Penman No. 47: Another Summer in Silliman

Dumaguete

Penman for Monday, May 20, 2013

LAST WEEK had me enacting another familiar ritual—sitting on the panel of the 52nd edition of the Silliman University National Writers Workshop in Dumaguete City. The oldest of all the country’s literary workshops, Silliman’s is also the longest at three weeks—a format it has retained for many decades now, certainly since I was a fellow myself in 1981. Three weeks of poetry, ocean, and boozing by starlight may be a young writer’s dream escapade, but old geezers like us panelists can’t take that much time off from the more mundane claims of life, so we sign up for no more than a week, and this year I took the middle week.

I shared the week’s paneling duties with a couple of old friends: the prizewinning short story writer and now Silliman workshop director Susan Lara and the Mindanao-based poet and retired rocker Ricky de Ungria, as well as the La Salle-based playwright and historian Vic Torres and a poet and car mechanic that the workshop flew in from Hong Kong, David McKirdy. (David’s “car mechanic” tag isn’t just being cute—that’s his real profession, and an enviable one it is, since he specializes in repairing vintage Rolls Royces, and flies around the world to revive Silver Shadows from the 1930s and such.)

Quite by chance, this panel acquired a trademark of sorts: David and I turned up in the panama hats we’d been accustomed to wearing, and Susan also sported a black hat, prompting Ricky and Vic to procure hats themselves, and soon the panel resembled a gathering of Mafiosi or mandarins.

Hatters

On the other side of the table were this year’s fellows: Corina Marie B. Arenas, Nolin Adrian de Pedro, Patricia Mariya Shishikura, Brylle Bautista Tabora, and Lyde Gerard Villanueva for poetry; Tracey de la Cruz, Sophia Marie Lee, Rhea Politado, and Patricia Verzo for fiction; Jennifer de la Rosa Balboa, Ana Felisa Lorenzo, and Arnie Q. Mejia for creative nonfiction; and Mario Mendez for drama. In addition, two special fellows joined the workshop from Singapore: Christine Leow and Nurul Asyikin from Singapore Management University.

Every batch of fellows is arguably unique and different from its predecessors, but writers and workshops being what they are, the panelists will often find themselves dealing with the same old problems and challenges, albeit in new manifestations. Last week, in our sessions at the Rose Lamb Sobrepeña Writers Village in Camp Lookout in Valencia, we found an abundance of fresh writing talent, but also the need, as ever, to bring focus and refinement into the work of young wards.

I’ll spare you the usual writing lesson (don’t worry, you’ll get an earful in the weeks to come, as I have more workshops on the schedule), but this week I kept hearing myself muttering my mantras: (1) “Raise the stakes, and push the narrative!”; (2) “Why this day, and why this hour? Choose the best point of attack for your story!”; and (3) “Think cinematically! What’s in the frame? How far way are we from what we’re looking at?”

Thankfully it wasn’t all work, and there were timeouts aplenty from the daily dose of criticism that the fellows got.

A high point of the week was Wednesday spent at Antulang Beach Resort in Siaton, about an hour from downtown Dumaguete. Run by the very amiable and capable Anabelle Lee-Adriano and her husband Edu, Antulang alone is one great reason to fly in to Dumaguete and to spend a long week or weekend there. The 11-hectare, 48-room resort runs along a strip of white beach lapped by crystalline blue-green water, and while the resort itself stands high above the water, a path winds down to the beach, with the vertical distance providing some privacy for bathers and beachcombers. (For a glimpse of what we saw and experienced, check out Antulang’s website here: http://www.antulang.com/new/main.html.)

Antulang

When you get tired of the beach, Antulang offers an alternative that I daresay no other beach resort in the whole archipelago has: thousands of good books in its Edith L. Tiempo Reading Room, a cozy little corner devoted to Dumaguete’s literary mother. I was very pleased to sign two books of mine that were on the shelves, but even more fun was talking with Edu and Annabelle about books and movies we all remembered and liked—the novels and autobiographical works of Han Suyin (after whom the Adrianos’ daughter Suyen was named), and The Seventh Dawn starring Capucine and William Holden. Anyone who likes Han Suyin and Capucine is a friend of mine!

