Poetic Pathologies, 3



 A. Solver Agcaoili



One of the ways by which we can begin to account the social responsibility of Ilokano poetics is to begin charting what I call an  ‘Ilokano literary history’ that does not follow the Renato Constantino trap of looking at the Philippine historical world using the lens of the outsider, with the landmarks of the way of looking at Philippine historical realities always those of the colonial/colonizer perspective.


Thus, if we go through a cursory reading of the textbooks idiotically multiplied to account the literary sensibilities of our people, we have these same age-old, impotent, and inutile because unproductive, even unimaginative historical frameworks: (a) pre-Spanish; (b) Spanish; (c) American; (d) Japanese; and (e) Contemporary. We look at the textbooks in high schools and colleges, and we have these immutable cornerstones to understanding what Philippine poetics is.


While the terms may not be exact, as we can quickly come up with a version of the interregnum between the (d) and the (e) by saying something like the continuum “Japanese-post WWII-Martial-EDSA One-EDSA Two” and its possible permutations in order to put a stress to the seemingly socially committed character of Philippine literature in general, this version does not respond to the need to look at Philippine experience from the outside, and using that outside view as the marker to account what could be presumed as the ‘national’ experience.


There are two problems here, which many anthologists and literary historians have failed to respond, including the national artist for literature Bien Lumbera in his idea of ‘Philippine national literature’, but which idea he would himself modify in the work, “Filipinos Writing”, with him as the general editor and with writers and scholars representing ‘literatures from the regions’ as area editors.


These problems always come up as our talking points in our continuing criticism of the concept of ‘national literature’: (a) the wrong historical framework for a truly just and fair literary history of the Philippines, and (b) the undue space given to Tagalog literature and the literature of the center of power and culture and commerce in the accounting of what constitutes ‘national literature’, with the other literatures simply marked off as ‘regional literatures’.


Those who studied under Lumbera, and this includes me, made it sure that we told him that we were not comfortable looking at Philippine literature by using the historical framework of Constantino.


We were—we are—continually on the lookout for a framework of Philippine literary history that acknowledges our ‘peoplehood’ and not simply as subjects of various colonizers and dictators and cheats and political opportunists, including all those who benefited from the two EDSA people power uprisings.


If we look at Ilokano literary history from this Constantino-Lumbera framework, we cannot truly account the best of our brains and the kind of investments we have to build up the Ilokano nation, which, to the mind of the congressman Carlos Padilla in his keynote address at the 3rd Nakem Conference, is not something that is real only in the imagination but is reality in actuality. For him, there is, in fact, an Ilokano nation and it is not imagined, and it does not simply exist in the imagination of the Ilokanos.


This idea of Ilokano nation—an idea that we hold onto with clarity at the Nakem Conferences since we started this movement in 2006—is what should serve as the starting point for an honest-to-goodness Ilokano literary history.


We can begin by asking when this self-consciousness of being a people—of being Ilokanos—began, starting from the history of the misconceptions of the Ilokanos and their language as “Samtoy”, a curious term, that, in a previous essay, I had downplayed as part of the myth of knowledge multiplied and popularized by the Spanish colonizers and their ever-willing ignorant acolytes, but which knowledge, until today, is being rattled off by those who still believes in the Ilokano as Samtoy, as in the case of the book of Visitacion dela Torre on the Ilokanos. Sadly, there are many Ilokano writers writing in Ilokano who ignorantly also uses this as a historical fact, without knowing the historical circumstances of that dubious term and name.


In the early 90s, Benjamin Pascual, one of the better Ilokano writers whose fame lies primarily on his brilliant ability to write in both Ilokano and English with equal fluency and mastery and his translation of the ‘Biag ni Lam-ang” into English, came up with a rather crude way of ‘historicizing’ the narrative tradition of the Ilokanos.


Pascual’s view of Ilokano literary history, at least in that respect, begins with the idea of the ‘a pail of tears’ and some such metaphors, and which historical framework Rey Duque, in one of his essays, would cite. Lacking in substance and critical importance, and lacking in the capacity to surprise and torment writers so that they could locate themselves or other writers in such a lame and bland view, the proposal would not survive the test of time and simply died.  


