A Year of a Hundred Little Steps

Kiel Mark Guerrero, a nineteen-year-old college student, leans close to the microphone and tells the audience, “The title of my poem is ‘Carinderia.’” It must be about promiscuity, I think right away. It must be about someone who entertains suitors and lovers the way a cheap eatery caters to everyone who wants to eat. Guerrero, after all, a regular in local spoken word events, is known for pieces that are by turns dramatic, amusing, and suggestive.

The poem starts with a mother, not a lover: Nakahilera / Ang mga putaheng luto ni ina / Para sa pananghalian / Sa harap ng aming munting tindahan. In the next lines, the mother remains the focus of the poem: Si inay / Binubugaw / Ang mga langaw. I wait for the transition to, or appearance of, the narrator’s lover, and Guerrero continues: Si inay / Binubugaw ang mga batang hamog / Na pinipilit makisalo / At paulit-ulit nanghihingi ng dalawang limang piso. I can’t believe what I’m hearing. Guerrero is talking about street children begging for food and money. He’s not talking about love and promiscuity. The poem, apparently, is a poem about social issues and not the typical hugot—sentimental spoken word pieces about unrequited love or failed relationships—that I expected from the young poet.

The whole evening, and not just Guerrero’s performance, was a surprise to me. When the three-hour Hugot sa Kalye ended, I noted that seven of the fifteen performers, or nearly half, had non-hugot poems. Gabrielle Corine Torato opened the event with a poem about suicide and depression. Aldrick Lawrence Velasco followed her with a poem about nature and salvation. Dan Zapanta Rivera, like Guerrero, dared the audience to take a stand on political issues. And John Efrael Igot, Justice Jelojos, and Iris Saqueño spoke about language and nationalism. This is a far cry from one year ago, in Hugot Marbel, the first spoken word event in the city. In that event, all of the nearly twenty open mic performers, including Guerrero, talked about their crushes who ignored them, their boyfriends or girlfriends who did not value them, and their exes who had hurt them.

There is nothing wrong, of course, with writing about love—ah, love is a wondrous thing to feel and share about with others—but definitely, it is not healthy if all young writers, spoken word poets or otherwise, write about the same thing and in the same way. While my co-organizers and I label most of our poetry events “Hugot” to attract as much audience as the venue can accommodate, we always share our own non-hugot writings, and we have been hoping for (not imposing on) the open mic performers to explore themes other than the usual. Now many of them do, by their own decision or influenced by the literary writings they’ve been exposed to. Their definition of love has expanded from romantic to patriotic. The purpose of their poems is evolving from self-expression to social action.

Helping some spoken word artists become woke, as evident in Hugot sa Kalye, is one of the many things that we are proud to have accomplished and to be celebrating this month, the first anniversary of Cotabato Literary Journal. This online publication was launched in Hugot Marbel, and as I stated in the introduction to the maiden issue, the publication and the poetry event are “intertwined.” Both are part of “a literary wave . . . surging across the region.” Allow me now to recall what has transpired between Hugot Marbel and Hugot sa Kalye.

In its first twelve issues, Cotabato Literary Journal featured seventy-seven works from forty writers in the region, plus a profile of essayist Noel Pingoy by Kloyde Caday. Some of the literary works, especially the award-winning ones from established writers, had been published before. We included them in this journal because they deserve to be accessed more easily by readers in the region. We also published award-winning works that had not appeared in other publications—the play “Killing the Issue” by Karlo Antonio David, the story “Day of Mourning” by Jude Ortega, and the Hiligaynon story “Paborito ni Daddy” by Nal Andrea Jalando-on. Except for the first two issues, most of the works that appeared in this journal were published for the first time. One of them, “A Portrait of a Young Man as a Banak” by Jade Mark Capiñanes, which appeared in the January 2017 issue, eventually won the third prize in the Essay category of the 2017 Don Carlos Palanca Annual Memorial Awards.

This journal has so far lived up to its mission to be “a repository of the best works that writers from Cotabato Region have produced and a showcase as well of their best new works.” We are careful with our decisions, however. We do not want to be purveyors of elitism that seems to pervade the Philippine literary community. We welcomed writers who had not been published, most notably, Alvin Pomperada, Doren John Bernasol, Mariz Leona, Michael John Otanes, Hannah Adtoon Leceña, and John Gied Calpotura. We published each of them more than once. They are students or were still students when their bylines first appeared in this journal. And to further democratize literature, we created last month the Facebook page Sulat SOX, which aims to be a supplement to Cotabato Literary Journal. The page features shorter works.

