The Best (and Worst) Literary Works by Ateneo de Davao Writers of School Year 2011-2012: Poetry

Without criticism, there would be no discrimination between the worthy and the unworthy; and without this conscious discrimination, little advance is possible. To every art, criticism is necessary.

Thus wrote Jose Garcia Villa in his selection of what he regarded as the best poems of 1931. It was both a justification for the poetic criticism he was about to embark – one of the first of its kind in Filipino poetry, and a reaffirmation of the value of criticism in general. Villa, like any true artist, was fully aware of the fact that art and criticism both belonged to the greater discourse of evaluation, and that poetics was a living thing which saw evolution with the influence of criticism.

Villa’s annual selections of poetry and short stories doubtless caused much a stir in Philippine literature when he released them, and each of the yearly essays provoked many a negative response. But like him or hate him, it cannot be denied that Villa’s work brought the crucial tone of introspection into Philippine poetics, sparking, we may dare say, the constant dialectic that is Philippine literary consciousness.

I quote that passage and mention Villa because I intend to steal his idea, and begin an annual selection of my own. I do this with several motivations. Foremost among these is my desire to continue contributing to my alma mater, the Ateneo de Davao University, despite my physical absence in its premises. It is in the Ateneo de Davao where I saw my literary birthing, under its excellent AB English program. I may have had some falling out with the institution (my polemics against its overall neglect of its rich literary heritage has earned me a few detractors, it seems), but I nevertheless remain grateful for what I got from it. My second motivation is sheer admiration for that literary heritage. The Ateneo de Davao has produced some of Mindanao’s most accomplished writers, and over its more than 60 years of history, the generations of members of the Ateneo community have produced a distinct poetics. As a student of the university and as an aspiring writer myself, I see myself as having been groomed in this same literary fashion, and it is my intention to “pass on the torch,” if use of the cliché be forgiven, and ultimately spark an introspection into poetics in the university. Lastly, I intend to puncture some young, naive egos that have been rather indecently inflating in the school these days by demonstrating what is good and what is bad literature.

I therefore intend to select what I deem as the best and worst of literary works produced by members of the Ateneo de Davao Community.

What we’re dealing with

It is first necessary to briefly paint a portrait of the situation of creative writing in the university. As of school year 2011-2012 (my intended time frame in this selection), the closest thing to a creative writing program the Ateneo de Davao offers is the AB English program, which has two semesters of creative writing. It also has a writers workshop, which it offers to beginners every summer. This workshop is the oldest of its kind in Davao, and is a remnant of the school’s glory days of literature some thirteen years ago. I say “remnant” because those glory days have long passed, and the Ateneo de Davao is today almost a no man’s land of creative writing. Teachers, instead of treating literature with that passion with which it ought to be taught, manhandle it brutally with that cold indifference of requirement they use with the mass produced education that has made AdDU nothing but a business school. The students, worst of all, believe that they can write well but do not bother to seek any form of literary skill whatsoever. They do not even bother read, and the poet wannabes, chances are, have never even read a single poem. This situation in poetry in particular, has consequently reduced the student’s poetics to nothing more than the base bluntness of pop song lyrics. Thankfully, the more accomplished alumni continue to contribute to available venues, keeping the school’s output decent. But the alumni cannot be compelled to continue sustaining the school’s quality, for what will happen if they are no longer there to contribute? We will have a whole generation of illiterate AdDU graduates.

There are currently two main venues by which the member of the Ateneo de Davao community can see print: the Banaag Diwa and the Dagmay. The Banaag Diwa, an at least annual collection of submitted poems, short stories and essays, is the literary folio of the Atenews, the University’s student publication. In 2011-2012, Reymond Pepito, a Davao Writers Workshop fellow, was EIC of the Atenews, and Paul Gumanao, an Iyas fellow, had a hand in the selection of works, so the selection for that year had at least some literary competence. But Reymond and Paul have graduated since then, and the prospects are only deplorable. Also, the two’s voice in the selection process must have been diluted by the other members of the editorial board, who as far as I’m concern have little literary training. It is these circumstances that have led observers to describe quality of the Banaag Diwa in recent years as mediocre. The Dagmay is the folio of the Davao Writers Guild. It comes out every Sunday in SunStar Davao as a selection of submissions from the general public. It is edited by a member of the Guild (who is usually an established writer), and receives submissions from all over Mindanao. Works that get in Dagmay, therefore, are of considerably better quality.

