Poet Romalyn Ante was one of the first to record her Overhear piece and one of the last to talk to us about it, because of the simple reason that in the meantime, she’d left for the Philippines. It’s no surprise then, that when did get her back onto UK soil, she had a lot to say about all things place and poetry. We sat down to talk to her about homesickness, the creative process and comfort eating – warning: don’t read while hungry…
‘When I was contacted by Tom, I thought the app itself was a great way of showcasing poets in the Midlands,’ Romalyn tells us, ‘I’ve lived here since we migrated back in 2005. Being in Wolverhampton, Birmingham has always been the place you go when you want to feel that busy city atmosphere and I really like to be involved in projects that support local writers. It’s a really good opportunity to know about other people’s work – and it’s great to be involved in something so unique and fun!’ she adds.
Romalyn also gives us some insight into how Overhear’s ethos of exploring place aligns with her own creative interests. ‘Place is incredibly important to me. My first full collection, which will come out next year, is all about place. It’s called Antiemetic for Homesickness – antiemetic being an anti-nausea drug. I moved to the UK when I was sixteen years old,’ she tells us, ‘so as you can imagine, all my childhood, the formative years of my life until I was basically an adult were moulded by being in a certain place, and migrating meant leaving that place behind. I had to adjust to living and working somewhere that was very different to my home country, and that experience is absolutely central to my work.’
‘I did not start writing thinking oh, I want to write about place – I don’t think any poet begins with intentions that specific – but throughout the years I’ve been writing it does keep coming up. Eventually you have to realise that there’s something important there that your intuition is leading you to try to write about. Rainer Maria Rilke has that quote about writers waking up in the morning needing to write; well I need to write, and I need to write about this.’
Listening to instinct is also behind Romalyn’s decision of which Overhear venue to write about: ‘From the list we were given, choosing Tiger Bites Pig was my first impulse. I’d been there, I meet friends there quite regularly and it felt like the one I had the most connection with.’
‘It’s a Chinese restaurant – not a Filipino one,’ Romalyn informs us, ‘but there are a lot of similarities between our foods because of the amount of trade we did with those surrounding countries, before all the various occupations by the Spanish, the American and the Japanese. There’s a bun we have in the Philippines called the siopao bun and when my friends and I go to Tiger Bites Pig we always order the Chinese equivalent, the bao bun. It reminds me of home.’
The communal experience of sharing food and friendship while far from home is at the centre of Romalyn’s Overhear piece, as she goes on say: ‘The idea of the poem stemmed from the way that I’ve seen and I’ve experienced overseas Filipino workers – and I assume other immigrant communities as well – come together to build friendships and support each other while we are away from home. The poem itself is an attempt to show how that kind of meeting is not just an ordinary one of hi-how-are-you catching up but something that is a necessary and important part of being able to survive while living abroad.’
‘I was interested in linking that with the idea of comfort eating; the food reminds us of home and it’s important but just as important is that we’re there eating it together. It’s the meeting that is the real comfort, the way we remind each other of home and understand each other’s experiences and struggles.’
We talk about the process of writing the piece, which Romalyn tells us was unusual compared to her normal practice: ‘I was really surprised by it,’ she says, ‘even though I’d chosen the venue because it was familiar to me, I didn’t necessarily have a lot to say about it straight away, and then I sat at my desk and it came to me almost fully formed. I would usually labour with a poem for months, finding a seed of an idea and then having to persevere with it for a good while but this one was surprisingly easy.’
She pauses before continuing, ‘Saying that, I had been thinking about it – there’s a lot of work that goes into writing before you ever put the pen down on the paper. I spent a lot of time wondering why I chose Tiger Bites Pig, thinking about memories I connected with the place whenever I was on my break or getting lunch or, you know, whenever I remembered I had a deadline,’ she laughs.
‘Writing about place is a strange thing because I think you can get caught up in the idea of knowledge, that you have to know everything about the history and culture of – for example – the Philippines or Wolverhampton or Birmingham; I don’t think you necessarily do. It doesn’t have to be about research and description as long as you find a way to access the knowledge you already have about that place which is how you experience it, the emotions it makes you feel, the sensory details that stick. To paraphrase another poet, Li-Young Lee, a poem is not just about what the poem describes but it is also (and probably more) about the speaker, how they make you feel and think about the work and its subject.’
Romalyn talks to us about how her experiences of place manifest in her writing and in her life:
‘The work that I’m doing right now for my manuscript is not just about the Philippines or just about the UK but a bridge between the two, between my two homes. Two homes is what I have on a good day, while on a bad day I feel like I have none. I think that’s normal, the feeling of being in between.’ Food comes up again, inevitably: ‘On my recent trip to the Philippines, I had a very typically Filipino breakfast of rice and sun-dried fish and a cup of English tea on the side and I looked at it and just thought oh my God, I’m both!’ She laughs.
‘I’ve been living here for fourteen years – almost half my life,’ she says, ‘I think it has inspired me not only as a poet but as a person. The Midlands, and Birmingham especially, is very dazzling and I hope that I’m getting a bit of that dazzle into my work now, not just in the images but also the energy.’ She goes on: ‘I think poets give a lot to and take a lot from their cities, which is one of the reasons the Overhear walking tours are such a wonderful idea too – it’s nice to collect the poems and see the places the poems were inspired by but also it’s just lovely to walk with a community of writers and readers. All the poets I have met have such good souls, I think they’re always a good choice of people to share a city with you.’
To have Romalyn share a little piece of her city with you, use the Overhear app to collect her poem Comfort Meeting from Tiger Bites Pig.
Romalyn can be found on her website https://www.romalynante.com/.