Among my most read posts on this blog are my annual selections of literary works by writers both currently in and products of my alma mater, the Ateneo de Davao. Inspired by Jose Garcia Villa’s own selections, and motivated no doubt by my own vanity, I started featuring what I considered the best, and the worst, printed output by Atenistas two years ago. I don’t get much traffic here, but when the selections come out my views spike significantly.
But as readers may have noticed I was only able to do half of the originally planned two installments last year. The reasons for this are varied. First, that was the time when I was beginning to cringe at my youthful vanity, and I inadvertently found the selections rather vain. And being the shrewd attention whore that I was I also knew that the then recent USEP brouhaha would draw attention away from what was a considerably worthy cause. I also felt the need to distance myself from Ateneo de Davao then, and I felt that continuing the selections would not let me go of the school I’m no longer attached to.
And so I decided to stop doing my selections, with the intent of never continuing it again.
But as can be observed, there’s a slight contradiction in those reasons: I knew it was a worthy cause to make the selections, and those reasons are not enough. To add to this several students and alumni from AdDU have asked me to continue the selections again.
And so I have decided to resume the selections this year.
As in the past years there will be a selection of best and worst for poetry and fiction, with a look at form and substance, form, substance, and an emphasis on the year’s theme. Since I was not able to discuss fiction last year, the fiction selections will be from 2012 to 2014.
Since these are my selections, I have decided that my theme for 2014 is the same with my personal theme for my Ten Years of Writing Year, “Living for the Applause.” Much has been said about the latter part of Horace’s immortal maxim “dulce et utile,” but barely enough of the former. Dulce, the entertainment value of pieces, will be this year’s focus.
And added feature for this year will be that third entry which has never really materialized: one on essays and plays. I have been able to disregard this in previous years because few notable pieces of the two genres have been published, but in the past year works have been printed that deserve mention I will try to include in this article a comprehensive directory of the other AdDU people whose works have been published for the year.
In my selections I haven’t really discussed who qualifies as “student” or “alumnus,” and I feel I must determine that once and for all. There is what I call the Rivera-Amigo guidelines, guidelines used by Aida Rivera and Cesar Amigo in their selections of the first few issues of Silliman University’s Sands and Coral. They accepted submissions from students currently enrolled, current members of the faculty and staff, and alumni (graduate, undergraduate, out of school) who have not been attached to any other school since leaving Silliman. I will be less rigid: I will consider as “Atenista” any person who has been to Ateneo de Davao for his/her college degree for at least a year, regardless of any current attachments. Once an Atenista, I’ve come to learn, always an Atenista. I will also include current faculty and staff. As in the preceding years, I will no longer include Palanca awardees or other writer with national or international distinctions.
I will also be doing this year’s selections in partnership with someone, so that my selections can be more objective. Published writer and fresh graduate Alfredo Carlos Montecillo has agreed to work with me in the choices.
And to top it off, I have decided to do this for more than one school! Since I am currently attached to Negros Oriental State University, I will be making a similar evaluation of the annual output of the students in that school for the year. What about Silliman? There are enough good critics in the school by the sea already. Mike Gomez is enough for Silliman.
I intend to come up with, and release the selections for AdDU this summer, and NORSU later during the year. Don’t miss them!
(I will try to put links to the works when they are available. In the meantime, copies of the Banaag Diwa are available in the Ateneo de Davao Jacinto Campus. Enjoy!)
“It is a happy thing that there is no royal road to poetry. The world should know by this time that one cannot reach Parnassus except by flying thither.”
The creative democracy championed by this pronouncement by the Jesuit poet Gerald Manley Hopkins could not be more evident than it is in the Ateneo de Davao’s poetic scene. There may be many schools of poetry among Ateneo de Davao poets, but there is no such thing as an Ateneo de Davao school of poetry. And Hopkins rightly champions this, for we see in the poetic output of the university’s students, teachers and alumni alike a heterogeneous mixture of pieces diverse in style and subject.
In just this year’s poetic harvest, we get the tightly crafted and often esoteric poems typical of the workshopped writers like Paul Gumanao and Karen Dicdican, the rap-influenced Balagtasista love poems of Jim Zandueta and, to some extent, of Djamyla Millona, the performable monologue like pieces of Noy Narciso, and the explicitly socially involved output of Ash Lagon. These poets have carved their own roads in their aim to reach the expressive summit.
