To work with Myrna Peña-Reyes is to invite an eye for sharpness and perfection. That was only to be expected.
And so when the esteemed Dumaguete poet approached us at the Edilberto and Edith Tiempo Creative Writing Center at Silliman University (for which she has served faithfully as Writing Associate) and asked us if we could help her throw together a small launch for newest poetry collection, her third, we had to say yes.
Why? Because she was a legendary poet. Because she embodied, more than most, the formal beauty of Sillimanian poetry. And because she had always been a good friend, not just to us in the Center, but also to countless people in Dumaguete, who considered her sharp opinions and withering regard for incompetence something of a standard to live up to.
We said yes, even when we knew that to work with her was to subject ourselves to careful scrutiny, with every last inch of our efforts more or less subjected to countless queries for updating, and massive detailing that had to resonate with her grand obsessive compulsion.
We said, “Challenge accepted.”
But we also thought: how else to subvert her carefully laid plans, just enough to give her a nice surprise?
She gave us a ready-made program to work with. Very typical of Ma’am Myrna. It already listed down a series of poems from her new book, Memory’s Mercy (University of the Philippines Press, 2015), which were to be read by her poet friends who just happened to be in town as panelists for the third week of the Silliman University National Writers Workshop. This consisted of the formidable bunch of Krip Yuson, Gemino Abad, Susan Lara, Marjorie Evasco, and Ricky de Ungria (who happened to be this year’s Director-in-Residence for the workshop).
She had the musical interludes already chosen—The Beatles’ “When I’m 64” and “There Are Places I Remember,” and John Denver’s “Today,” all three her personal favorites—and she had already made arrangements for these to be sung by the campus top baritone Rigel Suarez, accompanied on the piano by the indomitable Elizabeth Susan Vista-Suarez.
She had already provided the dots, so to speak. We were there to connect them. To all her directives, we said, “Yes, Ma’am Myrn. Yes, Ma’am Myrn.”
She didn’t account for our secrecy and our deviousness.
All along, we were conspiring how exactly to make the event more than just a book launch. We wanted something to be also a fitting tribute to her. She deserved it. She deserved to know how much she was loved, how much she was admired. And so we set out to make one program which was to her liking, and which she had already given her absolute approval—and this became the program we printed out for all the guests. But we also had another program we kept secret, complete with inserted tributes, all calculated to surprise her—but also to amuse her. That, if we were incapable of making her cry.
“Let’s make her cry,” I told everyone.
But she must have already sensed something was afoot when the day came, and I told her Ron Calumpang was hosting.
“Aren’t you hosting?” she told me, her eyebrows raised.
I merely took her hands, led her to the special chair we reserved for her at the event venue, the U University House in Silliman Campus, and said: “Ma’am Myrn, don’t worry about anything. Just relax and enjoy yourself.”
“Did you get the map I asked you to project for the poem Susan is reading?”
Ooops, I thought. How do I tell her Susan wasn’t reading that poem anymore?
“Just enjoy, Ma’am Myrn,” I merely repeated myself.
She raised her eyebrows once more when Ron began with this welcome: “We have reserved this to honor to one of the most beloved figures in Philippine poetry in English. This year, the University of the Philippines Press has come out with her third collection of poetry—and we are here not just to launch this much-awaited book, but also to give tribute to the writer behind it. It has to be said that Ma’am Myrna has toiled very hard—like the O.C. that she is—to make sure that our program this afternoon would be to her liking, making sure that the flow should be done in a certain way, making sure that some of her favorite songs will be sung. And since this is her afternoon, we have made sure that all her wishes will come true. And then some: because we have little surprises for her along the way, essentially tributes to this writer, and how she is as a mentor, as a writer, and as a friend.”
Creative Writing Center Secretariat Lady Flor Partosa gave the first surprise tribute, and began it with an apology: “I have to apologize, Ma’am Myrnz, if my speaking here appears out of order,” she said, “but rest assured it is all part of the whole grand scheme of things.” And she continued: “At best, I will offer a few words as tribute, and let me start by saying that if there is one word to describe Ma’am Myrna: I will say that she is a giver. She generously gives her words, thoughts, and time to the workshop, the Creative Writing Center, and even to me, when I have something to share to her. Ma’am Myrnz can be very candid and frank but you know that she always does so out of concern and care for your or for the work that you do—be it a workshop activity, a program, another poem or essay. And I would like to add, if only by way of connection to this magnanimous woman, that Ma’am Myrnz and I have been connected decades before when as young college students they would go to my grandparent’s place in Valencia. I remember Ma’am Myrna and I laughing and smiling at her stories of their time in my grandparents’ house, recalling, for instance how my grandmother made the best chicken gravy in town. Ma’am Myrnz, all I can say is thank you for sharing this moment with us, launching your new book of poems in the workshop. Thank you so much for your generosity!”
