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Critical Essay

The Social Semiotics of Our Sensibility: A Filipino Workshop Method Adapted by the 1st Cebu Writers

Freshly cooked rice partnered with scrambled eggs and utan Bisaya was the first meal I had upon arriving at Ocean View, Oslob. I took a quick nap from my long and tiring travel. My plane landed in Cebu at midnight.  I arrived at the 7 Eleven rendezvous place around 5 A.M. Then I took the bus ride with the fellows and panelists to Oslob. At the back of my mind were the backlogs I had in school and the video I needed to film for a class project. Tiring was an understatement but it was all worth it.

Raphy, a friend from UP Mindanao and a fellow, was giving me a life update over brunch, how things were back in Davao, what news was there of the literary scene down south. There were knick-knacks at the table beside the buffet of main courses. I left my emptied plate with Raphy and fancied myself with coffee. When I got back to my seat, the plates and utensils were dished out by our panelists.

In many of his interviews, the late food anthropologist Anthony Bourdain reiterated his rule of thumb: food brings with it its culture. The way we cook and serve food reveals how we treat people. Our panelists cooked food, served meals, and even washed our dishes. Brunch gave me a glimpse, a sort of foreshadowing, of the workshop culture I would experience in Cebu.

My poems were the first to be discussed. On the ride en route to Oslob, I was prepping myself for another critical grilling, another version of “Ilabay na lang na sa Bangkerohan river,” or “Wa man ni pulos na linya”. Item 1 of the Workshop Metaphors and Aphorisms under General Guidelines of the 1st Cebu Writers Workshop read: The author is dead but we shall revive him. “On the third day he rose again.” Oh dear Lord! I thought. I will be like Christ for the third time, dead and then revived only in this case it’s after my fourth poem, after my descent from literary hell. I had attended two workshops prior to the 1st Cebu Writers Workshop. Both similar in methodology—kill the writer, discuss the work, writer’s remarks. This was New Criticism adapted from Iowa Writers’ Workshop pioneered by Paul Engles. The same approach used in Philippine writing workshops in and outside the creative writing classroom. 

Part of New Criticism is the reveal of the writer at the end of the literary piece’s discussion. He remains unknown throughout the discussion to maintain New Criticism’s emphasis on the literary piece being a self-contained and self-referential aesthetic object. Some workshops modify this part of the methodology and reveal the writer prior to the workshop session. UP Writers Club for instance reveals the writer prior to the discussion and sometimes ask him to read his poem but he is then silenced afterwards, unable to talk nor communicate with his fellow applicants. Kill the writer. Discuss the work. Revive him afterwards.

It is no secret that New Criticism, albeit elevating the quality of Philippine Literature, became the chains which enslaved most of Filipino writers; unconsciously forcing them to remain subservient to their colonial masters. New Criticism’s beginnings trace a colonial undertone despite appearing innocent. It’s loyalty to aestheticism and its primal goal for the literary work to speak for itself validates its use of close reading. However, this also silences the Filipino writer and de-politicizes the text, divorcing it from its sociality. Silencing the writer is ignorance of his existence and the context as well as process of the production of the literary work. As if the text simply came into existence out of the blue. The ignorance of the writer’s existence creates not only a divide between him and the discussion of his piece; it completely kills the heart and soul of the work. There will be no text if there is no writer.

Contrary to its Workshop Metaphors and Aphorisms, the Cebu Writers Workshop invoked a different approach. They allowed the writer to talk whenever he had any clarifications or wanted to ask something during the discussion. The writer was not silenced albeit remaining quiet most of the time. Perhaps Cebu Writers Workshop ought to change item 1 of Workshop Metaphors and Aphorisms to “The writer shall remain quiet during the discussion of his/her piece,” because the writer is not dead. He is alive. I am alive.  

I was never silenced. I was instructed to listen and raise my hand whenever I needed clarification or wanted to give a follow up question. My existence was acknowledged. There were no pretenses of course. Item 3 of Workshop Metaphors and Aphorisms made sure of that: Unacceptance of criticism is unacceptance of thyself. I did not become defensive of my work nor did I justify any of my mistakes in writing my works. I never really felt like it was the same kind of critique, the same critical grilling I felt during my past workshops. In fact, I was so comfortable with the strangers on the table; I was eating suman latik during the discussion of my work. I was jotting down notes while gulping down a glass of pineapple juice and I did not hesitate to get up and grab a few more eats whenever I felt like it. In this workshop I felt most comfortable and at ease even during discussion. In previous ones, I could never swallow my food nor quench any drink during discussions of my works.

