Penman No. 274: Acronyms for Authors

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Penman for Monday, October 23, 2017

 

AS YOU read this, I’ll be in Bali, Indonesia, attending this year’s Asia Pacific Writers and Translators (APWT) conference, about which you’ll hear more next week. But today I’m going to throw in a few more terms aside from APWT into our literary alphabet soup, so you’ll know a bit more about what our writers are doing.

APWT, of course, is the region’s primary and most active network of writers and translators. While many of its members are also teachers, APWT is refreshingly non-academic, meaning you can actually understand what people are saying at its conferences, which are devoted to practical issues and questions of craft. You can find out more about the organization here (apwt.org) and maybe even think of signing up so you can attend next year’s meeting in Brisbane.

If you’re just starting out as a writer and feel like you’re still a long way away from APWT, perhaps you should try out for the next ALBWW, which is the Amelia Lapeña Bonifacio Writers Workshop. Now on its second year, the ALBWW was initiated by the University of the Philippines Institute of Creative Writing (UPICW) to help and encourage young, beginning writers.

UP, of course, had been supporting novices since the workshop itself began in 1965, but since its main summer workshop shifted toward mid-career writers in the 2000s, beginners have had to choose from a roster of workshops offered by other schools. The ALBBWW—named after the country’s foremost exponent of children’s theater—is UP’s way of saying “We haven’t forgotten you.”

Devoted to young adult writing, this year’s ALBWW was held from October 6 to 9 at the Oracle Hotel on Katipunan Avenue, and brought in 12 of the country’s youngest and brightest writers. They included Ivan Khenard Acero, Angeliza T. Arceño, Gabriel Carlos T. Cribe, Sigrid Gayangos, Ivan Emil Labayne, Kid Orit, Steno Padilla, Rayjinar Salcedo, Rai Aldrin B. Salvador, Krizelle R. Talladen, Carlos Valdes, and Sofia Zemana. They came from as far north as Isabela and Baguio to as far south as Butuan and Zamboanga, with backgrounds as diverse as Math, public relations, illustration, and book design, aside of course from literature and creative writing. Veteran writers Dean Alfar, Eugene Evasco, Mina Esguerra, Vim Nadera, and Christine Bellen walked the fellows through discussions of their works and of aspects of the craft.

A highlight of the ALBWW was a group visit with Ma’am Amel at her home, which also happens to be the headquarters of Teatrong Mulat, her pioneering children’s theater group which performed excerpts of their puppet plays for the visitors. The fellows were also treated to a tour of the Ateneo campus and the Rizal Library.

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Another important ICW event last month was the third iteration of the IBF or Interdisciplinary Book Forum, an activity co-sponsored by the UCW and the UP Press. I conceived of the IBF a couple of years ago when I was still ICW Director, thinking how interesting it would be if a new book—in any field, not just literature—were to be read and discussed by a panel of experts from a broad range of disciplines. How would a book on colonial architecture be read by, say, a sociologist, a historian, and a civil engineer? How would a novel on OFWs be received by a labor economist, a diplomat, and a psychologist?

We began this new IBF series last year with discussions around books on tattooing in the northern highlands on new speculative fiction written by Filipinos. For our third book, we chose Dr. Ma. Mercedes Planta’s Traditional Medicine in the Colonial Philippines: 16th to the 19th Century—a book recommended by UP Press Director Neil Garcia not because it was intrinsically interesting but because it also connected us to what its author, a historian, calls “our usable past.” Valuable insights into that past and our appreciation of it were contributed by the archeologist Dr. Victor Paz, the historian Dr. Ma. Luisa Camagay, and the physician Dr. Salvador Caoili. You can find the videos of this and other ICW events at http://panitikan.com.ph/media/.

Last, there’s KSA—Kutura, Sining, Atbp.—a cultural talk show that I host on TVUP along with Drs. Neil Garcia and Cecilia de la Paz. TVUP (tvup.ph) was started last year as UP’s Internet TV station, creating and broadcasting new programs—on significant and important topics, but presented in a popular and accessible manner (one of my favorites titles is “Hairy Balls and Donuts: The Fascinating World of Geometry” by Dr. Joey Balmaceda, a mathematician). On our show—which is bilingual, by the way—we’ve done episodes on film, theater, creative writing, and visual arts, among others, and are looking forward to taping further episodes on architecture, music, and dance, once we get the right mix of guests together.

There’s a few more acronyms for authors I can think of—we’ll soon be looking for our next NSWW fellows (that’s the National Summer Writers Workshop), the big mid-career gig that we’re hoping to be able to move to other UP campuses around the country, possibly in the Visayas next after two years in Los Baños—but you get the idea. In this life of letters, we try to make every word count.

Penman No. 243: A New Master of Prose

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Penman for Monday, March 20, 2017

 

 

BECAUSE OF my new administrative duties at the University of the Philippines, I was able to join the UP Writers Workshop for only two days this year, but it was time enough to make a wonderful discovery in the person of a Filipino-American writer whom I had never met before but whose voice, I predict, will resonate more loudly in the years to come.

