Penman No. 80: Men of Letters (2)

FCPenman for Monday, January 6, 2014

I CAN’T remember now how the poet Fidelito Cortes fell into our circle of beer-guzzling, Yeats-quoting friends in Diliman back in the early 1980s, but I do know that he was there, on December 10, 1984, when my very first book (Oldtimer and Other Stories) was launched without much fanfare in UP. I know that, because after the event, we went for more drinks in a restaurant on Katipunan (where serving beer was still illegal then, because of some silly ordinance), and Fidelito was with us.

Also there was the late Ernesto “Cochise” Bernabe II, a popular figure on campus and an English major who had been fortunate enough to visit Stanford, and who had come back with some application forms for that university’s famed Wallace Stegner fellowship. We all feigned indifference to Cochise’s offering (who needed Stanford?), but weeks later, we would discover that at least four of us had applied for the Stegner-me, Krip Yuson, Fidelito, and I think Mon Bautista (not the currently telegenic one, but a gifted fictionist from Mindoro).

Imagine our surprise and envy when, come April, we heard that it was Fidelito whom Stanford had accepted for the one-year, well-funded fellowship, with nothing much to do but write and attend workshops on Stanford’s plush campus in Palo Alto, California. But then we shouldn’t have been surprised, as Lito was an extraordinarily good poet, whose work resonated with a deep and quiet melancholy.

Lito flew off to Stanford in August 1985; I would follow to Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1986, having snagged a Fulbright. Mon Bautista got a fellowship to Kansas, I think it was. (In an even more remarkable turn, our friend and beermate Gina Apostol wrote a fellow named John Barth directly at the University of Maryland, showing him a short story that she had written, titled “Earthquake in Mexico”; Barth wrote her back, offering her a scholarship, and thus began the Leyteña Gina’s long and continuing sojourn in the US). It was, in other words, a time when another generation of young Filipino writers began looking abroad, and specifically to the US, for opportunities to broaden their horizons (before we would discover Australia, Singapore, Japan, China, and other places closer to home).

Lito, in a way, had always been prepared to go Stateside; he’d never been there prior to the Stegner, but he had imbibed its pop culture so well that he routinely beat the crap out of us in Trivial Pursuit, particularly in the sports category, where he seemed to know all the NFL teams and their key players by heart; not to be outdone in colonial education, I commanded the geography portion, having memorized the US states and their capitals since my grade school days.

On January 18, 1986, I wrote Fidelito:

Dear Fidelito, 

Thanks a lot for your Christmas card and the Stanford forms. Unfortunately, I only got the forms yesterday (you mailed them Dec 16-a month ago!), so their users will have to wait till next year…. The “US or bust” fever continues, probably because it’s application time; we’re getting deluged by inquiries about getting into a US university, any university; the GRE and TOEFL people are raking it in…. Still no news about my acceptance; I’m hoping for either Michigan or Colorado…. We’re running out of rumors, unless you count election-fever rumors, one of the most persistent (I hear it every night, in my dreams) of which is that as a token of the American government’s displeasure with the travesty of democracy in this country, all educational assistance grants are to be terminated forthwith…. Seriously, there’s a tremendous outpouring of effort and initiative here these days, even among the most unlikely people, in support of the Cory-Doy duo; it looks like everybody’s going to be voting; the boycott boys are unusually quiet; still nearly everyone agrees that while Cory has a real chance if the votes are counted straight, there’s just no way the old man’s going to yield his seat with a smile; the US is taking a beating in the crony press; there’s even talk of declaring Bosworth p. non grata…. I hope they declare me and Beng & Demi personae non grata, and ship me out on the next plane. So don’t be in too much of a hurry to get home. By the way, Isabel plans to do her MA paper for Abad’s class on your poetry. Keep it up-statistically speaking, there’s got to be one beach blonde out there somewhere who’s into football, Yeats, and Filipino poets.

A few months and a couple of letters later, Lito wrote, on April 13, 1986:

Dear Butch,

Thanks for the letter and the snapshots. I wish I could say I’ve been busy and productive these recent months… but such is not the case. ‘Tis laziness, I’m afraid, that’s responsible for my silence-that, and a more than trifling case of sensual (not sensory) disorder called hedonism. The California spring is gorgeous, the weather mild enough for tees and shorts (cherchez les femmes), the sun is always there where you want him. “In short there’s simply not a more congenial spot for happ’ly-ever-aftering than here in Palo Alt(o).”

…. As far as I’m concerned, I’m going to be happy when the Stegner-ship is over. I’ll hate leaving Stanford, of course, which has such breathtakingly beautiful women, and San Francisco, and ditto, and ditto scenery, but to balance these, I’ll be glad to get away from the pressure of the workshop. I was kidding when I said that I had been doing nothing lately; on the contrary. I’ve always felt the pressure to produce, to bring something to class, and I’ve been prolific like I’ve never been before. Of course, I’m not being ungrateful-after all, I’m writing poems and they’re all before me, but I’d like to relax. Hence I’m applying for a seven-month fellowship in Provincetown, Mass. Where the only thing I have to do is write at my own pace. I hope I get in.

Denise Levertov has left. I say this not without a sigh of relief, for she has been hard on our poetry and hard on us as poets. She insists on precision, and with great justification, but boy! It’s difficult to sit still while she’s working on your poem. We became friends, mainly because as a leftist intellectual-and with a wonderful revolution going on in the Philippines-she was glad to have an actual Filipino in her class. But she still fills me with awe, and of course she’s scarred us, one way or another, with sharp criticism. I think that the inevitable consequence of studying under such a famous and demanding teacher is not that your work necessarily gets better, but that you become demanding yourself, and unfortunately more so upon those other than yourself, and you tend to take as your own your teacher’s biases and peculiar orientation. I’m afraid, Butch, that when you see me again, I will have become more opinionated and dogmatic-hence obnoxious-about craft and art. Denise has supplied me with ammunition (30 rounds on line breaks alone; 40 on the poem’s sonic structure; etc), and you will find that I can’t wait to pull the trigger.

Being here has allowed me to experience a lot of the literary life, I’ve heard Joyce Carol Oates, Adrienne Rich, Thom Gunn, Wendell Berry, Michael McClure, Robert Duncan, Alex Haley read and lecture. I had lunch with Berry. Muriel Spark and John Irving are coming in the spring to lecture and read. If it’s possible to OD on the stuff, I would’ve done so, but I keep attending readings and classes. I’m reading Leon Edel’s Henry James, and I’m beginning to understand what commitment to literature is…. Two girls have offered to marry me, to keep me here, can you beat that? But I’m too proud, I guess, although pride is for swallowing. Write soon, Butch, and keep on writing. Yours,


Lito and I exchanged hello’s over Christmas-me from Manila and he from New York, where his lovely wife Nerissa teaches at Stony Brook. It was great to be in touch again after all these years-I had to warn him that these incriminating letters were coming out-but as fast and convenient as email is, nothing beats a scribbled signature and a postage stamp.

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