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Making Birds: an Interview with R.A. Villanueva

R.A. Villanueva is an award-winning Filipino-American poet and founding editor of Tongue: A Journal of Writing & Art. His first collection, Reliquaria, won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize, and new writing appears in Poetry, Prac Crit and widely elsewhere.

Now living in the UK, Ron’ll be teaching the Summer Term course Making Birds: New Poetic Forms an “unconventional, provocative space devoted to experimentation and the invention of new forms.” Our marketing and admin assistant, Ali, sat down to a cosy Google Hangouts chat with him to find out more…


So, your course with us, Making Birds, is all about rethinking our relationship with form. Would that be a fair one-line summary?

RAV: “Rethinking.” Maybe “reclaiming?” Or “revising?” Or “resuscitating?” There’s a sense, sometimes, that capital-F Form is the terrain of the learned or that form is purely mechanical—that it’s something that is written into just because. Intimidating, imposing. But, generally speaking, everything is a sort of form. We agree upon rules and grammars, the syntax of things. It’s just that certain conventions have been codified and given names: sestina, villanelle, ghazal, sonnet, etc.

What gets canonized has its roots in certain cultural values and what we perceive as “skill” and “craft,” right? I’m hoping to expand and energize all of that somehow. To not get bogged down in only pledging allegiance to arbitrary principles, but to understanding how the architecture influences what we’re figuring out (and vice versa). And—yes—to scheming and innovating and inventing new forms. That’s going to happen by way of collaboration and play and by courting divergent materials.

So you’re differentiating here between using forms ‘just because’ – because that’s what you do, if you’re a poet: you write a sonnet – and form with a purpose, a role in the two-way process of ‘figuring out’ a poem?

RAV: A three-way process, perhaps? A few years back, at the first Kundiman (see:, poet Rick Barot was on faculty. And I remember one of his lectures where he drew an equilateral triangle on the board and talked to us about looking at this triangle as critical prism, where each point suggested a unique, but interdependent dimension of what we make and how we encounter art:

1. Form

2. Content / subject

3. Meaning

In the years since, I’ve riffed-on those concepts and translated it into my own terms, but the heart of Rick’s way of engaging texts has really stayed with me. It suggests something symbiotic, so that you see that you can’t really foist “sestina” onto a dilemma or a subject that doesn’t respond to that form. Or, seen the other way: the meaning, or the questions you want to reckon with give rise to the formal embodiment of those questions.

That sounds theory-thick, but it’s the method that informs the madness and surprise.

Which is to say, I’m trying to trouble the way we write a certain species of poem because that’s what it seems we’re supposed to do. I’m trying to trouble how quickly we jump toward tickbox-ing our way through a tradition’s required elements, or how we’re lured into “completing” a poem by workshop consensus.

Is this what you mean by avoiding ‘obsessions with craft’?

RAV: Yes. If we think of “form” in more elastic, flexible ways and if we resist those “obsessions with craft” and polish, then maybe we can spend our time making and being more impetuous, more generative.

There’s a collection of writing prompts and reflections that was compiled by Michael Theune and published by Teachers & Writers Collective back in NYC; its title was Structure & Surprise. That title? A perfect distillation of what interests me. How to be aware of “structure” in an intuitive and—if it calls for it—an explicit way, while still promising surprise, shock, unsettling.

Here’s something I wanted to ask you. You were a part of an earlier incarnation of this course: does hearing me ramble on about its underpinnings and aspirations rhyme with what you experienced? And how did it alter or (re-)adjust how you thought of ‘form’ or ‘structure’?

Definitely – I think what you say about form being broader, more flexible than just the fixed shapes that have been “codified and given names” is absolutely true. I hadn’t realised, or at least hadn’t fully appreciated, the extent to which you can ‘create form’ yourself, without having to use something ‘off the shelf’, as it were. I found by the end of the day I had written lots of ‘formal’ poems, whose form I couldn’t name but I knew was there.

RAV: There’s an internal logic that made things have, right? There’s an imaginative mechanics that we’re trying to tinker with, to reconfigure but also recognize.  Devising and improvising, designing and conceiving is what we’re going to try to dedicate the summer to.

Have you gone back to revisit and/or emend any of what you made in that daylong session? How did that generative intensity lend itself to new work after the experience?

I’ve been back to one of the poems several times, and I actually loosened off a couple of the ‘obstruction’ rules, not all of them. The ‘rules’ were really important in generating the poem, in forcing the class to actually sit down and write something, something they wouldn’t normally, but afterwards I only kept what was useful. That felt like the opposite of my received idea of form, where I would write ‘the initial idea’ down and then try to trim it and squash it into a presentable and recognisable box.

RAV: God, that sounds great. You know, I’ve been thinking about the Space Shuttle recently. As a very imperfect visual for what the course wants to be. When the Space Shuttle is earth-rooted, the actual shuttle is anchored to three external components/resources: two reusable solid booster rockets and a single expendable fuel tank.

