A poet’s life

The Philippine Star - - OPINION - DANTON REMOTO

Ihave pub­lished three books of po­ems: ‘Skin Voices Faces’ (1991), ‘Black Silk Pa­ja­mas’ (1996), and ‘Pu­lot­gata: The Love Po­ems’ (2004). I have been writ­ing for 35 years but only have three books of po­ems to show for my ef­forts. I have writ­ten many other po­ems but I was ashamed of them, and so they never saw the light of print. They were ei­ther de­stroyed by the rain that washed in­side my fifth-floor condo unit through the tiny vents in the win­dows, or eaten by the ter­mites, or got thrown, the way Michael Jor­dan did with bas­ket­ball, right into the garbage bin.

I am also wary of po­ets who pub­lish a book of po­ems ev­ery year, as if pub­lish­ing po­etry is a con­test of quan­tity. A writ­ing ca­reer is not like a 100-me­ter dash, all blur and speed and then is gone. I’d rather think of it as a marathon, long and tir­ing and ul­ti­mately plea­sur­able, be­cause of the en­durance and strength one has shown.

I was a Busi­ness Man­age­ment stu­dent at Ate­neo who, in­stead of read­ing his books on Fi­nan­cial Ac­count­ing un­der the for­mi­da­ble Miss Flora “Bebe” Lim, went to the PS 9991 sec­tion of the Rizal Li­brary and read the works of Greg Bril­lantes and Gilda Cordero Fer­nando, Car­men Guer­rero Nakpil and Nick Joaquin, Ker­ima Polotan, and Bien­venido San­tos. It is one source of pride for me that in the next few years, I would meet these writ­ers and know them up close and per­sonal.

Greg was my lit­er­ary ed­i­tor at Na­tional Mid­week and later at the Philip­pine Graphic. I have eaten sev­eral times in the house of Gilda and have met her many times in lit­er­ary gath­er­ings and even their dance classes. Tita Chi­tang in­vited me to one of their Wed­nes­day lunches and I have hounded her to au­to­graph my copies of her books when­ever I saw her. Nick was my ed­i­tor at the Philip­pine Graphic and Ker­ima, dear and much-missed Ker­ima, was my first ed­i­tor, over at Fo­cus Philip­pines. I think ev­ery­body was afraid of her, but when­ever I saw her at Fo­cus her eyes would soften and she would smile at me.

When Pres­i­dent Cory Aquino abol­ished the Batasang Pam­bansa in 1986, I lost my job edit­ing the un­gram­mat­i­cal de­bates of the as­sem­bly­men at the ple­nary ses­sions. I wrote to Ker­ima and told her about this, and kindly asked to send to me the pay­ment for my short sto­ries and po­ems they had pub­lished. In a week I had a check, de­liv­ered by fast mail to our house in An­tipolo, which I used to buy a new set of clothes be­cause I would as­sume work as a teacher the fol­low­ing week.

Speak­ing of be­ing a teacher, I got an email ask­ing my stand on English be­ing the sole lin­gua franca of the coun­try. Yes, at this day and age, we still get ques­tions like this.

Three decades of teach­ing English to stu­dents (to­gether with four years of teach­ing Filipino) have shown me that the best stu­dents in English are also the best stu­dents in Filipino. And how did they master the two lan­guages?

One, they had very good teach­ers in both lan­guages. Two, they in­hab­ited the worlds of both lan­guages. Three, they have gone be­yond the false ei­ther-or men­tal­ity of their par­ents. Let me ex­plain. My best stu­dents in English and Filipino were tu­tored by crème de la crème, many of them teach­ing in pri­vate schools. In Ate­neo, we have classes in Re­me­dial English, since re­named Ba­sic English or English 1. These are six units of non-credit sub­jects. The en­rollees are mostly in­tel­li­gent stu­dents from the pub­lic schools and the prov­inces. Lack of books and un­trained teach­ers pre­vent them from hav­ing a level play­ing field with the other fresh­men. A year of catch­ing up is nec­es­sary for them to have the skills to have a mano-a-mano with the other stu­dents.

More­over, I in­tro­duce them to the worlds of the lan­guage they are study­ing – be it in the for­mal realm of the text­book or the pop­u­lar ones of film, graphic novel, or anime. I en­cour­age them to keep a jour­nal as well, which is not a diary where you write what time you woke up and why. A jour­nal, or its postmodern cousin, the Web log or blog, aims to cap­ture im­pres­sions or moods on the wing. If at the same time it sharp­ens the stu­dents’ knowl­edge of English, then that is al­ready hal­lelu­jah for the English teacher.

And the third is that to­day’s stu­dents are no longer bur­dened by the guilt of learn­ing English – and mas­ter­ing it. I still re­mem­ber those writ­ing work­shops I took in the 1980s, when I was asked why I wrote bour­geois po­ems in the col­o­nizer’s lan­guage. The panelists said I should write about work­ers and peas­ants – and that I should write in Filipino. With­out bat­ting a false eye­lash, I an­swered that I don’t know much about the lives of work­ers and peas­ants, and to write about some­thing I don’t know would be to mis­rep­re­sent them. To the charge that I write only in English, I showed them my po­ems in Filipino, be­cause the mod­ern Filipino writer is not only a writer in ei­ther English or Filipino, but a writer in both lan­guages, like col­or­ful balls that he jug­gles with the dex­ter­ity of a cir­cus per­former.

So it’s no longer a choice be­tween English and Filipino, but rather, English and Filipino, plus the lan­guage of one’s grand­mother, be it Bikolano, Waray, or Tausug. And in col­lege, another lan­guage of one’s choice, be it Ba­hasa In­done­sia, Ger­man, or French – the bet­ter to view the world from many win­dows, since to learn a new lan­guage is to see the world from another an­gle of vi­sion. In short, one no longer has to live be­tween two lan­guages, but to live in a man­sion of many lan­guages.

As Na­tional Artist Rolando S. Tinio puts it: “Only the mas­tery of a first lan­guage en­ables one to master a sec­ond and a third. For one can think and feel only in one’s first lan­guage, then en­code those thoughts and feel­ings into a sec­ond and a third.”

In short, as a friend and fel­low pro­fes­sor said, “The Philip­pines is a multi-lin­gual par­adise.” The ear­lier we know that we live in a par­adise of many lan­guages, the bet­ter we can savor its fruits ripened by the sun.

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