Penman No. 79: Men of Letters (1)

ImagePenman for Monday, December 30, 2013

I’M AN incorrigible pack rat; I keep restaurant receipts and bus tickets from the 1970s, business cards from associates long forgotten or even departed, and notes and memos from various points of my engagement with one bureaucracy or other. These odds and ends molder in a large wooden baul that sits in a corner of my office, a chest Beng and I bought for our daughter’s wedding but which somehow stayed with me (our unica hija Demi will still get that baul, contents and all, on one of her visits home from California). Other old letters I keep in a leather briefcase, itself now an artifact, a souvenir from my first trip to the US in 1980.

I was rummaging through the papers in that chest and that briefcase a few weeks ago, looking for something I could contribute to the benefit auction we were holding for Writers’ Night, when I stumbled on some letters I’d received (and some I sent—I dutifully Xeroxed my outbound mail then) from writer-friends. The most interesting ones were those that opened a window on my friends’ minds as writers and as persons—as young men, really, on the road to emotional, intellectual, and artistic maturity.

One of those friends I exchanged long letters with was the late Bienvenido “Boy” Noriega Jr., very probably our finest playwright, and something of a prodigy who headed the Policy Coordination Staff at the National Economic and Development Authority in his early 20s; Boy went to Harvard in 1978, when he was 26, for his master’s in Public Administration, but cross-enrolled in theater courses at the same time. Another was poet Fidelito Cortes, who beat me out to a Wallace Stegner fellowship at Stanford in the mid-1980s (and who made up for it by greeting me in San Francisco with the gift of a Stanford sweatshirt when it was my turn to come in 1986). I also wrote letters to film director Lino Brocka, who preferred to use the telephone to respond (quite often forgetting, when I was in Milwaukee, that it was 2 am when he was calling from Quezon City).

Boy always hand-wrote his letters in small, fine script; Lito, like myself, used a typewriter; our letters went on for pages and pages, reporting on what we were writing, seeing, and thinking at that time, aware that we were standing on the doorstep of our lives’ great labors.

This week and next, let me share some excerpts from our exchanges, leaving aside more personal references. I’m translating Boy’s from the Filipino original.

Harvard U, 3 Nov 78

Dear Butch,

My drama course is the most exciting of all my subjects. We’re studying all the major dramatists. We’re done with Ibsen, Strindberg, Chekhov, Wilde, Shaw… Wagner, Dumas fils and Buchner, and soon to follow will be Brecht, Pirandello, Beckett, Miller, Williams, O’Neill, etc. The best for me are still Ibsen and Chekhov—Ibsen for characterization and Chekhov for his mastery of dramatic devices such as economy in dialogue, choice of moments, verbal counterpoint, and so on. You know, it’s only now that I’ve discovered how Chekhovian my [three-act play] Bayan-Bayanan is. When I get back home, I can return to it and give it a final revision because I know now how I can still tighten and improve it. One more thing I admire about Chekhov is his lifestyle—shy, pensive, self-assured.

I don’t know if I can still write for the CCP [Literary Contest]—I’m too pressed for time. What about you, are you all set for this, or are you working on your Filmfest entry first? My dilemma in joining contests always seems to be that I worry about how to write my play in a way that the judge who’s in a hurry will grasp. If it isn’t well-made (meaning, it has a very clear plot), it could be hard to appreciate or to draw attention. I guess that if Chekhov joined our contests, he’d lose…. His style is so refined compared to mine. Once, for example, he was asked what the “character” of one of his characters was, and he answered, “He wears a yellow tie,” and everything was in that answer.

19 Jan 79

What are the entries to the Manila Film Festival—are they any good? Have they started the songfest? These would be good to get into—I have a lot of ideas for songs, about country and love and life—but I need to look for a good composer and a good singer….

There must be many more good playwrights such as Sophocles, Shakespeare, Racine and Moliere, but I still don’t know them well enough. I’d like to understand them all—because I’d like to teach drama someday (as a sort of sideline in case I become a full-time writer). It looks like I keep looking to [Rolando] Tinio as a model—whatever is in my field, I’d like to know.

…. The more I learn here, the more I’m aware that there’s so much I don’t know. The truth is, I need philosophy, psychology, and more to put everything together in my head. What I’m doing now is crash education. My letter’s getting awfully long. I’m just trying out the ideas I’ve been picking up. That’s because I don’t have any students yet. I remember when PETA asked us to give a lecture about our plays. I feel like I wasn’t able to say anything. The audience’s orientation was also so different. That will never happen to me again. I will also organize my ideas.

