Penman No. 411: In Praise of Pack Rats

Penman for Monday, April 12, 2021

ANOTHER LONG reminded me, not unpleasantly, of a fact that could be a vice to some and a virtue to others: I’m an incorrigible pack rat—have always been and, given the brevity of the life remaining, will likely always be. 

Having loads of boxes stacked around the house—from floor to ceiling and under the beds—I couldn’t resist making a physical check of what was in them, as if I didn’t know: Instamatic snapshots and other photographs going back half a century, newspapers from under martial law, test papers (my students’ and my own), scripts for movies that never got shot, drafts of cringeworthily bad stories, receipts from restaurants long closed, Love Bus tickets, tourist maps of Hong Kong from before the handover, multi-coupon airline tickets, and certificates of attendance for this and that seminar. 

Some of you will be smiling, because you’re probably just as bad as if not even worse than I am. I don’t think I qualify just yet for one of those “Hoarders” episodes on TV, where tears get shed and egos get smashed as truckloads of trash depart from excavated homes. But I do identify with those grass-chewing farmers in overalls on “American Pickers” with barns full of glorious junk behind them—except that instead of cars and oil cans, I have boxes and suitcases full of old papers (and yes, fire extinguishers all over the place).

That’s not even the side of me that’s the formal, organized collector of vintage pens, typewriters, antiquarian books, old Macs, and midcentury paintings. Those go into real shelves, cabinets, and mylar sleeves. I’m talking about the sheer detritus of time, the flotsam and jetsam that get washed up on the shores of our home in UP Diliman, and never quite leave. 

So the logical question is, why not just throw those useless things away? And the logical answer is, because they may not be useless after all.

Never mind that there’s a growing market for old papers, or what collectors and dealers grandly call “ephemera,” things that come and go. Nostalgia can have a price tag, and people will pay for objects that remind them of simpler and happier times. Others seek out historical connections—signatures of the high and mighty, books from a precious library, a president’s or a general’s juvenilia. 

But pack rats don’t really save bagfuls of stuff to sell them decades down the road. They—we—do so because of sentimental value, because of the personal and intimate associations that even the slightest and commonest articles can carry. They tell stories we like to hear, perhaps over and over again.

This came to mind last week, as I pored over a pile of scrapbooks once kept by a long-departed gentleman whose biography I’ve been working on for the past few years. The first draft had been finished some time ago, but both I and the man’s son who commissioned me to write the book felt that something was lacking—the spark of familiarity, the regular guy, the granular character behind the suited portraits. I urged the family to locate his letters, and they did, sending me a large plastic tub full of scrapbooks, albums, envelopes, and papers from as long as 80 years ago, just before and after the war.

I should do another piece sometime on the vanished art of scrapbooking, but the oldtimers reading this will recall how we used to fill up picture albums not just with photographs but notes, cards, cutouts, clippings, and so on. This was the trove suddenly made available to me—several scrapbooks that the man had diligently kept over two decades, chronicling almost every important phase and point in his young life. 

This was a man—I can’t tell you who just yet—who became one of our most renowned economists and foreign policy experts, a business icon, and civil servant, a provincial boy who made it to the world’s centers of power, acknowledged by his peers to be among the best of them. There are scholarly and journalistic sources enough to narrate his life, but that’s just reportage, not biography.

What I found and appreciated was a 23-year-old sailing on a ship bound for America, on his first trip abroad as a government scholar. (He’s a smart guy—I go over his college transcript, where I see he barely passes English his first semester, but retakes it and gets a “1” the next term.) He saves his receipts for his suits, shirts, socks, ties, pomade, and toothbrush, and the customs pass that allows his mother “and a party of eight” to see him off. 

When the ship docks in Yokohama, he seeks out and visits a famous Filipino exile there, who gives him and signs a revolutionary pamphlet that’s also in the scrapbook (and I later confirm with a historian-friend that the scrawled signature is, indeed, Artemio Ricarte’s). When he arrives in San Francisco, he dashes off a breathless eight-page letter to his sister, exclaiming how beautiful, large, and busy the place is. He keeps and pastes his train schedules and tickets as he travels eastward to his destination, Harvard. 

And so on, and so on—tickets to Broadway, to nightclubs, restaurant menus, hotel receipts, Christmas cards, and then the war comes, and he attends patriotic rallies where the attendees sing “Land of the Morning” and “Philippines, My Philippines,” the mimeographed lyrics of which he keeps.

Suddenly my subject came alive for me—because he was, like me, a pack rat, a savior of the little things that sometimes tell great stories.

Penman No. 410: A Dimming of Lights

Penman for Monday, March 29, 2021

OUTSIDE OF immediate family, there comes to every life at least one figure whom we cannot owe and thank enough—a mentor, a cheerleader, a believer on whose every word of encouragement you wait, and whose rebukes or admonitions, albeit rare, strike you with chilling efficacy.

This past month I lost two such figures, a woman and a man who lived into their nineties and thus influenced not only me but generations of students and acolytes eager to learn.

The first was Mrs. Agnes Banzon Vea—better known to many as the understandably proud mother of Smart founder Doy and Mapua president Rey, among other accomplished children. She was our English teacher at the Philippine Science High School, where she taught for many decades and became an institution.

For many decades now, I’ve boasted about being Mrs. Vea’s acknowledged pet. One of the things I quickly realized upon her passing was that it wasn’t true—we were all her pets.

