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!

Penman No. 378: My Retirement Library

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Penman for Monday, January 6, 2020

 

I RECENTLY had occasion to reorganize my personal library, which involved trimming down hundreds of books into what could fit into a large aparador and three long shelves running along the wall of my study. Having retired for a year now, I thought that it was time to start bringing my worldly possessions down to the core, down to things I would actually live with in my old age, however short or long that grace period is going to be.

As you can imagine, this was easier said than done. Downsizing a library takes a lot more than a physical effort. It means going over a virtual history of your own mind, every book bought and kept being a marker of sorts of whatever it was you found interesting at that moment.

To force my hand and speed things up, last November I picked out and donated four large boxes of over 150 books to a benefit sale being held by students in my department in UP, mostly literature books and texts only an English major could love. As I was packing them up I remembered how, in my student days, we scoured the sales at Alemar’s and the old PECO as well as the used-book bins along Recto for bargains, clucking like well-fed chickens when we came across a prize catch (for me then, an orange-spined Penguin book by the likes of Graham Greene or John Updike).

Having a fixed space to move my books into also obliged me to choose well and wisely. In the end I decided that for simplicity’s sake my retirement library would contain only books that fell into certain categories: (1) books I myself wrote (around 40) and edited or contributed to (another 60 or so); (2) books signed by fellow authors; (3) books that were good or important to have, including antiquarian books, Filipiniana, Rizaliana, books on pens, machines, art and design, and collecting in general; and (4) most importantly, my personal favorites—the books that, for the past 50 years, I loved to read or would want to re-read, and, for some new ones, will want to read in retirement. It’s that last shelf I’ll dwell on for now.

As a fictionist, my favorite books of fiction are of course represented: William Kennedy’s Ironweed, J. D. Salinger’s Nine Stories, Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics, John Gardner’s Grendel, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, and Hubert Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, which Franz Arcellana told our class was the most disgusting book he had ever read, prompting me to rush out and look for it. (I still have to find my copy of D. M. Thomas’ The White Hotel.) Anthologies and books by my favorite poets include those by Robert Graves, Constantine Cavafy, Philip Larkin, and Federico Garcia Lorca.

There are also books about the practice and culture of writing: Simon Garfield’s Just My Type, Philip Hensher’s The Missing Ink: The Lost Art of Handwriting, Lynne Truss’ Eats, Shoots & Leaves, The Chicago Manual of Style, Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, Thomas Larson’s The Memoir and the Memoirist, The Story of English by McCrum, Cran, and MacNeil, William Harris’ Ancient Literacy, and Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading (a gift from F. Sionil Jose, who asked me to pick a book off his shelf).

If my Pinoy writer-friends don’t see their books among my favorites, that’s because they’re on the shelf of autographed books, alongside those signed by John Updike, Edward Jones, Junot Diaz, Romesh Gunesekera, Charles Baxter, Lawrence Durrell, Frank McCourt, Kazuo Ishiguro, and J. M. Coetzee, as well as, of course, the Filipino standouts: Jose Garcia Villa, Nick Joaquin, and even Carlos P. Romulo (who, let’s not forget, was one of five Filipinos to have won the Pulitzer Prize, mainly for journalism).

For fun, I keep books on poker (James McManus’ Cowboys Full and Positively Fifth Street) and books about Apple and Macs (Michael Malone’s Infinite Loop, Young and Simon’s iCon: Steve Jobs and the Greatest Second Act in the History of Business, Leander Kahney’s The Cult of Mac), as well as E. S. Lumsden’s The Art of Etching, which guided and inspired my shortlived career as a printmaker in the 1970s.

Perhaps most surprising is the predominance of history and nonfiction on this shelf, a tip of the hat to what I might have gone into as a profession if not for creative writing, although it’s mostly popular history for the enthusiast: Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation and James Burke’s Connections, Yuvel Noah Harari’s Sapiens, the Hakluyt edition of Morga’s Sucesos, Brian MacAllister Linn’s The Philippine War 1899-1902, Alan Moorehead’s Gallipoli, Dava Sobel’s Longitude, David Howard Bain’s Sitting in Darkness, Thatcher Freund’s Objects of Desire, Anna Pavord’s The Tulip, Nick Joaquin’s Manila My Manila (and his Reportage series), Richard Selzer’s Confessions of a Knife and Mortal Lessons, David Ogilvy’s Confessions of an Advertising Man, Ken Adler’s The Measure of All Things, and William Pomeroy’s The Forest (which I often cite as the most influential book of my young life, because it made rebellion sound romantic, and encouraged me to carry a placard).

When I step back and survey what I’ve chosen to put together (perhaps too unabashedly male), I can still see that boy who was fascinated not so much by fiction but by how things worked and by what the world out there was like (Sobel’s Longitude will tell you that). Because (no thanks to poor math skills) I couldn’t become an engineer and make clocks and centrifuges, literature and creative writing became my second choice—to see how words worked, like cogs in a fine machine.

 

Penman No. 319: A Priceless Literary Treasure

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Penman for Monday, September 17, 2018

 

SINCE I seriously got into antiquarian book collecting not too long ago, I’ve picked up quite a few books that have required the services of a professional book restorer. Surprisingly for most people (but not to bibliophiles who know the history of papermaking and publishing), the books most in need of help often turn out to be the newer ones—and by “newer” I mean a hundred years old or so, books published in the early to mid-1900s.

