A poet for our times

LODESTAR - Danton Remoto - The Philippine Star

I was a Legal Management major who shifted to Interdisciplinary Studies in my third year at the Ateneo. I could not balance the accounting books even if my whole life depended on it. The only thing I wanted to do was to go to the Rizal Library every afternoon, stand in front of the books in the PS 9991 category, and read the books of the best Philippine writers. One day, I told myself, I will also publish my own book. One book would be enough.

That semester, I enrolled in a class on Modern Poetry. Our room was on the third floor of Bellarmine Building, and the class was held from 4:30-7:30 p.p. The professor arrived in a brown jacket, his hair tousled by the wind. He was Professor Emmanuel Torres. Before this class, I had read books of essays and fiction, but rarely poetry. I found poems hard to understand.

But Professor Torres simply made me see. He had that quality that many English teachers lacked – passion. He was brilliant, of course, but he also had passion for the subject that he was teaching. It was the kind of passion that – if it were tapped by the authorities – could generate enough megawatts of electricity for the whole country. He reminded me of the words of Joseph Conrad, one of my favorite novelists, in his introduction to “The Nigger of the Narcissus:” “My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel – it is, before all, to make you see.”

Professor Torres introduced me to a universe of words. It is a luminous world inhabited by Baudelaire and Rimbaud, Verlaine and Rilke, Eliot and Hopkins, cummings and Lorca, Pound and Moore. And do not forget The Beatles.

I was the class beadle, and I collected the coins for the stenciled copies of the poems and pooled them together in a beautiful blue bowl. We had by then transferred to the Ateneo Art Gallery. When I learned that the bowl must be from the Ming Dynasty, I just put all the coins in a rainbow-colored purse I bought in Baguio. That bowl must be more expensive than our house in the suburbs!

In my fourth year, moderator Joey Ocampo of the Filipino Department appointed me as the editor-in-chief of “Heights,” the literary journal of Ateneo. To further hone my sense of craft, I enrolled in the Creative Writing Class of Professor Torres. I had earlier written to the Department of English, requesting them to assign Professor Torres to teach this class. It was the first class offered by the Ateneo in many, many years. Professor Torres was in his element, tearing our juvenilia apart with singular wit and irony. His eyes would widen, his nostrils would flare, and the words of criticism would blaze from his mouth like fire.

But I was not daunted. People were afraid of him, but I was not. I knew that he only wanted us to learn. And since my father was a military officer and I grew up in a military base, I knew that the steel of discipline was good for one’s soul.

Every Monday morning, I would step into his office at the Ateneo Art Gallery to show him my latest poems. He would welcome me with a smile, get his red ballpoint pen and then proceed to make his corrections. In the deadly silence of that beautiful room, his ballpoint pen slashed into my poems. I would just look at him, and the painting behind him – an Amorsolo landscape of rice fields dazzling with light. And then, he would hand me back my poems with his corrections. He called my poems “effusions,” and I would just laugh

But I think I was – and still am – stubborn. Persistence is my middle name. I went on and wrote poems and stories and essays for his Creative Writing class. One of the essays I wrote for his class was “A Quick Visit to Basa,” a narrative essay on one of my rare visits to Basa Air Base, Floridablanca, Pampanga, where I was born and where I stayed until I was 12 years old.

In my mind’s eye I still remember that day I dropped by the Art Gallery one hour before class so I could consult with him on a one-on-one basis. He read it – and oh yes, he reads so fast! – said he liked my essay. But in the next breath, he picked up his red ballpoint pen and pointed out certain holes in the text.

We went through my essay sentence by sentence, punctuation mark by punctuation mark, the way he did it with our poems. He always told us to avoid stereotyped situations and words, to throw away “all those rusty razors.” The point, he said, quoting Ezra Pound, was “to make it new.” This was the training he got from Professor Paul Engle, his mentor at the world-famous Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where Professor studied from 1955-1957.

During the class discussion, Professor Torres said: “This essay is written by somebody already on his way to becoming a writer!” For an apprentice who was supposed to finish a degree in Legal Management and take up Law after college, this was high praise. I went home in such a daze that I almost stubbed my toe on a rock on the way out of the gallery.

The stories and poems I wrote in his class were later published by Kerima Polotan in Focus Philippines.

Professor Torres passed away last Sept. 13 at the age of 89. He published three award-winning books of poetry, ranging from love poems to poems of protest. He taught in Ateneo for 45 years. His students gave homage to him in Facebook, recalling the days when he stood on a desk, or danced with castanets, or imitated the stillness of a tree while he taught a poem. He simply wanted his students to see: through him worlds of wonder were opened.

Farewell, our dearest and wisest Professor. Thank you from our hearts’ deep core.

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Email: danton.lodestar@gmail.com Penguin Books has published Danton’s novel, Riverrun.

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