Roping the Islands with Literature: The Bukambibig Poetry Reading in Samal Island

 The Island Garden City of Samal saw a poetic invasion of sorts last August 11 as the Davao Writers Guild held the Bukambibig Poetry Reading at the Holy Cross College of Babak. I, together with Macky Marquez of USEP’s UneLiteS, joined the veritable who’s who of Philippine Literature who call Davao home and set off on Aida Rivera-Ford’s school utility vehicle.

Bukambibig is a nationwide poetry reading endeavor, and has seen incarnations all over the archipelago. Davao’s own tradition of the Bukambibig is long largely thanks to the efforts of the Davao Writers Guild. This year’s Bukambibig was led by its president, the vivacious Palanca awardee Prof. Jhoanna Cruz, while fictionist and Holy Cross Babak director Dr. Jondy Arpilleda also played a key role in playing host.

The ride to Samal began for us in front of Victoria Plaza, the agreed upon rendezvous place. We set off from there to Sasa Wharf, were we got on a barge to cross the Pakiputan Strait.

We reveled in delightful talk amidst popcorn of various flavors (sponsored by Tater’s owner and DWG member Vanessa Doctor) on our way. With such a high degree of intelligence in the small space of Ma’am Aida’s vehicle, the conversations could not help but be filled with humor. With us was ma’am Jhoanna, whose joie de vivre was at times contagious, Datu Bago awardee and Davao’s very own historian Dr. Mac Tiu, the great poet and former Chancellor of UP Mindanao Ricardo de Ungria, the bubbly essayist Rowena Rose Lee, and fictionist Julian dela Cerna, fresh from a month of serving as Dagmay editor. Sir Mac relates how he came up with his short story “Black Pearl,” which is set in Samal and recently won the Palanca award for short story in Bisaya. On the side, I and Macky talked of the state of student literary organizations in Davao. Later, Tita Lacambra-Ayala, with her daughter Monica met up with us at the wharf.

Holy Cross Babak, with its acacia trees, a nearby church with bell tower and the undeniable presence of the sea is easily reminiscent of Silliman University in Dumaguete, that heartland of Philippine literary activity. The reading was done beneath the trees, and while the readers shared their works, the wind would at times throw confetti of falling leaves as it blows on the acacia canopy above, celebrating poetic beauty perhaps. There was a significant audience, composed largely of Holy Cross Babak students. We later learned that the HCB students have been regular audience members of Bukambibig events.

After a brief opening ceremony, the reading began. First to recite was sir Ricky, who shared a poem he wrote while studying in Washington University in Missouri. The anecdote of an encounter with Asian discrimination from an African-American drew laughter with its mixed language, verisimilitude in dialect, and sir Ricky’s own dramatic delivery.

After him came sir Mac, who shared his story “Sulagma,” which came out in the Bisaya Magazine. Anyone who knows this professor of mine will attest to his playful humor, and with equal playfulness did he share his magical realist story. At one point, the audience laughed the word “bangaw,” which he noted was Cebuano for “rainbow,” to the laughter of all.

Then came ma’am Aida. The literary giant, best known for her stories “Love in the Cornhusk” and “The Chieftest Mourner,” first talked about her latest collection of works, collected in a semi-autobiographical fashion. As she mentions her experience with Davao, she invariably mentions Mintal, which has become the most written about part of the city, thanks in part to the fact that many of our local writers live there. She then proceeds to reading a short piece from the collection, an interview with an alleged rapist. She ended with a moral quandary: the oft violated rights of the accused, especially of rape.

Ma’am Jhoanna shared an extract from her most celebrated work, the memoir “Sapay Koma,” which chronicled her marriage. This Ono no Komachi of Philippine literature has lived a colorful life, and the piece from which she read, a Palanca winning essay, only showed that. Her collection of memoirs is something many around the country are eagerly waiting for.

When a poet of the caliber of Tita Lacambra-Ayala is invited to read in a poetry reading, her presence alone is enough of a performance. Interestingly, she shared not one of her excellent poems but a short piece of fiction, entitled “An Asian Fairytale.”

