon, run by the inimitable Joe Bibby. The medieval building, with its thatched roof, and creaking, wooden floors, lies at the end of a long drive, encircled by green hills and fields. Neither of us had ever stayed anywhere like it before. We were there to meet our mentor Pascale Petit, and our two fellow poetry mentees – now sisters-in-words, Seraphima Kennedy and Yvonne Reddick – for five days’ work together, alongside the brilliant fiction and drama mentees, and their mentors Tim Crouch and Jacob Ross.
All of us talked, work-shopped, performed, ate and walked together, laying the foundations of friendships which have continued to deepen and grow. Later that same year, Romalyn become the joint winner of the 2017 Manchester Poetry Prize, won the 2017 Platinum Creative Futures Award, and was selected for Primers 3 with Sarala Estruch and Aviva Dautch. In 2018 she was awarded the Poetry London Prize – judged by Kwame Dawes – for her poem ‘Names’.
Romalyn Ante can be viewed reading ‘Names’ here.
For those who don’t know her personally, it can seem as if Romalyn’s success has come out of nowhere. In fact, the poems which have brought her recognition are rooted in her childhood in the Philippines, when Tagalog was her primary language, and her grandfather told her their ancient myths during power cuts. Having started writing in the Philippines, Romalyn continued when she followed her nurse mother to the UK when she was 16, to complete her studies, and train as a nurse herself.
‘Names’, Romalyn’s Poetry London prize-winning poem carries this journey within its stanzas. Romalyn and I spoke about how it came into being on the evening of the prize reading at King’s Place in London, and again the next morning over breakfast in my kitchen, before she took the train back to Wolverhampton. We both share the desire to represent our experiences on behalf of our communities, and make them available to the wider world.
Remembering how she came to write ‘Names’, as we talked, Romalyn looked back on growing up in the Philippines, and her experiences of migrating to, and making her adult life in, the UK. We swapped notes on our different journeys into poetry, the value of Pascale Petit’s mentoring to us as writers, what it is like to be with someone who is dying, why loss can become a catalyst for growth, and how we let our words find their shapes.
Ahead of launching my first ‘saying the difficult thing’ interview, with Shivanee Ramlochan, on this blog, Romalyn has generously given me permission to upload our conversation:
AH: You told me that you first heard the music that words can carry in English when you were growing up in the Philippines, but that your work is also deeply nourished by its oral culture?
RA: My uncles and aunties would play music every night. My uncle always played the guitar over a table full of gin. Sometimes my Dad would come home and join them. They would sing in English. They would sing American love songs or American pop rock. I think that is how I learnt the music of words. I never read any English poetry when I was growing up, except for my high school diploma. I read literature in Tagalog. At home, my family didn’t really read many books. What got me into storytelling was my grandad – every time there was a blackout. We call it a brown-out. The brown-outs over there don’t just last for less than a minute. They last for an entire night or maybe an entire day. Every time there was a brownout, and say it was at night, my grandad – who is a barber by day, and was a porter or kargador when he was younger – would gather us on the terrace. He would light a candle and all of us would just sit there and he would tell stories about Filipino mythology in Tagalog. All this folklore, legends. My Grandad didn’t realise that he was a storyteller. During the day, and for everyone, he was just a barber who never even finished primary school. Looking back now – all those experiences fed in. I used to think I wasn’t well read.
AH: Your sources were different – oral stories, told myths. You actually had this extraordinary deep, rich background. Even if people read those stories as adults, it’s completely different to being told them as children.
RA: When you are a child, you are like ‘wow’ – and your imagination is going berserk. But I really agree with you. There was also a point when I asked myself if I should get a Poetry MA – because everyone seemed to have an MA and everyone seemed to know what they were doing. I’m thankful that I didn’t because I feel it might have marred the way I write poems now. I think that intuition is very important. I’m glad that I didn’t take any formal training in writing and got what I needed to learn from my mentors who have been extremely helpful.
AH: You told me you started writing initially to process your nursing experience – without a thought of publication?
RA: It started as journal entries. Then I realised that there were some words in my journal that sounded nice, almost like music. I think that really kick-started me into writing poetry.
AH: I remember that in my own work. You come across something that has an energy which you didn’t give it.
RA: It’s as if those couple of words, or let’s say that line, is very alive. It says: ‘There’s something here. You need to explore me. You need to get me out of this journal and put me somewhere I can be fully alive.’ It’s a breathing creature. Pascale Petit said that as well when we were being mentored. She said don’t give up on your poem even, if you think it’s bad, if you see a draft that has that one sentence that’s alive. You can explore it more.
AH: You must have been aware that what you were writing as a nurse wasn’t being written by anybody else?
RA: Kwame Dawes said yesterday, ‘I’ve known a lot of doctor poets but never known a nurse poet.’ I hoped something good will come from that.
AH: It has already. Primers – the CFLA Platinum Award. The Manchester Poetry Prize. The Saboteur Award for your pamphlet, Rice and Rain. I’m writing about sexual abuse in childhood. I just read Paper Cuts by Stephen Bernard. It was really helpful to recognise patterns that I found in my own life. You are the first person writing contemporary poetry about nursing. You had to open the conversation.
