At the PEN Confy
Writing Underground: A Personal Account
By Mila D. Aguilar
Philippine PEN Annual Conference
4/F Cultural Center of the Philippines
December 6, 2008
Writing about writing underground is not easy. First, it comes with a gamut of emotions, some of which I may not have worked out yet, despite these thirty to forty intervening years. Second, I have not asked others who wrote in the same circumstances, and since we never composed collectively, I am forced to tell you only about my personal experiences.
My ambition to become a writer started when I was six years old, after my indulgent mother proudly showed my Grade 1 teacher a book about rabbits I had both written and drawn, a product of my enthusiasm over having just learned how to write. It was on a grade school pad, over which I placed a blue cartolina cover. The teacher, whom I would see later in life to be a homely little woman walking about our village good-naturedly, asked me the very first profound question I have ever been asked in my life:
“Do you want to be a writer like your father?”
I had not known before then that my father was a writer. I knew he was an educator, and he was always behind a desk, pen, and later typewriter, before him, but the idea sounded good, since my father was the family idol, the best father and husband and provider and teacher and public servant there could ever be.
So I answered “Yes,” and that sealed my fate.
But the writing itself would take a long time in coming. I would discover later that my father had written only one novel entitled The Great Faith, and that, aside from it, his writings were essays about his educational experiments in the community school and the use of the vernacular in teaching. I don’t know how it came about that I wanted to become a creative writer, but by the time I was in high school, I would lie on my father’s lazy boy in our covered, screened patio for hours, trying to cook up a story.
All to no avail. The stories would fizzle out even before they were formed, like eggs impervious to the flirtations of six billion spermatozoa. In time, I would conclude that my sheltered, overprotected petty bourgeois life just did not provide the material for the stories I needed. But looking back, I could now see that from the start, I saw life as a continuum, a story that has no end, one that could not be fitted into a defined form such as the modern short story of Edgar Allan Poe or the novel a la Karamazov.
So I started to write poems, which distilled precious moments in time, but only those moments in time, and nothing else.
I was in my third or fourth year in high school when I wrote my first poem. It was about God and godding -- a condemnation of the petulance of the arrogant, which I hate up to now, and hopefully haven’t imbibed. It is still one of my favorite themes, worked out in many ways throughout these past forty-five years.
At the same time, however, I got the hang of writing essays, having been assigned Editor-in-Chief of the high school paper. And before graduation I got hung up enough about writing to note in our graduation album that my ambition in life was to become “A great writer.”
But writing was a painful act for me then, the words grinding out by the hour.
I became a little more fecund in college, when my boyfriend then, Bayani Aguirre (who I hear is now sick with cancer), cut apart a poem I wanted to submit to the Philippine Collegian. It was his instruction in the art of writing poetry, aside from other things, that taught me most. At the same time, exposure to literary appreciation via Concepcion Dadufalza deepened my grasp of the artistic and scientific in literature -- indeed the dialectic of literature, the dialectic of life, and yes, the dialectic of society. But finally, it was Francisco Arcellana’s non-teaching of poetry that taught me how to appreciate poetry most.
Fecund as I was then, however, I did not want to end up like our poetic geniuses in U.P., suicides or has-beens before they turned 30. I knew that what had stopped them, or killed them, was mainly a dried-up pen. And I knew that the pen dried up when experiences stopped flowing.
I remember going to the U.P. Writers’ Workshop in Iloilo in 1969, riding big waves on a big banca with other writers, Ninotchka Rosca screaming nervously while Jun Lansang, madness overcoming him, walked on the ballast, fell into the sea, and almost drowned. Through all that I was laughing out the madness, self-absorbed, certain that the waves would not kill me, just as certain that no one was going to be killed then. Forty years later, just a week or so ago, Linda Ty-Casper wrote me that she and her husband Len were in that banca, in that same workshop, where she could remember Ninotchka, Jun, Eman Lacaba, and Offie Gelvezon (whose family, she said, were our hosts). But she could not remember me.
Nor, for that matter, could I remember Eman being there, though I have memories of meeting him in U.P. Diliman and welcoming him to Mindanao years later, where unfortunately he met his death. And neither could I remember the Caspers!
But why that graphic memory of the banca and the almost-drowning, which no one seemed to care to write about? Because that was essentially what the life of the poet and writer was then -- just a series of self-absorbed experiences, with no rhyme or reason, signifying nothing. It was not the material for great writing.
The material, I knew instinctively from high school and my father’s life, was in commitment to the nation, to a cause, to the people, no matter how formless these still were in my mind.
Getting there was just as vague to me as the material itself was. But in 1967 I did get a fleeting vision of it while marching through the Quiapo bridge with several tens of thousands, on the way to the Manila Hotel for Marcos’ summit with Lyndon B. Johnson. I thought to myself then, looking through the numbers I was marching with, “One of these days I will organize something like this.”
And so the times swept me off my feet, and I swam on its waves. By March 1971, now a fairly established U.P. and national magazine writer, I was already underground.
I had written a handful of “radical” poems before I went underground, but they felt academic, anemic, detached from the everyday feel of life, examples of these being “Sarimanok,” “Marching Through the Flood” and “To a Fellow Traveller Who Insists on Roses.”
It was when I went underground that I began to write my most powerful poems. Woven into three years of being cooped up doing next to nothing (except writing for Ang Bayan or printing books of Mao Tsetung or helping hew the Basic Party Course) in a battery of rented houses in Metro Manila, these poems -- “Damn the Dictatorship,” “Poem from Sierra Madre,” “Ang Senyora Lucretiang Mapagkawanggawa,” “Kumander Dante, Head of the New People’s Army,” “Linyang Pangmasa,” “My Son Asks,” “Kuyakoy,” to name a few -- began to express the sentiments of an age, a generation, an oppressed nation, and therefore gained currency with the times.
