Aldrin Valdez’s debut poetry collection, ESL or You Weren’t Here (Nightboat), traces the coming-of-age of a young bakla in Manila and Long Island. Valdez is no stranger to the political, resurrecting histories born in the bodies of their grandparents through several poems in the collection. In “Photograph” the speaker describes their great-grandmother in a vertical grave that gives way to the revelation, “my grandfather fought alongside Americans against / the Japanese but was not granted the / citizenship he was promised until his / 70s, after my grandmother had died / from cancer in Manila.” Whether recounting English as “the gray foot of an elephant protruding / from [their] mouth,” or circumcision as a ten-year-old child, “I miss my foreskin. / Not its added length / but its petal-ness,” it’s painful to encounter the speaker’s watchful, gentle nature thrown up against harder figures and institutions. A sexual assault becomes a synesthetic flashback, “Purple-Gender as still-life, thus: spread open, shorts down, // life distilled to an image repeating.” The reader can’t help but be transformed by proximity to these monumental events. A gifted visual artist, whose work reckons with displacement, Valdez defies the container of genre by engaging the page as a canvas—the polyptych results, electrifying. We first met while studying with Maggie Nelson at Home School Miami in 2016, and quickly bonded over the autobiographical nature of our work.
Sarah Sala What are the origins of the title ESL or You Weren’t Here, and what do you hope to communicate with the cover of this book?
Aldrin Valdez I think of the two points of the title that flank “or”—“ESL” and “You Weren’t Here” as alluding to the absence and limits of language. The image does this as well, through its redaction of the words in the speech bubbles. Being lost in translation is a kind of loneliness. Being misunderstood, especially as a child, can leave you feeling helpless and abandoned. It creates an overwhelming absence of others, and of self.
The title is also about binaries, such as the geographic split running throughout the book about living in both the Philippines and in New York. I thought of how in Manila I had a different set of parents: “Nanay ” and “Tatay,” which means mother and father, but they were my grandparents. Then in New York, it’s “Mama” and “Papa,” who are my birth parents.
SSAs a Pinoy painter-poet who hails from Manila and Long Island, fluent in Tagalog and English, and identifies as bakla, what’s it like to embody multiple genres of art, culture, geography, and gender?
AV Where do I begin! It’s complicated. What comes to mind immediately is the anxiety of not feeling safe enough to be myself. Part of it is learned self-policing and part of it is the environment and people, their very real microaggressive racism and transmisogyny, and the abusive power dynamics that are created as a result.
A couple of years ago I made the decision to return to the Tagalog pronunciation of my name: al-dreen. I felt like I needed to bring one self into the other—which also meant one language into the other. That’s how my name is pronounced in the Philippines. It was only when I came to the States and started school that teachers started calling me Aldrin, like Buzz Aldrin. I felt like I didn’t have the self–knowledge as a kid to question their pronunciation, which was essentially a renaming. When I went by [ald-rin] I felt a sense of, “Oh, I’m being fake.” I had these two versions: an “American-wannabe” self and this “messy accented Tagalog” self. In some places, at work mainly, I still go by [ald-rin] because it doesn’t feel safe—or it’s too exhausting to demand that I be seen as I want to be seen. It takes a lot of energy to constantly remind other people that they’re erasing a vital part of you when they refer to you with the wrong pronouns or the wrong name. So there’s a lot of anxiety, but through that I’m learning that I can choose whom to reveal certain parts of myself to, and in what context, because that’s my right.
SS Who is your ideal audience for the book?
AV That’s a tough one for me. I’m still trying to figure it out, beyond my friends and other artists in the community. While writing the book, I tried to imagine other Pilipinx living in America reading my poems, and I was thinking of it as partly a letter to them. As in, “Hello there, I’m here!” I’m trying to breathe through the complexities of that. Along with the desire to connect, there’s also anger and resentment because of the homophobia and transphobia I’ve experienced from other Pinoys and because of internalized racism. I’ve learned to tread very cautiously and now I’m learning not to be on guard all the time. I’m increasingly becoming part of different Pinoy communities, which is amazing and, at times, life-affirming and healing. This book can be a letter to them because a letter means there’s a conversation, or the beginning of one.
SS In the opening poem, “Tagalog,” your grandmother, Nanay, leaps from a commercial jetliner to swim back to Manila, rupturing the fabric of the universe in the way of many creation myths. What was the catalyst for this poem?
AV I haven’t been back to the Philippines since I left in 1994. My grandmother, who died that same year, stands in for the Philippines, and stands in for a lot of things that are missing in my life. She was my world. She was my mother. So, I needed to dive into Tagalog and return to Manila through her. I needed to imagine her coming back to life.
I actually blocked out parts of my last moments with her. That’s something I want to recover because maybe, in a magical way, something would just click and I could have more agency about feeling like an abandoned person.
