Arts and Culture

Nationalist Artist awards, anyone?

KRIPOTKIN - Alfred A. Yuson -
Three years ago, a day after initial deliberations were conducted for the National Artist awards eventually given out in June of 2003, UP’s university professor emeritus, the distinguished poet-critic-mentor Dr. Gémino H. Abad, wrote a letter to the NCCA’s then executive director Mafin Yonzon and CCP president Nes Jardin.

Dr. Abad offered his observations on the conduct of the deliberation, lamenting that not much time was given the Committee on Peers, headed by him, to review the comparative merits of the nominees for Literature.

The letter was dated March 6, 2003, a day after the first-level deliberations:

"It was only on March 4 that I knew who the nominees were – Virgilio Almario, Cirilo F. Bautista, Jose Asia Bragado, Juan Hidalgo, Magdalena Gonzaga Jalandoni, and Alejandro Roces; and on the day itself, during the course of our deliberations, another ‘sector’ (the Multi-disciplinary) was authorized to pass to our Literature ‘sector’ two other names, Bienvenido Lumbera and Bienvenido M. Noriega, Jr.

"The actual deliberations started about 10 a.m., so that we were to consider eight nominees within about two to two-and-a-half hours. Our anguish then was for lack of time, for so serious an Award, for so great an honor, as the title of National Artist on the sole ground of a nominee’s inimitable achievement in art as a rich and distinctive contribution to our national cultural heritage. Ironically, for lesser honors (though without doubt they are also very significant) – the Magsaysay Award, the Palanca, even the Free Press – so much more time for the judges is expended."

He suggested giving the NCCA’s research group better lead time to accomplish their task, especially with regards regional writers, and perhaps allowing the Council of Peers at least three months to conduct their review and deliberation.

Of course, Dr. Abad commented, he was all too aware of the so-called "budgetary constraints" – which to this writer must constitute the most tricky element in the choice of National Artists every two or three years.

Particularly telling, too, as part of Dr. Abad’s post-mortem – and which I will hark back to in my own observations about the way this delicate matter is handled – is the following:

"… The documents provided us on each nominee are very helpful indeed, but they are not sufficient for the very day itself: we need to have thought out the matter long enough, consulting with other scholars, reading or re-reading the works of the nominees, reconsidering views and opinions, etc., way before the meeting where a decision has to be made.

"Speaking only for myself – if I had known beforehand, and were given sufficient time – I believe I could have made a much stronger case for Cirilo F. Bautista than the write-up prepared for him in our collection of documents. I must have been chosen, I suppose, as an ‘expert’ on Filipino poetry in English.

"I believe of course that Virgilio Almario deserves the highest honor of National Artist; but I also feel that, in his own place in our literature in English – which is not comparable with the course of our literature in Tagalog – Cirilo Bautista cannot be justly displaced."

Now here’s my rhetoric and my beef, born of credible rumors to the effect that several weeks ago a differently composed Council of Peers had met to deliberate over the new set of nominees, and chosen a couple of names for Literature that would then advance to the second level of deliberations (which in turn had a regrettable end result). Well, to begin with, as for that new set of nominees, it seemed more like "same-same."

As reported by the usual birdies, the front-runners were Cirilo Bautista and Bienvenido Lumbera. National Artist for Literature Edith L. Tiempo, who joined that council deliberation, made a strong case for Bautista. It was also pointed out by some members of that seven-to-eight-man group that Bautista was the compleat creative writer. Epic poetry, short fiction in English, a novel and a book of poems in Filipino, and continuing works of criticism and journalism – these are Cirilo’s domain. For his part, Lumbera’s more significant work was in the field of literary scholarship and criticism.

The Council of Peers agreed to select these two names from the nominees’ list to advance to the second round, the deliberations in which would be conducted by committee officers of the NCCA. Bautista would be representative of the Literature nominees for creative writing, while Lumbera would advance on the strength of his literary criticism.

Now guess who was knocked off in that second round of deliberations, and whose name as finalist will now be presented – and "lawyered" for – in the third and final round of deliberations conducted by the CCP board members as well as a few NCCA reps?

Cirilo Bautista is a long-time friend of mine, and Jimmy Abad’s. It is however NOT this terribly Pinoy factor that causes us much anguish over the choice of Bien Lumbera as the Literature finalist. I have much respect for Bien, and with little doubt he qualifies as a prospective National Artist for Literature. Candidly, however, I must say that I find his criticism unfairly biased for Filipino and regional writers; he has practically dismissed the works of writers in English. I suppose that’s because he likes to be seen as, or is in effect seen as, a "nationalist."

By the by, not a few writers in English in UP and beyond have asked jocosely of one another, over bottles of beer: "Name me one particularly memorable work of literature Lumbera has penned." These same beer house rhetoricians also predict that it is the "extreme Left" that will be overjoyed by their champion’s ascension as National Artist. The communist candidate, it has been said rather bitchily.

Now I do not wish this to be construed as an attack on Bien Lumbera. Even as I could only smile over his backers’ well-organized efforts at lobbying endorsement in the months leading up to NA deliberations, inclusive of testimonials from California Fil-Am groups and comprehensive Internet postings, I believe Bien has indeed done significant work for Filipino literature. Er, make that Philippine literature.

The least I could have bargained for, if someone cared to listen during those two rounds of deliberations, was that both Bautista and Lumbera were advanced as finalists for the ultimate reckoning. And, why, both could also be declared National Artists in Literature on the same year.

But I suppose that’s where "budgetary constraints" come into the picture – that same variable that would have a committee deciding on the inclusion of departed nominees because the cash involved in the case of posthumous awardees is significantly less.

If it were to be an absolute one-person choice however between Bautista and Lumbera, I say give the creative writer the better due, as the scholar, researcher and critic is necessarily a second-tier citizen in the republic of arts and letters.

It may be too late, however, to repair the damage done the literary persona of the eminent creative writer Cirilo Bautista, one charge against whom, I hear from my usual intelligence sources, during the NCCA second-level review was that his "reclusivity was a mark of selfishness."

My eye! My word!

It does not matter that Bautista prefers to cocoon himself in his room at home to work on his outstanding poetry and prose, rather than waste his time socializing at book launchings, or that he only occasionally indulges in a little beer with close writer-friends. He has been selfless in mentoring generations of students at De La Salle and UST and at writers’ workshops. His literary editorship of and column in Philippine Panorama magazine has for long years contributed to the molding of young poets and writers. He is the compleat writer, not merely (sorry, everyone) an epiphyte of a critic.

But that’s how the ball bounces, especially when humans can only be human, subject to possible manipulation. I suppose that since my stalwart friend Virgilio Almario was anointed National Artist for Literature in 2003 (on the strength of his poetry in Filipino AND criticism, and conceivably not because scholar-critic Resil Mojares plugged for his scholarship on Filipino literature), a trend has been established, with Bien Lumbera’s succession, that may keep our creative writers in English at bay where the National Artist for Literature is concerned.

I am sure that "Mom" Edith Tiempo, herself a notable critic, but whose poetry and fiction will be more of her inspiring legacy, will be saddened by this turn of events. And I can’t help but imagine how Franz Arcellana, NVM Gonzalez and Nick Joaquin – our previous National Artists in Literature, all of them supremely creative writers in English – may be pshaw-pshawing in their graves.

Maybe we can start calling it the Nationalist Artist awards. That should be just as good a novel term as what’s been bandied about as the "DNA" or Dagdag National Artist. I hear this year Soc Rodrigo might posthumously lay claim to that sorry title. Alas and alack. A pity, for Soc was a poet.
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