Penman No. 163: The Gentler Path

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Penman for Monday, August 24, 2015

FOR THE?first time in something like 20 years, I’m teaching two undergraduate classes this semester. I usually teach one graduate and one undergrad class, but thanks to what I’m taking as a glitch in the registration process, my graduate fiction writing class—which is usually oversubscribed—had zero enrollees this term, forcing its cancellation and my reassignment to a course usually reserved for young instructors, English 11 or “Literature and Society.”

I should make it clear that I’ve always insisted on teaching at least one undergrad class every semester, and have done so unfailingly since I returned from my own graduate studies abroad in 1991. The benefits go both ways—young students get to learn from more experienced professors, and senior profs get to know how young people think. With four years of active teaching left before retirement (it’s hard to believe, but I’m getting there), these encounters with some of the country’s brightest young minds will only become more precious, and as with every class I take on, I can only hope that, many years from now, my former students will remember something useful that they picked up from me.

I haven’t taught English 11 in ages, so it was with some trepidation that I entered the classroom on our first day a couple of weeks ago, under UP’s new academic calendar. Students don’t realize this, but professors can be just as full of anxiety at the start of the semester as they are. As I scan the roomful of faces, I’m already wondering who will likely give me problems and who will make it worth the effort of preparing for every day’s lesson as if I myself were taking an exam. Thankfully, most of these mutual apprehensions soon retreat as I reassure my students that I know what I’m talking about—and that I won’t scream at them if they don’t—and as I begin to understand what exactly I’m working with, which is always a welcome challenge.

This semester, I was glad to discover that my English 11 class of about 30 students was composed of mainly science and engineering majors. You’d think that teaching the humanities to them would pose problems, but I see it as a unique opportunity to lead smart people on an adventure they might have missed out on otherwise. Of course, UP’s General Education program makes sure that our graduates acquire a balanced outlook on life, so my students didn’t really have any choice, but I see my job as making them see Literature as much less an imposed subject than a welcome relief from everything else—in other words, fun. When you disguise labor as discovery, and emphasize incentives over penalties, the students—and you yourself—can feel more relaxed.

English 11 is what used to be English 3 in my time—an introduction to literature—and while some teachers see this as a chance to pile on the heavy stuff like The Brothers Karamazov (and I can understand why), I prefer to take the gentler path to literary enlightenment, and begin with things the students know or can apprehend. That way you can lead them to stranger and more intriguing discoveries about the way language works to convey human experience.

Last week, for example, one of the first poems we took up in class was “Southbound on the Freeway,” a poem published in 1963 by the American poet May Swenson. We could’ve done something like T. S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” but unless you train lay people to look at poetry a certain way—to see it as a puzzle or a riddle to be solved, for example—it’s often very hard for them to get a handle on what some poets do on a high and abstracted level of language and idea, much like the way Picasso’s departure into Cubism (think of his women-figures with their eyes looking this way and their noses pointing that way) can be better appreciated if you first consider what goes into a traditional portrait like the Mona Lisa.

“Southbound on the Freeway” reads like a rather simple and even funny poem, in which alien visitors on a spaceship look down at the Earth, and see creatures “made of metal and glass…. They have four eyes. / The two in the back are red. / Sometimes you can see a 5-eyed / one, his red eye turning / on the top of his head.” It doesn’t take much for the student to see that the aliens, hovering above a freeway, have concluded that the cars themselves are Earthlings, and even that some cars—like the “5-eyed” police car—are more special than others.

In literature, this is a familiar device we call “defamiliarization,” by which poets and other artists take something we see everyday and present it to us in fresh and unexpected ways, revealing facets and insights we never really thought about before. The Swenson poem seems like all it does is show us how perspective can change our perception of things, but it goes beyond that eye-trick and asks a very intriguing question at the end: “Those soft shapes, / shadowy inside / the hard bodies—are they / their guts or their brains?”

At this point, I ask the class, what’s this poem really about? Is it just about aliens and humans, or about cars on the road? Inevitably, someone spits out the magic word: technology! So what is it about technology that’s so important, I press on, and what does it have to do with our lives? Why, everything, the class exclaims in a chorus—we’d die without our cell phones and iPads!

We go into a brief and engaging discussion about what exactly technology means, and whether it has benefited human society—or not. We talk about mechanization, automation, better and easier ways of doing things, products that were invented to improve human life, and inventions that did the opposite. We talk about armaments, and about Eli Whitney’s cotton gin and how it actually helped to encourage more slavery in the American South. I tell them that at some point, later in the semester, I’ll talk to them some more about the legend of Dr. Faust and how it led to the stereotype of the mad scientist, all the way to Dr. Strangelove, Lex Luthor, and Doc Ock. I can see that the class is listening, and I’m happy.