As a bonus, the Adrianos brought us to the nearby house of their friend Karl Aguila, one of the country’s brightest young talents in sculpture and design. There’s no better showcase of Karl’s work than the sandstone-colored house itself, perched on a promontory overlooking scenic Tambobo Bay. With Mt. Talinis on the opposite side, it was just the sort of place where fabulous novels might get located, if not written.

Aguila

A candlelit poolside dinner was also tendered on the fellows’ and panelists’ behalf by Simon Stack and his wife Virginia (or “Tata”), with Simon’s gracious mom Joanna assisting them with the hosting. The Stacks have transplanted themselves from New York and the Bahamas to settle in Dumaguete, where Tata helps run a school for Koreans. Simon and Tata have become welcome and welcoming members of Dumaguete’s cultural community, and whether he’s playing the sitar, reciting Milton from memory, or rapping like a New York gangsta—which he did in the after-dinner reading—Simon shows how comfortable he feels in the bosom of that community.

Again I’d like to thank the workshop sponsors—the NCCA, the Edilberto and Edith Tiempo Creative Writing Center, the United Board of Christian Higher Education in Asia, the US Embassy, and, of course, Silliman University—for having me over and making these memorable encounters possible. Thanks, too, to workshop coordinator Ian Casocot for facilitating everything.

Next up in my datebook: the Iligan writers workshop, where I’ll be by the time you read this.

Chicago

ON A side note, and just as I expected, my piece on fountain-pen repair a few weeks ago—as esoteric as it may have sounded to many—generated quite a number of responses and inquiries from readers, and fresh sign-ups at our fountain-pen club at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/fpn-p/. I’m always pleasantly surprised by how many people out there remember writing with pens, and still enjoy doing so despite the general shift from letters to digits in our daily life.

I’m almost ashamed to report that despite my crazy summer schedule, I managed to squeeze in a week-long trip to the US in early May, ostensibly to pick my mother up in Virginia and to accompany her home, but also to make a quick two-day trip to the Midwest for the 2013 Chicago Pen Show, to gorge on an overdose of vintage Parkers, Sheaffers, Watermans, and nearly every other pen maker known to man. This is what the boy in me slaves away at all kinds of tedious jobs for: a day at the toy store, also known as pen heaven.

If you have any questions about your fountain pens—whether they’re heirlooms from your grandfather’s drawer or the pen you sign big contracts with—I’d be happy to try and answer them by email, time permitting. (To answer in advance a common question about value, I’d urge you to go online to ebay.com, and do a search for your pen under the “Completed” listings. That will give you a fair idea of how much your pen is worth in today’s market—which, I should forewarn you, will often be much less than the sentimental value you or your family might attach to the object.)

And if you feel like disposing of that useless old pen that won’t write, let me be your trashcan.

Penman No. 46: Writers in Progress in Dumaguete, Iligan—and Umbertide

Silliman2013

Penman for Monday, May 13, 2013

IT’S BEEN a very busy traveling month for me, and it’ll get even busier these next few weeks, with paneling duties in two of our country’s premier writers’ workshops—in Dumaguete from May 12 to 17, and Iligan from May 20 to 24. The UP National Writers Workshop usually begins right after Holy Week, with Dumaguete and Iligan following in May. The University of St. La Salle in Bacolod, the Ateneo de Manila University, and the University of Sto. Tomas also hold their writers’ workshops sometime over the summer.

This means that Filipino writers both young and old don’t get much of a vacation from the writing life, which is probably as things should be, as those who profess to writing as a lifetime profession should consider themselves pledged to a kind of priesthood bound by certain vows—among them, to be able to think and to function as writers under any circumstance, and to see everything, including whatever tragedies may befall one’s life, as material for the imagination to convert and elevate to meaning. I remember having a good chat about this with my workshop students in Hong Kong last month—that, even when sitting idly at the airport waiting for a flight, a writer should be able to look around the pre-departure area and construct stories about that old man with a cough and that boy with a yellow Tonka truck and that flight attendant rubbing the back of one leg with the other, unshod foot.

