Mathematician and Poet, Iris Orpi

I found Iris through Twitter where she followed me. I asked her where she found me and she replied she noticed I had a lot of tweets on writing. I followed her in return and sampled her work, sharing some with other publisher friends. I caught Iris between moments to discuss her poetry and all that she finds inspiring.

Iris Orpi’s book Golden and Rampant can be purchased by clicking the image

Thank you for agreeing to this interview. My first impressions of your work were that you write of beauty, rage, revelation, sexuality’s bridge to sacredness, and place. Would you mind sharing a few words about how you employ those themes and where your remarkable ability to interweave them comes from?

First of all, thank you for seeing what you saw because that is exactly how I would describe my work.

Now for the first part of your question. Those five motifs you mentioned usually manifest in pairs or groups in each piece. I’m a sucker for pretty, ebullient imagery and can rarely resist including metaphors involving oceans, storms, big cities, and skies – those are the things I personally find the most beautiful. But those images would trigger or flow into the other things, like  maybe I’ll use the sea as a metaphor for the soul being deep, then follow it up with a line about furiously crashing waves. Or maybe I’ll wax rhapsodic about Chicago’s skyline, then use it in parallel with a young woman’s initiation into passion.

Image result for public domain images of chicago skyline

I believe there’s an inherent feminism in most if not all of my written work, and I am always aware of that, and that awareness tells me I should balance all the elements of woman – myself as woman, to be precise. So if there’s light, there should be darkness, and vice versa. So on the one hand, yes, look at all these phrases invoking pretty pictures in your brain; but on the other hand there’s more to the aesthetic than a Baroque painting in words. Being a woman means creating, defining beauty, but it also means being angry, trying to expose a deeper truth, trying to rise above the patriarchal construct that people outside of us could determine our worth based on what we do with our bodies, and being acutely aware of where we stand, no matter where, and how does my surrounding interact with everything inside me?  It’s like I’m pointing at the symbols then they point back at me.

We Can Do It Poster

Now that you’ve pointed it out, I feel like no matter what I write, that’s the path that my thought processes walk. Except that it happens subconsciously, and in the space of a few lines.

You are a math instructor. Does mathematics inform your work at all? I notice a lot of references to geometry, algebra, and mathematical formulations. In what way do you see math as part of the creative process, both in the natural world and in your poetry?

I’m a romantic, and I honestly believe mathematics is the most poetic thing in the world. It’s the closest I’ve come to proof that there is a God, that a “grand plan” exists. So yes, it informs my work in that I believe I can’t escape running into some mathematical concept if I want to hint at perfection or order. Even the way I cut the lines in my poems, I think I am adhering to internal concepts of randomness and balance. Mathematics is a big part of me, so reaching for a word or reference with a math background is as natural for me as, say, using the moon or the rain as a metaphor.

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The following lines are from the poem “Weight of Beginnings”:

 

It’s not the snow, but what is
snow-like about it: six-sided, beautiful,
unconditionally bound to the locus of the
wind, that makes that first day an irony and a
microcosm, by superstition, of what the future
has in store.

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They are intriguing and complex. The symbolism wraps around the mind but what are you ultimately alluding to?  It hints at a sense of intelligent design or a shift from general to particular qualities of definition. Something in the poem evades singular interpretation.

I think the idea I was reaching for, but taking creative liberties about it, is the Chinese superstition that whatever you’re doing while the previous year ends and the new year begins would determine your luck for the rest of the year. I grew up in the Philippines and that country takes a lot of Chinese traditions; in this particular example, people prepare feasts for the last day of each year, business establishments are open past midnight (with enticing promos to make sure people come and fill the store up) – in hopes that the rest of the coming year would be marked by abundance and vibrant business. My first big disappointment after moving to the US was that this custom isn’t followed at all (except in neighborhoods with a heavy Asian presence): restaurants close at the regular time on December 31st; New Year’s resolutions aren’t too big of a deal.