I ask them what the real question is that the Swenson poem is posing, and they get it. It’s been a good day in school for Literature and Society.

Penman No. 162: To Be a Journalist (2)

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Penman for Monday, August 17, 2015

LAST WEEK’S?look back at my early days as a journalist brought back a flood of memories that hadn’t crossed my mind in ages, so I’ll beg my reader’s indulgence with this extended reminiscence of what it was like to be a young newspaper reporter just before martial law was declared in September 1972.

Come to think of it, that first stint in journalism didn’t last too long, from April to September of that fateful year. (I keep saying “first” because I would return to newspapering more than 20 years later in 1993, as an editorial writer and then Lifestyle columnist for the late, lamented newspaper TODAY.) To recap, I was 18, and my bosses at the Philippines Herald had taken a chance on a college dropout who barely knew a thing about professional newspapering but who seemed to be able to string sentences together decently enough—and fast.

Man, was I fast—I was so eager to impress my editors that I jumped at assignments the way a dog goes after a ball, and when my editors found out about the new boy in the room, they assigned me to fill up half of Page 5—the features page—every day. The topic was up to me. That sounded like the most wonderful thing in the world—imagine, my own corner of the newspaper, all mine to fill up!—for about three days. I took stories out of history books and turned them into features; I wrote about the latest crazes like fun houses and pool halls; and when, inevitably, I ran out of ideas, I took a bus out to Tagaytay, got off, and looked around for anything that I could weave a feature story from (I saw a drug rehab center in the distance and got a story out of that; I did the same thing in Muntinlupa another day and interviewed a Death Row convict).

Thankfully my editors pulled me out of Page 5 and designated me a general assignments reporter—meaning, I would report for work every morning and take on whatever odd assignment they tossed me. But before I could do that, and to give me some training, they had me spend a few weeks each on a specific beat—police, sports, and City Hall. On each beat, a senior Herald reporter took me under his wing, and while they may not have been too happy to babysit me, I soaked up their streetsmarts and tried not to be a nuisance (not always successfully—we were covering a MICAA basketball game when Jun Pantig saw that I was cheering for one team at courtside. “Stop cheering!” he shushed me. “You’re a reporter, you shouldn’t be taking sides!”)

Of all the beats I was assigned to, the most exciting and instructive was police. I took the graveyard shift at the old Manila Police Department headquarters and from there covered mayhem at its worst—an 18-year-old American girl who shot herself in the mouth at the Dutch Inn; a nighttime fire that razed a hospital in Dapitan (I can still recall the sickening thud of falling patients who jumped off the roof in desperation; my specific task, early that morning, was to count all the bodies in the morgues); demonstrations at the US Embassy where I could see the police preparing for an assault on the rallyists, many of whom happened to be my friends (prompting me, again, to break journalistic protocol by picking up the injured in our service jeep and bringing them to the hospital).

I grew inured to the sight and smell of blood, and I can say, today, that I had no better preparation for the kind of realist fiction that I would come to write than those weeks on the police beat, confronting death by the day (which didn’t make me feel any braver, but rather more aware and respectful of the finitude of life).

It was all very exhilarating, even in the most difficult and trying of moments; sometimes the toughest tests took place in the newsroom itself—once, for example, I was driven close to tears by having to rewrite a story half a dozen times to please an editor who, I now realize, was teaching me a valuable lesson in verbal economy.

Coming off the beats as a general assignments reporter, I looked forward to and did get some assignments that no other teenager would have experienced. At the onset of the biblically catastrophic July-August floods of 1972, I was put on board an amphibious ship that sailed in the night from Manila to Lingayen Gulf, and I covered rescue operations in Pangasinan, riding rubber rafts and flying out in a US Army helicopter that dropped us off at Clark Air Base, then still busy with the Vietnam War. Also at about that time, I volunteered to go to Isabela to cover the reported landing of a shipload of arms by the CPP-NPA, convinced (wrongly—it turned out to be the MV Karagatan episode) that it was a military hoax that I could heroically unmask; sensibly, my bosses told me that I was too young—they didn’t say too foolish—to undertake the mission. Instead, I stayed in Manila, and interviewed Mrs. Marcos in Malaca?ang about her relief efforts in front of a mountain of Nutribuns.

