Conversation with Mark Dimaisip
Mark illuminates the Philippines spoken word poetry scene, life as a poetry organizer, submitting to international markets, a deep-dive into his poem "Loose Limits," and performance vs. traditional poetry.
Mark Dimaisip is a Filipino writer from Manila. His works have appeared in The Brasilia Review, Cha, Fantasy Magazine, harana poetry, Human Parts, Oxford Brookes International Poetry Competition, Strange Horizons and elsewhere. He has performed for poetry slams and literary festivals in Southeast Asia and Australia. Links to his poems are at markdimaisip.carrd.co.
Mark is also the author of the poem “Loose Limits” from Radon issue 5.
Your poem “Loose Limits” takes an initial idea and then takes the reader on an immense journey filled with multiple metaphorical images and narratives threads, all building into one central conceit. Is this structure typically how you find yourself approaching poems?
I’m a geek and my brain is occupied by information that most people will find uninteresting or unnecessary. This also comes out a lot in my writing. I have a poem that uses statistics on human anatomy to talk about the unbreakability of a person's spirit. A poem that just lists a family’s ghostly encounters over several generations. An inventory of foreign words and what makes them more exact, felt, and grounded compared to their English counterparts.
Outside poetry, this is also how I typically talk. Some people small talk about the weather. Some people small talk about Pokémon and Benford's law.
Tell us about the writing scene in Manila?
Alive. There are retired employees who are taking their first creative writing class in their sixties. There are children uploading their ditties on TikTok. There are spoken word artists performing on the radio. Poets competing on television talent shows. Writers building their following on Instagram. Book fairs dedicated to self-published zines. Cafes with shelves for independent art.
We only have a few paying literary magazines. Even fewer broadsheets that have poetry sections. And we can surely improve on the number of poets signed under publishing houses. But there are writers. And there are readers. And there is an audience that is always hungry for more content.
How has your experience been as a poetry organizer?
I’ve been involved less and less recently as I’m becoming older and older. I can no longer stay up until after midnight as much as I used to. But being a poetry organizer was a big part of my pre-pandemic life.
I’m part of ALAB, an organization that sponsors NGOs through performance show fundraisers. Ang Sabi Nila, a monthly spoken word event that regularly features literary legends and up-and-coming artists. CollaboratoryPH, a group created to experiment on collaborative art and group spoken word performances. And The Loudmouth Collective, composed of writers, musicians, and visual artists. On top of this, I also frequent other group’s poetry events to perform or support their shows.
At its peak, I’d be at a dozen events in a month, some of them lasting until 2 AM in the morning. We Filipinos are not very well known for being on time, and this is also apparent in the spoken word scene. Some poets who are given 5 minutes would perform 15-minute pieces. Some poets who are not pre-registered to perform would be given a slot because they traveled for half a day just to be at the event. But we do it all for the love, and love is always felt during the show.
As I near my forties, I find myself pushing for more matinée shows. I’m happy to have supportive organization mates and for the first time we are doing CollaboratoryPH’s sixth anniversary show in the afternoon. We need more inclusive spaces for older, diurnal poets and maybe that’s what I’ll focus on organizing next. Poetry over afternoon tea instead of evening drinks.
How has the pandemic changed your poetry and performing?
Before 2020, I used to start poems with an agenda: This is my message. These are my central metaphors. This is how I want it to sound like. These are what I want my reader/listener to pick up from the poem.
But during the pandemic, I met a group of writers who changed the way I approach poems. We meet every Friday and take turns providing prompts. We spend an hour writing, then another hour listening to everybody share their poems. This is the first time that I understood what it means when they say that poems write themselves. When you let the lines swerve you to the next image. When you let an idea blossom into a complete experience.
This made writing more joyful for me. Prompts are made to be restricting, but it also forces you to work on themes and phrases and stories that you would not typically touch. And this weekly quarantine habit showed me how much more I can grow as a writer. How much more I can challenge my writing.
Are there challenges to submitting to international markets as a writer from the Philippines?
I think a lot of literary magazines have given more and more opportunities for English writers who are non-native speakers of English. Some put up calls exclusively for BIPOC writers. Some would have special issues devoted to certain regions like Southeast Asia. Some even create competitions with EAL categories.
