7 Questions with Author/Poet Justine Camacho-Tajonera

Justine Camacho-Tajonera hails from Cebu City, Philippines. Despite starting a corporate career in telecommunications, she pursued an M.A. in English Literature to keep her close to her first love of writing. Her poetry is published in several anthologies and local publications. She also has two books released: Artemis Lets Go, a novel, and Gift: Poems, her first collection of poetry. She works full time on a corporate job in the Philippines, is married and has two children. Follow her blog and personal musings at Claiming Alexandria.

1. Your poems cover a diverse range of topics. How do you choose what to write about? Do you follow any (self-imposed) rules when writing a poem?

Yes, you’re right, there is a diverse range. I don’t really start out by choosing the topic. I start out by grabbing moments of insight. It’s funny to describe it as grabbing…but that’s what it feels like. I run after it, I grab it. I know that if the moment is lost…it will not sound the same anymore. Poetry puts my life in perspective. I pay attention to NOW. It is so easy to give in to routine, to busy-ness and lose sight of little quiet moments of understanding, of ephemeral happiness, of unnoticed grief. The only rule I follow comes from more experienced poets: show, don’t tell. Telling robs the reader of the moment. Telling generalizes, reduces…whereas showing connects the reader to a vulnerable part of themselves that they can only see when you, the writer, are specific and vulnerable as well.

2. Describe your thought process when writing a poem and a novel.

A poem is a distilled way of writing. It usually starts out with an epiphany. I think it’s a great discipline to have. Paying attention has a lot to do with capturing poetry which is why I equate writing poetry to meditation. I usually start out with a few images and then link them together to form a coherent whole. Sometimes it comes out of conversations, like a new poem I wrote about “Naming the Orchid”. I spoke with someone about his obsession with orchids and how he wants to find one genus that no one has ever named (or seen) before.

That sparked something and I tried to find its relation to love since obsession is very nearly like love. I’m not very strict with structure, like I don’t force the poem into a sonnet form. I pay attention, though, to the lines. I want it to flow gracefully, lyrically. I have a great respect for poets who are able to marry structure and content harmoniously. I don’t usually look for a subject matter. It calls out to me. But first, I need to set aside time to discover these epiphanies. That is where the discipline comes in. I always carry a notebook in my bag. I might miss out on a moment.

A novel is a different animal altogether. So that it doesn’t overwhelm me, I try to think of a novel as a series of short stories that link together through a plot. It’s the opposite of a poem. The novel is an exposition, a detailed telling of a story. First I think of the story that I want to tell. The characters and basic plot points come together. Then I write an outline. This part actually takes me a while (and the one I procrastinate on the most). Some writers might not entirely stick to the outline….for example, when a character gets out of hand. That sounds funny but I’ve heard of more than one writer who was surprised by the actions their characters and ended up taking the novel in a different direction. A novel ends up having a life of its own. I write out the different chapters like they’re short stories that are building up the plot. Once it’s done, you give it to a reader. Some writers call them beta readers. Or you give it to an editor. The editing part of a novel is the bloodiest. It’s where you parse and check if there are chapters that are not in service of the story or slows down the momentum of the story. I’m new to the novel but I love the process of writing 30,000 to 50,000 words! It’s a challenge.

3. Tell us about your day job.

I work for a Publishing company. But I don’t work with the editorial or publishing side. I’m working with a group that’s relatively new: a digital bookstore. The publishing world is going through a revolution right now…there’s been a very quick shift towards digital so that’s where we’re poised to be. It’s like being at the crossroads of technology and content. The content side has been around since the first printed book but the platform has changed dramatically, especially in recent years. It’s very exciting, actually! Writers, editors and publishers are now geared towards seeing their work as content on different types of platforms.

