VIRGILIO S. ALMARIO AKA RIO ALMA, LATEST NAT'L ARTIST FOR LITERATURE

rio almaManila, June 10, 2003 By Alfred A. Yuson, (STAR) Congratulations to our friend, fellow poet, and predecessor as chairman of UMPIL or the Writers Union of the Philippines, Virgilio S. Almario aka Rio Alma, our latest National Artist for Literature.

Together with theater designer Salvador "Badong" Bernal, film director and scenarist Eddie Romero, and the late great painter Jose Joya, Rio Almario made it through a rigorous process of nomination vetting and selection conducted by a Council of Peers and a virtual academy of fellow artists and culture experts composed of board members of the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) and the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA).

We became a small part of the process when we were asked, or tasked, to make the brief presentation on Mr. Almario’s legitimacy of creative work to qualify as a National Artist. This was conducted before the joint selection committee of the NCCA and CCP. Seven of the nominees who made it to this final stage were "defended" by the respective presentors; four gained the committee’s nod.

Here are excerpts from the brief we presented on Virgilio S. Almario, which to a large extent relied on the longer written presentation prepared by UMPIL board member and fellow poet Marne Kilates.

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Virgilio S. Almario, also known by his nom de plume, Rio Alma, is nominated as National Artist for Literature on the strength of his work – in poetry, criticism, translation and children’s books – and the impact of this work on contemporary Filipino literature and the Philippine literary scene, through the various roles he has been fulfilling with vigor.

Almario is a writer in Filipino: A poet, literary critic, publisher and editor of anthologies and children’s literature, a scholar, professor, conductor of literary workshops, and cultural administrator and propagator.

He exemplifies the artist who has gone beyond the perfection of his craft. Aware of his own responsibility and role in Filipino culture, he has become a moving force.

Almario is looked up to by young poets and writers as a strong influence, a model and mentor. He is acknowledged by his peers and contemporaries as a purveyor of new ideas, and a navigator for new directions in Tagalog poetry and literary scholarship.

As Rio Alma the poet, he has published 12 volumes of poetry spanning over three decades. He has been a champion of "modernism" in Tagalog poetry, constantly in communion with global literary movements, and a re-examiner of tradition and traditional forms that provide the historical links and take-off points in his articulation of contemporary consciousness.

As Virgilio S. Almario the literary historian, he has eight books of criticism that have traced the roots of and redefined perspectives on Tagalog poetry; mapped out the general movements in Filipino literary philosophy; chronicled and commented on new Tagalog poetry, and even laid out a technical codification of Tagalog prosody.

In all these efforts, Almario continues the pursuit of an over-arching literary vision, which, as some critics have noted, is no less than the charting, verbalization, and definition of the Filipino soul and imagination.

Born in the rural town of San Miguel in Bulacan province, Almario first cast a public figure as a teacher in the town’s public high school. Even then, he was already seeking others who shared the same interest in language, by spending most of his Saturdays with poet-friends at the University of the East, where he eventually enrolled in a master’s course in education.

In 1968 and 1970, Almario authored two slim but seminal volumes, Makinasyon (Machination,1968), and Peregrinasyon (Piligrimage, 1970), wherein he first showed his unorthodox technique and use of language. The latter won a national award. He subsequently organized, in his apartment, the first of his weekend workshops for young poets, the Galian sa Arte at Tula.

He enrolled as a graduate student at UP, and went into editing and writing work. In 1977, he accepted a project to head the Nutrition Center of the Philippines’ publishing house for children’s books – his other devotion. This became the Children’s Communication Center, publisher of the now-famous Adarna Books series, as the country’s most successful publishing house for children’s literature.

In 1984 he was awarded a TOYM (Ten Outstanding Young Men) for literature and a year later started his term as chairman of the Writers Union of the Philippines, for which he has remained a moving presence even as younger writers have taken over the helm of the organization.

Almario has gained accolades from fellow writers and thinkers, such as the following:

"Rio Alma is perhaps the most visible, most heard, most read, and most important poet in Tagalog… No other poet in Tagalog has it so good. And does it so good, for that matter." – Ophelia A. Dimalanta

"Sa mga… makata ngayon ay walang pag-aalinlangang kasama si
Rio Alma sa pangu-nahing hanay… Ang mga hugis ng mga tula kahapon ay iniayon niya sa mga anyong eksperimental ng kasalukuyan, kaya’t ang paglalakip ng dalawang tunguhin sa panulat niya ay kahanga-hangang kataka-taka. Sa mga katipunan ng mga tulang lumabas na ay nangunguna ang kay Rio Alma sa giting ng pananampalatayang makamasa, isang bagay na maging ang nasirang Amado V. Hernandez ay hindi nakagawa sa kanyang panulaan." – Teodoro A. Agoncillo

"We consider him the most significant writer of the present times." – Joaquin R. Roces

Following is a listing of his works of 34 years, through which, by their titles alone, we may discern the intent and direction of his writing. It is an intent that few writers will set upon themselves, yet one that Almario has chosen: the inward and outward journey of the Filipino imagination.

