Poetry as a weapon for peaceful dissent

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In Fr. Albert Alejo's “Sanayan Lang ang Pagpatay,” the writer likens the act of killing a human being to killing a lizard. One of the lines goes: "Habang ako’y pumapatay, kayo nama’y nanonood." “Sanayan Lang ang Pagpatay” is the titular work of a book being republished and launched in December. Illustration by JL JAVIER

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — “What an intelligent Greek reference,” an unwitting editor must have thought when he happened across “Prometheus Unbound” by a certain Ruben Cuevas. Little did he know it referenced something else — an oversight that reportedly cost him his job, in a regime steeped in censorship and human rights violations.

The iconic, infamous acrostic piece had actually seen the light of publication before the military pulled it out of newsstands. The initials of its lines read: “Marcos Hitler diktador tuta,” a rally chant against the dictatorship. Now a classroom staple and literary classic, it is referenced again in rallies today.

Journalist Jose Lacaba, the true name of the poem’s author, was suffering torture in a jail cell, entirely unaware of the trouble his piece had caused. His brother was the revolutionary and poet Emmanuel Lacaba, who was killed in Davao in 1976.

Fresh off these events, the presidential family sought to name Lacaba’s colleague and literary golden boy Nick Joaquin a National Artist for Literature. Decades later, Lacaba’s son Kris would write on Rogue Magazine that they thought Joaquin’s association with the award “would lend the dictatorship an air of prestige.”

“How can I do that? Emman’s killed and Pete’s in prison!” Joaquin had cried, as Ninotchka Rosca recounted on The FilAm. Eventually, he decided to barter his acceptance of the award in exchange for Lacaba’s freedom. Rosca — the author of the novel “Twice Blessed” — said, “This was the way it was: everyone with even a little bit of conscience tried to help friends who were in trouble.”

Lacaba would later recall that in the course of his torture, he was told: “You’re the one who wrote that poem in that magazine.” He did not reply. “I was flattered that a constabulary colonel was literate enough to have heard about my poem, but he was making a statement, not asking a question, so I did not bother to confirm or deny his allegation,” Lacaba wrote in ASIA: Magazine of Asian Literature. He did not come out as its author until after the 1986 revolution.

“In many totalitarian societies, literature, theater and song have always been tools for resistance,” explains Joyce Martin, an Ateneo de Manila University professor who specializes in literature, memory, and trauma studies. “In eras that ban newspapers or censor TV shows, journalists have resorted to poetry to voice out dissent.”

Bienvenido Lumbera wrote “Alay kay Kumander Tangkad” and “Elehiya para kay Renato Constantino” for activist influences. When people started getting used to Martial Law, Benilda Santos wrote “Paano Ba ang Magtapon ng Pusa,” likening the situation to a cat you could not get rid of. These are just some of many pieces prompted by the times.

Fr. Albert Alejo, S.J. was initiated into activism in 1972 as a high school sophomore. “The truth is that the Martial Law years provided plenty of opportunities and additional motivation to write,” he shared. “My work with the trade unions and urban poor gave both grounding in [the] real life struggle of our people as well [as] plenty of gatherings for oral poetic performances. Along the way, I also picked up some theoretical debates on the politics and aesthetics.”

"In other words, although the Martial Law regime was oppressive, it also provided platform and motivation for generating literary creativity in the midst of political struggle,” he says.

"Although the Martial Law regime was oppressive, it also provided platform and motivation for generating literary creativity in the midst of political struggle."

His piece “Sanayan Lang ang Pagpatay,” dedicated to the “sector” that kills for a living, likens the act of killing a human being to killing a lizard. Excellent when read aloud, the chilling poem concludes:

Subalit ang higit na nagbibigay sa akin ng lakas ng loob
Ay ang malalim nating pagsasamahan:
Habang ako’y pumapatay, kayo nama’y nanonood.

“The title itself spoke very much of the violence that characterized that period,” says Alejo. “It was, however, also a moment when poetry was alive, when metaphors were as sharp as bullets, and when poetry reading served as a kind of liturgy.”

Then and now

In the days leading up to the Supreme Court decision on the Marcos burial, small press High Chair released a Martial Law issue edited by Mabi David and Allan Popa. Its array of works, primarily in prose form, recalled, questioned, and criticized the period, planning to thrust it into a “continuing conversation.”

