Dimalanta: One of my responsibilities is to encourage young writers and to nurture the atmosphere of creative reading and writing within the campus. Photo by G.N.P. MELICORHER PROCLAMATION as UST’s first writer-in-residence consolidates Ophelia Dimalanta’s position as a Thomasian icon of letters.

But more than reaffirming her position in the constellation of literary stars, Dimalanta looks to her appointment as an opportunity for mentoring and guiding the young. “One of my responsibilities is to encourage young writers and to nurture the atmosphere of creative reading and writing within the campus,” she told the Varsitarian.

Dimalanta will also receive next month the Parangal Hagbong, the Varsitarian’s award for lifetime achievement in literature. The Hagbong will be the highlight of the 2008 Ustetika literary awards, the longest running and most prestigious campus literary contest in the country. It is also organized and sponsored by the Varsitarian.

Dimalanta’s stellar career is not easy to overlook, yet even with her numerous highly anthologized poems, she cannot single out a personal favorite. “Lahat favorite ko,” she said.

But perhaps her most memorable is “Montage,” which shot her to fame because it was named Best Poetry by the Iowa State University in 1968. She explained that she was in the Philippines when “Montage” won abroad. “An American friend of mine, who was a poet, told me to send some of my poems to him, and so I sent ‘Montage,’ and he fell in love with it. Then he sent it to the Iowa University Literary Journal, and ‘Montage’ won,” she said.

“Montage” was chosen as the best poem in the Spring issue of Poet and Critic, the Literary Journal of the Iowa State University, by a vote of the editors. The poem is about a woman who, after a night of spree and mishmash, wakes up on a Monday morning and faces the day’s realities.

“Montage” became the title of her first collection which won the grand prize in the 1974 Palanca Award for poetry. Her reputation was consolidated by her next collections: Time Factor and Other Poems (1983); Flowing On (1988); Lady Polyester: Poems Past and Present (1993) and others.

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Dimalanta’s best poetry showed the influence of her favorite poets such as T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Anne Sexton, Denise Levertov, W. S. Merwin, Theodore Roethke, John Berryman and Sylvia Plath.

Because of her hallmark creations, multi-awarded poet, fictionist and non-fiction writer Cirilo F. Bautista, hailed Dimalanta as “not only our foremost woman poet but also one of the best poets writing now, regardless of gender.”

According to Dimalanta, Bautista is such a stern critic that not even the bonds of friendship can persuade him to pull punches. “Maybe because he knows I have been writing and he knows my poetic career,” she said.

But poetry wasn’t Dimalanta’s first love, but music. Growing up in a very cozy bungalow, with a garden—huge trees and flowers, in San Juan, Dimalanta lived among books and music.

Unlike ordinary little girls her age who would surround themselves with dainty dolls, Dimalanta recalled that her childhood was spent in the company of books. “I’d rather have books than dolls,” she said. “I have always been interested in language.”

One of Dimalanta’s juvenile pastimes included cutting pictures out of magazines, pasting them in makeshift albums and making her own scrapbook. The young Ophelia would then put captions under each culled picture, sometimes in the form of verses.

However, books and magazines were not the only things that charmed her as a child. Alongside her attraction to reading was her interest in music. Because her mother wanted her to learn how to play the piano, a tutor would regularly come to the house and teach her. At the age of seven, Dimalanta was already playing advanced pieces. But, persuaded to look into her heart’s deep-seated desire, she was made to choose between the UP Conservatory of Music and Journalism at UST.

Preserving heritage on a high note

“I chose writing,” she said. But she still carries her fondness for music today.

“I play the piano very well,” Dimalanta said. “The moment I hear a tune, I can play it.”

Dimalanta has often put her musical knowledge to use. When she was dean of the Faculty of Arts and Letters in the 1990’s, she composed the music and wrote the lyrics of the UST AB Hymn.

Philets and Varsitarian years

When she was in the old Faculty of Philosophy and Letters (now Arts and Letters) in the 1950’s, Dimalanta took the qualifying exams for the Varsitarian during her freshman year and passed.

“Since I was first year then, I was made the Assistant Literary Editor.” She became Literary Editor the following year.

In the campus paper, Dimalanta learned to juggle her time between writing and studies. “I was able to attend to my lessons and still find time to go out on dates,” she said with a laugh.

The poetess graduated cum laude after finishing Litt.B. Journalism.

Dimalanta said that one time a friend told her that she was a “rare breed,” for being a great poet who was both glamorous and well-fashioned. “(Because) you always have the image of a poet who is weird, shabby-looking and hindi mahilig magdamit,” Dimalanta said.

Commitment to art

Given her status, Dimalanta has been asked to judge for many literary award-giving bodies, such as the Palanca and National Book Awards—a job which she views as very significant. “Judge as fairly as you can without paying attention to affiliations,” she said.

But due to her cataract extraction recently, she has declined to judge for the meantime.

Sanggol sa sabsaban

Although often perceived as an apolitical poet, Dimalanta does not deny literature can be a tool for social change. But it is primarily an artistic tool, she said. “I keep saying in my lectures: You can go political, social, erotic, but first, be sure that you write well.”

One issue bothering the literary goddess is performance poetry. “Panay sound lang,” Dimalanta said of the art form. She recalled a conversation with UST alumnus Lourd Ernest de Veyra, performance poet and vocalist of the band Radioactive Sago Project, wherein she asked him about the new genre.

De Veyra told her that whenever he writes serious poetry, it is not for performance. And whenever there are instances that he uses his poems for performance, those are the poems which he is not particularly proud of. De Veyra added that he still believes in Dimalanta’s art and in the things she has taught him. Dimalanta only hopes that more young writers come out serious with their craft.

And to keep a line of serious writers going, campus writing has to be improved, according to Dimalanta. “During my time, I pampered my writers. I would encourage poetry reading and I gave them love and concern,” she said. “But then, there came a point when they were neither allowed to do poetry readings during their class hours nor were they allowed to be excused for such activities.”

To this end, Dimalanta is planning to hold a workshop for Thomasian writers this month.

Dimalanta hopes that the next generation of writers will not wait for an outside hand to give the encouragement. But she urged them to approach their mentors and ask for advice. “The encouragement and inspiration should come from within,” she said, “without being prodded on and nudged by a mentor.” A.R.D.S. Bordado


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