By Enrique S. Villasis
First, a confession: I was never trained to be a poet. My only introduction to poetry in college was when I took up a Filipino Literature subject, but other than that my only knowledge in writing and reading poetry was limited to Hallmark cards, street raps, song lyrics, and “witty” liners and word plays from Joey de Leon and Mark Logan.
It was only when I joined the workshop of Linangan sa Imahen, Retorika, at Anyo (LIRA) that I learned what poetry is. Under the guidance of National Artist Virgilio S. Almario and other notable names in Filipino poetry we learned the rudiments of writing a good poem. With the weekly lectures, workshops, and after workshop drinking sessions I learned more and more about the art of writing poetry and Philippine literature and language in general.
From this workshop I learned that poetry, just like any other art form, is a discipline. A poet must painstakingly work with imagery, diction, sound, and form. A poet must live in between pauses and in complete silence. A poet should thread the thin line of real and unreal, the personal and the political.
The American poet Charles Simic likened the poet to a “mechanic in love with the engine of his car.” While everyone is busy on their daily normal lives, the poet is busy working under the hood of his or her car—changing the spark plugs, adding distilled water to the battery, adjusting the valves, and checking the ignition timing. He added that the poem is “an unusual vehicle whose engine runs on language, both the language of his ancestors and the language he used today—an engine, therefore, in need of constant tuning to run properly. As for the tradition, that’s the junkyard where poets go to look for spare parts”
Let me add something to this, the poet like any good mechanic must be attentive. A good mechanic will be able to fix any engine problem only if he pays attention down to the tiniest detail. This goes the same to the poet.
But poetry demands a different kind of attention than any of our daily activities. In fact, poetry is an act of attention. More than a vehicle for emotional expression, a good poem, in my opinion, must be a site of potentials and possibilities. A good poem never offers a solution, but rather questions.
For the poet and critic Donald Revell, “The art of poetry is not about the acquisition of wiles or the deployment of strategies. Beginning in senses, imagination senses farther, senses more.”
Let us take a look at this poem by Marchiesal Bustamante:
Sa tuwing nagliligpit ka ng mga alinlangan
sa silid ng mga hindi mo pag-aari,
nalilimutan mo ang mga dapat unahin.
Bukas na bintana ang piring ng dumidilat
sa lumang bahay. Aantig sa iyo ang bago
sa antigo, ang hindi mo kilala sa ibang panahon.
Ikakahon mong muli ang mga plorera.
Tatabunan ng kumot ang malalaking salamin,
ang sariling nakaupo sa harap ng piyanong
handa mo nang ipagbili sa murang halaga.
Hindi ka man lang makokonsensiya.
Sa isip mo, wala kang dapat itira.
Bustamante’s poem opens on what goes through the auctioneer’s mind. Instead of telling it to the readers, the speaker of the poem describes everything the auctioneer sees. A visual montage—the open window (“bukas na bintana”), an old house (“lumang bahay”), a new antique (“bago sa antigo”), vases (“plorera”), life-sized mirrors (“malalaking salamin”), his own reflection (“ang sarili”), and a piano (“piyano”). All these images conjure a sense of nostalgia, of old memories, of tension between past and present. But this is not a poem about remembrance. A closer look reveals that by draping his own reflection, the auctioneer finally resolved his hesitation. He made up his mind. The turning point of the poem. He will sell all of these; no hint of guilt. We are left wondering what is left in the house that the auctioneer might sell. With the poem’s attention to particulars, we begin to see and continue seeing even after we finished reading. The poetry just keeps happening—continuous, before, during, and after the poem.
For almost 10 years of writing poetry, I try my best to let the details speak for what I write. My attentiveness to details helps me in shaping my poems. I see, then I see more. And as Donald Revell once said: “The poetry of attention comes to our senses not as a dream and not as a representation.”
I remember that the first poem I wrote for my first book Agua was inspired by an incident in my hometown of Milagros, Masbate. One summer, a dead whale shark was washed ashore. Despite being a fishing community, no one knew what kind of creature it was. Then an amazed tourist took picture of it. Here is the poem:
Ganito kalaki namin nakilala
Ang kamatayan: tila isang galerang
Inakyat ng gutom o ng pakikidigma.
Sa pagkakahimpil nito sa pampang,
Mga pirata kaming maghahanap
Ng anumang mapapakinabangan.
Ngunit ano ang makukuha sa ilalim
Ng hindi naming kilalang kaliskis?
Nilambat na kami ng pagkaligalig
Na baka may dalang sumpa ang pagtikim
Sa kanyang laman. Maraming lihim
Ang dagat at isa na rito ang napahimpil.
Kuwento ng isa, ito ang lumalamon
Sa mga nawawala at nalulunod
Sa tuwing inaabutan ng unos sa laot.
Sanggol lamang ito, dagdag niya,
Kumpara sa balyena ni Jonah.
Marami ang tumango sa kanyang winika.
Kabig pa ng isa, mistikal na alaga
Ng diwata ng dagat ang dambuhala.
Marahil kabayo niya ito o di kaya’y gadya.
Tulad ng paniniwala sa paghahain
Nakumbinse ang ilan na sasapitin namin
Ang kawalan ng isda kung ito’y kakainin.
Kaya sa pagpapakuha ng retrato
Lamang kami nagawang makuntento
At pagsaluhan ang iisang memento.
Simic, Charles. “Introduction to the Updated and Expanded Edition.”
The Horse Has Six Legs, edited by Charles Simic, Graywolf Press, 2010, pp. xiii-xxvi
Revell, Donald. The Art of Attention. Graywolf Press, 2007
Bustamante, Marchiesal. “Subasta.” Mulligan, High Chair, 2016, pp. 30
Villasis, Enrique. “Butanding.” Agua, Librong Lira, 2015, pp. 74