Poetic Freedom vs. Aesthetic Anarchy
Last year I made a selection of the Best and Worst of the published poetry written by students, teachers and alumni of Ateneo de Davao. In that selection, I presented the standards of Form and of Substance as universal touchstones for determining what makes good poetry.
Any good student of literary criticism, however, will know that these standards, prized by the many writers in the country educated in the Tiempo school of New Criticism, are not the sole artistic standards to be achieved. Not everybody is trying to scale Mount Parnassus, after all. Noy Narciso, for instance, has been involved in the dramatic scene for years, and his poetry has always had more performative than poetic merit. He may very well be scaling a different mountain altogether.
And the same good students of literary criticism, familiar with the work of the post-structuralists, will know that the universality and sanctity of the New Critical poetic touchstones has already been debunked. Shakespeare’s procreation sonnets, far from achieving Matthew Arnold’s standard of “good poetry makes better people,” would today only promote overpopulation and be a factor in the alarming increase of loneliness-related suicides.
Does this mean then that there is only anarchy in poetry?
Not necessarily. There is a reason why writers still use the Formalist touchstones: the notion of literature only saying what is “right” may have been debunked, but there is still a consensus that literature is saying something properly. Formalism is limited, but none the less valid. As such, while our standard of substance may be reinterpreted as “contributing something to the greater human discourse,” the standards of seamless form and organic unity of form with substance still hold water. We must be reminded that while there are many roads to poetry (there are many ways of saying things), it is still Parnassus (or the proper way of saying things) that is being metaphorically scaled.
The problem with many poet wannabes (“phooets,” Jose Garcia Villa calls them) is that they see Mount Parnassus, climb a tree, and think they have scaled the mountain. When their poetry is attacked in formal terms for being ineffective, they accuse the critic of being a narrow-minded snob and, at least for the more enterprising among them, evoke the sentiments in Hopkins’ pronouncement as a defense. These phooets, I must put it bluntly, are just evading the fact that what they have written is bad poetry. They try to evoke kilig but only end up producing glurge. They try to evoke pity but they only end up with high strung whining. What they are doing is like using artistic license when an unintended error of fact is found in their gossip. I have pretentions of being compassionate, but I confess that it is my guilty pleasure to prick the prides of these pedants.
Last year I pointed out that many wannabe poets commit the errors of form and substance, articulating with bad grammar and faulty or no metaphor shallow insights that do not contribute to the discourse of human definition. Of course I’ve also pointed out that many poets from the university have succeeded in those standards admirably. I paid particular attention to violence of language, solidity of specification, and transforming imagery, my favorite artistic devices. This year I will continue to take a look at the poetic harvest with these standards.
Silence in Poetry
But this year I will introduce another touchstone for poetic judgment: Silence.
Jose Garcia Villa calls it “Serenity,” while the critics that have been called Liberal Humanists call it “Sincerity.” Good poetry, we say, is Silent in that it speaks without explicitly saying what it means. It lets the reality speak for itself. Silence is succinctly put in the famous last line of Archibald Macleish’s “Ars Poetica:” “a poem must not mean but be.” It is intimately associated with solidity of specification (the poem’s ability to make concrete the abstract), as good poets often “tell by showing.” As such, sound can sometimes be used to evoke poetic Silence.
This Silence, however, is more concretely and best demonstrated in the Buddhist koans, anecdotes that at a glance may not make sense but, in their silence from explicit meaning, end up saying much more.
In The Gateless Gate, a collection of koans by the Zen master Mumon, there is a koan about the monk Tokusan, who was studying under the master Ryutan. Before Tokusan left master Ryutan’s home one night, the master is said to have offered his student a candle, but just before Tokusan received it Ryutan blew the candle. By that Tokusan gained enlightenment.
Like Ryutan, the poet too must allow the reader to find his way to the insight in the poem, for only by finding his way out of the darkness on his own can the reader truly experience a poem. There should be no golden road to poetry, the reader must be allowed to reach Parnassus by the flight of his own imagination.
Let us take another example:
Usa ka pikas nga panaksan,
Miawas ang sabawng parat.
Kutsarahon sa gagmayng bugsay
Ang mga bula
Sa mga awit sa
Ang buwan gamayng buho
Li-lianan sa mga bathala
Ug sa silong
Lahos sa inabilhag-dako nga
Payag sa mananagat.