My Modo de Proceder

I intend to select what I deem the best and worst literary works produced by the Ateneo de Davao Community within the period of June 2011 to March 2012. The works of my selection will come from the Banaag Diwa and the Dagmay, which are the only venues I know where Ateneo de Davao students, faculty and alumni have been published in that period. I would be very thankful if readers will call to my attention works appearing in other publications in succeeding selections.

I will be selecting from the works of students, faculty members and alumni. I will however be excluding the works of established writers, and as such Edgar Bacong’s “Pagdalaw sa Houston,” sir Dom Cimafranca’s collection of short stories and sir Mac Tiu’s “Black Pearl” will be beyond this selection. Additionally, while I have been published in these two sources of material, I will not consider my works in the selection. I believe that would be an excess of vanity.

Here I will select the best and worst poetry. Next week I shall focus on fiction. On the week after that, I shall focus on drama, creative nonfiction and opinion.

I say that here I “steal” Villa’s idea because I do not just intend to imitate him. In my selections, intend to do things Villa himself did not. For one thing, I intend to give justification to my selections by providing analyses for them. For another, I will select works which have not succeeded but nevertheless have potential, providing suggestions for improvement. I will make his idea my own, for after all, whereas poor artists imitate, said Eliot, good artists steal. And I think Villa will be delighted to know that I am trying to be a good artist!

Where I’m coming from

Before I receive accusations of conceit, let me first make a disclaimer about my intentions in making these selections. I do not come up with this list implying that I am of exalted discernment and that I am the fount of literary quality, but I make these decisions with a firm conviction that art has principles that are higher than myself or than any individual, principles that the good artist will always endeavor to live by, and principles which shall be the basis for my criticism. Admittedly, there is a hint of vanity here on my part – that I believe myself to be well steeped in these higher principles already. But having  had 4 years of literary and critical education, as well as being fellow to three writers workshops (and observer to 3 more), I believe I do myself justice in trusting my own literary discernment.

My criticism has been largely centripetal; typical of any student of what Isagani Cruz calls the Ateneo-Silliman school. I focus largely on the text and how it works on its own, but some lessons in post structuralism have taught me to consider the text’s hermeneutic values as well.

The poetics I have come to acquire from years under the mentorship of Don Pagusara, Macario Tiu and Dominique Cimafranca, and the poetics which I believe is that which generations of Ateneo de Davao writers have subscribed to, involves several qualities. I will explain some of these qualities which are noticeably prevalent in this year’s rostrum of good poetry.

The first quality I have learned is the richness of material, which can be either the sheer magnitude of the slice of reality captured by the poem or the profundity of the principle it conveys. The true poet is privy to the rich textures and the higher truths in life, and poetry is the transmission of these rich textures, the expression of these higher truths. Poetry highlights a great aspect of reality, and I mean “great” both in the sense of scale and magnitude. Great poems contain a crucial aspect of human existence, a fundamental principle in the cosmos, or any truth which is exalted in both its breadth and its significance in opposition to the profane and the mundane of ordinary speech. These higher truths all sums up to what Villa describes as “the breathlessness of the poet.”

Another quality I have learned is the transforming image. This is central to the poetics of Don Pagusara, who argues that the earliest form of poetry was the riddle. In the best poetry, one thing becomes another. It is also known as metaphor. It is my opinion that the transforming image is the highest manifestation of the poet’s creativity, a display of what his or her imagination can do.

