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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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Tuesday, May 06, 2008

entry arrow9:39 AM | Writing, Trouble-Free, in Baguio

There are rites of passage typical for the Filipino writer: having your work first published in a magazine, enjoying your first fellowship to a national writers workshop (Dumaguete, Iligan, Bacolod…), winning your first Palanca, putting out your first book.

Of course, there are even higher reaches to scale, but for most writers, what becomes constant after all that is the effort to stay firm in the craft—a considerable challenge in a country where writers are an underappreciated lot. Or, if they are, are mostly held in the lofty light of noble fools who think minting words is better than lawyering, or nursing. (Nevertheless, the romantic idea is to persevere.) Compound this vocational angst with the one reminder that keeps us trying to relight the creative fire: that you are only as good as your last piece of prose, or suites of poetry, or play.

Consider going to the Baguio workshop as having become an entirely different, and crucial, transition in the local writer’s life. The invitation to the Pine City comes only after one has already laid down the roots of a considerable literary reputation, in a time when workshops for most fellows have receded to become fond memories of a distant (and often rambunctious) youth. Baguio is where ambition, execution, and the imagination of a nation become paramount considerations in the writerly vision, and where, in the words of Cristina Pantoja-Hidalgo, one “contributes to solving the problem of how exactly to combine craft with emotional power.” In other words, Baguio is no longer your grandmother’s notion of how writing workshops are.

Already in its 47th edition, the University of the Philippines National Writers Workshop has, since its retooling in 2003, decided to take stock of that phase in the writing life where the sun, as far as outside scrutiny is concerned, barely shines: in mid-career, where the stakes are much higher and the critical attention one gets is the careful consideration of “colleagues” in the craft taking a look at your literary soul.

That was what they told us who they were when the workshop began last April 6, but if “colleagues” amounted to a panel composed of National Artists for Literature Virgilio Almario and Bienvenido Lumbera, and writing stalwarts Jose Y. Dalisay Jr., Gemino H. Abad, Cristina Pantoja-Hidalgo, Charlson Ong, Jun Cruz Reyes, and Vim Nadera, we quickly realized that expectations were charged. For most of us, it was a week to take serious stock of where we were going in our current writing projects, which forced us invariably to think hard about our own poetics. If only for that, it was an experience, one for a lifetime.

It was the workshop to end all workshops, we all agreed.

“We” would be the anointed twelve gathered from all over the country, most of us refugees from lowland humidity, much too eager to breathe in the cool mountain air.

There’s the Filipino fictionist Allan Derain, whose work titled Munting Banal na Aklat ng mga Kumag blurred the boundary between fiction and poetry, and whose theme of small creatures as bearers of the sacred resonated with all of us throughout the week; Tara FT Sering, whose novel Good People is bound to turn heads and push higher expectations beyond being the local chick lit queen; Frank Cimatu, who was made to reconsider his abandonment of Filipino poetry; and film director (and Rizal and Muro-Ami scribe) Jun Lana, who gave us the stirring simplicity of his screenplay of Kariton.

There’s Mookie Katigbak, whose poetry collection, History and Magic, is a breathless literary sleight of hand; Rica Bolipata-Santos, whose essays will take the memoir down a more searing path in You Make the Road by Walking; Abdon Balde Jr., whose novel Ramayana sa Donsol, a road-trip story that brims with action, sex, and comedy, is a certified page-turner; and Luis Joaquin Katigbak, whose story collection Dear Distance takes his fiction to new heights and deeper insights about the hopes and mores of the young and the disconsolate.

There’s Ateneo poet Vincenz Serrano, whose collection Short Walks attempts to redefine the geography (and memory) of Manila’s streets; Roberto Añonuevo, whose angry poetry collection Sumpa, Simoy, Supling is an enthralling, if challenging, ride through the murk of personal and public politics; and the fabulous Nicolas Pichay, whose signature form was to shock us all into rethinking religion and politics, with his sexually-charged play Sa Silid. My own project is Sugar Land, a novel about Dumaguete in all its sweet historical and murderous details. It was everybody’s job to consider each other’s work with the scrutiny of the initiated, and to render the judgment of peers—some in unqualified adulation, some in a critical nudge to shape the material this way or that. For all its unvarnished and honest take on the literary works, it was surprisingly a congenial workshop.

To be part of this illustrious bunch was intimidating enough. Three of the fellows are Palanca Hall-of-Famers, and all have their fair share of books and awards, but the unexpectedly easy camaraderie that developed soon proved to be a weeklong chance to become more intimate with the craft and all that, surrounded by people who knew how it was to make words dance.

The fog, the beer, the red wine, the search for wifi and the perfect banana cake, the camwhorish tightness, the countless cups of frappuccino and coffee americano, the little dramas and the sweet tensions in the cold Baguio nights, the endless café-hopping (through Vocas, Rumours, Ayuyang, Bliss, Volante Pizza, Café By the Ruins, and the Starbucks in Camp John Hay…), Butch Guererro’s laugh, Jun Cruz Reyes’ drawing book, Frank Cimatu’s irresistible devil-may-care nonchalance, Vince Serrano’s uncanny Jing Hidalgo imitation, Rica Santos’ heartbreaking karaoke rendition of “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” Joey Baquiran’s insistent time cards, Jun Lana’s closet of shoes, Bien Lumbera’s kung fu moves, Jun Balde’s intimate knowledge of Marcosian politics and construction, Tara “February” Sering’s hilarious real estate broker act, Bobby Añonuevo’s dancing to Madonna’s “Borderline,” and Butch Dalisay’s pronouncement that he was running “a tight ship,” all combined to make this year’s workshop something memorable, even when were ultimately described as “the most trouble-free” batch so far in the Kamustahan Series—a designation we mock-protested to, and to which Tara gave a grand reply, “If that’s the case, we will create trouble in our writings.”

Perhaps that is the very reason why we had all willingly gone to Baguio that week, in mid-career. To relearn casting tempests with our pens, and to appreciate the fact that writing should ultimately be all about rendering life in poetic exactitude, through the emotional power of little earthquakes in words.


[this appeared in the may 5 issue of the philippine daily inquirer]

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