Alfred A. Yuson introduces
BLOODLUST: Philippine Protest Poetry (From Marcos to Duterte), edited by Gemino H. Abad and Alfred A. Yuson
(Reyes Publishing, Philippines, 2017)
The idea for this fresh anthology of Philippine protest poetry came early in 2017, when it became increasingly evident that the president elected some eight months previous had no intention to backtrack from his declared war on drugs that resulted in a determined assault on human rights, indeed, on the lives of Filipinos.
As the reprehensible death toll from extra-judicial killings (EJKs) drew condemnation from the rational sector of Philippine society, artists and poets joined many other progressives in expressing disgust over the government’s lethal obstinacy, as much as its apparent acceptance by everyone else for whom the reputed end justified the unconscionable means.
Populist fanaticism had reared its ugly head with the arrogance of reputed strength in numbers. Connivance became the easy way out for enablers. Not much thinking was involved. Neither was the human heart heard beyond the appalling spiral of unjust and unjustified deaths — all under the guise of a fable contrived about alarming drug use conjoined with criminality.
The hyperbolic claim could only be countered by authentic journalism, objective forums where academics spoke against the downslide in being Filipino, satire masking deep disdain and contempt, and creativity that gave vent to both the anger and sorrow in being made subject to lies and abuse, as manifested by the unceasing violations conducted against the very essence of being human.
While foreign observers for whom partisanship was of no consideration joined in the condemnation, the unfortunate new leadership continued to brazen it out, urged on by a majority that shares in the hubris of blind power.
Yet hardly ever overwhelmed is sensitivity to the pulse of veracity. Artists, Ezra Pound had grandly declared long ago, “are the antennae of the race.”
Marshall McLuhan concurred, a generation or so later: “I think of art, at its most significant, as a DEW line, a Distinct Early Warning System that can always be relied on to tell the old culture what is beginning to happen to it.” The same should apply to culture that has become the new normal.
Many others have interpreted Pound’s metaphor even more simply, that “artists feel what's coming long before the rest of us see it.” Of course what Pound had in mind was “principally of his own craft, poetry.”
John F. Kennedy shared the view: “When power corrupts, poetry cleanses.”
In our country, what became constant fabrication, vulgar argot, threats, vindictiveness, boorishness, braggadocio and worst, bloodlust, on the part of a leader, joined in by equally small-minded cohorts, had no other course but to rub sensitive antennae the wrong way.
The internet was quick to become an open venue for Filipino poets, among them Marne Kilates, Victor Peñaranda, and Ian Rosales Casocot of Silliman University in Dumaguete City. The last-named did a yeoman’s job of collating literary items posted on Facebook that were condemnatory of the EJKs. A good number of poems included in what he billed as the “Kill List Chronicles” found their way to this anthology. There could have been more, had we been successful in tracing the coordinates of other young poets whose works had been shared in that online collection.
Here, then, is the poets’ response to what is happening in our country — from the subtle to the outraged — in four languages. Initially, we considered having the poems in our native languages translated into English for the benefit of an international audience. But we decided to let those be, at least the ones submitted without extant translations. The poem in Spanish is a “friend”’s translation submitted by the contributor, of his own poem in English. Some of the poets in Filipino and Binisaya (a Visayan language) did their own translations.
We have two living National Artists for Literature in these pages (Virgilio S. Almario a.k.a. Rio Alma and Cirilo F. Bautista), as well as Filipino poets residing and pursuing their literary careers abroad, such as Jim Pascual Agustin (South Africa), Gene Alcantara (United Kingdom), Merlinda Bobis (Australia), Albert Casuga (Canada), Fidelito Cortes, Luis H. Francia, Eric Gamalinda, Luisa A. Igloria, Marie La Viña, Ninotchka Rosca, Rowena Torrevillas (all in the United States), Eric Tinsay Valles (Singapore) and Joel Vega (The Netherlands).