My oldest book dates back to 1551, an abridged volume in English on the history of institutions. I found it in, of all places, Cubao via an OFW who received it from her employer in Paris and sent it on to her son, who thankfully for me had little use for it and advertised it online. It’s amazingly robust for its age, still tightly bound in its original leather covers, the paper crisp and the printing sharp and clear, annotated here and there by the hand of its various owners down the centuries. (I was tempted, but I didn’t dare inscribe my name on it.)

That’s also true for relatively more recent books from the 1700s and 1800s, some of which look and feel like they rolled off the press yesterday. (I first fell in love with old books as a graduate student of Renaissance drama at the University of Michigan, which kept books from the 1600s on the regular shelves of the library, fascinating me with the stiffness of their paper and the tactile feedback of the letters). I often treat visitors to my office with a whiff of centuries past, ruffling the pages of, say, a Jesuit history from 1706 beneath their noses.

But books from the 1900s and later typically turn yellow and crumbly. The culprit, of course, is the acid that forms in modern, wood-based paper because of a number of both internal and external factors.

This was certainly true of a recent batch of books that I got back from my favorite book restorer (who shall remain unnamed for now lest she be deluged with requests, given that she has a full-time day job to mind). They included no book older than 1853 (a coverless edition of Paul P. de la Gironiere’s Twenty Years in the Philippines) and 1860 (a copy of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun, which I didn’t even realize was a first edition until I noted the bookseller’s penciled notation 20 years after I’d bought it).

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The prize in the pile was a thick clothbound book titled Filipino Attempts at Literature in English, Vol. 1 (Manila: J.S. Agustin & Sons, 1924). The volume is a compilation of smaller books from the 1920s to the 1930s, put together by the legendary professor and anthologist Dean Leopoldo Y. Yabes (1912-1986), who was scarcely in his twenties when he assembled and bound this compendium (signed “Bibliotheque Particuliere de Leopoldo Y. Yabes No. 118).

It’s an outstandingly rare collection, because it contains the only extant copy, as far as we know, of Rodolfo Dato’s landmark Filipino Poetry—the first major collection of Filipino poems in English. In the florid prose typical of the time, Dato prefaces his book by describing it as “a collection of the maiden songs of our native bards warbling in borrowed language,” acknowledging that “the full flowering of our poetic art has not yet come, but the fertile field smiles abundant growth and gives promise of a rich and bountiful harvest in a day not far distant.” In various pieces rhymed and metered, writers like Maximo M. Kalaw, Fernando Maramag, Procopio Solidum, and Maria Agoncillo give praise to mayas, moonlight, sampaguitas, and Motherland.

I had long been searching for the Dato book in the usual places online, for naught; but one day, at a committee meeting, my dear friend Jimmy Abad—the poet and anthologist—slipped it over to me, with the note “Priceless!” And indeed it was. Dean Yabes had gifted it to Prof. Abad, who was now passing it on to me in that timeless ritual that exalts and humbles writers and teachers who know exactly what they are receiving.

The compendium also contains an English-German Anthology of Filipino Poets  translated and edited by Pablo Laslo, with a preface by Salvador P. Lopez (Libreria Manila Filatelica, 1934); Dear Devices, Being a First Volume of Familiar Essays in Englishby Certain Filipinos (N. p., 1933); and the 1935 Quill, the Literary Yearbook of the University of Sto. Tomas, edited by Narciso G. Reyes. I’ll say more about these other seminal works later, as they’re truly invaluable glimpses into our earliest impulses as writers in English (and I have to wonder, if this was just Vol. 1, what Vol. 2 was like, if any).

Friendship aside, Jimmy must also have known that I was in a better position to take care of the volume, whose first 80 pages or so—almost the entire Dato book—had been torn, not just detached, from the spine by that infernal chemistry I described earlier. So I sent it to my restorer, who patiently mended each torn and fragile page with Japanese paper. Like my other jewels, this book will find its way to the UP Library at some point, now renewed for another generation of readers and scholars.

 

Penman No. 310: Tacloban’s Worthier Wonders

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Penman for Monday, July 9, 2018

 

ONE OF the pleasures of our recent visit to Tacloban was meeting up with two friends—the cultural scholar and UP Tacloban Humanities Division head Joycie Dorado Alegre, and the poet and Professor Emeritus Merlie M. Alunan. Beng and I made sure to spend an extra day in Leyte to see the UP Health Sciences campus in Palo, the fabulous Palo Cathedral, and other landmarks close to Tacloban. We’d already visited the Sto. Niño (ie, the Marcos) Shrine and the next-door Public Library—both of them in a rather sorry state, as I reported last week. But going around town with longtime locals like Joycie and Merlie revealed worthier wonders.

We made sure to visit other tourist staples such as the Macarthur Landing Memorial Park in Palo—an impressive work by the late sculptor Anastacio Caedo, better known for his plaster busts of a pensive Jose Rizal, one of which I keep in my home office as a kind of conscience. (Though no blushing fan of the famously vainglorious general, I’d been intrigued enough by MacArthur’s Philippine connections to visit his museum and tomb in Norfolk, Virginia.) I tried hard to recreate the tableau of ships massing on Leyte Gulf, only to have my musings spoiled by a tourist and his girlfriend wading into the pool in mock fatigues and rubber boots, posing with fake firearms.

But this was tragedy on a diminutive note compared to what no one visiting Tacloban can escape—the howling hell that was supertyphoon Yolanda and the many thousands of deaths it left in its wake. As we passed one traffic island after another—with the grass almost strangely manicured and impeccably garbage-free—Joycie or Merlie would tell us, “Those islands became mass graves. There are people buried there.”