 Those attachments offer the gifts of thrust and thermodynamic sustenance, but when they’re expended, they fall away to be recovered later, while the shuttle careens up into orbit. So, perhaps, that’s what these generative sessions are trying to do: they’re trying to be controlled explosions, assistants to a launch. There’s risk, of course, because all of it is the product of experiment and failure 

I remember you did an interview a while back and talked about Thom Gunn’s ideas on form, where the particular risk of form was “bombast – the controlling music drowning out everything else”. Is this is a similar idea – using form, but knowing when to hold on and when to let go?

RAV: That’s from his The Occasions of Poetry: Essays in Criticism and Autobiography:

 “Rhythmic form and subject-matter are locked in a permanent embrace: …in metrical verse, it is the nature of the control being exercised that becomes part of the life being spoken about. It is poetry making great use of the conscious intelligence, but its danger is bombast—the controlling music drowning out everything else. Free verse invites a different style of experience, improvisation. Its danger lies in being too relaxed, too lacking in controlling energy.”

I suppose there’s a kind of peril in how comfortable we can get. Right now I’m in the gravitational pull of sonnets, for instance. And I’m wondering when I’m going to (or going to want to) break free of their orbit. Might be soon.

What about your Twitter sonnets – will they be making a comeback? Or are you breaking free of those too?

RAV: I think even if I’m not posting, the syllabic constraints and appearance of 7-couplet feeds is exerting real influence on how I compose. At least right now. 

Let’s talk about constraint – I think we’ve both mentioned that word now. Some people, when they find they can’t write anything, narrow their options – put themselves in difficult positions. Do you do something similar?

RAV: When constraints bind, they also tempt escape, provoke insubordination and defiance. So that’s why obstructions and formal traditions and even the absurdity of Oulipo-style games incite new work—because they “baffle” (that’s Wendell Berry’s term) us, force a refocusing of our inclinations, a resetting of our defaults. A bizarre range of options, or narrowings, opens up the possibilities.

And these options, narrowings, and games, are they the ‘generative obstructions’ of your course with us? Do you think new obstructions, as opposed to the old obstructions of formal traditions, are a route to a fresher poetry?

RAV: To take that first part on: I don’t think it’s oppositional or mutually exclusive. All these arrays of constraints are available to us. Sitting there, for our USE (as Charles Olson proclaims in all-caps). 

And across our meetings we’ll likely wind and meander through well-established and entirely wild forms. The “refresh” comes with testing the limits and transgressing borders. Outsmarting the fundamentals, editing the rulebook. (A synapse just fired and I find myself remembering Cpt. Kirk and the Kobayashi Maru. Do you know how he “won” that scenario?)

It was unwinnable, so he re-wrote the code of the training programe, right?

RAV: He cheated, yes. Not sure how that syncs cleanly with our conversation or with my other space-related metaphors, but there it is. The mind leaps where it leaps.

A final question then: if anybody reading this wants to check out a poet who is using form, constraint, invention in a really interesting way, who would you recommend they read?

RAV: That question always opens a beautiful, but overwhelming flood of titles and names. So I’ve tried to channel this list with making sure that they’re in circulation (or in the reference stacks) at the Saison Poetry Library:

Raymond Antrobus – Shapes and Disfigurements

Vahni Capildeo – Measures of Expatriation

Anne Carson – Nox and Plainwater and Decreation: poetry, essays, opera

Eduardo C. Corral – Slow Lightning

Doireann Ní Ghríofa – Clasp

Kimiko Hahn – Toxic Flora

Cathy Park Hong – Dance Dance Revolution

Sarah Howe – Loop of Jade

Ishion Hutchinson – Far District

Bhanu Kapil – Humanimal : a project for future children  

Maggie Nelson – Bluets

Sandeep Parmar – Eidolon

Willie Perdomo – The Essential Hits of Shorty Bon Bon

Natasha Trethewey – Native Guard


R.A. Villanueva’s debut collection of poetry, Reliquariawas selected by Kwame Dawes as the winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize and published by the University of Nebraska Press in 2014. New writing appears or is forthcoming in Poetry, the American Poetry ReviewPrac Crit, The Wolf, and widely elsewhere. A founding editor of Tongue: A Journal of Writing & Art, he lives in Brooklyn and London.

One Comment

  • Praise for Structure & Surprise | Structure & Surprise

    […] Well, this made my day! In the context of a conversation about rethinking “capital-F Form,” poet R. A. Villanueva has some nice things to say about Structure & Surprise. He calls its title “[a] perfect distillation of what interests me. How to be aware of ‘structure’ in an intuitive and—if it calls for it—an explicit way, while still promising surprise, shock, unsettling.” Music to my ears! Check out his full interview here. […]

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