Penman No. 35: Return to Radio


Penman for Monday, February 25, 2013 

I ACCEPTED an unusual invitation for an interview a couple of weeks ago—unusual because of the medium involved, which was radio, specifically DZUP, the on-campus station of the University of the Philippines. DZUP station manager Rose Feliciano asked me to guest on her noontime show so I could talk about the UP Institute of Creative Writing and its flagship programs, and I was happy to oblige—not only because, as UPICW Director, it’s my job to promote the institute, but also because I’ve always had a warm spot for radio, and remain a fan of the medium.

For Filipinos weaned on the Internet, radio must seem like a blast from the past, and, in a very real sense, it is. We’re told that the first local radio stations came on the air in June 1922, so we’re just nine years away from celebrating radio’s centennial in the Philippines. While there’s some dispute as to who really invented radio, no one disagrees with the fact that Guglielmo Marconi made the first successful radio transmission in 1895—when our revolucionarios were just plotting their moves against Spain—and received a British patent for it the year after.

Of course a century’s just a drop in the bucket of human history, but in terms of technology, it’s virtually an eternity. The idea of an invention remaining just as useful after a hundred years boggles the mind, in an age when, say, the floppy disk gave way to the CD, which then gave way to the DVD and then the USB drive, all within the span of a few years. And of course radio today is a far cry from the rasp across the ether that it was at its inception (you can hear a pin drop and bounce off the floor on FM), but the basic idea remains the same—a message is electronically transmitted and received, completing the cycle of communication.

I belong to that generation of Pinoys for whom radio, and not even TV, was our main source of information and entertainment while we were growing up. I remember listening to radio soaps such as “Eddie, Junior Detective” “Erlinda ng Bataan,” and “Gabi ng Lagim.” This last program, a horror show, would go into a TV version (on MBC, Channel 11, if I remember right), but there was nothing like being in your room and quaking all by your lonesome at every creak of the door or every drag of the chain, all these creepy sounds magnified by your fervid imagination.

And that was the magic of radio, especially in the pre-visual age. TV and film may look busier, but they’re actually more passive, in that they require little more of the viewer than for him or her to sit back and be flooded by images and sounds. Radio reaches deep into your brain and forces you to supply the missing image. (When I was very small, I was convinced that there were little people inside the big wooden box that ruled the living room, and was perplexed when I managed to peek into the back of the cabinet and could find nothing but glass tubes.)

One British commentator explains the continuing relevance of radio this way: “Radio is at once intimate and universal, capable of keeping you company like a proper pal and able to impart the gravest of news with a little respect rather than the hubris of its flash-git brother, TV. And it’s also brilliant at being (a) bridge builder…. I remember sitting at traffic lights as one of my British radio heroes, Chris Evans, cracked a joke on his breakfast show a decade or so ago; I turned left and right to see a plasterer in his pick-up truck cracking up and a suit in a Jag grinning at the same moment at the same joke, right there, live—and it was moving. It was like an advert for something but it rang true.

“The thing is this: radio does what we do, it sounds like we sound…. Radio’s better at being really well-behaved. It doesn’t need to be lit, over-orchestrated or faked. Radio requires a bit of description, it’s got an artistic bent; radio’s beauty is that it’s a bit abstract—it’s painting pictures, while TV’s just taking photos. Radio is also the secret to younger-looking skin because no-one can see you.”

But who listens to radio these days? I know I do—I tune in to the news the minute the car rolls out of the driveway, if only to check out the traffic situation, although of course I get to listen to the commentary (admittedly often insipid) as well. At night, on our way home from a movie and dinner, Beng and I gorge on the free medical and legal advice on radio for dessert.

Like that Brit said, radio comes across to us like an old friend—sometimes funny, sometimes silly, sometimes even truly useful and irresistible, such as during impeachment trials, disastrous floods, and post-election vote counts. And I know we’re hardly alone—it’s a safe bet to say that in an archipelago like the Philippines, radio remains the best and the cheapest bridge across the islands, shaping the tastes and opinions of millions of our countrymen, particularly the working poor who have to leave for work on jeepneys and buses at five or six in the morning.