A more formal and movingly expressive memorial to the lost lay farther on in Tanauan, in artist Kublai Millan’s sculpture built on yet another mass grave. Everywhere we drove on that coastal plain, the surging sea had swept people and whole families away, and while the city seemed to have regained its equanimity and was bravely soldiering on five years after, there was a hole in its heart still aching to be filled.

Merlie herself had gone through a recent personal tragedy, with the sudden passing of her beloved son Ebeb. Even as Yolanda had spared her, living as she did on higher ground, she couldn’t have foreseen this dark turn down the road. (She had lost her father and five other family members in the Ormoc City flood of 1991.) She was still clearly grieving, but had gone out of her way to entertain us, and perhaps thereby also entertain herself.

Nothing can ever compensate for the loss of family, but Merlie was threading a way forward, in that way uniquely accessible to artists. Every true work of art is an affirmation of life, and in Merlie’s case, she has art aplenty to affirm life with. To begin with, there’s nothing literally closer to life than food, and for almost two decades now, Merlie and her enterprising children have built up one of Tacloban’s best-loved restaurant chains, headlined by the now-iconic Ayo Café along Ninoy Aquino Avenue.

Ayo (the name derives from the Visayan term for “good”) serves food as familiar as Spanish sardines, lumpia, roast chicken, and burgers at prices that won’t make you weep, but with a twist—the twist being that it’s cooked and presented just scrumptiously right, with the choicest ingredients, in servings large enough for take-home leftovers. I’d heard about Ayo before from friends who’d been there (Merlie proudly keeps a guest book signed by writers and artists), and while I may have initially accepted her invitation out of friendship, I’ll be seeking it out on my own on my next Tacloban sortie (and I insisted on paying for our merienda to emphasize my patronage).

The Ayo interlude also allowed us to discover another of Merlie’s less-known talents as a visual artist who paints and also does plant sculptures. I asked her to pose for a picture beside one of her works, and learned that this was something she had been doing since her years in Dumaguete, perhaps again as a refuge or respite of sorts from the travails of daily life.

Of course it’s her poetry that Merlie Alunan is best appreciated for (one of her poems, “Young Man in a Jeepney,” has been a perennial on my syllabus), and her sixth poetry collection, Running with Ghosts (Ateneo de Naga University Press, 2017) is understandably heavy with waterborne death. But as she points out at the close of her title poem, life will go on, in all its bewildering indifference:

Grass sow their seeds over the turned earth,

The graves are greening in the seasonal rain.

Everyday we run with ghosts by our side.

God is silent. as ever blameless and inscrutable.

Penman No. 271: From Balagtas to Gloc-9

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Penman for Monday, October 2, 2017

 

It would be easy and comforting to praise director Treb Monteras’ Respeto as a testament to the redemptive power of poetry, to art as a transcendent force in the universe—but it’s not that simple.

Yes, there’s quite a bit of that, and happily so for occasional poets like this viewer. We want to believe, in our heart of hearts, that poetry will save us, will elevate us from the sordidness of our surroundings and from our own sad and sorry failings. Two of my favorite quotations about poetry which I often bring up in class address that notion.

The first comes from that quintessential poet of the city, the Frenchman Charles Baudelaire: “When (like a poet) / the Sun descends into the city / It ennobles even / the vilest of its creatures.” So, poetry ennobles, raises up the poet from his or her pedestrian reality, no matter how vile that reality may be.

The second comes from Anne Sexton, who took her own life at age 45 after a long bout with depression, but who could still understand that “Suicide, after all, is the opposite of poetry.” Poetry was the life-force, the contributor to the poet’s heightened state of being, as Sexton would advert to in another line: “Saints have no moderation, nor do poets, just exuberance.”

These ideas were swilling in my head hours after my wife Beng and I stepped out of the cinema, still trying to figure out what I was supposed to think. We had missed Respeto during its Cinemalaya screening—they ran out of seats for us at its last showing—but had heard great things about it and weren’t about to miss it again during its regular run.

The movie itself isn’t hard to follow, even for a pair of senior citizens whose virgin ears opened up to Pinoy battle rap (always good to learn something new) for the first time. The Brockaesque descent into the urban jungle is such a familiar move for Filipino filmmakers (Hamog and Pauwi Na most recently come to mind) that it’s practically a given, but Respeto deepens the milieu by opening a door to the hip-hop subculture that many middle-class and middle-aged moviegoers have no inkling about whatsoever.

The fast and furious exchange of expletives aside, you could take Respeto as an Araby-type coming-of-age story where a young man falls for a woman, tries to gift her with something marvelous, and fails in the effort but learns something about himself in the process. Well, it’s a lot more complicated than that, because many other dualities and intersections abound in the story beyond just man and woman: that between youth and age (Hendrix, played by the ace rapper Abra, and Doc, played by Dido de la Paz), between apartment and slum, between bookshop and bar, between wisdom and wit, between Balagtas and Gloc-9, between Marcos and Duterte, and even between people who suffer and die for their beliefs and those who simply die out of poverty and crime. And perhaps, in the end, the movie asks, are they really so different? Is there some overarching reality that yokes them all together?

That reality seems to be that they’re all Filipinos living in the time of tokhang, a reality that pointedly intrudes into the narrative at key points and provides the inevitable climax. The environment seethes with menace and aggression—from the verbal violence (and blatant machismo) of the rap battles to the chilling corruption of the rogue cop Fuentes (played with understated competence by Nor Domingo). Without providing too much of a spoiler, I’ll just say that there’s no happy ending here, no triumphant reversals of fortune where the good guy bucks the odds, wins the prize, and gets the girl.