It took us a few months to collect submissions after the call was made for this anthology. Jaime An Lim, originally from Mindanao, proved to be the last contributor, submitting his poem titled “Marawi” on the first week of June as we were about to turn over the text to the book designer. His lament is both as topical and sadly sonorous as today’s headlines from a country that has become so riven and so poor in more ways than one, with an inordinate number of deaths haunting us all.
Apart from “EJK’s,” a refrain in a number of poems cites what has become a byword: the Visayan portmanteau “tokhang” — literally meaning “to knock and plead” — as the fancied police operation in the supposed drug war was billed, as if politeness or politesse were really part of the dreaded picture.
Previous poetry anthologies had seen print when we fell under another dismal dispensation, way back during and after the first-ever Martial Law period of the 1970s. Among these were In Memoriam: A Poetic Tribute by Five Filipino Poets, occasioned by Benigno Aquino’s assassination in 1983, as well as the thematic fifth issue of Caracoa: The Poetry Journal of the Philippine Literary Arts Council (PLAC), titled Sub Versu, which came out in November of 1984.
Then there were two hefty anthologies edited by PLAC founding member Alfrredo Navarro Salanga: Versus: Philippine Protest Poetry, 1983-86 (co-edited with Esther Pacheco and published by Ateneo de Manila University Press in 1986), and Kamao: Panitikan ng Protesta, 1970-1986 (co-edited with Lilia Santiago, Reuel Aguila, Hermie Beltran Jr. and Marra PL. Lanot), a bilingual poetry anthology published by the Cultural Center of the Philippines in 1987.
It has been three decades since Filipino poets have reassembled in pages of protest. Some poems in this anthology decry the controversial burial of Ferdinand E. Marcos at the Libingan ng Mga Bayani (Graveyard of Heroes), surreptitiously conducted in November of 2016 — some say as a further indication of the contempt for history and human rights on the part of the current president, who continues to profess to be a fan, nay an idolater, of Marcos.
We also include here some vintage poems, previously published, that early addressed the national sentiment against Marcos, in his time. These include Grace R. Monte de Ramos’ “Brave Woman,” as well as Jose F. Lacaba’s classic “Prometheus Unbound,” the 24 lines of which started with letters that formed an acrostic spelling out “Marcos Hitler Diktador Tuta” (Marcos Hitler Dictator Puppy) — a protest slogan chanted by activists well before Marcos declared his Martial Law that lasted for nearly a decade. This poem was published, innocently, by a national weekly magazine in 1973, a year after Martial Law was declared, helping earn for the poet-journalist unjust time in a Marcos prison.
It became easy to settle on this anthology’s title: BLOODLUST: Philippine Protest Poetry (From Marcos to Duterte).
In a time of protest, the wellspring of creativity usually starts with visual artists. Soon after journalists and photographers document grave injustice, painters and sculptors quickly come to the fore with personalized representations of what their antennae have picked up from the oppressive air.
In March of 2017, a protest-themed group exhibit was displayed at Far Eastern University, titled “Hudyat” (signal, alarm, or password). It included contributions by National Artist for Painting BenCab a.k.a. Benedico Cabrera, as well as notable artists Pandy Aviado, Antipas Delotavo and Jose Tence Ruiz, sculptors Julie Lluch and Toym Imao, photographers and videographers Rick Rocamora, Xyza Bacani, Melvyn Calderon, Raffy Lerma, Carlo Gabuco and Patricia Evangelista, and poets Jose F. Lacaba and Marne Kilates.
On April 29, eminent writer and University of the Philippines professor Jose Y. “Butch” Dalisay Jr. delivered his keynote speech on the occasion of the 43rd Congress of UMPIL or Writers Union of the Philippines held in Ateneo de Manila University’s Rizal Library. It was titled “Literature in the Time of Tokhang.”
“The term ‘tokhang’ itself is a corrupted word, a portmanteau of the Cebuano words toktok and hangyo, or ‘knock’ and ‘plead’ — the very embodiment of courtesy and consideration, conjuring the image of a uniformed policeman, his cap in hand, knocking on the door of a suspect and politely seeking information or cooperation. In practice, tokhang has become its opposite: the gentle knock has become the kick of a booted heel, the cap a gun, and the appeal a barked command.