…. This will be all for now, because I’m getting sleepy. It looks like both of us keep writing such long letters. I hope we’re not just repeating ourselves. But it seems to me that we’re progressing.

2 March 79

About some of the points you raised in your letter—you’re right about speechwriting there. The Philippines or the world won’t change because of one speech. I’ve tired of this myself. The problem there is, every presidential speech has to be a speech to impress. It would be easier if it were just a speech to inform. Another problem is that we still lack in achievement and vision, so it’s really hard to impress. If there’s truly a lot to show, there wouldn’t be much need for talk, right?

…. The finitude of everything probably remains debatable. Or maybe I’m just being optimistic—I suspect that man will always discover something to overcome natural forces…. In general, I think I’m still optimistic. Maybe this is because I believe there’s a God who guides our actions. The “meaning” of life probably just doesn’t manifest itself in its consequences (in its practical results) but in the way life is used. Could be in some small things (small acts of charity, love, etc.) that we sometimes fail to notice.

…. There was a point in my brief life (before I turned 21) when I asked myself these things—what was the purpose of life? Why are people the way they are? And so on. Every now and then, I still raise the same questions, but I’m no longer dismayed, like I used to be. I’m no longer surprised, either…. When I come home, I’ll write some essays (I’m preparing my topics)—I’d like to be able to contribute to the field of thought. I have so many plans.

Boy Noriega died of cancer in 1994 at 42; I was away on a writing fellowship in Scotland, working on what would become Penmanship and Other Stories, when I heard about it. I later put his letters to me together and gave copies of them to his family. Next week, some fun with Fidelito.

Penman No. 78: My FQS Project

CEGP?Penman for Monday, December 23, 2013

FOR SEVERAL weeks now, some friends from way back—more than 40 years back—have been getting private messages from me, inviting them to take part in what could be an important historical project—important not only to our generation, but more especially to those who have come after us, who know so little about their past.

I’ve just begun what I consider to be my lifelong dream project: The First Quarter Storm: An Oral History. It’s not as if I don’t have enough books to write; at the moment, I’m working on five books in various stages (two nearly done, two halfway through, and this one just started), not to my mention my third novel, which has had to sit on the back burner. I’m no Superman, but I write books for a living, and take on every engagement as a privilege and a responsibility. Still, this one’s a special self-assignment.

After writing biographies and histories for such varied personalities as the Lava brothers, the business icon Washington SyCip, and the former Marcos associate Rudy Cuenca, I felt the time had come for me to do something for my own generation, whose political awakening came about in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

That was one of the most politically charged periods in recent Philippine history, a time many Filipinos my age call the “First Quarter Storm” or FQS, referring to the tumultuous years just before and after the declaration of martial law by President Ferdinand Marcos on September 21, 1972.

Those few months around martial law were both frightening and exhilarating, murderous and ennobling, challenging a generation of young Filipinos to offer themselves up to the altar of revolutionary resistance. The martial law regime would last for 14 years and claim thousands of lives, and cause deep damage to Philippine democratic institutions. By the time a peaceful street revolt restored democracy in 1986, the course of Philippine history and the complexion of that FQS generation had been irreversibly changed.

And yet today, 40 years later, many principals from the martial law regime remain entrenched in power along with pretty much the same ruling elite that prospered under martial law. Despite more democratic space, the same deep-seated problems of poverty and injustice remain. It is as if nothing has been learned—most Filipinos born after 1986 have no inkling of what happened before them—which is not surprising, because a definitive history of martial law and the FQS has yet to be written.

I’d like to help in redressing that amnesia by writing an oral history of the First Quarter Storm, a project that will involve conducting in-depth interviews with many of the surviving principals from that period—from the resistance, the government, the military, the religious, and ordinary citizens—while they are still alive and accessible. My interest in the subject is both personal and professional. As many readers know, I myself was imprisoned for seven months as an 18-year-old student activist in 1973, an experience that became the basis for my first novel, Killing Time in a Warm Place (Anvil Publishing, 1992).

I’ll focus less on the broad sweep of policy than on personal narratives, contextualizing these against particular flash points of the FQS. These personal accounts, I think, will reach deeper into the consciousness of Filipinos today and allow them to grasp the realities and implications of martial law more effectively than an academic paper could.

