Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — My spirit feels most at home in the company of women: especially women at their most vocally defiant, disquieted, standing up against a looming oppressor. In a small bar tucked away in Katipunan, this was precisely the scene: Filipino women across generations brought together by PUSO, an intimate musical-literary gathering organized by Pilipina and #EveryWoman, that sought to uphold the dignity of women during these troubling times.
From the stream of musical guests performing anthems from an era that no one thought would repeat itself (among them was the iconic “Babae” by Inang Laya, a resounding feminist call-to-action that echoed throughout the night); to the female poets, who read every piece with the conviction of the wounded but still very much alive.
That evening, everyone was all heart.
There were four poets in attendance who went up on stage that night: accomplished attorney and writer Christine ‘Tin’ V. Lao; multi-awarded writer, founding member of the Women Writers in Media Now (WOMEN), and UP Diliman resident fellow Marra Pl. Lanot; Palanca award-winning writer and communications consultant Charisse-Fuschia ‘Peachy’ A. Paderna; and sophomore from the Ateneo’s literary publication Heights, Martina Herras.
Four poets, four women with four unique perspectives on what resistance asks of the woman.
To tell it like it is
The emotionally demanding act of writing a poem is rarely an easy task, but Christine ‘Tin’ V. Lao shares that it’s the haunting “Survivor’s Guilt” that she had most difficulty with among the three poems she read that night.
“[It’s] my own attempt to articulate my inability and initial unwillingness to think and write about a situation of incomprehensible evil. What is lost when one keeps silent, refuses to think, stays in the dark? I don’t think I’ve been able to adequately answer the question that propelled me to write ‘Survivor’s Guilt.’”
When it comes for me, I will offer no resistance,
I who am guilty, having ceded all my words. Will the darkness
teach me its grammar, let me learn its many names?
— Excerpt from Christine V. Lao’s “Survivor’s Guilt”
This theme of speaking the unspeakable, addressing the darkness, and continuing in spite of the evasiveness of answers recurs in Lao’s work. Her own experience of being a woman, she shares, has been marred by the struggle to articulate her thoughts and experiences in her own words and on her own terms.
“The older I get, the more I realize that much of the narratives we tell ourselves are narratives told from a heteronormative male point of view.”
So how does one help dislodge this all too familiar narrative? “We need to articulate, in as precise a language as is possible, stories from a different point of view — that is, our own,” Lao says. “We need to imagine how the old patterns and stories can be otherwise.”
For Lao, the practice of poetry has always been political, but the current socio-political climate has made her more aware of the urgency to tell the truth: “There’s a need to exercise precision of language in communicating experience.”
To have a rebel heart
Marra PI. Lanot hopes to “help raise consciousness through [her] writings, as well as encourage [her] readers to work for individual and societal change for the better.”
Lanot offered two poems during the event, stemming from her daily encounters with sexism in art and society, voicing her rebellion against any form of degradation: “Babae Kami” and “Ina.”
nagluluwal ng sanggol
Na tagapagmana ng mundo
Marunong kaming umaninag
Ng hugis sa araw at gabi
Ng kulay ng bahaghari
— Excerpt from Marra PI. Lanot’s “Babae Kami”
“I come from an environment where traditional values are upheld, but also where I’ve been taught I can learn and achieve whatever I want,” she shares.
“I would like to think that I have contributed in my own, small way to Philippine literature by showing that women can express themselves, that message and style are influenced by our rebelliousness and our desire to break the glass ceiling.”
More and more, Filipina writers are becoming vocal about their dissent. We can thank the collective effort of poets like Lanot for that: brave women who thought, “I want to say something,” and then said it. It takes no small amount of courage to rebel, especially when the stacks are piled high against you.
When asked if today’s politics have affected her writing, Lanot reminds us that not much, really, has changed.
“Whatever steps have been taken towards the advancement of women always have to be assessed and continued,” she says. “Since I have chosen to write for the dignity of the human being, I don’t think my approach to writing will change.”