Next to read was the younger blood. Ma’am Rowena, who is known among Davao readers for her wit and humor, read an essay, which was an open letter to an anonymous Facebook friend request. The Rowena Rose Lee brand of humor is characterized by its self-deprecation, and at parts she describes her legs as reminiscent of “ham.”

Sir Julian dela Cerna, the tech savvy, first talked about the advancements of publishing technology, and he read a short story from his Kindle. Entitled “Love spell,” it was a narrative of an attempt to bewitch a man told from the point of view of the desperate woman’s friend. Sir Julian’s reading was animated, lending to the humor inherent in the story.

Then it was the host himself, sir Jondy, who read a harrowing piece in Bisaya about bathing and sexual abuse. The piece was part of his entry into last year’s Davao Writers Workshop, and it has since seen print in the Bisaya Magazine. Home love was gladly shown by the audience, who understood the piece’s dark but implied meaning immediately.

Then, sir Julian takes the Mic again and reads a story by ma’am Margot Marfori. The Palanca award winning Fictionist, who has just arrived from the States, came and joined us via habal habal. Too timid, she had sir Julian read a story from her collection of stories “Fractional Lives.” The story was lyrical in its sensuality, and sir Julian had no trouble conveying emotion as he read it.

To my and Macky’s surprise, we were also called on to read. Macky, true to his character as President of USEP’s Literary Organization, came prepared with a memorized poem in Bisaya. He was warmly received by the ladies, who squealed with frisson as he recited the cariñosong balak.

I was less prepared though, and was only lucky to have brought my notebook of drafts along. I recited a poem written in Davao Tagalog entitled “Paglulubid ng Buhangin,” (“making rope out of sand,” a tagalog idiom for lying). The piece, which tells the story of a left behind lover, has not yet seen print. Here are some extracts:

Bitaw/Hatakin lang natin ng lubid/yang pulo at yang mga taon/para malakad mo lang itong Toril/galing sa inyong pahingahan diyan sa Talikud,/para malakang ko lang/ang hirap at yaman,/ang isang dekadang pagkawalay/ang limot, ang buhay na nagdaan” (“Indeed/let us but rope/the islands and the years hither/that you may just walk here to Toril/from your resort there in Talikud,/that I may just stride/over wealth and poverty,/over a decade of separation,/over forgetfulness, over the lifetime that passed”)

Ma’am Jhoanna concluded the readings with a poem freshly written, entitled “Aguas de Viuda,” a self-reflective return to the etymology of the word “widow.” She is a poet at heart, and ma’am Jo is at her best when reciting poetry.

What followed was a brief interaction between audience and the DWG members. To a question on what one must do to be a writer, Tita declared “Write. And learn the tools of the trade: grammar, diction, command of the language.” While ma’am Jhoanna answered, to the laughter of all, “Have sex! Live as much as you can, then write about it.”

The event ended with a closing ceremony. The DWG presented copies of its books (including “Best of Dagmay,” a collection of the best pieces from the weekly literary section of Sunstar Davao) to the Holy Cross of Babak campus. Sir Jondy, in behalf of Holy Cross also presented certificates to the speakers, including to me and Macky (Yey for the resume!). As is expected, photo ops under the Acacia trees with students proceeded.

We then had a light snack of Uric acid-rich puto at Dinuguan (sir Mac’s joke) at the faculty room, where future DWG projects were discussed. The upcoming Davao Writers Workshop, of course, is being looked forward to by all.

And so we went home (as usual amidst lively conversation peppered with humor, popcorn and rambutan). On the barge, I and Macky went up to the viewing deck. The moving water made glowing snakes out of the reflection of the city’s and the moon’s lights, and I saw that even in cloudy nights, Samal always has Davao’s lights for stars. As we talked of Macky’s plans for USEP and for Davao’s young writers, I could somehow see that today, in a tacky reference to my own poem, we somehow roped the islands nearer, connecting the poetry of Davao’s black sand with Samal’s white, not with lies but with the literary experience. The day was coming to an end, but somehow, I knew it was the beginning of a literary zeitgeist in the Island Garden City of Samal.

(Photos later)

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