I’ll be looking for personal stories—including but not limited to or focused on the most harrowing cases of torture and imprisonment (although we’ll certainly have those, unavoidably and necessarily). I’ll be looking for stories of everyday life both aboveground and in the underground; of people preparing for demonstrations and for war, of dealing with separation from family and loved ones, of watching from the sidelines (or even the other side of the barricades), of trying to live an ordinary life amid the chaos, of achieving some kind of balance between the personal and the political. I want stories of courage, of doubt, of heroism, of betrayal, of commitment, of guilt, of loss, of survival. I’ll also be looking for funny, poignant, ironic stories. And then I’ll have an update on everyone interviewed—what they did and what they became after the FQS—for a brief epilogue.

I have no overarching agenda for this book, just an honest recording of people’s memories (as flawed or as self-serving as they may turn out to be), before those participants in and witnesses to history vanish. I don’t mean for this book to be a manifesto or an indictment or any kind of political treatise; I will maintain strict journalistic and scholarly neutrality, endeavoring to gather a multitude and a variety of voices. I will be contextualizing what people say with some factual background, but I will not editorialize or romanticize or make judgmental commentary. Rather than take an obvious stance, I will let the book’s stories speak for themselves, and will leave it to the professional historians and political scientists to use the book as material for their critical evaluations. (In the interest of full disclosure, let me acknowledge a grant from the National Historical Commission of the Philippines, which kindly offered their assistance after hearing about my project, as part of their own project for the documentation of the martial-law period.)

I’ve begun with a small group of people I know, which I expect to enlarge over the next year that I will devote to this project. (So far, they’ve included former SDK and later GMA spokesman Gary Olivar; former UP Vanguard and UPSCAn Ed Maranan; UP activist stalwart Rey Vea; former Makibaka member Sylvia Mesina; Cebu firebrand and now Judge Meinrado Paredes; colegiala-turned-activist Joy Jopson Kintanar; former UP Student Council Chairman and Upsilonian Manny Ortega; and Jesus Christ Superstar and Afterbirth mainstay Boy Camara, among others.) Of course, I’ll remain open to suggestions about whom else to reach out to. I’m particularly interested in stories from the military and the police, as well as from government officials, businessmen and ordinary citizens who may have vivid memories of that period. I’m interviewing people who were active in the Visayas and Mindanao. Sometime next year, on a visit to the US, I will also be interviewing US-based former activists and other principals.

If you think you have an interesting first-person story from that period that you can share with others—whatever your political position was then, or may be now—send me a message at my email at jdalisay@mac.com. (I’m not surprised—I do feel doubly responsible—when some interviewees tell me that “I’m telling you my story so my children will know what really happened and what I did.”) I can’t promise to include everyone’s story in the final manuscript, which will be subject to space and other editorial limitations (I’ll be sending everyone whose story will be included a copy of the text, for their final revisions and approval); but I can promise to be fair, and to render what people tell me as faithfully as possible.

By so doing, I hope that this book can contribute to a deeper understanding of how democracy has been challenged and has survived in the Philippines, and to continuing efforts at national reconciliation, by bringing out the human and more personal aspects of a nation in crisis and a society under stress. This way, it might also provide guideposts for the thinking and behavior of young 21st century Filipinos facing their own choices and challenges as individuals and as citizens. Wish me luck!

Penman No. 77: Writers at Their Best

wn13_1Penman for Monday, December 16, 2013

 

WRITERS’ NIGHT 2013 went off last Dec. 6 in UP Diliman with nary a hitch, thanks to tremendous support from the Philippine writing community (and, of course, from my staff at the Institute of Creative Writing). It was a night of celebration that began early, with the Filipinas Copyright Licensing Society (FILCOLS) holding its general meeting and handing out historic (and substantial!) first checks to Filipino authors whose works had been used with permission in textbooks.

This was followed by the presentation of the 13th Madrigal-Gonzalez First Book Award, an annual recognition of the best first book by a Filipino author writing in English or Filipino (the award alternates between these two languages, so the award covers publications for the past two years in each language; it was English’s turn this year). This P50,000 prize—established and generously endowed by the Madrigal-Gonzalez family through Atty. Gizela Gonzalez-Montinola—has become another important rite of passage for Filipino writers, and over the years it has gone to such talents as Angelo Lacuesta, Luna Sicat Cleto, F.H. Batacan, Ellen Sicat, Vicente Groyon, Kristian Cordero, Rica Bolipata Santos, Zosimo Quibilan, Adam David, Lualhati Abreu, Lawrence Ypil, and Will P. Ortiz.