One of the poems many Ateneo de Davao students know is “Bago Aplaya” by Don Pagusara, an oft-taught piece in Literature classes. While not an AdDU graduate himself, sir Don had been part of the University’s faculty for such a long time that he has influenced several generations of Ateneo de Davao writers, and, if there is such a thing, the Ateneo de Davao Canon could not possibly be complete without his writing. Silence dominates “Bago Aplaya” with its solid and transforming imagery. We get concrete visual and gustatory experiences of the bay (a halved dipper, the saltiness of the sea) and metaphorical transformations (the paddle as spoon, the bubbles floating amidst the fishermen’s songs, the moon as the peek hole of the gods, the illuminated wake of a boat as a golden pathway). And yet the poem doesn’t seem to be saying anything in particular. But this very Silence gives it multiple voices and opens it up to different interpretations: is the description of divine moon and golden scia a glorification of nature? Is this poem extolling the idyllic simplicity of the humble fisherman’s life? Is this defamiliarization of the scenes presented? These interpretations are all possible as the poem shows it to us, and yet the poem doesn’t tell them but lets us see them with its particular imagery.
The Noisy Phooets and the Problem with themes
This year many of the phooems published are very noisy. The phooets are too engrossed in trying to say something that they pay no adequate consideration to how it is being said. This is particularly the case with much of Ash Lagon’s poetry and many of the Banaag Diwa poems. While Marxists declare all literature to be propaganda, it is Silence that makes poetry different. Lagon’s output falls short of poetry and is nothing more than blunt propaganda.
Perhaps this is because the Banaag Diwa this year has the theme of four suits, a theme that invariably invites explicit expression (the four suits are agriculture and the peasant, love and the clergy, wealth and the merchant, and war and luck). As such Lagon’s poetic un-style, among other produce with equal bluntness, is all over this year’s folio.
On that note, let me advise the Atenews to make themes for the Banaag only after selecting the works to be published. What happens when a theme is set during calls for submission is what happened this time: members of the Ateneo Community only end up writing custom-made works to be submitted. The theme should be influenced by submissions, not the submissions influenced by the theme.
But thankfully in spite of this difficulty there are quiet jewels to be found in this year’s harvest as well, and in spite of the noise I will this year feature a separate section on the most Silent poems published.
My Modo de Proceder
Like last year, my selections for this year’s best and worst published literary works will be selected from the two main venues for Ateneo de Davao students to publish: Dagmay, the Davao Writers Guild’s journal; and Banaag Diwa 2013, published by the Atenews (I am thankful to Juno Vegas for giving me a copy of the latter, and if not for him this selection would not have been possible). Again, in future selections I welcome any heads up about other publications by Ateneo de Davao students, alumni or teachers.
My coverage will begin from April 2012 to April 2013, with the exception of the Banaag Diwa, which was released with some delay this May.
This week I will be posting my selection on poetry, while next week I will post my selection on fiction. There being a shortage of output on drama and nonfiction, I will not be able to make selections for those, but I will be trying to come up with a feature on each of those genres.
My selection for poetry will include a top 5 list (the perfect union of form and substance), a section on works of profound substance, a section on outstanding form (focusing on transforming image and, for this year, on silence), a section on unsuccessful but promising pieces, and a list of bad examples, to be renamed the Bangkerohan River List, taking from Dr. Macario Tiu’s famous catchphrase “Ilabay sa Bangkerohan river.”
The Year’s Picture
Overall, 2012-2013 has been a very good year for Ateneo de Davao’s writers. Unlike last year, there have been many of the university’s writers published in Dagmay.
Again it is the alumni that dominate, but this is not to say that the students are not writing, for there are many promising students who are beginning their trek up Parnassus.
The most prolific writers of the school year are undoubtedly Djamyla Millona and Alfredo Carlos Montecillo. Djam has accomplished the no-easy feat of getting published in the Dagmay 6 times, and her continued writing is enough to sustain Ateneo’s poetic tradition for another decade. Pido, on the other hand, has seen print in both Dagmay and Banaag Diwa in high quantity and with versatility, publishing fiction, creative nonfiction and drama in Dagmay.
There is also a visible distribution among the three major languages spoken in Davao (Cebuano, Tagalog, and English), though I encourage students to try exploring other tongues (particularly for speakers of Hiligaynon, Iluko, Kinaray-a, and the Lumad languages). I do not speak these tongues, but I will try my best to be able to evaluate any output in them, perhaps by seeking the opinion of speakers.
While there are still many of the glurgy, blunt-as-Bieber phooems published this year, the overall quality of poems has also improved. Even the poets I castigated for ineptness last year have improved to some extent, and I am hoping for their continued growth.