There are 12 fellows, as usual, in the 2017 workshop, all of them mid-career writers who already have at least one book or film or theater production under their wings and who are currently at work on new projects. This workshop has become a rite of passage for most Filipino writers, and it’s always a privilege for those of us who’ve been on top of it to be able to help our finest literary talents in Filipino, English, and other Philippine languages achieve their potentials.

I wish I could have met all of this year’s fellows, but as it happened, it was Wilfredo “Willy” Pascual whom I got to know best, because we gave lectures about writing together to a large audience of teachers, writers, and students in UP Los Baños. From his talk and workshop and from a subsequent chat with him, I learned that Willy—born in 1967 in San Jose, Nueva Ecija—is a largely self-taught writer who has now spent half of his life overseas, mainly in Thailand and the US. “I had a checkered education,” he says laughing, “with a year in UST, a year in CEU, and so on, but I never finished anything.” It’s clear that his real education came from his voracious reading and his varied experiences, some of which are memorably chronicled in his first book, the privately published Kilometer Zero.

But what fascinated me about Willy’s work is his ongoing project, a long essay about his search for the personal story of a little-known Filipino-American actress from Cebu named Elena Jurado, who appeared in a small role as an Arabian dancer in a silent film titled White Hands. The essay is, of course, really about two searches: one for Elena, and the other for what Willy—a gay Filipino-American—calls his “rightful place.”

We ask our workshop fellows to preface their work with their “poetics”—an explanation of why they write what they write—and here’s part of what Willy wrote there:

“I remember the artist Roderico Jose Daroy (1954-2014) who rescued shards, refuse, and fragments and brought them home. The objects occupied an entire floor in a rented bungalow in Bangkok. I saw his orderly spread of old picture frames, hardened watercolor cakes, vintage prints in various stages of decomposition. I walked around it, sat down as if on a shore contemplating the sea of dissolution in front of me. They were meant to be exposed to the elements, the flow of time. There was an inherent wildness to it, a constant beginning and ending. I felt tethered to it. I like things that grow. Decay. And all the deviations in between. If I could be a superhero for one day, I would like to have the powers of mutability and permeability. I would be a grain of purple rice, an industrial crane that in a whim can turn into a broken microscope, the gum you are chewing now. My secret joy will be those states in between when I am neither one nor the other.”

And this comes from the essay itself:

“Elena Jurado was interviewed by Wilbur Hall, a forty-plus miner and rancher who wrote weekly features for the Chronicle. The paper ran Wilbur’s story with photos of the fair Filipina actress next to the bearded Hobart Bosworth in a dapper single-breasted suit and bowtie. The 55- year-old, tall and blue-eyed Bosworth, widely known in his time as the Dean of Hollywood, had portrayed historical figures and beloved literary characters lost in time and strange places. He slept for twenty years as Rip Van Winkle and missed the American Revolution. In the earliest film version of L. Frank Baum’s everlasting tale, he was the wizard who appeared in different forms and a disembodied voice. With the magisterial Bosworth holding a script, Elena was introduced in these publicity stills, short wavy hair parted on one side, wearing the adorned ensemble of the Filipina gown of her time. Gone were the European voluminous bell-shaped skirt and the indigenous wrap-around tapis. In its place was a more streamlined cut with an elegant trail pooled on the floor. The upper garment was a fine gauzy layer of fabric: the collarless blouse winged with elbow-length sleeves—wide, airy, suited for warmer climates; the Spanish-influenced scarf folded around her shoulders and fastened in front. She smiled at the camera, listened to Bosworth, and struck a dramatic pose—arms outstretched, palms upward, head slightly turned, lips parted, eyes yearning, almost ethereal. I’m not exactly sure what to make of this vessel’s gesture and expression, this suspended aria. She looked like she had broken through the clouds. And if there was a word or even a sigh uttered, it had been preceded by Bosworth’s pointing finger.

“…. Thousands flocked to the movie palace on opening day and saw a golden throne in the foyer’s octagonal rotunda. Overhead, a cast iron lamp illuminated the vaulted ceiling. The rotunda led to two grand staircases with tapestries on the wall. One depicted the siege of Troy, the other the birth of Rome, the twin brothers Remus and Romulus suckling a she-wolf. Inside the auditorium, the world’s largest gooseneck steel brass supported the balcony. Spanning 108 feet and weighing ninety tons, it braced the boxed seats occupied by industry giants, among them Rudolph Wurlitzer, William Hearst, and Michael de Young. Theirs were the most expensive seats at ninety cents each, commanding a full view of the auditorium: the ceiling’s central dome, its light changing from fiery sunrise to purple dusk; the walls lavished with bold relief, every column, pilaster and parapet carved with scrolls, swags, urns and coat of arms—an inflamed vision in rose and old gold, multiplying and morphing endlessly, excessive, consuming. You think you’re seeing more but you’re not really sure what you’re seeing.

“…. I spent weeks in the archives poring over Jacobs’ photos with a magnifying lens. How do you not lose yourself in this exuberant tangle of forest and empires? The more I saw, the more I read; and the more I read, the more details I saw in each photo. It sucked me into a vortex. My eyeballs became porous and the hungry gaze of ghosts streamed through them. In this world of men and empires, a young Filipina appeared on the giant screen.”

There’s a stunning conclusion to Willy Pascual’s search—he actually locates her gravestone—and I can’t wait for the essay to be finished and for this prose master’s second book to appear.