A perceptive review online by Tristan Zinampan puts it this way: “Respeto tells us that—given the cyclical oppression of Philippine society—going your own way, resignation, and apathy are not enough a vehicle to escape. Injustice is widespread; there’s simply no room to hide in this little archipelago. Just because you’re looking up, it doesn’t mean the chains on your feet aren’t there.”

Respeto’s Pinoy ‘hood is fertile ground for confrontation between good and evil in all their forms, with life and art insistently if desperately seeking to survive in the most hostile environments, even within the rap arena itself, where originality seems to be at a premium. The movie’s consistent use of a cemetery as a place for the creation of new art in words and images highlights this struggle.

Ultimately, however, at least for this viewer, Respeto affirms the inescapability of politics—especially the politics that kills—in our society, and its intrusion into our most private spaces, our most fervent dreams. There’s no doubt that the film draws much of its appeal from its running political commentary, but it’s less the topical references that create Respeto’s critical value for me than the power games that define it, some larger than others.

My takeaway isn’t a soothing one: poetry won’t save us, but guns—maybe even a rock—could, if that’s what it takes to overcome evil. And then again, the poetry—the truly great poetry, like all great art—will survive all of us: killers, victims, and bystanders alike. Catch Respeto the next chance you get, maybe on the campus film circuit, and tell me what you think.

 

Penman No. 230: Two Voices from Singapore

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Penman for Monday, December 19, 2016

 

 

DURING THE Singapore Writers Festival last month, I had the opportunity to chat with two prominent poets from that city-state, Aaron Lee and Eric Tinsay Valles, and I’m sharing the highlights of our conversations to give my readers some idea of what Singaporean poets are writing about. Interestingly, both poets, now just in their 40s, were born outside of Singapore, but now feel very much embedded in that ethnic and cultural melting pot.

Malaysian-born Aaron Lee works as a corporate lawyer in the area of regulatory governance and ethics. “I was born in Malaysia to immigrant Chinese,” Aaron told me. “My father worked for Singapore Airlines so he commuted daily from Johor Baru. It was typical of people at the time to send their children to Singaporean schools if they could afford it. I commuted daily for many years with my passport in my pocket, between the ages of about seven to fifteen. My brother and sister did the same. In our mid-teens we moved to Singapore. After five years my parents moved back but the children stayed behind.

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“I feel myself to be 100% Singaporean, but I do have a lot of affection for Malaysia, especially its natural environment, carried over from my childhood. The city can be a soul-crushing place, and this came out in my second collection, where the metropolis looms over you. In my third collection, I rediscover the renewing force of nature. This was also helped by frequent visits to Hawaii, where my wife studies Hawaiian culture. In my 20s, I met senior writers like Prof. Edwin Thumboo who were dealing with the postcolonial condition. I was a law student in college but I had a couple of English literature modules in which Prof. Thumboo lectured. Discovering this whole shared past of English-language literature between Singapore and Malaysia past gave me an intellectual and emotional hinterland, raising my consciousness of Malayan-ness, which is lost on the present generation.

“I began to take my creative writing seriously in my mid-teens, and I was fortunate to have high-school classmates like Alvin Pang who were just as serious about it. I found a community of people who were interested in literature and this was very important to my formation as a writer. After high school I even applied to several universities overseas to study literature and one of them accepted me but it didn’t come with a scholarship, so I decided to take up law instead here in Singapore, which was much cheaper.

“I’m not really conversant in Bahasa except for the kind of colloquial Bahasa you hear in markets. I’ve done some reading in Chinese but can’t write in Chinese. Our bilingual policy has deep flaws that prevent many Singaporeans from acquiring first-language facility with either English or their mother tongue. Many Singaporeans my age will speak English better than their mother tongue.

“My generation came into its own in the 1990s, and there are about a dozen of us poets who have been categorized as third-generation poets in English. Ours was the first generation of non-academic poets. We were lay people, so to speak, professionals engaged in business, journalism, and law. Our poetry is more down to earth. The earlier generations were more concerned with nation-building. We tend to be more personal.

“I’m essentially a lyric poet and I love the way words sound when they’re well put together. I’m concerned with the inner music of words in sentences and lines. As a student, I looked up to poets like Seamus Heaney and Philip Larkin. I’m also concerned with common humanity. My first collection was very personal, poetry about being a poet, but my later collections cast their eye on a wider world, even to current affairs in society and on the international stage. I observe that when people come together in the city, they become anonymized, dehumanized, and alienated from one another. I try to resist that by looking for what we have in common as people, for empathy, compassion, and love. My work might be political in a roundabout way, but at the end of it I always move back from the grand narrative to the person. My Christianity is a big part of my identity, my values, my world view. I see myself as a work of art being fashioned by my Maker. I don’t just want to be a poet, but the poem, a work in progress, a song coming out of the mouth of God.”

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Philippine-born Eric Tinsay Valles teaches at the National University of Singapore High School of Math and Science. In 2013, he won a Goh Sin Tub Competition prize, which offers the biggest cash reward for creative writing in the region. Eric was working on his PhD in literature in NUS in 2000, and decided to stay on.

“I was a journalist in Taiwan for six years, and a teacher in Manila before that,” recalled Eric. “It was through Prof. Thumboo that I began to be published in Singapore, through an anthology that focused on the merlion, the very symbol of Singapore. It’s like a rite of passage for Singaporean poets to write about the merlion. Prof. Thumboo has mentored many of those young poets, and he has always been for inclusiveness and for the development of literary traditions in all the languages used here. That’s why the Singapore Writers Festival and the National Poetry Festivals are probably unique in that we have sessions in four languages. Young poets email him, and he responds to them.

