Home Madison Nature, identity and language: a Q&A with poet John Paul Martinez

Nature, identity and language: a Q&A with poet John Paul Martinez

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John Paul Martinez is a Filipino Canadian-American poet currently based in Madison. Writing with a pensive simplicity, Martinez’s work has the power to both devastate and instill hope (“And Then We Were Okay”), astute in its observations of how we fit into or get lost in nature (“What the Sky Can’t Keep is Mostly Rain”). Meditating on the interpersonal potential of the natural world and how we might fit into different landscapes, Martinez’s work bends the landscape of poetry itself, challenging conventions of both language and form.

This Thursday, Martinez will be in conversation with Margaret Yapp about her debut poetry collection, Green for Luck, at Room of One’s Own bookstore. Prior to the event, Madison365 sat down with Martinez to talk about his early writing inspirations, creative processes, and how the world around him—and the histories hidden within him—inspires his work. 

Madison365: I would love to start off with how you came to writing. What was that trajectory like?

John Paul Martinez: I always liked language growing up, and I knew that I was going to do something in language [when I was older]. But I was convinced to go into biomedical engineering, so the first year of undergrad was very, very math and science focused, and I was just trying to trudge along. And all of a sudden, I was sitting in a creative writing elective with Tiana Clark and I was like, ‘Okay, this is it.’’ And every single class that I had for the rest of the semester, I couldn’t focus and I just wanted to get back [to writing].

But I didn’t have any friends who really got into [poetry]. So I had to do a lot of digging and I found myself in a rabbit hole of a bunch of online journals, which were a huge resource. It was just a really warming kind of revelation to find so many writers with different backgrounds and diverse perspectives. The first year I started to try to write. Every single day after school, I would go home and just read until late at night. The first time I got a poem accepted, I was very shocked. I still feel shocked [every time].

M365: Who were some of your early inspirations?

JPM: The first that really stood out [in regards to] what I want poetry to feel like for me was Heather Christle. Somehow I found her publisher, Octopus Books, and they have a good backlog of collections, and I was like, “Wow, I didn’t know you can do this with poetry.” I thought it had to rhyme, I thought it had to have a certain structure, so it was just really fun. And I always kept [poetry] in contrast with my studies for linguistics. Language is very structured, very rule-oriented. Whenever I had creative writing, I got to switch that off and just be like, “I don’t care what this sentence looks like.” Hanif Abdurraqib has always been a huge inspiration, Danez Smith [is another one]. I got really into performance poetry and Button Poetry too.  

M365: You mentioned your background in linguistics. How does it inform your creative writing?

JPM: Linguistics is very, very interesting and so critical to how I think about the world. Right now, we’re literally chatting back and forth, mumbling sounds that somehow have meaning, and we’re not even thinking about it. I’m always interested in interpersonal communication. And at the core, you can’t do that without having some sort of language between you, whether it’s written or spoken or signed. So when I sit down to write, I really try to ignore all that I’ve learned formally, but still use that as a frame of, “How does this clash with what I was taught?”

M365: Because of all of these existing restrictions in language, do you experiment a lot with formal poetry?

JPM: When I started writing, I really wanted to be good at verse and rhythm and musically, how it sounds. I felt like I couldn’t do any of that. So I ended up writing what I thought sounded good to me.One big thing with my writing is also how it looks visually. After I’m done writing the poem, I just love to play around with the structure, and how it gets perceived. For me, the core of poetry is how you experience it. So putting things like a bunch of white space [and] line breaks are immensely critical to my writing, those other ways to convey that language and those thoughts on paper without somebody actually saying it out to you.

M365: A lot of your poetry involves nature. What landscapes inspire you?

JPM: I keep going back to why I always default to writing about nature and for a lot of my life, it’s just been very unavoidable. I’m a very big homebody, very introverted. I admittedly spend a lot of nice days indoors very guiltily. But whenever I think about it, I end up in either roles or jobs or situations where I’m out in the world. And there’s always something to observe. It’s unavoidable to absorb. But what’s important to me is how you fit in that situation, whether you’re in the forest or by the ocean, or in a green space in an urban city. How does that all relate to the ground and the plants and all the life that’s already there, and how does that alter that?

