STRAND writer Bianca Layog interviews three Barbican Young Poets — Fathima Zahra, Troy Cabida, and Jinhao Xie — who performed at the R.A.P Party at 05Fest, Inua Ellams's poetry festival at the Barbican Centre.
Photo by Ray Roberts, Courtesy of Barbican Centre
Bianca Layog: It was so great being at the R.A.P. Party on Saturday. It was the first time I'd ever been to an event like that. I'm really looking forward to reading your pamphlet War Dove, and I was wondering if you could speak to your experience of putting that collection together.
Troy Cabida: Thank you for saying those kind words. Saturday was so much fun.
War Dove is a collection of poems that I wrote from about 2016 up until 2020. Those poems were inspired and influenced by the London poetry scene that I was part of— the spoken word circuit and the creative writing programmes that I took part in.
I was part of a programme called the Barbican Young Poets, which is a yearly programme for young poets from 18 to 25. We met every Wednesday to create poems and learn about poetry as a craft and think about poetry as part of not just our creative practice, but also within the context of our personal lives.
I met so many poets there that I ended up being friends with. There was a point where we were all spending spoken word nights together— like the R.A.P. Party. A lot of the poems that we were making at the time felt like they were communicating with each other. So a lot of the poems in the pamphlet were inspired by the environment that I was part of. I feel like War Dove is very urban in that sense. This was also the time of my life when I was navigating my queerness for the first time. I came out in 2017.
The intention of the poems is to create a narrative of what happens after you come out. Everyone used to tell me it would get better, but when you actually navigate that experience, you realise there's a lot of things that you can't control, and you have to come to terms with the things that you can control. It was something that I wasn’t prepared for.
BL: Your poems have found their way into so many poetry anthologies, like 100 Queer Poems and Bi+ Lines. In what ways is your poetry concerned with the larger poetry community? You’ve spoken about creating poetry in communication with the poets you were surrounded with at the time, but in anthologies, you don’t really know the other poets that are participating in that with you.
TC: Identifying as a queer poet, for me anyway, means having to actively make an effort to dig into the poets that have come before you. To read and analyse and study the poems that other poets have made. That exploration has allowed me to be the poet that I am today. Big influences are poets like Andrew McMillan, for one, or Joseph Legaspi, a Filipino-American poet whose work I really love. His books have allowed me to realise my own subjectivity as a queer Filipino immigrant.
When War Dove came out, I thought the book would never really connect with anyone because these poems were written by a queer Filipino poet living in southwest London. But then I would read other poems by Filipino poets and Asian poets and queer poets that came before me. Reading them always leaves me feeling like there is a space for us. There is a space for these narratives to be portrayed, to be read, and to be exhibited. As a creator and active participant in the landscape, I feel like it’s my responsibility to acknowledge and respect what’s around me. It’s my responsibility to create work that is conscious of the fact that it’s dipping into that scene. I'm making sure that my poems add to the narrative. Obviously, I’d like them to stand out in a good way, but I want to preserve that element of communication.
BL: That’s a lovely answer; thank you. I was really interested about what you said just now about responsibility because I was looking at the blurb for your pamphlet. And I was really struck by a comment by R.A. Villanueva that called War Dove a “serenade finding pleasure in the things that fight back”. A lot of your poems tackle difficult themes, like homophobia and religious trauma. What was it like writing these poems in the current political climate, both in the UK and in the Philippines? Do you think that you have a responsibility to participate in that fight?
TC: When I was much younger, especially when I was writing that pamphlet, I put myself in space thinking: what I do is going to save the world. A part of me desired to create work that would speak to the masses, almost speak for the masses, which was a grave mistake. Because you can’t. As a queer Filipino immigrant living in the UK, I can never truly represent even my demographic of people, because I’m still just myself at the end of the day. The next queer Filipino poet living in the UK will have a vastly different understanding of their own queerness while going through the world. I think acknowledging the fact that we have our subjectivity and individuality and privilege and making that a firm aspect of your practice is so important from a moral perspective. I don’t ever want to speak over anyone. I don’t want to create a blanket narrative that harms anyone else. In my work, I try to be as specific as possible.
BL: I couldn’t get a copy of War Dove, but I was able to have a look at on sour encounters, which was on your website, and I was really intrigued by the use of Filipino words in the titles. Even though any reader can look them up, I feel like words in a different language take on their own tone or colour. If you speak the language, you have a different understanding of it. What pushed you towards that choice? It’s one that invites people in, but in some ways also pushes them out.
TC: Right, right. Thank you so much for reading my pamphlet! I released the digital pamphlet last year for my birthday. I wanted to create a sequence of poems that would allow me to be angry and throw a middle finger up at the world for being so annoying. Firstly, the title is a call-back to Olivia Rodrigo's album. She also uses lowercase letters in her titles.
As for the Tagalog words in my titles, it was my way of acknowledging the fact that I lived the experiences I did. The homophobia that the poems talk about comes from a Filipino context. Not only does it talk about the fact that my queerness is inherently Filipino, but a lot of the violence and lack of safety that I talk about in the poems come from Filipino spaces— specifically British-Filipino spaces. Making the titles as such kind of points at the people that they need to point to. If you know what the titles mean in Tagalog, it becomes a more personal thing because it's no longer just a poem in English. There’s an aspect of it that hits a little bit closer to home.
