National literature icons – Jose Garcia Villa and NVM Gonzalez


This is the 550th essay to appear under my Crossroads column, which has now been around for 11 years in this paper.

As a celebration of sorts, I devote my space today to national literature, an appreciation of the works of Jose Garcia Villa, the Filipino poet whose productive years were lived in New York City and who was a National Artist in Literature in 1976.

Jose Garcia Villa’s poetry as music. Last week, a program on the poet’s works and its transcendent relationship with musical ideas and expression was presented before a small group of Filipino, American, and international friends in Washington D.C., in a private home.

The program gained a wider audience when the Philippine Embassy, which co-sponsored it along with the US-Philippine Society, issued a press release that got noticed in Manila and in the American capital.

I first became aware of the tribute to Jose Garcia Villa through the family mail. Jenny Sicat Crabbe, my youngest daughter, wrote about it for our usual exchange of news.

It was a private affair held for a small group of Filipinos and Americans, and some friends in the diplomatic community who share a common interest in the mingling of Philippine history, literature, and poetry within the Washington D.C. locale. Although her residence was the venue, the program was a collaborative effort among individuals and groups through contribution of talent, food, and resources.

Pleasantly attracted by this account, I asked her if I could feature the subject in this anniversary column that I am now writing. Elated by my offer, Jenny explained to me the genesis of the idea and the program itself.

Bits of life of Philippine literary culture in America. I now quote Jenny:

“Erwin Tiongson had approached me with the idea almost two years ago and we thought of getting the support of the Embassy. For this event, Erwin and I put together the entire program. It spawned out of Erwin’s personal interests in poetry and history himself, which he would divert as publications to the Philippines on the Potomac (POPDC), a publication on the internet.”

Dr. Erwin Tiongson, a Filipino economist, was a World Banker who moved to Georgetown University’s School of Diplomacy to accept a professorship.

I must also give a backgrounder on Jenny, my daughter. She spent half a career working at JP Morgan, managing an international bond portfolio. After the 9/11 attack on America, she and her husband (who also worked in Wall Street) transferred to Silicon Valley, California for a decade. They, however, decided to relocate to Washington D.C., where she and her husband first met. In Washington, Jenny became more involved with the Washington International Club, where she met many interesting people like Erwin Tiongson.

Jenny continued her account: “I work with a lot of musicians and artists of all kinds, also something I’ve done for decades, so I got the musical angle in place, working on a musical program with the pianist and soprano. … Fortunately, I was able to get a piano-soprano duo (Eriko Tokuro Murray-Kumiko Izawa Chikata) who just happened to be Japanese! With song and piano, they jumped on the poetry of JG Villa and compared it to some haiku-Japanese songs and tied it all the way to Handel’s opera, Semele.

“Luis Francia, a Filipino writer who teaches literature at New York University, also participated via Zoom on Erwin’s invitation. He gave us context on Villa and read a few of his poems. He also gave us a personal peek into Villa as a person who was a fixture in Greenwich Village, like his close friend the American poet E.E. Cummings. The musicality of the words were paramount in Villa’s poetry, so it was natural that he put it to music with the help of friends like composer Samuel Barber!

“Erwin Tiongson, for his part, gave a background of Villa when he spent some time living and creating here in D.C., based in the Chancery building around the 1940s. There are newspaper photos of JG Villa with luminaries in literature at the time!

“Ambassador John F. Maisto, who is president of the US-Philippines Society, a group composed of distinguished Americans and Filipinos, was very warm and so appreciative of the program. He really got the intercultural collaboration aspect that I wanted to get through in the event, which was part of my opening remarks. (I had talked about the wonderful things that can happen when people from all over the world congregate in a town like D.C.) He was delighted not just in showcasing JGV and his life here in the US, but he was happily surprised by the Japanese interlude!

“Jaime Ascalon, the young deputy of the Embassy mission, gave fitting closing remarks to the occasion, targeting his remarks towards sharing Philippine culture with that next generation of younger Filipino-Americans.

“Those who came to the gathering was a combination of other people ranging from diplomats, law professors, doctors to journalists.”

Jenny concluded, “It was a lovely musical evening! People were so touched because the poetry really connected … which is what one always hopes to achieve in the arts!”

NVM Gonzalez in a musical mood. In the 1960s and 1970s, my residence in the UP campus in Area 1 was adjacent to that of NVM, who would become a National Artist in Literature like Villa. NVM loved the guitar and was an adept classical guitarist. His son, Mike, himself a classical guitarist, was the guitar teacher of my eldest children, Hans and Michelle.

The window from the master bedroom had a good view and was within hearing distance from his front yard, where under the shade of a tree my two eldest children received their guitar instructions. On some occasional Sunday afternoons, NVM Gonzalez would invite a fellow classical guitarist in the same place. They would have a kind of jam session of classical guitars by two enthusiastic players. When that happened, it was to both my wife and me a pleasurable afternoon experience as well!



For archives of previous Crossroads essays, go to: https://www.philstar.com/authors/1336383/gerardo-p-sicat. Visit this site for more information, feedback and commentary: http://econ.upd.edu.ph/gpsicat/



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