New Poetry, Fiction, Essay

Featured Poet Iris Orpi

Featured Poet

Iris Orpi was born and raised in the Philippines. She’s always had two passions, writing and mathematics. She was first exposed to poetry studying the pieces written by Filipino laureates, Dr. José Rizal, Francisco Balagtas, and Amado V. Hernandez, while studying at a prestigious high school in Manila with a science-and-math-heavy curriculum.
Iris wrote what she considers her first real poems in 1996, as a high school freshman. A teacher from the Filipino Department needed original pieces for balagtasan (a form of debate where the two opposing sides as well as the moderator delivered their arguments in poetic verse), and found that Iris was quite adept with metaphor, meter, and rhyme in her native language. Iris went on to write original Tagalog pieces to be performed for sabayang pagbigkas (speech choir) and oratorical competitions, which would usually win.
Like many other young women, Iris struggled with bouts of insecurity during high school. She was not popular, and her creative nature made her overly sensitive and susceptible to bullying. There was one particular assignment during her junior year in 1998, on the topic of Shakespeare, when the students were supposed to write original sonnets in English following the Bard’s signature structure and rhyming scheme. Iris was so desperate to fit in and impress her peers, that she ended up writing the sonnets for 70 of her classmates in a single weekend. It wasn’t so bad; that was when she realized that she could think and write in iambic pentameter at will.
Still in love with numbers, Iris majored in mathematics at the University of the Philippines. It was in 2001, the summer during her freshman year in college and struggling with multivariate calculus when she first discovered the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. She stumbled upon the books Love: Poems from the Film “Il Postino” and Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair at a local bookstore she used to frequent only for its young adult novels and stationery.  She bought both books with her meager allowance, and devoured them. She fell in love with the Nobel Prize winner’s exquisite, sensual imagery and the effervescence and easy flow of free verse poetry.
Iris would later graduate in 2003 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Mathematics, with minors in European Languages and Creative Writing.
She worked as Instructor at the University of the Philippines while taking up her Master’s in Mathematics. She continued to write: poems, short fiction, and amateur political essays inspired by her first literary influences, Rizal, Balagtas, Hernandez and Neruda.
In 2008 Iris quit teaching and collaborated with the Filipina coffee painter Sunshine Plata to create the book The Espresso Effect, an illustrated work of fiction capturing the coffee-drinking culture in Metro Manila. The book was published in 2010 by Data Access Publishing of Manila, and sold around coffee shops for a year. It was a moderate success, and a great learning experience for Iris about the world of books and publishing.
The social networking site, Facebook, rose in popularity around that time. Iris found a thriving online community of poets and spoken word performers from all over the world. She voraciously read other people’s works and watched videos of poetry readings posted online. She participated in poetry forums and found the informal workshopping of poems an enriching experience. All the while, Iris continued to write her own poems and build a body of work.
Her greatest poetic influences, besides the great poets mentioned above, include Carl Phillips, Frank O’Hara, Maya Angelou, Anaïs Nin, Billy Collins and Jewel Kilcher. She also loves the lyrical style of the fiction writers Oscar Hijuelos, Gabriel García Márquez, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Alice Hoffman.
Coffee, bodies of water, busy city scenes, and the music of the jazz masters Charlie Parker and John Coltrane are Iris’s go-to triggers for writing inspiration.
In 2011, Iris and her good friend Adee Caluag, co-founded Streetscape Publishing, Inc., an independent publishing company based in artsy and glamorous Makati City, with the goal of discovering local literary talents and helping to give them a platform for their work.
Streetscape Publishing, Inc. published two books of Iris Orpi’s compiled poetry, Cognac for the Soul and Beautiful Fever in 2012. The former contained poems focusing on womanhood and sexuality; the latter was about love, identity and spirituality. Both books continue to be a moderate success and are sold on Amazon.
Iris Orpi was also a part of Lit After Dark, envisioned by its founders to be a book reading series held in prominent venues around the Metro Manila nightlife scene.
In 2013, Iris Orpi immigrated to the US to marry her fiancé, now husband, Ray Price. She currently lives in Chicago with Ray and their son, Ray Junior.
Iris continues to write and submit her poems for publication. Her writings have now appeared in over two dozen anthologies and literary journals, online and in print, all over Asia, North America, and Europe.
Iris Orpi was an Honorable Mention for the Contemporary American Poetry Prize, given by Chicago Poetry Press, in 2014.



Mizuage (水揚げ)

an invitation

embezzling spells
of innocence,
verges of awakening,
Gordian loopholes
from the love language of
hands quietly smoothing over
the crumpled brows of dawn
anguished over what sparse
things it is able to carry
to full term
and leaving the rest
to the condoning shadows.

Believe, somewhere,
in the dulcet hum
of airtight bud lie lyrics
to a lascivious song,
strains of scintillating sins
stroking it into bloom.