I do wonder if my teenage and twenty-something students still listen to radio; I suspect they don’t, preferring to retreat into the individualized, hermetic cubicles of their iPods rather than engage in the community-building enterprise that’s radio. Perhaps I should worry, but I don’t. DZUP just marked its 55th anniversary, and I have little doubt that some version of it will live to be a hundred. In the same way that print survives and continues to be needed in this era of electronic and digital media, radio will continue to find its audience, for as long as the human voice appeals to the human ear and to our dreaming brain.

(Photo from 






Penman No. 34: The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Writer

Foundation U

Penman for Monday, February 18, 2013

ONE OF the good things about holding the annual Taboan Philippine Writers Festival around the country and outside of Manila is the opportunity it provides to introduce us to writers whom we might otherwise have never known or heard about. Earlier this month, more than 40 writers from all over the archipelago gathered in Dumaguete, many of them meeting one another for the first time.

As I’ve noted on other occasions, writing is one of the loneliest professions; you’ll realize that when you’re working on a novel or a column like this one at 3 in the morning and all you have for company is the blinking cursor. Last week I wrote about the cliquism or the clannishness that our writing community has been accused of—not without reason. The truth is, like it or not, our best friends are often fellow writers, whom we count on for personal and professional support, since there’s hardly anyone or anything else out there to fall back on.

I think that’s entirely human—and, in our case, also entirely social, given how (despite this talk of a literary “elite”), we as a community are marginalized in the national mainstream. We may argue among ourselves, but on the whole, no one out there really gives a hoot about us and what we do, whether we’re Ramon Magsaysay awardees or some indie upstart trying to publish his or her first novel. So we close ranks, and find comfort in each other’s misery.

A big writers’ festival like Taboan goes a long way toward diminishing the writer’s loneliness, especially that of the writer working from the country’s geographical and political fringe—he or she can be lonely, yes, but certainly not alone.

Sometimes those connections to other writers cut across not space, but time. I was especially glad to have come to Dumaguete because of one session that—against all my expectations, for a Saturday morning that I would was itching to spend on the beach or on an airy hilltop—proved to be one of the most uplifting I’d attended in ages. It was uplifting not because the subject was a happy one—it was a gifted poet who, some suggested, may have killed himself at the age of 38—but because I discovered another Filipino writer whose luminous talent outlived him, not only in his books but in the inspiration that he provided others.

The writer in question was Artemio Tadena (1939-1977), and the session was held in Dumaguete’s small but picturesque Foundation University, Tadena’s alma mater. To be perfectly honest, not knowing Tadena or his work, we attended the session more out of a sense of duty than anything, but were rewarded by a brilliant discussion of a poet’s life and influence.

It was Myrna Peña Reyes, herself a fine poet and a friend of the late Artemio, who keynoted the session with a brief but moving account of Tadena’s life and work. Let me quote from that keynote:

“A high achiever with many talents, at 15, he won First Place for his water color painting representing the Philippines in an international UNICEF Contest that had gone around the world for judging.  In high school at the East Visayas School of Arts and Trade (now NORSU), he won First Place in declamation and oratorical contests, and he edited the school paper.

“At Foundation University where he earned an A.B. and a Law degree, he was English professor and English Department Head, as well as Head of the Office of Publications and Research at the time of his untimely death in 1977, the same year he also passed the Bar.  He had received the Most Outstanding Alumnus Award from Foundation in 1975.

“When we were already teaching at our respective schools, he at Foundation and I at Silliman, he would come over sometimes to the campus to look up people and to talk.  He did most of the talking, and I was a good listener.  It was always about writing and writers.  He admired Yeats and Hopkins and read Rilke and Pound and American poets like Robert Lowell and James Dickey, many others.  He favored Carlos Angeles and Edith Tiempo, among Filipino poets.

“He was a voracious reader, very well informed, and used a lot of what he gleaned from his readings in his poems.  For example, I know he didn’t speak French or Italian, but he used them in a poem or two.

“I recall borrowing books from the Library and seeing his written comments—in ink—on some pages.  He made copious marginal notes, quarreled with assertions in the book, approved of some, and left his comments as a permanent part of the book.  I recognized his distinctively beautiful cursive handwriting that he was most vain about.