The “Kutibeng”, an anthology of Ilokano poetry by Marcelino Foronda could have provided us with some clues on how we could frame our literary history. But the book  follows, naively at best, a linear history that does not do justice to the notion of ‘Ilokano nation’, a foreign term perhaps, in the historical consciousness of that book.


The linear history of the “Kutibeng” traces our encounter with the colonizer in 1621, with the catechetical translation of the ‘Doctrina’ until we hit 1971, a year prior to Martial Law. The history spans 350 years, with lots of gaps and silences.


I submit we have a linear view of Ilokano poetry through this work.


But I submit as well that the literary history of the Ilokano nation that we are looking for is not in this work, not when we account, in poetic forms, the many struggles of the Ilokano people—and by extension, as it always has been in Northwestern Philippines history—the Amianan peoples.


The need to insist on a plausible framework for a literary history of the Ilokano people, and thus, the Ilokano nation, is borne of the need to understand our own share of what is good and bad, our share of the idiosyncratic and the brilliant, and our obligation to truth-telling.


This literary history of the Ilokanos will tell us some of the things we have always wanted to know, especially the younger writers who have only a second-hand knowledge of the conspiracies and complicities of Ilokano poetics—thus Ilokano writing and Ilokano literature—during Martial Law.


Someone has to answer this important question: What happened to Ilokano poetics when Ferdinand Marcos had all the power in his hands, including the power to administer the oath of office to the revered Ilokano writers who would eventually provide the contours and topography, not to mention the terrain of discourse, during the long and dark years of Martial Law?


Someone has to answer this question: What complicities are there in the giving of awards to people whose literary achievements are dubious? How do we ever justify the giving of an important award by a Committee of One, the award given by an important body of Ilokano writers?


Someone has to answer this question: What accommodations were given during the Marcos dictatorship? Who were involved? What were the repercussions of these accommodations insofar as Ilokano writing and reading are concerned?


Someone has to answer this question: Who determines that only one and one group of writers has prior claim to legitimacy as ‘a writers association’ and all other writers groups do not have the right to exist? Who gives the franchise to such claims?


Someone has to answer this question: How solidly grounded Ilokano poetics is in terms of its social commitment to the fundamental causes of the Ilokano nation, and thus, of the Philippine nation? What kind of a critical contribution Ilokano poetics has given in the pursuit of an aesthetic discourse that brings to light the already confused and confusing world of the Ilokanos, in the Ilocano homeland and in the diaspora?


Someone has to answer this question: In the attempt of Ilokano poetics to serve the community of Ilokanos, what corrupt and corrupting practices had there been that stood in they way of giving that service? Are these corrupt and corrupting practices still prevailing, however tacit these are?


These questions strike at the core of the historical realities of the Ilokano nation, and they point to the literary works that will guide us in understanding the aesthetics responses of the Ilokanos to these social and historical challenges.


Certainly, what Ilokano poetics needs right now are literary historians that can afford to open the door to an enlightened Ilokano conversation, minus the mulct and the muck that we see and read in message boards and internet sites, especially by those whose only virtue is to be coward by hiding behind anonymous names and yet calling out the names of their enemies for the cyberspace public to scorn and stone.


Certainly, Ilokano poetics—and thus, Ilokano writing and Ilokano literature—is not about writers being a ‘stars’ or playing a ‘starring’ roles on the pages of a popular Ilokano magazine.


Ilokano poetics is about social commitment to truth telling, to telling a liberatory vision for a people, to sharing that vision with others.




Poetic Pathologies, 2



A. Solver Agcaoili



The trouble with Ilokano poetics is that no one is telling us that something is wrong with our art and craft and that something needs to be done with urgency.


Like Philippine literature in general, if the awards were to be the gauge, the verdict of literary incestuous relationship is quite clear: in most of the award-giving bodies and organizations, we have a constancy of almost the same names of judges going on a merry go-round, like a Russian roulette. 


