interview: Kostya Tsolákis & Romalyn Ante, editors, harana poetry
Alice Hiller speaks with founding editors Kostya Tsolákis and Romalyn Ante about being multilingual poets and their ambitions for harana poetry, a new online magazine for poets writing in English as a second or parallel language.
AH: To begin, what gave you the idea of setting up harana poetry?
KT: Romalyn and I both write poetry in English as a second language. Romalyn’s mother tongue is Tagalog, mine is Greek. When we met for the first time earlier this year, we talked about the challenges we felt writing in English presented to us and how we’d not come across any publications that were specifically for poets whose first language isn’t English.
RA: I thought, finally, someone else is thinking about this! Writing in English as a second language sometimes involves extra effort. We wanted to find a way to celebrate people who do the same as us. We then thought, how can we expand this project and make it more inclusive? That’s when the idea of making harana poetry a home for poets who may write in English as a parallel language came up. Poets who perhaps grew up in a multilingual family or write in dialect or slang.
AH: Can you tell me why you chose the name harana poetry?
RA: In Tagalog, ‘harana’ means ‘serenade’. In rural areas in the Philippines, it’s a way of wooing someone. You go to their house with your friends and serenade them outside their window with guitars to call them out. We are calling poets from all over the world to come and join us.
KT: And ‘hará’ means ‘joy’ in Greek. So, there is also joy in harana poetry.
AH: Kostya, Mary Jean Chan said English was the language in which her queerness found its voice. Does a similar feeling influence your decision to write creatively in English?
KT: That’s an interesting question. As a teenager I wrote creatively in Greek, but English has been my adult language. I came to England two days after I turned 18. English has been the language of my outness. The language where I learned my first gay vocab. For a very long time, before I came out to my parents, I felt I could only be myself in England, but would go back home and speak Greek to my parents. So, for me Greek was the language of the closet. I didn’t find out about the joy of being queer in Greek until later. English was the language that made me feel free. The main reason I write in English now is because it is my everyday language. It’s the one that I read in. It’s the one I work in. I talk to most of my friends in. It comes naturally to me to write in English. I don’t know whether I’d be able to write in Greek. I don’t ever write with a specific audience in mind, but the audience that I share my poetry with is an English-speaking one.
AH: What led you to choose English over Tagalog, Romalyn?
RA: I think mainly because of the topics that I’m writing about. I write on the theme of migration, Filipino nurses and the culture of the Philippines. If I were to write poems in Tagalog, like I did when I was a teenager in the Philippines, then I would restrict the audience. I want to shed light on my culture, especially to the West. A lot of Filipinos go overseas to work on different jobs – nursing, catering and so on. Very little is known about us abroad. I feel that by exploring our culture through poetry in English, more people will get to know what the Philippines are like and who Filipinos are. It would probably be a different story if I was still in the Philippines.
AH: How long did it take from starting to write creatively in English to reach the point where you felt that your work was ready to send out?
RA: I don’t think I could really gauge the timeline. Probably three years. I started writing poetry in English after I finished my training as a nurse in the UK.
KT: I would say two years after I started writing poetry more seriously. I was working on a novel for a very long time in my 20s and early 30s, but it wasn’t going anywhere. I went to lots of open mics while I was getting going as a poet. They made me a much more confident public speaker. I used to get very nervous with public speaking. I thought my spine would pop out with nerves before reading a poem in public! Three years later, I feel a lot more confident. I love performing my poetry as much as I love seeing it on the page. I take quite a few poems with me to an event. I don’t decide beforehand what to read. I just sort of figure out what goes with that moment, the room.
AH: Have there been losses in transferring from Greek to English? Are there things Greek would have let you write?
KT: The loss would be that I don’t know the Greek poetry scene. I write a lot about my growing up as a queer teenager in Athens in the late ‘90s, about my first liberating experiences in the gay scene in England since I got here in ‘99. I would like to share these poems with a Greek audience too but haven’t had the chance to do so yet. If I went to Greece and read my poems in English to a Greek audience, what would that be like?
AH: How about for you, Romalyn?
RA: I don’t think it’s a loss to write in English. I don’t feel that I lost anything when I transferred from Tagalog to English. In fact, I feel that I made more connections, especially with Filipino poets and Filipino migrants, when I started writing in English. English opened up the opportunity for me to tell the Filipino story. That created a conversation between how it is, being based in the UK and writing in English, and opened communication between my Filipino poets.
AH: That’s really good to hear. Next are two joined questions. Are there benefits to writing creatively in your second language? Are there things that you find frustrating?
RA: There are benefits to writing in English, definitely. I love the musicality. Tagalog is a very musical and romantic language as well. But I love the sounds, especially of alliteration in English. It’s so nice and smooth. There are also some words that I could only explain using English and there are also some words I could only pinpoint using Tagalog. I think those are the benefits. What I find particularly frustrating is, whatever happens, my mother tongue is still Tagalog. No matter how many proof readings I do, there will still be some grammatical errors. But sometimes mistakes can actually make the poem better. I find it especially with preposition mistakes. When I re-read a line, the change of preposition makes the poem more punchy.
KT: It’s about breaking the rules as well, isn’t it? There is always that little voice in my head that says that this is not your first language – have you expressed this correctly? My inner saboteur, so to speak. It tells me what I am doing is wrong. But that voice also says: why are you writing?
AH: Are there frustrating aspects of writing in English, Kostya?