Lessons in Russian formalism and stylistics have thought me the value of violence in language. By violence of language is meant the text’s deliberate and artful violation of the norms of language, the making of language strange to draw attention to an aspect of reality that has often been taken for granted. But it must be noted that while linguistic norm is violated, meaning is retained. Poetry is the deliberate obscurity of meaning on the literal understanding to bring about clarity to the understanding of the soul.

Then there is solidity of specification, a term I picked up as a Silliman Writers Workshop fellow. By this is meant the text’s ability to convey a point, with all its complexity and multifaceted-ness, by means of image and demonstration. It is to convey the restlessness of reality through the restlessness of words.

These four can be divided into two: what Villa calls “substance” and “form,” or what Edith Tiempo describes as “the significant human experience” and “the goods.” Our first quality, the richness of material, corresponds to substance or significant human experience, while the latter three qualities (transforming image, violence of language and solidity of specification) collectively compose form, or “the goods.” We must then here make a declaration of a fundamental principle: substance and form, the significant human experience and the goods, must form an organic unity. Richness of material must be conveyed craftily by means of transforming image, violence of language, solidity of specification, a combination, or all of these.

A good poem is therefore breathless in its substance, revealing in its obscurity, magical in its image and conveys the abstract concretely.

To demonstrate this, let me show an example. One of the finest poems written by an Ateneo de Davao student is Krisini Nanini’s short poem “Espresso.” It goes as follows:

you left nothing
but bitterness
on
my
lips—
perfect bliss

The poem is a slice of the reality in the stormy complexities of a romantic relationship, where pleasure and pain, often occurring simultaneously, become indiscernible from and even evocative of one another. This complexity is noticeably conveyed in the transforming image of a cup of bitter Espresso (this poem follows the emerging poetic trend of coffee poems among young Davao poets). Is the persona talking to a lover or a cup of coffee? There is also a violence of language here: the sentence is parsed, making the last parts before the sudden volta a mimicry both of drops falling slowly and tender (or gagged?) breathlessness. The complexity of the human situation is conveyed concretely by the apparent paradox between the seemingly complaining nature of the first half and the expression of delight in the sudden volta. It is the perfect bliss left in my lips by poems like this that I am looking for in my selection!

The Selections

These being the standards therefore, I can say that the overall quality of the poems for the year is dismal. The vast majority of poems fail to hit the right poetic notes, succeeding merely to be pop song lyrics. It is understandable, for many of these poets are young, and these poems are valuable baby steps for them. But though it is understandable it is nonetheless intolerable, and while these aborted poem fetuses have personal value – a value which I understand perfectly – they should nevertheless remain where they ought to be, in the obscurity of the baul, to spare us all of glurge and to spare the trees that would be cut to make paper to print their garbage.

There is nevertheless a lot of good poetry this year, and the best poems I have selected express exalted realities in either transforming image, violence of language, solidity of specification, or all. These poems are at once profound and imaginative, demonstrating the perfect unity of form and meaning.

I have also recognized poems which have very rich material, and which, despite their simple language, still stand foregrounded at the sheer magnitude of their subject matters.

Then I have selected poems that successfully demonstrate transforming imagery, the poetic quality for which I have the greatest fondness. They may fall short in the significance of their subject matter, but these poems nevertheless demonstrate the impressive imagination of the poet.

The selected poems are:

Richness of Material in Flawless form

– “Baliktaran,”  Duane Allyson U. Galvador, Banaag Diwa

– “Pieta,”  Paul Randy Gumanao, Dagmay/Banaag Diwa

– “Hope,”  Karen Dicdican, Dagmay

– “Spice Poems,” Orlando Sayman Jr., Dagmay

The distinction of best of the year would be shared by two poems by veteran contributors to the available venues, and on the year I would be compelled to exclude them (perhaps they might win the Palanca or be established in some other way), I will have less delight in making my selections.