Poetry: Makinasyon, 1968; Peregrinasyon, 1970; Doktrinang Anakpawis, 1979; Retrato at Rekwerdo, 1984; Palipad-Hangin, 1985; (A)lamat at (H)istorya, 1986; Katon Para sa Limang Pandama, 1987; Rio Alma, Selected Poems 1968-1985 (bilingual selection), 1987; Mga Retaso ng Liwanag, 1990; Muli sa Kandungan ng Lupa, 1994; Una Kong Milenyum (Collected Poems, two volumes), 1998; and Supot ni Hudas, 2002.

Criticism: Ang Makata sa Panahon ng Makina, 1972; Walong Dekada ng Makabagong Tulang Pilipino, 1981; Balagtasismo Versus Modernismo, 1984; Jose Corazon de Jesus, Mga Piling Tula, 1984; Taludtod at Talinghaga, 1985; Kung Sino ang Kumatha kina Bagongbanta, Ossorio Herrera, Aquino de Belen, Balagtas, Atbp., 1992; Panitikan ng Rebolusyon(g 1896), 1993; and Mutyang Dilim, 2001.

While Rio Alma was one of the leading poets of the First Quarter Storm who partook of the social consciousness and experience of political suppression in the poetry of Amado V. Hernandez, he also led the breakaway from the traditionalist poetics represented by the latter. When he published his first major collection, Doktrinang Anakpawis (Gospel of the Oppressed), the book was hailed by Bienvenido Lumbera as the "poetry book of the ’70s," while Teodoro Agoncillo proclaimed him as the legitimate successor of Hernandez.

The rest of his books thus far have continued to plumb unvisited depths and undiscovered territories of the Filipino imagination. His voices are lyric, satiric and epic, and what Dr. Isagani Cruz calls the "semi-epic introspection" of his long, sonorous poems. His influences range from Balagtas to Whitman, Corazon de Jesus to Yeats, Lorca and Eliot, among others.

The destinations of his vigorous and itinerant mind are beyond the merely aesthetic, because both his method and instinct are those of an intense examiner, insistent prospector and prosecutor of the Filipino consciousness, whose purpose is to discover what it is to be Filipino. Adrian Cristobal comments that reading Almario is always like going on an "internal tour of Philippine history."

Despite the separate personae he assigns to the authorship of his poetic and critical works, Almario’s poetry and criticism are inextricably linked. His poetry is informed by his search for what many have thought to be impossible: The finding of the true Filipino poetics; his criticism and research aspire toward the construction and codification of a Filipino literary theory.

Lumbera reminds us that it was Almario who put the word kritisismo in the Filipino language. With his first collection of essays on literary theory, Ang Makata sa Panahon ng Makina, it became clear that Almario was becoming a master, a poet acutely conscious of his poetics. The poet had also become a scholar and critic, charting his own territory beyond the confines of "social realism" by returning to and re-examining the native tradition, chronicling his links and breaks with it, while continuing his own encounters with modern and global literature.

Makata…
has since been followed by critical anthologies that demonstrate the sweep of his scholarly gaze, books that have become academic landmarks and indispensable text on Tagalog poetics. Accordingly, Almario has left an indelible imprint on the continuing examination and re-examination of the Filipino text.

Almario’s literary vision is not only evidenced in his writing but extends to his other vocations: Mentoring, spotting the rough literary talent and helping to polish it by critical motivation and encouragement, publishing and general advocacy for culture.

Within and outside academe, in journalism, publishing and cultural management, Almario has made his presence felt. He has been with the teaching staff of UP Writers Workshop, director of the UP Sentro ng Wikang Filipino, conceptualizer and editor-in-chief of the watershed UP Diksiyonaryong Filipino (2001), and presently director of the UP Likhaan: Institute of Creative Writing (formerly Creative Writing Center).