An event that has stayed with me and baffled me is what may have been a spiritual visitation from her a couple of weeks after she died. I was getting my book bag from the living room and suddenly I heard this howling. It scared me so much that I ran back to the kitchen where my parents and my mom’s aunt were sitting. My mom said, kind of joking, “Go speak to her.” So, I went into the hallway where I heard the sound and I froze. I was trying to think of what to say, but I got interrupted because I was running late for school. Not that I am stuck in that moment, but I feel it encapsulates broader struggles of communicating vulnerably with others. I’m learning to give myself permission to speak directly and openly to Nanay, and by extension, to other people, especially the ones I’m close with.
SS You include Tagalog words and phrases frequently in the book and often don’t provide an English translation. Because of that, I felt closer to the experience while reading it. Why was it important to use Tagalog in a way that doesn’t “other” it?
AV Wow. I’m really glad to hear that. I’ve been really curious to know how non-Tagalog speakers experience those words. I don’t like when people italicize Tagalog in a way that exoticizes it for a white audience. My writing teacher from high school—I loved her, but she fetishized Tagalog as a foreign language in ways that made me feel foreign. In actuality, many Tagalog speakers use a mix of English and Tagalog, so going back and forth feels organic in my writing. It’s also about sound: there are specific rhythms when you move back and forth between English and Tagalog. I want to explore those sounds in poetry, as poetry.
SS In the first section of the book, “Isa,” you equate the slow burn of acquiring English with the diwata Maria Makiling turning herself into a mountain. Do you still identify with this guardian spirit called upon to end storms and earthquakes?
AVI think so. She’s someone whose anger is transformative and I want to be empowered by my anger, to learn from it, and to feel connected to other people through it. My grandmother was considered matapang. She had anger and she expressed it. She wasn’t one to be crossed. I’m learning to connect with a belief of my grandmother as a guardian spirit.
SS I’m awestruck by the radical vulnerability you practice in your poetry, with yourself, and your community. Where does this come from?
AV I think that vulnerability really comes from the child in me who’s very vulnerable, very open and generous, who wants to share and grow with others, and to love and be loved.
SS When I think of your visual work, I think of collage and painting. You very often leave in the traces of editing or erasure in your artwork. Is that part of your process?
AV I read an interview with Anne Carson in The Paris Review where she describes her process of making her very tactile, visual book Nox. Part of that process was staining the pages to appear older than they were—like they’ve accrued some history. She calls it “a historical attitude.” I like that sense of layering. I strive for it in my work where things pile up in a very organic, intentional way.
SS Before ESL or You Weren’t Here, you created a manuscript, Diver, Dive into Me, using your own body as a divining rod of sorts. Where did you get the idea?
AV It’s a handmade book and there’s no other copy. It’s responding to the artist Paul Thek, who died of AIDS in 1988. I love his work. It’s so messy and confusing and full of feeling and thinking. There’s an intensity in how he manipulates materials that, for me, is about the body, about pleasure.
For Diver, I bound and hand-sewed each page of the book after handwriting, typing, and drawing into it. I’ve described it on Poor Claudia, which published excerpts from the book, as a document of my body, and it really is. I wanted to be vulnerable in it, but I was also thrilled to make something very physical.
I can tell you want me to describe the performative aspect of the book in detail, and I don’t mind at all. (laughter) So, I put Vaseline between my butt cheeks and ran each folded page between them—to mark them, to make a drawing at the center. The paper would pick up whatever was on my anus, and that imprint became a drawing. I wanted to feel very embodied. And did I? I’m not sure, but I remember feeling more and confronting what brings me pleasure and what has caused/causes me to feel ashamed. Much of what I was writing about was trauma with sexuality, with sexual abuse, and how that manifested in the ways that could be self-destructive later on in adulthood.
SS The idea for this artist book feels so natural and in tune with both body and spirit. It sounds like a healing ritual in the vein of CAConrad.
AV Yes, I think it was a healing ritual. The idea was to draw out figures and language from what I saw within the imprints. Like a Rorschach. That searching for an image, for words, is also in ESL when I talk about the albularyo. In that poem she’s pouring candle wax onto water and then divining the cause of an ailment from what she saw. She was helping us find out what happened to my legs when they grew painful—like if someone had put a curse on me.
In a way, that candle ritual is how I make images—I’ll make marks and then try to find a figure in there or some kind of room. It can be meditative. I think my mind becomes clearer when I draw and get lost in the drawing.
SS As an artist and immigrant, how does the current administration’s stance on immigration impact you?
AV When 45 and his administration first implemented their racist and xenophobic campaign, I didn’t know how to respond. I felt helpless and afraid, and I still do on some levels. I think Pilipinx in diaspora inherit and implicitly internalize the fear of being deported. I think about it often, even as someone who holds permanent resident status. Sometimes, I’m so exhausted from work, I don’t have time to think about my status here per se, though I know worrying about money, housing, and healthcare is worrying about citizenship—about whose lives are valued in this country. My emotional life, my exhaustion, is about being an immigrant here.
Despite those fears, I’m learning to draw hope more and more from other artists, makers, workers, and queers whose work and friendships have been life-affirming, even in quiet ways. We’re learning to be there for each other through our vulnerabilities.