But it isn’t as if a writers’ workshop means a week of drudgery and hard labor—there’ll be much mental labor, for sure, but it’ll be the labor of birthing, of seeing a project through to its best possible completion, with joy and delight attending the pain and anxiety. Of course there’ll be a few stillbirths as well, a logical and ultimately merciful form of natural selection; apprentice writers who just can’t make the cut should be told early on that they might make better lawyers or engineers, and perhaps they will. We discuss works in progress at the workshops, but the real subjects, in a sense, are the writers themselves—the writers in progress—and their talents, problems, and prospects. As I’ve noted before, a writers’ workshop is half boot camp and half support group, and it could feel one or the other on different days.

I’ll be on the panel this year in both Dumaguete and Iligan, with barely a day separating the two workshops for me, and it’ll be grueling, but I’m looking forward to engaging with our best young writers, especially those from outside of UP and outside of Metro Manila. This is the service that region-based (but no less national) workshops like Dumaguete (which is run by Silliman University) and Iligan (run by the Iligan Institute of Technology of Mindanao State University) perform for the larger literary community: they locate and develop the best entry-level writers, particularly from the outlying area or region, even as they both accept entries from as far away as Luzon. (The UP workshop targets generally older, mid-career writers with at least one published book.)

I’ve long been associated with Dumaguete since I myself became a fellow in 1981 (and thereafter pledged myself to a life of writing), but this will be the first time I’ll be sitting at the Iligan workshop—I’ll be delivering the keynote there as well—so let me talk a bit more about Iligan. This will be the Iligan National Writers Workshop’s 20th year, and it will be hosting five workshop alumni and 13 new fellows chosen from 65 applicants. The inclusion of the five alumni is a special feature for this anniversary, and is a sign of the workshop itself maturing through time under the guidance of MSU-IIT’s leading literary lights, Drs. Christine Godinez-Ortega and Steven Patrick Fernandez.

This year’s writing fellows will be the following:

LUZON: Fiction (English): Ma. Vida Cruz, Ateneo de Manila University/Quezon City; Laurence F. Roxas, UP Diliman/Pasig City; Poetry: Louise Vincent B. Amante (Filipino) UP Diliman/Quezon City. VISAYAS: Fiction: Nikos H. Primavera (English), UP Visayas/Iloilo City; Poetry: Ma. Carmie Flor I. Ortego (Waray), Leyte Normal University/Calbayog City. Ortego is the 3rd Boy Abunda Writing Fellow. MINDANAO: Play: Dominique Beatrice T. La Victoria (Sebuano), Ateneo de Manila University/Cagayan de Oro City;  Fiction: Edgar R. Eslit (Sebuano), St. Michael’s College/Iligan City; Rolly Jude M. Ortega (English), Notre Dame of Marbel University/Isulan, Sultan Kudarat; Poetry: Amelia Catarata Bojo (Sebuano), Central Mindanao University/Musuan, Bukidnon; Marc Josiah Pranza (English), UP Mindanao/Surigao City; Shem S. Linohon (Higaunon), Central Mindanao University/ Valencia City. He is likewise the 5th Manuel E. Buenafe Writing Fellow; and Vera Mae F. Cabatana (English), MSU-IIT/Iligan City. Cabatana is the 5th Ricardo Jorge S. Caluen Writing Fellow.

The INWW alumni will be:

LUZON: Fiction: Susan Claire Agbayani (Filipino), Maryknoll College/Manila. VSIAYAS: Fiction:  Hope Sabanpan Yu (Sebuano), University of San Carlos/Cebu City; Norman T. Darap (Kinaray-a), University of San Agustin/Iloilo City; Poetry: Cindy A. Velasquez (Sebuano), University of San Carlos/Cebu City. MINDANAO: Poetry: Ralph Semino Galan (English), MSU-IIT/Iligan City.