Maybe I just felt special, because that’s what she made each of us feel. We were the third batch of PSHS students, long before the school came to be known as “Pisay.” But she did far more than teach us grammar and even literature. She taught us to think on our feet, to see beyond the obvious, and to enjoy ourselves doing it. She liberated our minds, and made a science high school feel like a playground for the imagination.

There are two episodes that have remained very clearly with me that happened when I was editor of the Science Scholar, and she was our adviser. Once, deadlines were falling due, but I was feeling lazy, so I told her I wasn’t in the mood to write. That was the only time I saw her get angry. I can’t recall exactly what she told me, maybe because it left me in total shock, but she made it clear that talent was worth nothing without discipline. I went to work right away.

Another time, in more pleasant circumstances, she took me aside to tell me something important. “Butch,” she said, “there are two young writers I want you to read, because both of them are very good. One is Joey Arcellana, and he edits the Philippine Collegian at UP. The other is still in UP High, and his name is Gary Olivar.” I think she was telling me that there were far better writers than myself, and that it was good to never forget that, if I was to continue learning. I took her advice, and because of it, within my first semester of entering UP two years later, I joined the Philippine Collegian, and also the Alpha Sigma fraternity, to which Gary and incidentally Mrs. Vea’s son Doy belonged.

But more than a teacher, she was a second mother to us, and I was especially touched by the memory of one of my batchmates, Ophelia Gaspay, who recalled how she was sitting all by herself in one of our school dances, watching the world go by. Suddenly, much to her surprise, someone went up to her to ask her for a dance—none other than Rey Vea, the dreamboat and heartthrob of the whole school. As they were twirling across the floor, she saw, out of the corner of her eye, a beaming Mrs. Vea, her fairy godmother, who had apparently waved her magic wand.

The second mentor I lost was the writer and editor Johnny Gatbonton, who had a long and distinguished career in journalism. Literature majors should remember him as the author of the classic postwar short story “Clay,” which won first prize in the Palanca Awards of 1951. When I met him in the early 1990s, he was about as old as I am now, and had set up a speechwriting operation for President Fidel V. Ramos. He needed another hand; I had just returned from my graduate studies in the US, and was close to penniless. 

I learned not only graceful and effective speechwriting from Johnny, but also imbibed his intellectual curiosity, his love for the arts, and his generosity toward younger writers. Johnny held office at the painter Malang’s building on West Avenue in Quezon City, and every now and then Johnny hosted lunch for a train of literary luminaries who included Nick Joaquin, NVM Gonzalez, Greg Brillantes, Rony Diaz, and Andy Cristobal Cruz; I was the proverbial fly on the wall, eavesdropping on another generation’s animated conversation.

In 1994, when I was a awarded a writing fellowship at Hawthornden Castle in Scotland (where I eventually wrote and completed Penmanship and Other Stories), instead of docking me a month’s pay for my absence, Johnny gave me the cash for pocket money and wished me well on my writing. Many years later, out of the blue and when he had also retired, Johnny asked me and the late Raul Rodrigo out to lunch just so we could chat about nonfiction and daydream about which National Artist’s biography we most wanted to write (I think I said Franz Arcellana, another mentor of mine, and Raul said Botong Francisco). 

The dimming of such lights, although inevitable, is deeply saddening, but we can only wish that we will be as sorely missed when our time comes.

Penman No. 409: My Strange Romance

Penman for Monday, March 15, 2021

AS A RETIRED professor, I’m used to receiving requests for me to give lectures and short talks on a variety of predictably serious topics ranging from Philippine literature and culture to academic freedom and martial law. Time permitting—something people assume retirees to have in spades—I’m usually happy to oblige. I’m not a naturally talkative person—my wife Beng complains that I seem to grow more telepathic with age, replying to her rhapsodic reports on her orchids and bougainvilleas with appreciative grunts—but I find it easy to write and deliver short essays on just about anything, having been trained all my life to do just that. (My first newspaper job at the Philippines Herald, at age 18, required me to fill up the upper half of the features page with something—anything readable—every day.)

But within days of each other recently, I received two messages asking me to give one-hour presentations—including a Q&A—on essentially the same subject: my favorite things. Well, of course that’s not exactly how they put it, but for me it came down to that. 

One request came from a group of surgeons at the Philippine General Hospital who, they said, needed a break from their crushingly strenuous duties in these days of Covid, and wanted to hear me talk about my “passion for culture, fountain pens, and the written word.” My eyes zeroed in on “pens,” and took everything else in its context. 

The second request came from a teacher of an STS (Science, Technology, and Society) course in UP, whom I thought wanted me to give the usual lecture about the relationship between science and the humanities. Instead, he told me this: “We already know you as a writer, but we want to invite you as a geek to talk about ‘The Technology of Writing.’” It was music to my ears—nothing about C.S. Lewis and all that, but instead, the literal nuts and bolts of typewriters and computers and how they affect writing.

Of course I said yes to both invitations, happy to indulge in my favorite pastimes. I may be a rank amateur in literary theory (frankly, to me, a hateful exercise), but I might unabashedly consider myself an expert on the tools and products of the writing trade—I suppose I should, as an incorrigible collector of fountain pens, typewriters, computers, antiquarian books and manuscripts, and basically anything having to do with writing.

I don’t go as far back as styluses for cuneiform and hieroglyphs and quill pens for illuminating medieval manuscripts, but I’m fascinated by—and probably have—everything else in between those and the MacBook Air. Like I’ve often said, I have an analog and a digital side, thanks to an abbreviated ambition to become an engineer, fresh out of the Philippine Science High School. I can change the rubber sac in a 1928 Parker Duofold pen and install a new SSD card on my laptop; sadly, I can’t fold my shirts or smoothen the bedsheets as well as Beng can (nor can I restore an Amorsolo or Manansala as finely as she does).

