An Interview with Genevieve Mae Aquino

Interview by | February 25, 2018

This year, we are embarking on a small project to interview some standout contributors to Dagmay and young Mindanao writers of note.  These conversations are meant to be informal, not critical, so we can get to know the writers behind the works and about their writing process. We are kicking off this series with an interview with Genevieve Mae Aquino, who has charmed us with her ekphrastic, cerebral, and exuberant poetry. (Read Genevieve’s past works on Dagmay.)

Genevieve at CCP Ani 39 launch at the CCP last Sept 23, 2016

D:  Thanks for agreeing to this interview.  We’d like to start off with your very unique bio.  At Dagmay, we have contributors from different professions far afield from literature, but yours certainly stands out because of you work in molecular biology.  Can you tell us how you came into your specialization, where you studied, and what degrees you earned?

GM: Science was something that interested me as a child. When I got a scholarship to attend the Philippine Science High School campus in Davao (PSHS-SMC), my career path was pretty much set.  I got my BSc in Molecular Biology and Biotechnology from UP Diliman.  My MSc in the same major field (with Genetics as minor) is from UP Los Baños.  I also have a postgraduate diploma in Quantitative Genetics and Genome Analysis from the University of Edinburgh.

I currently work in UPLB as one of the core staff of the Philippine Genome Center – Program for Agriculture, Livestock, Fisheries, and Forestry.  My field of specialization is bioinformatics, which is basically the use of computers to store, analyze, and visualize genetic information. (Editor’s note, March 2, 2018: after this interview was submitted for publication but before it went to press, Genevieve took on a new position with UPLB. She is now with the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Extension.)

D: Wow! That’s quite a journey!  Can you tell us more about your roots in Davao?

GM: I was actually born in Metro Manila, but my parents were UPLB students who were both from Davao City.  After my dad finished his master’s degree in UPLB, my mom went to med
school in Davao, so that’s where I grew up. I identify as being from Davao and my first job was as a biology teacher in my old high school (PSHS-SMC). After that, I went back to Luzon for grad school and I’ve worked and studied in various other places since then. But Davao will always be home.

D: Your scientific work seems so radically different from the poetry you’ve contributed to Dagmay. How do you reconcile the two?

GM: I wouldn’t want to choose one form of writing over the other. Science feeds my mind; poetry feeds my soul. I have always loved poetry. It began as a fascination with nursery rhymes that gradually evolved when I went to school.  Thus far, and for the conceivable future, the formula of “science + life = poem” is how I will continue to write poetry.  I find that a poem is most effective when it draws from the human experience, even if it’s not really my own experience.

D: Before we get to talking about your poetry in depth, can you tell us more about your scientific publications?

GM: I have co-authored a couple of scientific papers in the Philippine Agricultural Scientist and the Philippine Journal of Veterinary and Animal Sciences.  Last year, I helped write a paper in bee genetics that was accepted for publication in the Philippine Entomologist. There are a few more papers in genomics and genetics that are supposed to be submitted this year.

D:  You’re one of the regular contributors to Dagmay and for the editors (for me, certainly) one of the readily recognizable names.  What were your early  experiences in getting your poetry published?

GM: It was so difficult to be published at the start! I was fortunate enough to be included in the 8th Iligan National Writers Workshop (INWW) in 2001 while I was teaching in PSHS-SMC but I never knew where to submit my work.  Things changed thanks to a tip about a call for submissions from my co-fellow at the 2006 IYAS workshop, Palanca-awardee Mark Angeles.

My “big break” was getting accepted in Volume 33 of the CCP Ani, their nature and environment issue. My poem “Agape” was something that I wrote when I was still in college. It came from a writing exercise in my creative writing elective at UP Diliman, which was taught by Conchitina “Chingbee” Cruz.

Since then, I’ve made it a point to write and submit to CCP Ani. I’ve been fortunate enough to be considered a regular contributor to the journal. I’ve found it easier to submit to open calls for anthologies because there’s a theme to the collection and the theme becomes my guide for a
new poem. That is, unless I already have an old poem that somehow matches the theme.

D: What was your experience publishing with Dagmay?

Dagmay was also a blessing for unknown writers like me. I actually learned of the online journal because of my former high school teacher, Margot Marfori. She taught English in PSHS-SMC for a year before she became a professor at UP Mindanao, and I was lucky enough to be in her class.

I consider her to be my earliest mentor in creative writing. She was always very encouraging, and her most memorable words to me were: “Magsulat ka. Sayang kasi.”

Her work called a new york poem  in Dagmay made me aspire to have my work published in the journal, too.

D: And the first poem we published was “Ode to the Pomelo”….

GM: Yes! After Dagmay published “Ode to the Pomelo”, I gained more confidence about submitting poetry that didn’t follow any particular theme.  I make it a point to submit at least once a year. I usually send the ones that I am compelled to share, and I’m still surprised when my
work meets the editors’ approval.