He has been executive director and editor of the Adarna Books series published by Children’s Communication Center, founding secretary general of the Philippine Board of Books on Young People (PBBY), publisher-editor of the defunct Diyaryo Filipino (the first broadsheet in Filipino) and Filipino Magazin, founding member of the Manila Critics Circle that gives the annual National Book Awards, and former executive director of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA).

Almario’s other devotion, children’s literature, runs parallel to his writing. Aklat Adarna, after the mythical bird, is the first comprehensive children’s book series ever developed in the Philippines. It rekindled interest in children’s literature by other writers, illustrators and publishers. In his involvement with this pioneering program, Almario also became one of the prime movers in developing educational television for children, through the introduction of the Philippine version of Sesame Street.

Virgilio S. Almario, after Alejandro Abadilla, is the first truly engaged modern poet in Tagalog, and in the continually evolving Filipino national language that he champions in a lifetime of practice – in his prodigious poetic work, in his criticism, in his journalism, lexicography and technical writing, in his advocacy and organizational work – all conducted in the Filipino language.

Almario proposes and proves that the Filipino language is as capable as any in expressing with richness and sophistication, with technical rigor and creative opulence, the native and global Filipino intellect and imagination.

Ladies and gentlemen, finally we must note that of the eight previous awardees as National Artist for Literature, seven of these have written in English, and only one, Amado V. Hernandez, has been honored for his literature in Filipino. It is only fair to propose that the time has come to declare another writer in Filipino – in the person of our esteemed colleague Virgilio S. Almario – as a National Artist of the Philippines for Literature.

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Farewell to our respected and muchloved fellow poet, artist and friend, Hilario "Mang Larry" Francia, who passed away last Thursday at the age of 75.

We shall miss him. Only last month, Mang Larry went out of his way to provide research material on the municipality of San Juan, the subject of a book I’m working on. He would ring me up early in the morning to say he had found this or that, or that I should get in touch with this or that person or organization to pursue a particular topic or historical aspect. Such was his generosity as a gentleman-artist.

Thanks again, Mang Larry. And sorry about an unintentionally funny little gaffe I pulled when, in direct response to Rowena Torrevillas’ e-mail on her travel plans for a brief homecoming this month, I couldn’t help but render a brief report on the sad news and subsequent updates by text. My mistake was deciding to add various other addresses of friends here and abroad, and punching SEND without changing Rowena’s original subject heading, which was "Travel Plans." I have since offered a smiling MEA CULPA anent the following report.

"Poet, writer, translator, painter, graphic artist, book designer and gentleman Hilario "Mang Larry" Francia passed away sometime last night or early today, June 4, 2003, as he lay asleep. His landlord at Broadway Court in New Manila found his body after becoming concerned over his non-appearance outside for his usual rituals, or so it’s said. The body is now at the Funeraria Paz morgue, on Araneta Avenue. Cremation is set for tomorrow, June 5, at 2 p.m., after which there will be a two-day wake at Pinaglabanan Church. Friends are planning for necrological rites.

"It seems the landlord rang up the NCCA to inform them about Mang Larry’s passing. Someone from NCCA then called Anvil Publishing’s Karina Bolasco for the phone numbers of his friends.

"Accompanied by his literary manager Billy Lacaba, Nick Joaquin rushed over to Virginia Moreno’s house late in the afternoon to verify initial phone calls and text messages. Adrian and Celina Cristobal were similarly distraught, and had planned, along with most everyone who received the sad news, to go to the possible wake tonight. But alas, the family had decided on a quick cremation. Nick and Billy drank at Cinco Litros in Ermita till 10 p.m., and passed by Funeraria Paz to view Mang Larry’s remains. No one else was there, reported Billy. But tomorrow a lot of us who loved and respected him will be with Mang Larry, either during the cremation or at the wake."

I finished this column early last Friday. The night before, some friends did gather at the first-night wake at Pinaglabanan Church. Celina Cristobal, Nap Jamir, Paolo Manalo and Pete Lacaba were there when we arrived together with Teo Antonio, Marne Kilates, Charlson Ong and Vim Nadera, almost at the same time as Conrad de Quiros and Butch Hilario. Erwin Castillo, Recah Trinidad and Danny Dalena had just left.

Friday night, we expect more friends to join together to bid Mang Larry farewell at the necrological rites. The Ravens will be represented by Adrian Cristobal, Virgie Moreno, Armando Bonifacio and Raul Ingles. Dear Nick will be there as well, we’re sure, and a lot of other friends for whom Hilario S. Francia was the quintessentially beloved and much admired writer-artist.


Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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