So why am I building a virtual museum of writing and publishing in my backyard? Because the tools and materials of the trade can be just as engrossing as the products. Every new development in the technology of writing—such as the switch from ink to ribbon and then to pixels on a screen—arguably changed culture and society, although not always for the better. Moveable type and Gutenberg’s press (1450) helped radically in the spread of knowledge, although Gutenberg himself didn’t live long enough to benefit from it and died penniless (the problem was literacy, which had to catch up with printing—what good were 1,000 copies of the Bible if very few people could read books?). 

Pens allowed people to express themselves and communicate with one another over long distances, and newspapers helped form public opinion and guide policy. Along with the telephone and teletype, typewriters helped speed up and secure business. Word processors, computers, and the Internet allowed for several key improvements: painless revision, theoretically infinite copies, and lighting-speed global transmission. On the downside, drafts and even originals were lost, fraud became easier, and language and even thinking suffered. Perhaps most ironic of all, the global reach of the Internet also meant anonymity and even loneliness for many, besides shutting out anyone who couldn’t afford a computer and bandwidth. 

When I hold a sheet from Sebastian Munster’s Cosmographia, published in Basel in 1578 featuring an account of the Spanish presence in the Philippines and Miguel Lopez de Legazpi’s sacking of Manila barely seven years earlier, I can’t help but feel an electric thrill running to my elbows, imagining myself a reader from four centuries earlier, opening that same page and taking in the news.

When I’m wetting the nib of a 1920s Waterman, dissolving the bright blue ink that had dried on it almost a century ago and putting that nib to paper, I wonder what the last word it wrote was—likely the signature of its first owner. 

When I type on a Remington Rand from 1941—a special all-caps military model that was used for transcribing messages—I can feel the hushed urgency in those keys, the whispers of war streaking across the platen.

When I put batteries into a Palm Pilot from the late ‘90s—and it still turns on, challenging me to scribble a note in its own Graffiti language—I smile at the memory of digital innocence.

When I brush my fingers along the smoothened haunches of a Japanese inkstone, I can see the ink welling at the bottom, into which a ball of cotton might be dipped to go into the bowl of a copper yatate—a portable container of ink and brush that the Japanese carried with them before the days of the fountain pen, so they could write letters on the road.

Writing is one of the most intimate and tactile forms of communication there is—first, between your brain and your fingers, then your fingers and the pen, brush, or keyboard. I guess I could talk all day long about my strange romance, but if you invite me, an hour will do.

Penman No. 408: Windows on the Filipino Soul

Penman for Monday, March 1, 2021

SOON TURNING 80, the veteran journalist and fictionist Amadis Ma. Guerrero has added another feather to his cap as one of this country’s foremost chroniclers of culture, particularly the visual arts. Less than two years ago, he gave us the splendid book Philippine Social Realists (Quezon City: Erehwon Artworld Corp.), where he reviewed ten of the country’s most accomplished advocates of social realism, prompting our own Juaniyo Arcellana to call him “a master of reportage, which he puts to good use in this series of portraits of the artist as Philippine social realist.”

This time, with the launch last week of SYM, Galicano, and PASPI, also published by Erehwon, Guerrero takes on the art of portraiture itself, and the Filipino artists who have devoted themselves to—and distinguished themselves in—this most difficult of artistic challenges.

Say the word “portrait” and what will likely spring to mind for most Filipinos—excluding the “Mona Lisa”—is Jose Rizal looking pensive and noble, as he should, frozen in a print that has become almost obligatory in most government offices (at least until certain Presidents and lesser politicians deemed themselves worthier of that spot on the wall). The older and well-heeled crowd will default to Fernando Amorsolo, who seems to have painted everyone’s rich and famous grandfather or grandmother. The more art-savvy might bring up John Singer Sargent, Lucien Freud, Andy Warhol, and Frida Kahlo. 

Indeed, portraits have served throughout history to glorify the sitters and their families, made to order by the most talented painters of their time, and paid for by the most powerful patrons of that same era. They were, and still are, quite frankly made for money, which usually meant a softer line here and a scatter of stardust there to idealize the hopefully happy subject. Occasionally and perhaps increasingly, they have also been made for love—if not love of art itself, then (to venture sideways into more theatrical territory) of the subjects who became their artists’ muses if not their lovers, such as Andrew Wyeth’s Helga Testorf or Gustav Klimt’s Adele Bloch-Bauer.

In his overview of contemporary Philippine portraiture, Guerrero provides us not only with a visual feast of styles and talents but also with—in his own way—verbal portraits of the artists themselves: their back stories, their struggles, and how they came to see and use portraiture as their window on the Filipino soul. 

The title of the book may be cryptic to many, so let’s explain that “SYM” is Sofronio Y. Mendoza, the brother-in-law of fellow portraitist Romulo “Mulong” Galicano, and that “PASPI” is the Portrait Artists Society of the Philippines, Inc., whose members the two masters have mentored. 

In his typically well-wrought foreword, Dr. Patrick Flores notes how important it is that “the story of art that this publication tells does not begin in Manila, perceived to be the center of the solar system of the Philippine art world. It rather unfolds in Carcar in Cebu. This in itself contributes to the body of literature on a species of Philippine art that takes root in and flourishes beyond the metropolitan privileges of Manila.” Carcar was where both Mendoza and Galicano studied at the foot of Cebu’s pre-eminent postwar painter, Martino Abellana, the so-called “Amorsolo of the South.”