“He published in national magazines and the Sands and Coral, and when the Silliman Writers Workshop was going on in the summer, he would come around to meet the writers and to go out drinking with some of the guys. Twice, he was an official Writing Fellow at the Workshop.  He was also a Fellow at the U.P. Writers Workshop held in Cebu in 1971.”

Tadena was a prodigious poet, publishing five collections of his poetry within seven years between 1968 and 1974. He won several Palanca Awards, including First Prize in 1974 for his last collection, Identities.

Sadly, hardly any of his books have survived, and although I had heard his name mentioned before, I had never really come across his work until that morning session in Foundation University. Aside from Myrna’s informative keynote, we also heard some very sharp commentary on Tadena’a poetry from two of his friends and former colleagues, the accomplished poets Cesar Ruiz Aquino and Francis Macansantos (incidentally, the same two fellows who took me in hand in the 1981 Silliman Workshop and infected me for life with their passion for poetry), who both acknowledged the older Tadena’s influence on their own work. Theirs were not fawning accolades, but sincere if sometimes critical evaluations of the craft of a poet imbued with a sense of the dramatic.

Artemio Tadena died of an asthma attack—some suggest he refused to take his medicine, although no one seems to have proof of that—in 1977, soon after he had passed the bar and while he was preparing for his first court appearance. One can only imagine what other wonders this southern light would have produced had he lived on.

I’ll close with another quotation from Myrna Peña Reyes’ keynote, describing the man’s poetry and providing a stirring example of it:

“From the poems, one senses a poet who thoroughly revels in the sound and flow of words.  In fact, one could say that he is literally drunk with words, sometimes, one feels, to excess, but the reader always feels he is reading poetry.  The same lyrical, eloquent, graceful facility and ease of expression that so impressed us in college mark the poems.  Many are moving, sharing wisdom of our human condition.

“In his writing style, Tadena was not an experimentalist.  Although his poems are complex, they are accessible.  His early models may have been the traditional British and Irish poets whose forms he borrowed (especially the sonnet), but his sensibility is modern, his style, his own.

“He is not a minimalist whose language is lean and spare, whose lines are short.  Although he has poems of regular line length, many of his poems’ lines are often long, dense, textured; his sentences compound and complex, often overflowing with clauses.  He uses the colon, semi-colon, and the dash unsparingly. For example, here is an excerpt from an early poem about a man and a woman in a tryst at a hotel, feeling very nervous about being seen:

“Although invisible eyes will always / Follow them wherever they go:  now, in noon’s bronze /Shifting for them into a haze

“Of gold where at first, enraptured / They gaze at each other; then suddenly look askance / To save nothing of this but the shared

“Absolution of each / Other’s need, each other’s fears—and what / Remorse can reach,

“And fortify, faithfully observed at first, and then / At first sight of each other woe- / fully abandoned.  Ears are clocks and / So is blood…” (In a Haze of Gold: The Other She)”

It may well be that there’s nothing lonelier than writing a poem, but nothing also assuages loneliness better than a poem.


Penman No. 33: At the Literary Table


Penman for Monday, February 11, 2013

I’M HERE in Dumaguete City for Taboan, otherwise known as the Fifth Philippine Literary Festival, an annual gathering of writers from all over the archipelago, and even a few parts beyond. Dumaguete, of course, is inextricably linked with Philippine literary history as the home of the first and longest-running writers’ workshop in the country—the Silliman Writers Workshop, based in Silliman University—which explains its proud and rightful claim to be the “City of Literature.”

Scores of the country’s finest writers, especially in English, have passed through Silliman’s portals (in Silliman’s case, these are real portals, as iconic and as symbolic as the Oblation is to the University of the Philippines), thanks largely to Edith and Edilberto Tiempo, who started the workshop in 1962 after their return from the United States. I myself might not have thought of going back to school after having dropped out for ten years and of taking up fiction seriously after laboring as a playwright if it hadn’t been for the Silliman workshop, which I attended in 1981.

So holding Taboan in Dumaguete was in many ways a logical homecoming, and the fact that festival director Dr. Christine Godinez-Ortega (who now teaches at MSU-Iligan) is a Silliman alumna helped things along immensely. The university administration and the city government were very supportive, and the festival began on an appropriately celebratory note with a parade around the city on Thursday morning, led by National Artist Bienvenido Lumbera.