I was not divorced from the discussion. I was part of it.

At the start of my workshop session, Thomas Shaw, my lead panelist, asked if I wanted any questions answered about any of my works, what my objectives of writing each poem was, and if I wanted anything fleshed out of the discussion which would help me with the revisions. All of which, I gave particulars to. From time to time some of the fellows and panelists asked about my poems, questions they thought necessary and important to point out my work’s weaknesses and strengths. They assessed my poems not solely based from the text but also based from my writing process. Not that they dictated what I should write and think of. No. It was not dogmatic nor didactic, it was a kind of mentoring. It was the first workshop I attended where both panelists and fellows were all active in the discussion and no comment was unsubstantial, none were memamay masabi lang. All voices, including the writers’, were heard and had valuable insights. Even the first-time workshop fellows were engaged. They did not seem intimidated at all. 

Junelie Velonta, a first-time workshop fellow from Silliman, had several inquiries about literature and how we interpreted certain lines from other fellow’s poems and we were all accommodating of his questions. We also gave our own opinions on the matter. In his post-workshop photos on Facebook, Junelie wrote, “Pero totoo, ang saya ko rito. Best learning experience in my life so far.” Junelie wasn’t the only one who had the workshop hangover. Raphy and I, on our way back to Cebu had it, too. We were discussing how savory the steamed vegetables were and how mouthwatering Joseph Dazo’s chicken afritada was and how all intimidating factors from the panelists were reduced to meaningless quanta, blown away to the Oslob sea.

Aside from the hospitality and food, Raphy and I concluded that the seating arrangement helped produce a more conducive and engaging discussion. In past workshops, we fellows were seated apart from the panelists. Panelists would seat at the presidential table facing our u-shaped conference table, suggesting a hierarchy of positions. The panelists became the center stage and the empty space between the panelist and fellows suggested a distance of intellect. It seemed like their insights were the most valuable compared to ours. Fellows always seemed to talk less during workshops partly because of this spatial difference. 

There were no empty spaces in between in our case. We were all seated around a long table. Each fellow was seated beside a panelist. To my left was our panelist Eda Cabusas and to my right was Gilford Doquila, a fellow. Next to Eda was Raphy and so on. We were all seated alternately—fellow, panelist, fellow. I could easily ask Eda what page the lead panelist was pertaining to without disrupting the discussion. She borrowed my pen to jot down a few notes. After a break, she got some candy from the buffet and distributed it amongst us. My favorite was the durian candy the Davao panelists and fellows brought for sharing.

It is amazing how kind gestures leave lasting impressions—food, conversation, seating arrangement. Little things and writers know that. Writers are trained to be nitty-gritty from the syntax, grammar, down to the typography, the use of uppercases, and italicization. Gestures are no different and are much like words. They mean something despite being arbitrary. The New Critical classroom forgets, more often than not, that the works they critique are from writers who are of a distinct culture. The Filipino is innately relationship-oriented. This is apparent in our vocabulary: Kita, our exclusive dual pronoun that connects ‘’ako [I]’’ and  ‘’ikaw [you] ’’; Ka- our prefix attached to nouns underscoring relationship to—kasama, kaibigan, kainuman, kapaligiran. The Cebu Writers Workshop has been by far the workshop that is unpretentious and loyal to the Filipino sensibility both in critiquing and treating its fellows. Its panelists are aware of the dangers of using the New Criticism as a means of reading and interpreting literary texts. 

What the workshops lacks is a revitalization of its curriculum. For instance, at the end of the day we were assigned to one panelist for mentoring but the panelists themselves weren’t ready nor were they sure what they needed to produce. Perhaps if there were guide questions and concrete objectives beforehand, the discussion would have been smoother. I find it remarkable that the prior method of facilitating the workshop through conversations which engages participants well and help put them at ease rather than baseline critiquing is already an indication of the Filipino’s indigenization of the writing workshop mode. It was the first Cebu Writers Workshop and perhaps in the near future, its organizing body will address these issues and as a culturally-sensitive and participant- oriented writers workshop, it could yet be the best  in the Philippines. 

27 November 2020
Tacloban City


This literary piece is part of Katitikan Issue 3: (Re) Imaginations.

By Lakan Uhay Alegre

Lakan Uhay Dorado Alegre is a Waray of Tacloban City. His works have appeared in local media such as Dagmay, the Literary Journal of the Davao Writers Guild, and Lunop: Haiyan Voices. Currently, he is a BA- Comparative Literature (Philippine in English and in English Translation) junior in UP Diliman, where he continues writing poetry despite struggling with his readings.

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