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Penman No. 239: A Pinoy Pangalay in Hyderabad

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Penman for Monday, February 20, 2017

 

 

I’M GOING to turn over most of my column this week to a colleague at the UP Institute of Creative Writing, the playwright and essayist Luna Sicat Cleto, whom I commissioned (badgered is the more appropriate word, since I’m not paying her anything more than my deepest thanks) to do a report on a recent mission that she and a group of Filipino writers undertook in Hyderabad, India.

The original invitation to attend the Hyderabad International Literary Festival and organize a delegation as a “guest nation” had been sent to me, but since I couldn’t work it into my schedule, I asked performance poet and Philippine High School for the Arts director Vim Nadera to put together and lead a troupe of Filipino writers and artists. And what a delegation it turned out to be. With Vim went fellow writers Jun Cruz Reyes, Victor Sugbo, Luna Sicat Cleto, Jeena Rani Marquez, Christine Godinez Ortega, Hope Sabanpan-Yu, and Neila Balgoa. Spoken word poet Kooky Tuason also came along, as did Ifugao poet Dumay Solinggay. Dance and music were represented by Cecilia Artates and Marty Tengco. Let’s hear the rest from Luna:

“According to Dr. T. Vijay Kumar, Professor of English at Osmania University in Hyderabad, the Philippine delegation was the biggest group they had received so far, having hosted five nations since it began in 2010. The other four were Germany, France, Ireland, Poland, and Singapore.

“Dr. Kumar, alongside the novelist Pranesh Prasad, had encouraged the attendance of the Filipino writers. Prasad graced the Iligan workshop in 2013 as guest writer and also attended the Asia Pacific Writers and Translators Conference in Manila in 2015.

Since then he has felt a strong affinity with Filipinos. Prasad was happy with the performance of the delegation, saying that ‘I think we achieved our goal of creating awareness about Philippines in India, given the number of newspapers that covered your participation and all the people contact that has resulted. It bodes well for India-Philippines cultural relations.’

“Prasad’s observation was echoed by Jun Cruz Reyes, who felt that it was refreshing to read about the convergence of so many talents and minds in the festival, which was not limited to the literary field alone. Topics as diverse as politics, history, sports, and popular culture were taken up in parallel sessions. While some German industrial designers discussed the sustainable technology of chai shops, a Mumbai-based young entrepreneur talked about Instagram ruminations, while another focused on the Indian graphic novel. There were talks given by poet laureates Ashok Payjevi alongside investigative journalists like Josy Joseph and Harsh Mander, and discussions of translations of the Bhagavad Gita and Tamil stories alongside debates about the effects of the partition and human trafficking. Particiapns got to see martial-arts demonstrations of the shilambam as well as India’s latest art films. The plurality of HILF is based on its inclusive ethos: it is multilingual and multidisciplinary, and the multiple speakers—writers, artists, scholars, filmmakers, journalists, publishers—represent a wide range of creative fields. Hyderabad has been described as a ‘teeming urban masala of color and commerce,’ and indeed the city evokes the ancient prosperity of its Mughal past, alongside its twin reputation as a Silicon Valley of India.”

Luna adds that “Indeed, it is fortuitous that the Philippines was invited now, while both countries are assessing their relative positions in the global literary and cultural scene. It also became a chance to rediscover the bonds between India and the Philippines, evident in the many words from Sanskrit that are in the Filipino’s vocabulary: budhi, guro, and diwata, among others. While India has a strong tradition of writing in English because of the colonial legacy of British education, the Philippines also has a strong contingent of Filipino writers in English. India’s raucous democratic plurality in religion and politics is echoed in the Philippines’ plurality of religion, politics, cultural traditions and languages. The many languages of India are celebrated in the Hyderabad International Literary Festival, and for this year, its focus was on the Tamil language. One artist, the great Indian dancer Leela Samson, who performed in ‘Past Forward,’ said that it is about time that India listened to its many voices, and let the major languages of India be the conduits of thoughts and ideas.

“Samson’s sentiments were echoed in the Philippine delegation’s performance, aptly titled ‘Philippine Pangalay: Karmic Harvest.’ Vim Nadera strutted onstage, dressed in an all-white suit complete with an American flag tie. Channeling Donald Trump and the doomsday rhetoric of born-again speakers, he pronounced that he was dedicating his performance to the memory of National Artist Francisco Arcellana. ‘Close all open things, Lord/Open all closed things,’ Nadera intoned, appropriating Elvis’ crotch choreos with riffs from the musical Hair. The crowd was energized. He then introduced Jeena Marquez, who performed a powerful dramatic monologue based on Rizal’s epilogue in El Filibusterismo, a re-enactment of Maria Clara’s leap to death as witnessed by two civilians. Romancing Venus was the next act, which featured Tuason’s slapshock verbal performance, enhanced by Tengco’s drumming and Artate’s pangalay. But the real star of the delegation was Dumay Solinggay, who channeled the anguish of epic chanters with her poignant chorus of  ‘We must remember, we must remember…’ Solinggay did not only echo the trauma of the postcolonial subject, who may feel trapped in identities and names arbitrarily assigned, in specific situations like the call-center agents or the inevitable loss of memory in the fast pace of urban life. When she danced at the last part of her ensemble, her body resembled the paroxysm of the chanters in a trance.”

