Coming Full Circle

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As I write this, the golden anniversary of the Silliman University National Writers Workshop is drawing to a close, and it is a Friday and somewhere in the foothills of Mount Talinis in Valencia, deep in the cocoon of the Writers Village in Camp Lookout, the last sessions of the workshop is being held.

The festivities began three weeks ago, on the first Monday of May. The rest has become a blur–a dinner at Arlene Delloso-Uypitching, a dinner at Sidlakang Negros courtesy of Negros Oriental Governor Roel Degamo, a session at the residence of Simon and Virginia Stack, a day out into the loveliness of Tanon Strait in Antulang Beach Resort with hosts Annabelle Lee-Adriano and husband Edo, a session at Forest Camp, and so on and so forth. There are hundreds of pictures to document the days and nights of this fiftieth workshop, and now it is ending.

Tonight, the writing fellows, the panelists, and the alumni from all over the world will congregate in the Claire Isabel McGill Luce Auditorium for the fiftieth anniversary Gala Night–which the poet DM Reyes, who has written and directed the show, has titled “Gaudeanum,” Latin for “so let us rejoice.” This is one last chance for everybody to mingle, to reminisce, to make new memories of Dumaguete.

We have been partying for several nights now, even in the thick of preparations, as the alumni from all fifty years of the workshop come trickling in to Dumaguete, one by one–with the poets Nerisa del Carmen Guevara and F. Jordan Carnice coming in earliest, like the proverbial birds. Who are here? Just to mention a few: Gilbert Tan, Ed de los Santos Cabagnot, Krip Yuson, Joel Toledo, Gemino Abad, Cesar Ruiz Aquino, Bobby Flores-Villasis, Susan Lara, DM Reyes, Niccolo Vitug, Noel Pingoy, Myrna Pena-Reyes, Miro Capili, Ceres Abanil, Liza Baccay, Leslie Noelle de Jesus, Kit Kwe, Kris Lacaba, Wayne Lopez, Daryll Jane Delgado, Easy Fagela, Mo Francisco, Keith Cortez, Gino Dizon, Oscar Serquina Jr., and so many more.

And last night, after the dancing in the streets off the Boulevard under the full moon, with the music of Banda Manga, Sharon Dadang-Rafols, and Lua Padilla-Hagedorn’s daughter Lia providing great music, I thought we finally came full circle: because the seeds of this workshop, now turning half-a-century old, was in Iowa, where the workshop’s founders Drs. Edilberto and Edith Tiempo studied under the poet Paul Engle–and here we were in the Boulevard, looking at the moon over Tanon Strait, dancing to tribal beat with fire dancers with thirty young writers from the University of Iowa, led by non-fiction guru Robin Hemley. As Sharon chants “Bugsay!” and sings to the moon, we all turned into metaphors of frenzy.

Today, the workshop’s alumni number above six hundred. Our individual memories of three weeks during a Dumaguete summer remain indelible–and all of them unique. Sometimes that uniqueness can be summed up by the names each batch traditionally gives itself: 1999’s Jologz Internationale, 2000’s Gomabibe, 2002’s Epiphanic Catharsis, 2003’s Dumaguete Fight Club, 2004’s Purple Patch, 2005’s Chingchingbarbersuper everbendingset, 2008’s Katsubongs, 2010’s The Jejemons, among others–each one a reflection of that year’s catchphrases and witticisms, literary concerns, emotional upheavals, and popular culture.

The memories are always personal. For a Catholic priest like Phil James Laquindanum, landing into a bunch of life experimentalists was an experience: “I remember, for instance, Nerissa Balce (on whom I had a secret crush–OMG, may I be anathema!), who left earlier than the rest due to a trip to Japan that she could not pass up. I remember Neil Garcia who found my youthful and lame attempt at ‘protest poetry’ so interesting (so I thought) that–in his first book of gay poetry, Closet Quivers–he dedicated a poem to me. His ‘first attempt at protest poetry,’ he would later explain to me, to possibly placate any protestation on my part, methinks. The truth is, I was secretly amused, although the older priests in my diocese who got wind of this probably had queer ideas (pun intended) that a priest’s name should appear in a book of gay poetry. Thank God I wasn’t excommunicated! Jesse Garcia was there, too, the gossip writer who had just been sued by Vilma Santos for an unflattering piece he wrote about her and her affairs of the heart. I also remember Anne Panning, a Peace Corps volunteer, who, one moonlit night, with the lush ladies and their pal Stolichnaya, disturbed my deep dreams of peace. Ricky Torre, I also remember, who always looked like he just woke up from a fitful slumber–which I think he did. I remember Cathy Viado with her young son. Bambit Kapauan, I still remember, for her story about Linda Rondstadt’s favorite fantasy, namely, to seduce a priest!”

For poet Fidelito Cortes, it is finally about the writing: “The next three weeks lived up to our propitious welcome. You can’t have a workshop without ‘work,’ and since writing is craft, then Dad Ed and Mom Edith, Jimmy Abad, Cirilo Bautista, Krip Yuson, Rowena and Lem Torrevillas, and Sawi Aquino made sure the focus was on improving our work. They were sometimes tough on us but always fair; textually rigorous yet unfailingly kind–no small consideration when dealing with the fragile ego of the beginning writer. But writing is art, more importantly, and while craft can be sharpened, there are no guarantees that this will elevate writing into an art. Artistry is a transcendent quality, hard to predict and pin down, next to impossible to produce on demand, but I thought the workshop managed to identify in our body of work the best conditions that allowed for the future growth of the artist. It was gently suggested to me, for example, that a little playfulness might help my poetry writing. It’s advice I have taken to heart. To this day, if I’m struggling with a poem, I always suspect it’s because I haven’t let enough daring sauce the poem’s (and the poet’s) congenital reticence and restraint.”

Not all of us continue to write, of course. Still, for Cherrie Sing, her Silliman workshop experience was something to cherish nevertheless: “My proudest moment in the workshop came when I had a chance to talk to Dad Ed. We were walking on a beach when he told me: ‘Your stories are bad, but your poems are good. Do you like to take up creative writing here at Silliman University? At that time I was a fresh grad and had started working at my family store. I told him then that my family, a conservative Filipino-Chinese family, would not allow it as I had to work in the family business. He left me at that and we went on to talk about more mundane things. Flash-forward 15 years and I have often wondered the what-ifs that might have happened had I taken his offer. I had been too cautious and too afraid to defy my family for a passion deemed as frivolous. Now, I no longer write, having exchanged my craft for business operations. My sister and I now manage the family business after my father passed away three years ago.”

But they all remember. We all remember. And we will be remembering still for another fifty years.

(Back to MetroPost HOME PAGE)

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