Arts and Culture

Palihang Rogelio Sicat 6: Literature and the nation

PASSAGE - Ed Maranan - The Philippine Star

It has always been, officially, the UP Pambansang Palihan sa Malikhaing Pagsulat (National Creative Writing Workshop) of the UP Department of Filipino and Philippine Literature, but its more popular name is Palihang Rogelio Sicat. The most recent workshop, the sixth in as many years, was held in UP Diliman several weeks ago.

The Palihan (its literal meaning is “anvil” — where metals are beaten, tempered and shaped after being subjected to extreme heat in a furnace or forge) is named after the late Filipino novelist and UP professor Rogelio Sicat. Roger was already a well-known author in the early 1960s, as a member of a group of social realists whose short stories and novels came out in publications such as Liwayway magazine, and later in the landmark anthology entitled Mga Agos sa Disyerto (Streams in the Desert), described by National Artist for Literature Bienvenido Lumbera as “a landmark in the history of Philippine fiction because of its link with the tradition of social consciousness of the Rizal novels, and its departure in method and temper from the writings of earlier generations.” 

The Palihang Rogelio Sicat head coordinators — who initially developed the concept, orientation and objectives of the workshop — are Reuel Molina Aguila and Jimmuel Naval, both award-winning writers and PhD professors of literature in the department. They are usually backstopped by other members of the faculty, such as Joey Baquiran, Luna Sicat-Cleto and Eugene Evasco, all PhD holders and published authors with national literary awards to their name.  Other older writers join the teaching staff or serve as either guest speakers or resource persons during the five-day workshop, and this year the list included poet-critic Marne Kilates, novelist-screenwriter Ricky Lee, literature professor and prize-winning author Elyrah Loyola Salanga-Torralba, essayist and Graphic magazine managing editor Psyche Roxas Mendoza, poet-songwriter and cultural activist Jesus Manuel Santiago, and this Philippine Star columnist.      

The past five Palihang Rogelio Sicat were held in various places outside Metro Manila, as an experiment in “regionalizing” the workshop to familiarize the fellows with local conditions. According to Professor Aguila, “the workshop is designed to be held in different parts of the country not only as a writing retreat away from the hustle and bustle of Manila but also to share the training in writing with local writers in different provinces.” For his part, Professor Naval adds, “For the first time, the Palihan is opening up to literary works in other Philippine languages which are then translated and discussed in Pilipino, so that there is a dynamic interaction of writers  from Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao, a process that serves to enrich and strengthen our national literature.”

The first Palihang Rogelio Sicat was held in Angono, Rizal in 2008, followed by Palayan City, Nueva Ecija in 2009, Baler, Aurora in 2010, Alfonso, Cavite in 2011, and Sta. Cruz, Marinduque in 2012. This year, the DFPP decided to bring home the Palihan to the UP campus, with the Claro Recto Hall at the Faculty Center as venue for the opening session and first panel discussion, and the KAL (Kolehiyo ng Arte at Literatura) building as the workshop area.

The Palihang Rogelio Sicat continues to draw some of the best and brightest among the new generation of writers in Filipino. Fifteen fellows were selected from among 135 applicants who submitted poetry, fiction, and essay (creative non-fiction) manuscripts in Filipino, Aklanon, and Cebuano. Two other categories were introduced, the dagli (traditional vignette) and short story for children. The fifteen fellows chosen after a careful evaluation of submitted manuscripts were: Kevin Princepe Armingol, John Barrios, Joey Anne Mariano, Jayson Ongose Paderon, Abegail Pariente (short story); Laurence Marvin Castillo, Jonathan Vergara Geronimo, Ma. Cristina Angela Guevarra (creative non-fiction); and Desiree L. Balota, Frances Kimberly Baraoidan, Dennis Espada, Emmanuel Halabaso, Michael Adrian Non, John Carlo I. Pacala, Mark Joseph Natividad Rafal (poetry).

In his keynote speech, National Artist for Literature Bienvenido Lumbera underscored the meaningful strides taken by regional literatures as strengthening the foundations of a truly national Filipino literature. He also called on Filipino writers to rediscover the tradition of writing for the people, or writing for the nation, by addressing the enduring issues that confront Philippine society. Aguila would later remark that many manuscripts submitted bore marks of “self-indulgent writing” (what may be described as luminosities of style rather than illuminations of the human condition).

The 15 writing fellows enjoyed free board and lodging for five days, received a modest stipend, assorted books and souvenirs, and allowances for their transportation to and from Diliman. But the experience gained and the friendships made, as they themselves described in their impressions of the workshop, were definitely priceless.

John Barrios, a PhD student, assesses the workshop: “The fellows take a very active part in the discussions. They set the tone for the critique of their peers’ literary works, leading to a lively exchange of comments not only about the manuscripts but also about the theory and practice of writing.  In this way we gather new insights on how to improve the way we write. The panelists and resource persons comment only after the fellows have given a full airing of their thoughts about the manuscript under discussion, so there’s a deeper appreciation of the relative merits of the fellows’ works.”

It was Jowie Ann Mariano’s first time to join a writing workshop of this kind. “At the PRS, I have discovered new ways and means of telling my narratives, enriching and deepening my stories, and the importance of revision. I now want to explore the writing of poems and essays, having read so many excellent ones submitted to this workshop.”

Dennis Espada has published a good number of poems in literary journals and anthologies, but the workshop brought him to a new level of appreciation of his art. “I learned a lot about my craft both from the other fellows as well as the panelists who not only talked about their own writing experience but also provided interesting critique of the manuscripts. It helped that there was plenty of camaraderie among the fellows, and excellent rapport between us and our panelists, during the workshop hours as well as the informal sessions in the evening.”

Kimmy Baraoidan writes: “As a result of the workshop, I have been thinking of so many topics to write about. The creative insights I gleaned from the discussions will even guide me in my other passion which is photography. What the workshop basically did for all of us was to gather writers with different experiences and ways of expressing these creatively, and give us an opportunity to listen to older writers talk about success and failure in the craft of writing. The workshop wasn’t all about writing, it was just as much about bonding! We had a chance to know one another quite well, and to share the bubog (glass shards) embedded in the soul, in the words of the great Ricky Lee. The friendships that develop in a workshop like the PRS are not just for one week, but for keeps.”

Abby Pariente sums up the PRS experience with these words: “During and after the workshop, I felt a greater responsibility as a writer who is part of society. I’ve always held the belief that one writes not only for oneself, but the exchanges we had and the works we discussed served to bring into sharper focus the need to be more acutely aware of issues that confront my generation, and to be part of the critical process of discernment. The enthusiasm of young writers and the voice of the experience of the panelists made for a very productive interaction. We learned ways of reading and looking at written works that challenge us to improve our craft, at the same time that we deepen our analysis of the themes we want to write about.”

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