But it was the keynote address delivered shortly after by the Cebuano scholar and writer Dr. Resil Mojares that best reminded me why it’s important for Filipino writers and academics to go out of Manila and listen to what the rest of the nation has to say if writers are to help in achieving that sense of nationhood that’s eluded us for ages. Resil—whose level-headed scholarship and clarity of thought I’ve always admired—spoke on “The Visayas in the National Imagination” (there was some confusion about the topic, but in the end it didn’t matter).

He spoke of how complicated the writer-nation relationship can be: “A writer’s relationship to his or her country cannot be one of blind faith or easy self-love. I think there is much in what the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa says about his relationship to his native Peru that we can recognize as our own. ‘For me,’ Llosa says, ‘Peru is a kind of incurable illness and my relationship to it is intense, harsh, and full of the violence of passion… [a relationship] more adulterous than conjugal… full of suspicion, passion, and rages.’ Yet, for all these, Llosa confesses to a ‘profound solidarity’ with the country. He says: ‘Although I have sometimes hated Peru, this hatred, in the words of the poet Cesar Vallejo, has always been steeped in tenderness.”

That relationship can get even more difficult when the writer feels like a stranger or second-class citizen in his or her own country, as a writer working outside the national center might be made to feel. This dichotomy between the “national” and “local” (or “regional”) writer has been a longstanding point of concern and conflict in Philippine literature for which there have been no easy answers. Dr. Mojares couldn’t have illustrated the problem more clearly than in this excerpt from his keynote:

“Perhaps we have to bow to the historical fact that it is where power is accumulated and concentrated that the ‘nation’ is most effectively imagined. It is where the ‘local’ ascends to the level of ‘national.’

“The literary situation today is that writers and works have to be recognized in Manila for them to acquire the status of ‘national.’ The center exercises the power to canonize and consecrate. A Cebuano writer who publishes in a ‘vernacular’ magazine with a circulation of 30,000 is merely a ‘local’ writer, while one who publishes a book of English poetry in Manila with a print run of 750 copies is ‘national.’ So effective is Manila’s consecrating power that a writer may start out in Dumaguete or Davao but Manila is where he hopes to ‘arrive.’ Dumaguete may be the ‘city of literature’ but it is not its capital.

“Some years ago, the poet-and-critic Virgilio (Rio) Almario asked me—with a hint of mischief and challenge—‘Where’s the new Cebuano poetry?’ I did not have a ready answer but assured him that there was a great deal of fresh, exciting work being done by young Cebuano poets. But Rio’s question did tell me that much of today’s Cebuano-language poetry—that circulates in manuscripts, poetry readings, small local publications, and Internet blogs—remains largely invisible outside of Cebu and Cebuanos, and that we (Cebuanos) have been remiss in defining and projecting to a wider audience what in this poetry is distinct, different, and deserving of ‘national’ attention. Yet, the encounter with Rio did remind me that indeed one has to be consecrated by readers and critics like Rio for one to acquire the status of ‘national.’ I say this without malice. Rio is a friend. But such is the politics of recognition.”

The discussion got even more lively in the plenary session following Resil’s talk, which was devoted to the topic of “Your Place at the Writers’ Table,” around the idea that while a national literature should ideally be inclusive, many writers still felt left out—not just because of the cultural and political distance between the center and the margins, but also because of the generational divide, and perhaps even of sheer snobbery on the part of “established” writers unwilling to yield ground to younger, fresher talent.

I’d meant to keep quiet and let others do the talking, but was prodded for my opinion on this “insider/outsider” argument, which I understand had been a hot topic online. Not being on Facebook, I caught on to it late, and composed a response that I circulated privately, from which I’ll quote:

Small as it is, Philippine literary society is indeed ruled in a way by cliques, barkadas, orthodoxies, and prescriptions. In some cases, these institutions and conventions may have made it difficult for new, alternative, and dissident voices to emerge and be heard.

