The best of poetry and art is the stuff of friendship and community. Offerings to the era's muses that grow truthfully from a milieu of diverse hearts united in the exploration of the times and the history that led to those times. The digital realm has opened more of our world to each of us, and it allowed Bear Review to thrive when we could not have afforded the print-only world. It also brought us Kabel Mishka Ligot, a poet we might not have met in an analog world of stamps and letters.
We Bear Review editors carry the magazine largely on the strength of our friendship. And, from the beginning, we wanted to create something surprising that, apropos of nothing, highlighted not only exciting art but also exciting individuals who themselves are effecting community. To that end, we decided recently that writers who paid to submit would be automatically considered for a prize. A little added bonus in a world where extras are rare.
So, given all that, it was with little hesitation we selected Kabel Mishka Ligot our first-ever Bear Review Editors Prize winner. The person you will encounter below—we felt his generosity, genuine inquisitiveness and wonderfully conflicted mind as we read and reread his poems. Mishka may only be in the U.S. a little while... Or, maybe we all can convince him to stay longer. Who knows. What we do know is we have him now, for a little while, and that is a good thing.
I hope you enjoy getting to know him as much as I have.
Co-editor, Bear Review
The annual Bear Review Editors Prize includes an interview and $50 honorarium. All submission-fee-paying writers whose work we publish are automatically entered.
Haines Eason: How did you come to poetry? If love is an apt word, when did you fall in love with it, and why?
Kabel Mishka Ligot: Stories have fascinated me for as long as I can recall. I loved getting to know people through the stories they told. I knew at a very young age that I wanted to be a writer—I was definitely a voracious reader as a child, but poetry wasn't as readily available to me as fiction was because of where I lived. I majored in Comp Lit at the University of Philippines-Diliman, which certainly broadened by understanding of what writing was and has been. Prior to college, I only encountered poetry as required reading (mostly dead white men—can you believe?) in high school. I didn't even know of any Filipino poets until well into my bachelor's. Mind you, I had lived in the country all my life! I fell more and more in love with poetry as I discovered how expansive the field was. It was in college where I discovered the works of contemporary Filipino poets both in the country and abroad, poets like Fatima Lim-Wilson, Luisa Igloria, Allan Popa, Merlinda Bobis, Marjorie Evasco. I was fortunate enough to have lauded poets like Paolo Manalo and Isabela Banzon as my literature professors as well. American literature classes introduced me to names such as Lucie Brock-Broido, Charles Simic, Maxine Kumin. I'm a child of the internet—when I wasn't reading poetry from my professors' photocopied packets, I was discovering folks (mostly American) from sam sax and Yusef Komunyakaa online.
While my exposure to poetry as a more tangible, living, material thing kicked off in college, I'd like to believe that young Mishka's attraction to poetry began in music. I was a huge pop punk fan since high school—think Fall Out Boy and pretty much any band that was on the Vans Warped Tour. I was the farthest thing from an angsty white teenager dying to leave their small American town, but something about how these bands articulated ennui and extremely shallow heartbreak just got to me. I also listened to a lot of Björk, whose songs bent the English language with such strangeness and wonder. Above all, I've been profoundly impacted by the work of Sufjan Stevens, who remains my favorite musician of all time. Stevens wove complex and layered narratives in his songs about apocrypha and Americana in this most charming ways, which absolutely perplexed and dazzled me.
As a bilingual person who grew up in a multilingual environment, poetry's hyper-attention to language was something that I was already exercising in day-to-day life. I also say this mostly as a joke, but I don't have the mental stamina and attention span for prose—I envy fiction writers for this very reason! I run my mouth a lot in person and poetry allows me to be more careful and deliberate about what I want to bring into the world.
HE: How is poetry situated in Philippine culture? Is it a popular means of artistic expression, an academic one...?
KML: The Philippines is a semi-feudal semi-colony of over seven thousand islands in which nearly 200 languages are spoken—this already establishes a multiplicity of identities and histories alive and extant within the country. There's also massive economic striation in its population, and life in the major cities is vastly different from life in the rural areas where the majority of the population live. With that in mind, I can only speak of an understanding of "poetry" informed—and limited—by living in the metropolis as a middle-class English speaker with a college degree.
Across the archipelago, the peoples who would eventually be called Filipinos have had strong and extensive traditions of chanted epics before colonial contact. While these practices are not completely lost today (a good amount had actually adapted to the constraints of Spanish colonization), they're critically endangered and no longer appear to carry an explicit lineage into the contemporary scene. Cultures in the Philippines, I've observed, tend to be more aural/oral than textual, so prose, as we know it, isn't necessarily a common thing—poetry is even more so “inaccessible.” Media such as film, television and radio dramas are larger fields than printed work. Publishing in the country is also in a bit of a bind—local literature exists, but because of monopolies in printing and distribution, its (re)production and circulation is significantly weaker and smaller than the already-small demand for foreign-published work (mostly fiction). It's easier to find a Harry Potter or Nicholas Sparks book in our bookstores than any poetry—whether Filipino or otherwise. To begin to understand poetry in the Philippines is to be critical and conscious of notions such as “readership”—poetry then, in its most pedestrian, contemporary sense, still remains a small and bourgeois endeavor mostly limited to academic institutions and more cosmopolitan consumers of art.
