Melissa Roxas was born in Manila, Philippines, and grew up in Los Angeles, California. Melissa is a poet, writer, and human rights activist. In May 2009, while doing community health work in the Philippines, Roxas became the first American citizen under the Gloria Macapagal Arroyo administration to be abducted and tortured by members of the Philippine military. When she surfaced six days later, Roxas became one of only a handful of survivors who lived to recount her ordeal.
Her poem, “Returning” appears in RHINO 2011. RHINO Intern Vincent Nguyen interviewed Melissa in late May 2011.
VN: How did you hear about RHINO? And what made you want to submit a poem?
MR: I first heard about RHINO through other poet friends who were published in the magazine. I’ve read RHINO and like the diversity of voices and styles of poetry published in the magazine.
VN: Who are some of your “go-to poets” that you like to read? (Whether that is for inspiration, new ideas, or simple desire to read).
MR: I love reading poetry and many poets inspire me. This is not an all inclusive list, but some of them include: Pablo Neruda, Cesar Vallejo, Mahmoud Darwish, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Nazim Hikmet, Yusef Komunyakaa, Philip Levine, Carolyn Forché, Li-Young Lee, Adrienne Rich, Ai, and Lucille Clifton.
VN: Do you have any poets that you would recommend to our readers? (Local and/or widely known?)
MR: I would like to recommend one of my favorite anthologies, “Against Forgetting, Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness,” edited by Carolyn Forché. This is an important collection of poetry from around the world by people that have been witness to the worst of human rights violations. Their words live beyond the times and circumstances when it was written, and reminds us of what horrors humans are capable of, if power rests in the wrong hands. At the same time, these poems allow us to look at a deeper side of humanity, one that can create something beautiful out of that horror, the art of creation as a form of protest and resistance.
VN: Do you identify with a particular style of poetry that you like to incorporate within your poems, such as the New York School style, contemporary, confessional, postmodern, etc.?
MR: I don’t particularly identify with a particular style of poetry. However, my poetry often deals with socio-political issues. My poetry developed at the same time as my political consciousness and awareness of issues going on in my community and in the world. I became very active in community work and social justice work. My poetry was a product of what I observed and experienced around me, as both an observer and a participant. I cannot imagine seeing poverty, oppression, and injustice and not be deeply affected by it—I cannot imagine not writing about it. After my abduction and torture, it takes even more meaning for me. It becomes about survival and a protest against erasure.
VN: Where do you like to write?
MR: Before, I used to need a place where I can be quiet and alone. However, having traveled quite a bit, I’ve learned to be more flexible, writing whenever the opportunity presents itself, regardless of where, or what circumstance. After being in secret detention, I realized I can write even without pen and paper, relying on my memory, even under extreme circumstances. So now, I write when I can, where I can. Even if the situation is not ideal, I tell myself I have been through worse. What matters is my determination and will to write.
VN: Do you have any reservations about submitting to poetry magazines? Are you ever afraid/tentative of submitting poems at all?
MR: I did have reservations about submitting to poetry magazines because of the subject that I was writing about, mostly about socio-political issues. I was not sure how it would be received. I also did not prioritize sending out my work. Looking back, I didn’t know much about the process. I was not part of any formal creative writing program. I felt very intimidated to submit.
I would share my poetry with audiences through community readings and when I was invited to read at festivals, the library, or other public events. I enjoyed very much sharing poetry with the communities that I worked with.
Now, my views about publishing have changed a bit. It is still intimidating but I’ve realized that there are a wide variety of poetry magazines out there that do publish diverse styles and forms, and diverse subjects of poetry. I just have to find the right ones to submit my work to. I am only starting to send out my work. Rhino is one of the first poetry journals to publish me. This has been very encouraging for me.
When I was abducted and tortured in the Philippines, among the items the military took from me were unpublished writings, notes, and poems. Since then, I have tried to reconstruct some of them, while others were born out of that experience. Submitting my work to poetry magazines have a different meaning for me now. I have made more of an effort to submit my work because it is a resistance against erasure.
The military has tried to erase my existence from the world but they did not succeed. They tried to take away my voice. They thought they erased my memory of the things I was witness to. They tried to erase what I had written in observation of the harsh conditions and sufferings of the people. They tried to erase the human rights violations that I had recorded in those poems. So continuing to write and share these poems with the world, including submitting to poetry journals, is a way to resist the inhumanity of torture, a way that I can reconnect to my voice, and a way to continue to speak out against human rights violations.
VN: Do you ever participate in poetry readings? What is your favorite/least favorite part?
MR: Yes, I have often participated in poetry readings, both community readings and more formal readings at festivals, events, libraries and universities. My favorite aspect about readings is meeting other poets and hearing them read. I especially like meeting local poets whose work I would not have been introduced to. I really enjoy reading at community events, because it is a chance to connect with the community. In a sense, they relate to my poetry because they are familiar with the issues and concerns that I address through my poetry.
VN: Do you have any sort of writing regimen that you stick to? Writing a poem a day or just choosing to write whenever you have the time?
MR: I try to write every day. Especially after I surfaced two years ago, all I could do was write. When I was in secret detention, the Philippine military made a point to tell me not to write anymore about human rights, not to write any more about people’s stories. So every time I write, it is a form of resistance for me. To remind myself that I am alive, I am free, I can create. So I must write, I must write those stories, and I must resist erasure.