On the top of the list is Duane Galvador’s experimental poem “Baliktaran”. It violates rules on orthographic orientation, writing the sentence from bottom to top and from right to left. What makes the poem startling is the self conscious nature of that sentence: it asks the impact its own experimentation has done. It is, subtly, a critical question of decadent formalism in a decadent formalist manner in one surface, and even more subtly a question of the result of deviance in general asked in a linguistically deviant manner. It is a breathlessly profound poem filled with originality.

One of the jewels of this year’s rostrum is Paul Gumanao’s Pieta. “He knows how to hit the right notes,” said sir Dom Cimafranca about Paul when he was talking about getting the poem published in Dagmay. And I could not help agree with him. The poem’s very title, an allusion to the subject of Christian art, is a solidified specification of a mother’s grief over her son’s demise. After the poem’s volta is a chain of delightful transforming images that all of a sudden lend a magicality to the piece: the sudden change in the connotations of walking, childish close-opening of hands become solidified strength (not unclenching of fists), and ultimately the thematic image of cradling of a baby to the supporting of a son’s remains. The poem also builds up repetition, the image of veggies and the indication of the mother’s love for the firstborn which begins and ends the poem. Breathtaking!

I have made an earlier analysis of Karen Dicdican’s “Hope,” the telling of the pessimistic experience by personifying hope, who “strings the stars together,” while fate is made as knot that jams the attempt of stringing, a solidified representation of fatalism.

Of Orlando Sayman Jr’s two Spice poems, “Onion” stands out as an accomplished piece of poetry. In it, he manages to play with the different qualities of onions and relate it in solidified expression to the miseries of a dying marriage. It has one central transforming image: the crying because of onions becomes the crying of grief. The second poem, “Tomato” is slightly weaker but nevertheless has enough possibilities in it. While I see in it the possibility of masturbation, but the images have not been transformed enough to that end. It also nevertheless conveys the higher truth of revelry in the crude, something it may still express more subtly.

Richness of Material

–  “Forgetting,” Karla Singson, Banaag Diwa

–  “I’d like to date you again,” Karla Singson, Banaag Diwa

–  “A breakfast for my new mama,” Red Perez, Banaag Diwa

– “Sketchpad,” Paul Randy Gumanao, Banaag Diwa

– “Desperado,” Oktubre, Banaag Diwa

– “Hiwalayan,” Paul Gumanao, Banaag Diwa

Veteran contributor Karla Singson leads this category of the selections with two poems that demonstrate her eye for the greater realities in life. Though her language is simple, almost prosaic, her material is rich enough to render her telling them into poetry. With “Forgetting,” we get a set of DIY instructions to forget a lover. The solid actions the poem suggests do not state but imply the inner action that ultimately leads to forgetting. To put it simply, the poem is a list of objective correlatives. In “I’d like to date you again,” she offers us a glimpse into the provocative world of desire. The last two lines reveal so much reality already, and thrown into the context of the rest of the poem this reality becomes startling, opening up the possibility of an extramarital affair. It also serves to defamiliarize the image of the man as mere father, returning to him the character of lover he also ought to have.

Red Perez’s “A breakfast for my new mama” is not yet a perfect poem, but its material is so rich the imperfections seem like minor details. The poem shows us how a child reacts to the sight of a nude stepmother. While it does not elaborate for us the child’s inner action (something, I believe it ought to have done) we nevertheless experience in the short vignette the shock he/she feels, and we get the sense of the underlying otherness this “new mama” has.

Paul Gumanao is undoubtedly one of Ateneo de Davao’s best poets, as two more of his poems appear in my selection. Sketchpad is a short but vivid chronicle of the decay of innocent admiration in the face of worldly change. Like “I’d like to date you again,” it captures an entire lifetime in so short a medium. The poem is also ripe with centrifugal action, best manifested in the line “dahil magkaiba ang tadhana at ang katotohanan.” It is lines like these that leave the reader breathless! Of even greater vastness in scope is “Hiwalayan,” which tells of many different details about life. Perhaps its sheer breadth is this poem’s detriment, for it is difficult for me to piece together a coherent unity in the poem. The poor printing is inevitably also a factor.

