‘Muy bien, Dr. Lumbera’

LODESTAR - Danton Remoto - The Philippine Star

Like many other students, I first knew Dr. Bienvenido Lumbera through his essays. In the early 1980s, I was a Legal Management student at Ateneo de Manila University but instead of reading my books on Financial Accounting and Business Statistics, I would go to PS 9991 every afternoon. That was the location of the Philippine Literature books in the old Rizal Library, then housed in its original location, a white, boxy building manned by the frightening Fr. Suchan, S.J.

I read “Towards a Revised History of Philippine Literature,” a monograph of 80 pages. It ranged widely, casting a critical eye on literature written in English and Filipino. It also served as a guide for me: I began reading the books that Dr. Lumbera listed there. This essay would later be expanded and form the introduction to his book with his wife, Cynthia (Shayne), called “Philippine Literature: A History and Anthology,” published by National Book Store.

I would bring that book all the way to the University of Stirling in Scotland, where I took my M.Phil. in Publishing Studies. It was one of my references for my dissertation on “Publishing Philippine Protest Poetry During the Martial Law Dictatorship, 1972-1986.” Thus, the book of Dr. Lumbera was a lodestar in both my undergraduate and graduate years.

Dr. Lumbera also served as one of my readers for my master’s thesis in Literature (English) at Ateneo. I wrote a creative-writing thesis based on my manuscript of poems called “Skin Voices Faces.” The peerless Professor Emmanuel Torres was my thesis adviser, and he went through the drafts of my thesis with his legendary red ballpoint pen.

Moreover, Dr. Lumbera also served as one of the judges in the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) Award for Literature poetry division, which I joined in 1987. The country had just been liberated from what National Artist for Literature Francisco Arcellana would call “a siege of the soul.” The CCP chose to honor the arts by holding a literary competition in Filipino. I sent my sheaf of poems, and was surprised to win the third prize amidst such tough competition.

I remember Dr. Lumbera asked me during the awarding ceremonies who were my teachers in Ateneo, and I rattled off the names of Rayvi Sunico, Emmanuel Torres and Lourdes Hernandez-Vidal. He said Lou Vidal was his classmate at UST, Eric Torres was his dear friend and he admired the poetry of Rayvi Sunico. He added: “You had the best teachers in writing!”

I also remembered Dr. Lumbera as the writer of the lyrics for “Tales of the Manuvu” and “Rama Hari,” whose cassette tape I used to have, as well as the librettist for “Nasa Puso ang Amerika,” “Bayani,” “Noli Me Tangere” and “Hibik at Himagsik ni Victoria Laktaw.” The four musicals were later compiled in a book, “Sa Sariling Bayan: Apat na Dulang May Musika,” done in a handsome bookpaper edition and published by his alma mater, the University of Santo Tomas.

That book’s title is emblematic of what Dr. Lumbera has done for the country. His Ph.D. dissertation in Indiana University was on Tagalog poetry, an important volume that its original publisher, Ateneo de Manila University Press, should reissue. I have two copies of this book which I had lent to classmates or students, but they were never returned to me.

Ironically, his graduate studies in the United States only served to bring his heart closer to home. Not only did he write a dissertation on the traditions and influences of Tagalog poetry, he also began writing poems in Tagalog. I used to teach his brilliant poem in English, “Pedagogy,” to my students at Ateneo but his Filipino poems are something else: more lyrical, deep touchstones of “a local habitation and a name.”

I was present when Anvil Publishing launched his book of poems, as well as the book of poems by his friend Rolando S. Tinio, at the then new branch of National Book Store on Katipunan Avenue, the branch with two lantakas (small cannons) in front, pointed at the sky. I would later make it a point to attend his book launchings, watch his musicals and read the other books he had done in a long and fruitful career.

He not only encouraged the growth of writing in Tagalog; he also did the same for writing in the other local languages. His “Filipinos Writing: Philippine Literature From the Regions (Anvil),” which he co-edited with Shayne, is a landmark in Philippine publishing. I even brought that thick book with me to Malaysia, when I worked as head of the School of English at the University of Nottingham. I brought it because I was writing a book called “Poetry for Starters” commissioned by San Anselmo Press and I wanted to include examples of pre-Hispanic writing as well as short poems in the regional languages. In a way, I also wanted that book with me while I lived away from home, as talisman and memento of where I came from, and where I would return.

Dr. Lumbera taught thousands of students in his classrooms at Ateneo de Manila University and University of the Philippines, as well as in the creative writing workshops at Ateneo, Mindanao State University-Iligan Institute of Technology, UP, UST and Silliman University. He was also a favorite speaker at the conferences of the National Commission on Culture and the Arts, especially its Taboan series, which annually brings together writers for days of discourses on the art, craft and concerns of Philippine literatures.

Dr. Lumbera was also an excellent film critic and translator, an advocate for teachers’ rights and a well-deserved winner of the highest accolades: the National Artist Award for Literature and the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Literature and Creative Communication. His death last Sept. 28 was an occasion of much grief. He had the same birth month as one of his best friends, the late Professor Emmanuel Torres, as well as the same month of death. I’m indeed lucky to have met both fantastic mentors, and learnt from them a love for words, and a love for the world.

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Email: [email protected] Danton Remoto’s novel, Riverrun, was published by Penguin and is available at Shopee and Amazon.com

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