One of the notable pieces from the collection is Gideon Lasco’s “The Spectator.” It begins thus: “It was a lie all along, but the truth must finally be told: We did not believe the child who said that the emperor had no clothes.”

After the Supreme Court permitted the burial of former President Marcos in the heroes’ cemetery on November 8, Baguio-based writer Janine Dimaranan thought of giving her protest a different form. After posting an open invitation online, she collaborated with writers Adam David, Joseph Saguid, and Tilde Acuña among others to delete parts of the Supreme Court media briefer on the Marcos burial decision.  The result: “ERASE MARCOS,” an erasure poetry series which she uploaded to a Facebook album.

Imbis na bigyan ng bagong kontent at linangin ang source text, ang tunguhin ng politikal na pagbubura sa konteksto ng ERASE MARCOS ay mag-inflict ng simbolikong dahas sa isang tekstong ‘natural’ at sistematikong dinadahas ang taumbayan,” Dimaranan explains. She said that while the Court, the president, and the Marcoses figuratively tried to erase the injustices committed during Martial Law, the project aimed to reclaim that history through the same method: erasure.

erase_marcos.jpg “ERASE MARCOS” is an erasure poetry series which Baguio-based writer Janine Dimaranan uploaded to a Facebook album. She collaborated with writers Adam David, Joseph Saguid, and Tilde Acuña among others to delete parts of the Supreme Court media briefer on the Marcos burial decision. Illustration by JL JAVIER

High Chair editor Allan Popa also organized the Taboan Literary Festival, an annual celebration with satellite events nationwide, which culminated on November 11 with a poetry reading called “Sa Mata ng Sigwa” at Ateneo de Manila University. Its title means “in the eye of the storm” — as if to echo the First Quarter Storm, a series of protests in 1970 that included, not unlike today, student demonstrations.

Popa says that readings like this are important, because they get poetry off the page and into an avenue that is more felt — more “urgent.” True to the essence of the eye, the reading was calm — but with the kind of tension and attention had in a storm. The readers, a mix of veteran writers and young performers — Alejo, Lumbera, Santos, “Janus Silang” author Edgar Samar and spoken word artist Jam Pascual, commanded no less.

On November 22nd, the University of the Philippines’ language and literature organization Lingua Franca and UP Writers Club hosted Sigwa: A Discussion on Martial Law Literature. On the day of the burial, De La Salle University’s Malate Literary Folio — which also released a statement condemning the Supreme Court decision — reposted a copy of “Prometheus Unbound.”

The week after, Ateneo de Manila’s artistic and literary publication Heights began digitizing of its issues from 1969 to 1986 to prove, contrary to the president’s statement, that “there is in fact an abundance of creative works on the Marcos regime.”

"Hindi man direktang natutugunan ng panitikan ang kahirapan o kaapihan ng mga manggagawa at magsasaka, pagkat hindi naman tinapay ang salita o baril na pamaslang sa masasama, may gampanin pa rin ang panitikan sa pagbabago ng lipunan bilang isang salik na naghahanda sa taumbayan na mag-aklas."

Now that the works have been written, how are they to be broadcast in a climate quick to brand opposition as elitist or partisan? In one of the student rallies, one protester wore the mask of V in reference to Alan Moore’s “V for Vendetta,” a sharp and cutting tribute — but the number of people who will understand what it represents stands to be tested. It must be asked: is the literature fiercely a weapon for only the intelligentsia?

Poetry from below

Dimaranan does not mince words: poetry is neither bread nor bullets, she says, but is preparatory. She explains: “Hindi man direktang natutugunan ng panitikan ang kahirapan o kaapihan ng mga manggagawa at magsasaka, pagkat hindi naman tinapay ang salita o baril na pamaslang sa masasama, may gampanin pa rin ang panitikan sa pagbabago ng lipunan bilang isang salik na naghahanda sa taumbayan na mag-aklas.

Literature as a prompt for social change has been prevalent in Philippine history, says Popa. And it need not come from high places — there is such a thing as poetry from below. Think Ericson Acosta, he says.

For Popa, poetry can stir consciousness — but it is also infinitely patient. “May tiwala ang tulang protesta sa kakayahan ng lahat ng tao na magsuri, mag-isip, at kumilos.

Ang ‘protest poetry’ ay para sa nais makinig at hindi bukas makinig,” says Popa. “May tiwala ang tula, may tiyaga. May tiwala sa kakayahan ninuman na umunawa. May tiyaga na maghintay kung kailan handa ang mambabasa o tagapakinig.”

