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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.


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Wednesday, September 06, 2006

entry arrow12:57 AM | De Kahon

By Gilda Cordero-Fernando
Philippine Daily Inquirer
3 September 2006



Some time in my life I heard that UP was offering a Ph.D. in creative writing. I said, Wow, pagkakataon ko na. (Now its my chance.) I wanted so much to take up the course but then my friend Myrza Sison said, "Siguro hindi ka na puwede riyan kasi ang inaaral namin short stories mo." (No way. We critique your short stories.)

Well, that's good, I thought. Now I'll finally find out what my colleagues think of me.

Then I asked Dr. Jing (Cristina Pantoja) Hidalgo of the UP faculty, who is my friend, if I should take up this Creative Writing Ph.D. She hemmed and she hawed and then said, "Ay naku, Gilda, may poststructuralist theory diyan, may semiotics, may postcolonial theory, may hermeneutics at marami pa." (Don't bother, Gilda. Here, you have to deal with poststructuralist theory, semiotics, postcolonial, hermeneutics and many others.)

Sub-text: "Baka hindi ka pumasa." (You are likely to fail.)

E bakit ako di papasa! Akala ko ba doctor of "creative writing"! Alam kong sulatin ang kini-critique-critique nila -- essay, short story, poem kung mapilitan, nobela pa rin, bakit hindi puwedeng pumasa? (How can I fail? You are supposed to be a doctor in creative writing. I know how to write what they critique -- essays, short story, poem. Even a novel, if you want. How can I not make it?)

Come to think of it, I had trouble with my master's degree in Ateneo, too. My classmates were doing theses on Katherine Ann Porter, James Joyce, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, T.S. Eliot, cribbing from every book they could get hold of. I just didn't know how to do that. All I knew was how to be orig (original) all the way.

So one day I told the dean: I have 13 short stories that I can make into a book. Why don't you give me a break and let that be my thesis? That was 1960. I had four children by the time I got my MA diploma and The Butcher, the Baker, the Candlestick Maker became the first-ever creative writing thesis approved by Ateneo.

Sa mundong ito, kung orig ka, lagot ka. Alam ninyo naman 'yon di ba? Siguro mas marami kayong experience diyan kaysa sa akin. (In this world, if you are unique, you'd bust. You know that, don't you? You must have known that.)

The shape of the majority of institutions around us is square. They fit very well in boxes. Boxes or categories are everywhere you go, stacked on top of one another. They're religious, government, corporate, bank, academe, painting, writing, fashion design. It's the box people who run our lives. Being in a box is what people call normal. But somehow we all know it's unhealthy.

For years cultural institutions had a very hard time trying to categorize artists for awarding. Is he a writer? Then why is he composing librettos? He should fall under "music." And he did a rock opera. He must be "theater." Can even paint! So is he a visual artist? That's strange because I never met a single artist who could do only one thing.

And yet fusion has been around for so long. There's fusion of eastern and western cooking, of rock and opera, of performance and art. There's mixed media art, creative nonfiction, ecumenical mass, gender-bender clothes.

Why does everything still have to fit the seven boxes of classical art, when maybe all one has to do is ask -- is he in artist? And if so, is he a good one? Ah, but that means breaking down all those ironclad boxes!

How we love the comfort zone of old forms! Look at what has been showing in Araneta Coliseum -- Andy Williams, the Four Aces, Barry Manilow, Paul Anka, the Lettermen -- all repackaged as "revival" or "retro." And for crying out loud -- "Gulong ng Palad" -- the sob story of the '60s, is back, too! As if there had never been anything newer! Ah, but new is risky. New is a zone of discomfort.

In the meantime, highbrow formal theater was having trouble breathing and staying alive. Every other Jack was jumping out of the box to put up his own starving thing. These were the living, breathing, evolving pockets of art, snubbed by the very institutions that should be supporting them.

In music, explains my friend, Manny Chaves, there was Club Dredd where the Eraserheads and Parokya ni Edgar began. Then Mayrics on Espana, with Maegan Aguilar and Cookie Chua, then the popular 70s Bistro, venue of Noel Cabangon and Joey Ayala. And now -- SaGuijo in Makati where three to five live bands a week fight to be heard. In Intramuros there was the Sanctum which, with the Republic of Malate, began the "Spoken Word" and its "open mike." It was followed by Conspiracy on Visayas Avenue, with its 99 owners, and Rock Drilon's lively Magnet on Katipunan.