The actual awarding is preceded by a lively forum featuring the finalists, who remain unaware of the winner until the end of the ceremony. This year’s board of judges was chaired by prizewinning fictionist Charlson Ong, with poet Mookie Katigbak-Lacuesta and Prof. Shirley O. Lua of De La Salle University as members. It was a banner year for the University of Sto. Tomas Publishing House, whose books accounted for five of the six finalists.

The citations that the judges prepared for the finalists were little gems in themselves, so to give you an idea of what our best new writers have been producing, let me quote from those citations:

Daryll Delgado, After the Body Displaces Water (UST Publishing House, 2012): “In After the Body Displaces Water, Daryll Delgado draws upon both romantic and realistic traditions in fiction, the personal as well as the political, to deliver an outstanding debut collection. Here are tales of the post-EDSA uprising generation who navigate through the murky mire of lost certainties, failed expectations, of promise and compromise. Here, water, cleansing, life-giving yet dangerous, is prime element. Water is memory: malleable, mesmeric. It suggests the comfort of the womb and of early death, but must finally give way to the body, to present and authentic self. These stories offer up no easy answers only uneasy angles, uncanny ways of seeing as ‘through a glass darkly.’”

Marc Gaba, Have (Tupelo Press, 2011): “’Stories are about the dropped stitch,’ writes an American fictionist. The dropped stitch interrupts the pattern and disturbs an existing order. To stretch a metaphor: when this happens, a stitch falls off your needle and unravels for several rows beneath the row you are working on.?At some point in your writing career, you are going to drop a stitch.?You will forsake what you know for what you don’t know.?Writers less fearless would try to reach that dropped stitch, slide a crochet hook into its loop, and mend a rent in the pattern.?But Gaba’s poems are about the dropped stitch—the one that makes the reader imagine a pattern because it has gone completely missing. His is the stitch that unravels the whole.”

Anna Maria L. Harper, Agueda:?A Ballad of Stone and Wind (UST Publishing House, 2012): “Rare is the Philippine historical novel, rarer still one with a woman main character. Agueda may be an attempt at national allegory, but its richness of detail make it a quite engaging read. Though treading familiar ground, the book visits nooks and crannies of our past usually ignored by historical texts. We catch glimpses of our forebears—rich and poor—heretofore unseen and gain further insight into who and why we are. Who knows, in time, its heroine may become as familiar to readers as the likes of Maria Clara and Salome?”

Neal Imperial, Silver Fish, Hook of Moon (UST Publishing House, 2012):?This collection affirms the power of language in all its majestic simplicity and frugality, as if self-denial is a form of art. The seeming effortlessness of the poems’ cadence complements the stream of images and metaphoric turns which seek to stir the mind of the listener, such verses as ‘We hear the silence / of dead birds / combing the wind / for wings / stuffed / in the belly of a gun,’ ‘To love an older woman / is to bleed / on a bed of salt,’ or ‘You are too-much-food / too late…” This engaging work claws at our heart, like ‘the hook of moon.’”

Allan Pastrana, Body Haul (UST Publishing House, 2011): “Called at turns difficult and lyrical, Pastrana’s poetry is deeply personal (and to the casual reader, hard to inhabit). His poems pose a difficult conundrum, for despite their apparent inaccessibility, an internal music moves them. Pastrana must be credited with such precise notation. Each of his themes seem set to an appropriate time signature—nostalgia, desire, childhood, domesticity—each one is given a clipped and particular music. It is music first that draws the reader into the writer’s milieu, uncertain of what he might find there, or if he will find anything at all…. First and last is his music. First and last is music of such virtuosity that Pastrana must be one of our finest poets.”

John Jack Wigley, Falling Into the Manhole: A Memoir (UST Publishing House, 2012): “This selection of essays shows the author’s deep-reflective investigation of his identity, whether as a boy growing up in the City of Angels, as a novice traversing through the muddled metropolis of our sad republic, or as a determined man embarking on a delicate quest in the land of his white forefather, a land deemed an earthly paradise by Spanish conquistadores. The personal narratives are unabashedly candid and sensitive, infused with humor and irony, and peppered with thrilling bits of pop culture. This book is both a delightful and heart-ripping read.”