M365: Thinking more internally, how would you say your cultural background inspires your writing?

JPM: One thing when I started writing that I wanted to do was make sure I was writing [in a way that was] authentic and informed. I was born in the Philippines and lived there for just two years until my family moved over to Canada, and then we ended up a couple years later here in Wisconsin. When I think back on it, especially growing up in Canada in the early 2000s, there was just a huge emphasis to assimilate, and my parents wanted us to not be left out or bullied. They really wanted us to stay in touch with our Filipino background and heritage, but they really gave a strong emphasis on, “Hey, we want you to excel here.” So growing up, I didn’t have much family history to go off yet, and when I started writing, I didn’t want to throw out a bunch of cliches of things I didn’t experience. So in the past couple of years, I’ve been gathering that information from my parents and setting up trips with the Philippines. I know in the future I will write about it, but when I’m ready to blend and coherently put together all my experiences.

M365: Ada Limón, who is currently the US Poet Laureate, read your poem “To Offer Sweet Fruit to the Ghost” on The Slowdown podcast. Tell me a bit about that poem.

JPM: So that poem was actually the first family poem that I wrote, specifically about my grandpa, my lolo. I had never met any of my grandparents. Unfortunately, we had not been able to visit [the Philippines] before they passed, which has been a big hole in my life. But I was able to experience that and learn about him through my mom and through a huge repository of scrapbooks. It was very weird growing up: My mom would always tell me about him, but I would only see him in pictures. I’ve never seen a video of him. I’ve never even heard him, and I was really sad about it. So I really wanted to pay homage to my grandpa because from what my mom has told me, he was just a workhorse and [took] care of our family. But apparently, as a kid, I loved him. So when I was writing that poem, I kept going back to my mom and being like, “What are some key memories that I shared with my grandpa?’ And it was a very odd experience, just to be like, “Okay, this happened, but you don’t remember it.” The whole poem is just one big letter to my grandpa.

M365: What was it like to have Limón select it on that platform?

JPM: It was unreal and is still unreal today. Ada Limón is also one of the first writers whose writing I fell in love with. She also writes about nature, and is very nature-centric. It was just something I never could have imagined would happen. And I’m just so grateful every single time I think about it.

M365: What does a good writing day look like for you?

JPM: I would say that I’ve never had very structured writing days. I have a living document, probably over 400 pages of seeds and random thoughts and journaling and drafts. For me, it takes a very long time to properly feel like a poem is done. Even when I was learning to write, I kept in mind that, even if I feel like this is it, I just let it sit and chip away as much as I can to what the final form of the poem is, whether it’s adding a couple different words, trying out synonyms. The body of the poem, the actual content, comes first. And then it’s a very long but very fun process of figuring out what shape it’ll take. I end up with a bunch of final drafts which I feel are fun. And then there’s just a certain one that I’ll gravitate towards.

M365: You’ll be in conversation with Margaret Yapp later this week. What are you most looking forward to? What do you admire about her work?

JPM: We met each other very, very recently, in the past couple of months, through a mutual friend. She had reached out and is celebrating her book debut. I found out that we were [published in the same journal] and that was just one of those small world feelings. Her work also concerns nature a lot. It’s really fun to see how other poets use the world and nature, and use it in their storytelling. One thing that I admire is just her speaking about her experiences in the context of nature. I’m just very excited to ask her about how that marries into her writing as well.

M365: Is there anything new you’re working on or working towards?

JPM: So this past year, I had intentionally taken a year off of writing. And as that was, it was very hard for me to at least try to write but these past two years, I’ve experienced more external stress that affected me just sitting down and I just didn’t have the capacity to do it. One very important thing I try to emphasize to other writers or my past mentees is that you do not need to write every day, even when it feels like when you don’t, you’re not a writer. Forcing writing, or making something come out is, I think, the most detrimental thing I can do for myself. And now I’ve just been—from the grace of other writers and readings—I feel very rejuvenated and I’m slowly trying to come back to it. I’m currently working on my first collection of poems. I’m just trying to get back into a good routine and good discipline to enter back into writing.

An Evening of Poetry with Margaret Yapp and John Paul Martinez will take place Thursday, June 13, at 6 pm at A Room of One’s Own, 2717 Atwood Ave, Madison.