Poetry News

Chris Santiago & Viet Thanh Nguyen Talk Tula

By Harriet Staff

Tula Santiago

At Los Angeles Review of Books, Chris Santiago and Viet Thanh Nguyen converse on a range of topics, beginning with an exploration of the Tagalog word for poem: Tula (which, hey!, is also the title of Santiago's latest book). Nguyen asks Santiago about how and why he explores this term:

CHRIS SANTIAGO: Tula means poem in Tagalog. I didn’t know that when I started writing these poems; in fact I still don’t know much Tagalog at all. Even the most basic parts of the grammar are difficult for me to grasp. While English verbs are inflected with suffixes, or endings, Tagalog verbs are inflected with infixes, or with sounds inserted into the middle of words. Kain, for example, is the dictionary form of the verb to eat. When it gets conjugated, it takes forms like kinain or kumakain. One of these means eating and the other means ate, but I’m not sure which is which!

I actually had to look up the Tagalog word for poem online; later I double-checked with my mom and dad (you can never be too careful with the internet). At first, it became the title of the long poem that anchors the collection. After many, many drafts, I decided to break that long poem up into parts, and scatter those parts across the whole manuscript, with each individual poem called tula. The idea came from both Oliver de la Paz and David St. John. It becomes, I hope, a rondo or a refrain, but understated: each part of the long poem is basically called poem. It also becomes an aporia, since the title comes from a word that is not fully learned, but that describes it with a kind of accuracy. The fact that tula could mean so many different things in so many different languages — in Sanskrit, for example, tula is the name of the constellation Libra, the sign under which our first son was born — reinforces this, and that’s why I started the book with those “definitions.”

They go on to talk about the significance of Tagalog in Santiago's work and other Filipino-American poets whose work has been important for Santiago. And because we're thinking about poetry and research this month, we'll peek into their conversation where they touch upon the topic:

What kind of research did you do, both in terms of your family history, and the history of the Philippines? Did this research lead to some of the poems? I’m thinking particularly about the poems seem to address the Marcos regime and the Martial Law era.

In 2000, I started traveling back to Manila, to interview family members, and to find out more about our family history. The research intensified in 2013, though, when I got a grant to go and dig in the archives, such as the National Library of the Philippines and the American Historical Collection at Ateneo de Manila University. My uncle, Fluellen Ortigas, took me to the Bantayog ng mga Bayani Memorial, which commemorates the men and women who risked their lives resisting the Marcos Dictatorship. It’s a huge, dark stone wall, a bit like the Vietnam Memorial, and two of my uncles are on it. One was Virgil Ortigas, my mother’s youngest brother, who was a guerrilla and an organizer, and who was shot while resisting arrest by the secret police. The other uncle on there, Gaston Ortigas, was a business professor at the Asian Institute of Management and a Ford Foundation Fellow, and fled the country and continued his opposition from the United States.

More to dig into at LARB.