Oh, but the canons had long been set -- what was popular art, also known as pang-masa, was not to be considered serious art. This very much reminds me of Dr. Doreen Fernandez's columns on food, which were looked down upon by academe because they appeared in dailies and not in literary journals or read in scholarly lectures (which no one attended). But Doreen stuck to her pancit luglog and pochero. Today food is internationally considered an important aspect of a country's culture.

Eventually, too, the rock bands, indie movies and the comics were accepted by our powers-that-be of culture. But not before the artists had struggled so hard to make their name! How easy to join the bandwagon! And the movie stars of the bakya crowd? FPJ made it to National Artist for being a political figure. Dolphy and Nora Aunor before him never had the ghost of a chance!

In literature there were great magazines like Ermita, Jose, Pen & Ink and Goodman that died raging against the night. Now it's Story Magazine gasping for sponsorship. Memorable stage pieces like Bienvenido Lumbera's Tales of the Manuvu, Rama Hari and Bayani were hits in the '70s. But how could they be memorable to people who had missed them or were too young to see them? That's because we have no boxes where filing boxes ought to be! There is no adequate and readily accessible documentation, in print or in video, of the works of major artists nor are these given importance.

In the '70s I remember trying to access from LVN and Sampaguita Studios something as banal as their movie stills.

"Ay wala na ho 'yan," what passed for the librarian said. "Kaibigan ho ni direk hiniram, 'di na nakabalik. 'Yung iba na-damage ng typhoon Dading." (We have nothing here. Some were borrowed and never returned. Some were damaged by typhoon Dading.)

Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

And yet, with the right stewarding, that is so easily remediable. In the visual arts, for instance, there is no complete file simply of all the art shows every year. In literature there is no file, simply of all the books by every publisher, campus or independent or professional, printed during the year -- just title, author, date, and a brief description. In the visual arts with only a digital camera and a ball pen, it's so easy today to document every exhibit or gallery happening all year round. Yes, there are books and magazines but they cover only the shows of the bookstores and galleries they work for. In one art awards for young people, several fine works were overlooked simply because the judges didn't know they existed.

Recently I was sharing a pizza with two young friends, Mich Dulce, a fashion designer, and Cecile Zamora, a fashion columnist. Suddenly a whole family from the next table complete with grandkids descended upon Mich, asking for her autograph. Not because she was a talented prize-winning designer, but because they had seen her in Pinoy Big Brother!

Cecile and I were introduced and ignored. For the next 15 minutes I looked on in awe as they drooled over Mich's clothes, her hair, her makeup, her bling-blings. I had never been through such an experience of marginalization and it amused me no end.

Then a friend who visits Havana described to me its cultural scene. Support of the arts is in the constitution of Cuba. Its artists are national treasures and lionized just as much as its movie stars. Fans run after architects, painters, sculptors, writers, musicians, stage actors and directors for an autograph or to exchange a word or two. Not that I crave such attention, but it could help sell more books and tickets.

By the way, in the writing scene of the '60s and '70s, the Palanca Awards were a class act. Initially there were only a few categories -- short fiction, one-act play, and poetry. People remembered the winners and it helped us get additional fruit for our labors.

Now the prestigious Palanca has been cut up into so many little categories -- 15 at last count, with first, second and third prizes for each category in English and Tagalog and some vernaculars. I always try to remember who the young winners are. But with 40 or so names to keep up with each year, I just gave up. Dare one suggest that the awards be cut down and the prizes raised to dazzling amounts? Surely complaints will arise. Bakit elitista? (It's elitist!) Why stop the multiplication of the loaves? Because an award is a distinction. It recognizes a major achievement and should be as elitist and exclusive as it can be!

Having so many categories, moreover, leads to a shortage of competent judges. And so writers become alternately contestants and judges which could very easily lead to horse trading. Kayo ang nagsabi niyan, ha? (I didn't say that.)

