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. 165: Going for the Bestseller

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Penman for Monday, September 7, 2015

AUGUST AND SEPTEMBER are usually busy months in the cultural calendar, and this year’s been no exception. UMPIL—the Writers Union of the Philippines—held its annual conference toward the end of August, with the economist and columnist Solita “Winnie” Monsod delivering the customary Adrian Cristobal Lecture. On September 1st—perhaps the most important date on many a young Filipino writer’s calendar—the 65th Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature were given out, with poetry titan Gemino “Jimmy” Abad arguing eloquently for the power of literary language to create its own reality.

In that same week, National Book Store, among other sponsors, put on the Philippine Literary Festival at the Raffles Hotel in Makati, headlined by visiting authors Matthew Quick and Meg Wolitzer. I went on a panel at that festival with my friends Krip Yuson and Jing Hidalgo, with Marivi Soliven as moderator, to talk about writing the novel. I was surprised to walk into a packed room at the Raffles, despite the fact that Meg Wolitzer was holding forth in another session at the same time.

Now, I’ll admit that I’d never read Meg before, although I’d read about her recent novel Belzhar. She was advertised as a bestselling author, as was Matthew Quick, who wrote The Silver Linings Playbook.

I overheard a mild complaint in the hallway to the effect that the NBDB should have invited the powerhouse cast of Pulitzer prizewinners that Manila festivalgoers have been used to seeing (I remember hosting a chat with the wonderfully encouraging Junot Diaz a few years ago). I didn’t have the time to stop and respond to that comment, but I would’ve said, ”Hey, no problem! There’s a lot we can learn about producing bestsellers! And bestsellers can and should be well-written, too!”

Indeed, in our panel on the novel, one of the recurrent themes that came up was that we Filipinos don’t write enough novels (“We’re world-class sprinters,” I noted, “but not marathoners”), at a time when the only thing international publishers are looking for are novels, which can lead to fat Hollywood contracts and all kinds of other spin-offs.

Toward the end of that discussion, in the Q&A, a young lady in the audience asked about what we (presumably the literary Establishment, going by our senior-citizen cards) thought of newer and less traditional routes to literary fame like Wattpad. Thankfully, I’d heard of Wattpad, and had even actually registered on the site a few months earlier out of curiosity, so I could peek into what was going on there. I knew that Wattpad was generating stories that were already being adapted into commercial movies, so it was more than another digital pastime. (For my fellow 60-somethings, Wattpad’s a website where people—usually very young people—upload stories of all kinds, typically love stories, vampire stories, science fiction, and fantasy.)

I told the questioner that while it was likely that much of the material on Wattpad wouldn’t come up to conventional literary standards, I didn’t see that as a problem. What was important was that—at some level and with little or no intervention from their elders—young people were writing and reading, and that can’t ever be a bad thing. Tastes mature and change, and even within those young-adult genres, truly good work is bound to emerge and be recognized and rewarded. And even mainstream literature itself would ultimately benefit from the spillover; as Shakespeare put it, “When the tide comes in, all the ships in the harbor rise.”

But beyond supporting what younger writers were doing, I brought up another pet theme of mine, which is that we older writers write way too serious (if not sometimes inaccessible) stuff, and have thereby separated ourselves from our potential readers. Creative writing has become way too academicized—produced in, for, and by formal writing programs, with little regard for what ordinary readers are really concerned about in their daily lives. In other words, while we seek to develop our readership, or work on the demand side, we should also work on the supply side by writing material of more popular appeal, with little or no reduction in quality.

This train of conversation ran on a couple of nights later at the Palancas, where I had a chance to chat at the sidelines with Graphic fiction editor Alma Anonas-Carpio and essayist Ferdie Pisigan-Jarin. (I don’t smoke—and I would urge everyone not to—but I happen to find people who smoke usually more interesting to chat with than those who don’t, so I usually join the smokers out on the patio of the Rigodon Ballroom at these Palanca dinners, especially when the program—with my apologies to the gracious hosts and the contest winners—goes on for too long.)

I told Ferdie that I suspected that, outside of school, young readers these days didn’t really care much about author’s reputations, or about what critics or other old people say about a work. Ferdie agreed. “We undertook a survey,” he said, “and we found out that what makes young readers decide to buy a book is what they can get of the story from the back cover. They can’t even leaf through the pages, because most books these days are shrink-wrapped.”

From Alma came the astounding news that one young Filipino writer, Marian Tee, was making a regular six-figure income from the Amazon sales of her e-book novels. Though based here, Marian writes dreamy romantic comedies set in places like Greece, with titles like The Werewolf Prince and How Not to Be Seduced by Billionaires, and with covers displaying a surfeit of naked male muscle. The female protagonist may be blond, swears Alma, but she’s really Sarah Geronimo in disguise.

I’m not saying that we should all write like Marian, because we probably couldn’t even if we wanted to. But it’s good to know that there’s someone among us who knows the market and can play the global game, because there’s a lot we can learn from her—in adaptability, in audacity, in humility, and in plain hard work.

I don’t think that literature as a fine art will ever be threatened (any more than it already is); there will always be authors who won’t mind being read by a precious few, and thankfully so, because these are the writers who will keep pushing the envelope of language and exploring uncommon sensibilities. For most other writers, or most other times, it’s worth keeping in mind that “bestseller” isn’t necessarily a bad word.