Like I said last week, I soon resigned in solidarity with a union strike at the Herald, and was half-surprised when management accepted my resignation. I finagled my way to a spot at Taliba (in the Manila Times organization that it had been my dream to join one way or the other) as suburban correspondent, and it was in that capacity—albeit outside my assigned zone in Makati—that I filed, or at least called in, the last story of my brief reportorial career. It was the night of September 22, 1972, and I was on the UP campus, not as a journalist but as an off-hours activist hanging out with comrades and fraternity brothers to denounce the imminence of martial law.

I should’ve sensed something when I saw my brod Bobby Crisol, son of the Defense Undersecretary, suddenly being spirited away by his dad’s security men. Shortly after, we heard gunshots in the distance. I ran for the nearest phone and called the night desk: “I have a scoop!” I said breathlessly. “I can hear gunfire—UP is under attack!” (It later turned out that the Iglesia ni Cristo radio station was being taken over by the military.) What should have been the biggest story of my young life fizzled out with a laconic reply on the other end of the line. “So are we,” said the fellow I spoke to. “There are soldiers in the office. It’s martial law!”

Within four months, I would be in prison, still aged 18. Another year later, I would get married, on my 20th birthday. Life seemed terribly short, and I was in an awful hurry, hardly imagining I would last on to seniorhood.

Today, I tell my Creative Writing majors that they may think of themselves as God’s gift to literature, but until they’ve spent a week or two as a reporter, sniffing out a story, they should shut up and be happy they can write odes to the moonlight without an editor screaming at them for a tighter rewrite.

Penman No. 161: To Be a Journalist

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Penman for Monday, August 10, 2015

I WAS?very sad to hear of the recent passing of an old colleague from my first foray into journalism—Nemesio Dacanay, who was then the City Editor of the Philippines Herald, one of the pre-martial law period’s smaller but pre-eminent newspapers. A relative of his texted me about his death and interment, but I was out of town and felt bad that I couldn’t even pay my respects in person, so I’ll do it here.

Five years ago, in this column, I had to issue an apology—and I was happy to do so—having inadvertently suggested in a previous piece that “Dac” had passed on to the hereafter. As it turned out, he was still very much alive, as his daughter Christine reminded me. This time, unfortunately, the news was real.

The story of my connection to Dac and of how I got into the newspapers is something I may have told before in bits and pieces, but here it is in full. The time was early 1972, and I had just turned 18. I was already a full-time activist, having dropped out of my classes in UP, a lanky, chain-smoking lad who was already a veteran of many a Plaza Miranda march and of the Diliman Commune.

In UP, I hung out with a group of older Journalism majors who were close to graduating and who would, very shortly after, begin to make a name for themselves as reporters—people like Wilson Bailon, Rolly Fernandez, Jun Engracia, Efren Cabrera, Rod Cabrera, and Val Abelgas, among others. I had great respect and admiration for these guys, but at the same time, it annoyed me to know that they were soon going to find and land jobs, while I—technically still a freshman, with but 21 completed units to my name (3 of them good for a “5.0” in Math, the consequence of absenteeism)—was going to be left behind.

I should explain that at 18, I had no greater ambition than to become a journalist. I’d written some stories, poems, and plays, but I had no plans of becoming a creative writer, and might even have thought journalism superior to poetry (and why not?). I had been editor in chief of the school paper at Philippine Science High (following in the gargantuan footsteps of Rey Vea, Mario Taguiwalo, and Rodel Rodis), and I found that I savored the romance of printers’ ink and hot lead (that’s “lead” with a short E for you young ones, the molten metal that magically turned into letters in reverse).

As soon as I stepped into UP, at 16, I did the three things I’d put on my agenda, after enrollment: join the Nationalist Corps (and later the Samahang Demokratiko ng Kabataan, or SDK), join the Alpha Sigma Fraternity (to which high school heroes like my Physics teacher Vic Manarang and firebrand Gary Olivar belonged), and join the staff of the Philippine Collegian.

It was in the nationalist movement and those long nights of proofreading at Liwayway Press that my desire to become a reporter flourished. Never mind poetry and fiction; I wanted to feel and to record the ground shaking beneath my feet from the steps of a thousand marchers, to trace the arc of tear gas canisters flying across the plaza, to bear witness to what we were all convinced was the forging of a bright new future, with all the sparks and all the smoke that came with the process. To be a reporter at that time was to be in the very womb of history, and I thought nothing was more thrilling and more important than to be there on the frontlines, notebook and ballpoint in hand and a barely stifled battle cry rising up my throat: “Pierce the enemy with your pens!” (That was the slogan silkscreened on my jacket.)

