A Lesson About Essentials

A few weeks ago, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell appointed multi-awarded Filipina writer, Sofia Molina Starnes, as the new Poet Laureate of the state of Virginia, reported the Williamsburg Yorktown Daily.

The prolific writer is the daughter of historian-lawyer Antonio M. Molina (former Vice Rector of the University of Sto. Tomas) and Carmen Gomez de Arnau.

In an exclusive interview with Asian Journal, Sofia revealed that her mother had foreseen that she would be a writer, even before she was born.

Sofia shared, “My parents had six children, four girls and two boys (one of the boys, my brother Antoñito, died in infancy). My mother (I’m sure with my father’s consent!) named me ‘Sofia,’ which was the name of her favorite maiden aunt in Spain, who was also a writer. For some reason, she must have thought I was going be a writer as well. As far back as I remember, she encouraged my writing and was lovingly determined that I work at it. When I was in high school (a junior, I believe), I entered a short story contest in the Philippines, also at my mother’s urging. [I} was awarded first prize for my story, “El Chaleco Verde” (in Spanish). For the first time, I felt that a stranger, someone who did not know me, had seen something of value in what I did. It was an early boost.”

Roots and influences
Born and raised In Manila, Sofia studied at the Saint Pedro Poveda College, where she was inspired to excel and follow her dreams.

“I must mention my first teachers at the Institución Teresiana in Manila ( now Saint Pedro Poveda College), especially Chuchi Pacia and Maruxa Pita, both still active. These wonderful women have always been an inspiration to excel with the good of others in mind, in the spirit of Saint Pedro Poveda, the founder of the Institución. I still correspond with Chuchi, and I was delighted to give a poetry reading at the College on a recent visit to the Philippines in December 2011,” said Sofia.

“In 1970, our family left the Philippines for Madrid, Spain. Before we left, my father gave each of his children a suitcase and asked us to pack into it whatever we wanted to take.

I had just turned seventeen, and I remember having to make some tough decisions regarding what was of greatest value to me — what I could not leave. I took diaries, stories I had written, my first doll… More importantly, I took with me a lesson about essentials. Although I did not know it then, this experience was my first experience in poetry. Poetry (for me) is about essentials, about distilling the attar of an experience, figuring what matters most, and letting go of the rest,” Sofia reminisced.

“In Spain, I enrolled in the University of Madrid while teaching English full time at a girls’ high school. I have always loved words, especially the words of the English language-where they come from, how they’re made, how they evolve, how they express the different cultures that embody them.”

“I wanted very much to study these things, and so I went on to receive an advanced degree in English Philology. Yet, it is close to impossible to write in a linguistic vacuum.

Even though we interacted extensively with the Filipino community in Madrid, beyond that circle I was not surrounded by an English-speaking society-and this was extremely challenging and frustrating.”

“Nevertheless, I wrote whatever I could, whenever I could, for whomever might wish to read it. It was probably not very good writing, but it kept the flame alive,” Sofia  recounted.

Journey to the US
Sofia shared how she met her husband, which led her to move to  America.

“In the summer of 1981 I traveled to the United States for a three-week vacation to visit friends in New York and California. It was the year of the air controllers’ strike, and none of the flights went as planned. In the middle of that logistical ‘muddle,’  I met my future husband, William Starnes, an American chemist who was then working for Bell Labs in New Jersey.”

“We sat together on a Continental Airlines flight from Denver to Newark. It was a long flight… we talked… we parted ways at the airport. But three days later, we went out on a date.”

“Bill took me to West Point, and then to dinner at a little restaurant called The Greenhouse. And although I would leave the US a week later, we both sensed that something very significant had occurred in our lives. Still, we corresponded for five years, and  I found that you learn a lot about a person through letters (especially before e-mail and blogs) because you write very thoughtfully about things that really matter.”

“We also had a few short visits back and forth, and then in 1986 we were married in Spain. I moved to New York in March of that year and took up writing full time, with my husband’s encouragement. At last, I was surrounded by the language in which I wrote my poetry-which made all the difference,” narrated Sofia.

Beginnings as a writer
Asked how she started her career as a writer, Sofia smiled and said: ” I started my writing career in the United States without any preconceived notions about how to do so. I knew nothing about MFA programs or which poetry magazines were ‘prestigious.’ I wrote constantly; I spent numerous hours in the local library trying to figure out what magazines published poetry and how one went about submitting one’s work; I met some local authors, who were all very kind and very welcoming. I received rejection after rejection after rejection, far too many to count. And I managed to develop defense mechanisms against dejection, thanks to my  husband’s constant encouragement and a gradual discovery of the way things worked.”

