Outward and Inward: The poetry of Patria Rivera
Laughter surprisingly comes easy for Patria “Patty” Rivera, the pre-eminent poet of Filipino descent in Canada, whose literary work do not exactly shy away from pathos, chaos, and the dark underbelly of life.
She laughs when asked about why she writes poetry, how she writes poetry, and whether she has written “the” poem.
Rivera, 70, isn’t one to take herself too seriously. As if to prove her point, she orders hot chocolate with whipped cream at Starbucks on College and Bay, where noticeably most are solemnly clutching an espresso.
Make no mistake, however. Rivera is dead serious and meticulous about her craft. Last spring, Winnipeg-based Signature Editions published her fourth book of poetry, The Time Between. Its synopsis, in part, reads: “In the Time Between, poems burrow deep inside rusty rooms, the brachiated hearts of sleepless women, the anguish pounding the fault lines of monsoons and long rains, the sheets of ancient wound and anger, the littered and abandoned alleyways of shell-shocked hamlets and towns.”
She was thinking about violence “and all the wars in the world,” in this collection, says Rivera, who was born in 1949, four years after the end of the Second World War.
Rivera has received many accolades for her work — her first book of poetry Puti/White, published by Frontenac House Media, was shortlisted for the Canadian Trillium Book Award for Poetry in 2005; other poems have won in various competitions. She is a co-recipient of the 2007 Filipino Global Literary Award for Poetry, among other noteworthy accomplishments.
But Rivera’s journey to becoming a distinguished poet in Canada took a rather circuitous route. She was 56 when her first book of poetry was published. Although she began writing poetry in high school and continued to do so until her second year of university, she would not go back to it until her four children were grown. While studying at the University of the Philippines, she also gravitated towards writing short stories — encouraged, she says, by “inspiring” teachers such as NVM Gonzales, Vivencio Jose, and Aleli Agbayani. She also discovered that she had a knack for prose. After graduating with a journalism degree, she ended up editing magazines in Manila before she and her husband, Joe, decided to immigrate in Canada. “I was fearful for our young kids,” she says about their departure, recalling the series of military coup attempts against the presidency of Corazon Aquino—there were six between 1986 to 1987.
“Joe and I had fairly established careers when we left for Canada in 1987,” she says. “We had an idealistic vision of what our lives would be — that we could get good jobs right away. But that didn’t happen.” Joe took on casual work before a full-time job at the Jewish Association of Hebrew Schools “gave him some stability.” He later went on to become a successful lawyer.
Patty was hired as a junior reporter by The Catholic Register, a weekly newspaper published by the Archdiocese of Toronto. She later became its news editor before assuming editorship of the Catholic Missions of Canada Magazine, where she stayed until her retirement in 2016.
Poetry stayed in the back burner until 1993, when she applied and was chosen to attend a Writers of Colour Conference organized by the Writers’ Union of Canada. Participants were paired with more established writers of colour, who acted as mentors. “It inspired me,” she says about the conference, where she received guidance from acclaimed Japanese-Canadian writer and editor Gerry Shikatani. “After a year, I was able to give him a pile of poems. It was basically me writing, and him, critiquing (my work).”
It was just the push she needed. Rivera kept writing until she had about a hundred poems. She later had the privilege of attending a workshop by critically-acclaimed and award-winning Canadian poet and novelist Helen Humphreys, who began mentoring a group of participants. “For about a year, we met once a month to critique our poems — for free.” Humphreys encouraged Rivera to gather her poems and submit them to a publisher. “At that time, Frontenac House was looking for poetry books to publish during the year and mine became one of them.”
There was no stopping Rivera after her that. Two years later, in 2007, Frontenac House Media published her second book, The Bride Anthology. In 2011, Signature Editions published BE.
Asian-Canadian Observer recently sat down with Patria Rivera to talk about her poetry and other new pursuits.
Q: When did you first start writing poetry?
A: I started writing poetry when I was in second year high school. I was idle during the summer and every time it rained it made me think about things. I wanted to jot them down so I could remember them later on. Rain was a constant symbol for me — of growth, regeneration… the sense of hope it brings. Even if you take it as a symbol of destruction, I think of it as a force that can help things grow and make peoples’ lives better.
Q: What did you write about then?
A: My old life. Mostly about family, relationships, events in the Philippines.
Q: Why were you drawn to those themes?
A: I think I had more time to reflect on what I left behind. They (the poems) became the nucleus, the core of my first poetry book, Puti/White.
Q: Why was it called Puti/White?
A: Because becoming white is an aspiration for many Filipinos before they come here. Getting the lifestyle of a white person is a goal. Also, there’s a poem in my book which is about a Filipino-American boy who used to live in our neighbourhood. His father was a soldier during the war, and he left the family behind. The young son became a riff-raff. He was in and out of jail. His name was Puti.
Q: Puti/White was shortlisted for the Trillium Prize. You were 56 by then. How did that make you feel?
A: (Laughs) I was happy but being published wasn’t really a big deal for me. It was more the writing of it that appealed to me. It was just the icing on the cake.
Q: Why do you write poetry?
A: (Laughs) Why? For one thing, poetry is portable. You can write it anywhere… It allowed me to express my thoughts. If I had more time, I would have written more short stories.
Q: Now that you have more time, are you writing short stories again?
A: I’ve actually written a novel.
Q: Can you tell me what it’s about?
A: It’s about the Philippines again, but about the comfort women.
Q: What made you decide to write about comfort women?
A: I attended one of the symposia at the U of T where several comfort women shared their stories. They moved me and I told myself that I should write about them.
Q: Is this some sort of historical novel?
A: It is, but with imagined people.
Q: Does this mean you’re now shifting to writing novels?