D: I quite liked “Ode to the Pomelo.”  I found it exuberant and fun, how it made use of the format of the ode but transporting it to a very Davao setting.  Which makes me wonder why no one thought of it before. Is there a flow for when you write a poem?

GM: There’s no particular flow. When something feels “good enough”, I send it to Dagmay and keep my fingers crossed. (Laughs).

D: Aside from Dagmay and CCP Ani, where else have you been published?

GM:  In addition to those two, I’ve contributed to the Philippines Graphic, the Sunday Times Magazine of the Manila Times, Payag Habagatan, Bukambibig, and TRUCK. I am also in the Mondo Marcos, Versus Typhoon Yolanda, IYAS (2001-2010), and The Best of Dagmay anthologies. Two independent chapbooks include a poem from me: Curfew and Poets of the Apocalypse. My oldest poems are in Return to the Native, the proceedings of the 8th INWW, but that volume had a very limited run.

D: You’ve never mentioned it in your bio so I should ask: have you received any awards for your poetry?

GM: I’ve never mentioned any because I haven’t won anything…yet (laughs).  The highest honor I have gotten for my poetry is to be included in Luisa A. Igloria’s “List of 100 Filipina Poets” for Wompherence 2008, it’s a festival of women’s poetry on the web.

D: You’ve also been to quite a few workshops.  Can you share some of your most memorable experiences?  

What I remember the most about INWW was feeling like a fish out of water. I was criticized for using unfamiliar words like “Propinquity” but Christine Godinez-Ortega said something about my poem called “The Students Are Shaving the Cats”.

D: Eh? Shaving the cats?

GM: I wrote it during the first year of college, when I had to take a laboratory class opposite the room where the Biology majors were dissecting cats. You have to shave the preserved specimens first. It broke my heart to see their samples because I’m a “cat person”.

When we discussed my poem at INWW, she commented, “Write about what you know.” That is, given that I live and breathe science, I should write about it because that would make my work uniquely my own. She was right, and her comment has been a cornerstone of my poetics.

D: From the other workshops, what bit of advice stuck with you?

GM: At the IYAS workshop, I learned about writing poetry not just for the sake of self-expression because some co-fellows were political activists.

My favorite memory was when we were divided into groups with one mentor. I got Benilda “Benny” Santos, and she chose to read a poem called “Replication”, which is my contribution to the IYAS Anthology (2001-2010). All she said was, “Ikaw ang sumulat nito? Maganda.” No critical analysis or explanation. Just a stamp of approval. That simple compliment really moved me and helped me realize that a “good” poem only needs to accomplish one thing: to touch the reader’s heart or mind.

D: The literary world can sometimes be brutal.  Any advice on dealing with criticism?

When I got to the 2008 ANWW, I was briefly reunited with my former college professor, Chingbee Cruz, who was also one of the panelists. She barely remembered me, but she was glad that I was still writing. From that workshop, I learned that the aesthetics of poetry will always be relative, and people will have different readings of your work. I remember that my poem “Magnified” was criticized for being too religious. A panelist said, “There are audiences for this kind of work.” Most of the mentors did not really think highly of it. However, after the session, one of my co-fellows said that he loved it and asked permission to share it with his friends. Incidentally, “Magnified” is also featured in the online Wompherence 2008 proceedings.

D:  So far we’ve published seven of your poems in Dagmay (counting “Kinase”).  One of your hallmarks is to use a scientific concept as a central image, e.g., apoptosis, torsion, Moebius strip.  I really like the playful yet challenging nature of these poems. (I confess I also have to look up some of the terms.)  What’s the genesis of this project?

GM: It’s not so much a project as it is a reflection of my worldview. I am compelled to write poetry, and science is an inherent part of my life.

The origins of this approach to writing could probably be traced to the film Il Postino (The Postman), which we were required to watch in that creative writing elective that I mentioned. Pablo Neruda became all the rage just before 2000. My childhood friend Jeneen Garcia (also a poet who was then a member of the Heights writing organization in Ateneo de Manila University) lent me two compilations of his translated works, Odes to Common Things and Odes to Opposites.

At the back of my head, I hoped I could write odes like Neruda. Just as his fictionalized self in the film said that maybe the world is a metaphor for something else, I think that scientific concepts are metaphors waiting to be discovered. Most of my poems tend to “write themselves”, especially when I am stuck in a queue or a traffic jam.

D: Ah, the Neruda connection explains the Ode poems.  I’m glad that’s sorted out.  Your poems are also quite personal, typically addressed to a friend or family member.  One of my favorites is “Torsion”, because it’s so…raw…in its emotion, I can feel the turmoil of Myke but also the almost helpless sympathy of the persona for Myke.  It’s also a visual poem that just works. Can you tell us something about this poem?

GM: My poems are usually addressed to people because the idea behind the poem usually comes from someone else. Sometimes it begins as a joke, like in the case of the pomelo poem or even the “Ode to Garlic”. I don’t have as much life experience as most people so I draw many of my poems from the experiences of others.