But like last year, the quality of poems in Dagmay, edited by members of the Davao Writers Guild, continues to be better than that of those in Banaag Diwa. And again it seems to be because of the editorial process of the latter.
On the Editorial Problem of Banaag Diwa
On that note, let me reiterate my concern on this matter. Staffers of the Atenews, who edit and release the Banaag Diwa, may have considerable journalistic training, but they have almost no literary training. An anomaly really, as many of the writers submitting to them have been fellows to several writers workshops, or may have had extensive exposure to literary criticism. A submission of quality may be ignored because the editors are too incompetent to see its merits, while bad writing masquerading as literature may impress the editors, with student money wasted in publishing garbage. This, unfortunately, has been the case for several instances already, and Banaag has gained a somewhat deplorable reputation in the more informed readership. Jose Garcia Villa has a very harsh description of editors like these, “intellectuals-as-morons” (editors competent in one genre thinking themselves competent in another), one which I do not wish to use against the excellent people of Atenews.
As a measure, I recommend the Atenews staffers to work with The Society of Ateneo Literature and English Majors (SALEM), the university’s inclusive course club, in the making of Banaag. SALEM members have had considerable literary training, what with some of them being workshop fellows and/or participants to the club’s various literary seminars. Perhaps SALEM can be in charge of the selection of works to be included in the folio while Atenews takes care of ways and means. With this, the folio’s output can have more thorough and informed quality check.
But be that as it may, let us proceed to the selections.
Richness of Material in Flawless Form
This year’s top five poems, the most successful pieces published for the year, are:
– “Mga Bidlisiw sa Awit” by Paul Gumanao, Dagmay
– “Ang Basurero” by Edgar Bacong, Dagmay
– “Kagabhion” by Djamyla Millona, Dagmay
– “Turning Tedious” by Karen Kae, Banaag Diwa
– “To France with Love, from Davao” by Glyd Arañes, Dagmay
Unsurprisingly, Paul Gumanao is once again at the top of the list. “Mga Bidlisiw sa Awit,” which I earlier translated to English in this blog, might not be Gumanao’s most profound (the title invariably goes to last year’s best poem, his “Pieta”), but it is arguably his most creative. Central to the poem are two transforming images: the sunrise as swiftlet, and the swiftlet as sun. The former is solidified by making the peaks surrounding the emerging sun into a nest, while the latter is achieved through the synesthetic tactility of warmth in bird’s song. From that latter image, the poem then soars (if the pun be pardoned) to higher human meaning by linking this warmth with the warmth of a loved one’s text message. But the poem cleverly returns to its observation of sun and swiftlet’s joint emergence by pointing out that in two days the two were not together, subtly implying that perhaps the persona and the addressee too are similarly disjointed. The trouble is just brewing below the surface, and with Silence the poem shows us a story it does not explicitly tell.
Another poem at the top of my list this year is Edgar Bacong’s “Ang Basurero.” Although not a perfect poem yet, it has a potent combination of striking imagery and powerful insight that merit it to be at the top of this list. In the poem, the eponymous garbage collector describes in loose monologue how he/she picks discarded bottles to earn a living while others of better means sit around emptying bottles of their alcoholic content. The persona also states a powerful insight: that while the garbage-collecting classes are the lowest level of modern society, they are nevertheless needed to clean garbage. In light of this insight, the poem then makes an ironic comparison between a sack full of recyclable garbage, dirty and unsegregated, and society, clean and stratified, paralleling the segregated with the unequal. In the end the poem, with subtle Silence, almost deconstructs the stratification of society by making garbage collecting a needed specialization, but it still needs to touch on the arbitrariness of class segregation to achieve that.
Probably this year’s most prolific poet is the alumna Djamyla Millona, who has published six poems in Dagmay, not an easy feat. But while most of her published output has been in Tagalog, it is her Cebuano poem “Kagabhion” that shines brightest. In the poem, the image of stars and coffee (another coffee poem!) are woven together to tell a story of unrequited love. There are beautiful images of stars becoming tears, night becoming coffee, and moonlight becoming milk. The strict critic might point out the mixed metaphor in the piece, but the poem makes them work well with strategic repetition (like the night poured like black coffee, the addressee pours out his love). The poem may, with Silence, be implying an opposite of what it means: like her heart being the sole corner where the addressee’s love has not been poured, the persona too, with her fond memories, might be the only one not affected by the night’s darkness. This, of course, would have been a more likely interpretation if the word “kamingaw” was used instead of “kangiob.” Like “Mga Bidlisiw sa Awit,” I earlier translated this poem to English in this blog.