What can I say? I wish I’d been there with them in Hyderabad. The name alone sounds like magic, and I’m sure the place and the experience were every bit just that.

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(Photos by Jeena Marquez and Hope Yu)

Penman No. 208: Back to the Basics

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Penman for Monday, July 18, 2016

 

 

I’M VERY happy to report that on this my last three-year term as director of the University of the Philippines Institute of Creative Writing (UPICW), a number of key improvements in our programs will be taking place very soon that should bring creative writing closer to both its producers and its audiences. Much of this is made possible by support from UP’s Emerging Interdisciplinary Research Program (EIDR), a visionary fund initiated by UP President Alfredo E. Pascual and implemented by the Office of the Vice President for Academic Affairs headed by Dr. Gisela P. Concepcion.

Most significantly, we will be expanding our workshops to include an annual Basic Writers Workshop aimed at developing new and younger writers, and offering, every other year, a seminar for teachers and another for translators. We will also be holding, every semester, an Interdisciplinary Book Forum to bring together experts from various disciplines in a discussion of vital Philippine issues.

These new projects will supplement our regular flagship activities—the National Writers Workshop, held every summer for mid-career writers; the Likhaan Journal, an annual publication that showcases the best of new Philippine writing; the Akdang Buhay series of video interviews of Philippine literary luminaries; and panitikan.com.ph, the website we maintain as the world’s portal to Philippine literature. The UPICW also oversees the annual Madrigal-Gonzalez Best First Book Award and supervises the Gonzalo Gonzalez Reading Room (where our office has been temporarily housed since the Faculty Center burned down last April), and runs the Panayam lecture series featuring our fellows, associates, and advisers.

It’s a lot of work on top of our regular teaching and writing jobs, but it’s what a university-based writing center or institute is meant to do, and the UPICW—established in 1979—is a regional pioneer and leader in this respect, perhaps best known for the UP Writers Workshop that began in 1965 and which has taken place every summer for more than half a century since then. Generations of Filipino writers have gone through this workshop as a rite of passage, and workshops like it have sprung up in other places and universities around the country (the Silliman University workshop in Dumaguete was the first in 1962, and is still going strong).

About ten years ago, the UPICW decided to set itself apart from the other workshops and to perform a unique service to the writing community by focusing our summer workshop on mid-career writers—people with at least one published book or theatrical or film production to their credit—so we could deal with more advanced issues in writing and publishing. It’s been great so far, and we’d like to believe that we’ve helped to sustain the growth of Philippine literature in this time of global challenges and opportunities, but then again we keep remembering how critical the UP workshop’s intervention was in the lives and careers of young writers just starting out, as we all were at one time.

That’s why we agreed to bring back the beginners’ workshop—we’re calling it the Basic Writers Workshop for now, but we’ll think of a better name in the future—to touch base once again with our most promising young authors. And we’re going to do this very soon—over three days, from October 14 to 16, somewhere in the vicinity of the UP campus. Because it’s directed at younger writers—you’d have to be between 18 and 35 years old as of August 15, which is also the deadline for applications.

For our first BBW, we will be looking for works of speculative fiction—a popular genre that can be defined as defined as “a broad literary genre encompassing any fiction with supernatural, fantastical, or futuristic elements.” (Next year, we’ll most likely do young adult fiction). Applicants should submit two original, preferably unpublished stories in the genre in English or Filipino, with each story (which could be an excerpt from a novel in progress) running between 3,000 and 10,000 words. . Applications must be accompanied by a short CV providing the applicant’s contact details, education and employment history (if any), and list of published works and awards (if any). The stories and accompanying CVs must be submitted online to uplikhaan@gmail.com. We’ll be taking in six writers in English and six in Filipino, and successful applicants will receive a modest stipend, as well as board and lodging at the workshop venue.

The Workshop Director is Charlson Ong, with award-winning writers Eliza Victoria, Nikki Alfar, Willy Ortiz, and Vladimeir Gonzales serving as panelists and teaching staff. For inquiries, contact 9818500 (2116) and look for Luna Sicat Cleto, Deputy Director of the UP ICW, or email lcleto9@gmail.com.

We’re still planning out the teachers’ and translators’ seminars—tentatively set for January 2017 and 2018—but they’ll involve upgrading the skills of our high-school and college teachers in teaching new K-12 subjects like Creative Nonfiction, as well as developing more and better translators of texts (not necessarily just literary texts) between Filipino and English and possibly other Philippine languages. These seminars will acknowledge the key roles teachers and translators play in bringing new works and new knowledge to larger and younger audiences,

The UP Interdisciplinary Book Forum, which will start in September and be held every semester over the next two years, is another new project we’re all excitedly looking forward to. The forum will be based on a book recently published by the UP Press on a subject of broad interest, alternating between literary and non-literary titles. What will distinguish the forum will be a panel discussion on the book comprising experts from various fields such as anthropology, law, economics, biology, and medicine.