“I just feel very fortunate to have met him in NUS. I invited him to speak before some students, and he invited me to attend some poetry sessions, and that was the beginning of a long association and friendship.

“I’m a permanent resident here, but am still a Filipino citizen. I’m the director of the National Poetry Festival here in Singapore and I’m now finishing my PhD in Creative Writing at Nanyang Technological University, working on trauma poetry and on a novella in verse set during the Japanese occupation.

“As a former journalist I got exposed to many human experiences, and some of that has been reflected in my work in terms of empathy for the downtrodden and the marginalized, and faith. My faith is part of my being Pinoy. My second collection is titled After the Fall, and that could allude to the biblical fall and also to the trauma we experience in everyday life. For Singaporean poets, trauma is more domestic, more felt in estrangement from other people such as family. Contentment and complacency lead to boredom, the desire for more wealth brings more tensions, and young Singaporeans grapple with modernity. Much of Singaporean literature deals with this conflict between modernity and tradition.

“I started writing poetry in primary school in Manila. There have been many influences on my work—Elizabeth Bishop, Thom Gunn, Neruda, Lorca, Heaney—but I’ve become very familiar with Singaporean poetry, especially since it’s a very small community.

“There’s about a dozen Pinoy writers working here in Singapore. We even have a couple of Pinoy domestic helpers who participated in the National Poetry Festival, and they read their poems in Filipino. I look forward to my visits home, where I sometimes hold writing workshops.”

[Eric Valles photo courtesy of the SWF.]

Penman No. 192: Reveling in the Risqué

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Penman for Monday, March 21, 2016

 

 

ONE THING I always knew but have seen more evidence of lately is that fact that when women get together, wonderful and even magical things happen. I suppose it has to do with the female predisposition to cooperate (versus the male impulse to compete). Case in point: the hugely successful literary reading billed as “Wordello,” which I plugged in this corner last month.

It had been conceived as a fund-raising project by the ladies of the Likhaan Creative Writing Foundation for the benefit of, among others, the UP Institute of Creative Writing (which I head, so I have a million reasons to be appreciative). But it turned out to be much more than just another reading of poetry and prose, mindful of how such events rarely go beyond sedate, even solemn undertakings where people stand up and mumble before politely attentive audiences.

This was one evening devoted to reveling in the risqué, to pushing the boundaries of the acceptable in a way that brought us back to the freer, more spirited Sixties. Remarkably, it had been organized by a group of middle-aged women as proper and as pedigreed as they come, people you’d normally associate with golf and afternoon tea. But the Likhaan ladies are also very fine writers in their own right, mentored by no less than Jing Hidalgo, and quite a few of them have taken classes with us in UP, so it was no surprise to find them indulging their subversive side.

I’d never been to the venue at the Green Sun on Chino Roces Avenue Extension, and when Beng and I got there last March 5, we expected to walk into just another hotel-and-restaurant lobby setup. Instead, a large corner of the place had been transformed, just for the evening, into a virtual bordello, with ladies in bare backs and slinky black lingerie well, slinking around. When I found my bearings, I was glad to run into and to chat with old friends like writers Charlson Ong, JB Capino (on a home visit from Illinois, where he’s been based), Carla Pacis, Cecille Lopez Lilles, Mabek Kawsek, Linda Panlilio, Bambi Harper, and Cesar Aljama, as well as BenCab and Annie Sarthou.

Most of the readings proved appropriately racy, and I had to explain that I had come as a bashful patron, choosing to read something fairly short and chaste. But elsewhere in the room, something smoky and sexy was going on. We had to leave a little early for another commitment that evening, so I asked Likhaan Foundation’s Chichi Lizot, the writer-translator busybody behind the project, to tell us what happened next, and how they put on such a good show in the first place. Here’s Chichi’s summing-up:

“We had heard of ‘poetry brothels,’ not only in New York and Paris, but also in other parts of the world. Were we ready for it here? The idea of presenting poetry, bordello-style, in a land of taboos was both daunting and exciting. It was then that ‘Wordello,’ coined by a poet and friend who joins some of us for drinks every so often, RayVi Sunico, was born.

“Working on the concept, pinning down sponsors, inviting poets, and finding a venue accessible to all began six months ago. Creating and feeding our social media sites got going in December. A handful of active members found friends along the way willing to help, spurred by the untrodden approach towards literature. There is something about the forbidden that excites.

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“Then came the evening of Wordello. Stepping into its entrance of beaded curtains after going through the ultra-modern corridors of Green Sun was like being transported into a secret world—of red, orange and magenta, of incense, alcohol, and erotica. It was a den of iniquity. It was Moulin Rouge—and much more. There were candles and Persian lamps. Carpets. Palm trees. Griffins standing guard. And in a cage, a masked executioner wielding an axe.

“The youngest in the audience must have been fifteen, the oldest, ninety-two. Some came in their chauffeur-driven imports, the others in jeepneys—any clothed, or rather, unclothed, comme il fallait. And as they hobnobbed with friends and strangers alike, they discovered a tarot reader of a monk in a nook somewhere. In a tent draped in extravagant silk, a body calligrapher was engrossed in a woman’s back, oblivious to spectators. Books and art pieces were up for grabs in different corners, incongruous yet fitting. The lively activity at the bar provided no respite to bartenders only eager to please. Omnipresent conversations thrived.