The only poem from Banaag Diwa on my top five list this year is “Turning Tedious” by Karen Kae. With the theme of saccharine delights, the poem chronicles the demise of affection in a relationship. Like the other poems of this year the strict formalist would question its use of metaphor. But in its defense the poem is not aiming for consistency of image but is establishing semantic field to evoke solidity. The semantic field of “sweets” is evident, but it is in how the poem weaves in its narrative and meaning into this semantic field that makes it successful. This poem demonstrates best how poetry can state but still remain silent: its statements are solid with semantic deviation. “Marshmallow kisses” for instance will not make sense on the literal level, but its gustatory implications, as well as its junk food aspect, capture the sweetness as well as the artifice of the love being expressed through the kiss. The poem even takes advantage of trite expressions like “sweet nothings” and makes them unusually specific. Where the poem is weak in this Villa-esque use of semantic field, it makes use of rhyme (“paranoia and cheap Goya”). Again this is far from being a perfect poem (the ending in particular is rather off), but like “Kagabhion,” the striking combination of substance and device merits it to be in my top list.
The last, but certainly not the least, on this year’s top five list is Glyd Arañes’ “To France, with Love, from Davao,” published in the Dagmay. Just some intertextuality before I proceed, this poem is third in another emerging poetic tradition among young Davao writers, the interracial love affair (my “Super-Swerteng Uyab” and Karla Singson’s “To Date a White Guy” were the other examples). Glyd, at once a Francophile and a committed lover of things Davao (he is deeply immersed in Lumad literature), adds to this growing tradition his own unmistakable brand. The poem works with its parallelisms between things Davao and things French: monay and baguettes, the rame de metro and the jeepney, adobo and coffee said in French, the Eiffel Tower and Mt Apo. The poem takes an amusingly interesting turn when the French addressee is lost in the Louvre and the persona wishes him to find a secret trail to Davao. The French semantic field is there already, but perhaps this poem could have been stronger if more local words, like words in Cebuano or Davao Filipino, were used to solidify the local color of Davao.
Richness of Material
While not as successful as the above poems, these poems have nonetheless shown, or have stumbled upon, remarkable insight. This year’s poems of deep substance are:
– “To Date a White Guy” by Karla Singson, Dagmay
– “Sa Panahon ng Internet at Cellphone” by Edgar Bacong, Dagmay
– ” Paulit-Ulit” by Jim Zandueta, Banaag Diwa
– “He Walks like Rain” by Karen Kae, Banaag Diwa
– “Never Enough” by Christine Grace Ruta, Banaag Diwa
Of considerable success is Karla Singson’s “To Date a White Guy,” which I’ve already mentioned in the previous section. The poem comes in the form of a monologue by a Filipina dating a Caucasian, and the monologue proceeds to listing down the common stereotypes of that arrangement: the meeting in the internet, the dependence of the Filipina’s family, the grammar watch, the Filipina’s wish to leave the country. The poem then proceeds to rejecting these stereotypes and portrays the persona instead as a woman who knows what she wants. While not exactly a Silent poem, this piece nevertheless presents a strikingly important point, defamiliarizing the common image of an interracial relationship.
Like “To Date a White Guy,” Edgar Bacong’s “Sa Panahon ng Internet at Cellphone” equally lacks Silence, and yet it deserves attention for the profound insight it presents. The poem discusses the modern reliance for telecommunications and digital devices, and speculates that behind this dependence is perhaps the human fear of silence and actual experience of the things around us. It then proceeds to point out that this alienation from real experience is hampering our interaction with one another and is getting in the way of our imagination. If the poem could solidify this insight more, it would be on the top of my list.
Like many Tagalog poems, “Sa Panahon ng Internet at Cellphone” relies more on rhyme and sound than in imagery and metaphor. Similar to this is Jim Zandueta’s “Paulit-ulit,” which is really a repetition of several structures with variations. The Balagtasista tradition of poetry has never fared well under modern formalist scrutiny, and the authorial intention behind this is probably nothing more than sentimental. But what might be a lapse of consistency on the part of the poet, the second line (“ilang ulit ng [sic] tumayo”) implies more than just resistance to repeated failure, it implies resistance against repetition itself. If this line of interpretation is to be followed, then the penultimate line, “ilang ulit pa bang ulit,” reveals an unspeakable and subconscious struggle against what has been called in Philosophy as Eternal Recurrence, and a drive towards the singularity of experience. Of course, this may very well be just over reading, but this just goes to show how what the poem does not say can affect its meaning.
