Karina Fantillo is a storyteller, dancer, daydreamer. Karina immigrated with her family at the age of 9 to San Francisco, where she learned about Filipino and American culture through folk dancing. Once an astute student of English grammar and its rules, Karina now writes poems in the first person in lower case and minimizes any use of punctuation. It is her stand against the infrastructures that deprived her of learning her native language and history in an American colony. Karina’s poems have appeared as San Francisco Public Library’s Poem of the Day and in The Racket. She is currently a third-year poetry fellow in the University of San Francisco’s MFA in Writing program.
Why writing? What pulls you into the page? What writers or artists first inspired you? Who continues to inspire you?
I started writing at about age 10. I had immigrated to San Francisco from the Philippines with my family a year earlier. Although I spoke and wrote English fluently (it was the only language I learned to write in school), I didn’t know anyone except my immediate family. I retreated inward and found solace in writing.
In Catholic school, I remember reading Emily Dickinson’s “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” I felt like she was talking directly to me. I also loved Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends. The rhymes were catchy, but even as a child, I felt like there was a bigger meaning behind the poems. As a teenager, I read Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and that book taught me that there is beauty even through trauma.
So many amazing writers out there and discovering a new one is like finding hidden treasure. I will say that my favorite poetry book to date is Safia Elhillo’s The January Children. It is gorgeous in its use of languages, English and Arabic. Even though I don’t know Arabic, the poems still speak to me. I’m especially drawn to the historical, political and cultural messages in her poems. Elhillo educated me as a reader about Sudan and still made me appreciate the art of her poetry.
What are you currently working on, and do you have anything coming up that readers should know about?
I’m currently working on my first book-length poetry manuscript, which should be done before the end of the year. The manuscript includes the poems featured in this issue of Night Music Journal. The poems in the collection explore the feelings of identity, trauma, home.
What was the first thing you had published? What is the focus of your work and has it changed since then?
The first poem I had published was “ghazal for asian americans” which I wrote in response to anti-Asian violence during the COVID-19 pandemic. This poem was the result of a conversation I had with my Chinese American friend. I had her read it and it resonated with her, even though she’s not a writer. Instead of submitting to a journal, I wanted to share it with the community, not just literary. I was thrilled when it was featured as a Poem of the Day by San Francisco Public Library, an institution I grew up with. (Much thanks to Maw Shein Win for facilitating.) I hoped in this way, it would give voice to people in the community and help them feel seen.
What space does or should writing occupy right now?
I think writing has always been an opportunity to chronicle the times and make sense of the chaos. It is a form of revolution, and now more than ever, I feel we have a responsibility with our writing to create the world we want to live in once we emerge on the other side of this pandemic.
What advice would you give to a writer just starting out? What are some valuable things you’ve learned so far that have helped you grow as a writer?
I would say writing is like a muscle that we have to exercise regularly. Believe in yourself. Editors, teachers and mentors can give advice, but only you will know if/how that applies to you and your writing. Sometimes what we plan to write and what wants to come out may be different. Honor what wants to come out. In writing about trauma, I like to think that once I get it on the page, it’s one less thing I have to carry.
If you were the last person on earth, and you pulled the last book from a pile of ash, what do you hope it would be? Why?
I would hope it’s a photo book with pictures of how life used to be, so I can preserve it and remember.
You can read Karina Fantillo’s work in the tenth issue of Night Music Journal, which will be released November 19th.