Many of the aesthetic biases of these judges—biases that were seldom rethought and revisited—were those of the 1950s and the 1960, and some, veritably, have not progressed beyond those years since year-in and year-out, the same topics are being discussed at the annual literary conferences, the topics seldom going beyond the question of craft, the eternal but now mindless, ‘how to’.


In saying this, what we have got is a difficult and terrible case of in-breeding, a case which almost always results in having the same rehashed ideas about what is aesthetically redemptive for our people. 


In-breeding among people results in abnormality.


In-breeding in ideas results in ‘sumilasu’, a term culled from a poem of protest written during Martial Law and published on the pages of Bannawag when then Gen. Hans Menzi was still the publisher.


‘Sumilasu’, of course, is the same kind of sordid sameness.


If it happens that a new name crops up and is added to a list of judges, that name would be suspect if his or her name has never seen print as Exhibit 101 on the pages of Bannawag.


We forget that there are students of Ilokano poetics out there that may not be writers of Bannawag but serious students of the kind of writing that we produce and consume.


But this constancy of the same names and their proteges is a prime suspect here--that constancy a main actor in the liaisons that result in 'Ilokano literary incest'. 


With Ilokano writers reading only each other in a backstroking technique of “Read me, bro and I will read you, bro”, we are developing some kind of a partnership of aesthetic sensibilities grounded on the truths accepted by the Mafia with their code of honor of complicity, silence, acquiescence, and loyalty to friends and compadres and comadres. 


The end-result is this: we are creating a vicious circle, so vicious that the only way to redeem the results of this circle from perdition is to prick open the cocoon that we have kept our poetics for so long, the covering that insulated that poetics from the surprising entanglements of brilliant and challenging ideas a thinking mind could bring, entanglements that offer us polylemmas so that in the search for what is right and true, we could have an informed judgment.


True, poetics is not supposed to be telling us how to conduct our lives the way patriarchs and zealots and moral bigots in the past had done.


But it is also true to say that when a work of literature does not heighten our awareness of the human condition, what is it for?


The critic Leopoldo Yabes did not have kind words for the kind of Ilokano poetics during his time time.


Operating from the framework of Western canon and Western literary theoretical approaches as all those trained in English studies during the 30s until the 50s were wont to follow for their guidance in the understanding of any literary text, he branded Ilokano writing—and hence, Ilokano poetics—as ‘melodramatic.’


The label is an honest but a harsh judgment of the kind of writing Ilokanos produce when using their own mother language, a judgment that is not applied to Ilokanos during his time who were writing in other languages, notably, in English, Tagalog, and Spanish.


Compared with the innate elegance of the epic “Biag ni Lam-ang”, the writing that marked our encounter with America followed the exaggerated, the ham, the histrionic—characteristics that could perhaps be said of the works of writers during the last part of the 19th century, when Spanish supremacy was about to bow down to the upstart military occupiers that bought us from our former colonizers for US20 million. 


The critic and Ilokano teacher Noemi Ulep Rosal and I did not totally agree with Yabes’ position precisely because we wanted to pursue the academic and political agenda that Ilokano writing deserves to be taught and promoted at the University of the Philippines where we both taught for a time, until I left that University with only her taking up the cudgels of developing a critical awareness of what Ilokano poetics can offer to inform what we, in the academe, were dreaming of:  a ‘national literature’ or ‘literature of the nation’. There were two other academics that dabbled in Ilokano literary and translation studies, but one left eventually for good upon retirement, and another also left the University when she joined me at the University of Hawai’i as a faculty of the Ilokano Language and Literature Program. 


Rosal and I thought that Yabes was using an etic perspective, with an outsider looking in and trying to make sense of what we are—what the Ilokano people are as producers of a literary culture.


But Rosal and I understood that Yabes was right: that the only drama we can afford to portray in our works is the ‘melodramatic’, with the poetic vitality that informs an obra maestra lost in the mind of the writer and in the kind of words he uses to infuse life into his work. 


