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Sensing and Reading Bikol Poetry: The Himati Project

With “General Borja” also on a lockdown, I decided to call up Jimmy Fabregas one day. That General has occupied the Bikolano actor’s life for a long time, but this time we wanted him, Jaime Fabregas, the Bikolano, to read for us poems written by three noted poets from the region.

We were about to venture into a project, one that was born out of isolation. The entire Luzon was in full quarantine. The world was coming to a halt, it seems, but this does not mean art and Art should cease. The dark ages for all its ideological and metaphorical shadows had monks who produced arts that illumined.

We could look for monks and we could outsource monasteries, couldn’t we. That “monk” was Kristian Cordero. He brooded and brooded and came up with what seemed then a simple project. Through Messenger, he asked me what I think if we asked celebrities to read Bikol poems. The idea of “well-known” personalities to lend their voices to what Bikolano writers had written was really a continuation of one of the goals of Savage Mind, the cultural hub and maverick bookstore set up by Kristian, to popularize reading literature.

Things went fast. Kristian drafted a rationale for the project. We thought of people to call. Jimmy Fabregas was first in the list. The Ateneo de Naga High School graduate of 1965 had always been generous with his presence in the many collaborations we had under the Ateneo de Naga Center for Culture and the Arts, ran by Noel Volante and of which Kristian and I were part and in the projects of the Institute of Bikol History and Culture, which I headed as a director until my departure, and the Ateneo de Naga University Press, where Kristian remains the Deputy Director.

True enough, even before the details of the project were emailed to Jimmy, the popular actor had already agreed to our invite. Jaime Fabregas would be reading Bikol poems!

There were no rules except for one thing: the selection of poems would come from Kristian. There was another informal agreement: I would be the talent coordinator, the one to contact our readers.

With both Kristian and I used to disputing each other as to poetics and other forms of valuation, it was a surprise that we smoothly agreed on the first three poems, and the poets from which those treasures came, to sally forth for the first edition. One was Luis Dato, a pre-war writer who was part of a small group of masters that included Angela Manalang-Gloria and Jose Garcia-Villa. Dato would be joined in by New York-based Luis Cabalquinto whose roots are in Magarao, and Marne Kilates, Albayano but now residing in Manila. Dato’s poems are required readings in Philippine contemporary literature in English, when that category was still strictly pursued. He was what you may call a legend. Between Luis and Marne are numerous awards and countless honors making them poet-laureates not only of this region but also of a nation trying to define itself.

Perhaps, readers would be interested in how we came up with the finished product given the distance among us. Jimmy was in Manila; Kristian was in Savage Mind in Peninsula Street, in Mayon; and, I was in Concepcion Grande. Later, Kristian would seek the technical assistance of Nicol Cardel.

The first to be recorded was Dato’s “A Day on the Farm.”

Should we put music as background? It was a question never settled. Kristian, in particular, was adamant about the poem standing on its own, which is a given and lovely proposition.

Then, without any “cover letter,” Kristian sent me the video with Jimmy reading Dato’s work. There on the tiny screen of my mobile phone, a verdant field with mountains blue at the distance moved quietly with the somber music from a piano. The pastoral scene faded and in followed the reader, Jimmy in his living room, the rich voice full and fluid in velvet and brass. By the time he reached the last lines (come with me, love/you are too old for crying/the church bells ring/and I hear drops of rain), I was unabashedly in tears. The sweetness and sadness of the rains, the memories of a young passion urgent in these trying times of diseases, all caught in the reader’s inflections that seemed to rise and ebb not with the throat but with a deep heart full of entreaties and vows, were all we need for this magic to happen, I assured myself.

The responses were terrific. We immediately sent Jimmy our feedback and thanked him for the wonderful reading. He answered back and said it was the poem that made the reading work.

“Magarao” of Luis Cabalquinto was next. The poet reminisces about his hometown. He cannot be there in his home and in his town but his poetry brings him back for eternity in that ordinary/extraordinary night of a time that has ceased to move because only the stars are bright on the face of a water, in that stillness of a return to a land of birth that in remembering a man can wish upon himself. Jimmy’s voice trailed and buffeted against the memory of a humble meal as the dark notes from the cello soared with the white and gray clouds bidding both embrace and goodbye.

By the second installment, our viewers had started expressing their enchantment with the Bikol words. Many said the poem made them realize how rich their own language was and how it became even more beautiful when couched in lines and rhythm crafted and nurtured by the poet. I was more candid when I offered to Kristian my theory why the poems came alive in the good reader: Jimmy was reading without reading. He was not showing off but rather made his voice and being in service to the poetry, and not the other way around.

Plaintive guitar strains pushed the streaks of the whitest fleeces of clouds on the sky as the verses from what I believe is the saddest Bikol love poem from Marne Kilates came forth. Pampang kan Sakong Pagkamoot is how Marne translated his poem, The Only Shore I Seek. A poem with tightly knit metaphors conjured out of seascape began with May sarong lugar an puso/banwang sadiri kan pagkamoot, and ended with maglayag man sa ibang dagat/pampang ka kan sakong pagkamoot. Brevity was never the limit of this poem as word after word, line after line, the wisdom of the poet sang of love’s meanings – the infinite longing and the lonesome beauty in that endlessness. The sighs at the end sent in by readers were expected. One of our significant women-writers, Francia Clavecillas said of the poem: “nagpapakalma nin puso.”

By the time you read this column, Lui Quiambao-Manansala, an actress whose presence in indie films and television cannot be ignored, has already read her first poem, Jun Belgica’s Soneto 2. Intense but not melodramatic, Lui paid tribute to the words selected by Jun in a recitation that measured each word against an unseen source of beat.

By the time also you read this column, more actors have signified their intention to be part of this singular project. Enchong Dee, who hails from Naga, has already recorded his first poem. Waiting on the wings and ready to “experiment” are two of our most exciting actors – Christian Bables whose last major film was the award-winning “Signal Rock” and Sandino Martin, who acted and sang in the film and stage version of Nick Joaquin’s “Portrait of the Artist as Filipino/Larawan.” Angeli Bayani, another multi-awarded has also said yes to our request for her to be one of the readers. As if this grand list is not enough, Kristian has just talked with Eddie Ilarde who has expressed his interest to read poems in English, Filipino and Bikol!

Himati is a project of the Ateneo de Naga University Press and Savage Mind.

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