Narisma is a seventeen-year-old artist from the Philippines who has been writing for his entire life. You can find his work on Instagram at the handle @_narisma_.
You imagine him counting on his fingers how many of them he’s won
He doesn’t even know them by name
Only by touch
You imagine all of them sitting at the bottom of the chest in his bedroom
Piled on top of each other, stolen from their bodies
All the hips
You wonder why nobody heard you that night
Did you not scream loud enough
Or did you not scream at all
Did your voice just get caught in the middle of your throat
While his hands rummaged through you
Like they were searching a drawer for something -
A crumpled sticky note under your right arm
A photo resting on top of your tailbone
A set of keys sprawled right between your legs
Sometimes you wish you could ask him
What did I taste like the night you broke me in half?
On being a writer
The first week after you left, I hardened into coal
Curled into a fist (this is how the moon came to be)
How much darkness
How much leaving
Must we succumb to before we learn to tame the chaos
The first poem will come to life slowly
Will stretch into existence in the back of your mind
Sometimes they’re large - whales swimming in our mouths
Sometimes they’re small - saplings ready to bloom
They ask me who taught me to write poetry
And I tell them
No one is a better teacher than heartache
A Conversation between Narisma and Courtney Felle
1. Hi, Narisma, thanks for talking with us! When I and the other editors originally read your poems, we were struck by your use of such targeted imagery. In your first poem, the speaker’s body becomes “A crumpled sticky note under your right arm / A photo resting on top of your tailbone / A set of keys sprawled right between your legs,” all household objects rendered manifestations of hurt. In “On being a writer,” you rely on descriptions of nature, including “whales swimming,” “saplings ready to bloom,” and “coal.” Why choose items so interwoven with regular, daily life?
Thank you for the opportunity! I think incorporating such imagery has become a hallmark feature of my writing. I find it so effective in conveying the message and emotion in my poetry because it places the reader in a real-life setting where my writing can be translated into their personal life. That being said, I’m also very intentional in choosing such imagery. For example, in the first poem, I used everyday household objects because the truth of sexual assault is that 1) it may occur in places such as the house, where you are meant to be safe; and 2) the very idea of ‘home’ is ruined by such perversion, and items that used to be symbols of ‘normal’ life now mean memory of violence. Alternatively, in my second poem, “On being a writer,” I used imagery that focused more on nature because I wanted to place the idea of a poem, which can sometimes feel irrelevant in the larger picture, in the framework of the universe as a whole. The reader hopefully will realize how significant poetry is and how it has its own place in the universe as part of the human experience, alongside animal life and plant life.
2. The individual moments and thoughts in your first poem make it feel, in Maheen’s words, part of a “strong, overwhelming, urgent sudden memory,” with “fleeting objects, the rush of feeling, that seem so true.” How do you capture a temporary yet overwhelming reality like this?
To write about such a reality, you have to realize that while the actual incident may be temporary, the emotional and mental impact of it may linger for a long time afterwards. I myself am not a victim of sexual assault but I do know others who are, and I understand how devastating it can be. I chose to use household objects to portray this realistic “rush of feeling,” conveying the loss of a sense of safety in the home; I also explored the emotional unrest that follows the incident: the question of ‘did I fight hard enough?’ and ‘what was the attacker’s point of view?’.
3. In “On being a writer,” you liken the speaker’s experience to the creation of a celestial body: “this is how the moon came to be.” What is the role of mythology in this poem and in your poetry overall, both unmaking traditional myths and recreating new myths?
Mythology in general is used to explain the world around us and our human existence. Using it in my poetry provides nuance and complexity, and prompts readers to think about the symbolism I choose to use. The moon has represented a variety of things over history; in Filipino mythology, it represents equal rights, revolution, beauty, and more. In “On being a writer,” I unmake traditional myths by recreating a new one: in my poem, the creation of the moon symbolizes the memory of heartache and loss, but also how light and life can be found in such a hard place.
4. Both poems address a “you,” but those figures feel so different from each other. In this first, the “you” serves as the speaker, which simultaneously distances them from their own thoughts and brings the reader more into synthesis with their experiences. In the second, the “you” begins as a mysterious but important figure leaving, almost blaming the reader alongside them, but then shifts into something softer. When the poems “stretch into existence in the back of your mind,” this “you” seems to become the speaker instead, or the speaker becomes more comfortable in their own voice and takes over the space and “mind” the other used to occupy. How do these uses of the second-person work here, and how do they involve the reader more fully in the poems?