Our EIDR support runs for two years, possibly renewable for another two, so it’s going to be a very busy and interesting interlude in the history of the UPICW, and by the time we turn 40 in 2019—which is also when I retire from full-time teaching—we should have gone that much farther in realizing our mission of nurturing new writing by Filipinos for Filipinos and for the world.

 

 

Penman No. 202: A Workshop on Mt. Makiling (2)

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Penman for Monday, June 6, 2016

 

 

 

AS I noted last Monday, this year’s UP National Writers Workshop—which we held from May 22 to 29 on Mt. Makiling in Laguna—was one of our best in recent years, with a new batch of vibrant literary talents emerging to stake their claim on our attention.

Aside from the three women writers I mentioned last week—Elena Paulma, Mina Esguerra, and Celine Fabie—we had nine other fellows presenting fine, exciting work: new projects in various stages of completion, submitted for review and comment by their peers and seniors for possible improvements in both design and execution. These works were accompanied by a brief presentation of the writers’ “poetics”—their own appreciation of how and why they write what they write. While very few outside the workshop will ever get to read them, those poetics are often gems of creative insight, a rare look into the minds of writers trying to understand their own process of writing.

Poet Vijae Alquisola, for example, grounds his collection titled “Paglasa sa Pansamantala” (which I’ll loosely translate as “Savoring the Temporary”) on painful personal experience (and here again I’ll translate what he wrote, as I will other texts in Filipino): “Temporary was the answer my siblings and I held on to over the long stay overseas of our mother. Even if I didn’t know how many nights of sleep or days of waking temporary meant—and even if it was never clear what stretch of months or days it occupied on the calendar—we had no choice but to accept it. She had to go to Hong Kong to feed us. She had to leave so we could live, just for the time being.”

Novelist RM Topacio Aplaon (Topograpiya ng Lumbay, The Topography of Loneliness): “I feel liberated by the very act of writing because this is the only place where I can be true to myself, the only way I can freely say anything I want, can do anything I may have no right to do in real life, can chronicle moments I wish never to forget: place, feeling, image, sensibility.”

Poet Vincent A. Dioquino (“we never understood proximity”): “Language is that space where the imagined thrives, where the imagined is held closer to the body, saying what the body cannot speak of. It is that consciousness by which feeling and thought are evoked, a mediation from the abstract to the more concrete., or from a plurality of concrete and particular objects (that is to say: texts, or a set of inscriptions aspiring towards the textual). Language is being made immanent and tangible, threatened with decipherment. It is this specific occurrence of language that is rendered visible and visceral in poetry.”

Poet Francisco Arias Montesena (“Iluminado”): “I write poetry as a part of my being, as an attempt at things I cannot achieve in reality. Often I have to find time and space for poetry in the midst of my work as a teacher, but I have to do myself this favor, knowing that I have to share what I have, even if I have much to learn, despite my shortcomings. How can we begin to fill this need if we cannot mine words for love?”

Novelist Rolly Rude Ortega (Rajah Muda): “I write the stories that I want to read, and I want to read more stories about the Moros, specifically the Maguindanaos, and the lumads, specifically the Dulangan Manobos. The Ilonggos of Mindanao, the Maguindanaos, and the Dulangan Manobos are all significant to me because these people had been part of my life even before I decided to become a writer. Growing up in Kulaman Plateau, I saw firsthand that while the Ilonggos and other Christian tribes were poor, the Manobos were poorer still, which should not have been the case, for they had been living in the resource-rich land long before the migrants came.”

Writer for children Cheeno Marlo Sayuno (“Super Boyong Wears a Malong”): “I love writing for children and (writing about) culture. I would like to share with the children the beauty of our cultural heritage. While the advent of modernization is nothing but inevitable and even if cultures change and evolve, I want the children to still see the colorful costumes, dances, and songs from the past, hoping that it would help in developing a sense of nationalism and appreciation for Indigenous communities.”

Poet Melecio F. Turao (“The Antimodel”): “I have a soft spot for the outsider, for things on the periphery, the ignored, the unrecognized. In my silent heroic moments, I tell myself that I champion the cause of second fiddles. I remember that Cirilo Bautista gave up writing poetry in 2000, saying we live in a prosaic world. I tend to agree so far as our predictable lives go. But a poet should be able to see through appearances. So I pushed myself to try to understand what compels me to write. And it hit me that I would have been a good student of psychology or cognitive science because I amplify awkwardness, alienation, resentment, loathing, desire and failure. I trivialize the hypocritically serious and structured. Thus, The Antimodel.”

Playwright Visconde Carlo Vergara (“Hula Hoop”): “Since I work in comics and plays, writing description isn’t my strongest suit, but people have complimented me on how natural my dialogue sounds, or reads. This I credit to being used to listening and mirroring, ever since I was a kid, as well as having that stint as a theatre actor in the nineties. I would write my drafts purely in dialogue, and simply imagine what it would look like when played out. In acting out the play in my mind, I would also do the acting myself by reading the dialogue out loud in the personalities of every character, just to test if the words rolled off the tongue well enough, and if the sentences had good rhythm.”

Poet Enrique S. Villasis (“Manansala”): “A solution I saw (for the collection) was to bring the poems closer to the times when the paintings were executed. As historical artifacts, Manansala’s many-layered lights and colors could be seen as signifiers of the disturbances, dangers, sufferings, dreams, and desires of his age. This collection is my attempt as a poet to explore the relationship between an artwork and its period, as well as an attempt of the poet to assume the mask of a critic, historian, and curator.”