I'm interested in using Tagalog as I use English in my work. Back in the day, when I would have my poems edited, a lot of people would often say, “Oh, when you're using Tagalog, you have to italicise the words to differentiate them from the rest of the poem”. Like, no, that's not what I want to do. It’s counterintuitive to how I approach language in my day-to-day life.
I still speak Tagalog quite fluently. If I created that visual distinction in my work, it would be unfaithful to my relationship with the language. BL: That’s beautiful; the idea of being unfaithful to the way you look at life. Earlier, you mentioned that the title was a call back to Olivia Rodrigo's SOUR. Does music usually play an important part in your writing process? Obviously, I discovered you through the R.A.P. Party, which was very music-focused.
TC: I don't usually say this to people, but if I’m being completely honest, music inspires me more than poetry. I come from a family that loves music. We listened to The Corrs growing up. We love The Carpenters. We love Beyoncé, the Spice Girls, and stuff like that. I think my relationship to music is just so formative of who I am as a person that I just have to accept the fact that it plays a role in my writing, as well. The more I do that, the more I enjoy my writing. That's why something like the R.A.P. Party is always fun to do because it reconciles and solidifies the inherent relationship between poetry and music. The fact that a lot of people in the outside world think of poetry as old and boring, while thinking of music as this big profit-making machine, makes it easy to forget that they go hand in hand.
BL: You’re a producer as well. How have your experiences as a producer and performer informed your written work?
TC: In 2017, I started as a production assistant on a poetry night called Poetry and Shaah with my friends Neimo Askar and Ayaan Abdullahi. The hosts were poets Poeticalscorners and Fahima Hersi, and our in-house photographer was Idil Abdullahi.
It was a poetry night aimed at creating a space for Black and brown voices, specifically in London. It was an interesting experience for me as a performer, not just from a creative perspective but from a business one. I now understand how poetry nights and shows work, how producing works, and how they curate the poets for these nights. I understand why I’m chosen for specific things. I understand why I’m not chosen for other things. And I understand the logistics that go behind it. You know, when someone does a show and you feel like, well, I think I would be good for that show. And then you plan a show, and you realise that there’s a reason why it’s curated as such.
BL: Do you think about a specific audience when writing a poem?
TC: When I'm drafting the poems, I try not to think about the audience or the readers immediately because it drowns that part of my brain that needs to be activated while I'm writing. But I do. I do have an audience in mind. It helps me move the poems forward in revision.
Choosing the poem I read at the R.A.P. Party was something that made me anxious— I’d never read that poem before. I was going to choose something completely different. But a friend of mine who I work with said that the poem I ended up reading might be a better fit because of the relationship it has with hip-hop and the fact that it's written in response to a hip-hop song. There’s a time and place for it, though. I think you can’t always have your audience in mind, but you can’t never have them in mind, either. Because when you’re doing poetry nights, you always want to be not only respectful of the audience but also of the poets that come before and after you. You want to create a flow.
BL: While you were talking just now, I was thinking about how you said that you want to be respectful because you're creating a safe space. What are ways you create that safe space for yourself? A lot of poets—and young people—who are starting out are made to feel like their trauma is the only valuable thing they have to say to the world. I'm very interested about how you have navigated that, especially because so much of your poetry is about yourself and your experiences.
TC: There was a time when we were starting to become slightly aware of the effects of performing really intimate and sensitive poems — you know, trauma dumping onto the audience for applause. I’ve started becoming more aware of the fact that vomiting unhealthy things onstage for applause is counterproductive to you as an individual. You start to crave the applause and the validation because you think that this is the sort of thing you have to be doing to get ahead in your creative practice. But then you go home and you're like, “Oh, I just read that really private thing, which is terrible for me”. There are other avenues to explore in order to process certain things of your identity. It will make your creative writing much more fruitful because these more private things won’t take up as much of your headspace, if that makes sense.
BL: Do you have any tips for young poets seeking to write and publish poetry in general? Like, if there's one thing you could tell yourself when you were first starting out that you would want people to hear now, what would it be?
TC: Go to the open mics, read on the open mic. It's OK to be scared, but it's also OK to plunge in. Read as much as you can, even though it's sometimes very hard. Going back to what we were talking about earlier, it’s okay to treat your work as work because it is work at the end of the day. There is a certain amount of labour that you have to put into it. There's a lot of admin work in poetry. There's a lot of networking in poetry that you should be aware of if you really kind of want to keep going at it. That’s what I would say to myself, because I learned that quite late.
It's okay not to take things so personally. When you get a rejection letter, it’s not because they think you’re terrible. It means that you’re not what they’re looking for. And that doesn’t mean that you’re a terrible poet, it just means it’s not your time.
And just be nice to people. Be someone who's easy to work with.
BL: Do you have any upcoming performances, events, or projects that you’re looking forward to?
TC: I’m in an anthology called Bi+ Lines, by 14 poems. I'm also a part of an anthology called State of Play by Out-Spoken Press, featuring Asian poets in community conversation with one another. I got to speak to a Filipino poet, Theresa Muñoz. That was really cool.
BL: Great! Thank you so much again.
TC: Thank you for having me.
BL: Have a lovely Monday!
Edited by Lara Mae Simpson, Literature Editor