Sunday, February 05, 2006


The Poetics of Being Pinoy
By Juaniyo Arcellana
The Philippine Star, Manila, October 18, 2004

There’s some kind of map being drawn in the largely diasporic world of Filipino poetry in English in the book Pinoy Poetics edited by Fil-Am Nick Carbo which gathers essays by Filipino poets and writers based in the homeland as well as in the United States, among other point sin between.

It is on the whole an ambitious volume filled with possibilities both profound and mundane, and its very existence stakes its own ground in the highly competitive publishing circles of North American, where about half of the Filipino writes represented here are based.

Carbo and partner in crime Eileen Tabios through this book have done much to fix demarcation lines on where exactly Filipino poetry in English in this our 21st century is and where it may be headed. Judging by the essays that appear in Pinoy Poetics, there is no other way to situate our work except in a wholly global (read: western) context. That our poetry has survived and even thrived through the decades despite stacked up odds having to do with race, gender, not to mention second language handicap, is enough testament to the perseverance and tough mindedness of the Pinoy writer in time.

Perhaps the most significant of the essays here are those written by Filipinos who reached maturity as writers in a foreign land, with added spice being if the writer had visited the home country to further sharpen the perspective, almost like Alice stepping back out of the looking glass. Because in poetry there is much romance and vagabond recklessness, the Filipino as poet cannot but feel at home in this medium, and in which a still place could be found for the crafting of verse.

Many years removed form Manila and his old Sampaloc district haunts, Eric Gamalinda comes up with an essay that is exhaustive in its scholarliness, complete with footnotes and properly attributed references, “Language, Light and the Language of Light” shows more than enough signs that he has grown well enough alone through the years, and has taken to heart the advice of a former teacher Franz Arcellana, that if one is to mature as a writer, one has to get as far away from home as possible.

Gamalinda’s colleague at the Philippine Literary Arts Council and fellow expatriate Luisa Igloria, uses a recent poem as a centerpiece for discussion of the creative process, in particular varied sources and a shifting point of view. Her poem “The Incredible Tale of the Ice Cream Cone Dog” spans the centuries by leaps and bounds, harking back to the World’s Fair at the turn of the century and fast-forwards in a modern conundrum that is the soda parlor juxtaposed with warm memories of azucena.

Another poet who spent most of his formative years in the home country only to migrate in adulthood is Mike Maniquiz, a natural in the language. Maniquiz recalls growing up in the middle class projects of Quezon City, and unearthing a book of Jose Garcia Villa at a public library while waiting to pass the time. He tells of a Caucasian woman who sits beside him on a place, and who is driven to tears when he lets her read from his book of poems. But is that the real reason why she weeps or is it her sensing here yet another poet far from home?

Corollarily of interest are the essays by those who migrated while they were young, and returned to the homeland only when they were well into maturity.

Eugene Gloria, now since relocated in an Indiana suburb ,spent some years here in graduate school at the University of the Philippines, which becomes the gist of his remembrance of a childhood in Avenida, Sta. Cruz. Of course the Sta. Cruz of his memory is a mere shadow of the Rizal Avenue circa early 1990s, time of his visit, underneath the clatter of the LRT and winding thorugh the dark alleyways preceding the good mayor’s buhayin ang Maynila program. But this is not simple nostalgia, rather a method of staying connected with his Filipino-ness, indeed no mean feat in a world of perpetual deconstruction. His Drivers at the Short-Time Motel remains a book of poems we’ve long wanted to read, and in the poem that ends his essay here we get to know the meaning of the word “scree.”

Oscar Penaranda did time in the grape farms of California and canning factories of Alaska, and so is familiar with the experiences of the first wave of Filipino migrants, one of whom became the benchmark of the Filipino American writer in the brave new western world, Carlos Bulosan. Penaranda posits correctly that the Filipino writer in America faces tremendous odds in a society where power is centered on the basically white, male and Protestant. Yet he knows whereof he writes and keeps faith in the root of the matter, those shifting concerns of a largely amorphous race.

The girl with the thorn on her side, Tabios in her essays gives a few hints on why she is writing not only as if her life depended on it but also as if there were no tomorrow. Lines between the genres and forms blur with Tabios, who uses performance and the visual arts as spark plugs for her poetry. For her poetry is the only way to live, and she intends to suck the marrow and everything else out of it.

There too are the poets who chose to remain close to home for the most part -- Gemino Abad, Ricardo de Ungria, Ruey de Vera, Krip Yuson et al. -- but on the whole we can glean that traveling and being Filipino or even staying put is a state of mind, in itself already a kind of elusive ars poetica.


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