It was a pleasure and a challenge taking up these writers on their given premises and seeing how closely their grasp matched their reach. (And it was no huge problem if they didn’t: in a workshop, everything is negotiable, even one’s original design, although no one is under duress to accept alternative suggestions.)

I’d like to thank my fellow panelists—National Artists Bien Lumbera and Virgilio Almario, and fellow UP professors and faculty members Jimmy Abad, Jing Hidalgo, Neil Garcia, Vim Nadera, Jun Cruz Reyes, Luna Sicat, Eugene Evasco, Issy Reyes, and Vlad Gonzales—our hosts at UP Los Baños, the National Arts Center, and the BP International Hotel, and of course the UP Diliman and UP System administration for another worthwhile effort at enriching the future of Philippine literature.

Penman No. 201: A Workshop on Mt. Makiling (1)

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Penman for Monday, May 30, 2016

 

FOR THE first time in ages, the UP National Writers Workshop—a project sustained without fail by the University of the Philippines since 1965—is being held away from its traditional venue in Baguio, this time on the foothills of Mt. Makiling in Los Baños, where UP has another major campus. The UPNWW has risen to become the premier workshop for mid-career writers in both English and Filipino, and by “mid-career” we mean writers who have published or are in the process of publishing their first book. Typically these are writers in their 30s and 40s who may be employed in jobs having little or nothing to do with creative writing, who may be teaching, or who may be simply stuck in a rut waiting for that push or kick to resume a stalled love affair with letters.

Toward December every year, we—meaning the UP Institute of Creative Writing, which runs the workshop and which I head as director—put out a call for applications for qualified writers to join the week-long workshop. No one gets a free pass—no matter how good you are or how many books you’ve published, you have to go through the application process and submit an excerpt from a work in progress and a short essay on your poetics (in other words, why you write what you write).

I could tell, even from the applications, that this year’s batch was one of the best we’ve put together in recent years. In it are Vijae Orquia Alquisola (poetry, Filipino), Celine Beatriz Fabie (CNF, English), Rolly Jude M. Ortega (novel, English), RM Topacio Aplaon (novel, Filipino), Vincent Abejuela Dioquino (poetry, English), Francisco Montesena (poetry, Filipino), Melecio Turao (poetry, English), Ma. Elena Paulma (CNF, English), Mina V. Esguerra (fiction, English), Cheeno Sayuno (children’s fiction, English), Enrique Villasis (poetry, Filipino), and Visconde Carlo Vergara (drama, Filipino).

We’re midway through the workshop as I write this, and already I’ve been impressed by what I’ve been reading and listening to. In particular, three women we brought into the workshop (sorry, guys, but ladies first) ably demonstrated the range and quality of the work at hand.

Celine Beatriz Fabie is an actress and singer by training, but her biography of her grandmother, the actress Mona Lisa, won for her the Madrigal Gonzalez Best First Book Award last year, and her continuing foray into creative nonfiction yielded a poignant recollection of her father’s passing:

“When dad went, a nurse came in and started cleaning his body, a body which hadn’t been moving anymore.  I asked her if I could do it.  I started wiping him and asked the nurse, my mom, and my uncle if he could be left there for a little while, if it’s okay that they didn’t take him away just yet, if I could just be given a moment to be with him a little more.  I crawled in bed with my dad, who clearly wasn’t there any longer.  I took his face in my hands, stayed there for an hour that seemed to me a fraction of second, and told him I loved him.  Just that I loved him.  There were no last promises, no saying goodbyes.  I knew for a fact that there was no time and place in this lifetime that I would find myself ready.  I was back to being his little girl in an instant, forever, and the little girl, I’m afraid, will never be ready to say goodbye.”

Elena Paulma spent a few years as a Cenacle nun before teaching Literature at Xavier University. I was especially proud when a short story she wrote for my class won First Prize at the Palancas in 2011. For the workshop, Elena submitted a meditation on the Sendong disaster that ravaged parts of Mindanao, which she and a friend also from Cagayan de Oro, Jeena Rani Marquez, are writing a book about. Elena recalls:

“And the raindrops just keep coming, now in torrents sweeping across the land, flowing down from mountains laid bare by chainsaws, waves of it now from the raging river washing onto the darkened houses in the subdivisions, in the main thoroughfares, along the highways, and falling riverbanks.

“Later, there will be hundreds of feet lined on the streets, dangling from trucks, hanging from roofs and treetops. Many of the houses will be no more, the whispered words and laughter silenced by the whirlpooling waters that the rains had become.

“Much later, even years later, there are those who will shiver when a single drop of rain hits the tin roof in the night. They will want to get up from their beds, gather the things   that survived the demon floods that devoured houses, cars, friends, dogs, and families, and run far away from the mere sound of rain.

“It will take a long time, a very long time, before the darkness that gathers in every household each time it rains will be cleansed away.”