Year Of The Pig 2019

 

Taal Lake

In “Encounter as Portent” you write these splendid and intelligent lines:

 

The day I saw you
is the center,…

What good
is measuring the distance between
knowing you and not loving you?

 

Again, the interplay between sexuality and the sacred. Love here plays the role of sublime transformation. Did you intend for this poem to address the nature of illusion as it seems to do?

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I write a lot about unrequited love and forbidden love. It’s the kind of poetry I grew up in, mostly, so it’s hard to kick the habit! And after all those poems, I still feel like I haven’t exhausted all the possibilities. I like to portray the imaginary place where all the “un-loved love” actually happens, and actually “gets loved”, as infinite, and full of potential beauty worth exploring. I think that’s the thing you meant when you said “illusion”? The things that are on our minds when we imagine what could have been. So I might either be trying to analyze an illusion, or giving a math problem (a question of abstract distance) so that it triggers illusions in the reader.

“Black Friday Might Affect These Hours” –Google is a neat piece for its dimensions. I think this work speaks about the nature of truth, revelation, and prophecy more than other poems of yours bearing this in them. Is revelation and truth a frequent theme that appears as you write or is it something you meditate on and the thought bubbles up?

I think it’s more of a subconscious thing that I do, something that inevitably shows its face when you look hard enough. It certainly wasn’t intentional in this piece. I was trying to describe my immediate environment after going through the yearly harried and claustrophobic Thanksgiving family reunion (hence the title). So I was drawing symbols from what I remember of the festivities and chatter that were just there the day prior, and the mess that everyone left behind, may it be a physical mess or emotional turmoil from something someone said or revealed that I was still processing the day after. So I guess in a broader sense it’s a poem about dealing with some truth, some revelation.

What is your creative process like? What is your state of mind when you decide to create a poem? Are there triggers, particular types of events in the world, or memories you revisit?

I had been more fastidious about my creative process before I became a mother: I would usually write as soon as I woke up—and this means my creative process required a lot of napping throughout the day, and yes, I’m serious; please don’t judge me, haha—I would brew coffee and write as I drink, and usually some form of water would be involved, like picking a table next to a water fountain or if I’m lucky, the beach. I literally wrote my entire novel, The Espresso Effect over a period of weeks, sitting at the same table in Greenbelt 3 in Makati, that overlooks the water fountain. I’m also very visual and get triggers from browsing photographers’ portfolios, especially portraiture of women. So I visit the website 500px dot com a lot, waiting for a phrase or a metaphor to leap out at me from the photographs.

But after I gave birth I have relaxed a lot of those self-imposed “writing rules” or I wouldn’t get anything done. For example, I exclusively breastfed my son from birth to 20 months. It didn’t take me long to figure out that when I drank coffee, my breastmilk would get tainted and my newborn son would be colicky and cry all day. So I had to give up coffee. I had to learn to summon my muse, so to speak, on kitchen counters while sneaking a bite of lunch, or lying in bed in the middle of the night while holding a smartphone, or while stuck in traffic, or at the clinic while waiting for the pediatrician. For me, now, there is no creative “process”. I just have to know that I’m a writer. And when it’s time to write, no matter where I am, I should be ready.

Baby And Dad Sleeping

I still love my coffee (my son is four years old now) and am still partial to watching water flow and fall. But now it’s more like a personal treat to write with those at hand, not a requirement.

I write through all sorts of states of mind, anger, grief, depression, loneliness, desire. I have two confessions though: (1) it’s harder for me to write when I’m happy—you know that adage that a poet should also know when it’s time to live and savor the moment and put the pen away, and (2) I have written my strongest pieces when I am in a state of defiance. I mentioned Greenbelt 3 in Makati earlier; it’s a high-end mall selling luxury brands. I would usually go there wearing my drabbest clothes and no makeup. The patrons in their designer ensembles would openly look at me like I didn’t belong there. And somehow I would write my strongest poems while surrounded by that feeling of being scoffed at, as if I need to do something amazing in order to prove my worth.