“And then from nowhere, a young poet delivered a line. Loud and clear. A male voice cried out from another corner. The room was stunned into silence. Yet another demanded attendance—this time female—delivering utterances from across the expanse of subdued light. Fifteen poets in a flash mob of sorts embarked us on a journey, harbingers all, of what was about to unfold. Their words were tame in comparison to the almost three hours of poetry, skits and the performing arts—mostly unbridled and unafraid. One or two in the audience left after the fifth number, scandalized. Most stayed, to either endure or embrace the words spoken by the inimitable and the sans pareil, and the fledgling.
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“The place was packed, denying access to waiters serving bar-chow. Seated comfortably in deep couches were the elderly. Many were happily relaxed on intricate pillows, risers, and carpets on the floor. Chairs had to be added in every space possible for the weary, but quite a few were content standing behind the bar or around divans, mesmerized.

“Sensei Shinobi, who performed the Japanese art of bondage on a defenseless but willing wisp of a woman, was saved for last. As we turned into voyeurs, watching with awe the dexterity with which Shinobi beautifully and artfully crafted rope around the young woman’s body, no one dared breathe. It was art in the sublime. And as he hoisted his model on a single metal ring that dangled from a scaffolding, and then twirled her around, a pin could have been dropped and heard.”

Bravo, Chichi, and merci beaucoup! Until the next iteration of what now deserves to be the year’s sauciest literary event.

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(Photos by Vidal Lim)

 

Penman No. 189: Hearing the Mermaids Singing

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Penman for Monday, February 29, 2016

 

I GAVE my undergraduate class in Contemporary American Literature (English 42) a special treat the other week. Luckily for them, while moving things around the house, I came across a book that I’d picked up at a sidewalk sale in San Francisco several years ago—very probably one of the best bargain books I’d ever bought, at $6.99. It was a big, fat book titled Poetry Speaks, and it included 3 CDs containing nearly 150 poems by authors ranging from Alfred Lord Tennyson, Walt Whitman, and T. S. Eliot to Langston Hughes, Allen Ginsberg, and Sylvia Plath.

Now, there are many such compilations of poetry you can find online, but what makes this collection unique is that most of the poems are read by the poets themselves—yes, including Tennyson, Whitman, and Eliot, from the earliest days of sound recording. I thought that by sharing the recordings with my students, I would give them a unique opportunity to hear not only some of the world’s greatest and best loved poems but also how their authors actually sounded.

And while—like the children we sire into this world—a poem is on its own once it’s published, subject to the reader’s interpretation, a poet reading his or her own work gives us a privileged insight into the poet’s mind and sensibility. We listen for the general tone, the pace, the emphasis the poet gives to certain words and turns of phrase, even the way he or she ends a line and segues to the next. These inflections personalize the poem, and turn it from lines on a page to a breath in the air.

Let’s not forget that poetry preceded writing, and that, in our ancient past, poetry was meant to be recited, not read. It performed both a ritual and an entertainment function. The old epics contained and transmitted the story of the race, and elevated everyday speech to something close to magical (all of Shakespeare’s plays, when you take a closer look, were written in iambic pentameter). Even in more modern times, some poets still wrote mainly to be heard. The book’s introduction quotes William Butler Yeats as saying that “I wanted all of my poetry to be spoken in a stage or sung…. I have spent my life in clearing out of poetry every phrase written for the eye, and bringing all back to syntax that is for the ear alone.”

Sadly, poetry’s public aspect has diminished over the past century. Not only are today’s poems mainly meant for the printed page; their messages are also much more private, to the point of inscrutability. The study and appreciation of poetry has become an essentially academic exercise.

This disjunction between performance and privacy probably explains why poetry readings can become boring, with readers failing to connect with the audience, who can’t figure out what the poets are saying. It’s difficult enough to understand the poems on the page, and harder still to understand them while being mumbled.

I’ve often noted, with some dismay, how many of today’s readers of poetry bleed the life out of poems by mouthing the words with a mewling preciousness or otherwise in a mechanical march, without an understanding of the sense of the piece itself. Most poems are infused with vigor, with an attitude that the poet has taken toward the work and perhaps even its presentation to the world. Critics will argue with this proposition, but it stands to reason that no one should understand a poem better than the poet himself or herself.

Understanding and public presentation, however, are two different things, and not every poet can give their poems the intensity or the nuancing they deserve. That applies even to some poets in the CDs: forgivably, Tennyson sounds phlegmatic in his rendition of what should have been a rousing “Charge of the Light Brigade,” but he was already 80 when Thomas Edison recorded him in 1889.

By contrast, Robert Frost (reading “The Road Not Taken” and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”) and Sylvia Plath (reading “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus”) sound resonantly clear and confident. T. S. Eliot reads all eight minutes of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in a thin, reedy voice—now totally British, a complete transformation of the former American born in Missouri who moved to England at 25—but somehow it’s what you expect of the man and the poem. I was in the bathroom as I listened to Eliot over the speakers at full volume, and found myself following along: “I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each…”

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And if you’d like to hear more such mermaids, I’d like to invite you to “Wordello,” a very special and unique literary reading hosted by the Likhaan Creative Writing Foundation to benefit writing scholarships and other worthwhile literary projects. The Likhaan Foundation has been the UP Institute of Creative Writing’s steadfast partner in many an undertaking, and we can’t endorse Wordello strongly enough.

Inspired by the Poetry Brothel in New York, Wordello will happen on Saturday, March 5, 2016 in Green Sun, 2285 Chino Roces Ave. Ext., Makati. Doors open at 5 PM. Tickets will be sold for P1,000 (students with IDs come in at half-price), which will cover the show, drinks, bar chow, and special presentations. I was told to expect “a rope bondage presentation, calligraphy writing on the back of a woman, tarot card readings”, and so on, which all sound positively intriguing, but before your imagination runs riot, let me assure the prayerful that the good ladies of the Likhaan Foundation are as convent-bred as they come, but thankfully with a wicked sense of humor.

