POETRY,  FLOWERS,  BIG BUDDHA,  AND  ICE  CREAM

MANILA, March 30, 2006 (STAR) KRIPOTKIN By Alfred A. Yuson - I suddenly felt like a waiter who had just asked someone very important how he would like his prime rib. Seamus Heaney, Nobel Prize poet, had just told me over a dining table: "Well done, well done."

In truth he was referring to my reading at the Fringe Club Studio on the third day of the MAN Hong Kong International Literary Festival conducted from March 6 to 15. Now, the legendary Irish poet was voicing the compliment across a small Formica-top table in a modest wonton eatery at Wanchai, where we were led on the start of a pub crawl by poet and festival organizer Dave McKirdy.

The company included resident poet-educators Martin Alexander and Tim Kaiser, as well as Ian Candy, a magistrate who was also a literature lover. We had soup with a surfeit of long noodles that Seamus and I (Hah! Such savory opportunity for namedropping!) had a little difficulty slurping, or truncating with our chopsticks.

The table also groaned with vegetable dishes and tall Tsingtao beer bottles, over which the talk turned as cheerily frenetic as the consumption of our late-dinner fare. Festival speaker Charles Foran, who had come all the way from Canada, joined us as we wound down on our slurps and gulps.

The crawl had begun on a couple of cabs from the Fringe Club at Central to Wanchai, where we got off and surveyed the glittering streetscape that featured an assortment of girlie bars and commercial shops. Sexy Filipina GROs displaying their gams outside their club tried to inveigle us to step inside. Offering smiles and polite refusal, we made "Pasintabi po" through the curbside’s charming gauntlet.

Up we went a decrepit building’s narrow flight of stairs to enter a tattoo shop. Surveying the splendiferous array of designs, we spoke in hushed tones, in the manner of literary footnotes, before releasing ourselves from the manager’s entreaties for us to design our own. Then we walked another block and crossed the street to Dave’s fave noodle house.

It didn’t even seem to have a name. As we stepped out to gather cabs anew, Seamus looked up to read a sign that said Spaghetti House, which must have referred to an upstairs resto. "So that’s what I should remember we dined in," he quipped.

Then we were off to Lan Kwai Fong, that trendy strip bustling with nightspots for yuppies and tourists. We settled on Balalaika, as Seamus liked vodka. It had a special feature, an "ice room" which we entered only after being given fur coats – not just for the photo ops. The rest of the night, till nearly 2 a.m., was spent sousing up on beers, vodka, and single malt whisky from my discreet and trusty flask.

Not much of a pub crawl, one might say. But for variety it was tops: from a poetry hall to a tattoo shop to a noodle house to an ice room and bar, and with the very game, very genial Mr. Heaney as premier company… Why, what a night!

Marjorie Evasco had flown in two days earlier, to catch the festival start that featured a lecture by Mr. Heaney. On mid-afternoon of Wednesday, March 8, she joined an all-women’s reading to celebrate International Women’s Day, at a program billed as "Half the Sky" conducted at the China Club. Marj recounted how Marie Heaney, Seamus’ better half, had climaxed the reading with an Irish song, done a cappella.

Later that day, Martin Alexander picked us up at our hotel in Causeway Bay, together with the Canadian poet-memoirist Karen Connelly, for our reading program billed as "Rhyme Across Time."

It was Dave McKirdy’s idea to have "local" poets first read works by big names such as Pablo Neruda, Maya Angelou, Heaney and Rumi on the themes of "Mind and Spirit," "Freedom, War, Home, and Family," and "Love," to which each of us four featured readers, including Martin, would respond individually with our poems dwelling on the same themes. Dave also chose music pieces to set the mood for each thematic segment.

And I must say that we all did very well indeed before an enthused audience of nearly a hundred people who sat in ascending tiers in the intimate hall. It included fellow Pinoys Carla Pacis and Reni Singer who attended the festival’s writing-for-children programs, and five lady students from De La Salle who couldn’t allow mentor Marj a few days off from Taft Avenue.

