"It Is the Escaped Couple's Mischief": An Interview with Patrick Rosal

Patrick Rosal is the author of three full-length poetry collections, most recently Boneshepherds, named a notable book by the National Book Critics Circle and the Academy of American Poets. A former Fulbright fellow, he has also won the Association of Asian American Studies Book Award and the Asian American Writers Workshop Members' Choice Award. His poems and essays have appeared in Grantland, Tin House, Harvard Review, Language For a New Century, Best American Poetry, and many other journals and anthologies. He is a founding co-editor of Some Call It Ballin’, a sports quarterly, and teaches on the faculty of Rutgers University-Camden's MFA program.

His poems, "An Essay on Love," "Ode To Not Having Enough Kids To Play a Game of Baseball," "A Meditation on Water Beginning With Men Fishing a Flooded Avenue," and "Despedida: Quezon City," appeared in Issue Sixty-One of The Collagist.

Here, he talks with interviewer Christina Oddo about the origin of the content, the play between the lovers under oppression, and the mystery that exudes from the work.

What was your thought process behind the narrative structure of this work?

I was asked to read a poem at a very dear friend’s wedding and I was all ready to go with something, but then I thought to myself, what if I tried to write something. So, the morning of the wedding I got to it and this story—or a version of it—came out. It’s completely playful and so are the lovers, but it’s under the specter of an oppressive regime. Despite the tyranny, the lovers dream and play. The end is mysterious. We can’t tell if the old woman is telling the truth or not. We suspect that she saved their lives. She’s the trickster, the mischief maker, the babaylan who works, in this instance, on the side of joy.

Maybe the whole thing is overly romantic. That’s ok by me. But I was delighted to discover two people, presumably young, who defy the capricious restrictions of their government; I’m not one of the lovers, I’m one of the townspeople who has forgotten his own joy, his own romance, his own inclination toward the wild, and hearing all that laughter was a reminder to the townspeople (and to me) of the possibilities of living in a difficult time and place. I wanted to write a story with a little bit of love, a little affection, a little politics, and a little bit of mystery and magic.

How does the repetition of words and character actions push the themes present?

I think it’s a device of fables and maybe it’s a device used in storytelling in general. You have characters who do the same thing repeatedly or a series of things. I imagine it’s the same as anything in poetry. One sets up a pattern so that it can be broken. In this case, it was inevitable that the sentries would come and look for them. The repetition of the tasks, for me, did two things: it allowed me to give space for the lovers to dream and for them to play. It’s also fun for me as a writer because I like the whole spectrum of rhetoric that runs between litotes and hyperbole.

What prompted the idea of the “magnificent land?”

That’s the couple’s trouble, isn’t it. This fictional government is pretty simple-minded but extremely powerful. They can build marvels, yet it obsesses over its own power and uses it to enforce these capricious laws. Calling the land magnificent echoes fairy tales, of course. But it’s also ironic because we soon discover the stupid ordinances the government has put in place.

What are you currently reading?

I’m reading architect Christopher Alexander’s two volumes A Pattern Language and The Timeless Way of Being. I’m teaching a course on poetic forms that’s a pretty rigorous boot camp on prosody that tries to connect strange forms like Patchen’s graffiti poems and Afaa Michael Weaver’s Bop to traditions and treasons of conventional forms. Alexander’s books are all about how to design a living space that can be replicated and varied, as I imagine a good poetic form might be replicated and changed.

What are you writing?

I just finished a new poetry manuscript called Brooklyn Antediluvian, throughout which the threads of race, gentrification, historical violence, the consequence of names/naming and environmental disaster from New York City to the Philippines are threaded together. It is part autobiographical lyric, part immigrant narrative, and part political fable. Also, I’ve got a collection of essays that’s all but finished. It’s a compendium of the criticism, sports writing, and personal essays I’ve written over the years on subjects ranging from weightlifting to pianos to multilingualism to boxing to Chinua Achebe to my father as an ex-priest, etc.