Interview by Remy Usman
Creative Direction by Patricia Ho
Photography by Patricia Ho
Inspired by the Filipino legend, Adarna, a mythical bird that alternates between luminous colors after each song, we sought to create a shoot that visualized the talent of three Filipinx students. Casey Ramos, a poet and singer, Rosie Reyes, a poet and dancer, and Nikka Palapar, a dancer, singer, and designer, are all members of the Boston University Filipino Student Association (BUFSA). Much like the Adarna bird’s ability to express its divine powers and heal through song and color, these students’ self-expression radiates a similar energy—one that is able to unify and grow far beyond the Filipino community. Photographed by Patricia Ho, the golden tones and fluid compositions are an homage to the beauty of the legendary songbird.
Q+A WITH NIKKA PALAPAR
How would you describe yourself?
This is always such a hard question for me to answer because growing up in an immigrant household, I feel like I’m often in the mindset to constantly improve on a past version of myself. My Filipino mom, like her mom before her, raised me to be the hardest worker in the room. Naturally, I’m a bit shy and an introvert, so I try to go out of my way to being sociable. I’m the oldest out of my three sisters, so I like to care for others. I love to make people laugh because my mom and dad are jokesters. I love to entertain, and that’s where the whole designing and singing thing came along.
What do you like best about being a designer? About singing? About dancing?
What I love best about being a designer is one aspect of the job of being a “translator.” What drives me is the potential to affect someone else with my work. Most of the time, designers are handed content that is not their own, and it is their job to make it accessible and consumable. Design is not an isolated medium. That’s what I love about it. It is a collaborative effort on you and the client to work together be able to tell a story or present something to generate an impact to a larger community. The part of being a “translator” makes it so that I get to learn something new with every job I partake in.
Singing comes from the pure joy of making music. It also connects me to my family. Growing up Filipino, karaoke was always a big thing to do at every weekend party. My little sister is a singer, my uncle plays the guitar, and I’ve been told that my lolo was a remarkable vocalist. My mom would tell me how when she was still pregnant with me, she would make her belly listen to the mixtapes she’s created. While It’s hilarious to hear now, somehow I think she’s gifted me some sort of special connection it.
My love for dancing was somewhat unexpected. I had no prior training or intention to dance entering college. I simply enjoyed watching dance videos on YouTube in high school. But one day someone from BUFSA convinced me to join ISA, their biggest multi-cultural show for the spring semester. I danced the traditional dance called Tinkling, where one hops and steps over two sticks while they are being clapped together. It was nerve-racking. I even went on stage with a missing partner. But after that, I suddenly found so much enjoyment in dancing with my friends and exploring a side of my culture I never got to experience before.
What do you least enjoy?
I enjoy all of them equally! Dancing can be a little painful, though. I can’t make my body move as fast or as groovy naturally. It takes some time!
Do you ever feel like you’re better at one more than the other?
I’m more in my element when I design. Singing is a hobby I like to do and learn on my own. Dancing is something I highly enjoy with others.
Every now and then, you post snippets of your song covers online. How old were you when you started recording your covers? Why did you start?
It actually started with my younger sister! While I was in high school, I was her guitarist while she sang. After school and on slow weekend afternoons, we’d sing musicals like RENT and Wicked alongside Taylor Swift in our living room. We recorded ourselves for the heck of it. Now that we’re both in college, we only get to record for a bit during our winter and summer breaks.
We still haven’t retired Taylor Swift from our set list.
I initially didn’t have my guitar going into college,
I missed playing so much so that I saved up over the summer of my sophomore year to buy one. I started recording myself junior year in my dorm room in to re-watch what I can improve on. The recordings started with some fingerpicking. I published those, and over time, I mustered up the courage to put my voice out there. A lot of it is not perfect! I am out of my comfort zone every time I post something, and yet I indulge in that feeling as well.
Do you feel your work is immediately identifiable as your work?
Do you feel you have a style?
I’ve been told that I have a style from a few of my peers, which is so odd to me, because I don’t claim any sort of aesthetic. I admit I do tend to lean toward what I like. I like layering things together, bold typefaces, and making my pieces look as busy as possible. A lot of that “busy-ness” stems from my intent of not losing the meaning of the content I am working with. Whether it’s a dynamic show poster or a simple restaurant menu, I strive for my design to inform the audience as well as eliciting curiosity from them.
Do you ever feel insecure about your work?
Every time! I’m overtly critical of myself.
I’m a perfectionist and I tend to obsess over the details.
How would you describe your mind?
Sporadic. My mind tends to go a mile-a-minute and I cannot sit still. I want every action of mine, no matter how little, to be intentional.
What would you like to experiment with?
Someday I’d like to experiment with print-mediums and combining it with 3d modeling. I think there is a lot of potential of breaking some boundaries and creating interesting forms in making something physical with help of the digital.
What are you working on right now?