This is where we need to distinguish two things: sentiment and sentimentalism, the last one the vice of many of Ilokano works, the first the virtue that it lacks because the moment any of the works invests upon it, any touch of ‘sentiment’ always ends up as an extravagant, even redundant, expression of sentimentalism.


The acknowledgement of human emotion and the passion that goes with such an act can only be guided by the logic of truth and the meaningful—and the context of the human drama informing such logic.


An exaggeration would let loose the virtues a good work might have as part of its offering to make a work speak its truth.


But with sentimentalism, there is a falsity involved since what we have got is an artifice of what matters, a facsimile of what could have been, an imitation of an imitation without acknowledging that art, of any form, is already by itself an imitation.


One example of a well-knit narrative that is so sparse with its word use but is so rich with its gaps and silences is Manuel Diaz’s “Rice for the Moon.”


In my years of teaching Ilokano literature in both the original and in English translation, this piece always sees the light of day in my classroom before students who always what on earth did make me choose this piece and include it in their reader. I would go cryptic in my defense of this piece by invoking the kind of power that love in the time of war has, love that is faithful  and yet it is fragile because broken lovers come to haunt the broken memories. 


Seen through the eyes of a young boy, in the early grades and impassioned more by ‘kudisi’ and ‘sunay’ and the summers of wanton gallivanting in the fields where fighting spiders abound, “Rice” brings us to the second World War and the difficult choices a family has to make to survive, just to survive, with the subplot talking about a certain don Gaspar, named after a magus, lusting for Coring, the maiden whose lover had to respond to the call of his homeland so he would serve the homeland, after promising Coring that he would come back to fulfill his love for her in that final tryst that the young boy witnessed.


Add the tragic symbol of the story—the ‘warsi’ for the ‘darudar’ (the rice-throwing ceremony of the Ilokanos) event and you have a whole cultural and social history of the Ilokano people dramatized in that sparsely worded story you hope it was you who wrote it.


If we are looking for a work that resonates, a work that deserves the honor we all could be proud of, this “Rice” is one example of the not-so-many we have around.


Now comes the honor we accord to our writers, with their Leona Florentino and Pedro Bukaneg. Who, among those who were given that honor, deserve the accolade? Do their works resonate like “Rice”?


Or, in the giving of the awards, the melodramatic was involved, with a Committee of One responsible for arguing the case of some because these writers were plain and simple evangelists of the ham?


Our accounting must begin now.







Poetic Pathologies, 1



A. Solver Agcaoili



The big question relative to Ilokano writing in general, and Ilokano literature in particular, is this: what is wrong with it?


This question gains currency when some tests come along, as is the case with what is happening to one of the many publics of Ilokano poetics we call simply ‘the Ilokano writers’. 


Ilokano poetics, of course, as understood in this essay, is a generic concept that means the principle and form of ‘Ilokano literary art’.


This artistic form—also understood popularly as ‘Ilokano literature’, is not a monolithic concept as it reveals complex practices both in its production and consumption, therefore summoning a variety of critical approaches to its understanding.


In general terms, Ilokano literature easily falls under the rubric of what is called popular culture or pop culture—a kind of culture mediated by capital and the logic of industry that goes with that capital. In short, it is a game played between the business people whose interest is in the marketing of culture and its derivatives, and the consumers of that culture, that is, the readers.


This kind of a culture, of course, can be distinguished from a more ideologically critical form of culture called mass art or the art of the masses—a kind of cultural production and consumption in which critical consciousness and its evolution is its aim.


Ilokano literature has traces in both: as popular culture or as mass art, this last one specifically called the literature of the masses. While the distinction is analytical, it is possible that a certain poetic practice, while produced and consumed by a cultural structure mediated by capital and industry, may contain a critical perspective of the life of the community and the aim of that life for the pursuit of genuine freedom, and thus, that literary practice might eventually fall under the rubric of mass literature.