Several editors worked for free to keep Cotabato Literary Journal running: Saquina Karla Guiam (September 2016–August 2017), Jude Ortega (September 2016–February 2017), Paul Randy Gumanao (March 2017–August 2017), Andrea Lim (June 2017–August 2017), and Jade Mark Capiñanes (June 2017–August 2017). Blaise Francisco of General Santos City, now based somewhere in Europe, takes care of the expenses for the domain name and hosting of this journal’s website.

To discover more voices, we organized province-wide writing contests, and although no winner and finalists were declared for the South Cotabato Poetry Contest, the results were encouraging in the two others. John Gied Calpotura, a high school student in Tacurong City, won the Sultan Kudarat Flash Fiction Contest. The three flash fictions that were selected as finalists turned out to be all his, and the prize was given to “Shoebox,” which appeared in the July 2017 issue of this journal. Spencer Pahang, a senior high school student in Kidapawan City, won the Cotabato Province Essay Contest, and his piece, “Better this Way,” was published in the August 2017 issue of this journal. Mayamen Hashmin, a college student, and Ira Shayne Salvaleon, a senior high school student, were the other finalists.

To help aspiring writers hone their skills and to help students become more familiar with local literature, we conducted workshops and seminars. With Generoso Opulencia, an award-winning and multilingual local poet, we organized the South Cotabato Poetry Workshop in Refuge Café in Koronadal City. The workshop ran for three hours every Saturday from October to November 2016. Opulencia mentored the ten participants for free. With Erwin Cabucos, an award-winning short story writer who grew up in Kabacan and is now living in Australia, we organized the Cotabato Province Creative Writing Seminar on April 10, 2017. Cabucos, along with four local writers, gave free lectures to more than a hundred students of the University of Southern Mindanao. With the help of Michael Angelo Yambok, a coordinator of the National Commission on Culture and the Arts, we organized Smulat: Short Story Writing Workshop for Teens on June 2–3, 2017, in SLT Homestay in Lake Sebu, South Cotabato. Seven local writers mentored the twelve participants. Sharmin Tanael’s “Kukum,” one of the best output of the workshop, appears in the current issue of this journal.

Four award-winning writers from outside the region granted our invitations to share their knowledge with us. Jose Victor Peñaranda, a poet who has worked in many countries, visited General Santos City on December 16, 2016, and gave a private lecture to several local writers in Hotel San Marco. Wilfredo Pascual, an essayist who lives in the United States, gave a talk at the SM Activity Center in General Santos City on February 20, 2017. Manuel Avenido Jr., a fictionist who writes in Cebuano, met with local writers in Namnam Restobar in General Santos City on May 14, 2017, for an interview and a poetry reading. Edgar Calabia Samar, a poet and novelist who writes in Filipino, gave a lecture at Mindanao State University in General Santos City on August 24, 2017, and at St. Alexius College in Koronadal City, South Cotabato, on August 26, 2017.

Spurred by an invitation to the 3rd Iloilo Zine Fest on August 26–27, 2017, we created several zines. David Jayson Oquendo edited Pioneer, which contains works by ten young writers from General Santos City, and Alvin Pomperada and Hannah Adtoon Leceña edited Alaala ng Paglimot, which contains spoken word poems from twelve writers in the region. Individual zines include Paul Randy Gumanao’s Hiwalayan, Andrea D. Lim’s So Far, Princess Alilaya Plang’s Ikaw, Ako, at Pag-ibig, and Jude Ortega’s Mga Kuwentong Peysbuk.

We’ve been using different approaches and platforms to help promote and develop local literature, but we are known most for our Hugot spoken word events, and other writers have been throwing shade on us for catering to popular taste. We are unapologetic about it. We do not want to shape local literature according to the standards and whims of the literati. We are not looking for talents who can make it to national writers workshops, win literary awards, or be published by mainstream and university presses. (Although if that happens, we will be glad.) What we want is for the people in our region to read our own writers and for our writers to write about our region. If Manila and other regions like Cotabato writing, it should be because Cotabato writing is distinct, not because it suits their taste. And if the best way to achieve this goal is by using the popularity of hugot, then use the popularity of hugot we will. We have to start somewhere.

On September 2, 2016, we conducted Hugot Marbel at 99 Brewery in Koronadal City, South Cotabato. On the 30th of the same month, we conducted Hugot Tacurong at Woodland Restobar in Tacurong City, Sultan Kudarat, and on the 20th of the following month, we conducted Hugot Kidapawan at Porticus Restobar in Kidapawan City, Cotabato Province. We organized two more spoken word events in Sultan Kudarat—Hugot Isulan in the capital town on December 2, 2016, and Hugot Kulaman in Senator Ninoy Aquino on February 14, 2017, during the municipality’s foundation anniversary celebration. The two events, sponsored by the local governments and held in front of the municipal halls, were staged as contests. Gerlie Cariño, Bryant Lee Morales, and Hanna Mae Bautista won the first, second, and third prizes, respectively, in Hugot Isulan. Jeraicca Keith Facturanan, Chem Aubrey Tanquerido, and Jonary Dejongoy won the first, second, and third prizes, respectively, in Hugot Kulaman.

