In Manila, poets need not feel alone


A FORTNIGHT ago (15 - 20 Jan, 2001), I visited Manila on a literary excursion and ran right smack into history in the making as Joseph Estrada was toppled right before our eyes.

Manila is the literary capital of South-east Asia for English writing – second to none.

Despite the media excitement about Philippine politics, we were really going for its rich cultural scene.

To be honest, we were half-expecting to expound on our sophisticated Republic's glossy productions to eager, deprived masses.

Instead, we stumbled on the literary capital of South-east Asia for English writing - second to none.

We ended up carting home a tonne of books.

Strike out Myth No 1: Writers and academics in Manila are not your limp-wristed, ivory-tower types.

They're well plugged into the social network - as journalists, speechwriters and activists.

Many of their writings draw force from current events, be it the Estrada debacle or slum dwellers killed by a collapsed rubbish heap.

During the anti-Estrada rally, writers like our host, poet Alfred Yuson, were active on the streets.

Poetry in motion at Sanctum, one of Manila's hip new lounges

Photo© ALVIN PANG : 19 Jan 2001

One Rofel Brion even tipped us off about the military's behind-the-scenes manoeuvrings, just minutes before their public defection at the rally.

Feeding the vibrant scene are numerous literary circles, awards and publishers; over three active college-based writers' centres and programmes; and at least one university literature faculty with a staff strength of 72 writers - including resident experts in feminist, South-east Asian and gay writing.

City newspapers also feature regular literary articles and critical reviews.

The upshot of all this activity? A growing pool of young talents - from diverse backgrounds and both genders - that is astounding in maturity and quality.

Many graduate and return to the programmes as mentors, while holding freelance jobs as writers, teachers or journalists.

Others move between institutions, or work at US-based universities, where the Filipino reputation for writing is well established.

This from a metropolitan city of 12 million, but with less than half our per capita income.

The numbers don't account for the sheer talent gap between Singapore and Manila - and kills the notion that affluence is a necessary prerequisite of cultural growth.

That said, big publishers there still sell mass market Tagalog romances to finance ''serious'' works.

And people are reading less, like everywhere else in the world.

But the thriving scene in Manila is anything but esoteric, or even square.

A faculty member at the University of the Philippines English Department receives books from Singapore

Photos © ALVIN PANG : 19 Jan 2001

At Zouk-like hangouts such as the Republic of Malate, young poets fight for the microphone to sling verses instead of dance moves, in popular ''poetry slam'' competitions.

Forget karaoke haikus or pretty poseurs - the writing ranges confidently from erotic verse to religion and social commentary.

At the height of the Edsa rally on that Friday night, poetry lounge Sanctum rocked to well-spun patriotic and political concoctions recited from memory by passionate 20-something hipsters.

How do they do it?

It's not government funding, although the major writing centres have well-placed patrons.

Support mechanisms such as awards, mentorship, writers' centres, and literary journals help identify and groom talent.

Strange that cash-rich Singapore seems to have moved away from these approaches in recent years.

Also a plus: A culture that favours self-expression and fellowship.

In Singapore, you'd be hard-pressed to assemble the same line-up of eager and consummate performers we encountered in Manila.

And I doubt we could match the sort of generosity and spiritual fraternity extended to us, fellow writers from abroad.

Writers in Manila, enviably, need never feel alone in what can be the loneliest of arts.

Perhaps their secret is simply that they believe passionately in country and culture, and in the power of art to change society and individuals for the better.

And they act on their convictions with honesty and humility, without fear or favour.

Passion can be infectious.

Hosting a courtesy dinner in our honour, our ambassador to the Philippines was pulled into a spontaneous joint poetry reading with our Filipino friends.

This from straight-laced government officials, who'd spent much of dinner concerned that Filipinos perceived Singapore as a nation of maid abusers.

There's still lots to be learnt. But it's a good thing we've broken down some stereotypes, and started building bridges.

Following our visit, 5 writers from Manila made a return visit to Singapore for Writer's Fest in August 2001.

Writers in both cities also jointly published LOVE GATHERS ALL: The Philippines-Singapore Anthology of Love Poetry (Anvil Books / Ethos Books) in 2002.

© alvin pang
clm : rvw : esy : rfl