The winner was Allan Pastrana, of whose work the judges had this further to say: “Like Orpheus’ lyre, Body Haul lures us with its refreshing variations of songs, stories, and tall tales. Like a prophet’s rod, it bestows spirit to birds, forces the word ‘trap’ to speak in three different languages, and illumines a path out of Eden to a re-worlding of stars and love. Pastrana’s kingdom is nonetheless that of a sophisticated intellectual, whose appreciation for music, literature, and the visual arts obtrusively yet gracefully seeps through the many fine verses in the collection.”

The evening’s highlight was an auction of writers’ memorabilia that we held for disaster relief, particularly for writers hard-hit by supertyphoon Yolanda. Beyond their craft, here were writers at their best, donating choice items and dipping liberally into their pockets to help out their fellows.

The money we raised came chiefly from a 1940s Parker Vacumatic fountain pen donated by yours truly (won by Jimmy Abad for P18,000 in spirited bidding over film director Auraeus Solito); a Smith Corona Portable Classic 12 donated by Paolo Manalo (won by a member of the Inkantada Band for P5,500); two manuscripts of works by Gregorio Brillantes and myself (won by Andrea Pasion-Flores for P4,200); and assorted manuscripts, author’s proofs (including that of Soledad’s Sister), and other memorabilia donated by Jimmy Abad and myself (won by rocker-news anchor-novelist-etc. Lourd de Veyra for P6,000). Poet Alan Popa went home with a drawing by fictionist Merlinda Bobis, donated by Chari Lucero, for P2,200. We’d also like to thank our other donors, buyers, and supporters—among them, National Artists Bien Lumbera and Rio Alma, poet Cirilo Bautista, and other writer-friends like Efren Abueg, Amelia Lape?a Bonifacio, Alma Miclat, Richard Gappi, Carlo Clemente, Dolores Mose, Francis Quina, Khavn de la Cruz, the NBDB, and the Chancellor’s Office of UP Diliman—for their generosity. We were all winners! See you all again in Writers Night 2014.

 

 

 

Penman No. 76: A Lesson in Description

Penman for Monday, December 9, 2013

 

NOW AND then I walk my students in Creative Writing through a lesson in description, which—as I’ve often noted in this corner—is at best always more than a rendition of the physical setting and the people and things in it. In the hands of a skilled or a gifted writer, a plain object can acquire a strange and memorable luminosity. Sometimes all it takes is the uncommon but logical and precise choice of a word, such as when William Faulkner describes a campfire as being “shrewd,” struggling and managing to keep alive despite the wind. At other times good description requires the writer to step back and to set things in a larger context, balancing fine detail with the broader sweep of memory and understanding.

I don’t even need to draw on the likes of Faulkner or Greg Brillantes or Kerima Polotan to demonstrate what I mean. Take this passage from a story submitted to my fiction class a couple of semesters ago by a young student named Katrina del Rosario, part of a story titled “Paying Respects.” Rather quiet in class, she more than made up for her reticence with this outpouring of brilliant prose:

The first Dayaos had been very successful farmers, and the land burst with green and trees and stalks and vines heavy with bright fruit; now only one or two Dayaos farmed the land, with the most magnificent of trees cut down to build houses. The elders remembered entire lives lived underneath the shadows of trees and grown roofs of vine, childhoods spent working the fields. They did not remember it as work. They remembered instead the bits of sugarcane that could no longer fit into carts and the sap sticky on their chins as they tore off strips of the bark with their teeth; getting lost in entire walls of tall grass that needed to be cut down; the cool of the mud and manure against their knees in the middle of a field exposed to all the ghastly splendor of a high sun; as small children, play was pretending to chop wood for the hearth and desiring to be old enough to pound the rice, watching in awe as their mothers tossed the grains into the air like a high wave and catching it again, cooking kangkong in hot water in their small toy pots made of clay. Everything they needed could be found on trees, in the fields. They had been perfectly comfortable. They were never hungry. Home was where the land began, and ended; living was the certainty of land and its fruit.

What’s even more interesting about this example is how little use it makes of adjectives and adverbs—the crutches that beginning writers often employ to carry the burden of description (“he snarled angrily,” “the bright, sunny morning,” etc.). “Write with nouns and verbs!” I keep reminding my students.