The poem “Desperado” by the pseudonymous oktubre is another rich slice of life, this time a monologue by a man about to have sex with who we presume is a prostitute (to whom the poem is addressed). The poem is the man’s confession that he is poorly endowed, and in the process of the confession the fact that he is a virgin and a back story of rejection is craftily revealed. The poem also shows hint of the carnivalesque, summed up in the last lines: the man it is who is objectified, and it is the prostitute who takes control.

Transforming Imagery

–      “Holding Hands,”  Karla Singson, Banaag Diwa

–      “Dakong Liki,” Red Perez, Banaag Diwa

Two poems have amused me more than others this year. Karla Singson’s “Holding Hands,” a sweet expression of desire in the simple language typical of Karla, nevertheless shows us an interesting sight: the holding of hands, which expresses the same desire to connect whether in a crowd or in bed. The shift from the noise and humdrum of a bustling crowd to the silence of sheets lends more strength to the connection, and consequently makes the poem sweeter.

Red Perez’s “Dakong Liki” follows what Erlinda K. Alburo calls the yaga-yaga tradition of Cebuano poetry, and it follows it with successful transforming imagery. It is a bawdy portrayal of a tooth extraction, and even the title reflects its innuendo. The decadent in me lives only for poems like this!

Poems with Potential

Though they are unsuccessful, I have seen potential in the following poems:

–  “Two Haiku,” Angela Geun hee Lee, Dagmay

– “Shapeshifter,” Margaux Garcia, Dagmay

– “To secretly like a girl,” wordstakeFlight, Banaag Diwa

–  “Janet,” cini, Banaag Diwa

– “The end of Peter Pan,” Kathleen Anne N. Veloso, Banaag Diwa

– “Covered,” Reymond Pepito, Banaag Diwa

– “Diseased,” draw, Banaag Diwa

Angela Geun hee Lee’s two haiku definitely defamiliarize for Filipinos two scenes that we take for granted but which would otherwise have been considered strange: a chicken in a public vehicle and cats playing in the street. But it only foregrounds these things by print, and I believe poetry does more than just chronicle the silly. The images have to be conveyed in a more imaginative way, the substance is too mundane for the poem to stand on it alone.

Margaux Garcia’s “Shapeshifter” demonstrates the poets ear for violent language. This is what is meant by the making strange of language. However it commits that mistake which all those with the violent ear commit: a neglect of substance. If not something profound, the poem must at least mean something, and right now the poem doesn’t mean anything.

The pseudonymous wordstakeFight’s “To secretly like a girl” is almost there, what with a rich subject matter. What it lacks is good form. The poet must strive to find a transforming image, a violent way of expression, or a solidified expression of abstract terms (like the very liking itself, which ought to be implied) to make this story a poem.

Pseudonymous cini’s “Janet” talks about the interesting phenomenon of the anonymous crush, that mindless attraction that is at once blind and sure. But the way it is told, like to “secretly like a girl,” does not do justice to its material – I can even only compare it to a line in Hugh Laurie’s song “Mystery,” which tells the same story humorously: “I’d be foolish to ignore the possibility, that if we ever actually met you might have hated me.” The poet must try to go beyond mere stating to make this piece into a decent poem

Kathleen Veloso’s “The end of Peter Pan” shows a lot of promise, what with its successful establishment of the theme of cartoons, and its underlying profundity. Where this poem needs to improve is in the solidity of specification: it needs to demonstrate its point more, particularly because the subject matter is one that is best shown that told.

Reymond Pepito’s “Covered” does not make sense, but with a little tweaking it can be a magical poem of transforming imagery. The hands of a departing lover covering the eyes perhaps become the wings of a butterfly whose dust makes the eyes form tears? (a mere suggestion!)

Pseudonymous draw’s “Diseased” has the eye for transforming imagery, and is already rich in subject matter (the decay brought about by the vice of smoking). The last line in particular is a delightful demonstration of ambiguity: is the cigarette burning, or is it the persona? But there are fat points (points that need to be solidified in expression) and the language is at times too prosaic. If polished though, this poem will be among the top poems of this selection.