It is sometimes not enough
to flower, but to flower for
the first time. Watch her face
for the movement of moments
as if every flush and quiver
charts a map of places
in the order they are touched.
It is sometimes not enough
to sit next to the perfume
of the truth as it unravels,
but to crush the petals in
your own hands and be stained
by it. Call the hunger
what it is: a nuanced torture,
invocation of our mortality,
dark rhapsodies of ache
to remind us we are
evolved from savages.
She would wear all the labels
like a crown. The posture
of her espoused darkness
is the love language of
virgin honesty catching fire.

Becoming resplendent.
Becoming the hunger.
Skin on skin.
Divinity on desire.

And the force and eloquence
of her consent slowly
undresses the world.




The tub is full
and the night is overflowing

I watched
the beautiful beloved
of a forgotten confession
give birth to a silent,
but infallible, compass

I saw untouched hunger
brimming with dark legacies

true north
is a rare orchid
cut open with a scalpel

grace of blade
on folds of fever

not all nocturnal songs
are lullabies—

I saw one just crouching
under the eaves of
indecisive constellations
hanging its lyrics on
the beams of porch lights,

wide awake with intention

on a garden where the rest
of the pregnant symbols
have been spared



No Help in Sight for 33 Miles

It was only now,
way too many years after
it should matter,
that I thought to call him
by that name: my abuser

back then he was merely
a painful puzzle
with rusty knife edges,
an intriguing man who
could love me so hard
it felt like my bones would
break right off the joints
with just one look
half of the time

while the rest of the time
look at me like a substance
he was getting ready to burn
just to see whether I was
made of ash or liquid air

and even his anger
was inscrutable; his voice
would change when he shouted
and he grabbed at metaphors
as if to stab himself with them.

It wasn’t poetry.

Being with him was a
confusing run-on sentence,
oftentimes he’d use parts of me
like misplaced Scrabble tiles
or verbs diluted in his Red Bull.

Once, I took too long to get out
of class, it made him so mad
he had to do me right there
on the Fairview-Alabang bus,
on the way home. I closed my eyes
when the conductor passed the aisle
because I couldn’t cover myself
and I wonder now what he knew.
Did it look like I was enjoying it
or could he maybe see that my world
had been reduced to a place smaller
than that bus, more filled with
assorted noise, and completely
at the mercy of a driver whose
hands only moved in two motions?

And I was so glad when it was
over, because it meant I had
done good, he wasn’t mad
anymore, and the love would
climb back into his heart before
we pulled into the terminal. Both
the driver and the conductor were
staring when we disembarked.
I felt their eyes finding faults
in my clothes. I wonder if they
noticed the six-days-old bruise
just peeking from under my right
sleeve, or if I wanted them to.
And could they hear that my body
was not done screaming, even
though my eyes were empty.



Sacred Message, Rough Translation 

(Montara Beach, California)

I stood there,
on the thin ribbon of chance
where the road ended,
looking down

at the sea
as it nursed a mood
of spectacular fury

the possibility of falling
replacing my heartbeat

and being acutely
aware of my purest form:
part search,
part leap of faith,
part averted suicide

a pilgrim
knees trembling, trying
to stand inside the whirlwind
of a miracle that
keeps on happening

a witness
and a living prayer
to nature’s awesome power

This is God, I heard
the words lifting
where the horizon is far
and the life-and-death-wide
divide from the great rocks
wave crash
and fate, bone-white
is larger than
the enduring story

core of creation
and understanding within
that authoritative
thesis of chaos

This is worship,
me weeping
and lost

reveling in my post-truth,

sitting in a box
of the well-rehearsed
and synchronized,
black and white lines
nitpicking verses from a Book
and being afraid
of the questions
scribbled on the margins.



Still Life, Charcoal

For the thousandth time,
the sun sets
on the pile of regrets
propped up against the wall
where they have been left
untouched for a thousand days
like sacred, but cursed, relics.
They don’t take too much space,
but they take enough.
Their elongated shadows fall
for the thousandth time
on the better loved things.
The waning light engages
in conversation about reasons
as it touches their surface
made of cheating mirrors,
but there isn’t enough time.
A few moments of shifting sky
can’t unravel a tangle of
good intentions,
bad decisions,
and doubtful timing
played and replayed over
many a sleepless night before
they got abandoned on that wall.
The day ends, its torn edges
descending like ashes
and coming to rest among
the soiled memories that
regrets wear as clothes.
They smell of dust and excuses,
of burned bridges
and the stale perfume of
the quaint waking dream
they used to be before
everything went wrong.
Where the light has failed,
darkness next arrives
and they can pass
as birthmarks instead of scars.
They assume different names:
anger, hurt, yearning
wisdom, even;
and settle deeper
where the heart knows no better
and believes there is no other
way to live.

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