I myself will indefensibly admit to being part of this ruling elite—I suppose by default, being the director of an institute of creative writing, a professor of literature, and a member of an NCCA committee that gives out grants. I’ve done well by the system (Silliman workshop, CW degree and MFA, Palancas, etc.) and the system, I think, has also done well by me.

But all this doesn’t mean that my mind is closed to new ideas or that I will shoot them down when I get the chance. Within the system, I have voted and even argued for writers and kinds of writing I personally don’t prefer, because I remain aware of what’s at stake, which is much larger than what I like. I have voted down my friends, denied them grants, and brought in people left out in the usual pollings , again because—as an old-time, squishy, hand-wringing liberal—I believe in fair play, imperfect as any cultural or political regime will always be.

By and large, the system works, if getting ahead the usual way is all you want: join a workshop, write like your mentors, win a few prizes, publish a book or two. But I keep reminding my students that this isn’t the only way to writing fulfillment and happiness, and that they’re free to choose other paths and listen to other gurus—but also, and again, that the alternatives won’t be easy. We all make our own choices—but we should do so with full self-awareness, mindful of the costs and benefits to ourselves and to society.

How important is writing to you? Whom or what do you write for? What do you expect to get out of writing? How do you want to be seen or remembered by others through your writing? I’ve answered all these questions for myself—the bottom line is that writing is my livelihood and profession; I’m less a romantic than a realist—but I can’t hazard an answer for others. As a member of the barkada, the best I can do is to enlarge the table and to bring others to it—if they even want to be there, in the first place; if they don’t, well, perhaps they shouldn’t mind too much if we dine in peace and enjoy each other’s company—and maybe even manage to write a good book or two on the side.

Penman No. 32: Ten Tips for the eBay Newbie

ebayPenman for Monday, February 4, 2013

BEEN LOOKING for a DVD copy of the 1973 Hollywood musical Lost Horizon, a 1954 Omega Seamaster, a pair of Johnny Depp’s Moscot Lemtosh shades, an 11200-mAh power bank for your iPhone, or a 1988 Stipula Baracca limited-edition fountain pen? Well, I have—and I found them all, not in my neighborhood mall or ukay-ukay, but in that largest of global marketplaces, eBay.

I’ve been buying and occasionally selling on eBay almost from the very beginning, since December 1997, and now have a feedback of 520+ (thankfully 100 percent positive). In all those hundreds of transactions, I’ve had maybe three or four bum cases of sellers not delivering, or sending me bad stuff. All of those cases were sorted out and I was refunded, so I do believe eBay to be a generally safe place to shop, with lots of wonderful bargains to be had, but as with any marketplace physical or digital, it can be tricky for the unwary.

I thought of writing up this brief guide to shopping on eBay because, thanks to my recent articles featuring fountain pens, papers, and inks, I’ve been deluged with inquiries about where to find these items and for how much. In particular, vintage and premium pens seem to be in great demand—pens like the Montblanc 149 and 146, the Parker Duofold, Parker Vacumatic, and Parker 75, and 1920s Waterman pens with flexible nibs.

I’ve sold quite a few of these pens myself, having made a pledge (a pitifully weak one) to trim down my collection of about 200 pens by half. My recent acquisitions have tended to be more expensive, so to help assuage my wallet and my conscience, I’ve had to dispose some of my loot, if only to make room for more. That means that I have to find a steady and reliable source for pens both to resell and to keep, and that can only be eBay—where, at any given moment, there will be about 40,000 pens of all kinds to compete for my attention and my credit card.

So I’ve been telling my pen-seeking friends that they could save themselves a chunk of change by bypassing me and going straight to the source—where a slightly used Montblanc 149 (which sells new on Amazon for $810) might go for around $400. But I’ve also warned them that it’s going to be a slippery slope, fraught with dangers and risks—not to mention the biggest risk of all, which is to get infected with eBay shopaholia.

Even if you care nothing about pens, there are literally a million more things to be found on and on its local site,—everything from a mummified monkey’s paw (which you can buy without bidding for $13.00) and an 1864 autograph of Abraham Lincoln (bidding starts at $4,995.00) to a 2012 Lamborghini Aventador (yours for $469,991.00). Very likely, they’ll be things you don’t need but will soon want—and want badly, so mind the following tips if you plan on shopping on eBay without risking your children’s inheritance or your marriage. I’m going to use pens to illustrate my points, but these tips can apply as well to cameras, shoes, bags, bikes, or whatever floats your boat.