RA: Yes. I want my poems to be accessible for everyone.
AH: That’s very important to me. I’m trying to write for everyone who is making their life in the aftermath of abuse. I don’t want there to be any barrier to walking into my work – and that’s a political decision on my part.
RA: Yes, definitely. Can you explore that?
AH: Society has always turned away and denied sexual abuse. I’m standing up to say what it feels like to be sexually abused in childhood, how you try and operate afterwards – the fear, the bewilderment, the difficult teenage behaviour that people who have been abused tend to manifest. I stand before people and say: ‘All these things are in me.’ I don’t want to be the cardboard cut-out of a smiling child. You don’t want to be the cardboard cut-out of the smiling nurse. We want to say: ‘This is us in our wholeness.’
RA: We are putting ourselves in the centre of an arena, naked and saying: ‘This is the real me.’ After that, hopefully someone in the stadium or in the benches would stand up and say, ‘I am also this. I can relate to you, we are the same,’ and someone over there will stand up and say, ‘This is me – and I can relate to you as well.’ And that is what we are doing. We are ‘daring greatly’ – which is a phrase from the writer Brené Brown who believes in the power of showing others your vulnerability.
AH: Aged 23, you realised you had something to say to a wider audience. There was an energy in your words that you wanted to develop. How did that come about?
RA: I found Vera Brittain, who was a nurse in World War I. That was the first English poetry book I read in the UK. She wrote about her nursing career. Her fiancé went to the war and never came back. I read her poems. I felt their raw emotion. I was really inspired that it still rung true to me – her sense of loss. That was when I started writing in a poem form rather than journaling.
AH: How did you come across Vera Brittain’s work?
RA: I was browsing in a book store. The title captivated me. Because You Died. [Poetry and Prose of the First World War and After, edited by Mark Bostridge]. The title was such a heart-breaking thing. I had a patient who had just died. Every single time a patient – a person, a human being – died in front of me, that changed something in me.
AH: I was with my first husband, Falcon, when he died. To see a body that is alive and has a being in it become just the container of that self, is incredible. Such a small margin between life and death. There is a one-breath margin.
RA: With repeated deaths of patients who I got to know, and who I got to be close to – every death I felt took something away from me, but it also gave me something. After I found Vera Brittain, I joined a local writing group. We met every month and then it came to a point that the facilitator left, and then I had to take over for two years. At that point, I was working as a dialysis nurse and my brother was having dialysis. I left the writing workshop, and then after everything settled down, I said to myself, ‘I need to do something for my writing.’ In 2016 I went on my very first Arvon Course with Ian Duhig and Mimi Khalvati. I had been working on my poems for three years. 2016 was when I also had the courage to really submit work. I first submitted to the CFLA in late 2016. I got commended and I was very chuffed because that was my first recognition. Late 2016, I submitted my pamphlet to V Press, then in 2017 I got the news that V Press would like to publish my pamphlet. I also had an email from Joe Bibby saying that I was shortlisted for the Jerwood Arvon Mentoring scheme.
AH: And Pascale Petit, our shared Arvon mentor, was your lift-off?
RA: Pascale was like a cannon blasting me into the sky. She is so generous, isn’t she? She asked what kind of goals do you have? It is very easy for people to assume that I am a nurse, I am a migrant, I am telling my own story. What might not be so obvious straightaway is that it’s not just my story. It happens to every single Filipino who comes here as a nurse. It happens to any migrant – not even Filipino – who leaves their country to work somewhere else. So even though this is so personal to me, it is not just my story. It is a story of people who had to leave something behind. You can’t moan. You have no choice. I want my experience to be able to evoke something that others can relate to. When I was reading Kwame’s Report [for the Poetry London Clore Prize], I was really touched. I didn’t expect Kwame would relate to ‘Names’ so much. He said it was ‘the poem that moved him’. That is his guiding principle. I thought OK, this is it. Even though you weren’t necessarily a nurse – it moved you to the point that you trusted in my work enough to choose it. He felt that something was happening here and something important was being said here – and this is what I need to do, really.
AH: ‘Names’ is a poem of questioning your sense of your own identity. You look at your beginning as a child of your parents, of the adjustments you had to make when your mother had to go abroad to work, and what her departure meant for your identity. You name your other mothers, the mothers that followed your birth mother when she went abroad to work – the supplementary mothers. Many of us are cared for by more than our birth mother. Other than health professionals, most of us only visit hospitals and nursing settings at a time of crisis. Because hospital is your place of work, you have a different way of seeing it. So, in a sense in those poems you are not only speaking for nurses who have to come to England from other countries, but you are also speaking –
RA: – for anyone who cared and for anyone who has lost, I think. We have all lost a loved one, a friend, a country, an identity.
AH: One of the questions that you bring up in ‘Names’ is, how do we survive in the face of loss? How do we remake ourselves? How can it be that loss doesn’t diminish us? How can we live creatively with loss, continue to grow in the face of loss –
RA: – so how can loss be a start of our own growth?
AH: I think that’s really valuable. The poem ends on a hopeful note. It ends on a note of acceptance of loss and change and still finding energy to go forward.