“As writers and storytellers, we have to marvel not only at the terminal efficiency of this process, but also at the facility with which this brief narrative arc has become a cliché — and like all clichés has left us increasingly benumbed and unsurprised. In a sense, this is the true victory of the war on drugs — the capture of the passive mind, and its habituation to systematic terror."
A writers’ forum followed that morning, billed as “Ang Papel ng Manunulat sa Panahon ng Tokhang” (The Writer’s Role in the Time of Tokhang), with panelists Mae “Juana Change” Paner, Joel Pablo Salud and Lourd de Veyra. Mae recounted how a 136-word narrative she posted on Facebook, of a young girl who had become yet another tokhang victim, had drawn instant reactions, including offers of help for the girl’s family. Many had cried over her brief retelling — which could have been about the same young girl that is the subject of the first poem in this collection, by our co-editor Gémino H. Abad.
An actress, playwright and culture activist, Mae shared many other “EJK stories.” One was about another “orphaned young girl who just kept drawing pigeons at her father’s wake, and which she repeatedly erased, and drew all over again, except that they kept getting smaller. She had also written down the names of certain policemen, which she eventually crossed out and replaced with ‘Duterte.’”
Philippines Graphic editor-in-chief and author Joel Pablo Salud raised the question of how the fanatical loyalty of those on the other side can be addressed. What he said he’s done is “write short stories that are of another time and situation, but involve conflicts similar to the common occurrence of tokhang” — such as of the Japanese occupation.
“In the battle for hearts and minds, the best route is not to trigger hostility by meeting them head-on in their turf, but to appeal to a person’s curiosity one soul at a time, but IN OUR TURF. How do we do this? By seizing these people away from their comfort zones, their ‘turf,’ and bringing them to that different place, a place only literature can create, and there challenge them to face the truth. A convergence must take place. Poets and storytellers, these masters of language and the imagination, must finally shake hands with the virtuoso of memory, the historian, and the maestro of the inquiry, the journalist. The fight we face is of such magnitude that we will need the past, the present, and the future to come together as one. Make no mistake about it. They will knock at our door. This convergence must happen, and not a minute too soon.”
Poet, musician and broadcast journalist Lourd de Veyra, in his presentation titled “Verse versus violation: Poetry's response to stranger times,” recalled the poem “Strange Fruit” by Abel Meeropol, an American Jew who published under the alias Lewis Allan, written in reaction to the lynching of two black men in Marion, Indiana, and turned into a song by Billie Holiday in 1939. Sixty years later, it was declared by Time as the “Song of the Century.”
Lourd suggested local options for our own “strange fruit.”
“Choose your image. The body as cocoon, as half-mummy. The tsinelas (slippers or flip-flops) of a fresh corpse. Items that were last held by victims, including a Barbie doll. Cheap, rusting pistols. Poems can be made with the point of view of this much-abused gun. There’s the POV of the janitor who sweeps away all the blood, the POV of a child who sees a corpse on the street for the first time, the POV of the zumba instructor for surrenderees, the POV of the duct tape, the POV of the chick scuttling above a coffin. Strange times call for strange poetry. Kung tutula, dapat may angas tayo. (Writing a poem, we need to snarl.) We go even lower, we go even weirder, we go full retard.”
He also pointed out that “indie cinema now has high tokhang content; it’s become a filmmaker’s wet dream.”
That same day, another forum took place at Ateneo’s Escaler Hall, billed as “Demokrasyang Natokhang?: Decontructing Dutertismo: Implications for Progressives.” (The first phrase means “Democracy Tokhang-ed?”) Organized by the People's Alternative Studies Center for Research and Education in Social Development (PASCRES) and co-organized by the Ateneo Center for Economic Research and Development (ACERD), it featured Commission on Human Rights chair Chito Gascon and Senator Riza Hontiveros among the speakers.