Mina V. Esguerra comes from a background in Communications, which she has deftly employed to become a pioneer in digital publishing, selling thousands of copies of her romance novels online. She firmly believes that Filipino authors can break through to the global market, and that romance novels offer a viable way forward. Not surprisingly, her novels carry an upscale, millennial vibe. In her workshop piece, two characters find themselves trapped in an elevator:

“We both backed away from the speaker and… had nowhere else to go. It was hard to not look at each other, though, because all four walls of the elevator were reflective surfaces. If I looked one way, I would see his eyes, the nice shape of his lips. The sweep of his hair up and to the left, revealing a worried forehead. The other wall reflected an image of his broad back, straight and rigid because he was looking up, waiting for the display to change. A little lower down that wall and I could check out how his butt curved in his jeans, and…

“No no no, don’t go there, Iris.”

 Next week, I’ll share snippets of new work from some other workshoppers, to display the range of material and treatments that we’re dealing with. The important thing is to show and to see that Philippine literature is very much alive and advancing on many fronts, assuming a variety of voices, styles, and approaches.

Another benefit of this reacquaintance with Los Baños is discovering how the campus has changed and grown since I first visited it as a freshman on the staff of the Philippine Collegian to attend the College Editors Guild of the Philippines conference in 1971. Among my most pleasant encounters this week has been that with a former student from way back, Yvette Co, who now runs the Ginhawa Craft Studio Café in a dome-shaped kiosk in one corner of the sprawling UPLB Alumni Plaza.

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As its name suggests, it’s a studio, gallery, performance space, and café all in one, a new and natural convergence point for lovers of the arts in Los Baños. Yvette—a Philosophy major who shifted to Interior Design and who now sculpts and paints—leased the space to breathe new life into a campus more known for agricultural studies, and her works and those of other guest artists blend in with that environment, utilizing scraps of wood and other natural objects as might be found in the area.

So thank you, Los Baños, for the warm welcome.

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. 75: A Writers’ Auction, and Shakespeare in Asia

DalisayBrillantesPenman for Monday, December 2, 2013

THIS IS going to be a very busy and exciting week on the literary front at the University of the Philippines in Diliman. First off, the UP Institute of Creative Writing will be hosting Writers’ Night on Friday, December 6, sustaining what’s become a longstanding annual tradition. Meanwhile, on Thursday and Friday, the Department of English and Comparative Literature will also be hosting its first international conference on “Shakespeare in Asia,” bringing together leading Shakespeare scholars from around the region and the US to affirm the Bard’s continuing relevance to global literature and society.

(It should also be mentioned that Philippine PEN will be holding its annual Congress December 3-4 at the Henry Sy Sr. Hall of De La Salle University, with the theme of “Literature of Concord and Solidarity: The Writer as Peacemaker,” and that FILCOLS—the Filipinas Copyright Licensing Society, Inc., which manages copyright payments for Filipino authors—will be holding its annual general meeting at the Claro M. Recto Hall in UP Diliman at 4 pm, December 6, just before Writers’ Night proper.)

Writers’ Night will consist of three segments, after the FILCOLS meeting: the awarding of the annual Madrigal-Gonzalez Best First Book Award, which this year will go to a Filipino author writing in English, and the launch of the 7th annual edition of Likhaan: the Journal of Contemporary Philippine Literature, which the UPICW publishes. Capping the evening will be a live auction of writers’ memorabilia, featuring donations by writers—including three National Artists—for the benefit of other writers left in dire need by recent disasters in the Visayas. We’ve received word that while no one we knew died in the wake of supertyphoon Yolanda, some writer-friends were badly savaged by the storm; while lives are of course the first priority, the loss to a writer of his or her home, and books and manuscripts among one’s few belongings, can also be deeply traumatic. We hope to be able to address some of these needs through the auction.

Writers’ Night actually debuted with an auction in 1996—I can’t believe it was 17 years ago!—and it was a blast. I came away with several handwritten manuscripts donated by Greg Brillantes and Cirilo Bautista, as well as a novel (Villa Magdalena) signed by Bienvenido Santos. Gina Apostol went home with NVM Gonzalez’s chair.

This year, to spice things up, we’ve solicited donations from National Artists Virgilio Almario (a signed copy of his very first book), Bien Lumbera (two CDs of his songs, also signed), and Frankie Sionil Jose (yet to be confirmed, but hopefully a book or manuscript). Poet Jimmy Abad has very graciously given an important group of his manuscripts, including the handwritten draft of the early poem “Fugitive Emphasis,” and more than a dozen copies of various issues the trailblazing and now rare Caracoa poetry journal from the 1980s. Alma Miclat is donating a copy of the hardbound edition of her late daughter Maningning’s book Voice from the Underworld, signed with her Chinese chop.

And to acknowledge how kind the Fates have been to me this year as they have been harsh to others, I will be donating a fully-functional, like-new Parker Vacumatic fountain pen from the early 1940s, in golden-pearl finish with a smooth, fine 14K nib, a pen I’ve actually written with and written about in my story “Penmanship”; although it’s about 70 years old, the pen is ready to write, and will carry a lifetime personal service warranty from me (if it ever breaks down, I’ll fix it for free). I will also be donating the signed original 11-page typescript of my 1986 short story “The Body,” with my edits on it, and re-donating one of the three Brillantes manuscripts I got in 1996, the signed, edited 6-page typescript of the essay “A Dream of a Red, Green, and Blue Country,” chronicling a visit to Nicaragua. (I’m sure Greg won’t mind; he’s one of the most generous people I’ve known, and I wish he could join us on Friday; come to think of it, if he hadn’t donated these papers to us in 1996, they might’ve joined the soggy mess that Ondoy made of his formidable library.)