As you can see, as a teenage Maoist, I had no idea of and no patience for “objective” and “dispassionate” journalism. I hadn’t even taken one formal unit of Journalism in UP (I was an Industrial Engineering major, and still plowing through my GE subjects) and had embraced the notion that journalism was and had to be a partisan activity, convinced that Malaca?ang had bought 90% of the Philippine press, with the notable exception of progressives like Tony Zumel, Satur Ocampo, and Rolly Fadul, and young blood like Roz Galang and Millet Martinez. We were going to be the vanguard of what we called the Second Propaganda Movement.

But I didn’t want to be stuck on campus; it was a wide-open arena beyond Diliman, so when my friends began applying for jobs with the newspapers shortly before graduation in early 1972, I tagged along, hoping to land something, anything. (I’d already written and sold a teleplay to the TV drama anthology Balintataw in 1970, when I was 16, so I didn’t lack in self-esteem.) I remember walking up to the editor of the Manila Chronicle, Amando Doronila, and boldly announcing that I wanted to apply as a reporter. “How old are you?” the man asked in all reasonableness. “Eighteen,” I said. “Come back in a few years,” he suggested, not unkindly.

It was like that, one prospect after another, until my path led to the old Philippines Herald office in Intramuros, sometime in March or April. It was must have been around one in the afternoon, because the only person in the newsroom was Nemesio “Dac” Dacanay, whose name I didn’t even know at that point. He had a groovy look about him: dark shades, a colorful, open-necked shirt, and an impish grin. I told him what I was there for, and I can’t recall how long I begged to be given a chance, but finally, if only to get rid of the pesky walk-in, he said: “Where do you live?” I said, “Quezon City.” He said, “Okay. Go back to Quezon City, then come back in three days with a story. Understood?”

I stepped out of the Herald on a floating cloud—I was positive I would deliver as directed. Over the next three days, not knowing anything about real newswriting, I walked around the Quezon Memorial, waiting for some dreadful accident to happen that I could breathlessly report on. The world remained blissfully peaceful, and the only thing that came crashing down was my dream of becoming a journalist. On the third day, I was so tired and depressed that I took a jeepney to the Delta Theater, and decided to cool off in the moviehouse. I watched the screen. The movie was so awful I can’t even remember its title. When it was over, I went home, collected my thoughts, and pulled out my typewriter.

Then I took a bus to Intramuros, and handed Dac my story—a movie review. Damn—I could hear him mutter, and I could see him sizing me up through his shades—okay ka, kid. “I’ll pass this on to Nestor,” he said, referring to the venerable Nestor Mata, who handled the features page. “He’ll take care of you.”

And so I was hired at 18 as a general assignments reporter, the greenest of greenhorns in a roomful of veterans that included editor in chief Oscar Villadolid, news editor Joe Pavia, reporter Lito Catapusan (who took me under his wing), and a deskman who moonlighted as a songwriter named George Canseco. Over the next few months, I would make the rounds of the police, sports, and City Hall beats, cramming three more years of college into a semester. Thanks to a guy who humored me named Dac, I had achieved my ambition of becoming a journalist. (By July, in a flash of activist fervor, I would resign in solidarity with striking workers, and move over to Taliba as a correspondent right up to martial law, when we all lost our jobs and the press as we knew it vanished overnight. But that’s another story.)

Penman No. 160: Hemingway in Manila

HemingwayManilaPenman for Monday, August 3, 2015

THE LAST?time I thought about Ernest Hemingway, it was a few weeks ago when I was teaching his controversial 1927 short story “Hills Like White Elephants,” one of my all-time favorites for its compactness and subtlety, not to mention its grasp of human psychology.

Coincidentally, when I was giving that lecture, one of the pens in my pocket was an Ernest Hemingway—the first in a series that Montblanc called its Writers Edition pens, issued in 1993. Considered one of the “holy grails” of pen collectors, it had been generously given to me by a fellow member of the Fountain Pen Network-Philippines (www.fpn-p.org); we had a small business arrangement, but the cost of my own service was so negligible that the pen was practically a gift, most thankfully accepted.

