DUMAGUETE, THE MOTHER OF ALL WORKSHOPS
(By Alfred A. Yuson, Star)
Dumaguete City, May 29, 2000 - THE 39th edition of the National Writers Workshop in Dumaguete City ended over the weekend, after three weeks of an experience that is always said to change a young writer's life.
Why so? Poet Ramil Digal Gulle, himself a fellow some years back, asked about this recently. He still couldn't put a finger on it. Why indeed, despite the proliferation of other writing workshops all over the country, is the Dumaguete version still regarded, by past as well as aspiring fellows, as being a cut above the rest? Is it by virtue of age, having started it all way back in 1962?
That helps. Plus of course the fact that it was the venerable Tiempos Ed and Edith who initiated and have since conducted it. Now that Dad Ed is gone, Mom Edith has taken over solo, as a National Artist for Literature at that. And she's as sharp and beguiling as ever. As essential are the venue and schedule. The Dumaguete workshop lasts for all of three slow-paced weeks, whereas others take only an intensive week or two at most.
Three weeks in the quaintly placid City of Gentle People, spent at the height of summer when one is in his early-to-mid-twenties, are sure to turn into a storehouse of memories. That the ritual exercise is held at a university town with a young population makes the writing fellows feel right at home.
The esplanade by the sea that is Rizal Boulevard provides a healthy route for a constitutional at any time of day, and turns exhilarating toward sunset. Night life along this stretch can also be variably exciting, with a range of activities from beer-ing by the wharf to ballroom dancing at a nightclub or billiards at Why Not? (formerly The Music Box), with excellent, modestly-priced dinners in between (such as at Le Chalet, Chin Loong, Jo's Chicken Inato, or the Bethel Guest House cafeteria).
A positive feature inherent in what is often called "the mother of all workshops" is the sense of immersion in the local scene. Other workshops tend to closet panelists and writers in a hotel or resort, hardly leaving any interaction with locals. But in Dumaguete City, which lays claim to having the most number of Internet cafes outside Metro Manila, the fellows can't help but relate with resident writers and artists, let alone co-ed groupies.
The town center, inclusive of Silliman's lovely campus, is easily prowled on foot -- from fast-food restos to sidewalk tuyok-manok offerings, from Super Lee Plaza to the Old San Francisco Second-Hand Bookstore, where Will Durant's History of Civilization series in hardcover is available at a hundred bukols per title. Everything's within easy reach, while any place beyond a kilometer may be accessed by hailing one of the few remaining clip-clopping tartanilla or the ubiquitous buzzing tricycle.
The workshop proper's light schedule -- a couple of hours of analysis and discussion in the morning, followed by a four-hour break before the second two-hour session in the afternoon -- allows the venturesome young writer long stretches for filling up with a personal itinerary, from reading and writing in solitude or company, to midday runs to beaches and mountain lakes.
A midweek session is customarily held outside the official venue that is CAP Building's Dragon Room, for the benefit of those who'd rather be herded comfortably to a seaside retreat or resort. Weekends often find groups of fellows managing to conduct out-of-town forays by themselves -- to Apo Island by pumpboat, Bais or Amlan by minibus for dolphin-watching cruises, or Siquijor Island by fast ferry. Bohol, Dipolog and Cebu City are also easily reached by Super Cat service, or even by slow boat.
Indeed, immersion in the romance of the South can turn anyone appreciative of serial islands and sandbars. And as far as we know, the Abu Sayyaf still has to discover this peripherally gentle world of Central Visayas.
THIS SUMMER, the young fellows included Isolde Amante, Ian Fermin Casocot, Jean Claire Dy, F. Ted Limpoco, Wayne Marc Lopez, Elmer Pizo, Gerald Ramos, Roberto Salva, Alex de los Santos, Vincenz Serrano and Noel S. Villaflor. Panelists for the first week were UP's Dr. Jimmy Abad, UST's Dean Ophelia A. Dimalanta, this writer, and resident panelist Cesar Ruiz Aquino. And of course Mom Edith. Dropping in for a couple of days was past fellow Bimboy Peñaranda.
For the panelists, part of the incentive is the promise of all that free time to lounge around at poolside at South Sea Resort. That is, after one is done with some beach or an NBA playoff game on cable TV. Then too, there's the continuing education "senior" writers receive during the workshop sessions, either through recognition of all that fresh talent and novel concerns -- inclusive of homo-eroticism, incest, inter-generational conflicts and the like -- or the literary nuggets of wisdom picked up from the collective analytical process that so engages fellow panelists.