Another example of what might be accidental profundity is “He walks like rain” by Karen Kae. It is not clear in the text itself who the eponymous “he” is, but reflections with some fellow readers have led me to speculate that this poem may have religious undertones. The “he” being referred to in the piece might be God, a possibility strengthened by the use of words belonging to the semantic field of “spiritual” (“souls,” “spirits”). If this line of interpretation is to be taken, then the poem presents a provocative picture of God: as rain, it is the divine which both causes suffering and alleviates it. The poem, quiet with its images, is at once pious and misotheistic. Again this could very well be just conjecture, but if this is the intended meaning of the poet, the poem needs to be fixed more by directing it to that, beginning perhaps by capitalizing the first letter of “he,” as is conventional in referring to the Lord.
A poem that is considerably weaker than the above but is nevertheless clearer in its meaning is “Never Enough” by Christine Grace Ruta. It is a simple piece, an anecdotal reportage of the friend as subject, repetition of structures, before a conclusion that achieves the most basic kind of solidity and Silence. The poem never tells the reader what its ideals are, nor what should be done to reach those ideals, and yet it could not be clearer to the reader what it is trying to say. This poem is not trying to achieve much, but it achieves something. Perhaps that is its only weakness, it is not ambitious enough, but this is a young writer, so I look forward to when she becomes more audacious with her craft.
Excellence in Form
As mentioned, this year’s section on form will have two focuses: the transforming image and poetic Silence.
While many of the mentioned poems demonstrate transforming imagery, another poem this year that centers on it is “Double Body” by the pseudonymous Red Perez in the Banaag Diwa. The poem, like Perez’s piece “Dakong Liki” last year, plays with sexual innuendo on the seemingly mundane image, this time the local bakery confectionary called double body. Like last year’s Red Perez poem, this time too this piece is not trying to achieve much, and yet since we have discussed Silence, we can point out that the poem invariably conveys the sexual tension between the male and female character without actually telling the reader about it.
Featured Form: Silent Poems
This year we feature a poetic touchstone: Silence. There are many poems this year that demonstrate this, and in fact some have been discussed already. Some more notable poems that showed noticeable Silence are:
– “One Afternoon in a Third World Lab” by Paul Gumanao, Dagmay
– “The Coffee Burnt my Tongue” by Krisini Nanini, Dagmay
– “Sagrada Familia” by Duane Galvador, Banaag Diwa
– “Kayod” by Noy Narciso, Banaag Diwa
Paul Gumanao’s “One Afternoon in a Third World Lab” would easily belong to the top of my list this year if it did not better belong to a section that highlighted its strength, Silence. For that is the strength in this poem, it implies vividly the sexual tension between the persona and his lab partner addressee without even mentioning any sexual words. The poem is the best demonstration of how Silence through solidity can convey a meaning much clearer than explicit statement. In none of the many love poems that fill Banaag can the same frisson this poem evokes be seen. There is more kilig on that last piece of dialogue at the end of the poem than in all the glurge we get from the Banaag Diwa poems.
This year sees a Krisini Nanini poem in print in the form of “The Coffee Burnt my Tongue.” The poem parses several sentences in that unique, literally breath-taking line cutting typical of Krisini Nanini poems, making it difficult to read. But as the reader catches the rhythm of the sentences in the earlier middle part, the meaning ends up being obscured as this part describes the act of swirling the cup of coffee with the teaspoon, mimicking the persona’s own distraction in what she is doing. The climactic part of the poem seems to be very noisy, but like in the preceding parts the persona and the reader really do not pay attention to these words and are instead preoccupied with the flow of the poem’s rhythm. And then, the poem ends with its title. There is something Zen-like about the poem, a warning against abstract musing at the risk of ignoring what is actual. The burning of the tongue is reminiscent of Samuel Johnson’s refutation of Immaterialism, by stomping on a rock and saying “I refute it thus!”
Every year it seems, Duane Gravador has a short piece of innovation in Banaag Diwa. This year, it is with the poem “Sagrada Familia” that she continues this. Without expounding on the story, and without even exploding to hysterical sensationalism, this short piece tells of a scandalous affair between a priest and a nun with the resulting child speaking. The poem gains plus points with its humorous play on several words: father, Sagrada Familia, and family day. Amen?