This year’s panelists include Leoncio P. Deriada, John Iremil Teodoro, Merlie M. Alunan, Victorio N. Sugbo, Macario D. Tiu, Steven Patrick C. Fernandez, German V. Gervacio, Antonio R. Enriquez, Christine Godinez-Ortega (INWW Director) and the keynote speaker, yours truly.

The Iligan workshop is unique among the five national writers’ workshops in that it publishes every year’s proceedings, so last year’s output, edited by Dr. Godinez-Ortega, will be launched this month. The workshop will also feature the Jimmy Y. Balacuit Memorial Literary Awards and a Seminar on Literature, Translation & Pedagogy on May 20 for tertiary language and literature teachers organized by the Department of English of the College of Arts & Social Sciences. Teachers interested in joining the seminar should call Honeylet Dumoran of the MSU-IIT Department of English at (063) 2233806.

Civitella

ON A related note, I’m very happy to report that two Filipino writers are among this year’s Civitella Ranieri Fellows: the Canada-based novelist Miguel “Chuck” Syjuco and the poet Mark Anthony Cayanan, who’s now working on his MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Chuck zoomed to rightful prominence five years ago when his novel Ilustrado won the Man Asian Literary Prize, and he’s since been at work on another novel, which is very likely what he’ll be doing on this fellowship. Mark taught at AdMU and was one of the editors of the internationally-recognized Kritika Kultura as well as the author of a poetry collection titled Narcissus (AdMU Press, 2011).

The Civitella Ranieri Fellowship, which I was privileged to enjoy two years ago, is one of the writing world’s great luxuries, a prize in itself. Fellows spend a month in a medieval castle in Umbertide in central Italy, not too far from Perugia, to work on some significant personal project; I was able to put down 30,000 words of my third novel in that time, and while it’s still a long way from completion—a novel can take me five to ten years to finish—it wouldn’t have found that surge without some help from the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, which runs the Italian program from New York. Civitella attracts more than writers—musicians, painters, and performance artists make up the rest of each batch of 12 to 14 fellows from all over the world. You don’t apply for a Civitella fellowship, at least not directly; you get nominated anonymously by some authority in your field, and then you propose a project that a jury will review and approve.

Many of my fellow fellows at Umbertide were as old as or even older than I was, in their fifties and sixties, and it’s wonderful that Chuck and Mark are receiving this honor in the prime of their youth, with their best years and works still ahead of them. Chuck was a fellow in the 1998 Dumaguete Writers Workshop, and Mark was a fellow in the 2001 UP Writers Workshop in Baguio. Some days it may seem a very long way from Dumaguete or Baguio to Umbertide, but Chuck and Mark show that you can build that path and all the bridges you need to cross the water, word by patient word, word by luminous word.

Penman No. 34: The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Writer

Foundation U

Penman for Monday, February 18, 2013

ONE OF the good things about holding the annual Taboan Philippine Writers Festival around the country and outside of Manila is the opportunity it provides to introduce us to writers whom we might otherwise have never known or heard about. Earlier this month, more than 40 writers from all over the archipelago gathered in Dumaguete, many of them meeting one another for the first time.

As I’ve noted on other occasions, writing is one of the loneliest professions; you’ll realize that when you’re working on a novel or a column like this one at 3 in the morning and all you have for company is the blinking cursor. Last week I wrote about the cliquism or the clannishness that our writing community has been accused of—not without reason. The truth is, like it or not, our best friends are often fellow writers, whom we count on for personal and professional support, since there’s hardly anyone or anything else out there to fall back on.

I think that’s entirely human—and, in our case, also entirely social, given how (despite this talk of a literary “elite”), we as a community are marginalized in the national mainstream. We may argue among ourselves, but on the whole, no one out there really gives a hoot about us and what we do, whether we’re Ramon Magsaysay awardees or some indie upstart trying to publish his or her first novel. So we close ranks, and find comfort in each other’s misery.

A big writers’ festival like Taboan goes a long way toward diminishing the writer’s loneliness, especially that of the writer working from the country’s geographical and political fringe—he or she can be lonely, yes, but certainly not alone.