A: Not necessarily. I shift whenever the urge occurs to me. Poetry has always been my first love, so I’ll go back to it. But I also love writing prose.
Q: Are you hoping the novel will be published in Canada or in the Philippines?
A: In the Philippines. I think the stories of comfort women are still not as widely circulated in the Philippines. I think its first home should be there.
Patria “Patty” Rivera reads one of her poems at the launch of the Filipino-Canadian Writers and Journalists Network last April. Photo: Marites N. Sison
Q: Can you tell me a bit about your other poetry books?
A: The Bride Anthology is more like a mother’s wishes for her daughters. These are imagined stories of getting married. It’s the most flippant of all my books. It’s dedicated to my four daughters. I thought maybe I should leave a legacy to them about what it is to find love, to lose love, to get married, to get unmarried.
Q: How did they react to that?
A: (Laughs) They thought I was joking. It’s like a break for me from being serious. The third one, BE, I went back to being serious.
Q: What is BE about?
It’s about becoming who you are as a person; it’s also a woman’s struggle to become her own in the world.
Q: And the Time Between?
A: It’s more like my war story period. I was thinking of all the wars in the world … what people are doing about it, the suffering it has caused to people.
Q: It’s clear that you’re not writing poetry for poetry’s sake.
A: I think we need to address the social issues around us, not just the struggles that we have in ourselves. We have to look at society as a whole. What are we here for? Why are we in this world? Is it just to exist? Or to do something else?
We are all products of our pasts, and to ignore our past and current history will be like shortchanging ourselves. We need to express our present and yet be mindful of our roots and pay attention to the forces around us that are shaping our world.
Marina Tsvetaeva has an essay about two types of poets: those who continually interact with the ever-changing external world and those whose work moves inward, independent of time and event. I would like to tread both.
Q: When people come up to you and say poetry has affected them, how do you feel?
A: I feel vindicated, but at the same time I don’t feel that I have done my work yet. I still have a lot to do.
Q: What strikes me about you aside from your talent is your humility.
A: (Laughs) Thank you. I think I got it from my parents. My father (Jose Cabatuando Sr.) is from peasant stock; he came from a poor family. But he struggled to get an education for himself. He became a lawyer, topped the bar exam; elected mayor and became a judge. I think he was able to do what he wanted to do and at the same time serve other people.
Q: He was an inspiration to you.
A: He was. My mother (Petra Abes) as well. She was our anchor because my father was away most of the time. It was my mother who kept us whole. She was the business manager, she was the cook, she was in charge of the family…She was able to read books beyond her grade four education. She knew a lot of practical stuff — she could embroider, cook, do carpentry.
Q: Do you have some kind of ritual when you write?
A: (Laughs) Since I was eight years old, I’ve always woken up at four in the morning because I was afraid, I would be late for school, and we had a strict principal…I was so afraid to be punished for being late, so I took it upon myself to wake up at four. It’s been my habit since.
Q: So, what do you do at 4 a.m.?
A: I read. And then now, I go back to sleep at 6 a.m.
Q: Are you the type of writer who has to sit at a certain spot to begin writing?
A: No. I think my training in journalism taught me that you can write anywhere.
Q: Do you just write when you feel the urge to do so?
A: It happens to me when I have dreamt something, read something, or seen something. It comes at any moment.
Q: How do you know when your poetry is complete? Does it go through a lot of edits?
A: It’s a lot of work, the editing part. The writing part for me is the easiest. I can write it in 10 minutes… I usually leave it for a week or so, then I come back to it and edit, read, and edit. You know it’s done when you feel there’s nothing more you can do about it.
Q: Is there a poem that stands out for you.
A: That this is my masterpiece? (Laughs)
Q: Not necessarily.
A: I think I still have to create that. I don’t have a favorite poem.
Q: Do people have a favorite poem that you’ve written?
A: I think it’s Cold War 1957. It’s about the drill when we were elementary school students. At the sound of three bell rings, we were asked to get out of the schoolhouse and hide under the trees because the planes from Red China would be coming and swooping down. It was included in a selection of critiques of poems in Canada. At the same time, Oxford University Press selected it for a textbook for fourth year students in Alberta. For that single poem I got paid $250. It was very short. It’s my most prized poem. (Laughs)
Q: How long did it take you to write Cold War 1956?
A: I don’t think it would have taken me more than one day… There are poems that are complete in themselves before I write them and it’s one of those poems…Some poems though are harder to write. You do it stanza by stanza.
Q: Have any writers influenced you? Who do you admire?
A: I got a lot of social consciousness from the works of Amado V. Hernandez and others who have written about conditions in the Philippines, among them Eman Lacaba. Canadian poets include Helen Humphreys, Don Domanski, David Donnell, Michael Redhill, Ken Babstock and Molly Peacock. They have mentored and encouraged me at different periods of my poetry writing life. International poets — Pablo Neruda, Anna Akhmatova, and Marina Tsvetaeva.
Q: Have you thought about translating your work into Filipino?
A: I’d rather that other people do that. I want the poems to be interpreted by others and translated in the way they read it.
Q: The Information Age has had a tremendous impact on journalism. Has poetry been similarly affected?
A: I think the changes have enriched the writing of poetry. There are more ways of presenting poetry now. And there are many experiments online. so, you can write poetry with movement, with images, with interactive technology – the possibilities are endless.
Q: Are more people reading poetry these days?
A: I would think so. Yes.
Q: Here’s the inevitable question. Any words of advice for aspiring poets and writers?
A: In one workshop I told the participants, “Read. Read. Read.” I think I’ll make a little change — “Read. Write. Read.” — By reading I mean not only reading with your eyes, but reading the people around you, the places around you and reading the minds within.