Q&A: Myke Obenieta on defining home and the necessity of incessant writing
By Jeremiah Bondoc
Myke Obenieta was once one of the ringleaders of the literary cult, Tarantula, in the late 90’s.
Young and bold, they went about the city and held anybody who cared to listen by the lines of their poetry and prose — whether it be in a beer joint, sky walk, cemetery, a random open space, a sari-sari store in a corner somewhere or a university audio-visual. Myke, of course, has since gotten hitched and migrated with his wife, Arlaine, and kids Golli and Aegon to the US, where they’ve been residing for almost a decade now. But being away from home doesn’t diminish a bit his ardor for Cebuano poetry and everything Bisdak.
Thanks to the wonders of Internet technology, Myke has been able to keep in touch with families and friends here in real time — and even continues to write a column for Sun.Star Cebu and Superbalita. He will be launching his second book of poetry, “Sanga sa Angkla, Hangin sa Samin” on June 20 at the Cebu Literary Festival that will be held in Ayala Center Cebu. I caught up with him online for a friendly chitchat, and here’s what we talked about:
I think it’s been close to a decade since you left Cebu for Kansas. What are the things that you miss most?
My mother’s comforting presence, mostly. And, yes, I miss the homey mess, the noise and the taste of Cebu, the videokes and beer binge with friends and the food, especially the sidewalk stuff (pungko-pungko, balut, sinugba, linarang, etc.). Because Kansas is landlocked, the longing for the seas around our island is enough to drown me.
When you were in Cebu, you were practically living a writer’s life — editing Sun.Star Weekend, leading Bathalad Sugbo, speaking in literary conferences, sitting in the panel of various workshops, and of course, sharing a few rounds of your favorite beer with fellow writers. Did it ever occur to you that one day you will leave all that?
When the school district of Topeka (capital city of Kansas) recruited my wife to teach there, I knew that leaving with my sons to join her is not about closure, but coming to terms with what really matters — family. No ifs and buts, my family is my country. A writer’s life, anyway, happens regardless of geography and beyond the perks easily for the picking in one’s comfort’s zone. I wish, though, that Mandaue’s world-class brew is available in Kansas.
You seem to have adjusted well to your life in Kansas. How did you cope with the necessary adjustments in your first days there?
It was not as difficult as I thought it would be. Of course, adapting to one’s new environment is always a challenge. But Kansas suits me fine. Some expatriate Filipinos in the new place provided a semblance of community, and the Internet in this age of Facebook and Skype renders Cebu just a click away.
And I have the CDs of Nora Aunor, Yoyoy Villame, Max Surban and Susan Fuentes — on top of the bossa novas, Burt Bacharach, Johnny Mathis, the Beatles, Sting and U2 — to play along and keep me feeling homey. Plus the fact that administering the online literary lighthouse, Kabisdak, always lulls me into the constant rhythms of that Cebuano state of mind and heart.
I follow your poetry posts in Kabisdak, the Cebuano poetry blog you are moderating, and somehow I could always sense an element of longing in varying degrees. How did poetry help as you coped with the difficulties of adjusting to a new life?
Longing is literally good in keeping me grounded regardless of the shifting landscapes of diaspora — with the challenges, dangers, and opportunities due to displacement — that is every migrant’s commonplace.
To the extent that longing leaves a lot of room in the heart or the imagination to fill, it can be a blessing as well. I find strange comfort in distances, whether it’s geographical or psychological, and the way it pushes me to tap both my vulnerabilities and strengths in the same way a tightrope walker extends both arms for equilibrium beyond the convenient limits and enclosures of the ego. Such a stunt, though fraught with risks, can be liberating.
In this context, persisting to write in my mother tongue even in the heartland of America can be construed as an exercise of extending the scope of experience as a poet who finds balance in being a Cebuano and a citizen of the world in one fell swoop. This psychic space, rooted in marginality and branching out beyond it, is probably the closest I could get into Homi Babha’s notion of “vernacular cosmopolitanism.”
As it is right now, Kabisdak is already doing a lot in the promotion and nurturing of Cebuano literature, specifically poetry, by providing a forum for writers and archive for their works. How is it going to evolve from there?
Good thing I’m neither a palm reader nor a crystal ball gazer. Que sera, sera! Levity aside, I have always envisioned Kabisdak as a literary lighthouse. The darkness of the unknown is oceanic, true, but the brightness of what we create, no matter how little and scattered in the scheme of things, will always beckon us Bisdak poets away from the danger of disorientation — linguistically, physically, spiritually.
You’re going to launch a new book of poetry, “Sanga sa Angkla, Hangin sa Samin” at the Cebu Literary Festival on June 20. The title seems to evoke both permanence and evanescence. Could you walk us through this book a bit?
In a nutshell, this book of 54 Cebuano poems with English translation reflects figuratively my reflex at bilocation. What a sociologist calls “double consciousness” is literally my way of anchoring this branching of self-identity — born and raised in the navel of the archipelago, but being nurtured now in the heartland of America. Where the world’s borders are shrinking, I think defining home has become less definite than the old assumptions. I hope that’s one of the ideas or feelings that the reader can take away from between the lines.
There seems to have been a long gap between your first book and this one. How different is the Myke Obenieta we are going to read here compared with the first book?
I believe that’s something for the reader — if I have any — to figure out. What I know, for sure, is (I still have) the same appetite to connect the dots, to play around with that little plot of mystery called poetry.
Do you agree that there are very few opportunities for regional writers to be published in a book? What do you think can be done about it?
To be published and find a readership remains a problem true to most writers, whether they are national or international. Their struggle, however, is most acutely felt and understood by regional writers. I think that writers should worry about what to write and how to sustain it, first and foremost. Being published is just coating of ice on one’s beer bottle. Gulp first, burp later.
You’ve always been in the forefront of the advocacy for Cebuano literature. Where do you think do we stand right now in terms of development and awareness, and what more should be done?
All things considered, especially how unfair things still are, the same old tired advise still stands: Just write, Write, WRITE. All the rest is posturing and navel-gazing and crystal ball winking.