Sometimes those connections to other writers cut across not space, but time. I was especially glad to have come to Dumaguete because of one session that—against all my expectations, for a Saturday morning that I would was itching to spend on the beach or on an airy hilltop—proved to be one of the most uplifting I’d attended in ages. It was uplifting not because the subject was a happy one—it was a gifted poet who, some suggested, may have killed himself at the age of 38—but because I discovered another Filipino writer whose luminous talent outlived him, not only in his books but in the inspiration that he provided others.

The writer in question was Artemio Tadena (1939-1977), and the session was held in Dumaguete’s small but picturesque Foundation University, Tadena’s alma mater. To be perfectly honest, not knowing Tadena or his work, we attended the session more out of a sense of duty than anything, but were rewarded by a brilliant discussion of a poet’s life and influence.

It was Myrna Peña Reyes, herself a fine poet and a friend of the late Artemio, who keynoted the session with a brief but moving account of Tadena’s life and work. Let me quote from that keynote:

“A high achiever with many talents, at 15, he won First Place for his water color painting representing the Philippines in an international UNICEF Contest that had gone around the world for judging.  In high school at the East Visayas School of Arts and Trade (now NORSU), he won First Place in declamation and oratorical contests, and he edited the school paper.

“At Foundation University where he earned an A.B. and a Law degree, he was English professor and English Department Head, as well as Head of the Office of Publications and Research at the time of his untimely death in 1977, the same year he also passed the Bar.  He had received the Most Outstanding Alumnus Award from Foundation in 1975.

“When we were already teaching at our respective schools, he at Foundation and I at Silliman, he would come over sometimes to the campus to look up people and to talk.  He did most of the talking, and I was a good listener.  It was always about writing and writers.  He admired Yeats and Hopkins and read Rilke and Pound and American poets like Robert Lowell and James Dickey, many others.  He favored Carlos Angeles and Edith Tiempo, among Filipino poets.

“He was a voracious reader, very well informed, and used a lot of what he gleaned from his readings in his poems.  For example, I know he didn’t speak French or Italian, but he used them in a poem or two.

“I recall borrowing books from the Library and seeing his written comments—in ink—on some pages.  He made copious marginal notes, quarreled with assertions in the book, approved of some, and left his comments as a permanent part of the book.  I recognized his distinctively beautiful cursive handwriting that he was most vain about.

“He published in national magazines and the Sands and Coral, and when the Silliman Writers Workshop was going on in the summer, he would come around to meet the writers and to go out drinking with some of the guys. Twice, he was an official Writing Fellow at the Workshop.  He was also a Fellow at the U.P. Writers Workshop held in Cebu in 1971.”

Tadena was a prodigious poet, publishing five collections of his poetry within seven years between 1968 and 1974. He won several Palanca Awards, including First Prize in 1974 for his last collection, Identities.

Sadly, hardly any of his books have survived, and although I had heard his name mentioned before, I had never really come across his work until that morning session in Foundation University. Aside from Myrna’s informative keynote, we also heard some very sharp commentary on Tadena’a poetry from two of his friends and former colleagues, the accomplished poets Cesar Ruiz Aquino and Francis Macansantos (incidentally, the same two fellows who took me in hand in the 1981 Silliman Workshop and infected me for life with their passion for poetry), who both acknowledged the older Tadena’s influence on their own work. Theirs were not fawning accolades, but sincere if sometimes critical evaluations of the craft of a poet imbued with a sense of the dramatic.

Artemio Tadena died of an asthma attack—some suggest he refused to take his medicine, although no one seems to have proof of that—in 1977, soon after he had passed the bar and while he was preparing for his first court appearance. One can only imagine what other wonders this southern light would have produced had he lived on.

I’ll close with another quotation from Myrna Peña Reyes’ keynote, describing the man’s poetry and providing a stirring example of it:

“From the poems, one senses a poet who thoroughly revels in the sound and flow of words.  In fact, one could say that he is literally drunk with words, sometimes, one feels, to excess, but the reader always feels he is reading poetry.  The same lyrical, eloquent, graceful facility and ease of expression that so impressed us in college mark the poems.  Many are moving, sharing wisdom of our human condition.