In this sense, literature does not seek to be divisive — nor does it seek to impose itself.

“Because of literature’s possible multiple vocations of bringing pleasure to the reader, educating the public, or even existing for itself ... the reader is ‘not threatened,’” Martin adds. “While it does not claim ‘truth,’ it can actually ease the reader’s way to (a) truth(s) because the latter abandons his barriers of disbelief. Literature does not impose, it invites.”

the_failed_assassination_of_imelda.jpg Four years ago, writer and poet Nikay Paredes wrote Imelda-inspired poems as "part of a larger exercise on poetic forms." One of the poems, which are uploaded on her Facebook page, is titled "Imelda after a failed assassination." Illustration by JL JAVIER

A recent study has shown that reading fiction forms empathy, which Martin reiterates. She believes that in the same way we empathize with victims of World War II through Anne Frank, we can empathize with victims of martial law through novels like “Twice Blessed” or Gina Apostol’s “Gun Dealers’ Daughter.”

“Literature personalizes history and makes it a story,” she says. “History and literature, to my mind, are not against each other, but complement each other.”

As if to prove this, political analogies to “Harry Potter” and “The Hunger Games” have gone viral. One satirical post said that President Snow had developed infrastructure in Panem, and the peacekeepers instilled discipline. Another still rebutted a claim that UP students should be proud of Marcos because he was an alumni of the university; it asked, should Harry Potter be proud of Voldemort for graduating from Hogwarts?

"Literature personalizes history and makes it a story. History and literature ... are not against each other, but complement each other."

 

Although said in jest, these manifest the role that literature plays in shaping how people perceive social conditions.

For Dimaranan, literature opens up new ways of imagining or restructuring the system that betrays us. “Pinapataba at pinayayaman ng panitikan ang ating imahinasyon na mayroon pang maaaring mabuong sistemang alpas sa mapang-aping nakasanayan,” she says.

Alejo is curter with his explanation: “For me, poetry is an exercise of hope. And, like other poets, I will not explain.” His poem “Sanayan Lang ang Pagpatay” is the titular work of a book being republished and launched in December.

So it is amazing where literature can go after it is published — but it cannot stop there. Poetry alone, they believe, is not enough.

“Hindi panitikan ang sagot sa mga problema ng bayan at hindi ito ang katapusan ng gampanin ng isang manunulat sa pagbabago ng lipunan, kaya dapat lalong hikayatin ang mga manunulat na kumilos sa loob at labas ng panitikan,” Dimaranan added.

an_open_letter_to_filipino_artists.jpg "A poet must also learn to lead an attack" — an epigraph from Vietnam’s revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh — opens "Emmanuel Lacaba's iconic poem "An Open Letter to Filipino Artists." Illustration by JL JAVIER

For Popa, this takes the form of cultural work, a value emphasized in the Taboan Festival this year, as students had to pitch community projects related to literature.

Paano ba mapapalawak ang saklaw ng panitikan, lagpas sa pahina patungo sa paglikha ng mga proyektong pampanitikan na may kakayahang makaapekto sa komunidad?” he had said at the festival opening. “Nangangailangan ito ng pag-iisip, ng pananaliksik, ng pagtitipon ng mga indibidwal sa komunidad, ng pagtutulong-tulong para maisulong ang mga adhikain.”

Similarly, in her anthology “Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness,” human rights activist and poet Carolyn Forché characterizes the space between political and personal poetry as “social” — neither self-absorbed nor propaganda. Forché, who herself wrote a harrowing piece of how a military general dumped a bag of human ears before her, says that sometimes, “the poem might be our only evidence that an event has occurred.”

In a post-truth world, this kind of account — both fact and literature of its own accord — may have its own voice.

In January 1976, two months before his murder, Emmanuel Lacaba penned the last verses of what would come to be known as “An Open Letter to Filipino Artists.” The poem is prefaced by an epigraph from Vietnam’s revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh:

A poet must also learn
to lead an attack.

Lacaba here does not write propaganda poetry, but protest poetry — poetry that, even if made in specific political conditions, know no political alliances except the human condition. He writes:

We are tribeless and all tribes are ours.
We are homeless and all homes are ours.
We are nameless and all names are ours.
To the fascists we are the faceless enemy
Who come like thieves in the night, angels of death:
The ever moving, shining, secret eye of the storm.