My pen’s inscribed with Hemingway’s signature, but ironically, I don’t think Hemingway was ever much of a fountain-pen person, and being the practical, outdoorsy person he was, would probably have disdained carrying anything fancier than a Parker Jotter. He was actually known to favor pencils and typewriters—Angelina Jolie bought his 1926 Underwood as a wedding gift to Brad Pitt—and he wrote this down to explain why:

“When you start to write you get all the kick and the reader gets none. So you might as well use a typewriter because it is much easier and you enjoy it that much more. After you learn to write your whole object is to convey everything, every sensation, sight, feeling, place and emotion to the reader. To do this you have to work over what you write. If you write with a pencil you get three different sights at it to see if the reader is getting what you want him to. First when you read it over; then when it is typed you get another chance to improve it, and again in the proof. Writing it first in pencil gives you one-third more chance to improve it. That is .333 which is a damned good average for a hitter. It also keeps it fluid longer so that you can better it easier.”

I’ve since located an online sample of Hemingway’s handwriting—likely in pencil—which has him drawing up a list of recommended readings for young writers (among them, Stephen Crane’s short stories, Madame Bovary, The Brothers Karamazov, and The Oxford Book of English Verse). It’s comforting to know that his penmanship is a lot like mine—cramped, stiff, and generally ugly.

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One of the things that I forgot to mention to my audience—a group of English teachers—was that Hemingway once visited Manila, in February 1941, with the clouds of war already hovering above Europe, where the young Ernest had served as an ambulance driver in World War I. (Ambulance driving seemed to be strangely attractive to young men who would soon make a name for themselves in the arts and letters. Aside from Hemingway, these illustrious WWI volunteers included the writers John Dos Passos, E. E. Cummings, W. Somerset Maugham, and Archibald MacLeish, the composer Maurice Ravel, and the filmmakers Jean Cocteau and Walt Disney.)

In another uncanny connection to fountain pens, Hemingway and Dos Passos served in Italy close to the factory of the Montegrappa fountain pen company, as Montegrappa continues to recall on its website: “Close to the Elmo-Montegrappa factory was situated the Villa Azzalin, which during the conflict. was converted into a field hospital. Two volunteer ambulance drivers for the Italian Red Cross at that time were the famous writers Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos, both of whom spent many happy hours visiting the factory and experimenting and testing various Montegrappa fountain pens, and availing themselves of the Company’s after-sales service.”

But back to Hemingway in Manila.

An article by Brown University Prof. George Monteiro in The Hemingway Review (Fall 2010) talks about Hemingway’s short 1941 visit, a stopover on his longer assignment to China as a journalist. Accompanying Hemingway then was his third wife Martha Gellhorn, herself a distinguished writer, a novelist and a war correspondent. (Annoyed by her frequent absences—she would be the only woman to land with the Allied troops on D-Day—Ernest wrote her to ask, “Are you a war correspondent, or wife in my bed?” She led a long and colorful life after her divorce from Hemingway, and tragically, like Ernest, died by her own hand at the age of 89 in 1998.)

Flying to Hong Kong by Pan Am Clipper from San Francisco via Honolulu and Guam, Ernest and Martha stopped by in Manila for a few days and stayed at the Manila Hotel, and managed to meet with representatives of the Philippine Writers League, which was then led by Federico Mangahas. There’s a picture in the Flickr photo gallery maintained by Malaca?ang’s Presidential Museum and Library (whose Director, Edgar Ryan Faustino, just happens to be a member of FPN-P), taken from A.V.H. Hartendorp’s Philippine Magazine, showing Hemingway meeting with Filipino writers.

Seeing it reminded me of a similar picture of the big white Ernest looming over a small brown young Filipino named Nestor—a picture that NVM Gonzalez himself showed me in the 1990s, which sadly may have been lost in the fire that later razed the Gonzalez home in Diliman. Monteiro’s account mentions that Hemingway shared this bit of wisdom with his Filipino counterparts: “I think a writer’s gravest problem, always, is to write the truth and still eat regularly.”

Unfortunately I couldn’t access the rest of the Monteiro article online (you need membership access to Project MUSE), but I read enough of it to understand that brief as it was, Hemingway’s stopover created quite an impact, enough for the Manila Hotel to use a quote from the big guy as one of its taglines: “If the story’s any good, it’s like Manila Hotel.” The bayside hotel, founded in 1912, has of course hosted other luminaries such as Douglas MacArthur, John Wayne, John F. Kennedy, and the Beatles, aside from another popular postwar writer, James Michener.

As we all know, Hemingway killed himself with his favorite shotgun in July 1961, seven years after receiving the Nobel Prize for literature, in a fit of depression. It was a sad ending to a many-splendored life that we were privileged to glimpse, however briefly.