“In his writing style, Tadena was not an experimentalist.  Although his poems are complex, they are accessible.  His early models may have been the traditional British and Irish poets whose forms he borrowed (especially the sonnet), but his sensibility is modern, his style, his own.

“He is not a minimalist whose language is lean and spare, whose lines are short.  Although he has poems of regular line length, many of his poems’ lines are often long, dense, textured; his sentences compound and complex, often overflowing with clauses.  He uses the colon, semi-colon, and the dash unsparingly. For example, here is an excerpt from an early poem about a man and a woman in a tryst at a hotel, feeling very nervous about being seen:

“Although invisible eyes will always / Follow them wherever they go:  now, in noon’s bronze /Shifting for them into a haze

“Of gold where at first, enraptured / They gaze at each other; then suddenly look askance / To save nothing of this but the shared

“Absolution of each / Other’s need, each other’s fears—and what / Remorse can reach,

“And fortify, faithfully observed at first, and then / At first sight of each other woe- / fully abandoned.  Ears are clocks and / So is blood…” (In a Haze of Gold: The Other She)”

It may well be that there’s nothing lonelier than writing a poem, but nothing also assuages loneliness better than a poem.

 

Penman No. 33: At the Literary Table

Dumaguete

Penman for Monday, February 11, 2013

I’M HERE in Dumaguete City for Taboan, otherwise known as the Fifth Philippine Literary Festival, an annual gathering of writers from all over the archipelago, and even a few parts beyond. Dumaguete, of course, is inextricably linked with Philippine literary history as the home of the first and longest-running writers’ workshop in the country—the Silliman Writers Workshop, based in Silliman University—which explains its proud and rightful claim to be the “City of Literature.”

Scores of the country’s finest writers, especially in English, have passed through Silliman’s portals (in Silliman’s case, these are real portals, as iconic and as symbolic as the Oblation is to the University of the Philippines), thanks largely to Edith and Edilberto Tiempo, who started the workshop in 1962 after their return from the United States. I myself might not have thought of going back to school after having dropped out for ten years and of taking up fiction seriously after laboring as a playwright if it hadn’t been for the Silliman workshop, which I attended in 1981.

So holding Taboan in Dumaguete was in many ways a logical homecoming, and the fact that festival director Dr. Christine Godinez-Ortega (who now teaches at MSU-Iligan) is a Silliman alumna helped things along immensely. The university administration and the city government were very supportive, and the festival began on an appropriately celebratory note with a parade around the city on Thursday morning, led by National Artist Bienvenido Lumbera.

But it was the keynote address delivered shortly after by the Cebuano scholar and writer Dr. Resil Mojares that best reminded me why it’s important for Filipino writers and academics to go out of Manila and listen to what the rest of the nation has to say if writers are to help in achieving that sense of nationhood that’s eluded us for ages. Resil—whose level-headed scholarship and clarity of thought I’ve always admired—spoke on “The Visayas in the National Imagination” (there was some confusion about the topic, but in the end it didn’t matter).

He spoke of how complicated the writer-nation relationship can be: “A writer’s relationship to his or her country cannot be one of blind faith or easy self-love. I think there is much in what the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa says about his relationship to his native Peru that we can recognize as our own. ‘For me,’ Llosa says, ‘Peru is a kind of incurable illness and my relationship to it is intense, harsh, and full of the violence of passion… [a relationship] more adulterous than conjugal… full of suspicion, passion, and rages.’ Yet, for all these, Llosa confesses to a ‘profound solidarity’ with the country. He says: ‘Although I have sometimes hated Peru, this hatred, in the words of the poet Cesar Vallejo, has always been steeped in tenderness.”

That relationship can get even more difficult when the writer feels like a stranger or second-class citizen in his or her own country, as a writer working outside the national center might be made to feel. This dichotomy between the “national” and “local” (or “regional”) writer has been a longstanding point of concern and conflict in Philippine literature for which there have been no easy answers. Dr. Mojares couldn’t have illustrated the problem more clearly than in this excerpt from his keynote:

“Perhaps we have to bow to the historical fact that it is where power is accumulated and concentrated that the ‘nation’ is most effectively imagined. It is where the ‘local’ ascends to the level of ‘national.’