However, this is not true for Filipino writers who are writing in Filipino languages. There are very few international markets that publish translations.
I also think that being bilingual and learning English from non-native speakers of English gives a different flavor to the writing itself. This could be a double-edged sword in the sense that some editors might find our prosody unusual and therefore more interesting, while some will see it as reckless or poorly written.
What is your personal poetic process like? Walk us through how you identify a focus for your poem and transform that into a finished piece?
I treat writing how I would treat brainstorming. Nothing is too off topic. It is when we keep meshing images and ideas where we find contrasts and similarities and dissonance that are typically inaccessible to us if we were thinking straighter.
I have notes in my phone and I just jot down any inspiration that comes to me. Whether that’s during a commute, while strolling down the street or while waiting in line. Some of them are poetry drafts. Some are just a line or an image. Then I would frankenstein them as needed.
Writing a poem in one sitting rarely happens to me. I obsess about them for quite a while. Then I edit a lot. Some of them go through as many as ten versions before I submit them.
What do you see happening in modern life that’s reflected in your poem “Loose Limits”?
As we get more accustomed to modern life, we’re becoming more and more wasteful. How often would you buy something at a grocery store only to throw it away unconsumed and spoiled? Fast fashion. Doom scrolling. Planned obsolescence. Billionaires amassing wealth. Species after species getting wiped out to give us more comfort. We keep wanting more. But we don’t need more.
How has your poetry changed over the years in terms of form, style, content, and genre?
I think the more I mature as a person, my poetry changes a little bit. There’s always a little take away that happens whenever I encounter a poem that resonates well with me, or whenever I hear feedback about my work. Just being surrounded by art is changing me.
A huge change that happened, and I think having a weekly writing group helped usher this change, is that I started writing speculative pieces. I think more than half of what I put out there now either has a science fiction or horror theme.
How did you get into spoken word poetry?
As a pre-teen student, I’ve always enjoyed reading poetry and at the same time joined declamation and oration contests. I’ve memorized the Gettysburg Address and Anthony’s Oration Over the Body of Ceasar even before I reached ten. So when I discovered spoken word, I instantly fell in love with it as it marries the two of my first loves.
I learned about spoken word when I first stumbled upon the viral performance of Rachel Rostad “To JK Rowling, From Cho Chang”. It was widely shared in Harry Potter fandom during that time and from there I discovered other spoken word artists like Sarah Kay, Anis Mojgani, and Harry Baker. From there I joined poetry slams around my neighborhood and eventually started joining groups and organizing poetry events.
For you is there a difference in audience impact between spoken word and traditional print?
While most poems can be both appreciated written and spoken, there are some things on paper that are hard to translate to the stage. Line breaks are usually lost. Formatting is irrelevant. And your audience has less time to savor the imagery because it is being recited to them in real time.
Some poems have a better impact when read or performed. Some poems have a better impact when readers are given time to re-read and reflect on them.
As a writer, I also have poems that I only write for the page or only for the stage. The poems that I like to perform are the types of poems that I like to hear as well. Something with a beginning, middle and end. Something I could emote and gesticulate with.
On page, especially if I’m submitting to magazines, I don’t have the luxury of an audience being stuck with me for a few minutes. I need to have an attention-grabbing title and an interesting first two or three lines, or they will move to the next piece.
Where are you hoping your poetry career takes you next?
I don’t like to think of it as a career as to me the word career adds the pressure of monetizing it. That success will be somehow defined by numbers like readership and sales instead of my reason for writing and performing which is to feel joy. And while I’m lucky enough to earn money from poetry, a lot of the things I do are still out of passion.
If I look at it as a journey instead of a career, it takes a little bit less pressure in accomplishing something and adds a little bit more sense of adventure and freedom to experiment. So I’ll frame it as a journey.
I hope my poetry journey takes me to more international stages. I haven’t performed in East Asia yet and that’s quite near, so that’s on my immediate bucket list. I want to finish a manuscript within the year. A chapbook of speculative poems. Then maybe a full-length poetry collection a year after.