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.

Penman No. 63: A Poet Speaks

CBautistaPenman for Monday, Sept. 9, 2013

NOW 72, Cirilo F. Bautista towers over the writers of his generation. Though primarily known as a poet in English, Cirilo—“Toti” to his friends—also writes formidable fiction in both English and Filipino. His books of poetry alone number a dozen, and have won the country’s most prestigious prizes, including the Centennial Prize in 1998. Until his retirement, he was a full professor and writing guru at De La Salle University, and had, at some time or other, taught at other major universities here and abroad. His poetry is deep and complex, conscious of the need to separate the emotional from the intellectual—difficult to many—but not without wit and humor.

Bautista has been nominated for the hallowed title of National Artist, and it’s an honor he would richly deserve and invest with the necessary achievement and gravitas. I can only hope that the bestowers of this award will take this view—shared by many in our literary community—when they sit down next to consider our National Artist awardees. I can be fairly sure that there will be great rejoicing and little dissension when that happens, unlike the controversy that met the last batch of dagdag-bawas “laureates.”

Last Sunday evening, I was privileged to hear Cirilo speak at the 63rd Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature at the Manila Peninsula. He had been asked by the contest sponsors to be evening’s guest of honor. Although forced to use a wheelchair by muscular dystrophy, Cirilo showed no sign of slowing down where his mind was concerned. That night, in a mixture of polemic and poetry reading, Cirilo lamented the diminished role of the poet (by extension, the artist) in Filipino society, diminished since the days of Jose Rizal, when poets were heroes and heroes were poets.

With his permission, I’m excerpting portions of his speech, in the hope that more Filipinos will take notice of their poets in general, and of one named Cirilo F. Bautista in particular. What follows are his remarks:

Small as the Philippines is, smaller still is its literary community—poets and fictionists caught in the bright dream of making a difference in its aesthetic and cultural development. Some are good, many are terribly bad. I speak of the good ones only since charity has no place in the critical evaluation of artistic excellence. To those who live with words, who are engaged in the art of counting syllables and harmonizing metaphors, whose constant fear is not finishing their work, to be poets in the Philippines is to live in a surreal world whose stress and strains shape their concept of existence. People regard you as a specimen of some strange thing to encounter, to examine, even to touch. But not of something to take seriously. You live on the border, on the periphery, on the edge of society, considered unique, but nothing more. The institution that you represent—the world of fine writing—has not made the priority list of any government in the history of the country, whatever our political fathers may say about the importance of cultural advancement. Poetry receives no significant financial allocation, no institutional support, no artistic infrastructure. Not that the poets should depend on the government, but that since the government is tasked with the overall progress of the people, certain measures must be taken to insure that poets do not wallow in the quagmire of neglect.

… Now we see manifestations of the absence of support for the poets. Poets are generally unknown in their own country. Few read them but in the lingering and strengthening vestiges of colonialism prefer the work of Western writers. We are led by the nose by American capitalist interest in the arts. We read what they give us, and have not been sincere and brave enough to assert our own taste and preferences.  Our culture is a borrowed culture, disguised as modernistic simply because it arrived on the Internet. But of the values that assert our roots, they seem to have been devoured by TV novelas and rock concerts. Our taste is largely a mixture of truncated native idealism and borrowed Western adventurism. That we adapt to them may be our virtue, given difficult times; that we are controlled by them may be our downfall. But like them we do. They appeal to that inexplicable part of us that needs to resolve the ironies and contradictions of our existence. And it is in this that, quite strangely enough, the poets seem naturally equipped to provide explanations.

… I am a veteran poet; as I have said, I have published some 12 books of poetry. None of them made a print run of one thousand copies. By American standards I should be rich from the sale of these books, but I am not. It seems they are read only by the inquisitive and misdirected. On a few occasions when, feeling generous, I give my books to relatives and acquaintances, they ask me why I am punishing them. Those who don’t like reading poetry considering reading it a punishment; that’s the only way of interpreting the situation. And poetry becomes a burden to society which has reached a certain stage of insensitivity to the stark harmonies of the soul. This baffles me. I can’t understand why in an affluent society like ours (we are called Third World only by the political elite who handle the greater portion of our national budget for self-improvement and establishing political dynasties), a true literary resurgence cannot take place, or why we cannot remedy the effects of a fractured culture and mismanaged patrimony. The elite in society do not buy Filipino books but patronize foreign ones. It is their pride to be amongst the first to have the work of this or that European poet or novelist, but they will ignore the works of their countrymen. Is this colonial mentality or crab mentality? They still find it difficult to believe in Filipino excellent artistry, or they will down to lower ground Filipinos who exhibit excellent artistry. I find this prevalent among the young who regard foreign shores as sources of cultural inspiration. Always the Filipino is never first in their appraisal.

… It is of course an error to belittle our poets. They have proven that they can compete with the best in the world, given certain assistance and patronage. Their works appear in international publications, they have won important prizes, they are invited to global conferences and festivals of art, they exchange ideas with prominent figures of contemporary literature. Why then are they not patronized in their own country? As I said, I’m baffled by this, short of saying what I don’t want to say—that like crabs we pull down those we perceive to be making names for themselves, and consign to neglect the products of those names. Some are even proud not to be readers of Filipiniana.

… We are proud to point to a poet as our national hero. A poet laureate reflects a country’s coming to terms with the importance of poetry in the overall conduct of its affairs, but mostly with the progress of its artistic sensibility. Poetry is a civilizing factor that drives away the rudeness and coarseness of practical existence. It confers on the individual a high sense of being-ness and a true perspective of life. The poet laureate serves as a bridge to connect the people’s aesthetic education and spiritual well-being. It is seeing their world in another way, and making connections with realities that seem hazy at the start. A moon is not a moon, flying is not leaving the ground—but something else. What? That’s the exquisite area of poetic discovery that only the knowledgeable may enter.

(Photo courtesy of the Cultural Center of the Philippines)