For me personally, I’ve realized that using second-person in poetry feels almost natural, as opposed to other forms of writing. It involves the reader by addressing them directly, and hopefully allows the reader to make a connection between the poem and their personal life. Using second-person also makes it easier to incorporate more “characters” in my poems, and to distinguish between different ones, too. In the first poem, it is used to differentiate the ‘attacker’ and the ‘victim’ (the person being addressed as “you”). In the second, it’s a bit more complicated, as the “you” shifts from one person to another. The purpose of this was to shift the attention from one subject to another, from the feeling of loss to the feeling of renewal through the power of writing.
5. These poems share a reflective tone. In the first, “you imagine” and “you wonder” place the speaker outside the moment, remembering it. In the second, the poem interrogates its own existence and purpose as poetry, blurring writer and speaker. How does this outside awareness and inspection change the narratives?
In the first poem, this outside awareness was important to me because it reflected the mental process that a victim of sexual assault might go through, possibly even years after the incident. This type of inspection was critical in showing the aftermath of sexual assault. In the second poem, this outside awareness was meant to serve as a way to question the purpose of loss and poetry in general; it takes on a more objective voice that differs from the subjective thoughts and emotions of the first poem. This set the tone for the poem that was meant to relay the importance of heartache and writing.
6. Though these poems feel personal and internal, they’re also turned outward; they seem to speak for the stories behind them but toward others. You share much of your work on Instagram, which brings you into direct contact with readers. How do you imagine the relationship between you, your poems, and those who engage with your poems?
To me, writing has always been a form of self-expression, and my mission in writing poetry is to connect with other people, over both the good and the bad. Although some of my poems are more specific to a certain subject or audience (such as the first poem), the intention with most of my poetry is to keep things open-ended and allow for my readers to interpret my work in a way that is meaningful to them. Instagram has been an avenue to achieve that mission, and I hope to continue to use it to develop relationships with readers and writers across the globe.
7. What does the term “Instagram poetry” mean to you, and how do you see your choice to share poetry on Instagram as fitting, resisting, or shifting that meaning?
In a sense, “Instagram poetry” has become the face of modern poetry in its entirety. I think these recent years have seen a wave of emerging writers that use Instagram to share their work; the pioneers of this movement include writers such as Rupi Kaur, Nayyirah Waheed, and more. Sharing your work on Instagram, whether it be poetry or another form of art, is all about reaching other people, and finding and developing communities that share this passion with you. My choice to share poetry on Instagram fits this idea, since my goal from the beginning has been to connect with other writers and to see my work put out into the public.
8. How does writing compare to and intersect with your other artistic interests, especially more visual ones?
Alongside writing, my other artistic interests include painting (acrylic and watercolor), portrait sketching, and, more recently, art journaling. I share my visual art on Instagram along with my poetry, although I’ve recently revamped my account, so I’ve archived a lot of my artwork. From now on, you’ll probably be seeing more art journaling from me. When I art journal, I use mixed media along with handwritten text to feature my poetry, intersecting my interests of art and writing. The inspiration for this style of art journaling comes from several of my Instagram contemporaries, including @literizzature and @octobermelancholy_.
9. You’re a curator for Untwine Me Philippines, where you promote writers of various styles and interests across Instagram. How does this wider involvement in the literary world deepen your understanding of your own writing and yourself as a writer?
I actually haven’t been able to fulfill my curator duties these past few months as a result of being busy with school, something that editor in chief Anna Lete (@annaxmania) has been very gracious about. However, my experience as a whole as a curator has been very enriching. It has given me a sense of belonging with my writing—prior to my status as curator I wasn’t aware that there was such a large community of Filipino artists and writers like myself. I’ve also become more aware of just how much impact my poetry may have on others. I’ve seen a variety of meaningful work created by my Filipino peers and this has helped me understand that I must use my writing wisely to discuss important topics such as cultural identity, life experiences, and the significance of our relationship with others. It has been a humbling experience and I’ve enjoyed interacting with other Filipino creatives, including Anna herself, who is very talented.
10. What are your hopes for the future of your writing? What do you want to see from yourself and from others?
I hope to continue to have my writing featured in places similar to Body Without Organs, and I’m grateful that I have a chance to start here. I’ve also been working on a full-length collection of poetry and prose that I am hopeful will be published in the near future. I’m excited to see how I will continue to grow as a writer; even within the past year I’ve seen much change in my writing. I think that the Instagram poetry community as a whole is very self-aware and diverse, and has already produced writing covering a variety of important topics. I’m hopeful that this will continue, and that I will see more poetry from others about identity, heritage, family, love, and more.