The invited readers include Krip Yuson, Jing Hidalgo, Marne Kilates, Vim Nadera, RayVi Sunico, Neil Garcia, Ramil Digal-Gulle, Alma Anonas-Carpio, Peachy Paderna, Asha Macam, Danton Remoto, Juan Labella, Mii Marci, Franz Pantaleon, Eliza Victoria, Karen Kunawicz,
Claire Miranda, Monique Obligacion, Maxine Syjuco, Trix Syjuco, Cesare Syjuco, and myself.

For more information, please check out https://www.facebook.com/wordelloph/info?tab=page_info or contact Chichi Lizot at chichilizot@gmail.com.

See you all on March 5 at Wordello—let’s make the spoken word rock!

[Image from jubilee-centre.org]

 

 

 

 

Penman No. 168: A Lesson in Poetry

Penman for Monday, September 28, 2015

WE’VE BEEN talking about poetry in my Literature and Society class this past month, and it’s been an interesting journey, taking us everywhere from the Japanese haiku master Issa Kobayashi to the American modernist e. e. cummings and the Filipino early feminist Angela Manalang Gloria, with a bit of Sylvia Plath and Ricky de Ungria thrown in. There are many more important poets we could have taken up—in another class I might have discussed TS Eliot, Jose Garcia Villa, Denise Levertov, Edith Tiempo, and Pablo Neruda, among others—but this course is just a peek into poetry for non-Literature majors, so we’re taking examples that are sufficiently challenging and instructive but also fairly accessible, pieces that speak to common experience wherever in the world the poem may come from.

A few meetings ago we took up one of my personal favorites, a poem titled “The Blessing” (originally “A Blessing”) written by the late American poet James Wright in 1963. It’s not a very long poem, and pretty easy to visualize. As it opens, the persona (what we call the speaker in the poem, the “I”) is traveling on the road with a companion, bound for a city in Minnesota.

The mood is set with the descriptive line “Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.” Two ponies emerge from the woods and greet the visitors. “They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness / That we have come. / They bow shyly as wet swans.” The persona feels a strong and strange attraction between himself and one of the ponies. “I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms, / For she has walked over to me / And nuzzled my left hand.” The contact is electric, and the poem ends with the persona achieving a kind of apotheosis (a word I don’t use in class—let’s just say a climactic moment): “Suddenly I realize / That if I stepped out of my body I would break / Into blossom.”

It’s a lovely poem because of its consistency of tone and of its return to a Romanticism that seemed lost in an age of machines and pragmatism. (By Romanticism with the big R, we mean here an embrace of Nature as the source of all good things, and of the imagination over reason as the way to wisdom.) Indeed there’s a poignant optimism if not innocence in the poem that’s about to be shattered; in 1963, America stood on the verge of the Kennedy assassination and the escalation of the Vietnam War; the civil rights movement was rising to a crescendo. A darkening of the national mood—eventually affecting us half the world away—was imminent, if not inevitable.

That’s what I guide my students toward in the poem. It’s good to appreciate that glorious burst of ecstasy in the end, when the persona feels so in communion with Nature that he sees himself as a flower, but a couple of references earlier in the poem hint at another world—the “highway to Rochester, Minnesota” in the first line, and the “barbed wire” that the persona steps over to meet the ponies. Whatever “Rochester, Minnesota” might be (I’ve been to Minnesota but never to Rochester), it’s a city at the end of a long cross-country journey.

It’s the persona’s and his companion’s real destination, and the roadside encounter with the horses—as pleasant and as ennobling as it it—is just a stop. When the magical moment fades, the travelers will have to hit the road again, and lose themselves in the maw of the city.

At this point I pause to introduce a big word to my students, one of the few they’ll learn from me over the semester (as a rule, I hate big, showy words, and urge my students to do as much as they can with short, simple ones, but sometimes there’s nothing like a polysyllabic monster to wake people up). In this case, my word for the day was “prelapsarian,” referring to “the human state or time before the Fall,” in Christian belief.

The Christianity’s beside the point (we’re in UP, after all), but what’s important is the idea of a place of innocence we sometimes find ourselves wishing to go back to, especially when we feel overcome by the grime and the corruption of the modern world. We talk about the relationship (“dichotomy” would be another big word) between city and country, between a place we associate with sin and guile, and one we like to imagine as a refuge, a haven of peace and purity.

We then spend a bit of time on the image of the fence, which separates the road from the pasture. What are fences for, I ask? They keep some things out, and some things in, they’ll say. If Nature is as benign as the poem suggests, shouldn’t we knock all fences down? Let’s not be naïve, someone will say—not everything in Nature is so kind, and neither are many humans; we need to protect ourselves from each other. I bring in a quote from Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall”: “Good fences make good neighbors.” Do they, really?

We talk about the Pinoy penchant for building tall walls, topped by bubog and barbed wire, to ward off the presumptive manunungkit. Whatever happened to neighborly trust? We’re laughing, but when we go back to James Wright’s poem, everyone now understands why he gave it the title he did. Class is over, and we all step out to another late afrernoon in Diliman, finding our way home beneath the acacias and the bamboo.

