Angela Narciso Torres’ chapbook, To the Bone, explores themes of motherhood, life, death, tradition, and culture. Torres writes with a rhythm and musicality all her own, playing with imagery and meaning in a manner that reminds one of the kaleidoscopic perspectives of the impressionists.
In this interview, Sundress intern Ada Wofford took some time to correspond with Torres about this chapbook and the concepts therein.
Ada Wofford: I noticed the repeated themes of food and eating, what can you tell me about the significance of those themes?
Angela Narciso Torres: The theme of food and eating recurs because cooking (and eating) was a valuable part of our family, especially on the maternal side. It was a metaphor for love, as is the case in many Filipino families. Where words failed, food came in to fill the gaps. Meals were not only for sustenance but for nourishing and strengthening family ties. Many of my best childhood memories revolved around the unforgettable meals we shared. And because this book is about love, and family, and loss—food naturally became one of the central tropes.
AW: The poem, “VIA NEGATIVA” eschews the use of question marks and uses a long space to emphasize a particular line. What is the role/function of punctuation and space in this poem and the book as a whole?
ANT: The negative space in the middle of this poem is used to enact, in a physical way, the poem’s subject. My use of punctuation, or the lack of it, is always deliberate in my poems. I view punctuation as a valuable tool for teaching the reader how to read the poem, and so it must be employed with great care and attention. Along with line breaks, they control the pacing of the poem, but also the tone. We can extend the pauses between sentences with punctuation; adding white space extends that pause even further.
AW: What is the significance of light and sunlight in these poems?
ANT: Growing up in the Philippines, light was either overabundant (during the dry season) or notably lacking (during rainy season). As a poet, I’ve always been aware of light as something that can influence the mood or tone surrounding a memory or a felt experience. When I moved to the United States and experienced the four seasons it deepened and expanded my appreciation for various qualities of light and how they can alter not only our moods but also the tone of an experience, when expressed in language. It is one of those devices we have at our disposal as poets to get at a feeling that we need to express in words and images.
AW: One poem is called, “Self-Portrait of a Rosary” and rosary beads are mentioned elsewhere as well. What is the significance of Catholicism in this collection?
ANT: Having been raised Catholic and having attended parochial schools growing up in the Philippines, the language of liturgy and scripture naturally found their way into my poems. The cadences of the psalms, prayers, the liturgy of the Word, and the ritual of the Mass were easily some of the first poetic language I’d learned. There’s a cadence embedded in this language that becomes hardwired in your memory when you hear them week after week. Some of it is really quite beautiful. Aside from Sunday Mass, my parents insisted on the family saying the rosary together at night.
While I am not as devout with this practice as my parents were, rosary beads have become a symbol or talisman for the strength and comfort of family and of faith in something larger than ourselves that the repetition of these incantatory prayers somehow invokes. To this day, I carry rosary beads in my pocket or purse for this very reason.
AW: Considering the references to music in your collection, what is the role of sound and rhythm in these poems?
ANT: Poetry is an art form that aspires toward music. I strive for musicality in my poems simply because I feel that poetry must be, among other things, as pleasurable to the ear as a piece of music. My parents played piano and violin together, and my father constantly played music as we were growing up: from classical to jazz, to Broadway musicals, to “golden oldies.” I begged my parents for piano lessons at the age of 5 and continued taking lessons up to my college years. For me, music was a direct, almost visceral path to the emotions, and the release music could provide was even more immediate than language itself.
So, to be able to express emotional experiences in language, music would clearly have to come into play. I will often read my poems aloud to “hear” the lines as musical phrases, noting whether the lines sound melodious or clunky and revising the phrasing, rhythm, or sound as I see fit.
AW: Can you talk about the recurring theme of your mother?
ANT: When my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, it was a bewildering time for my family. She had always been at the center of our lives—the powerhouse that fueled our days, the keeper and teller of stories, the life of any gathering. She was also a well-loved doctor, a skilled pianist, and an exacting disciplinarian.
From her mother, she inherited a passion for cooking. In her family, food was the highest expression of love. Writing this book was, among other things, primarily a way of preserving what I could of the mother I knew, even as she began the slow decline into dementia.
It was also a way of coming to terms with the impending loss, in part by being watchful for whatever connections we could still forge as she came under the grips of this terrible disease.
In writing these poems, I found myself sifting through the stories she repeated, the food she loved, the songs she played on the piano, her quirky rituals, her anxieties, and her various expressions of love, imperfect as they sometimes were. The most insistent of those found their way into this book.
AW: There are three poems titled as, “Self-Portrait of…” What is the significance of this act (the act of creating a portrait of oneself) in regard to this collection?
ANT: The three poems, “Self Portrait as Water,” “Self Portrait as Rosary Beads,” and “Self Portrait as Revision,” are meant to redirect the reader’s attention to the speaker of these poems, and to consider how this person is changed by the events in her life—her mother’s decline, her body changing as she grows older while fulfilling various roles as young daughter, wife, mother (of young and then older children), and daughter of aging parents.
In a way, these self-portraits are a thread that weave the poems together, being the voice or the sensibility behind these poems—ever-evolving, morphing, and changing as life necessitates when one is thrust into various transitions, losses, and beginnings that are part of the ebb and flow of human experience.
Angela Narciso Torres is the author of Blood Orange (Willow Books, 2013) and What Happens Is Neither (Four Way Books, 2021); and winner of the 2019 Yeats Poetry Prize. Her recent work appears in POETRY, Missouri Review, and PANK.
A graduate of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers, she has received fellowships from Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference and Ragdale Foundation. She serves as the reviews editor for RHINO. Born in Brooklyn and raised in Manila, she currently lives in South Florida.
Ada Wofford is a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison studying Library and Information Science. She graduated Summa Cum Laude from Fairleigh Dickinson University with a BA in English Literature.
She is a Contributing Editor for The Blue Nib literary magazine, the Founding Editor of My Little Underground, and has been published by McSweeney’s, Fudoki Magazine, Burial Day Books, and more.
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