Interviewed by Roula-Maria Dib
Indelible has had the pleasure of interviewing poet and nurse Romalyn Ante about the inspiring forces behind her work, the influential women in her life, the diaspora, the themes of nursing and healing, and the mother image—all of which play a huge role in shaping Romalyn’s exquisite poetry. We’d like to open this special issue on “The Feminine” by introducing our readers to our special featured poet, who brilliantly weaves images and voices of the healing feminine into her writing.
Romalyn Ante is a Filipino-British, Wolverhampton-based author. She is co-founding editor of harana poetry, a magazine for poets who write in English as a second or parallel language, and founder of Tsaá with Roma, an online interview series with poets and other creatives. Her debut collection is Antiemetic for Homesickness (Chatto & Windus). She was recently awarded the Jerwood Compton Poetry Fellowship 2021/22.
Romalyn is a Poetry Ambassadors 2021 mentor. Her honours include the Poetry London Prize, Manchester Poetry Prize, Society of Author’s Foundation Award, Developing Your Creative Practice, Creative Future Literary Award, amongst others. Her debut pamphlet, Rice & Rain (V Press), received the 2018 Saboteur Award for Best Poetry Pamphlet.
Her work has been featured in BBC World News, World Literature Today, BBC Radio 4, BBC Radio3, The Verb, Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue UK, Southbank Center, Book Week Scotland, Birmingham Literature Festival, and Verve Poetry Festival. She has also run a number of poetry workshops including those for The Poetry School, Royal College of Nursing, UniSlam, and Writing West Midlands.
Apart from being a writer, she also works full-time as a nurse practitioner, specializing in providing different psychotherapeutic treatments.
1- What inspires you? Tell us a bit about your journey with poetry.
I grew up in the Philippines where poetry is shared through a community—through folktale poetry or folk songs. I didn’t have any formal training in poetry, but my exposure to folktales and folk songs in the Philippines helped me find out how powerful language can be. In 2012 when I graduated as a medical nurse, I started writing poetry and that’s when I started looking for schemes or some organizations that can help me develop my writing. And then, in 2017 I got into the Jerwood/Arvon mentoring scheme, and into Primers mentoring scheme, and they really helped me develop as a writer; and the rest is history.
2– Your poetry has the voice of the healer. Do you find a relationship between the poet and the nurse in you?
Yes, I came from a family of healers: my maternal side are all nurses—my mother is a nurse, my auntie is a nurse, and eventually, I became a nurse. From my paternal side, my grandparents and my father are all shamans in their province of Batangas in the Philippines.
I remember when I was little, I watched my mom helped someone in the village give birth; I watched my dad healed other people through hilot—specific types of massages that heal fracture or illnesses that manifest as coughs or colds. He also has a talisman or Agimat. I’ve never seen this Agimat. But it’s a family legend that my grandfather passed the Agimat to my dad, and it’s prohibited to show it to your family members. But I remember growing up, my dad would leave and go to the mountains, especially during Holy Week, and look for his own talisman, in order to help heal the villagers. In certain Filipino culture, we have that thing called “Agimat-hunting”, which is seeking for your own talisman. And it’s a tradition in my family to go on a journey in search of our own talisman too. I’ve never seen my father’s Agimat because, again, it’s supposed to be secret—you’re not supposed to show it to anyone. But what I noticed about my dad is that every time he would massage a back of a villager, my dad would whisper incantations first onto his palm before he massages the back of the sick. And that’s one of the ways in which you can heal through your Agimat: through incantations. And I guess in poetry it’s the same, isn’t it? Poetry heals because poetry is like incantations. Poetry is medicine. And what is the point of poetry if not to transform not only the life of the poet, but also the lives of the readers? And I think, somehow, maybe the act of writing is my way of healing, and the act of writing is my way of providing this medicine and providing these incantations to the readers. And also, perhaps, that’s also my way of finding my own talisman.
3- We learn from your poems that there are many nurses in your life (in your family, at work, and in your home country). How inspirational are they?