A friend who attended that forum, Tina Cuyugan, reacted to the presentations delivered in this wise:
“Get a grip on our own reactive bashing tendency; look beyond Duterte to the future Dutertismo. Look closely at each institution — Congress, the justice system, the security forces, and so on. Face our deeply ingrained cultural patterns — social and even familial — that foster and coddle the Dutertes of this world like a day-old chick. Think and act.”
Last June, the young journalist Patricia Evangelista of Rappler.com was awarded the Society of Publishers in Asia’s SOPA 2017 award in Hong Kong for Editorial Excellence in Feature Writing. This was for her coverage of Duterte’s drug war in the Philippines, as part of Rappler’s “Impunity” series that went online with photos, video and graphics.
National broadcast company ABS-CBN’s “War on Drugs: The unheard voices” also won an Excellence in Human Rights Reporting award for regional media. National broadsheet Philippine Daily Inquirer’s Raffy Lerma garnered an Excellence in Photography award for his outstanding work in documenting the drug war in the streets of Metro Manila.
As this anthology goes to press, Mae Paner has started staging her work-in-progress Tao Po, co-researched and conceptualized by her — “as character studies about the extrajudicial killings and their aftermath.” It hopes “to go a long way in helping the relatives / survivors in their quest for justice.”
Surprisingly, too, a cable TV provider, Cignal Entertainment, has helped Masque Valley Productions in coming up with an original mini-series titled “Tukhang,” in four episodes for exclusive viewing on CignalTV by July.
As expected, all our chroniclers are doing the tokhang talk.
Excellent journalism is being written. Social scientists, historians and academics are sounding alarums. Musicians are writing lyrics and making songs about all the street killings. Painters and sculptors are creating powerful protest art.
There has been a recent call for submissions for a bilingual speculative fiction cum poetry anthology with the prospective title of “Kathang Hakà: The Big Book of Fake News,” to be edited by Dean Francis Alfar, Nikki Alfar and Louie Jon. A. Sanchez.
The rationale and the call: “We live in the age of fake news and s(fake)culative reality, and find ourselves on the receiving end. So, as writers and poets, what can we do? Create our own. And if we are going to create fake news, we might as well go all out. Let’s show them the meaning of #creativeinterpretation and #symbolism, and everything else in our literary and genre toolkits. Make it hopeful or disturbing, angry or humorous, comment on political reality or subvert it altogether — it’s your take on fake news. Send us your amazing stories and poetry, in English or Filipino — but make sure there are speculative fiction elements present (fantasy, science fiction, horror, etc.). Share and share and let’s do this!”
Meanwhile, here are our poets — 65 of them in this collection, with a total of 133 poems. It took us some time to gather these, but now we join our voices with those of the rest of our fellow Filipinos who cannot abide by bloodlust.
We thank Singapore-based Filipino artist Dengcoy Miel for the cover artwork, which was originally used for the cassette album cover for rocker Tommy Tanchanco’s Twisted Red Cross label that came out in Manila in 1989.
We also thank the angels that have allowed publication of this anthology.
Our protest against the cavalier disregard of human rights and lives comes full circle — from the the long period of Ferdinand E. Marcos’ rule to what we hope to be a brief tokhang tenure by Rodrigo Roa Duterte.
Alfred A. Yuson cares about human rights as much as he recoils from abusive leaders, especially those who are arrogant, narrow-minded, foul-mouthed, obsessed with bloodlust, and think so highly of themselves just because they got a law degree and served as mayor for decades. He has authored 30 books thus far, including novels, poetry collections, short fiction, essays, children’s stories, biographies and coffee-table books, and edited various titles that include several literary anthologies. Distinctions include the Gawad Pambansang Alagad ni Balagtas from UMPIL or Writers Union of the Philippines, the Patnubay ng Sining at Kalinangan award from the City of Manila, and the SEAWrite (SouthEast Asian Writers) Award from Thai royalty for lifetime achievement. He has also been elevated to the Hall of Fame of the Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature. His poetry and prose have been translated into a dozen languages.