PS / I don’t bring this up in class, because I don’t want “what really happened” muddling up anyone’s interpretation, but it’s interesting from a writing point of view to read what the poet Robert Bly noted down about a trip he took with his friend James (from the book James Wright: A Profile, quoted in english.illinois.edu):

“One day James and I were driving back to Minneapolis from a visit with Christina and Bill Duffy at their farm in Pine Island, Minnesota. Christina loved horses, had been a rider in Sweden, and continued to keep horses here. So horses were very much on both our minds. Just south of Rochester [Minnesota], James saw two ponies off to the left and said, “Let’s stop.” So we did, and climbed over the fence toward them. We stayed only a few minutes, but they glowed in the dusk, and we could see it. On the way to Minneapolis James wrote in his small spiral notebook the poem he later called ‘A Blessing.’”

[Image from mcleodcreek.farm.com]

Penman No. 163: The Gentler Path

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Penman for Monday, August 24, 2015

FOR THE first time in something like 20 years, I’m teaching two undergraduate classes this semester. I usually teach one graduate and one undergrad class, but thanks to what I’m taking as a glitch in the registration process, my graduate fiction writing class—which is usually oversubscribed—had zero enrollees this term, forcing its cancellation and my reassignment to a course usually reserved for young instructors, English 11 or “Literature and Society.”

I should make it clear that I’ve always insisted on teaching at least one undergrad class every semester, and have done so unfailingly since I returned from my own graduate studies abroad in 1991. The benefits go both ways—young students get to learn from more experienced professors, and senior profs get to know how young people think. With four years of active teaching left before retirement (it’s hard to believe, but I’m getting there), these encounters with some of the country’s brightest young minds will only become more precious, and as with every class I take on, I can only hope that, many years from now, my former students will remember something useful that they picked up from me.

I haven’t taught English 11 in ages, so it was with some trepidation that I entered the classroom on our first day a couple of weeks ago, under UP’s new academic calendar. Students don’t realize this, but professors can be just as full of anxiety at the start of the semester as they are. As I scan the roomful of faces, I’m already wondering who will likely give me problems and who will make it worth the effort of preparing for every day’s lesson as if I myself were taking an exam. Thankfully, most of these mutual apprehensions soon retreat as I reassure my students that I know what I’m talking about—and that I won’t scream at them if they don’t—and as I begin to understand what exactly I’m working with, which is always a welcome challenge.

This semester, I was glad to discover that my English 11 class of about 30 students was composed of mainly science and engineering majors. You’d think that teaching the humanities to them would pose problems, but I see it as a unique opportunity to lead smart people on an adventure they might have missed out on otherwise. Of course, UP’s General Education program makes sure that our graduates acquire a balanced outlook on life, so my students didn’t really have any choice, but I see my job as making them see Literature as much less an imposed subject than a welcome relief from everything else—in other words, fun. When you disguise labor as discovery, and emphasize incentives over penalties, the students—and you yourself—can feel more relaxed.

English 11 is what used to be English 3 in my time—an introduction to literature—and while some teachers see this as a chance to pile on the heavy stuff like The Brothers Karamazov (and I can understand why), I prefer to take the gentler path to literary enlightenment, and begin with things the students know or can apprehend. That way you can lead them to stranger and more intriguing discoveries about the way language works to convey human experience.

Last week, for example, one of the first poems we took up in class was “Southbound on the Freeway,” a poem published in 1963 by the American poet May Swenson. We could’ve done something like T. S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” but unless you train lay people to look at poetry a certain way—to see it as a puzzle or a riddle to be solved, for example—it’s often very hard for them to get a handle on what some poets do on a high and abstracted level of language and idea, much like the way Picasso’s departure into Cubism (think of his women-figures with their eyes looking this way and their noses pointing that way) can be better appreciated if you first consider what goes into a traditional portrait like the Mona Lisa.

“Southbound on the Freeway” reads like a rather simple and even funny poem, in which alien visitors on a spaceship look down at the Earth, and see creatures “made of metal and glass…. They have four eyes. / The two in the back are red. / Sometimes you can see a 5-eyed / one, his red eye turning / on the top of his head.” It doesn’t take much for the student to see that the aliens, hovering above a freeway, have concluded that the cars themselves are Earthlings, and even that some cars—like the “5-eyed” police car—are more special than others.

In literature, this is a familiar device we call “defamiliarization,” by which poets and other artists take something we see everyday and present it to us in fresh and unexpected ways, revealing facets and insights we never really thought about before. The Swenson poem seems like all it does is show us how perspective can change our perception of things, but it goes beyond that eye-trick and asks a very intriguing question at the end: “Those soft shapes, / shadowy inside / the hard bodies—are they / their guts or their brains?”

At this point, I ask the class, what’s this poem really about? Is it just about aliens and humans, or about cars on the road? Inevitably, someone spits out the magic word: technology! So what is it about technology that’s so important, I press on, and what does it have to do with our lives? Why, everything, the class exclaims in a chorus—we’d die without our cell phones and iPads!

We go into a brief and engaging discussion about what exactly technology means, and whether it has benefited human society—or not. We talk about mechanization, automation, better and easier ways of doing things, products that were invented to improve human life, and inventions that did the opposite. We talk about armaments, and about Eli Whitney’s cotton gin and how it actually helped to encourage more slavery in the American South. I tell them that at some point, later in the semester, I’ll talk to them some more about the legend of Dr. Faust and how it led to the stereotype of the mad scientist, all the way to Dr. Strangelove, Lex Luthor, and Doc Ock. I can see that the class is listening, and I’m happy.

I ask them what the real question is that the Swenson poem is posing, and they get it. It’s been a good day in school for Literature and Society.