When we therefore speak of the pathologies of Ilokano poetics, we refer to that which ails this form of artistic practice, and the kind of dynamic that goes with the production and consumption of works produced out of that artistic practice.


Here is the verdict: a large chunk of Ilokano literature being practiced is a useless body of pulp, with no sense of critical consciousness but only investing upon this body of pulp sentimentalism, with no liberating view of the terrors and surprises of how sentiments can be summoned to humanize the everyday documentation of life.


A good literary work can summon the energies that attend to the meditative recognition of the redeeming power of human sentiments; the falling into the trap of sentimentalism is what renders a seemingly good work as pulp that is good only for the trash bin.


Many of the short stories that Ilokano literature have produced follow this trap of sentimentalism, an endless trap—this trap relentless in its production and reproduction of ‘idealized’ Ilokano women, for instance, women who kowtow to the wishes of Ilokano men, of Ilokano women vowing to love even the most stupid of their Ilokano husbands or lovers. Or children abused—domestically violated by their fathers and mothers—in order for these children to be taught the hard lessons of life. 


No, we cannot allow literature to become an instrument of the continuing dehumanization of women and children—and men—as well.


If Ilokano literature fails to respond to the fundamental issue of human liberation, then it will be forever useless, as it will continue to inflict upon us harm with its promise of ‘dolce’ plain and pure, with no responsibility for ‘utile’.


Dolce, of course, is sweetness, or as one Ilokano writer would have it: “makaay-ayo iti agbasbasa”. This is crap, when this is the only criterion for the production of Ilokano literature, whether popular or mass. While sweetness is an obligation to our readers, we have an obligation as well to cultivate their sense of what is right, of what is meaningful, of what makes sense, indeed, in life. 

This leads us to utile.

Utile is that commitment any Ilokano literary practice ought to have, its function of becoming an agent for the cultivation of mind and thought, and thus, life.


We must insist on this thesis: dolce alone does not suffice—and neither is utile too.


An honest Ilokano work of literature, honest because it is true to its aim, would have to navigate the demands of both dolce and utile, and the artistic ability of the writer is to be able to have virtue in his work. Otherwise, the writer is a pretender: pretending to please his or her audiences, and then in the end, really pleasing them, but making them dumb as well. That is, if the writer himself or herself is not also dumb, made dumb by his or her pretenses to his or her art or craft. 


To illustrate:


We have the “Wedding Dance” and its thesis of love and suffering and sacrifices restated over and over again, with no hope for redemption. We juxtapose this against another narrative, in a dramatic form, "Bukel ti Rengngat."


What we need, for instance, is to unravel this pathology by invoking the kind of courage Pelagio Alcantara exhibited when he recast that anti-woman Amador Daguio story into something redemptive and redeeming, with his Ilokano story, “Bukel ti Rengngat”. 


In Alcantara’s bold reworking of a classic of Philippine literature in English—one whose lines and scenes every educated university student almost memorized in his or her general education years--we have before us the unfurling of a misreading of the human and the social condition, and the rendering of that misreading as ‘the’ right one without asking the bigger questions of human life. 


With a dramatic twisting and turning of the plot of the original narrative, Alcantara commences the unfurling of social injustice as lived in the personal with the renaming of the characters in the Daguio original and making these characters act, with their new names, in accord with the issues of basic justice, with Damiyao not anymore simply a foot soldier of a fossilized, almost inhuman, view of a living culture, and Linnaay and Nimnay able to discourse the text of their lives, their loves included. 

The Daguio piece gives you Awiyao the lover whose only option was to submit to the power of the tribe and to have no courage to fight for the big love of his life. 

With that failure by Awiyao to discourse love and commit to it--his love in the context of both his person and his community--we have a Lumnay, a failed human being, caressing her Cordillera ‘sitao’, her failure co-authored by her very own beloved who has that cowardly act of declaring his undying love while the drums of the tribe, in that dong-dong-dong of frenzied beatings, constantly call him to his new wedding with someone else.   


With this bold stroke, we have a model, as we have a model in the various poems of Juan S.P. Hidalgo.