To exercise vigilance
“Last year, I switched gears [from being a confessional poet],” says Peachy Paderna of her poetic concerns.
“I sort of got sick of talking about myself. I felt that if I wanted to reach for some broader, unnamed truth, I could do more — as a poet — than take off from personal experience. That's why I began to work on telling the stories of other people through poetry. I wanted to swing the focus away from myself and towards the little-told narratives.”
Paderna’s most recent works see Philippine history at their center, favoring periods of conflict and contention, as well as stories that may not be as well-covered as others.
For the reading event, Paderna read two works: “Marcela,” the first, was written on the day of the event itself, as Paderna felt compelled to offer up a brand new work in honor of the night’s theme of female solidarity and strength.
“The poem revolves around Marcela Agoncillo, the woman credited for making the first Philippine flag. In it, I touch upon the limitations she had to work with, how we've come a long way since those days, but also, how certain challenges remain,” she explains.
Of “The Envoy of Mr. Cogito,” the second, written by the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert and a personal favorite of Paderna’s, she says: “Although written many decades ago, it preserves its relevance — wherever liberties are curtailed, wherever brutality holds sway, wherever courage is needed.”
be courageous when the mind deceives you be courageous
in the final account only this is important
and let your helpless Anger be like the sea
whenever you hear the voice of the insulted and beaten
— Excerpt from Zbigniew Herbert’s “The Envoy of Mr. Cogito”
Altogether, what Paderna hopes to accomplish through her writing is this: recognition by the reader of certain truths, especially as they’re seen in the context of our country’s struggles. “It troubles me that Filipinos keep repeating mistakes as though we were in love with loss and tragedy,” she says.
Through her more recent slate of poems, Paderna highlights the lessons we have to relearn, while instilling hope all the same: “['Marcela,' for example,] shows that the violence and unrest so characteristic of the Philippine story doesn’t have to persist in the future.”
To find strength in vulnerability
Last to take the stage was Martina Herras, currently the associate editor for Filipino for Heights Ateneo.
Herras grounds her poetry in the attempt to understand herself as a woman, feminist, and writer, as well as the many complex issues she contends with. “I have come to realize the responsibility I must carry [in writing poetry],” she says. “I’ve become more wary of what I write — and the wariness isn’t only in, ‘Oh, I should be careful of what I say.’ It’s also in ‘I should be careful of what I forget to say,’ as poetry for me has become discourse, and for there to be good discourse, you must be at a certain level of understanding.”
She shared three works: “Maria Makiling,” “Judith,” and an untitled piece.
“I had written [Maria Makiling] with the original myth of the enchantress in mind, and tried to work with what the persona would feel, possessing all of this power and at the same time being able to name the vulnerability you earn from feeling,” she explains.
Hindi ka matatahimik; bubog
ang lupang iyong lalakaran.
Apoy ang tubig na hahalik
sa labi, sasakal sa
— Excerpt from Martina Herras’ “Maria Makiling”
All three of her works proceed from this sense of vulnerability entwined with power. Herras shares that this is how she saw strength.
“To be able to name what hurt you, to be able to acknowledge your hurt, to address the wound, is what makes anyone resilient,” she says. “It isn’t in the moving forward from the pain, but the working without forgetting that once it was hard to work at all, because this pain was too overwhelming.”
Despite the complexity of the emotions Herras hopes to communicate through her poetry, her message is simple, exceedingly resonant, and should prove itself relevant to any reader. “There is no such thing as being able to keep a stoic face always,” says Herras. “So allow yourself to hurt, then allow yourself to depart from this hurt.”
There is no weakness to be found in the recognition of vulnerability — not when you draw from it the strength to fight. Herras’ works, like Lao’s, Lanot’s, and Paderna’s, call on women to be heartened by our vulnerability, to be challenged by our circumstances, and to step up against those who’d rather see us sidelined and silenced than ever succeeding. This is how resilience is born.