Surefire; Useless, Rendered Things; The Uses of Burning
By: Johanna Carissa Fernandez
Regret is a dark pool.
A crisp leaf touches
the water, ripples silken
the veins. Bodies encased
in sharp cold. Then illness,
surefire as sunrise,
new couples playing
house. The first test,
easy as tossing spare eggs
We leave tomorrow;
don’t bother to uncover
the furniture. We save
white lace from wine stains
though some had already
been there before we came,
before we thought to curtail
expectations. On the ceiling,
I saw a seahorse, French bread,
and Saturn. They say we’re lucky
to see its rings in their mid-life,
gravity dismantling them like rain.
Useless, Rendered Things
I’m sitting with my feelings
under the too-bright street light
turning the balcony hospital-white.
Or more like interrogation-room white
because now my attention is so sharp
I can see the fire ants marching on a power line.
It felt appropriate to light a cigarette.
In the corner, I see the dumbbells
that’d been missing for months
(So that’s where they’ve been all this time).
It takes resolve to form a habit,
and I guess that hasn’t been found yet.
Perhaps never, in the case of working out.
I’m rummaging through my feelings.
Some are many-legged and weightless,
their only job to follow antecedents.
Others are dense and fixed, like cast iron,
owned by dust. I place my live stump on
the ashtray my mother bought years ago,
when she finally accepted that my smoking
is non-negotiable. It has this push-down
mechanism: press a button and the stick
slides down an airless trap. I thought,
what a nifty thing. The extinguishing
is imagined, but you don’t have to witness
a smothering to know that it does the job.
The Uses of Burning
The freeway flooded with light. Through the car window,
rice fields gush backwards, power lines striping the sky.
I used to find peace in this repeating landscape, though plumes
disturb the scenery. Closer to dusk, more of them would appear.
But not a cause for alarm, this afternoon ritual among townsfolk
of burning heaps of dried leaves and branches they’d gathered
from the yard. Imagine a farmer’s wife at the base of the smoke,
sipping 3-in-1 coffee while watching the blaze crackle along
with static from an old transistor. They say the fumes
repel mosquitoes and “wake” the trees into bearing more fruit.
Others blow the smoke on roosters’ faces to rile them up before
a sabong, before another fowl is clawed to death. The game
is legal in the country, though cockpits regularly get raided.
I’ve read somewhere that one mayor once unleashed dogs
in an offender’s yard. The cockpits were closed for months
and everyone started waking late as no rooster crowed
to welcome the morning. But life goes on. A girl
out on some field is pulling abaca fibers when suddenly
so loud, as though building up in the clouds for twelve
straight years. Hot pebbles beneath her skin, the warmth
flowing out of her belly turning the soil black.
Smoke rises from that farm. It would be seen by many.
Lately, the smallest plume makes me think of other uses
of burning, that it could also mean erasure or onset.
The whole archipelago’s covered in smoke. In the capital,
people gather around an urn surrounded by lily buds,
the incense in the air blurring their delicate fists.
Johanna Carissa Fernandez is a Communications Campaigner for an environmental organization, and a part-time flower artist based in Manila. Her poems have appeared in Cordite Poetry Review and The Philippines Graphic among others, and she has read her work in various poetry reading events, including Happy Mondays and Bigkas Pilipinas. She is currently working on her debut poetry collection.
Interview with the Poet:
Cathexis Northwest Press:
How long have you been writing poetry?
Johanna Carissa Fernandez:
I started writing poetry back in high school, but I've been writing verses on-and-off for more than a decade now. There would be periods of inactivity in between, and whenever I’d go back to writing, it would feel like starting all over again, or having to contend with the same ambivalence. I think that much of the struggle comes from the fact that I didn't have any formal creative writing training, save for a few elective classes I took in college (which was more than a decade ago), and much of what I know about poetry, I learn from reading other poets’ work.
Can you remember the first poem you read that made you fall in love with poetry?
What made me first fall in love with poetry were songs. I was a singer and a pianist, and had a few bands growing up, during which I became exposed to artists across generations and genres. I was specifically drawn to alternative rock and folk lyrics with imagistic strengths and a subversive quality to them. I remember Tori Amos’ Winter was among the many songs that lyrically made quite an impact on my writing.
Who are your favorite poets?
So many, and the list is still growing, but at the top would be Louise Glück, Dean Young, and Eric Gamalinda. Some of the younger poets I like are CM Burroughs, Jericho Brown, and Kazim Ali. I’m also lucky to get free advice from one of the Filipino poets in English I’ve always admired (who’s now my partner), Joel M. Toledo. :)
Can you share for us a little bit about your writing process? Any specific rituals that get you in the zone?
My process is as neurotic as it gets, such that the conditions (most of which are imagined) have to be perfect. I’d have to be alone, at least practically, and I could never start writing when I’m in a bad mood, or if, say, someone’s playing reggae music. The process is almost like preparing to meditate. Whenever I realize I’m straining on a draft, I’d stop and think about it while doing other things, then pick it up again later.
I also found that reading for days (or even weeks) before attempting to write a poem attunes me to think in heightened language (or what we’d consider poetic nowadays).
How do you decide the form for your poems? Do you start writing with a form in mind, or do you let the poem tell you what it will look like as you go?
Normally, I’d let the first few drafted lines dictate the form, but lately, I’ve been trying to follow a seasoned poet’s advice to let forms help me “expand the diversity of attack or tack.” So at this point, I’m treating each unexplored form as an undertaking. I may set out to write a duplex one of these days. I’ve also yet to write a sonnet, believe it or not.
Any advice for poets who have yet to find their voice?
I myself am still in the process of finding my voice, so I feel I’m in no position to give advice on this. Perhaps what I can share at this point is what has helped me overcome deterrents to writing.
One is to know what you love about poems, and try to emulate these in your work.
Another is to write what you know. Write from your context, from your wealth of memories or thoughts.
Finally, write for yourself first. I believe that the paths towards a distinctive voice and towards self-awareness are intersecting, if not one and the same. To set the tone, I like asking myself, ‘what will I write today that someone like myself would admire?’ and ‘how can I write comfortably and freely?‘ I feel asking myself this has helped my writing come from a place of sincerity and authenticity.
What is your editing process like?
My editing self just can’t help but intervene in the initial drafting process. Everybody says it’s a bad practice, but I guess it’s also consistent with my personality—I tend to analyze myself before I can even articulate.
When do you know that a poem is finished?
I know a poem is finished when I feel like it can stand on its own. Technical aspects aside, I think the ultimate tell for a finished poem is largely subjective and intuitive. But I do believe that along with a sense of completion is a search for, as Coleridge put it, the “best words in the best order.”