My debut poetry collection, Antiemetic for Homesickness, is heavily inspired by my work as a nurse but most especially by my mother’s work as a migrant nurse. As we know, nurses will always be needed. My grandmother said to my mother once, “If you’re going to have a job in the future, be a nurse because there will always be people who are sick, there will always be wars where people will be injured, and there will always be suffering in the world, so you will always be needed”. Now, in Filipino culture, especially those who come from backgrounds that are not financially or economically stable, a lot of them want to be nurses, because nursing equates to your ticket abroad to earn dollars or to earn British pounds. In the United Kingdom, the highest migrant nurses staff in the NHS are Filipino nurses, and we see how nurses—not just Filipino nurses, but migrant nurses all over the world—have been invaluable during the past two years of the pandemic. However, how many of us know about these migrant nurses? How many books have you read about migrant nurses? There’s more to migrant nurses than their jobs, and I think that’s the reason why I wrote Antiemetic for Homesickness. I wanted to shed light on the narrative of migrant nurses, but most importantly, the narratives of these women who are reduced and dehumanized: reduced to their functions only as nurses. Behind those job titles, they are mothers, daughters, lovers, human beings.
4- The theme of the mother and motherly images pervade your poems: biological mothers, aunts, the eldest sister (as substitute mother), etc. How would you describe your poetic relationship with the mother image? Is it tied to the image of the healer?
I think my mother has been the biggest influence on me. She would tell me stories, she would sing to me when I was a child, she would take me on her medical missions when needed be. When I was really young, I helped her with one of the jobs she was called to, which was helping one of the neighbors (who was very, very poor and couldn’t afford to go to the hospital) give birth. And I think there’s sanctity when we look at mothers because mothers are nurturing intrinsically. The very essence of motherhood is to nurture, to heal, to take care of their children. However, I also wanted to show how these nurturing aspects can be broken by distance and time, by migration—because in Antiemetic for Homesickness, the mother does not stay to take care of her children. The mother leaves her homeland to take care of others and in that way, she takes care of her children by providing from a distance.
5- How has being in the diaspora shaped your writing?
Being in the diaspora, I think I have a strong sense of where I came from and where I am now. And of course, I may be in two places now—I am in between the UK and the Philippines. And I can never go back to the Philippines without feeling that I am out of place. I can never be in the UK without feeling that I am out of place either, but I know who I am. I know who I was. And I think it’s really important as a writer to ask yourself, “what is the point?” Or “what is the place you are writing from?” “To whom are you writing?” “For whom are you writing?” These are the kinds of questions that I asked myself when I was developing the themes of Antiemetic for Homesickness. If I want to illuminate the lives of migrant, transnational families in my book, I need to know where I am writing from. I cannot write just for the sake of telling a story, but I need to write with an emotional truth—and that emotional truth, you can imagine that, but sometimes you can only get it from taking it from your own experience. You don’t need to write specifically about your own experience, but your experience of those emotional truths: feelings such as sadness, longing for something that you cannot have anymore, longing for some things that you can’t go back to, trying to belong somewhere…I think those are very important areas to explore when writing.
6- How do you manage to make time for writing within your busy schedule at hospitals and clinics?
Well, since 2012, I’ve always been working full-time until most recently when I managed to drop my hours down with the financial help from my Jerwood Compton Fellowship. A lot of people have asked me, “how do you find the time to write?” And I guess it’s not really about the “how”, and I talk about this in my creative nonfiction essay in Why I Write Poetry, which is edited by Ian Humphreys, with Nine Arches Press. I think it’s not the question of “how”—we do not ask ourselves, “how can I write when I have to do this?”
In 2017, I opened a Filipino shop in Wolverhampton with my then-boyfriend (my husband now), and it would have been easier for me to say “how can I find time to write poetry?” But I think, as writers, what we have to ask ourselves is not the hows, but the whys: Why do I write? Why do I have to do this? Why can’t I just earn a good amount of money from my full-time job? We have to find and believe in the whys, “Why do you write?” And for me, it’s because I wanted to give voice to a community that is not seen in the British landscape. I am not claiming that I speak for a certain community; I do not claim that I speak for the Filipino nurses community, but what I can probably claim is that I speak with them, not for them, but with them; because I am one of them and my mother is one of them. And I really want our voice, our community, our narrative to exist—that’s my why, to exist in the British landscape. And I think when I find my answer to my whys, I just find time to write—whether it’s during my break at work, or just after I’ve woken up in the morning, or just before I go to bed at night.
7- Are there any new projects at the moment?
Yes—I am writing a collection of creative nonfiction. I also want to thank Arts Council England for giving me a bursary to work on this project this year. I’ve also received a fellowship for this year from Jerwood Compton Fellowship, and I’m also working on my second poetry collection. So I have two projects that I’m working on this year, and that’s the reason why I also dropped down my hours in nursing. So officially, as of next week, I am no longer a full-time nurse, no longer a full-time clinician—I am a part-time clinician and a part-time writer.