When the concept of literature is under attack, there is no other choice but to return to the roots and see what has gone wrong. We struggle to look for something that made sense back when things were simpler, and trace this to the mass of confusion spilled all over the floor.

By this time, all that had been talked about during the August 20-24 run of the Philippine Literary Arts Council’s (PLAC) Asia-Pacific Conference-Workshop on Indigenous and Contemporary Poetry lies in a massive heap of theories, lectures, and photographs of delegates. These 12 delegates are distinguished writers from Malaysia, Australia, Vietnam, New Zealand, China, Japan, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, Korea, the United States, and the Philippines.

Conference chairman Alfred Yuson managed to press our two clueless heads into the secretariat service¯so then came the hurricane. The conference brought delegates and participants to the universities that successively served as venues for each of the four days: University of the Philippines (UP), Ateneo de Manila University (ADMU), De La Salle University (DLSU), and University of Santo Tomas (UST)¯all with us in tow.

And what of the talks now? The whole experience was squeezed into an article by Yuson in The Philippine Star, last August 26, 2002, but such would vaguely be the “credits” at the end of the program, as compared to the entirety of the six-day “poetry confab,” as he put it.

To make up for lost space, Anvil Publishing, Inc. is expected to release the compilation of conference papers some time next year. Only a few would probably sift briskly through the pages, hoping to find the answers to that abstract theory their professors once dropped in class (as if it were the simplest thing on earth). Someone “saner” would probably shrug the whole thing off, play billiards instead, and state proudly that “this is me,” while the rest of the world falls into the capitalist routine of making and losing money, muttering, “What use is poetry? I can’t even understand it,” or “Poetry won’t feed my growling tummy.”

Link to the rest of the world

What most of us have missed is that poetry is “…the closest route from heart to heart, from people to people…the bright manifestation of humane-ness…,” as Nguyen Bao Chan, a Vietnam delegate, stated when asked to give a briefing of her country’s poetry. Nguyen charmed the rest of us as she quietly sat in the van on the way to DLSU, unsure of her spoken English, and looked out the window at the street children, resisting the urge to give them money, as we warned the delegates not to.

“When you give to one, you’d have to give to everyone else,” to which they stared in awe at a group of six or eight scrawny, greasy-skinned children watching from the corner of the street, as our van-full of foreigners crawled through the traffic along Taft Avenue. This thought was hardly the “bright manifestation of humane-ness” that Nguyen dreamed poetry to be. Poetry is, after all, that most soulful expression of life.

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Masking reality

New Zealands’s Lynda Chanwai-Earle has all the evidence of the shanties, of which she shot with utter amazement, as we watched her do so in suppressed shame. “Here’s a story to tell,” one would remember her saying. We can imagine her now, showing her video, perhaps, all over New Zealand. Lynda works as a television journalist in Auckland on a program, Asia Down Under, on TVNZ-TV One.

Meanwhile, when Malaysian delegate Nor Faridah Abdul Manaf talked to us about Ninoy and Jose Rizal, we only wished we had more to say than what she already knew.

We showed them Corregidor on their one free day, and some of us drifted off to another string of if-only’s—“If only I studied my history better,” or “If only I’ve gone here earlier so I can pretend to know my past.” And perhaps, that is precisely the problem with Filipinos—most of us are so dislocated that we do not know who we are. We brush off the tracks and try to hide behind the guise of our colonial forefathers.

When we took them around Luneta and Intramuros, we dreaded that same lack of knowledge in history. Thankfully, we left the explaining to the senior writers Alfred Yuson and Ricky de Ungria, and the youngest among us, Angelo Suárez, turned out to be quite a historian, while we hid behind the lens of the camera.

Shores of similarity

Had we considered this earlier, the encounter with the remaining 11 delegates (one had left for Singapore) would have been less awkward. Now, as it turned out, while scrutinizing the contents of their printed lectures, we found common grounds between the struggle of the Filipinos to reclaim or disclaim their identities, and the struggle of other Asian countries to do the same.

Most of Asia, as history dictates, had always been at the mercy of the Western colonizer’s appetite to assimilate, if not to wholly conquer (if there is any difference between the two methods), the continent’s age-old ancient people.

Lynda Chanwai-Earle, a half-European-half-Chinese New Zealander poet and performer, wrote about the struggle of the Maoris to preserve their language and culture. In her lecture, A Stranger in All Lands, she also discussed the dislocation of the Chinese people there: “As a fourth-generation New Zealand Chinese, I have been particularly focused on the hitherto quietest voice in New Zealand culture.”