On July 9, 2017, in partnership with the Provincial Tourism Council of South Cotabato and in celebration of the province’s foundation anniversary, we conducted Hugot Tnalak at the parking area of South Cotabato Sports Complex, along Alunan Avenue, in Koronadal City. So many performers registered that we had to organize a second part of the event on July 16, 2017, this time in partnership with 99 Brewery. The council again invited us in its celebration of Tourism Month, so we conducted Hugot sa Kalye on September 10, 2017, in the same venue as the first Hugot Tnalak. Whenever the Hugot event was held in a restobar, the venue would always be filled to overflowing, and the size of the crowd never failed to amaze us even if we had seen it time and again.

We had traditional, intimate poetry readings, of course. When the South Cotabato Poetry Workshop ended, on November 19, 2016, we conducted Poetry Jam at Refuge Café. For Bonifacio Day on November 30, 2016, we conducted Para kay Boni at 99 Brewery in General Santos City on the eve of the celebration and then Pag-ibig sa Tinubuang Lupa at Refuge Café and iRock Café in Koronadal City on the day of the celebration itself. On April 30, 2017, the eve of Labor Day, we conducted Night Shift in Namnam Restobar in General Santos City.

For us to manage well our activities, we selected interim officers for areas that our network has reached. In Cotabato Province, Kloyde Caday served as chairperson and Ericka Jan Gadat as secretary. In Sultan Kudarat, Adonis Hornoz served as chairperson, Jude Ortega as vice chairperson, and Trexie Gina Salmeo Sy as secretary. In South Cotabato, Ruben Castañares III served as chairperson, Louie Pacardo as vice chairperson, and Rose Vannelou Ramos as secretary. In General Santos City, Saquina Karla Guiam served as chairperson and Jade Mark Capiñanes as secretary. We did some reshuffling recently to keep the local associations dynamic. Also with us in our activities were David Jayson Oquendo, Rossel Audencial, Jesse Angelo Altez, Ken Rix Baldoza, Genory Vanz Alfasain, Alvin Pomperada, Michael Suplaag, and Jim Raborar. Lastly, I would be remiss if I failed to mention the elder writers who had been patient with and supportive of us—Noel Pingoy, Gilbert Tan, Generoso Opulencia, Rita Gadi, Estrella Taño Golingay, and Rufa Cagoco Guiam.

Even if the activities were held in specific areas, the writers of the other areas almost always helped out. We moved as a region. We took the steps together, so even if they were little steps, they accumulated and amounted to a leap.

Kiel Mark Guerrero’s “Carinderia” gets overtly political as it further unfolds. An unusual customer arrives. His clothes are formal and immaculate (Nakasuot ng puting barong / Walang bahid ng mantsa ng kasinungalingan / Puro papuri’t kalinisan). The reference for me is clear. The man is a politician from Mindanao who shookt imperial Manila with his overwhelming victory in the national elections, due largely to his reputation for being incorruptible and his promise of true change. Soon, for the narrator of the poem, as it has been for the country, the impressive man does something sinister (Inani pati ang aking respeto / Hanggang siya’y nagturo).

The man points at several dishes on display, and the poem gets grimmer and grimmer, until the man points at the literally bloody dish that no doubt fits his appetite most: At itinuro mo ang dinuguan / Ano’ng nangyari sa Perlas ng Silangan? . . . Nagdanak sa bawat sulok ang dugo / Itinapon ang mga katawan sa lahat ng dako. The man, though, is far from finished. He points at the father of the house ultimately, accusing him of possessing prohibited drugs: Si itay / Nakuhaan daw siya ng bato. And the narrator cries against the selective justice: Doon ka magturo sa mamahaling kainan / Doon naman nababagay ang iyong kasuotan. The poem ends with a hackneyed saying that now becomes layered given the context: Pakakatandaan mo, sa bawat pagturo ng iyong hintuturo, mas maraming daliri ang bumabalik sa ’yo.

The poem is dark, and made darker by the fact that it is a reflection of our current reality. We are ruled by a mad man, and we are living in a divided land. Our bodies are fired up, but our souls are lost. It’s ironic, though. While the poem reminds me that the pall of gloom on our streets gets thicker by the day, it gives me hope. It’s a ray of light.


Jude Ortega
Koronadal City, South Cotabato