Some thoughts on Merlinda Bobis’ process

Hello poets and readers,

In our recent podcast with poet Merlinda Bobis, she notes that consciousness of process comes about after the fact. While writing, she is too busy leaping from one thought to another to allow for this kind of reflection. Something captures her and makes a poem possible. She describes the initial impetus as an accident –her book title Accidents of Composition reflects this – the poem has to retain an element of surprise. The poem leads her, and further accidents happen as she writes, through associations; the poems seem to compose themselves. Analysing her own text, she remembers what gave rise to it, an act of contextualising how the work happened, and of looking at it as a reader. Even her return to poetry from the novel was accidental. Her writing often begins with strong images; sometimes she takes photos to use as prompts – the sense of ‘something else’ that is in the image becomes the poem.

Her poetry conveys a strong sense of embodied writing. Writing relates to speaking, speaking relates to breathing, and so breath is essential to the poetic line. Her work celebrates and harnesses the power of dance. She describes a case of writer’s block preceding composition of her epic poem ‘Cantata of the Warrior Woman Daragang Magayon’. She started dancing, to traditional Filipino music and western classical music, populating the room with different bodies, using traditional movements, and with those movements ‘the body’s cadence’ driving the lines. A poem is animal, organic. The body leads one into play, or out of the mode of being in control; it is as if the poet is tricked into a creative space by the possibility and surprise of writing. One is not in control until the editing stage.

Bobis is also a novelist and playwright and speaks about the differences between the genres, in terms of process, and ways in which they inform each other. For example, the structure of Accidents of Composition can make it seem like a verse novel. This structuring was planned, but the entry point into the project (through an image) was not. The book also forms a kind of travelogue. Some of her longer poems (such as the epic poem) include a degree of research and planning but still contain accidents. Research is more likely to inform novel writing and occurs when the story is generated by an image that can no longer be contained by a poem. Note-making is part of her process, but is used more in prose writing, which is implicitly structured.

In her poetry, Bobis writes in Filipino and English, mediated by her first language, Bikol. The different languages struggle with each other, but also produce poetic tension and new choices. Bikol is present in the subconscious even if not used in the text, so that ‘each language enriched the other’ in diverse ways, such as discovering new metaphors in English that she wouldn’t otherwise have written. She likens the different tongues to being tuned into different sound stations. Most of all, Bobis emphasises writing from the lived life – even if not autobiographical, it is informed by one’s world view, and composing is facilitated by openness to that experience.

  1 comment for “Some thoughts on Merlinda Bobis’ process

  1. November 18, 2019 at 5:13 pm

    I have been captured by Merlinda Bobis’ “technique” of mixing languages, which reminds me a bit of Pound and others, and I do belive this has real potential in terms of poetic effect, not to mention the idea of “accidental moments.” An inspiring and thought-provoking post! Thanks!


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