4. What is your comfort food when writing?

I love to eat!!! But not necessarily when writing. My favorite accompaniment to writing isn’t food but beverage. A hot cup of coffee or tea is perfect when I’m writing. I wrote my novel, Artemis Lets Go, entirely at a coffee shop. It’s also the ambiance. Being in a coffee shop helps me stay connected to people but at such a distance that I can concentrate on my writing. When I’m not at a coffee shop…having coffee or tea helps me stay alert, into the wee hours if necessary.

5. They say writing a book is like having a child. Do you agree with this?

Yes! But it’s a very abridged version! It’s a project, just like a life…it has a definite beginning and a definite end. But somewhere along the way, a work of art, just like a child, becomes a gift to others that is entirely out of your control. Once a book is done, you give it away. It takes a life of its own. Raising a child can be a lot like that. You devote all your love, your energy to raising your child. Then you let go. You allow your child to become the person he or she will be. It can be so hard to get detached. But it’s needed so that the child grows…or so that you can write the next piece of work.

More than directing your child, raising a child requires a LOT of listening. In a way, it’s very much like writing a book. It’s not just about telling the story, it’s about listening profoundly to the story and communicating it in the best way you can. Well developed characters and pieces of writing come from an investment on the writer’s part in hearing the pain, the triumphs, the little moments of discovery that no one else would bother with.

6. Name a writer you admire. Also name a celebrity (or anyone from show business or the media) you would love to meet. 

Apart from writing, I’m a certified bookworm! I admire J.K. Rowling (I absolutely loved the Harry Potter series), she was able to marry a really wonderful story to a mainstream public, particularly children and young adults. I love Ursula Le Guin. For me, her fantasy and sci fi novels are profound and insightful. I grew up reading her EarthSea books. I love the books of Margaret Atwood, particularly The Blind Assassin and The Handmaid’s Tale. I also got hooked on Anita Shreve (The Pilot’s Wife, Where or When, The Weight of Water). Neil Gaiman is an inspiration as well. In college, I was a huge fan of his Sandman graphic novels, then later on, his novels like American Gods.

Ursula Le Guin. Image from Women City Builders.

Locally, I loved reading the short stories of Gregorio Brillantes when I was in grade school (The Distance to Andromeda, The Apollo Centennial). For very personal reasons, Lawrence Durrell is a writer who is etched in my memory.  I’ve read and reread The Alexandria Quartet throughout my life. In terms of poets, I admire Jane Hirshfield, particularly Leaving the October Palace. She is an influence on my own poetry. Her poetry has a spiritual quality that I aim for in my own poems. Other poets I admire: Robert Hass (Praise), Gary Snyder (especially his four poems for Robin).

The celebrity I’d love to meet is Oprah Winfrey. Her O’s Book Club is revolutionary. She’s used her celebrity status to promote reading and other worthy causes as well like financial literacy and empowerment for women.

7. Since being a homemaker is practically a full-time job, how much time do you devote to being an employee and writer?

I’m very blessed to have a husband who has a flexible schedule so that he has taken over the “homemaker” role in many ways. Our marriage is a partnership in raising our kids to the best of our abilities…whatever those abilities may be. So, if some of the traditional roles are reversed it’s okay with us as long as it works. My being a writer is something that’s part of my mission in life. I’d do it even if I didn’t get paid for it. That’s the trouble, though. When no one forces a deadline on you…you tend to slack off. That’s why, whenever I can, I challenge myself to writing assignments (for a parenting magazine, for example) so that I’m still writing something with a deadline. Or I give myself a challenge: write a poem every day or sign up with 750words.com and write 750 words a day for a whole month. I’ve recently discovered NaNoWriMo so I’m signing up for that too, even if I don’t know I can actually do it (50,000 words in 30 days???? What am I getting myself into?).

I work full time so I really need to schedule my writing. When I’m on a challenge month, I make sure that I devote at least 30 minutes to writing every day. I think it’s a good idea for me to make more bets so that I fulfill on my writing schedule. Devoting time to my kids is a necessity, work is a necessity….it’s only the writing that is entirely optional. And that’s where it makes all the difference, since I’m the only one who can check on it. It’s the real test of my mission or vocation.

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