“The literary situation today is that writers and works have to be recognized in Manila for them to acquire the status of ‘national.’ The center exercises the power to canonize and consecrate. A Cebuano writer who publishes in a ‘vernacular’ magazine with a circulation of 30,000 is merely a ‘local’ writer, while one who publishes a book of English poetry in Manila with a print run of 750 copies is ‘national.’ So effective is Manila’s consecrating power that a writer may start out in Dumaguete or Davao but Manila is where he hopes to ‘arrive.’ Dumaguete may be the ‘city of literature’ but it is not its capital.

“Some years ago, the poet-and-critic Virgilio (Rio) Almario asked me—with a hint of mischief and challenge—‘Where’s the new Cebuano poetry?’ I did not have a ready answer but assured him that there was a great deal of fresh, exciting work being done by young Cebuano poets. But Rio’s question did tell me that much of today’s Cebuano-language poetry—that circulates in manuscripts, poetry readings, small local publications, and Internet blogs—remains largely invisible outside of Cebu and Cebuanos, and that we (Cebuanos) have been remiss in defining and projecting to a wider audience what in this poetry is distinct, different, and deserving of ‘national’ attention. Yet, the encounter with Rio did remind me that indeed one has to be consecrated by readers and critics like Rio for one to acquire the status of ‘national.’ I say this without malice. Rio is a friend. But such is the politics of recognition.”

The discussion got even more lively in the plenary session following Resil’s talk, which was devoted to the topic of “Your Place at the Writers’ Table,” around the idea that while a national literature should ideally be inclusive, many writers still felt left out—not just because of the cultural and political distance between the center and the margins, but also because of the generational divide, and perhaps even of sheer snobbery on the part of “established” writers unwilling to yield ground to younger, fresher talent.

I’d meant to keep quiet and let others do the talking, but was prodded for my opinion on this “insider/outsider” argument, which I understand had been a hot topic online. Not being on Facebook, I caught on to it late, and composed a response that I circulated privately, from which I’ll quote:

Small as it is, Philippine literary society is indeed ruled in a way by cliques, barkadas, orthodoxies, and prescriptions. In some cases, these institutions and conventions may have made it difficult for new, alternative, and dissident voices to emerge and be heard.

I myself will indefensibly admit to being part of this ruling elite—I suppose by default, being the director of an institute of creative writing, a professor of literature, and a member of an NCCA committee that gives out grants. I’ve done well by the system (Silliman workshop, CW degree and MFA, Palancas, etc.) and the system, I think, has also done well by me.

But all this doesn’t mean that my mind is closed to new ideas or that I will shoot them down when I get the chance. Within the system, I have voted and even argued for writers and kinds of writing I personally don’t prefer, because I remain aware of what’s at stake, which is much larger than what I like. I have voted down my friends, denied them grants, and brought in people left out in the usual pollings , again because—as an old-time, squishy, hand-wringing liberal—I believe in fair play, imperfect as any cultural or political regime will always be.

By and large, the system works, if getting ahead the usual way is all you want: join a workshop, write like your mentors, win a few prizes, publish a book or two. But I keep reminding my students that this isn’t the only way to writing fulfillment and happiness, and that they’re free to choose other paths and listen to other gurus—but also, and again, that the alternatives won’t be easy. We all make our own choices—but we should do so with full self-awareness, mindful of the costs and benefits to ourselves and to society.

How important is writing to you? Whom or what do you write for? What do you expect to get out of writing? How do you want to be seen or remembered by others through your writing? I’ve answered all these questions for myself—the bottom line is that writing is my livelihood and profession; I’m less a romantic than a realist—but I can’t hazard an answer for others. As a member of the barkada, the best I can do is to enlarge the table and to bring others to it—if they even want to be there, in the first place; if they don’t, well, perhaps they shouldn’t mind too much if we dine in peace and enjoy each other’s company—and maybe even manage to write a good book or two on the side.