KT: Maybe with direct speech when I want to include words my family has said. It can sound translated because they are speaking Greek. I haven’t done that yet, but my aim is to try to slip Greek into my poetry more when it comes to dialogue, especially endearments. They don’t sound the same in English. Without Greek, I can’t fully express the warmth of my family, or my complex relationship with my parents. I have to translate their words and sentences into English which is not my family’s language. At the same time, I feel very lucky to be somewhere where I can write and read about the things I explore, the topics that I get a kick out of writing about. Some issues, such as sexual and drug abuse in the gay community, are difficult for me to write about. But I don’t think I’d feel confident enough to write about them in Greek.
AH: I know that you have also translated Greek poetry into English. Can you tell me something about that experience?
KT: I started translating Greek into English because I came across a Greek gay poet that I didn’t know about until last year: Andreas Aggelákis. He wrote in the ‘70s and ‘80s. He wrote in a very matter-of-fact manner, with great beauty in the grit of his language. His voice is so modern and has a lot of humour. He really amazes me. I wanted to share his voice with more people. It is now very hard to find his books in Greece, to the extent that he’s been referred to as a ‘vanished poet’. I thought that with all the great queer poets that are writing now, in the UK, US and further afield, his voice really fits in with the conversation. I have come to love him very much. Sadly, I will never meet him, but translating him was the least I could do for this poet who speaks to me more than anybody else in the Greek language.
AH: That’s fantastic. We have just touched on using your two languages in a single poem. I know that you sometimes do that as well, Romalyn?
RA: I always do. To me, it is the normal thing to do. I came here when I was 16 and I am nearly 30. I have been here almost half of my life. I feel that if I were to take one language away from a poem, if I were to just entirely write in English and not with any Tagalog words, then that would be a pretence to myself. When my brain works naturally as I type up poems, Tagalog words just seep out. I think that’s quite organic. I can’t really delete that.
KT: What holds me back from using Greek is the Greek alphabet.
AH: Because for people who can’t read Greek those are blank words?
KT: Yes. I find that a little frustrating because I have to make choices when it comes to transliterating. It can be hard to pronounce Greek and get the sound right. The sound is important if it is in a poem. But that doesn’t mean that we are not keen to get poems for harana poetry that use different alphabets. That would be great. We don’t want anybody to feel they can’t combine languages like Romalyn does.
AH: You’ve got the option of putting a glossary underneath if the poet wants. Foreign alphabets are a marker of harana poetry combining differentness. What are your ambitions for harana poetry?
RA: In the first year, we want to showcase talented poets from all over the world. Reading the submissions, there are really strong poets whom I have never heard of before. I keep thinking, this is such a gift! Not only to the poetry scene here, but also to the worldwide poetry scene. At the same time, we want to nurture the next generation of multilingual poets.
AH: You want to give them the space of entitlement without converting their work. They can simply enter that space and it’s there.
KT: We would love it to be an international home for poets from every continent. If we can have an issue that has fantastic poetry from every continent, that would be perfect. I think this is why we wanted to open it up so much. So that we can get people from all around the world. We want to give confidence to people who deal with those voices that we were talking about earlier.
RA: A long-term ambition for me is that I really want harana poetry to have its own kind of mentoring scheme.
AH: All three of us have benefited from being mentored.
RA: Being mentored really solidified my voice as a poet and as a person and an artist. Mentoring solidifies your place in this scene. I think it would be nice to guide someone who has just started writing – at any age.
AH: Young in their poetry career irrespective of age.
KT: It would be great to see after a year if we can even manage to do print versions or an anthology and bring poems together. We also want to have a good time and celebrate what we are doing. We are planning to have a first launch in London and then take harana poetry to Birmingham for the launch of the second issue. For the third it would be great to get somewhere else in the UK or abroad.
RA: Come on, it’s got to be sunshine.
KT: We are also very keen for harana poetry to look beautiful.
AH: Is that why it’s in a pink?
KT: Pink is great. I love pink.
AH: We all love pink! That’s a global consensus. It has a joy to it.
RA: Yes! It’s got hará.
KT: We want to make sure that the website looks beautiful and attractive. We want it to be an inviting home for all the poets who submit to harana poetry, so we are putting a lot of attention to that.
RA: We are planning to select really strong poems. We are going to publish a maximum of twelve poems per issue.
AH: A very curated selection.
KT: Poems that have chemistry between them.
AH: The editing team on the poems is you two. Both of you will read everything and then you will whittle them down and make the selection between you?
KT: We’re going to be reading submissions separately and then coming together to discuss and see where we have coincided.
AH: Two people’s tastes is always very valuable at that point of negotiation.
KT: We want to experiment and see if we can also be a home for visual poetry. Down the line we will see if we can also host any audio and even videos. The possibilities are endless. We really want to explore. The most encouraging thing is that we have had lots of interest from people. The welcome we received was phenomenal.
RA: And thank you so much to all the organisations who retweeted our announcements, MPT, The Poetry School, the Poetry Translation Centre – everyone. I never really expected harana poetry to be this well-received at a very early stage.
KT: We got a few hundred followers on Twitter in just a day!
AH: There is a hunger. I felt it as soon as you started telling me about harana poetry. I grew up between French and English. English is my first language, but French was the language of my father and my grandmother – so part of me thinks in French. My brain doesn’t work in a single language. I recognise for a lot of other people that is also true.
KT: If through harana poetry we can also inspire people to start writing in English or experimenting with the language they already write in, that would be amazing. I have spoken to a couple of people who have told me they feel inspired by us already to try and write in English. And to submit to us.
RA: From as far afield as possible, please. Submit!
The inaugural issue of harana poetry will be published in February 2019. The submissions window for issue 2 will be 1-30 April 2019.