Bad Examples

There are nevertheless some poems which not only lack any poetic merit, but demonstrate the most atrocious poetic incompetence, and I deemed it wise to drag them into the limelight to show would-be poets what hideous monstrosities to avoid when they try their hand at poetry. We shall let them serve as bad examples. The bestiary of horrible poems for this year includes:

– “Defy,” Alex Eñeco, Banaag Diwa

– “Discontinuity,” JZNG X, Banaag Diwa

– “I love the way it was before,” Zyra Kee, Banaag Diwa

– “Plea,” Alex Eñeco, Banaag Diwa

– “Long distance,” JKM, Banaag Diwa

All of these poems demonstrate almost barbaric bluntness, lacking any finesse in expression whatsoever. They are the exact opposite of my standards: tedious nothings exaggerated in too earnest prose that only serve to further diminish the little profundity in their already pathetic substance.

The first three commit the error of disregarding the nuance of words. Alex Eñeco’s “Defy” crudely stuffs in profanity without proper function, and the only thing preventing the piece from being the ramblings of some madman in the streets is the glurgy earnestness of its theme and the hallow attempt at rhyme (which it clumsily breaks in the last line). And no, the rhyme invalidates any possibility of antipoetry.  While “Defy” shows incompetence with its putanginas and mothafuckas, prudently pseudonymous JZNG X’s “Discontinuity” is confused with intercultural nuance, bluntly inserting “sayonara” in its otherwise un-Japanese glurge. Zyra Kee’s “I love the way it was before” (subtle title, yes) is a little better, but is still crippled by the triteness of its lines and by the misuse of such words as “succumb” and “meager” among others.

Eñeco’s “Plea” (even the poem’s title is begging for euthanasia) not only renders itself useless by saying (with typical bluntness) that the persona does not wish the addressee to hear it, there is a fundamental problem with consistency of situation: the poem begins with the persona refusing to be captivated by the addressee, but the poem ends with a declaration of the persona’s falling (no, the poem does not chronicle the process).

Thankfully pseudonymous JKM’s “Long distance,” save from vividly demonstrating the poetics of song lyrics that dominates the writing of many AdDU poet wannabes, also shows the hardship of an English teacher’s life with many grammatical errors.

It is the cause of great consternation for me that the vast majority of the poems I have had to choose from demonstrate in one way or another the ineptness of the above poems.

But no good comes in pessimism. This has been a year of glory as well as of gore for poetry in the Ateneo de Davao. Hopefully this is just a stage, and that in future publications the poetry will follow the tradition of the better poems.

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2 Comments on “The Best (and Worst) Literary Works by Ateneo de Davao Writers of School Year 2011-2012: Poetry”

  1. Thanks for this incisive well-written piece, Karlo. I hope you’ll consider sending it to Dagmay for publication.

    For some reason, Banaag Diwa largely escaped my attention. I guess I have some backreading to do; and I will watch out for it in future installments.

    I’m happy to see that our top choices coincide: I, too, was quite taken with Pieta. I’m not quite sure about the line cutting, though, as it suffers somewhat when read aloud.

    About Angela’s haiku: I reread them again, and I would argue that they do more than just present imagery. I would even say that they approximate the intent of the form (transported into the Philippine setting) because of the startling quality they achieve in their last lines.

    • Lefthandedsnake says:

      Hey sir! It’s a unique honor to have one of my mentors recognize my criticism.

      Yes, now that you mentioned it, I do agree that Pieta’s line cutting needs improvement. I guess I was not considering the oral quality of the texts when making this selection. This will be considered in next selections!

      I’m still somehow not contented with the two haiku. On their own I do not feel that they startle the Filipino reader enough. They’re almost there. The second haiku I agree really is startling, what with its surprising last line, but the first one still feels lacking. Just a bit more!

      About this getting published sir: would you!? Doesn’t it exceed Dagmay’s maximum word length?


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