Interview by Zoë Brigley
They came in like flashes, in fragments—a tapestry of thoughts. Writing poetry in a language that is not native to me, in a sense makes me think of ways or approach the English language in a different angle.
of thee i sing
for Erika Rose
with lines by Taylor Swift
But the moon might rise again like a rupture from a pistol, punched-holing the slated sky tonight, but if it brings the splendor of an outer space light, let me hold you the way soldiers pin their hand grenade close to their chest and mouth the soft sound of prayers as we listen to moth funerals. Hush, your lips against tides, against vibrating rhythm of wings. Kiss my clavicle as if bones of a bullet. Ready. Red sky. Someone fires a cigarette in the distance. (When no one is around) he kneels beyond the shore to see how far he might sink. He fears not of the water but of drowning. The waves rushing in like liturgical procession as if his body is part ocean already, part fish. See: Thalassophobia, meaning fear of ocean and Ichthophobia from ichthys, meaning fish or a name which Christians used to hide their faith. Did you know that there is no word for the fear of drowning? Say Halleluiah as you aim your breath against mine. Our breath, threading like hymns waiting for an orchestral ending. my dear, listen: I mistake dead murmurs for unfed prayers. I ask myself these: Suppose we hadn't dream of little Lucas and Isla. Suppose I had never known you'll find me digging my own grave. How can I describe the tiny moons glowing like airstrikes inside your eyes—the trail of stars, my morning light. How could I say your name, softly to you like the sound of the lightest taps of rain with kiligs. How we are not bothered by the screams of tricycles and jeepneys. On days like this, on my tallest tiptoes... I remember my mother spinning when touch by your cheeks—says son I could live a thousand lives and still consider your skeleton as my own. At the bus station, a girl spreads her wings like a monarch but never flew. Too fragile to be seen walking with ghosts. I pretend nothing is wrong. That the sound she makes are audible only to our ears, a tune, so frail it could break when violated—constrained to what it unsays. Maybe the dead knows my affection for silk moths. But it doesn't matter love, I'd sing how you describe the color of the ocean, that it's darker than the night sky. How you teach my tongue to swallow the truth of how domesticated silk moths live. I'll show you every version... How our fingers wired into each other’s palms like wild flowers. Your other hand on my arm, curled like a trigger—And the world has stopped temporarily, for us.
The above is an attempt to mimic the formatting of the original poem within the constraints of the formatting of this website. You can view the original form here:
So I was intrigued by the Gershwin reference in ‘of thee I sing’. In Gershwin’s original, it’s almost a political campaign song and perhaps a bit cynical about whether relationships are genuine or not. I wonder what made you start with this in the title?
To tell you honestly, I haven’t seen or heard Gershwin’s of thee I sing before. And this is not to discredit the great Gershwin or his work, but coincidentally, somehow, both are very political. When I was writing this poem, I was thinking of writing just a love poem for the love of my life, Erika, even at the very peak of violence, of police officers abusing their power, of corruption. And in the process, I have written a piece that is loud and quiet at the same time. That even in this darkness and difficult times, when no one wants to hear us, I’d still want to sing for love, for this land, for this country.
Could you tell us about the epigraphs – the dedication maybe and also the use of Taylor Swift? She seems to be an interesting cipher in the literary community e.g. Instagram’s @taylorswift_as_books account. How did that work with incorporating her lines?
The dedication came like a beacon, or might I say, she found me where I couldn’t find myself, where I feel lost and empty. She loves Taylor Swift a lot, and with that in mind I have incorporated her lines in which propels the poem above what is normal. If you are gonna ask me, I think Taylor is a poet. I also think that she is lyrical genius, the way she constructs her song and purposely adds images that swiftly moves through her lines.
You have some incredible, original lines in this poem: “let me hold you / the way soldiers pin their hand / grenade close to their chest and mouth”. How do lines like this come to you? Do they arrive randomly, or do you have to work at carving out unique images like this one?
They came in like flashes, in fragments—a tapestry of thoughts. Writing poetry in a language that is not native to me, in a sense makes me think of ways or approach the English language in a different angle. One that is not rooted, but forms images that are unique and still has not lost its meaning.
Jeff William Acosta is a poet from Ilocos Sur, Philippines. He is a 2021 Jack Grapes Poetry semifinalist, 2022 Foley Poetry Contest finalist, Boston Review Annual Poetry Contest semifinalist. His poems have been published or are forthcoming in America Magazine, Kritika Kultura, Tomás Journal, Strange Horizon, NOVICE, and the Margins.
You can find him on Instagram @jeeeepney or on Facebook under Jeff William Acosta
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