Both men have since overtaken their teacher to become mentors to a new generation of gifted portraitists in PASPI, and the book offers glimpses into the life and works of many of its members—Wilfredo Baldemor, Romeo Ballada, Publio Briones, Jr., Carlos Cadid, Wilfredo Cañete, Jr., Ariel Caratao, Ramon de Dios, Efren Enolva, Carlos Florido, Alvin Montano, Maridi Nivera, Joemarie Sanclaria, Dante Silverio (yes, the Dante Silverio), and Lita Wells. 

With the exception of the former Toyota coach and long-time art enthusiast, few of these names will be familiar to most Filipinos, although many have attained some degree of professional accomplishment. Some, like Romy Ballada and Boboy Cañete, never went to art school (born poor, Cañete didn’t even get to high school), but their work is suffused with what matters most in portraiture: character—which, as a fictionist, I take to be the promise of a deeper story beyond the picture. The stylistic range presented runs from the classically posed to the problematic postmodern, but I enjoy it best when the painter takes a break from his or her usual material, such as Galicano’s decidedly anti-romantic “The Sleeping Model.” (The book also explains why Galicano adopted his trademark stripe in his paintings.)

Amadis Guerrero tells well-framed stories of the artists and their passions with great empathy and efficiency, and I hope that he will be commissioned (as this is the only way this will happen here) to do full-length biographies of our National Artists such as Botong Francisco and Mang Enteng Manansala. Also praiseworthy is Erehwon’s continuing commitment to art publishing, and to producing such handsome volumes (this one was designed and photographed by Willie de Vera). A recent winner of Quezon City’s Gawad Parangal for its leadership in the arts, Erehwon and its visionary founder, Raffy Benitez—who has sunk millions into his baby knowing he’ll never get it all back—deserve our gratitude and admiration. 

Penman No. 407: Fifty Februaries

Penman for Monday, February 15, 2021

FOR A certain segment of that generation called the “baby boomers”—people now in their mid-60s and 70s—this month will bring back memories both poignant and painful, harking back to a time when the unbridled fun of the 1960s (think of the Beatles, Woodstock, and Barbarella) was rudely replaced, top of mind, by the all-too-serious clamor of revolutionary politics.

I was 16 and a Philippine Science High School senior when I joined my first big march on January 26, 1970, and had just turned 17 when the nine-day-long “Diliman Commune”—whose 50th anniversary came last February 1st—was put up by students like me as a spontaneous response to what we saw to be an assault on the University of the Philippines campus by military and police forces.

I have many vivid memories of that uprising which I have dealt with in essays and in my first novel, the highlights of which include standing sentry at Area 14 with a kwitis and a home-made Molotov cocktail, as if either of them would have saved me in case of an attack; sneaking out of campus in Dr. Fred Lagmay’s little car to publish the Free Collegian; and being in the DZUP booth as a comrade played a tape of “Pamulinawen” (those of you old enough will know the reference).

Ironically, that anniversary took place at a moment when, once again and half a century after the Commune, UP and other universities were being tagged as leftist “havens” by people with very different ideas about what universities should be doing. This was the same half-century, come to think of it, that produced far more UP-alumni presidents, senators, congressmen, mayors, CEOs, entrepreneurs, lawyers, doctors, artists, scientists, singers, comedians, and even AFP officers than Red recruits. 

But let’s not go there. I don’t mean to engage in political polemics as much as to wonder how time and distance can change people—or maybe not. The freshman me, who carried that incendiary bottle during the Commune (and maybe thankfully never got to throw it), grew up to be a potbellied and balding professor of English, much to my own surprise. Ours was a generation (as our dear editor and my fellow time-traveler Millet might remember) that did not expect to live long, and so like Achilles, we did what we felt had to be done as soon as we could do it; history was theater and we were actors in it. Less than two years after the Commune, and fresh out of martial-law prison, I met Beng—to whom, against all odds, I remain married after 47 years.

To survive that long is both wonderful and perplexing, especially when we seem to be hearing the same refrains all over again. It’s hard to tell where you are when past and present seem indistinguishable in some ways, except that you now see an old man where the young buck was in the mirror. You pity the small boy at your knee who has to go through all that on his own; you want him to be safe and not take foolish risks as you once did—but he is even smarter than you, and you know he will.

They asked me to give a short speech in UP to commemorate the Commune, but instead of a talk I chose to write and read a poem (with apologies to Janis Ian) about what it was to be seventeen fifty Februaries past, and here it is:

AT SEVENTEEN

At seventeen I raised my left fist to the sky

And held, in my right hand, 

A bottle filled with gasoline—

And far more flammable,

Admixtured faith and folly,

Courage and a thumping fear

That my life would not last much longer than

That hour, at once so still and pensive,

The tall grass around my outpost

Silvered by some distant light.

A “Molotov cocktail” was what they called

That lethal brew, its ragged tongue the sacrifice

Of someone’s cotton underwear, its fuel

Of someone’s ride to Bulacan,

And my right hand, the young elastic limb

That would toss this long-tailed dragon to the sky

Against the dark-faced enemy, my arm,

Myself, the new, rough-hewn, imperfect

Oblation of that fraught age.

I was, I told myself, prepared to die

And perhaps I might have even 

Believed the lie. 