The poet Marjorie Evasco followed that with a reading of “Off Course,” and word wizard Cesar Ruiz Aquino followed with a reading of “The Making of Tales.”
Virginia Stack, the administrator of the Korean Gandhi School in Valencia town, and a fellow member of the Wednesday Group, gave the second tribute. “The first time I met Ma’am Myrna was when she came to our Wednesday Reading Group,” Tata said. “She was invited by Annabelle Lee-Adriano, and I liked her right away—because of her humility being a prolific poetess. She owns it with a lot of thoughtfulness.” She continued: “I got the privilege of receiving her first two books as a gift for my birthday two years ago. And I love her poems. Many of her poems speak volumes about the human condition, and quietly touch the soul, very deeply. One of the dearest connection that we shared as kindred spirits was our love for our pets. When Simon and I first came here in Dumaguete, we brought our cat, Sebastian, all the way from New York. At that time, the cat was already 19 years old. After a year and a half living here in Dumaguete, Sebastian died of old age. He was very old, very, very old... Ma’am Myrna, among one of our few dear friends, came to the memorial ceremony. After the ceremony for Sebastian, Ma’am Myrna shared her own grief over the death of her beloved dog, where she made a promise to herself that would never again take another pet because of the pain she had to endure. I knew exactly what Ma’am Myrna had gone through.” And then Tata quietly finished by reading “Dog Gone,” Ma’am Myrna’s old poem about the loss of her pet, a puppy dog named Bantay.
The poet and anthologist Gémino H. Abad followed that with a fiery recitation of “Thunderstorm Over Diliman,” and fictionist Susan S. Lara with a reading of “Commuters,” a poem dedicated to the late Ernesto Superal Yee.
The last tribute was given by businesswoman and literary aficionado Annabelle Lee-Adriano who gave a spontaneous speech about her admiration for the poet and friend: “I credit my husband Edo for having introduced me to this ‘institution’ and her equally formidable twin, Lorna Makil,” Annabelle remembered. “She has been my little stress ball, and I hers... She’s been a source of strength, and also so much laughter... To Madam Myrna la Douce, life has been so much sweeter since you’ve been in my life.”
This was followed by the last of the readings, with Alfred A. Yuson reciting “Who Mourns the Death of Ants?” and Ricardo M. de Ungria reading “A Momentry.” And to cap it, J Marie Maxino stood up to introduce a video she had been editing the past three days prior to the event: a compendium of talking heads—friends and colleagues of the poet—giving their testimony about how she had been to them as writer and as friend. The video ended with a raunchy, very spirited reading of “The Blue Girl in Geography Class” by the poet’s niece, the actress Frances Makil Ignacio.
“That’s the missing poem Susan was supposed to read!” Ma’am Myrna exclaimed.
“Now you know why I had to choose something else!” Susan laughed.
After the poet’s response, Department of English and Literature Chairperson Warlito Caturay Jr. gave the surprise closing remarks:
“Annie Dillard once wrote that ‘we need to rescue the beauty of experience from the destructiveness of change,’” Warlito began. “Of course, because of technology, it has become so easy to capture the moment. Do you want to immortalize your love affair with a slice of red velvet cake from your favorite bakeshop? Take a selfie and Instagram it. Do you need to capture the performance of your favorite boy band? Take a video of it and upload it on YouTube. These are instantaneous ways of ‘rescuing the beauty of experience.’”
He continued: “But if there’s one thing Ma’am Myrna has shown us through her body of work, it is that creativity and controlled language could as well preserve the beauty of experience. Perhaps, even more poignantly. Today’s launch of Ma’am Myrna’s book is a joyous occasion. We not only celebrate her work, but also Ma’am Myrna for being Ma’am Myrna, who has always been a staunch supporter of the Silliman University National Writers Workshop and who has always been a loyal Sillimanian—generous of her time, talent, and resources, especially when the Department of English and Literature needs her. In behalf of the Department and the Creative Writing Center, thank you very much for coming and showing your support to one woman we genuinely admire and respect.“
And the poet was happy. “You are all schemers!” she smiled to us in the end. We gave a sigh of huge relief.