I write in English and hold an MFA from the United States; I'm still contending with the fact that I am both symptomatic of and complicit in the problem of elitism in the small scene that is Filipino literature—I try my best to be consistently mindful of these material realities about writing in the Philippines. While I don't want to negate and invalidate the impulses and sensibilities behind my own poetry, I'm aware that these aren't universal constants within Filipino society. I'm also trying my best to learn more about and be mindful of small and surviving literary scenes and practices that have been cast aside to the margins (geographically and socially), and how I can uplift these writers and their work without taking up their space.
HE: Describe the role you see poetry playing—or think it should play—in society. Your poems we published speak to culture (and food), language, appropriation (and colonialism) and so much more...
KML: Brecht says that there will be singing even in dark times about the dark times; Oppen says we can't put a fire out by singing about it. Conchitina Cruz, a Filipino poet whose work on and off the page I respect, sums it up best: “I think the least we can do as poets is to be conscious of the limits of engaging ‘as poets’ in the work of social transformation. Our words on the page simply can’t stand-in for our bodies out on the streets.” (You can read her full interview with Filipino-Australian poet Ivy Alvarez here: cordite.org.au/interviews/alvarez-cruz.) This is not a dismissal of poetic practice but a charge towards a consciousness of the material conditions within which we create art and are bound to. In the current contexts of the world, from the United States to the Philippines, poetry remains, by and large, a heavily bourgeois, commodified, ivory-tower endeavor. I believe that poetry, as art, is vital, cathartic and energizing in one breath; it serves as the articulation of truth, of lived experience, of witness. Poetry, in this milieu of false narrative and duplicity, serves as humanity's through line. However, poetry is not what mobilizes immediate and revolutionary progress.
"... from the United States to the Philippines, poetry remains, by and large, a heavily bourgeois, commodified, ivory-tower endeavor. I believe that poetry, as art, is vital, cathartic and energizing in one breath; it serves as the articulation of truth, of lived experience, of witness. Poetry, in this milieu of false narrative and duplicity, serves as humanity's through line."
As a writer, I want to be able to talk about the complexities and nuances of representation and identity, especially as a person of color currently living in the United States without the baggage/caveat of Americanness (i.e. I'm in the country temporarily as a student/artist, not as an immigrant navigating identity and assimilation), or a Filipino whose experience of the nation's triumphs and tragedies is heavily informed by an English-speaking, middle class upbringing. I'm interested in exploring what it means to be in both positions of power and vulnerability and what it means to have a voice stemming from these conditions. A significant amount of the sparse Filipino work that's out in the world is exoticized, nearly fetishistic exaggerations of the feverish dynamics of the postcolony, work that is catered towards an audience disconnected from the lived realities of the country—these are narratives I actively resist. There's also a large body of work by Filipino-American or immigrant Filipino writers whose narratives aren't mine to claim or mimic. There's still a universe of work beyond those two threads—I want to write from that space. I'm proud of my work, and I constantly interrogate where I am in the grander scheme of things—but ultimately, I hope that impulse doesn't make me lose sight of the material fact of poetry's limitations.
HE: Who are your heroes, both in poetry and out? Tell us a story about what draws you to them, if you will.
KML: Fatima Lim-Wilson's Crossing the Snow Bridge, her only book published in the United States back in 1995, changed my life—I wouldn't even be here pursuing poetry the way I am now had I never encountered her work, which sings of Filipino history, society, and politics with such a deft but dreamlike control of the poetic line. I look up to the muscular negotiation of English that Safiya Sinclair has undertaken in her book Cannibal and her other poems. While I grew up speaking both English and Filipino, it's English that takes the wheel most of the time in my consciousness—writers who confront this postcolonial reality head-on are easily my heroes. I always find myself returning to writing by Marwa Helal, Rick Barot, Emily Jungmin Yoon, Hai-Dang Phan, Solmaz Sharif, Eve L. Ewing, and Tarfia Faizullah—just some among so many creators whose constant inquiries on identity, history and memory in impossibly fresh new ways simply astound me.
I'm grateful to my teachers. UW-Madison's creative writing faculty is a lineup of absolutely underrated legends: To be honest, I had never heard of Quan Barry prior to the MFA. Now I can't believe I haven't been carrying her books with me every day of my life. I've also been immensely blessed with the opportunity to partake in some fellowships during my tenure in the States so far. Kaveh Akbar at the Tin House Summer Workshop and Aimee Nezhukumatathil at the Indiana University Writers Conference have been instrumental readers and teachers to me. Both the internet and being in this country have allowed me cross paths with Filipino kamag-anak* like Luisa Igloria and R.A. Villanueva, whom I only thought I would ever encounter on the page. It's incredibly refreshing when writers you look up to are also extremely kind and nurturing people who see you beyond the work you produce. I can only hope I can be as wise and gracious as those who have extended that same goodness to me.