It never fails to amaze me, for one, that I can still scribble down quotable quotes bandied about from the vantage point of the paneling table. To wit, from Mom Edith: "Poetry should be written metaphorically. It should be couched in metaphor. Poetry suggests, evokes. Get a core situation, get a core image; then provide a metaphorical frame."
Even the academic-sounding phraseology turns into keepsakes of another summer in Dumaguete.
From Edith: "A poetic reverberation in the images... the objective correlative of the mind in the art of recollection... the evocation of depth in Robert Frost's 'Bereft'... the play of sensitivities... the inert inspirited!"
From Ophie: "We should be responsible denotatively... Mark the tension between the metaphorical line and the discursive line... the line donneé, the topic sentence... the privileged addressee..."
From Jimmy: "Line by line, the effect on the reader is mystification... the Holy Writ is an archaism... from denotation to detonation, make a leap!"
From Xawi (Aquino): "No central moment... the fallacy of the expressive form... As Nietzsche said, 'We still cannot discard the idea of God because we believe in grammar...'"
OUTSIDE the sessions, enlightenment didn't prove elusive either. Good cappuccino at Cafe Memento, run by the young artist Babu Wenceslao, attended a spirited conversation with Moses Joshua Atega, Silliman University Centennial Commission executive secretary. Founders Day in August 2001 marks the centennial, so that a year-long schedule of activities gets underway by August this year.
So that's why the Old Silliman Hall -- there across the street from the art-garnished cafe -- is finally undergoing rehab. Built in 1901, completed in 1903, the attractive colonial wooden building has interior columns of steel said to have come from an old theater in New York. In recent years it primarily housed the Anthropological Museum with its collection of artifacts, the special attraction being the crowd-drawing implements of sorcery from Siquijor. These have now been transferred temporarily to another building on campus.
Moses related how the distinguished Fil-Am architect Manuel Almagro had volunteered his services for the vintage building's rehabilitation. In the U.S., he had been involved in the restoration of the Statue of Liberty, as well as U.S. Veep Al Gore's ancestral home, where the vintage bathtub was said to have posed an interesting creative problem.
Almagro it was too who led the fund drive among the thousands of Silliman alumni abroad. With the help of USAID counterpart funding, he had organized a team to restore Old Silliman Hall by the boulevard to its former glory as an architectural landmark. Even the landscaping, expected to be completed soon, would approximate the old grounds, while the entire building itself would be ready in time for Founders Day next August. A Silliman high school graduate, Almagro likes to joke that he left wearing shorts, and came back wearing pants.
The Silliman University Church, elegantly standing at one end of a grassy quadrangle lined with old acacia trees, is also being subjected to a face-lifting.
Underneath is a labyrinth jocularly called The Catacombs, where during Martial Law years activist writers and artists congregated in secret. To relive the spirit of the '70s, according to Moses, he had arranged for the workshop attendees to have a poetry reading toward the end of the second week, when the panelists would include poets Danny Reyes of Ateneo and Butch Macansantos of UP Baguio.
A final treat for the workshoppers was a piano recital and literary program called "Homage," in tribute to National Artist Edith Lopez Tiempo.
Held at the Luce Auditorium last Friday, the program featured native son, lawyer and fiction writer Ernesto Superal Yee essaying Debussy and Chopin pieces that had been the favorites of the late lamented Edilberto, as well as the siblings Rowena and Maldon Tiempo. Seven poems were interspersed with the musical pieces, read by Edith herself as well as third-week panelists Marjorie Evasco and Susan Lara.
Moses also intimated that he had other plans to involve former workshop panelists and fellows in the year-long Silliman centennial commemoration, among these a grand reunion. After all, the nearly four-decade-old workshop had lent considerable prestige to the university, with which it is still held to be almost synonymous.
So was there a chance for Silliman to hitch up with the workshop again in a positive way, and perhaps make up for that inadvertent mistake of giving up on its funding years ago? With the Silliman Centennial just around the corner, this certainly was a distinct possibility, said Moses. Time will tell if a burning bush of gratitude eventually shows itself, and workshoppers of all generations take advantage of the parting of the Tañon Strait to cross over to Dumaguete once again, mayhaps in jubilant reconciliation.
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