The poems from Noy Narciso that came out in Banaag this year are also notable for their word play. But it is in “Kayod” that this comes out. On the surface level, the poem is just a collection of descriptions of menial domestic tasks. As such the poem is already successful in their Zen of presenting things as they really are (the description of cooking is particularly rich and vivid). But the poem soars in Silence with its subtle implication of sex with its choices. Many of the repetitions, onomatopoeia, and choice of words imply sexual activity, a possibility further strengthened by the homophonic nature of the title (“kayod,” to work) with the Cebuano word “kiyod” (to hump, or to have sex). But of course, none of that is explicitly stated in the text.
Poems with Potential
Like last year, we will not waste what can be salvaged. This year, the following poems, though unsuccessful, show much potential:
– “Biak Buko” by Red Agreda, Banaag Diwa
– “Nagmamahal na Galit” by Red Agreda, Banaag Diwa
– “Araw sa Gabing Madilim” by Ash Lagon, Banaag Diwa
– “Karong Adlawa” by Kcraazi Axiom, Banaag Diwa
“Biak na Buko,” the first poem to appear in this year’s issue of Banaag Diwa, can be one of this year’s most profound poems if it was executed properly. As is, the poem, in improbably imagery, simply conveys the dangerously overoptimistic fallacy of destined love. But if the poem aims for something higher, say by talking of opportunities instead of a loved one (that the world is full of opportunities for the taking, a meaning it can achieve by making the coconuts whole) it can be very profound. The pun on the word “puno” (“full” or “tree”) which may be accidental, also ought not to be wasted.
Another poem by Red Agreda, “Nagmamahal na Galit,” is by all accounts a failure as a poem. But what redeems it is that powerful first two lines of its last stanza, “isusuka ko ang aking poot/at kakaining muli kinaumagahan“. If the poet can take these two lines and craft a new poem from them, it would be a worthy project.
Ash Lagon’s only attempt at transforming imagery this year is in the poem “Araw sa Gabing Madilim.” There is an attempt to make Fireflies into stars. But this is diluted by the many useless images of night that the poem feels very weak. For this poem to succeed the image must be central, and the poem must try to stretch it, leaving little room for unnecessary images. The title is as also very weak, reminiscent of an outdated Filipino love song. It is also prudent for the poet to look at how poets throughout the ages have explored the image of fireflies, as in the Japanese monk Kisen’s “ki no ma yori,” or even my own “Pagtatapat” (yes, shameless self promotion).
“Karong Adlawa” by the pseudonymous Kcraazi Axiom (I condemn any parent who would name their child like that) is already telling a narrative, and it is already noteworthy with its use of wordplay (“magbabasak” and “magbabalak”), but it still does not make sense. Who is using the laptop? Did the farmer really allow his son to go study in Manila? More importantly, what’s wrong with Davao? Does the young poet not know that Ateneo de Davao has the 4th Best English and Literature Program in the country?
The Bangkerohan River List
But again, in spite of all the success and promise shown by the poems mentioned, the bestiary of hideous poems it seems is still not empty this year. In fact it is considerably noisy, full of fetid glurge marinated in mindless hormones and pathetic moans from pity-hungry poverty porn, all masquerading as poetry. If Macario Tiu’s advice to “throw them into the Bangkerohan river” would be followed, these anomalies might mutate into river monsters.
But let us drag some of them out 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. This year’s Bangkerohan River List includes:
– “Laserhenna’s Poem” by Laserhenna, Banaag Diwa
– “Julius’s Poem” by Julius, Banaag Diwa
– “LFJ 157” by Melon, Banaag Diwa
– “The Moon, the Sadness, and the Text” by Abon Makamasa, Banaag Diwa
– “ADDU” by raidhairedalice, Banaag Diwa
– “Dahil ang pakikibaka ay higit pa sa isang milyong ‘mahal kita’” by Ash Lagon, Banaag Diwa
The good thing about conducting an autopsy is that it makes sure the corpse really is dead, and the first two corpses we are to cut open, the pathetic excuses for a balitaw by thankfully pseudonymous couple Julius and Laserhenna, will deserve to die. Both pieces have pretentions of being poems with their rhyme, but the poetry ends there as everything is as literal as a lapida. The one in English is riddled with grammatical errors and crawling with clichés. The last line of its second stanza is as awkward as an aborted fetus that survived. The poem ends with an inconsistency of perspective (“then there I realized my honey love”), with the persona realizing what she’s known all along (that she is all Romeo and Juliet over kuya), and with me throwing up. The poem by the penis in this love affair is only microscopically more poetic with a bit of terseness, but it’s still as subtle as a chainsaw, and it doesn’t even try to gain insight. “Hinay2” is not being orthographically deviant, it is obviously being plain lazy. The logic in this perspective is also exquisitely stupid, as according to kuya they find walking along the length of Quirino Avenue daunting but they decide to push the motorcycle. Finally the piece ends with the laziest line in all of poetry, “I love you baby.” These two are just washing their dirty and uninteresting linen in public. And if this poem is a symptom of how Atenistas think of love, then I diagnose terminal shallowness. Ilabay.