File:Hlinka Guardsmen humiliate Lipa Baum.jpg

On the theme of revelation again. Let’s visit these lines from “Young Woman at the Met Cloisters, NYC”.

 

There’s a hierarchy to things,
much like the crossing
of colors as messages
through a photograph:

-“Young Woman at the Met Cloisters, NYC

 

The poem indicates that life is composed of desire. Do you intend to reflect that thought?  These lines designate the structure of our reality, how it can be both real and illusion—the metaphor with photography is most striking. How did that come to mind?

I never thought to put it that way, but you have said it nicely. Yes, life is composed of desire. There is a little trattoria I love that has the following words printed on their tablecloths: “Passion is a blessing we ask God never to take from us.” I think it’s such a bold and true statement, and it comes very close to my own philosophy as a writer. As for the poem, it was actually inspired by the image that accompanies the post. I used to tutor this young woman, named Rees Colayco, in maths and writing, when she was in high school, and we have formed a really meaningful bond. She has since gone to college, graduated, started her own business, and won awards internationally. When she posted that photograph of herself, taken at the Met Cloisters in NYC, I was specially struck by how far she has come—and, consequently, how far I have come—from those afternoons where we would spend hours working on her calculus homework and improving her college application essays. Reality has layers of the actual and the possible. And the way Rees has evolved and blossomed, I wanted to express that. The photograph is deeper because I know the subject, and I wanted to complement the image with another photograph of sorts, made of words.

Would you like to discuss your already published collections? What drives the momentum of your creative output? How do you go about seeking publishers who appreciate your writing and aren’t using it as a money sign or to gain reputation?

My 2010 novel, The Espresso Effect is a work of fiction illustrated by the coffee painter Sunshine Plata. It’s actually a metaphysical dialogue between the universe and a young woman addicted to coffee. It’s presented in a blog format the way you would read a blog on a computer screen, and also includes street photography by local hobbyists. Ambitious, I know! I have been very proud of it and I still am. My agent Adee Caluag, based in the Philippines, has been working her magic to turn the story into a film, and it would hopefully have a similar aesthetic as the book. The project itself was funded by individuals and businesses who believed in my ambitious idea. It was published by Data Access Publishing of Manila, which I found through Sunshine. The day we launched that book, which included an exhibition of the coffee paintings in one of the hippest coffee chains in the Philippines, and attended by family, friends, and art enthusiasts, remain one of the greatest nights of my life.

So far I have four books of compiled poems; from oldest to newest they are: Beautiful Fever (2012), Cognac for the Soul (2012), Hand Painted (2018), and Rampant and Golden (2018). All of them are self-published. The first two working with a printing press in the Philippines, and the latter two with Amazon Createspace. If you notice, I publish poetry collections in pairs, and that’s not a mistake. One book is always PG and the other book is always rated R. Those are the two sides of me as a person, if you will. Half of the total people I know, I know through the church I belong to, and it’s a very conservative church. It is a big part of me, and I want my church brothers and sisters to be able to buy my books and enjoy my work without being scandalized. But of course, there are other topics I simply must write about, like sexual assault, domestic violence, drugs, mental illness, self-harm, protesting the patriarchy, even my inner darkness. I publish those in separate volumes, for readers who can appreciate them.

There is a great feeling of liberation in calling the shots in your own books—fonts, paper type, cover design, etc. But I am also very much aware of the stigma around self-publishing especially by the literary “gatekeepers”. I still intend to one day put together a manuscript that I would be thick-skinned enough to peddle to publishers.

Right now I’ve been doing a lot of research on independent book publishers, and there are two or three that I’ve found so far that I feel could see the potential in my work, who might agree that the world deserves to see me. And the prestige of the publisher or how financially successful it is, really plays little to no role in my favoring it. I’m much rather drawn to the kind of other books they’ve put out and the diversity of the authors they support.  I’m still a far cry from getting that “golden manuscript” finished, much less submitting one. But I’m happy about where I am, my recent victories, and my progress as a writer. I know I’ll get there someday.

Thank you Iris Orpi. Keep writing!

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