Rumpus Poetry Editor Brian Spears conducted the following interview via email. The Rumpus: I love the way you work with creation myths in Diwata, especially because you pull from multiple backgrounds. What drew you to that concept, and what were the big challenges you faced in working that soil over?
Barbara Jane Reyes: Thank you for reading Diwata, first of all. I’ve been influenced by Filipino writers and artists whose source material are the indigenous arts and cultural productions of the islands. The musicians Joey Ayala and Grace Nono were my “way in.” Ayala introduced me to the term, “Bagong Lumad,” the “new native,” or the “altered native,” or “the alternative,” as he wrote in his liner notes to one of his albums. In other words, how have the “natives” survived modernization and urbanization, how do they continue their cultural practices now, in the 21st century. The themes in Joey’s songs also espouse values we could call “indigenous” — environmental advocacy, reciprocity, et al.
Nono, I believe, is an ethnomusicology teacher at University of the Philippines. She’s recorded various chants, songs, and other orally transmitted narratives in different communities. One of her albums which has had a profound affect on my poetics is Isang Buhay, which means, “One Life.” So the songs on this album are a life cycle, a series of rites of passage, and they contain some wonderful call and response, incantation, praise, and lament. The quality of her voice as well is just tremendous; it embodies “diwata,” a strong woman voice that is elemental and otherworldly.
Of course, both of these artists are Philippines-based, and I have lived most of my life in this country, so I admit to a huge experiential disconnect. That is always a challenge.