VN: Has your interest in writing poems / poetry caused any consternation in your life?
MR: Yes, the favorite subject for the military when they tortured and interrogated me was my poetry and my work as a writer. They had my journal and notes that contained my writing and poetry. They would often refer to that when they interrogated me.
VN: Do you work in any other artistic mediums such as photography, painting, sculpture, etc? If so, how has this impacted your poems? If not, do you have any aspirations to experiment within other mediums?
MR: I have done visual art pieces and installation art before. A recent art installation I did was for a human rights art exhibit that I co-curated with Liza Camba called “Get Up, Stand Up for Human Rights!” at the Center for the Arts, Eagle Rock this past January 14 – February 5, 2011. The art exhibit consisted of works from local artists that were produced as a result of a series of art and educational workshops about human rights. My art installation was composed of more than a hundred boxes, each with the face of a person who was disappeared in the Philippines. Most of them are peasants, workers, students, women and even children that were abducted by the Philippine military. It was an interactive piece, where the audience could open certain boxes and see pictures, read stories, poems, and letters that the family of the disappeared wrote about their loved ones. I wanted to do this piece because oftentimes when people hear about the disappeared, also known as “desaparecidos,” they just mention their name with the date they disappeared. I wanted people to know who they were—they were poets, musicians, students, farmers, workers, human rights activists; they were mothers, fathers, daughters, sons; they had dreams and aspirations; they helped the poor, the needy, the exploited. Most of them were disappeared by the Philippine government because they dared to speak out against repression. Others were ordinary civilians targeted by the military to intimidate their family members. I wanted to remember them and for people to know their stories.
I also created visual art pieces in the past that incorporated my poetry along with the painting. Most of the art pieces that I create are usually inspired by, or are an extension of my works of poetry.
I also do a lot of collaboration work. When I traveled as a human rights speaker throughout North America last year, I facilitated human rights workshops that culminated in a collective creation of murals for human rights. I created the “Art Beyond Barriers Live Art Petition” and worked with diverse groups, ages 2 to 65 years old. I always incorporate poetry into these mural makings, and encourage people to include both visual images and words to create poetry with the art piece. I was really amazed and inspired by the pieces created. It was inspiring because these murals were created as a petition, in visual form, to release a group of 43 health workers in the Philippines that were illegally detained and tortured. It was inspiring because it was a mural created as a petition in promotion of human rights.
As I mention in another part of this interview, I am also a member of the Habi Arts collective. I collaborated with a comic book artist, Franz DG. I would write the script, we would discuss, and Franz DG would illustrate. It is a different process of writing. It is interesting to see the comic develop from the script to the final illustration. It is a bit like writing for a film—I write each scene, complete with background description, dialogue, and what angles to focus on. It was challenging in a good way, and I am finding that I like this new process of creation. I look forward to creating more. The last one we collaborated on was a story about the “Desaparecidos” or the disappeared in the Philippines.
VN: Do you belong to a “writer’s group” in which you get together with other writers and ‘workshop’ or do you work mostly independently?
MR: I am not part of a particular writer’s group, although I am part of an arts collective called Habi Arts whose focus is on promoting and producing art for social justice and change. We are a group of artists that do different art media—photographers, visual artists, poets, writers, graphic designers, and musicians. We often collaborate on art projects, most often multi-media art, murals, comic books, etc. I have conducted poetry workshops with the community to create poetry that is reflective of the issues and conditions they are currently facing, many addressing issues of human rights locally and globally.
In regards to my own poetry, the work of the past two years was mostly work I did independently, although there were occasions where I would have the opportunity to ask a poet friend to help with editing a poem. This is a more out of circumstance than by choice. Most of the new work that I produced over the past two years came from a very painful and horrific experience. It is often difficult to find a writing group or writing community that has a good mix of providing critical feedback about the form and structure of the poem, as well as understand the place where the poem is coming from. Especially because of the type of poetry that I write, the latter is very important to me.
There were instances where in the past I found spaces like the Kundiman Poetry Retreat. This is a great space where Asian American poets can meet, get support and feedback. Some of the poets that I keep in touch with today are ones I met in Kundiman a couple of years ago. This retreat, however, is only once a year and most of their activities are centered in the East Coast.
Many poets friends that I know now are either out-of-state or enrolled in a structured creative writing program. So it is difficult to try to form a writing group locally. I hope to re-connect again with other local poets. I am hopeful that I will get to participate in and even create a writing group that can provide this type of support and feedback in the near future.
VN: What advice would you give to poets, young and mature?
MR: What I can share are the realizations that I’ve made in my journey as a poet and a person. Surviving torture and near death has made me realize that there is an essence inside our bodies that has the ability to hold on to our voice and spirit. People might try to take it away, but ultimately, the choice is ours whether we will let them. I surfaced alive. Being able to move my body now without being bound in chains, to look at the world without blindfolds, and to think and express what I want is something very precious. The freedom to write is something that not all people have. I experienced what that felt like when I was in secret detention and tortured. I am one of the few that survived. There are many of the disappeared whose stories exist in the shadows that have not been heard. Their presence can be felt in the vibrations of the earth, the composition in the air, and in the echoes that linger from rooms where they have been. These stories are waiting to be gathered, to be written, to be heard. I continue to write, not only for myself but for the many others who have been silenced. I have the freedom to write, so I must write.