Published works, accolades and awards
Sofia’s writing career has soared with over 250 published poems. She is the author of five poetry books: The Soul’s Landscape (Aldrich Museum Press), selected by then US Poet Laureate, Billy Collins, as a winner of the national Aldrich Poetry Prize; A Commerce of Moments (Pavement Saw Press), Editor’s Choice in the Transcontinental Poetry Book contest and Honor Book in the Library of Virginia Literary Awards competition; Corpus Homini (Wings Press), winner of the national Whitebird Poetry Series Award; Fully Into Ashes (Wings Press); and most recently, Love and the Afterlife (Franciscan University Press), an invited chapbook.

She also has just completed an anthology, Four Virginia Poets Laureate: A Reader’s Guide, compiled at the request of the Poetry Society of Virginia and to be published by Cedar Creek Press in January 2013. Her other recognitions include a Fellowship from the Virginia Commission for the Arts, the international Rainer Maria Rilke Poetry Prize, two additional national awards (the Marlboro Review Editor’s Poetry Award and the Conference on Christianity & Literature Poetry Prize), the Virginia Writers Club Superior Achievement Award in Poetry, designation as a Distinguished Scholar by Union College (KY), two Pushcart Prize nominations, ten finalist commendations in national and international competitions, and listings in Who’s Who in the World, Who’s Who in America, and Who’s Who of American Women.

Starnes’s work has appeared in 87 nationally circulated journals, including the Notre Dame Review, Southern Poetry Review, and Hayden’s Ferry, and in various anthologies, such as the Hawai’i Pacific Review Best of the Decade issue and Poems of Devotion: An Anthology of Recent Poets (Wipf and Stock, in press). She has been guest lecturer at seven colleges and universities in Virginia, as well as in academic venues in New York, California, Illinois, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Kentucky, and the Philippines.

She has served as Jury Panel Member for the Virginia Commission for the Arts and as poetry judge for many literary contests in the state.

Starnes also has mentored some 70 writers of poetry and prose through her professional service Creative Writing Critiques. She is Poetry Editor and Poetry Book Review Editor of the Anglican Theological Review, an international scholarly journal.

Intangible place
“Writing allowed me to think about life, about what I believed in, what mattered most to me. It was also-and always has been-a declaration of my love for language, for language is what I can take with me everywhere I go. Words are my movable landscape, and into them I incorporate bits and pieces of the landscapes I’ve left behind, in Manila, in Madrid, in New York,” she said.

“Because of the departures in my life, which have taught me to say goodbye repeatedly, I find myself recreating a kind of intangible place in my poems. Paradoxically, it is a spiritual place with very physical attributes. And so I say to the reader: Come into this country that I have created for you, a country that will be strangely familiar, for you will recognize yourself through the emotion that is expressed in the poem. That emotion is its truth.”

Source of inspiration
Sofia admitted to the Asian Journal that she has been very much influenced by her father.

“Perhaps one of the defining challenges that fueled my writing was my father’s death in the year 2000. When I learned that he was terminally ill in 1998, the prospect of putting on paper what I felt became extremely painful. In any case, I don’t believe there is any point in reliving a pain or attempting to transfer it to others.  And then I came across the abstract photography of an American artist, Kathy Sturgeon. I do not know what her photographs meant to her; I didn’t feel I should ask her. Instead, each artwork became a springboard for a poem about life and death, about the power of memory, about the importance of faith in the context of life’s meaning. T. S. Eliot once wrote that we do not write to dwell in an emotion, we write to escape it. This so-called escape is actually a creative action; through language we convert our pain or joy or longing into a thing of beauty that a reader then assumes and recreates in light of his or her own experience,” Sofia shared.

“In 2001, those poems, born out of my love for my father, became the chapbook The Soul’s Landscape, which was selected by then US Poet Laureate Billy Collins (my first and most important break!) as one of two co-winners of the Aldrich Poetry Prize. The book was published in 2002. Many of the poems also became part of my first full-length collection,  A Commerce of Moments, which won Editor’s Choice in the Transcontinental Poetry Award competition and was issued by Pavement Saw Press in 2003.”

In answer to Asian Journal’s question as to what she would consider her most memorable moments, Sofia replied: “In considering my life as a writer, I would name these as the three most memorable events, in chronological order: (1) leaving the Philippines as a teenager, because it taught me about essentials and hence about poetry); (2) meeting my future husband, Bill Starnes, in 1981 because that encounter opened up my life entirely; nothing that I have done since would have been possible without him; and (3) sadly, the third memorable event would be my father’s passing, which I described above, since it forced me to write in a way I had not written before and opened up my heart (and my skills) to new ways of expression.”

The Poet Laureate of Virginia has this advice to aspiring writers: “My advice to aspiring Pinoy writers would be: Love the language you use; it is what you take with you wherever you go. Learn about words. Read. Read. Read. Not just poetry, but also good literature of any genre and age. We write because we love language. If we didn’t, we’d be expressing ourselves through other art forms. So keep the flame of that love burning constantly by fueling it with what you read. On a far lighter note, someone once told me how to make a small fortune in poetry, and I’d like to pass that advice along: Start with a large fortune!”

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