I never threw that bomb, nor any other

Of the kind. The enemy was more

Deceitful than I thought, refusing to appear

Just then—although I’ve seen him since, 

In the old FC and AS and Quezon Hall—

And I even stopped once to ask, “Excuse me,

Do I know you?” because I thought I did.

The intrepid and unwary die.

The articulate survive, to write poems

And raise fuseless cocktails with their right hands

While their left fingers cradle Marlboros

Or tap out the cadence of muted anthems

Once sung to red flags cresting in the wind.

These days I hold nothing

More menacing than hat and cane.

I should have feared, at seventeen,

That I would live this long, that I would know

Waywardness of memory and uncertainty of step—

And still, from time to time, looking down

The long, unfolding scroll of University Avenue,

Feel barricades of salvaged wood

And gathered stone rising in my chest.

Penman No. 406: Poets and Politicians

Penman for Monday, February 1, 2021

NOBODY EXPECTED a 22-year-old poet named Amanda Gorman to be the runaway hit at Joe Biden’s presidential inauguration last month, but there she was, bright and exuberant, delivering a clear and ringing message of hope in her now-famous “The Hill We Climb.” Once you have both grandmothers and teenagers quoting the same verses in their posts, you know that a chord has been struck, a nerve touched, in the national psyche.

Of course, that was another nation, not ours, but I’m sure many Filipinos exulted as well in that new beginning for America after four years of chaos, and not too secretly hoped for a similar return to civility and decency—indeed to optimism and intelligence—where they were. As a boy whose early education was steeped in Americana—nothing too strange in Filipino private schools of the 1960s—I grew up to become something of a junkie for American history and politics, which explains why, for the past three months, I followed every turn of the Trump-Biden saga as if it had anything to do with us (and inevitably, it will; when America burps or worse, we hear it).

There have just been four American presidents who had poets read at their inaugurals: John F. Kennedy in 1961, Bill Clinton in 1993 and 1997, Barack Obama in 2009 and 2013, and Joe Biden in 2021. Robert Frost read “A Gift Outright” for JFK; for Clinton, Maya Angelou read “On the Pulse of Morning” in 1993 and Miller Williams read “Of History and Hope” in 1997; for Obama’s first inauguration in 2009, Elizabeth Alexander read “Praise Song for the Day” and in 2013, Richard Blanco read “One Today.” (Many thanks to poets.org for the information.)

As you can see from the titles alone, these poems were flush with positivity, as inaugurals should be. Why only Democrats brought poets along to their inaugurals seems something of a mystery—but then again maybe not, as poetry and the brand of culture it implies could be seen as “soft” by the gun-toting machos who typically vote Republican. 

There’s an article in the Chicago Tribune from 2012, when Mitt Romney was challenging Obama for the presidency, that faulted Romney for his rhetorical gaffes and asked if he could use a poet at his side. (Among his critics was a guy named Donald Trump who called Romney’s language “inartful.”) The Tribune noted that while “the world of poetry… is a liberal tradition,” there was also a smaller category of politically conservative poets—T. S. Eliot and Samuel Coleridge among them—that was still current, and had even been anthologized into a book called, unsurprisingly, The Conservative Poets, published by the University of Evansville Press in 2006. None of these featured poets made it to Trump’s inaugural in 2017.

Surely there must be parallels in our own political history—we even had a president, Carlos P. Garcia, who wrote poems called balak in his native Boholano, and Ferdinand Marcos retained a coterie of Palace poets to sing his and Meldy’s praises. These deserve longer commentary for another time.

Even as I admire Amanda Gorman’s achievement, and especially her delivery, I do have to say that, as a poem, “The Hill We Climb” was far from perfect for me—not that it matters much in the context of what the poem had to do. In modern poetry, we usually suggest that the poem be less direct, less declarative about its intentions, leaving the reader with a little puzzle to figure out. It’s the difference between saying “Nobody loves me like you do” and e. e. cummings writing “Nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands.” 

But Amanda was engaged in what we might call public poetry, poetry meant to be almost immediately understood and appreciated by a live audience, so it had to be more obvious in its meaning. That’s why it worked, like a popular song whose refrain people can easily remember; note, too, the rap-like rhyming and rhythm of its lines. What’s important is that the poem connected and made sense of recent events in a way and on a level that news stories and editorials couldn’t, delivered by a young, black poet with a credibility that politicians could only dream of.

Speaking of politicians, I’ve long maintained that leaders incapable of tenderness and of acknowledging their vulnerability can’t be trusted. Poetry’s appeal to the emotions requires a certain sensitivity on the listener’s or reader’s part, but it also engages the mind in ways that force you to go beyond the literal and to make intuitive connections between this and that. Leaders shackled by their own simplistic “us vs. them” mindsets and their self-defensiveness can’t make those imaginative leaps, or appreciate the rich ambiguities of literature, stuck in their rigid dogmas.

This doesn’t mean that culturally literate leaders can’t be tough when they need to be; JFK stood up to Khruschev and the Soviets with a naval blockade when they tried to ship missiles to Cuba. We can only wish other national leaders would be so brave against their nations’ enemies, instead of picking on certain universities for letting their professors and students think and speak freely, which not incidentally are basic to the writing of great poetry.

Penman No. 405: A Serenade of Crickets

Penman for Monday, January 18, 2021

EVERY MORNING, I wake up to the sound of hundreds if not thousands of crickets chirping in my ears. I will hear them for the rest of the day—every second of every minute of every hour—until I fall asleep. There is practically no escape—not earplugs, not even the “white noise” prescribed by websites, unless it (or some music) is played at intolerably high volume. Pressing my palms against my ears merely adds a percussive instrument to the orchestra, the thump-thump-thump of my beating heart.