There are many ways of describing the same scene, but one approach I offer student writers is the option of gauging one’s emotional and psychological distance from the subject, and rendering the scene accordingly.

Depending on your purpose, you can choose to describe a person, thing, or place in one of several alternative modes. Your purpose, of course, will depend in turn on the kind of fiction or scene you are working on. I made up the following examples (so you’ll forgive me if they sound cheesy) to illustrate these alternatives.

What I call the technical/objective mode is strictly that, a seemingly factual, no-frills rendition of the scene, as a police report might put it:

The apparition was reported by a male witness, 45 years old, a farmer and a native of the town of Libmanan, Camarines Sur where previous sightings were said to have occurred. The man, Angelo Camagay, described what he saw as a woman in her early thirties, about 5 ft. 4 in. tall, and with distinctly Caucasian features: light brown hair, blue eyes, and fair complexion. She was clothed in a full body-length white robe of soft material; Camagay could not remember seeing footgear of any kind. She appeared before him at about 5:45 am on the opposite bank of a stream where he had paused to draw water in his bamboo container, prior to working in the fields.

Somewhat warmer and more detailed is the neutral/realistic mode. It’s still a fairly straightforward description without much emotional coloring, but we see things more vividly:

Augusto dipped the thick, three-foot length of bamboo trunk into the water; it had been severed at the nodes, with a hole cut into the top and a wooden handle attached to one side. Now the cool, clear water gurgled into the hole as Augusto held the container down, feeling the stream swirl around his wrists and the bamboo struggle to keep afloat. Later, in the heat of noon, the same water would slake his thirst and wash the paddy mud off his hands. Augusto looked up; it might have been a bird bursting out of the trees that caught his eye; but it was a woman on the opposite bank, blinding in her pure white robe. She, too, was white of skin; her hair was a light brown, and she stood closely enough for him to see that her eyes were blue. He could not see her feet, which were lost in the lush grass. She seemed younger but somewhat taller than his wife. Augusto knew that in all of his forty-five years in Libmanan, he had never seen anyone like her; but some of his townmates had, and now he believed them.

And finally—though perhaps with the greatest degree of difficulty—one can go into the lyrical/romantic mode, which involves a certain degree of abstraction and sublimation, and certainly a more pronounced attitude, not to mention some linguistic dexterity:

Rough the palms that trapped the water, brown the arms that fought its surge. Come into my bamboo cup of cups and fill me in my driest need, my limpid blood of morning. Come. And Augusto looked up for an instant, thinking that a great white bird had exploded in the trees, flushed out by his presence. But no bird there, no stark familiar creature of his town’s well-traveled woods. Maria, Ave Maria, oh fair oh pure oh thou footless light disconsolate. Eye of sky, hair of corn, I come to you. And bathed in her sudden radiance, Augusto thirsted as he had never had, but as others had, and now he saw, and now he knew.

Whichever mode the writer employs, he or she should remember that the best description always does more than physically describe: it prepares and conditions us for what is about to follow, and, working with the narrative, provides a context against which we can understand characters and their situations better.

 

LAST WEEK’S piece on the forgotten master Constancio Bernardo—whose 100-year retrospective dazzled us when we attended its opening last Wednesday—prompted the following recollection from the Davao-based poet Ricky de Ungria, who also paints and draws occasionally:

“My first teacher in the arts was Ms. Katy Bengzon of DLSU. I took a summer class there in Taft when I was still in high school and copped a prize for a watercolor of mine. My second teacher was Constancio Bernardo. My father enrolled me in a summer class of his at the old CMLI gardens somewhere in Quezon City. He taught me how to do landscapes in watercolor. In fact in one of my old sketchpads he showed me how to do shadows of leaves on trees. Very calm, soft-spoken and gentle man, as I remember now. All this to tell you how much I appreciate your piece on him today because I knew so little of him.”

Flotsam & Jetsam No. 34: Pens Noir

I DIDN’T realize how much more interesting my favorite pens could look until one afternoon this week when—during a long and rather boring meeting at the office—I played around with the two pens in my pocket and with my iPhone, and then applied the “noir” filter in my Camera app. Then I went home and took a few more shots of my other pens. Voila—a whole new way of looking at fine pens.

Penman No. 75: A Writers’ Auction, and Shakespeare in Asia

DalisayBrillantesPenman for Monday, December 2, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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