Between now and Friday, we’ll expect more donations from writers (who can also donate books for the benefit book sale—it’s been a Writers Night custom to bring and toss a book into a box as a kind of admission fee). Bring your donations over to us at the UPICW in Diliman, or contact our admin officer Ronnie Amuyot at 0922-811-4449 if you need yours to be picked up. We’ll try to be as liberal with the live auction as we can—we’ll take cash, checks, and promissory notes, and you can even leave your bids with or text them to Ronnie before the auction if you’re away. We’ll display some of the choicest items at the Faculty Center before Writers Night itself.

Writers’ Night is free and open to all Filipino writers, writing and literature students, and their friends. Do come and join us at CM Recto Hall, UP Diliman, from 6 pm up this Friday; there’ll be food and drinks, and a lot of goodwill to go around.

JUDY CELINE Ick was an 18-year-old sophomore sporting a punk hairdo when we first met in Prof. Sylvia Ventura’s Shakespeare class in the early 1980s (a returning student, I was a decade older), and sharp as she was, you wouldn’t have known then that she would go on to become UP’s and one of Asia’s top experts on Shakespeare, completing a doctoral dissertation on him at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst on a Fulbright grant. I was finishing my own PhD in Wisconsin when she came over, and Judy and I would trade notes, sharing a passion for English Renaissance drama (the over-the-top theatrics of which would put your typical Viva/Regal movie to shame); but while I was just enjoying the verbiage and the swordplay, Judy’s focus on Shakespeare was deep and intense.

That focus has logically led to Dr. Ick convening the first international conference sponsored by the UP Department of English and Comparative Literature on  “Shakespeare in Asia” this Thursday and Friday, Dec. 5-6, also at the Faculty Center.

Like the old days, Judy wrote me a long note to root for her guy: “I’d really like to see our fellow academics and literary aficionados get a taste of what is a burgeoning field on the global Shakespeare scene. Asian Shakespeare is hot!—the subject of many critical collections, journal special editions, conference panels, and now even a tenure-track specialization in some of the more prestigious universities in the world.

“And why not? Around Asia Shakespeare has been produced and reproduced in the most exciting ways. Many regional theater companies continuously stage highly-imaginative versions of Shakespeare in local theater forms like Beijing Opera, Noh, Kathakali, Kabuki, wayang kulit, etc. The Japanese have elevated the Shakespearean anime and manga into an art form. (But then, of course, they also have Shakespearean manga porn (!)—itself a distinct métier.) Bollywood has produced critically acclaimed versions of Macbeth and Othello among other Shakespearean films. Even that award-winning Chinese martial arts film, The Banquet (starring your favorite Zhang Ziyi) is an adaptation of Hamlet. [Penman’s note—I’m more of a Michelle Yeoh fellow.]

“Sadly, many Filipinos are unaware of just how exciting Asian Shakespeare is. Our ability to read Shakespeare in the original, unlike many of our Asian neighbors, has proven both a blessing and a curse. While we are able to revel in the joys of the Bard’s very words, our imagination of his work has been very limited by that Englishness. Exposure to the vibrant work of our neighbors in Asia can change all that.

“A few months back, I had the surreal privilege of spending a day in Taipei with Stephen Greenblatt. We were the only two foreign guests at the inauguration of the Taiwan Shakespeare Association. He was there because, well, he was Stephen Greenblatt—eminent Shakespeare scholar, general editor of the Norton anthologies, longtime chairperson of Harvard’s English department, and author of some of the most influential literary criticism of the twentieth century. At some point, we got to talking about Asian Shakespeare and I was very inspired by what he had to say. ‘The Anglo-American hegemony,’ he asserted, ‘has just about played itself out and Asia is really where everything is now turning. Even Shakespeare.’

“I don’t think you’ll hear a clearer voice for the ‘Anglo-American hegemony’ in our profession than Stephen Greenblatt yet even he recognizes the coming primacy of Asian Shakespeare. I don’t think we Filipinos should get left behind because we have much to contribute. The conference is an important first step as it offers a far-reaching introduction to the field. We’ll have the top Shakespeareans from Taiwan, Japan, Korea, the US and India talking about how they play out ‘Asian Shakespeare.’ We’ll also feature films and filmed performances from India, Japan and China. Of course, Filipino artists who have boldly adapted Shakespeare will join in dialogue. The whole affair is capped off with an exciting new theater piece called ‘Have Thy Will,’ a staging of the sonnets devised and directed by Ron Capinding featuring some stellar performers—Ricky Abad, Frances Makil-Ignacio, Dolly De Leon, and Teroy Guzman. More info is available at the conference website: http://conference.up.edu.ph/shakespeareinasia2013/.”

Thanks, Judy—and this, Yolanda, is our response to you: a mightier torrent of words, a stronger companionship among writers. To quote one of my favorite Shakespeare sonnets (55), “Not marble, nor the gilded monuments / Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme.”