A THOUSAND words flitted past my mind and not one of them seemed willing to linger on my piece of paper. They glowed like fireflies in the air, but in my hand they lost the glimmer of light that made them so attractive that I caught them.

The inability to use words effectively and tastefully in a poem is something I have come to fear after I attended the 6th UST National Writers’ Workshop at the DAP Conference Center and Hotel in Tagaytay City. For someone who has not received any formal coaching in creative writing, my first workshop was a first fearful step towards learning the craft. On the day of our departure, I was worried about how my poems would fare in the eyes of the panelists; now I am worried that my poems-to-be would not reflect any improvement.

But aside from fears of getting “slaughtered,” the workshop was a great opportunity to learn things I would never learn, perhaps, from any of my Literature classes. That one’s work was accepted was already a privilege, a guarantee that the experience would be too good to miss, even if it would be painful and humbling to take all the comments and swallow the massive knot of apprehension in every workshop session.

I had enough reasons to fear the workshop itself. For a long time, poetry to me meant sculpting insights on paper, shaping them into a form that would be easy to grasp. It didn’t occur to me that poetry wasn’t just about describing and expressing my thoughts; if it did, I should be writing essays instead. I failed to clean up my work—I realized that after my poems got dissected by Dr. Ophelia Dimalanta, Dr. Cirilo Bautista, and the junior associates of the UST Center for Creative Writing and Studies. There would always be an awkward shape of metaphor here, a bad combination of curves and crevices there, an unnecessary line somewhere else. Worse, I had committed all these mistakes unconsciously, possibly due to my ignorance of the ways of the craft.

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It’s not difficult to imagine my anxiety on the first workshop session, when my one of my poems was up for critiquing. I could hardly keep still when a fellow was asked to read it aloud. The fellows commented first, a sort of preparation for the harsher comments from the panelists.

“Tell more than what should be interpreted. Make sense in the literal level. Choose appropriate words, suitable metaphors.” I dared not defend the mistakes I was ashamed of, but silently resolved to correct them.

With the rest of my poems I was reminded of my chronic faults—denotative inaccuracy, mixed metaphors, unclear images, inconsistencies, lack of profound ideas—that I was tempted to tear my works out of the workshop manuscript and flush them down the toilet. The good thing about being critiqued, however, was becoming aware of these lapses which nobody told me about before. Knowing what they are now, I might be able to keep myself from repeating them in the future.

The panelists more than critiqued our works—they also shared lessons on creative writing. From brief lectures in between comments, we learned about the elements of the craft and theories that can transform a group of words into real, genuine art. It is the challenge of these theories on de-personalization, de-familiarization, poetic tension, and more, that keep creative writers striving to contain art in even the smallest form.

These discussions continued even during socials. With shot glass in hand, my co-fellows went on ranting about the issues on metaphors, poetic comment and description. I was on the couch, meanwhile, struggling to keep my eyes open and listen as they slurred on. Me, I did not have enough knowledge about poetry to share.

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Talk about the lighter side of the workshop. Spending a week with people I didn’t know much at first worried me, but thankfully, it wasn’t so difficult to talk to anyone as we all had the same fears. There was a lot to talk about; a lot to know about my co-fellows that six days wasn’t enough.

And thankfully, too, even the panelists were not at all times imposing gods and goddesses of the literary inquisition. Dr. Dimalanta engaged Dr. Cirilo Bautista in long, fun debates regarding their views on poetry while the rest of us giggled at how they looked like a couple having a petty quarrel. There was also professor Eros Atalia imitating voices of cartoon characters in between critiquing poems in Filipino, Lourd de Veyra cracking jokes before the start of a workshop session, Nerisa Guevara playing hopscotch on a layout of flat stones in the garden, and Michael Coroza rendering his Imeldific version of “Dahil sa ‘Yo.”

At last, the strain of the critiquing ended and we concluded the workshop with a poetry reading on the eve of our departure. Gathered around the bonfire, the fellowship was sealed amid the sound of our voices reading our own works, all traces of worry about critiques gone.

Now, writing a new poem seems tougher than before. There might be an idea forming in my head, but it would take harder efforts to put it down on paper and embed in a verse all the lessons I just learned. It would take me more sleepless nights to come up with metaphors that would give resonance to a poem. This time, I can’t even afford to waste a single word in a line. My longest case of writer’s block so far might go on for another month, but while there are too many words fluttering past me, my hands wouldn’t stop chasing after them. Not so soon, at the very least.

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