It was because I was there, in the midst of it, fully committed, risking my life, embracing and embraced by a great cause, cooped up in rented houses most of the time, true, but driving through dangerous checkpoints and entering and leaving guerrilla zones in the mountains at least at the outset, and sleeping on the mud-packed floor of a rat-infested urban poor house even just once, big rats fording the gutter above my head.
The poems became more concrete and more romantic when my husband and I reached Mindanao in 1974, and I was left in the cities to re-organize all of the urban areas of Mindanao. For the first time, I was able to live with the people in their own houses, these ranging from the middle classes to the urban poor, getting to know them in closer quarters than ever before. I went in and out of the mountains and guerrilla zones at least five times in both Mindanao and Luzon, and I was once narrowly arrested, and shot at while running away, together with my husband, in the five-year period from 1974-79.
None of the poems in this period reveal these actual circumstances, for I would have become a security risk if they did, but the immediacy is increasingly felt in such titles as “To a Beloved Friend, On Parting,” which was written after our boat trip from Manila to Ozamis in late 1974; “The Song of Revolution,” which was written in Iligan after my husband left for the boondocks; and “The Movement is Everywhere.” But the real tears would come with “To a Foreigner,” written after receipt of a critique by a foreign reviewer sent to me secretly by my brother-in-law Epifanio San Juan Jr., when I had not yet fully recovered from the shock of unknowingly sending a young lawyer to his death in the mountains of Davao Oriental.
And so the poems flowed on, ever more easily, with the likes of “For Nelia” and “A Comrade is as Precious as a Rice Seedling,” the tenets of poetry I had learned in the University of the Philippines from my most able teachers finding full praxis in the midst of the organizing work I did in Mindanao.
It may be worth noting that during my Mindanao period I also wrote three full-blown tracts, which hopefully did the revolutionary mass movement some good, if not the Communist Party to which I then belonged. These were “Strengthen the Party Committee System” (December 1975), “Building the Regional United Front Commission for Mindanao” (September 1977), and “Grasp the Principle of Revolutionary Mass Movements” (January 1978).
It is also worth noting that when I returned to Manila in December of 1979, once again enclosed in rented houses though not as cloistered this time, I almost lost my poetic touch. Except for “Pall Hanging Over Manila,” which I wrote almost in a state of depression right after seeing Manila enveloped in dark pollution while on a PAL flight from Cebu, and “Fireflies,” which came right after the first and only Central Committee meeting I attended as an alternate member, the poems I wrote in this period were again detached from the feel of life, the vibrancy of living with the masses.
Indeed, the period after “Fireflies” was one of increasing depression. The Central Committee meeting I attended late in 1980 was an eye-opener for me; the principles of the united front and democratic centralism which I had long held and even, I had hoped, helped develop, were demolished in one fell swoop by the then Chairman, who was not Joma Sison. This Chairman chose for the working class not to trust anyone but the poorest of the poor peasants; a paranoid, cloak-and-dagger revolution, held together by the tightest of centralisms, was what he seemed to me to desire.
I started thinking about resigning but held on for three more years. It was during this period that I wrote, with heavy heart, “The People’s Poem,” the first part of which lamented,
When two hands tug
at a thin, worn string,
sometime it’s bound to snap.
After weekends, we tie it up again,
until the growing knot itself
becomes the breaking point.
Then something snaps forever.
Dammed up rivers stay quiet
as long as they have streams to flow
but when the storms come,
the overflow can be so
that even thick concrete comes crashing,
unleashing torrents unimagined heretofore.
Strings snap, but dams do more.
I also began to toy with the idea that those who believed in God were exactly the same as those who believed in the proletariat, in a poem entitled “God and the Proletariat,” written shortly before I was arrested, while I was working under an assumed name at St. Joseph’s College, now totally resigned and cut off from the Communist Party I had once loved.
My period of depression would extend to the period of 1984-86, the years of my imprisonment, and even after, from 1986 to 1989. It was only in 1990, having finally found my own personal, limitless, non-judgmental God in the person of Jesus Christ, that my poetry assumed a boundless joy and joie de vivre I have never before known.
I have written about 150 more poems since, unpublished in book form, but some of which have been distributed widely over the Internet. Where my first full collection and sixth book of poems came under the title Journey: An Autobiography in Verse, a title suggested by Franz Arcellana, who took a year to write his one-page introduction, this second full collection and seventh book of poems will come under the title Chronicle of a Life Foretold, with apologies to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, of course.
The titles Journey, Chronicle, Autobiography, and Life, are apt. Though some of my poems may be able to stand alone, they hang together more as a continuing life story, an endless voyage of transformation, an interminable search for meaning and perfection. That is why I have made it a point, since putting together Journey -- without initially knowing it -- to put a date on each and every one of my poems. For they constitute a testimony of my dialectic with my nation and my Maker, that dialectic leading to the now foreseeable establishment of the Kingdom of God.
And so, after all, I did not really have to be a story-teller, because my life was the story itself. Yet for all that, I feel it has been inadequately told, so one of these days, I will yet make a novel of it.
And that is a threat, not a promise.*
* Nota bene: This is a literary device, not a statement of intention to inflict damage on anyone who may have been part of my life at any point. I am as gentle and understanding in my writing as I am in person. ;)