By Alvin Dacanay
Originally published by The Manila Times with the url
Fifty-four writers won in the 68th Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature earlier this month. Of that number, nearly half—26—have won before, clear proof that they continue to fulfill the potential that they showed when they first scored a Palanca, or even long before that. The Literary Life is delighted that, among this year’s previous awardees, three are recent contributors to this page.
One of them is playwright Allan B. Lopez, whose 2014 Palanca award-winning essay about his mother, “Return Flight,” saw print here in late May. This year, he placed third in the one-act play in Filipino category for “River Lethe,” which has two cancer patients having an affair and dealing with their mortality in between bouts of sex—the ultimate life-creating act—in a motel room.
Named after a mythical underworld river that causes forgetfulness, “River Lethe” won positive reviews when it was staged in the 14th Virgin Labfest at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) earlier this year. It is Lopez’s 11th creative work recognized at the Palancas. His other winning plays include “Higit Pa Dito” in 2010, “Masaganang Ekonomiya” in 2008 and “Anatomiya ng Pag-ibig” in 2004.
The dramatist describes “River Lethe” to Literary Life in an email as a “spiritual play” that ruminates on “mortality, passion, regret at dahas ng panahon.”
According to Lopez, he first thought of writing the play to the sound of a bell pealing while having coffee in a public plaza one afternoon in Luxembourg. He was told that the bell tolled every 3 p.m. for a minute, and noted that as it did people seemed to be following its rhythm as if it was the natural thing to do.
After it stopped tolling, while the world continued on its normal course of business, it seemed that something was cut in the scene that those who did not listen failed to notice, Lopez said in Filipino.
That was when my two characters—drowning in a “very private turmoil”—were born, he added.
It took the playwright more than a year to plan the play’s structure, and wrote it in one night after figuring out exactly what to do. The pattern was repeated after he had the play critiqued during a reading session of the Manila-based playwrights’ group Writer’s Bloc Inc., of which he is a longtime member.
Female experience
In contrast, poet Mark Angeles did the research for and penned his 14-poem collection “Ang Babae sa Balangiga at Iba Pang Tula” for about two months. For his efforts, he snagged second prize in the poetry in Filipino category this year. It is his fourth win, after “Engkantado” in 2010, “Asal-Hayop” in 2013 and “Di Lang Lalang” in 2016.
Angeles—whose poems “Distant Explosion,” “Buwan ng Wika” and “Where We Are” were published here within the last three months—calls his latest collection “an attempt at asserting the possibility of writing the biological and historical female experience in my capacity as a male poet.”
“I heard from somewhere that male writers have no right to write about female concerns, like menstruation and childbirth, simply because they cannot go through the pains and joys of these experiences. I wrote about these encounters in the first person in my poems,” said the 38-year-old, a senior high school teacher at Caloocan City’s Notre Dame of Greater Manila.
The poet quickly pointed out, however, that he “did not intend to antagonize women. Instead, the collection is my solidarity message, a celebration of womanhood, in a sense.”
“I want everyone to read about how women struggle as human—how they discover the functions of their bodies—and as part of society and history,” Angeles said.
Although he is yet to find time to gather his winning poems in a book, Angeles said some of the poems from “Ang Babae sa Balangiga” will appear in the University of the Philippines’ Institute of Creative Writing’s 12th issue of Likhaan: The Journal of Contemporary Philippine Literature and the [email protected] special commemorative anthology. Both will be released later this year.
Constructing the self
If women’s experiences inspired Angeles’ collection, art inspired Rodrigo dela Peña Jr.’s first-placing English poetry collection, “Self-portrait with Plastic Bag,” in which he said he “became interested in exploring how a sense of self is constructed and how it may, in turn, be deconstructed through a poem.”
“I remember being enthralled by Georgette Chen’s Self-Portrait when I first saw it at the National Gallery of Singapore. The painting’s quiet confidence spoke to me and seemed to be telling me something,” dela Peña said.
“But I was also inspired by ordinary things, such as a plastic bag (a nod to the film American Beauty) and a carpenter’s tools. It’s a matter of being open and alert to poetic possibilities that might unfold,” he added.
According to the 36-year-old, who works as a project manager in a Singaporean events company, it took him about a year to finish “Self-portrait” while preoccupied with other writing projects.
“I do prefer to take my time when writing a poem and I’ve never written a complete poem in just one sitting, so one year to complete this suite of poems sounds about right,” he said.
Dela Peña’s latest win came after he nabbed third prize in 2015 for the now-published Aria and Trumpet Flourish and second prize last year for “Blood Compact,” both in the poetry in English category.
It also came three months after his Noli Me Tangere-inspired collection, “Tangere,” was named a finalist in Singapore’s Gaudy Boy Poetry Book Prize. Another Singapore-based Filipino poet, Lawrence L. Ypil, won that award in August.
Literary Life published three poems from that collection—“Correspondence,” “Exchanges” and “In the Woods”—in the last three months.
As for the poems in “Self-portrait,” some will see print in the forthcoming Likhaan journal, while a few others were already featured in other publications. The collection’s opening poem, “You Did Not Ask to be Born,” is published here for the first time.
As the winning works of Lopez, Angeles and dela Peña, and those of the rest of this year’s Palanca awardees prove, Philippine literature continues to flourish in ways both expected and unexpected. That they continue to be recognized should encourage other writers, especially aspiring ones, to follow their example and persevere in the literary life. For most, if not all of them, it is a life like no other.