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ZOETROPE - Juaniyo Arcellana (The Philippine Star) - March 31, 2014 - 12:00am

Who would have thought that a second Adverbum Writers Retreat would be held so soon after the first one last October in Palawan? As luck would have it, retreat 2 was held from Feb. 27 to March 3 in Puerto Galera, Mindoro Oriental, at the Boquete Breeze beach house of the Astudillo family, and like retreat 1, a majority of the participants were University of the Philippines professors, with the occasional odd man out. Managed by Fil-Am writer Almira Astudillo-Gilles, the retreat gathers a handful of invited writers to give them time to work on projects as well as mentor a few lesser known but perhaps no less talented writers deep in their drafts, resulting in a curious chemistry and osmosis/symbiosis of the creative kind.

The odd man unable to join the Palawan group not due to dengue but a bad strain of the flu, this time took the van and ferry to Puerto Galera along with UP professors Reuel Aguila, Isabela Banzon, Rosario Lucero, visiting Australian poet Dennis Haskell now teaching graduate courses also at UP, and fellows Penelope Flores of San Francisco State University and Padma Siap of Cebu, as well as Gilles. Summer was well nigh and both literature and the sea beckoned, and it just so happened that the retreat would coincide with the 4th Malasimbo Arts and Music Festival up in the mountains of Mindoro, less than an hour’s drive away.

Flores, who turned out to be assistant principal of UP Elementary School during our time there in pre-martial law years, was working on a manuscript based on the memoirs of her uncle Maximo Viola, one of Jose Rizal’s good friends. Siap, former stage actress and product of St. Theresa’s Cebu, was cobbling together possible modules on motivational management between stints as inspirational speaker. A common query was how to start and afterwards, how to give shape to the dross. Haskell, who has a collection of poetry titled Acts of Defiance, had this advice (and I paraphrase): just write, keep writing, and worry about it later. Or as the Cat Stevens song goes, “The first cut is the deepest.”

There was occasion to write a renga with the group, on the last night we were complete, before driving Flores to her hometown of Calapan City the next morning. The renga’s first line had to do with the first light of evening, with some poets and writers gathered round beer and junk food, after taking in the mellow sunset at the sandbar behind Elizabeth’s Hideaway, hard to believe it’s already March.

The day previous, the last of February, the retreat was at Malasimbo, with the breathtaking view of Puerto Galera bay, and the rolling terrain dotted with assorted installations of artists, including one by Alwin Reamillo, who I hadn’t seen in more than 20 years since the days of Pinaglabanan Gallery, Midweek magazine, and the Ang (Artistang Nagugutom, Philippine High School for the Arts alumni) group.

Reamillo looked none the worse for wear, and his tribute to three dead friends consisted of three old style suitcases in disarray with varied memorabilia sticking out, including a bottle of cuatro cantos from which the artist at times took a swig to the memory of Roderick Daroy, Debid Sicam and Gerard Baja, this Malasimbo was quite a ways away from both Bontoc and the anus of the sun. The artist too seemed light years removed from the antics of his younger days, and if on a jeepney from the Paco market you happened to pass by a piano shop at the corner of Quirino Avenue and Singalong, this was owned by the Reamillo family and from where the artist drew material. The piano man has been to and from Australia for the past decades, giving new meaning to the term diaspora. On the last night of the festival, Reamillo said he would set on fire the suitcases of memory, a self-styled immolation.

There too was Billy Bonnevie and his Dap-ay and tuba, dancing the ritual jig around bonfire, and sculptor Agnes Arellano with the deftness of an avatar threw a garlanded putong to crown the beast’s skull. Nearby the artist Iya Regalario was putting finishing touches on her giant duende Pol of the polygonal face, while Gus Albor’s landscape with mirror reflected all that ever was and whatever was to come in the shifting rays of the bay, and Wawi Navarroza and Ling Quisumbing Ramilo’s great fluttering wall of orange suggested a deluge of sound waiting to happen and true enough, in the flick of an eye darkness fell and the music started.

The bands were international, certified internationalists, and so were the audience, in Malasimbo was the Tower of Babel in reverse, for here our motley mass found ourselves speaking a common language of music and art. Crowns Down, Low Leaf, Mishka Adams, Jose Gonzales, Good Leaf were just some of the acts that blew the heads off coconut trees. This was the soul of kesong puti, the funk of adobo, the froth of all malt beer. In the wee hours of morning you were sure to find your way back to your digs, no matter how drunk or plastered, guided by an inner light buzzing like a guardian angel from the beach front, over dog bark and specter of fireflies listening for the sea.

What I meant was to read a poem to the other writers titled “On the Beach” but never got around to it, for quicker than a wink we were in Calapan in the Villarica residence where dancing elderly ladies were regaling the party with a putong welcome, a tradition endemic of the region and dating back to times of yore. In our assistant principal’s hometown we were feted like great guests made to feel at home with the spread of lechon and other hearty viands.

Summer was well nigh, but for Adverbum and Malasimbo we were children again learning the sound of waves. Whosoever writes in these retreats anyway writes on the back of his head like a backward masking for future reference.

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