Published poet and activist Mark Angeles writes from Iowa. He received his 2013 Palanca award in absentia. –Webmaster’s note
Before I share with you “how I sold my soul to the devil,” let me detail what other people think about me in the last decade that I have pursued my literary writing. I have been asked a couple of times where I teach and if I am Bob Ong. It is flattering to know that people assume that I teach in college. Having the title of a professor tagged to my name yields an aura of confidence on my expertise. But no, I don’t teach in college. I don’t have MA units. And I am not Bob Ong.
Right after I turned my tassel to my left side when I received my bachelor degree in Journalism at Polytechnic University of the Philippines, Sta. Mesa, Manila, I was hired as a grade school teacher at a private school in Makati. A fresh graduate that I was, they let me handle an advisory class, take over the student publication as adviser, and coach our representative to the National Quiz Bee. Because the students were from well-off families, I had a taste of what they could offer. I begged for a sleigh after receiving Christmas gifts from my students. Little did I know that those tokens of gratitude will take their toll come deliberation of grades. So in 2002, when summer vacation came, I was at a crossroad.
I am thankful that in the same year, I found my way back to what I love best: writing and organizing. Soon after, I was elected vice president for Luzon of the College Editors Guild of the Philippines (CEGP), the largest alliance of tertiary school publications in the country. The death of a fellow guilder, Benjaline “Beng” Hernandez, the 22-year old campus journalist and human rights activist who was killed by government troops in Arakan Valley, North Cotabato, became my catalyst for going back to the fold of the national democratic movement. Since then, I have travelled around the country to lecture about journalism and literature in different universities. I was also tasked to oversee our formations and chapters in Luzon. On October 2002, I chaired the Luzonwide Lunduyan Journalism and Arts Workshop in Ateneo de Manila University (AdMU). It was made possible in partnership with the editors of Matanglawin, the official student newspaper of AdMU in the Filipino language.
Serving full-time as a national officer, I have been invited to speak at lectures and fora (one of which was to debate Senator Juan Ponce Enrile’s motive in amending Electric Power Industry Reform Act or EPIRA), facilitate workshops, and judge contests. The invitations continued to pour in even after my stint at CEGP. So for the most part, if I have the bearing of a professor, it was because of CEGP and my fellow guilders.
For some personal reason, I left CEGP before I finished my term and took the job as a corporate slave in Makati. I have worked in the BPO industry for seven years and came through dial-up, DSL, and cable accounts as a technical support representative. But my heart never left the cause. I tried to be useful as a poet—getting published in and Pinoy Weekly without asking for any honorarium, joining poetry groups like Pinoypoets, Guniguni: the absent muse, bawal_isilang_dito, and Kilometer 64 (it was the late poet and journalist Alexander Martin Remollino who invited me to the group), and engaging in theoretical discussions about politics and literature.
My fix before was to find someone in cyberspace to talk to about poetry, someone to share my poems with. And because of Pinoypoets and Guniguni, I found poetry enthusiasts like me who became my friends for years. But it was because of bawal_isilang_dito and Kilometer 64 that I was able to relive my days as a mass activist and student leader. We did not only cultivate our poems. We mulled over their raison d’etre. We took them to the streets.
In 2005, my poems have started to get anthologized in books like Sa Kabila ng Ritmo (emanilapoetry), 24/7 Walang Panahon (Philippine Collegian), Literary Apprentice (UP Writers Club), and Crowns and Oranges (Anvil Publishing).
The next year, I attended the Iligan National Writers Workshop (MSU-ITT Iligan City) and IYAS Creative National Writers Workshop (University of de la Salle-Bacolod). My name was included in the anthology Truth or Consequence (Publikasyong Iglap of Congress of Teachers and Educators for Nationalism and Democracy) as one of the contributors but my work was not there (probably the first literary desaparecidos in the industry). Publikasyong Iglap published my poem in their next anthology, Subverso: Mga Tula at Kuwento Laban sa Politikal na Pandarahas.
It was in 2006 that I have been called many names, including “gago” and “tanga.” To be exact, a multi-awarded poet said of a critical essay I wrote that year, “malikhaing kagaguhan” and “katangahan hinggil sa daloy ng kasaysayan ng panitikang Filipino.” The next year, a poet also challenged me to a fistfight because I expressed my distrust and disgust over a judge’s decision on a contest I was a part of. Three years later, that judge gave me a Palanca for my poetry suite in Filipino.
I cannot put these things behind me. In fact, I am bringing these memories to Iowa. I am aware that many established writers in the Philippines have already raised their eyebrows over the news that I am our country’s lone participant at the International Writing Program. I am also aware that this spite is not exclusively thrown in my backyard. It has happened to some of the participants in the past.
Why am I going to Iowa? I can give you my answer. But I think what some writers really wanted to know is, Why was I chosen to go to Iowa? Let me give you the news: Only the people from the International Writing Program can answer that.
So let me answer the first question. I have realized that being a participant of this country, I am representing not just my affiliation—my sentiments in connection with the national democratic movement—but also with those who oppose my views. Thus, I am representing all the Filipino writers in English, Filipino, and other languages in the Philippines. I am representing those who want to kill Pilipinas and those who want to kill Filipinas. I am representing pluralism in the literary strata of this country, historically and culturally.
I am not just representing myself as a poet, fictionist, essayist (whatever pretentions I have, as some people view it). I am going to Iowa wanting to be recognized as an activist poet (to which some people would find pretentious as well). I want to bring Andres Bonifacio to the attention of the international scene. I am not a scholar, going there to pursue career advancement. I left the Philippines with no plan of advancing my own career other than volunteering for Kilometer 64 and Karapatan, a human rights alliance; continue my lectures in universities which had already sent their invitation prior to my flight; and, hopefully distribute books for free.
The first thing that crossed my mind when I received the news from Tony Perez, the cultural affairs specialist of the US Embassy in Manila, was the word “pensionados.” Around that time, I was doing a research on the migration of Filipino workers in Hawaii. The aspirations of those workers were essentially the same as the pensionados who went to the U.S. ahead of them—it was the American dream. When the workers arrived in Hawaii, they realized that they were exploited like they were slaves.
My first encounter with “Iowa” was from a short bio of Rolando Tinio whose poems I loved. The last time I saw it (before I submitted my requirements to the U.S. Embassy in Manila), it was attached to Gelacio “Chong Gelas” Guillermo’s name. Chong Gelas is famous for his critique “Espasol versus Nilupak”[1] and his reply to Eugene Gloria’s tirade, “To Gellacio Guillermo in Iowa City.”[2] Kilometer 64 bestowed the honor Makata ng Bayan on him. I have encountered some notes about Fulbright scholars as well but these things don’t have luster to me. In fact, I never imagined to travel anywhere outside of the Philippines before the opportunity came. I only applied for a passport because it was needed for the international writing program.
A self-proclaimed poet activist whose expenses in Iowa was partially funded by the US Embassy in Manila—it looks like I have sold my soul to the devil—a paradox. I will probably collect name-callings again. I have nothing to prove to you other than my corpus of works and awards, my sympathy to the oppressed, and my poor English. Let me tell you though that I have brought key chains made by political prisoners in our country. I will give them to each participant in the program not just as a token of friendship, but as a confirmation that, yes, we have not yet attained lasting peace and justice in the Philippines; and, yes, we are steadfast in fighting for our basic economic and political rights. I know that I have brought the kindheartedness of my friends and family, but I hope I have also carried with me the respect of my enemies.