“LFJ 157” by pseudonymous Melon uses a title so private nobody could possibly know what it means. Or the poet was just so lazy he/she took the nearest car’s plate number and used it. The piece features that same terminal shallowness prevalent in many of the glurge rampant in this year’s Banaag Diwa, lovers nyernyering about not being loved. Like all the other love nyernyers this thing is also devoid of any insight or artistic accomplishment other than an attempt at rhyme. But what merits it a place in this list, other than its stupid title, is its terrible grammar. The correct word is “pulupot,” but the Balagtas-wannabe needed a rhyme for “papalapit” so he/she decided to invite a word and use “pupulupit” (and the brilliant Atenews did not even notice the error and published this garbage). I am particularly disturbed with the line “nagkadikit ang balikat.” It seems the poet meant the persona and the addressee’s shoulders bumped into each other (the stuff of innumerable romantic movies), but the absence of “mga” in that line makes it seem as if the addressee’s shoulders are sticking to each other. Could this be an undocumented congenital deformity? Other than that potential benefit to Anatomical pathology, nothing could be gained from this piece. Ilabay.
The first lines of “The Moon, The Sadness and the Text” make me imagine a child being forced to write rhymes. These kinds of poems, reminiscent of the now thankfully out of fashion Emo wave, are so obsessed with love that the persona would rather die than be unloved by the chorva (“please stop this non-sense [sic] and stab me on [sic] my chest”). There is an attempt at imagery in the piece, what with the use of the moon, but it is too noisy with all its whining that the image isn’t really fully developed. In the last stanza there is an attempt at aphorism, but like the moon it is clouded by the poem’s over-earnestness, ending with a complete digression from the preceding nyernyering and with the reader baffled at what exactly happened (“always remember, we were never been [sic] together”). For attempts at using text messaging in unrequited poetry, I refer this poem’s author to read Paul Gumanao’s “Mga Bidlisiw sa Awit,” and for him/her to give up this draft. Ilabay.
“ADDU” by thankfully pseudonymous Redhairedalice is the stuff you may post on Facebook but not publish using student money. Okay, I admire its attempt at deconstructing the stereotypes on Ateneo de Davao students. But the only way it is succeeding in that is with the notion that Atenistas are good at poetry, that is, by showing the contrary. Okay, so it mirrors Karla Singon’s “To Date a White Guy,” but while that poem succeeds by showing the opposite truth, this poem only whines and does not present the reality contrary to the stereotypes it is trying to deconstruct. Its biggest crime, however, is its sudden inconsistency of point of view in the last line, from the accusatory to an address to the Atenistas. Of course, there is also nothing to be said about its being Silent, for it is not. Ilabay.
As I’ve mentioned, almost the whole repertoire of Ash Lagon’s poetry this year is bad, and I am featuring “Dahil ang pakikibaka ay higit pa sa isang milyong ‘mahal kita’” only as an example, my comments to it are typical of all his works. On the first level it is far too noisy, everything is stated and the reader is given no freedom to interpret the text. The ideology is stated so loudly I cannot hear the ideology. Then the choice of words is so clumsy we get an internal hemorrhage of prose pretending to be a blush of poetry, but failing miserably. One look and the sight of the words “pakikibaka,” “politiko,” “negosyante,” “burgis,” “Hesus, “martyr,” “bayani,” “lipunan,” and “bayan” in one poem already tell the reader this is propaganda he is about to read. I am in no way moved by this poem to love the country or whatever the poem is trying to say (which in any case does not come out in the text). There is a whole canon of very well written, socially aware poetry (Brecht and Cleghorn just to cite a few), but this poem does not belong to that canon. Ilabay.
Still only a small fraction of the Ateneo de Davao community has reached Parnassus. But if there would be one sure way to fail at it, it would be to give up. I have presented the best and the worst poetry that the university’s writers have produced this year, and I am hoping that good and bad poets alike will continue to grow for the coming years.
“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
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!
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.
– “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.
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.