Currently working on my thesis project! My elevator pitch is that it’s a study on both accessibility and respect in designing for culture. It comes from my thought process in designing BUFSA over the past four years, and designing for a Vietnamese food truck company for a year. How can I, as an immigrant and Filipino-American, come to terms with translating the culture of my own? I started to explore and question how culture can be accessible without losing context, history, and tradition. With Filipino culture, I wanted to build upon what I know.
How important, if at all, is your cultural background to your design work?
Cultural background can be very important in my design work. I like put a lot of importance in the history and context of my content. For me, this intention comes from the fear of being erased. As a minority, you don’t see many things that represent the essence of “you.” Design is my response to that. However, it is not everything. Culture is one of the things that factor to who I am. What’s more important to me, at least, is implementing a part of myself into my work. Whether, my culture, my education, my queerness, my likes, my dislikes, it is my experiences that enhance and put meaning into my design.
What do you think your life will be like five years from now?
I hope that I’ll still be in Boston! I love this city a whole lot, and I would want to go back to school and earn a Master’s in Architecture. In terms of design, for me to have a stable practice is the dream. I hope to use my skills and assets in designing for non-profits and/or cultural organizations. Oh! And maybe have my dogs fly over and have them live with me, of course.
Q+A WITH ROSIE REYES
When did you realize you wanted to write down your emotions on paper?
In high school I competed in the Poetry Out Loud national poetry recitation contest, and ended up getting far into the competition. In this competition, individuals had to choose poetry from an anthology to study, memorize, and recite. So at this point, I was only involved with reading poetry rather than writing. I made it to nationals two years in a row, representing Oregon for the years of 2013 and 2014 in Washington D.C. After the competition was over, the organization threw huge after parties, which always (and unintentionally) becomes an open mic. There, many of the other students started sharing their original poetry and spoken word pieces, and it was so moving. At this point, I had never written poetry, but hearing the stories of other kids my age and how it brought everyone so much closer really made a huge impact on myself. I was so used to reading poetry of dead poets, and it was my peers who inspired me to lift my own voice through poetry. Since then, I have been writing here and there, performing at open mics and shows.
Tell me about your poem writing process. Do you have writing rituals?
Writing is HARD. I feel like I am most inspired during the most inconvenient times, such as: when I am walking to class, studying for an exam, at work, etc. So when I feel inspired but unable to write, I quickly take my phone, go to my notes app, and write my ideas down. Anything that sparks anything inside of me, I write it down. And when I have time, I take these kernels of thoughts and type them on my computer and just try to move forward with them. Once I have an idea typed, I return to it over various periods of time—sometimes the next day, other times a whole month later, and normally never because most of them are just not good ideas. I am still learning the environments and times that are best for me to write, so I am just currently switching things up and haven’t developed any rituals (yet!).
What type of work are you most drawn to?
I am huge for accessibility in all circumstances, so I am drawn to poetry that simulates accessibility. One way accessibility looks like in poetry is simple words that are easy to understand, but with a variety of themes and personal narratives. Poetry has commonly been looked at as an art form reserved for only the highly educated because of its stigma of containing tough vocabulary and concepts that are hard to relate to. But there is poetry that is not like this! Combining accessible words, personal stories, and great metaphors can teach so many people to love poetry and feel heard and seen. That why I also love poetry that tells the speaker’s unique personal story or history. These personal stories allow people to relate and to prompt them to share their own stories too. Narratives and story-telling are key components of activism and change, and expressing these stories through poetry is so powerful!
Do you believe in writer’s block?
How do you overcome it once it strikes?
Writer’s block is real and very discouraging. And when I am experiencing writer’s block, I realize I just need to change up my environment and/or seek other inspirations. I have learned that I like to write in busy areas, such as cafés or buzzing study centers—the white noise is stimulating, making me always alert. For seeking inspiration during writer’s block, I read about Filipnx history, my diary, anything of the past, or what is happening today. There is so much beauty in every direction—behind us, in front of us, within us, outside of us—it just takes a look to recognize it.
Does writing energize or exhaust you?
When I write and have a good flow, it energizes me for sure! But sometimes when I am stuck in circles and have writer’s block, I get so exhausted.
How would you describe your poetic voice?
I think my poetic voice is more simplistic, using simple words. I try not to use too big of words because I don’t even use big words myself, and I want people to read my poems and see that they, too, understand most of the words I have written. I speak a lot on mental health as well. I have lived my life struggling with my own mental health, and through it all, I found various mediums of art on the topic of mental health that helped me. I love drawings, poems, comics, and paintings that depict what going through mental turmoil is like because it makes me feel like I am not alone. So I transmit similar messages in my own poems.
I definitely take my perspective as a Filipina-American into my work as well. My Filipinx heritage inspires me very much—from the food and language, to immigration stories and hardships, and of course, the love and joyfulness that Filipinxs manifest in large gatherings. I find so much inspiration from my parents since their immigration stories are so unique from one another, and I find a lot of inspiration in my Filipinx-American peers who live their multi-dimensional identities.