I remember one of his poems that to this day continues to haunt me: it is the story of brothers, one a guerilla, another a soldier, and the setting, as we can see in the painting that I saw in his house a long time ago in graduate school when I first egged him on for an interview, is possibly in Vintar or Piddig, the hometown of my ancestors. Either of the places, of course, is a symbol, and it can be anywhere in the rural areas where the mountains still call the rebels and the soldiers still pursue them, in that endless hide-and-seek of murder and mayhem in the name of our people, in the name of democracy for the elites, in the name of freedom for the elect.


Given these two as examples, the elders of Ilokano poetics have left us something to think about and hold onto and believe that something good is still—still—happening in Ilokano literature. But this something that is good is tentative, is temporal, is, in fact, fragile, as the pathological in Ilokano poetics is getting more and more delicate and serious, grave and cancerous. 


When we see the rising critical consciousness of the current crop of younger writers, we see the daring veins of these works of committed writing by Alcantara, at least with the “Bukel ti Rengngat” play and by the many poems of Hidalgo.


But this we must say now: Alcantara was informed by a more universal view of literature, and that spirit he caught from his readings and meditations he used in his works.


Hidalgo had the same exposure to other works and other aesthetic and poetic practices other than the incestuous works of Ilokano writers, with one Ilokano writer reading only another Ilokano writer and thus forming a partnership that might as well be called a mutual admiration club: “I pat your back, bro, you pat my back, bro.”


This kind of an attitude gives rise to the almost impossible practice of criticism in Ilokano literature as a popular form.


What we have thus is another incestuous criticism--a rather narrow form of criticism that makes use of all those impossible jargon and register from the academe that only those intellectual braggarts and wannabes could understand. 

This criticism in and from the academe, when not returned in a to-and-fro relationship with the community of writers of this poetics, breeds only high-brow, unreadable critics among those in that culture industry of the universities and colleges. 

What we have thus is an academic critic talking to an academic critic, with each other as the audience as well. 

That situation does not lead to a broader conversation but to a conversation among the elite who can afford not to take part in the mutual stroking of Ilokano writers, and perhaps their division into camps that can afford to throw muck at each other, their throwing before the public that is almost always caught off-guard. If this is not intellectual incest, I do not know of any other name for this.


In both practices, Ilokano poetics is at the losing end.


So what is pathologic with Ilokano poetics?


It is that incestuous relationship between its production and consumption, with Ilokano writers the number one agent in that disease I call, borrowing some terms in bioethical inquiry, as “iatrogenesis pandemic”: a disease that begins with the Ilokano writer and ends with the Ilokano writer.


Sadly, one of the proofs of this iatrogenesis pandemic in Ilokano poetics is the giving of awards to writers and/or pretenders who cannot even show a mature—and thus a quality—body of work to prove their claim to greatness in the eyes of their peers. 

Such a body of work ought to have resonance, and failing to have that, these awards are not of merit but of dubious gifts of flattery, its ground ad populum and its dubious glorious mysteries something that we all have to stop reciting in that angelus of self-deception and more so, delusion of grandeur. 


If we are going to ask for an accounting of those who have been awarded by the GUMIL Filipinas with the Leona Florentino for the greatest of the Ilokano women writers and the Pedro Bukaneg for the greatest of the Ilokano men, I wonder if we have the courage to come up with a blatant move to recall some of them. 

Really now: are all of them deserving precisely because they can prove that their body of works--presuming they have--are wellspring for the cultivation of our life as a people?

Failing to account these awards is the continuing commission of this pathologic poetic incest that is happening. 

The good poet--the one who is bold and daring--needs to speak up and be honest with the honor accorded to him or her by his or her peers. If she or he does not deserve it, she or he should return it to the irresponsible committee of one or few that gave her or him that award. 


It is pathological, this practice, and we need to have the courage to reflect and criticize our selves. This is called reflexivity, and good Ilokano poetics must have to have this.

Hon, HI/Dec 29/08