RA: Yes definitely. So, the last lines are: ‘I have the first syllables of my parents’ names, / that is why I am not scared. // I can trek the mountain of Makulot my father’s rifle hanging from my back. // I can carry myself / not how someone carries a cytotoxic drug / but how my mother hooks, / with her finger, a drain bottle / with blood clots / the weight of gemstones.’ The final lines are hopeful – an appreciation of life, the life you know that is going on, and the lives that were lost. It’s hopeful but it’s almost in a tone – for me, when I was writing it – of convincing myself that I’m strong. I’m strong because I’ve had so much pain before – so I can do it. It’s an act of trying to convince yourself of something that may not be necessarily true – you may not be as strong as you think. And I think that is a very normal, that’s a very human thing to do, you know. There are loads of times in our lives we have to convince ourselves.
AH: You were telling me about your grandparents?
RA: My grandad is actually half Spanish and half Filipino. His father left him. He had to bring himself up. He had to be a shoe shiner as a kid, and he worked as a kargador, which is like a porter in the market. After that he married my grandma, who worked at a dress shop in the market, and then he became a barber. I think my grandad finished Grade 3 – when you are an eight-year-old.
AH: Can he read and write?
RA: Yes. It’s very basic – and count. He brought up my uncles my aunties and my Mum. He worked really hard throughout his life. All the things that he managed to invest, he had to sell when my grandma had kidney disease and she had dialysis. So it was really important to educate my mum as a way of giving her opportunities they did not have and lift her above the hardships of poverty.
AH: When you were a certain age, your mum decided to work abroad?
RA: She was originally a nurse in the Philippines in a local hospital. When I was about 11 or 12 – I was still in primary school I remember – she left for Oman first. She spent about three years in Oman before she came to the UK. And that’s the reason I became close to my aunty and to my granddad. I felt like they were the ones who cared for me. At one point my mum was talking, and she said: ‘When I had to leave I had to kill a part of my heart because I wouldn’t be able to survive’. It’s as if you almost have to forget that you have a child but then you are doing this for your child, really.
AH: How often did you see your mum when she was away working?
RA: She’d probably come once every two years.
AH: But you spoke to her on the phone?
RA: I spoke to her on the phone. Growing up, I was really surrounded by lovable people anyway. I think when my mum was away, I was more vocal about how much I love her. I’m shy face to face.
AH: All this work that you mother was doing was with the goal of being able to bring you to England. She had you in mind all the time she was away from you. She was working to open your life chances and give you different possibilities.
RA: You would have thought that it’s the person who is left who is lonely – but I think it’s much, much lonelier to leave. You don’t want to leave and risk losing the most important people in your life. She would say that sometimes she would call, and she knew I was sick, and in the hospital, and it was so hard for her because her work is to care for the sick.
AH: ‘Names’ is not a poem that takes the easy way out. One of the patients is misdiagnosed and dies.
AH: He is assessed in A&E. That figure of the nurse in ‘Names’ also represents your mother and represents many nurses who are struggling to maintain links with home, in a working environment which gives them a three-minute lunch break. It’s not a sugar candy and roses poem by any means, but it’s a poem that seems to be saying that by identifying and connecting with your identity – in your case, your identity as someone who grew up in the Philippines and whose parents grew up in the Philippines – you find yourself. And it’s really about making an honest connection with your own identity to give you strength to go forward.
RA: With the patient who died, it was John Moore-Robinson. He was actually recorded in the latest Staffordshire Hospital scandal. As a result of that, there was a report that came out called the Francis Report. It was an inquiry. So many patients died at that hospital. ‘Names’ is an honest interpretation of our struggle as nurses.
AH: Your poems also address some of the racism migrant workers can face. You write about having to shorten names and simplify names and anglicise names.
RA: I am careful about showing in my poems that I have been attacked by racism – because I want to celebrate resilience, hope and goodness despite bad things. Sometimes it just comes out and I want to delete it, but I can’t. Then it has to be there. The poem is telling me it has to be there. A brave writer is someone for me who can look unblinkingly at the truth.
AH: If we don’t say when people have treated us wrongly, if we don’t bear witness to that, then we are allowing them to continue.
AH: It is important and courageous that you bear witness to these very difficult things in your work.
RA: I guess what I am trying to do is have some subtle hints. But at the moment I am just writing as I remember, then reading it. If that is how your brain wants you to write or how your body wants you to write, then let it be. Because I believe as writers we are our whole body. Holistically we know how to write and what to write and sometimes we just need to let the poem come out.
Alice: Let it have its energy and its truth.
Roma: Yes, exactly.
Romalyn Ante is currently practising as a counsellor within the NHS, working with children and adolescents, while writing her first collection.
Her pamphlet Rice and Rain won the 2018 Saboteur Award and can be purchased via V Press.
Primers 3 can be purchased via Nine Arches Press.
Romalyn Ante co-founded the online journal harana poetry, for poets and poems who resist singleness of tongue and thought, with Kostya Tsolákis. Alice Hiller is the Reviews Editor. Our first issue will launch in February 2019 at www.haranapoetry.com