We live on the UP campus in Diliman, in the shade of towering mango trees. For some time I simply assumed that there were, indeed, choirs of crickets up in those branches, making love or at least just making noise, as crickets are supposed to do. And then one day I undertook a foolish experiment—foolish, because what hadn’t been a problem suddenly became one. I went to a place where I was totally sure no crickets would be found, or no external sounds would get through—and I still heard the same relentless hum. It was in me, with me, wherever, whenever.

A small voice in me says I should be panicking and screaming. I remember an old horror movie I saw on TV as a boy, where an insect—which I would later learn was an “earwig”—crawls into a man’s ear and stays there, deep in his ear canal, and burrows into his brain, until it turns him into a raving lunatic. A doctor performs a delicate operation and—much to the man’s relief—takes the wriggler out. At that point, the doctor holds up the dead insect in his pincers, and gravely announces that “It’s a female—and it seems to have laid its eggs.” The patient screams, and screams.

There have been times, these past many months under lockdown, when I’ve felt that way, as if some dark fluid monster had insinuated itself into my brain, my body, and indeed my spirit. I emerged from sleep drowning in a huge flood compounded of fear, sorrow, and regret over everything in general and nothing in particular. The mere mention of another friend’s death or intubation sent my imagination spinning, asking questions for which I had no answers, like “What will be worse—passage into a black void with no consciousness whatsoever, or into immortality, forever aware of every little thing in the universe, and also forever alone?” I knew what people would be telling me—have faith in a heaven, in angels, in the enveloping welcome of a blinding grace, and as a good Christian schoolboy I found comfort in those pastel promises of deliverance. But it was hard to believe anything in the state I found myself in, where even familiar walls and ceilings seemed inescapably malignant. 

It probably didn’t help that as the long lockdown began, I resolved to use the time to catch up on a heavy backlog of writing jobs going back years, and against all odds managed to complete the drafts of five book projects within five months in a dizzying frenzy. I felt superhuman, until I woke up one morning feeling all hollowed out.

Before long, I realized and had to admit that I was going through bouts of anxiety and its flipside, depression. This came as a huge surprise to someone who had prided himself on his wakefulness and presence of mind. In my last job before retirement as my university’s VP for Public Affairs, I had been constantly on call to the media and to the community at large, explaining our policies and positions with what I hoped was clarity and composure. Suddenly all that coolness vanished; I felt uncertain, tentative, unmoored.

A call to a psychiatrist-friend led me back on the slow road to wellness; I’m still on it, managing from day to day with a combination of medication, exercise, prayer, and time for nothing but nothing (ie, Netflix, fountain pens, old books, and typewriters). Beng and I dream idly of our next adventures in faraway places—St. Petersburg, before the Covid curtain fell. I find it relaxing to watch an hour-long YouTube video on “codicology,” the archaeology of old books, as well as another on the recovery and restoration of a 1937 Bugatti Atalante. I am nourishing my sense of wonderment again, finding reassurance in a remembered past to which we all hope to belong.

The only downside to my recovery has been this case of tinnitus, this constant ringing in my ears, listed as a rare side effect of my antidepressant. I recall from my graduate studies that the ancients posed a theory about the “Music of the Spheres,” supposedly the harmonious hum produced by the movement of celestial bodies in space, imperceptible to the human ear. Fancifully I imagine that perhaps I had broken through some dimensional barrier and was hearing this orbital buzz.

But a serenade of crickets seems just about right, and may be a tolerable price to pay for a patch of sanity. Turning 67 last week, I thought of all the books I have yet to write in the time I have left, and for which I have to stay sensible and alert. The crickets remind me there is time, and no need to hurry toward that inevitable infinitude of absolute silence just ahead.

Penman No. 403: Bad Times, Good Art?

Penman for Monday, December 21, 2020

IN MY last column, I wrote about how art and literature respond to times of great distress, like plagues and wars. My spoilsport proposition was that—against most expectations—crisis and chaos are not the best environments for great art, not just because the artists are too busy just trying to survive, but because it takes time, distance, and reflection to integrate, to re-order, the experience of falling apart.

Citing previous examples like Albert Camus’ The Plague and Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, I said that this current pandemic will surely be the stuff of both bestsellers and ponderous novels, but the best writing about it will very likely not emerge for many more years, if not decades, to come.

If you need more proof, consider this: the best war stories were written long after the wars they dealt with. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, about the War of 1812, came out as a book in 1869. Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, about the Civil War, was published in 1895; World War I’s All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque in 1929; Kurt Vonnegut’s World War II-era Slaughterhouse Five in 1969; and Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam-era The Things They Carried in 1990.

That’s not to say that artists don’t or shouldn’t immediately respond to the tumult swirling around them. Something traumatic like plague and war can be both material for, and instigator of, great art.

The one outstanding example that comes to mind is Picasso’s Guernica, made in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War. The story goes that Picasso was in Paris working on another commission when he heard about Franco’s bombing of the town of Guernica in April that year, whereupon he shifted his attention to producing the now-iconic antiwar painting, which he finished in five weeks. 

Another oft-quoted story is that of the composer Dmitri Shostakovich, whose Symphony No. 6 in C Major, which came to be known as the “Leningrad Symphony,” was premiered in Russia during the siege of Leningrad by the Germans in July 1942, and became a kind of anthem of Soviet resistance. In the more cinematic retellings of this episode, it is said that the Germans realized they would lose the battle when they heard the symphony being played by a ragtag band of Russian musicians on the radio.

