Her poetry is described as ‘exquisitely detailed’ and ‘a real feast for the senses’… packed with original imagery, it announces a bold new talent.
Romalyn Ante is a poet who came to Wolverhampton and found not only a vocation but also a voice.
Awarded the prestigious Manchester Poetry Prize alongside Laura Webb, Romalyn’s trajectory is set firmly on course as she continues to explore themes of identity, loss, homeland, and what it means to be a Filipino nurse in the UK today.
Her mentor Pascale Petit says: ‘When I first read Romalyn Ante’s submission for the Jerwood/Arvon scheme, I was struck by her sheer raw talent and the naturalness and freshness of her images and language.
‘The twin themes of her Filipino heritage and her work as a nurse combust into poems that shimmy on the very edge. They are vital and full-bodied, yet delicate as a petal that is also a scalpel.
‘They are compassionate and full of warmth, but don’t flinch from the realities of nursing and being a foreigner in Britain. It is a privilege and a delight for me to mentor her.’
Romalyn spoke to ARTS FOUNDRY about her recent win, and about how she approaches writing her poetry…
Here’s a karaoke mic.
Sing your soul out till there’s El Niño in your throat
and you can drink all the rain of Wolverhampton.
from ‘Antiemetic for Homesickness’
The Manchester judges describe your poems as ‘rich and scrupulously attentive’… which ones did you enter for the prize?
I entered a manuscript of four poems – Nightingale Pledge, Molave, Transform, and Antiemetic for Homesickness. All poems reflect my work as a nurse in the NHS and private sector, and the last one touches on the story of Filipino nurses in the UK and coping with homesickness.
Can you tell us when and how they were written?
They were all written this year. I’ve been trying to write new poems since my debut pamphlet Rice & Rain came out. My 2017 goals were to write much stronger poems and to improve as a poet. I wrote on the theme of nursing experience.
Nightingale Pledge is a found poem which takes from the version of the Hippocratic Oath for nurses, while the idea for Antiemetic for Homesickness came from the medical term ‘antiemetic’ or ‘anti-sickness’.
Molave reflects the story of a man with lung problems (his lungs are compared to an ‘upside down tree’, particularly, the molave tree, native to the Philippines), and Transform is a poem set in a nursing home that transforms into a mythical, legendary landscape.
When I have an idea in mind, I try to explore it as much as possible to ensure that the poem that will emerge is ‘extra special’.
My Jerwood/Arvon mentor once told me (and I’m paraphrasing):
‘It’s easy to write a very good poem, what’s hard is to write a special poem.’
Now, I always ask myself ‘is this poem only a ‘good’ poem or a ‘special’ poem?’ What’s the difference between a very good poem and a special poem? I can’t tell you, you’ll have to figure it out yourself…
What are the main themes in your poetry?
The main theme of my poetry, apart from migration and diaspora, is my work as a nurse. The hospital in the city where I live looked to recruit 300 extra Filipino nurses in 2013.
I feel that Filipino migrant nurses’ stories are vital in the culture of poetry in the UK, because we have been an integral part of its healthcare history and yet very little is known of us, our personal and professional struggle, and our culture.
I also want to explore the theme of loss, not only from the perspective of someone who leaves a homeland, but also from the perspective of any human being who suffers loss through the illness of a loved one.
Moreover, in November this year, I travelled back to the Philippines to write about the theme of reconnections, and I hope to develop these poems in the coming year.
How do you explore loss and your experience of moving across the world without veering into sentimentality?
It is quite hard to explain. I guess I recently started to ask myself:
How much are you willing to give? How ‘cruel’ do you want to be to yourself and to your readers?
This can be interpreted in many ways. I do not have a censor in my head that tells me ‘Ooops, I think I am getting too emotional here’ when I produce a first draft, but when I begin to edit, I try to be more aware of my own vulnerabilities and pain, and share what only I can share.
And of course, I try to be kind to the readers too.
Who are some of your favourite poets, and why?
Wordsworth, Rita Dove, Li-Young Lee, Francisco Balagtas, Rio Alma, Simeon Dumdum Jr. – because their poetry is very accessible yet resonant and timeless.
How do you achieve the very clear voice and sense of place common to your poetry?
Oh thank you!
I guess I just try to be me, and sound like me in my poetry. I’d like to sound more ‘eloquent’ but I’m crap at that! Also, I think having a clear idea of what you want to write is important.
Sometimes I may need to explore an idea over and over again before I get to pen down the first line – but that’s okay – because once that idea has matured, I know I am not just writing it for the sake of writing it but because the poem itself has a purpose and it has something to say.
Having said that, I also have a lot of poems with no clear voice or direction, but I try not to give up on them easily. I am learning to find that one word in a draft that came from my subconscious and tells me:
‘I’m an important idea, explore me’.
How has mentoring and the support of other poets helped you along the way?
Being a Jerwood/Arvon mentee is one of the best things that happened to me this year as a person and as a writer. My mentor, Pascale Petit, is very supportive and is always challenging me as a poet.
Moreover, I met my poetry-sisters Alice Hiller, Yvonne Reddick, and Seraphima Kennedy. I am learning a lot from them through discussion, feedback, and observing their own writing.
I always say that all the success I have had this year is not only my success, but also the success of those who have helped me develop as a writer.
What was it like being published by V. Press earlier this year?
It gave me a good foundation to introduce my work to the public. My editor, Sarah Leavesley is very supportive and it’s good to know that I am in the company of reputable writers. It also reinforces my belief that I can be a poet.
What would you say to people just starting to write poetry?
Keep writing, keep reading, keep trusting yourself and your voice.
Also, dream – and really believe in it. Enjoy every struggle and piece of bad luck – one day, your struggle will be a sweet reminder of your journey to success.
Lastly, do not forget the people you meet along the way and do not forget the friends who helped you.
Also, treat yourself to chocolate or a cookie from time to time.
Romalyn Ante grew up in Lipa, Philippines. She now lives in Wolverhampton.
A Jerwood/Arvon mentee, she is joint winner of this year’s Manchester Poetry Prize, and her debut pamphlet, Rice and Rain, is published by V. Press. She was recently selected to be a part of Primers Volume 3, won the Poetry category of the Creative Future Literary Awards, and was commended in the Battered Moons Poetry Competition 2017.
Romalyn came back from the Philippines in November following her Artists’ International Development Fund project, which allowed her to research and write about culture, identity and reconnection.
She blogs at www.ripplesoftheriver.blogspot.com
Rice & Rain, Romalyn Ante’s debut poetry pamphlet is available now from V. Press
“She has an instinctive talent for crafting precise and finely-tuned poetry that captures the exact sensations – potent, close to home and as incisive and accurate as a scalpel’s first cut… life’s preciousness is measured here carefully in its proximity to death. These poems are gracefully poised and balanced perfectly, alive with their own irresistible songs of love and longing.” Jane Commane