Myke is one of my former students, one whom I consider to be a surrogate daughter of my heart. I originally wrote the poem as part of my application to the IYAS workshop, and it was in a very different form back then. Myke was in college and taking the same major as myself, with the same undergraduate adviser! So I was very worried about her, and I was also concerned about her other former classmates. They were struggling with puberty and undergrad academics.

I originally wanted to write about the torsional stress of supercoiled DNA, but the imagery just wasn’t working. Then I realized that the term “torsion” was also used in biology to refer to the changes that a snail goes through as it develops into an adult. Since Myke was (and
still is) a very shy person, I realized that the imagery of a snail was perfect for what I wanted to say.

D: As a reader, I was approaching it from the more common definition of some type of physical stress.  That’s how it worked for me.

GM: As for it being a visual poem, I have always been fascinated by concrete and visual poets,  even when I was still in high school. The earliest I can remember is the “Concrete Cat” by Dorthi Charles. In college, I became fascinated with the artful line cuts of poets like Mary Oliver and Louise Glück, and I try to emulate their craft in my work.

During IYAS, I was criticized for being too “wordy” with my poems. So as a writing exercise, I now play around with the lay-out of my poems as I try to reduce the inherent “wordiness” that comes with science writing.

The final form of “Torsion” was heavily influenced by Elizabeth Arnold’s poem “How between two people”. I’m really glad it turned out the way it did.

D: Finally: “A Möbius Trip”.  Aside from the obvious pun, I love its heady and dizzying exuberance, how  it plays with geography.  Love poem?  I like think so.  But I am more intrigued by the hypograph: “desde IRRI al CIMMYT”  What’s the story behind this?

GM: I started thinking about writing a poem about travel because of the call for submissions to a contest for Tulaan sa Tren 2 in 2009. Back then, I was an Associate Scientist at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Los Baños, Laguna. However, I was working very closely with researchers at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (in Spanish, Centro Internacional de Mejoramiento de Maíz y Trigo or CIMMYT) in Texcoco, Mexico.

I couldn’t think of anything, and the deadline was fast-approaching. The date was smack in the middle of a business trip to CIMMYT. Fortunately, inspiration struck at the right time. I woke up one morning and the poem “A Möbius Trip” was born. I typed it on my trusty old Nokia phone because I didn’t have pen and paper at my bedside. I was able to submit the first draft of the poem to Tulaan sa Tren 2, but it didn’t get accepted.

However, I really liked the poem; so I added more concrete geographical locations then I sent it to Dagmay. All the places mentioned in “A Möbius Trip” are actual locations that I visited during my trips to Mexico. Including the fields of wheat and corn. The mention of rice paddies was also intentional because Los Baños has loads of them.

The first draft isn’t too different from the final form. If there ever is a “Tulaan sa Tren 3”, then I will have something to submit.

D: And the love story behind it?

GM: Well, it’s certainly NOT my love story (laughs). That part is fictional but inspired by real events. The friend who gave me the idea of Möbius strips did find his true love in Mexico. I more or less introduced them to each other, actually. They were even kind enough to invite me to the wedding.

That friend was our systems administrator, who happened to be a math major as an undergrad. In 2009, our separate visits to CIMMYT overlapped and we had to stay at the co-ed dormitory. During one of our after-dinner conversations, we talked about Möbius strips. In another conversation, we were talking about math in poetry, and I mentioned Wislawa Szymborska’s poem called “Pi”.

All the memories of my trips to Mexico led to the poem as it is today. I think of it as my love poem to Mexico, the country itself.

D: I’m so thankful it’s found a home in Dagmay! In the main, can you give us some insights about how you approach poetry, your ars poetica, as it were?

GM:  Usually, I become fascinated with a biological concept and I eventually tie the word to an actual event in life, as in the case of “Apoptosis”. I started the poem a long time ago but only finished after my grandmother passed away. I submitted it to the Spoken Word Challenge for Women’s History Month, which was organized last year by the Facebook page of the U.S. Embassy in Manila, Philippines. The deadline of the challenge coincided with my trip to Singapore. I didn’t win, but I got a good poem out of it.

Otherwise, something really important happens to a good friend or family member, and I am compelled to write about the event. Sometimes, I ask them for their favorite biology word and I try to integrate it into the poem as part of the writing exercise. “Hyphenated” was written for the wedding of my college buddy, a scientist who married another scientist. We once talked about hyphenating last names for scientific publications. The second type of poems are my favorites because it feels like I am somehow achieving Neruda’s “Deber del Poeta” (A Poet’s Obligation). That is, a poet is a conduit that enables the beauty in natural science to connect with the human heart and all its drama.

D: Are we looking at a collection soon?

GM: I have been dreaming of a collection. It’s funny. I just kept submitting to calls for submissions and I didn’t realize how much of what I have written is already published. We will see. At work, the running joke is that I keep publishing poems when I should be publishing science papers. Hopefully, that collection will become a reality before I turn 40.

D: Well, thank you very much for your time and for your insights.  I quite enjoyed this interview.

GM: And thank you!

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