On the German side, there’s the story of the Berlin Philharmonic persisting in recording Brünnhilde’s Immolation Scene and the finale from Wagner’s Götterdämmerung despite the Allied forces knocking on Berlin’s gates in April 1945.

These examples, with their heroic if not tragic overtones, seem to suggest that in periods of great disorder and distress approaching chaos, artists of all kinds rise to the occasion and summon up their finest talents in the service of—and here one is tempted to say “humanity,” but I am more inclined to say “order,” which is inherent in every artist. The desire for justice, for example, is a form of outrage over the disturbance of some natural equilibrium, a sense of fairness, and bringing music into the battlefield is a willful imposition of structure and narrative into the cacophony of war. These creative outbursts in the middle of the fray are also affirmations of one’s higher consciousness, a civilized rejection of the easier option to submit to brutishness.

This reminds me of Umberto Eco’s insightful description of how art works as “a minimum of order compatible with a maximum of chaos.” The artist’s impulse is to bring method into the madness, to see pattern and narrative in the mess of things. 

Sometimes art has responded to war in the most striking ways. There was a very close relationship between Cubism and the development of military camouflage in the aftermath of World War I, with Cubism providing the inspiration for the abstraction of natural forms, culminating in the so-called “Dazzle” ships whose wild geometric designs, by the marine artist Norman Wilkinson, were meant less to hide ships than to confuse U-boat rangefinders.

But for all these illustrations of disorder as the handmaiden of great art, I suspect that they are exceptions, and that the more commonplace product is that enemy of good art, cliché. 

Dystopic times invite posterization, where subjects can either be romanticized or demonized. There’s that overwhelming urge to settle for the literal or cartoonish depiction of the obvious, which would be hardship and pain, violence and sorrow, over and over again. I’ve often pointed out to my writing students—long before the pandemic—that the easiest thing to write is a lament about how terrible and unfair life is, and how awful one feels. Walk into any serious art gallery (real or virtual) and you’ll see that most works by young artists are predominantly dark and gloomy.

I’m not suggesting that we get all Pollyanish and paint an artificially happy world; but I do expect great art to be transcendent and complex, to move beyond the immediate and the literal and to remind us of the need for beauty and hope amid the suffering. Michelangelo did that with the Pieta, which is not only about a son’s passing but a mother’s deathless love. 

Bad times and bad things may even prefigure or provoke some inner good, as the poet Rainer Maria Rilke put it: “Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.” 

Penman No. 402: The Brain That Will Not Sleep

Penman for Monday, December 7, 2020

I APPEARED last Monday at a webinar sponsored by the Philippines Graphic and the BusinessMirror to react to a paper delivered by National Artist and fellow Philippine STAR columnist F. Sionil Jose on “Philippine Literature in the Time of Pandemic,” along with the essayist and critic Lito Zulueta. We had a lively discussion, with over a thousand students listening in, so it was a great opportunity to do some teaching (or preaching, of you will) about how writers work during great upheavals—in this case, the raging fire of a global pandemic. Here’s part of what I said:

Literature goes on. Literature cannot be locked down. It is a tongue that cannot be silenced, a brain that will not sleep, a nerve that will keep twitching even when hammered a thousand times. 

But the best literature about this pandemic will very likely not emerge for many more years, if not decades, to come. What we know is that the best writing is not produced in the heat of the moment. It takes a long time after a calamity or a period of deep distress, like a plague or a war, to write capably and insightfully about it. It requires distance and reflection.

Take, for example, three of the best-known works associated with the idea of a plague. Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, which was about the bubonic plague that hit London in 1665, when Defoe himself was only five years old, was written more than half a century later, and published only in 1722. Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Masque of the Red Death,” which was published in 1842, was not even based on an actual plague but was rather highly allegorical. Albert Camus’ novel The Plague came out in 1947 but looked back to an actual outbreak of cholera in Algeria in 1849, almost a century earlier.

And the fact is that the plague itself is never the real subject of literature—it is what it does to people, to bring out both the best and the worst in them. The plague is merely the backdrop or the trigger for the exposure of human greed, corruption, and indifference, as much as it can provoke nobility, heroism, and humility. This is also how literature has dealt with war, beyond journalism and history, which are concerned with chronicling and interpreting the facts. The best war stories, from the Iliad onward, deal with human character under pressure.

I have no doubt that the time will come when we will see a substantial body of Philippine literature emerge out of this pandemic—novels, stories, poems, essays, and screenplays—that will remind readers of the future of what it was like to live in 2020, and it won’t just be about Covid and lockdowns, but OFWs, tokhang, Netflix, K-drama, Lalamove, and Donald Trump. 

In his talk, Manong Frankie spoke of “the need to be true to one’s self, to be engaged with self, our time and our place,” and it’s something with which I totally agree, because this is how literature refreshes and revitalizes itself over time, with each generation grappling with its own demons. Each generation is defined by a particular challenge—for my parents, it was the Japanese occupation; for mine, it was martial law; for my daughter’s, it was EDSA; for today, it is Covid and its political context.

The young writers of today are writing very differently—in content and treatment—from Manong Frankie’s generation and from mine—and they should. Writers should write about their times, for their times, in their own voice and manner, and if they write well and insightfully enough, their work will have meaning and value for generations yet to come.