Q+A WITH CASEY RAMÒS
When you were young, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I think the only job little me ever really considered was being a writer, actually! There’s this picture of me from when I was four years old holding a pen and notebook and wearing my mom’s reading glasses. I wrote stupid little books about my siblings on big adventures, and I plead guilty to being that kid in third grade English who always asked for extra paper. Of course, I also had my “I want to be Hannah Montana” phase, where I wore a big blonde wig and sang into a fake purple mic, but didn’t we all?
Has your idea of what poetry is changed since you began writing poems?
It definitely has. I think my biggest lesson in creative writing has been that your art does not have to spell things out. You don’t have to tell your readers everything and paint the whole picture for them. Leave some things uncolored. For a long time—especially in high school—I was bothered when people interpreted my work in ways I didn’t mean. I’ve started to find instead that poetry is special because one poem can tell a million stories.
Not everyone has to feel your art the way you do.
How do you begin a poem?
I usually begin at the end! I might be thinking and feeling through an idea for a while, but the words will just be mumbles until I get the perfect last line. After that, I find the first line, and I build the poem up from there.
What types of poems do you find yourself writing most?
I write a lot of poems about identity. It’s such a hard, weird thing to articulate, but poetry is so fluid that it usually gets it right. I love writing about family and throwing bits of other languages into my work. I also find in-betweenness to be the most daunting but most crucial topic for me. I think being away from my home in New York has forced me to weigh my differences in ways I didn’t have to before. Everything about being a brown, queer, biracial woman feels different here. In the future, I’d like to venture more into the topics of race and space, but for now that’s an anger I have yet to make sound eloquent.
Did you write “remember” for yourself or with an audience in mind?
“remember” began as a nod to my ancestors. “I have heard your stories, and I am carrying them with me.” In that way I guess it was for me, as a way to gather their experiences and write them into my own story. By the end of it, though, I had this mounting feeling, like we are slowly crawling towards a time and place where it is encouraged to tell the stories of our pasts—even the ugly ones. “The world now says ‘we know,’ says ‘tell us’,” is where the audience came into mind. I wanted to share that feeling and extend encouragement to others whose ancestors spent generations in silence.
Tell me about some of your influences.
My first real poetry book as a kid was Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends. There are still poems in that book I can feel and remember, like the one about the bit of sky that fell into his soup. Later, in high school, there was this upperclassman girl who was basically the school’s queen of poetry. I really looked up to her and I loved her style. Her ability to be vulnerable and talk about things like mental health and sexuality really primed my path in terms of realizing how many people you can touch by being the person who speaks up.
In my senior year of high school, I discovered another poet whose style really touched me. His name is Ocean Vuong, and the first poem of his I read is—to this day—one of my favorite poems: “Tell Me Something Good.” I have since bought his poetry book “Night Sky with Exit Wounds” at Union Square’s STRAND Bookstore (a gem), and it’s now my favorite poetry book ever.
When do you know a poem is finished?
When I finish a poem, I get this rush of calm. It’s the weirdest feeling. It feels like an exhale, or that feeling you get after a good run. Writer’s high, maybe? It usually happens when I tie the knot between the first and last lines so completely that you could never tell they were written separately. I typically won’t touch the poem for some time after that, because I don’t want to disrupt its ‘rawness’ until I’ve given it some time to sit.
Are you working on any other projects right now?
I’m not currently working on any single project, but I think my personal project and challenge for this year has been to expand the ways I express my creativity. I’m not as much of a nose-buried-in-her-notebook kind of girl. Sometimes I miss her, but I’ve been finding so many new outlets for creativity, like martial arts, new languages, coming up with ideas for TV shows (nudge at my major; I don’t do this for fun), and more recently, writing for video games! It also included stepping out of my comfort zone and doing things like the feature for this magazine! I’m so grateful.
Written By Casey Ramós
if i have learned one thing about my family’s
past, it is that silence echoes.
lola ida was beautiful, said everyone. she wore
her white hair proud, down to her waist, and
everything about her echoed.
the chime of her spoon in the cooking
pot. the clicks of her chinelas down
the stairs. her humming, her favorite
songs. the water in her lungs.
she tucked the pain of war and late
ambulances and last words into her
nightgown; into the cooking pot, into the
stitches of her sundress.
but the world is turning over on us and
we cannot lay still. history is spilling
onto us, into us, out of us.
the world now says “we know,” says
“tell us,” and i, from the space
between my lola’s lungs, animate.
if i have learned one thing about my
family, it is that silence keeps things
keeps wooden spoons in their cooking
pots and generations of hurt women
mamãe was beautiful, said everyone, hair
black as night, way into her golden years.
had a permanent curl in her cupid’s bow
where she stowed the words unsaid.
where she kept nights that reeked of
alcohol and fists that flew but never
she loved her children tanto
que dói, and for years that kept