HE: Are you willing to tell us some about your family and friends? Who are the people with whom you choose to surround yourself?
KML: My parents aren't really book people, and not eager readers as I was, but I'm privileged to have grown up in such a creative family, who encouraged me to consume as much of the world as I could. My father works in advertising, and my mother's field is communications. I have a younger sister currently in art school, and two more little siblings. I owe a lot of where I am and what I do now to the freedom that my parents have granted and continue to grant me. Most families in the Philippines would be perplexed by a son who decides to major in literature (and eventually go abroad to study poetry, of all things), but mine have been so understanding. Writers Sandra Nicole Roldan and Paul de Guzman have also been like parents to me, and once fiction writer Lakan Umali becomes world-famous, I can't wait to brag about our friendship to everyone. Not all my friends back home are writers (many are loves from college or my family's church), but they're extremely invested and supportive people whom I miss very dearly.
Two million people live in my hometown of Quezon City—another 8 million call the Metro Manila area home. Madison, Wisconsin is easily a sleepy rural town to me. It's the only address I've ever had in the U.S. The university definitely keeps the literary scene booming, and the Creative Writing program—which honestly feels like America's best-kept writing-world secret—brings in ridiculously talented people each year as MFAs, postgraduate fellows and visiting writers. The cozy size (and deadly winters—this is not an exaggeration) of Madison keep the community tightly knit. I've broken bread, cried on couches and driven on Interstate 90 with folks like Natalie Eilbert, Natasha Oladokun, Derrick Austin, Maddy Court, Emily Shetler, Dantiel Moniz, Mary Terrier, Jennie Seidewand, Chekwube Danladi, Leila Chatti, Jim Whiteside… I could seriously go on and on, and I would have probably already named half the city by then (just proof that there really is something in the water in Madison)! Aria Aber, whose book Hard Damage has been making huge waves since it dropped in September, has been an incredible big sister to me and the best Alien of Extraordinary Ability to navigate the puzzling mess of America with.
I'm extremely fortunate to have found a small gang of Filipino grad students to cook and play mahjongg with in a place as blindingly white as Madison, and I'm glad I've made great and meaningful connections with friends at Tin House and IUWC as well. And of course, my two years in the MFA would be incomplete without my cohort of poet-comrades: Rebecca Bedell, Christopher Greggs, Rebekah Hewitt, Wes Holtermann, Alexis Sears and Dylan Weir. I literally cannot really escape my writer friends in Madison, and I'm grateful: I share an apartment with first-year MFA poet Ajibola Tolase, and I see my fellow alumna Rebekah Hewitt at work every day. What's incredible about the family I've found in Madison is that they're such kind and loving people that you almost forget that they write, too—that they have genuinely show-stopping work out in the world is honestly just a nice and surprising bonus. Ah, I love my friends so much!
HE: What is next for you? What are you ambitions and dreams?
KML: I'm still in the United States, provisionally, currently manning the desk at a high school library. My day-to-day job consists of shelving books and curating reader displays. It's work that I enjoy doing because it situates me within the orbit of books and literature without oversaturation, and I have a lot of time to read and work on my own writing after the final bell rings. Coming to the U.S. for my MFA has allowed me to dip my toes into a broader writing world—hopefully I'll have more time to wade around in it. I've been sending out my work and have just started to really put myself out there post-grad school. The manuscript's been coming together slowly (post-MFA it seems like an entirely new creature), and I really do hope it finds a home before I have to head home.
I haven't lost sight of home though—I still plan on returning to the Philippines. Prior to moving for the MFA I worked at a museum and at an art foundation—coming back to a programming or curatorial job at cultural institutions would be ideal. Teaching would also be nice, but the Philippine job market, particularly for the humanities, is tight if not tighter than the United States'. Not to be a jaded millennial, but realistically, a future back home would involve a 9-to-5 possibly even less tangentially related to writing than my current job. In a possible world of adequate time and resources, I dream of running my own press and literary magazine someday. Sustaining and expanding the literary scene is the labor I look forward to undertaking. I've availed of so much fantastic opportunities in and out of the Philippines; it would be an immense joy to give all I have learned back.
* - note: kamag-anak is "relative/kin" in Filipino
Kabel Mishka Ligot was born and raised in and around Metro Manila in the Philippines. He holds an MFA in poetry from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he received the 2019 Jerome Stern Teaching Award. Mishka’s work has been published or is forthcoming in RHINO, Waxwing, The Margins and other journals. A recipient of the Don Belton scholarship at the Indiana University Writers’ Conference and a Tin House Summer Workshop alumnus, he currently lives in the Midwest, where he works at a high school library. Get to know him at kabelmishka.com