I mentioned the political context of Covid, by which I mean that this pandemic has been accompanied and aggravated by the politics of ignorance, fear, and populism. All around the world, it has been used by politicians to aggrandize power and suppress opposition, and this is something literature will also have to confront. 

Thanks to the slippery pervasiveness of social media, the truth is being replaced with insistent assertion, and control of the narrative is on top of the political agenda. If you claim “I won!” and “He’s bad!” a thousand times, some people will begin to believe it.

In a sense, the most daring kind of fiction now is out of the hands of creative writers like me. It is being created by political propagandists who are spinning their own versions of the truth, and who expect the people to believe them. The short story and the novel are no longer the best media for this type of fiction, but the tweet, the Facebook feed, the YouTube video, and even the press conference. The conspiracy has emerged as the most popular genre of fiction—the idea that people are out to fool you or cheat you, but they can’t, because you have a more clever version of the truth.

Covid and fake news may be the most dangerous combination yet. But as I’ve been saying these past few years, the best antidote to fake news is true fiction, which will be up to you and me to write.

Penman No. 401: A Workshop Against All Odds

Penman for Monday, November 23, 2020

THE UNIVERSITY of the Philippines National Writers Workshop has taken place every year—usually around Holy Week—since the mid-1960s, even during the years of martial law. For many young Filipino writers, it has been their initiation into the literary community, providing them with an opportunity to get their work read and critiqued by their peers and seniors. 

For some time now, the UP workshop has been aimed at what we’re calling “mid-career” writers—somewhat older writers who’ve already published at least one book. As I’ve often remarked, the only thing harder than writing your first book is writing your second one, and that’s when struggling writers need some help and encouragement to get over the hill.

We were all set to hold the workshop last April in Baguio, our usual venue, when the Covid pandemic struck, rendering any kind of live meeting reckless and stupid. We could have just written this year off, but we decided to try and move the whole week-long program online, via Zoom, and see if it could work.

I’m happy to report that, against all odds, it did. From October 19 to 23, we on the teaching staff of the UP Institute of Creative writing engaged with 12 fellows chosen as among the best representatives of their generation: Kathleen Osias (Fiction, English), Herlyn Alegre (Creative Nonfiction, English/Filipino), Christine Lao (Poetry, English), Honeylyn Joy Alipio (Screenplay, Filipino), Emmanuel Barrameda (Novel, Filipino), Emmanuel Dumlao (Novel, Filipino), Maynard Manansala (Play, Filipino), Jonellie Santos (Fiction, English), Raissa Claire Falgui (Fiction, English), Fatrick Tabada (Screenplay, Filipino), Glenn Diaz (Fiction, English), and Johanna Michelle Lim (Creative Nonfiction, English).

I knew three or four of these names—Glenn Diaz’s debut novel, The Quiet Ones, began in my class and went on to win a raft of prizes, and I had written admiringly about the Fatrick Tabada-scripted movie, Patay Na si Hesus. But I was glad to encounter many other talents new to me, such as the Cebu-based Johanna Michelle Lim, whose essay about living with vitiligo (the condition of albinos) was written with deep insight and artistry, and to discover new facets in such writers as Christine Lao, a lawyer who had studied Fiction with me but has more recently been known for her poetry. 

In the workshop, we ask the fellows to preface their works with a short essay on the why’s and how’s of their craft, and it was interesting to see how Christine approached her poetry from a lawyer’s point of view:

“One of the first things a law student in the Philippines learns is to produce case digests. A case digest is a summary of a court decision. There is a prescribed order in which information about the case is presented: first, a brief statement of relevant facts; second a statement of the disputed issue; third, the court’s decision; and fourth, the arguments in support of that decision. The practice of ‘digesting’ cases trains the student to think in a linear fashion—to recognize only those facts and arguments that support how the court disposed of—that is, terminated—the case. The student learns to follow the intricacies of a court’s legal argument, but at the expense of context or the consideration of counternarratives. Only those facts that are deemed relevant or material to the issue at hand are considered; those that are not are erased from the narrative. One learns that to win a case, one must excise certain details from the narrative, and enhance others that might allow for one’s cause to become legible to the court as a viable legal claim. 

“The case digest, therefore, is form, a technology that allows students to recognize resemblances between cases, claims, and positions. But the form produces a particular product or end—one that is driven by the desire to win, even if this means erasing facts. What if, instead of using legal terms in the context of a case digest, I wrote them as, or in the context of, poems about the law?”

There are downsides, of course, to a workshop-by-Zoom. The fellows understandably lamented the loss of a chance to bond as a batch over beer under the pine trees, and as anybody who’s used Zoom for an extended period of time knows, talking to a gallery of two-dimensional faces isn’t exactly enlivening. But to be honest, I and a few others found the format adequate and even appealing, because it was efficient, and being-home-based, allowed you to get back to whatever else you were doing without having to travel and deal with hotels and such. 

Whether we’ll need to do this again next year will depend on a host of larger factors, as will everything else in our academic and professional lives. But we have to count it as a minor triumph that we were able to pull this off at all—literature and good writing just won’t be locked down or quarantined.

On that note, I’d like to invite you all to a webinar on November 30, 1:30 pm on “The State of Philippine Literature in the Time of Pandemic,” sponsored by, among others, the Philippines Graphic. The keynote will be delivered by National Artist Frankie Sionil Jose, and literary editor and critic Lito Zulueta and I will give responses. It will be livestreamed on www.facebook.com/PhilippinesGraphic. See you next Monday!