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She goes on to explain how “New Zealand Chinese writers offer a unique perspective on a Diaspora subculture that has existed in Aotearoa over the last 150 years…yet sits uneasily within mainstream concepts of identity as New Zealanders…This uneasy place these writers occupy between struggling with integration and a desire not to be assimilated is often reflected through issue-driven writing from personal and family grievance…”

The same situation would probably apply to the Chinese in the Philippines and those scattered all over the world. We must remember how, during the Spanish colonization, the Chinese were considered even lower than our aboriginal indios. Through time, most of them seemed to have acquired much of the wealth and the corresponding political enmity that went with money in this country.

The struggle for the disappearing language of the Maoris runs parallel with the

literature. Ironically, the first idea that pops into mind is Philippine literature written in the English language. Lynda mentioned how “many Maori were not brought up speaking te reo Maori because their parents believed that it was in their children’s best

interest to concentrate solely on learning to speak English. A whole generation grew up with this belief!”

A prominent poet in Filipino, Virgilio S. Almario, gave an exhaustive discussion of what he called “Remembrances of Ancient Tagalog Poetry”. Here, he verified the existence of ancient Tagalog script, as recorded by a Jesuit, Fray Pedro Chirino in 1600. He also described the characteristics of Tagalog poetry as observed by earlier scholars.

Almario ended by saying, “with these preliminary findings alone, it is most appropriate to recommend a more thorough and more rigorous investigation of these heirloom pieces from an ancient past. For us Filipinos, it may mean the recovery of echoes from a past, which may enhance our perception of our present. It is a legacy that may yet free us from our prejudices against ourselves.”

Wrapping up

The poets tackled the technicalities of their own indigenous poetry, which would come useful if we were to compare them to the development of our own literature.

Indonesia’s Sitor Situmorang discussed the link of Indonesian literature with that of the Malay origins. “Speaking of the Indonesian language and poetry and its linkages with indigenous poetry in literary/linguistic terms also means speaking of the development of the Malaysian language and modern Malaysian poetry. Both Malaysian and Indonesian literature/poetry should be understood and appreciated as rooted in the Classical Malay language at the height of its development in the 16th-17th centuries.”

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Situmorang also discussed his country’s New Poet Movement (under Indonesia’s modern poetry in 1930), in which an attempt was made to “unify all existing independence movements under one nation, one fatherland and one language,” which was a similar attempt made by our own country dating back as early as Rizal’s time.

Faridah discussed how “most Malaysian poets…would explore traditional and historical roots and embrace them as their themes,” a similar situation concurring even in most of our prominent poets.

Harry Aveling, delegate from Australia, related how “…indigenous Australian poetry in its contemporary form is very different from the traditional Aboriginal song. It can, of course, be seen as a justifiable response to the very real historical conditions of repression and struggle with which its authors identify.”

Some of them, however, gave vital information as to how indigenous poetry has been detached from modern poetry; and in some cases, why modern poetry seeks to go back to the indigenous forms.

Frank Stewart of Hawaii said that “the biggest differences between indigenous people and modern is that the former feel that they are immersed in a sentient world that listens to them and responds with calls of its own. It was and is a world in which speech is not exclusively a human behavior.

“For many modern people, at least in North America, the world and all of the animate creatures in it may screech and bellow, but for them that noise is certainly not speech. And for the post modernist poets in our American universities today, not even human speech is worth listening to, because it, too, is only noise.”

By contrast, Japan needs to be heard, as Kazuko Shiraishi told us how spoken poetry is fast making its break.

“Technology made a culture without human voice. Whenever we use a machine, we always hear the machine’s voice. Now human beings feel lonely, and are starting to miss spiritual human voices.”

The Asia-Pacific Conference-Workshop on Indigenous and Contemporary Poetry was meant to affirm the valuable strength of poetry in countries that constitute a rich tapestry of love and humanity. It gave us, writers and lovers of literature a peek, at our neighbors and their perspectives of life as seen through their cultures, as heard through their voices. More so, it gave us a chance to come in contact with writers gifted with the ability to uphold a sense of pride and reverence for their craft. We believe that, despite the few setbacks met as the conference went on, the PLAC’s goal to bridge different cultures through literature was most beneficial to the local as well as international literary scene. Natasha B. Gamalinda and Lea C. Lazaro

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