1. Know what you’re looking for—know the product and its current market value. Do some research beforehand and establish what possible issues there might be with the item. For example, if you’re looking for a Montblanc, understand that vintage celluloid ones in good shape could command more than new ones in “precious resin”—but also that the 149 and 146 are the most faked pens in the world (along with the Parker Sonnet); eBay actually has a guide to determining fake MBs (which means, know your way around eBay as well). EBay’s “completed listings” is a great way to determine market value—look for the median price (discard lowest and highest prices) for a better sense of what you can expect to pay. Check other websites (Amazon, BestBuy, etc.) as well, because their special deals and offers could undercut eBay. I do most of my gadget shopping, for example, on

2. Condition, condition, condition. In your enthusiasm for an item, you might forget to probe its condition. Read the description very well and look out for any flaws. Especially scrutinize all the pictures. (This also allows me to spot special features that others might miss—a broad stub on a nib, for example). I think I know pens well enough that I can tell make, model, year, and approximate value for most major brands on sight, but every pen is still unique once it’s up for sale. Keep an eye out for cracks, glue, broken tines, mismatched caps and barrels, discoloration, etc.

3. Set up a PayPal account. It will make your life a whole lot easier on the Internet, since PayPal has become a global standard for electronic payments. I’ve tied my PayPal to a specific bank account I use only for eBay transactions. Is it safe? Of course you’ll hear a horror story here and there, but in my own experience, eBay and PayPal have served me very well, settling questions and disputes and sending refunds very quickly in the rare cases of non-delivery I’ve encountered.

4. Keep looking. Since I now buy and sell pens, I check out eBay many times a day—I have it on my phone—and have set up search terms for my favorite items, like Parker Vacumatics. This enables me to find what I like quickly, in a marketplace where millions of items are up for sale at any given moment. Some of my best bargains have come when buyers in the US—my chief competitors—are literally asleep. I also check out and (the UK and Canada) and have found some of my best bargains there. The first thing I check is “newly listed”, further narrowed down to “buy it now”—this way I can catch the real bargains before anyone else does. Then I check “ending soonest.” You can also refine your searches, for example by looking just for “149” under “Montblanc” under “fountain pens.”

5. Check the seller’s feedback. I’d be wary of a seller with less than 95% positive feedback. He or she may not be a cheat, but has a poor service record (delayed mailings, no response, etc.)

6. Establish your bidding threshold early on. Don’t get caught in a bidding war with another bidder. These days, since I could be bidding on 20 items at any given moment (expecting to win maybe two or three), I just bid my maximum and forget about it until the last two minutes, which are really all that matters on eBay. Some people use sniping programs that let the computer make a last-second automated bid for them; I should, but have been too lazy to set one up, and I rather like the excitement of making the last-minute bid myself.

7. Figure out and factor in your shipping options. Since most of my purchases are made in the US, I use a US shipping address (my sister’s in Virginia) and aggregate my purchases there. When I’ve gathered a boxful, I ask my sister to ship them to Johnny Air Cargo in NYC, which forwards them to me in Manila a week later. I’m sure many of you have US relatives who can do this for you (just make sure that they’re willing—be very nice to them at Christmas). I’ve educated my sister on pens so she’ll know how to check out a pen when it arrives and how to handle and package them properly; and yes, I’ve given her a nice pen or two.

8. Pay promptly, and leave feedback. You’ll see how your own feedback will improve once you become a good eBay netizen.

9. If and when you encounter a problem, report it to eBay. They have mechanisms for dealing with problems like getting a defective item (unless it was so described) or not receiving an item you paid for at all. Take note that there’s a time window (45 days, I believe) within which complaints can be filed.

10. Don’t lose hope. I’ve lost out on bids for items that I’d coveted for years, but then found another one a week later, for cheaper. If you can’t find it on eBay, it probably doesn’t exist, or is illegal to own. For me, it’s fountain pen paradise, and another reason to wake up in the morning for.