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An Interview with WWB Poetry Contest Winners Enrique Villasis and Bernard Capinpin

By Words Without Borders

"Birds in Flight, 1965" by Enrique Villasis, translated from Filipino by Bernard Capinpin, was one of four winners of WWB’s 2020 Poems in Translation contest, presented in partnership with the Academy of American Poets. The winning selections will be published in's Poem-a-Day series and in Words Without Borders every Saturday this September, which is National Translation Month, and into the first week of October. Enrique Villasis and Bernard Capinpin will be participating in WWB and AAP's virtual event celebrating the contest winners, “World in Verse: A Multilingual Poetry Reading,” on October 7.

WWB: Enrique, in your work, do you find that you return to particular ideas or themes? What was the catalyst/inspiration for your poem “Birds in Flight, 1965”?

Enrique Villasis: “Birds in Flight, 1965” is the first poem I wrote that would eventually become part of a collection of ekphrastic poems based on Vicente S. Manansala’s paintings. Manansala is a National Artist for Visual Arts and a pioneer modernist in the Philippines. He is a member of both the influential Thirteen Moderns group and the postwar neorealist movement. As a student of Fernand Léger, Manansala developed his style of cubism known as transparent cubism, wherein the figures are simplified to their barest geometric forms in overlapping and shifting planes and colors; this creates movement and rhythm on the canvas. I was fascinated by the art of ekphrasis: the discipline of transforming the visual into the verbal to stimulate different kinds of seeing.

WWB: Bernard, what drew you to Enrique’s work? What were the challenges and pleasures of translating “Birds in Flight, 1965”?

Bernard Capinpin: As someone who dabbles in writing poetry, I tend to gravitate to poems whose poetics I have an affinity for, poems that I wish I myself could have written. I come to translating Enrique’s poems as someone seeking to learn how to write anew.

“Birds in Fight, 1965” is part of a sequence of ekphrastic poems on Vicente Manansala’s cubist paintings, and many of the paintings he considers are of birds. Enrique writes that his suite is his attempt “to interrogate the relationship between a work of art and its own time . . . to don the mask of a critic, a historian, and a curator.” You get a sense of what this ambitious sequence wants to achieve, but not by mere description or personal reflection. There is a necessary break that comes with the transposition of form, a kind of reassembling to make the subject matter his own. In “Birds in Flight, 1965”, Enrique gives these abstracted birds their palpability, and in giving them this palpability, he lends them their warmth. Whereas previous poets who’ve been influenced by cubism have employed repetition and variation to emulate the patterns of cubist art, Enrique chooses to break from this conceptual frame, to liberate the work from a static feeling that repetition can sometimes give, thus making it into something more dynamic. But I also suspect that what draws other readers to these poems is the aspiration to freedom that they articulate, which resonates so deeply with our time.

Not just in “Birds in Flight, 1965,” but also throughout the Manansala sequence, Enrique unfurls his images into these long and regular lines. I’ve attempted to capture the regularity of the lines’ rhythm in translation. Their length can give an impression of a loose pacing, but if taken together, their rhythm is quite tempered.

WWB: Were you in conversation about the translation? If so, what was the process of working together like and were there particular issues you ended up discussing?

Enrique Villasis: I believe translation is a dialogue between the translator and the text. When Bernard told me that he was going to translate my works, I gave him my full confidence. And I am happy with what he has done.

Bernard Capinpin: I’ve had the chance to collaborate with Enrique on some of the bird poems before, and he gives me free rein to translate them. I think this is in keeping with the idea the project conveys—that the work of art cannot be caged in, that its significance depends on the spectator’s or reader’s engagement with it in the same way a translation is brought about by a certain negotiation with the text.

WWB: Enrique, do you feel that you’re writing within (or against) a specific cultural or linguistic tradition? What authors or works have influenced you?

Enrique Villasis: Works by Filipino poets like Lamberto Antonio, Rio Alma, and Roberto Anonuevo had a strong influence on me. Their poems are robust and have a strong command of language. For foreign authors, Robert Pinsky, John Ashbery, and, through translation, Adam Zagajewski, Ales Debeljak, and Ernest Farres are my influences.

WWB: Are there contemporary poets from the Philippines you wish more people were reading?

Enrique Villasis: The future of Filipino literature, I believe, is through translation. Poetry in the Philippines is very lively today, not just for those who write in the national language, Filipino, but also for those in regional languages. Poets I would like to recommend are Kristian Cordero, Charles Tuvilla, Rosmon Tuazon, Michael Jude Tumamac, Ralph Fonte, Paolo Tiausas, Faye Cura, and Louise Lopez. Another poet I would like to recommend is Roda Daignre, who writes in Tigaonon, a language spoken in the northern island of Masbate. Also, I am looking forward to Kristine Ong Muslim's brilliant English translation of the poems of Mesándel Arguelles and Marlon Hacla.

Bernard Capinpin: To be honest, I haven’t been keeping up with the current poetry scene these past few years as much as I should, and there has been a surge in the wealth of channels by which emerging writers can showcase their works—through independent presses, self-published zines, literary journals, and writers’ collectives, so I might commit glaring oversights.

The amount of material available for English readers hardly reflects the entire landscape of Philippine literature written in the indigenous languages. Fortunately, Marlon Hacla’s Melismas, translated by Kristine Ong Muslim into English, will be published soon. I also admire his second book, Glossalia. These two books play around and disrupt the language. Also intriguing are his experiments with machine-generated poetry. A programmer by profession, he has lately been tinkering around with machine learning to produce poetry through his bot, Estela Vadal. Hopefully we’ll get those poems in translation too.

There is this sequence of poems from Harris Guvarra’s first book, Osana, that always haunts me. His otherworldly poems are populated with spirits seeking release from their damned state. In his poems of faith and grief, history and memory, he redeems them with the intelligence of his art.

Enrique S. Villasis is a poet and a scriptwriter, born in Milagros, Masbate, Philippines. He has received numerous national literary awards for his poems. His first book of poems, Agua, was a finalist for a National Book Award. He is a member of Linangan sa Imahen, Retorika, at Anyo. He lives in Quezon City and currently writes television shows for ABS-CBN.  

Bernard Capinpin is a poet and translator. He is currently working on a translation of Ramon Guillermo’s Ang Makina ni Mang Turing. He resides in Quezon City, Philippines.

Read Enrique Villasis's "Birds in Flight, 1965," translated from Filipino by Bernard Capinpin.

Published Oct 6, 2020   Copyright 2020 Words Without Borders

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