Too many winners -- not just in the Palanca but other contests as well -- make winning ordinary. There are wholesale awards, too, where the whole town is with you on the stage. Not that I have not myself gone through a number of those. Once, in addition to the usual writer-publisher citation, a prestigious awarding body cited me as an "outstanding fashion designer." And I can't sew a stitch! I was relieved that there wasn't a couturier in the audience. I thought I'd just let it be, they'd realize their error in time. But then two months later the same awards with our pictures appeared in a newspaper! I brought it up to the awarding body. The official was surprised and promised to look into the matter. I am still an outstanding dress designer.

Another area where the-more-the-merrier seems to thrive is in the distribution of grants. The awarding body says, "There is only this much money to give away and there are so many of you applicants. So we are forced to spread it thin."

Now if a P1 million application for a performance or a film is awarded P400,000 and the proponent has no other source of funding, that is programming the project to fail. And so the theater and film landscape is littered with carcasses of failed grants. I think cutting a big thing up into little pieces whether it is a grant or an award is an invitation to mediocrity.

Who, by the way, checks the outcome of grants -- the shows, the books, the researches, the conferences? Who assesses what succeeded and what failed? Who looks for new grantees? Who checks whether the funders are not also the grantees and the checkers, too? Who assesses which should be given more weight -- a delegation to an important conference or the funding of a promising digital film?

What accounts for our small consumer market for the arts that it cannot make any cultural project survive for long? Even the best performances in CCP, the best art exhibits and the best books? Because the arts have never been considered necessary or important!

In New York everyone knows which new book is out, which play is showing (on Broadway, off Broadway) which exhibit, which musical. People talk about them because the papers seriously cover art happenings. Cultural events are as much a part of their lives as a hotdog. And so people are eager to pay for a ticket or a book they read about.

It's media after all, that shapes our tastes. The acceptance of any creative work very much depends on what is said about it. But an inordinate importance is given by media to society goings-on, fashion and especially beauty, that is why so many people covet a botox, a belly tuck or a pair of Havaianas more than a book. A real review of a cultural event is a rare treat. And you'll never find a short story.

So, who is to blame? The readers? The editors? The publishers? The government? But the government can't even generate jobs for starving people! This is when I get a real nostalgia for Imelda Marcos. She had an artistic vision for the Filipino. She could spot budding talent. She gave scholarships to Cecile Licad, Rowena Arrieta, Coke Bolipata, Raul Sunico and other gifted kids. She established the Cultural Center, the Film Center, the National Artist Awards, the OPM Awards, the Bagong Anyo showcase for Filipino couture, the Makiling High School for the Arts, the Central Bank antiques collection. She was the embodiment of the Filipino terno, and you never caught her, even at 6 a.m., looking anything but radiant in it. But, of course, it all came with the hole in the sky and needed an entire dictatorship to support it!

Some say it was just her coterie that fed Imelda ideas. But then, she knew whom to co-opt and they were the cream of the crop -- Leandro Locsin, Lucrezia Kasilag, Jaime Laya, Kerima Polotan, Carmen Guerrero Nakpil, Johnny Gatbonton, Yen Makabenta, Adrian Cristobal, Virgilio Almario. I mention this because I never saw such enthusiasm for culture in the two women presidents of the next dispensations. In fact, in a rare appearance, one actually left before Act II of a ballet. No attempt, please, to get Mrs. Marcos back into the limelight, just giving credit where it's past due.

I think the Filipino artist is a hero. He gives so much for so little. He can never collect royalties for his plays or musical compositions, otherwise Freddie Aguilar would be a millionaire now. Poverty is the artist's lot unless he finds means of support other than his art and a wife to hold up half the sky. The government hardly remembers him except when he can be politically used. Big business does not ask him to be an endorser of whiskey, slimming tea or underwear.

But he will passionately craft his piece with no other thought than to give it to the world. At what sacrifice! For next he will abjectly beg and borrow or sell some material possession to send his unrecognized creation abroad to compete. Where it will reap award after award -- for filmmaker, actor, singer, painter, writer, musician, dancer. Ang galing ng Pilipino! (The Filipino is great!)

The artist is aware of the boxes and boxes that surround him and that the only way to be free of them is to blaze a trail for the bastions of culture to follow. Thus he becomes invulnerable. Because creation is the only divine act of which man is capable and the artist is most like his Maker when he is pouring his soul into his craft.

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