“It should be emphasized … that the balagtasan also served a higher social and political function. More than mere entertainment, it enhanced the tradition role of the poet as purveyor of truth for the people.” — Virgilio S. Almario, “Art and Politics in the Balagtasan” (2003).

I understand that real balagtaseros are expected to be in attendance in this coming Filipino American International Book Festival. I am looking for evidence of English balagtasan (and tanaga, while I’m at it) — poems, recordings, scholarly writings, that I could add to my Philippine/Filipino American Literature syllabus. I don’t like that limiting the course to English language literature must necessarily exclude balagtasan! I also think that in teaching contemporary Philippine/Filipino American spoken word, i.e. oral poetics, today’s slam and the MC (emcee), I must first talk about oral tradition and the history of performance/performative poetry as pertains to Filipinos. To be consistent, I include modern day storytelling, selections from Rebecca Mabanglo-Mayor’s Pause Mid-Flight chapbook and CD, so we can also talk about modern indigeneity/Filipino American linkages to Native American stories.

I have also excerpted the above two sentences in Almario’s paper, so that I could make a connection with what went down at last week’s Maganda magazine poetry workshop at UC Berkeley. So the students were mostly women, and they were great, sharp, enthusiastic, articulate. One thing that we kept coming back to was the responsibility of the poet, and really, the responsibility of all of us who use language, to use language carefully, deliberately.

A poem is a concise, efficient means of communication, a resistance against the colonizer’s grammar (Sean Labrador y Manzano was also in the house, and offered up that definition). So I like using Saul Williams’s essay, “the future of language,” because he talks about language and potential, sounds of words, and the spiritual significance of these to us as “beings of sound”; to me this speaks of the poem approaching prayer, of its music being more than just something you nod your head to, but also being important to what the poem means to say. Also, I think he says in accessible ways what the consequences of misused or unimaginative language can be: “in other words, niggas have come up with amazing ways to talk about the same ol’ shit. problem is, when we recite the same ol’ shit into microphones which increase sound vibration the same ol’ shit continues to manifest in our daily lives, and only gets more deeply embedded.”

I am wary of this when selecting which poetry to use for creative writing workshops. How do poems like Miguel Piñero’s “The Book of Genesis According to St. Miguelito,” and R. Zamora Linmark’s “They Like You Because You Eat Dog,” relate to the above Williams statement. Or better yet, do they surpass, even transcend what’s happening in that statement? The discussions surrounding these two poems was very satisfying, because we could talk about blight, racism, ghettos, poverty, colonial mentality, which are much needed conversations. And we didn’t stay stuck there. The poems offer us something more that the “same ol’ shit.” It could be in the extreme clarity of image, it could be in the tone, aggressive, fortified with irony. I read these poems as challenges to our complacency.

Regarding another poem we discussed, Emmanuel Lacaba’s “Open Letters to Filipino Artists,” this is more easily read as in line with Williams, or Williams is more in line with Lacaba — poets, artists, do good with your words. Get out of your comfy coteries, your cute little bohemia, envision something else, and affect change. “These are words I manifest” (Guru). So a lot of our conversation was about the social responsibilities of the poet. “A poet must also learn how to lead an attack” (Ho Chi Minh). Lacaba opens his poem with this epigraph, and so we have to think about those attacks, what we need in order to lead an attack, what it even means to lead an attack, and what is an effective attack. I think maybe this is how we can discuss these three poems, as leading attacks.


2 thoughts on ““poet as purveyor of truth for the people” (balagtasan, maganda, political poetry)

  • March 14, 2011 at 1:47 pm

    dear barbara,

    i wish i could’ve been there for this discussion! as always, i’m glad you wrote about it here, for everyone.

    williams’ “the future of language” and Piñero’s “The Book of Genesis According to St. Miguelito” create and/or reposition mythologies on poetry, sound, community. i think that mythology-making is an important part of “inventing language” on histories, ancestors, songs that have been forced out of “textbook” history. you do this beautifully with DIWATA. i don’t know if i see these texts as “leading attacks” but more as building worlds.

    do you have a copy of emmanuel lacaba’s “open letter to filipino artists”?

    thanks again, barbara!


    • March 14, 2011 at 1:53 pm

      Thanks Rachelle! 1st, here’s the Lacaba poem: http://www.philippinerevolution.net/cgi-bin/kultura/str.pl?i=050

      Also, yes on building worlds. I use the “attack” because of Lacaba’s poem. Maybe leading an attack is the more aggressive way of saying that the status quo and complacency to it is challenged by these works’ mythology building and language inventing. That we can take it into our own hands is profound, and can be potentially radical.

      Yes, I would’ve loved to have you in this discussion!


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