The supreme compliment came from Seamus, of course, later that night, and I like to think that he expressed it apropos our entire ensemble of readers, for truly it had been a magical evening. I was also reminded, while Seamus wasn’t exactly holding court at Balalaika, unprepossessing as he was, of an anecdote from Ateneo poet-teacher Danton Remoto.

In 1992 while at Stirling University in Scotland, Danton had attended, with writer-editor Tina Cuyugan, a book launching of Heaney’s Selected Poems. As Danton was having his copy signed, the Irish poet was chewing on a brownie, crumbs of which fell between the pages of Danton’s copy. He quickly closed the book, entrapping those crumbs, before walking away in beatific contentment. I wouldn’t doubt that Danton still keeps those brownie crumbs that fell from Seamus Heaney’s mouth.

All throughout our binge that night, I had to hold myself back from recounting that episode to Mr. Heaney. Instead, I imagined that Danton had presaged "The Blackbird of Glanmore," Heaney’s new poem in his forthcoming collection District and Circle due out this year. From its closing lines: "Hedge-hop, I am absolute/ For you, your ready talkback,/ Your each stand-offish comeback,/ Your picky, nervy goldbeak –/ O the grass where I arrive,// In the ivy when I leave."

And so it came full circle, the Irish-Filipino poetry connection, when at that ice room Seamus noted that I hadn’t taken my vodka shot entire. Before I could protest, a deft move had him pluck, like a blackbird, the shot glass from my hand, and quickly downed it before giving thanks. Ha-ha! Salut! A half-shot of Absolut in exchange for brownie crumbs.

The festival’s other big-ticket items included novelist Robert Elegant, whose dialogue with Kunal Basu, another exponent of historical fiction, I caught at Olympic House on March 9, in a doubleheader that also featured the celebrated writer Pico Iyer in a delightful, absolutely witty give-and-take with Hong Kong’s primetime toastmaster, writer and editor, Nury Vittachi.

Booker Prize winner for 2005 John Banville was also expected for talks and readings on the second week. Other notable speakers and readers were Su Tong (Raise the Red Lantern), Tarun Tejpal (The Alchemy of Desire), the young and well-acclaimed Nell Freudenberger (Lucky Girls), Australian aborigine and memoirist Doris Pilkington, Chinese-American Gish Jen, science fiction writer Armand Leroi, novelist Brian Castro who changed base from Hong Kong to Australia, Spanish author José Carlos Samoza, Mexican journalist Elena Poniatowska, Kiriyama Prize winner and Pulitzer Prize finalist Suketu Mehta, children’s stories author Minfong Ho, our very own children’s author Gidget Jimenez, and Ayu Utami, whose sensual novel Saman has sold over 100,000 copies in Indonesia. Many other writers were in attendance.

On Saturday, March 11, a panel discussion billed as "Making Waves in Asian Literature" was chaired by Jane Camens, with Ayu, myself, and Chris Tao (pseudonym for a diplomat whose novel is set in Burma) as the speakers. A pity that Ayu had arrived only that day, as our respective earthy readings and common friends (Indonesian poets and Filipino journalist Marites Vitug, with whom Ayu had enjoyed an Asian Public Intellectual stint in Japan) could have led to stronger camaraderie.

Four days and three nights at a lit fest in Hong Kong can prove quite hectic, especially since another, equally buoyant display offered competition: the annual Hong Kong Flower Show at Victoria Park. There I found myself one afternoon, jostling with a thick crowd of what looked like Chinese mainland matrons who thought nothing of elbowing a male gardener aside to get up close to those fantabulous orchid varieties, the cryptanthus and other epiphytes, the fancy gourds and black corn on sale, in booth after booth, as well the elegant central displays of horticulture turned into elephants, fish, octopus and jellyfish.

One thing I noted: the schoolchildren out on tour with their teacher-guides were not only perfectly uniformly accoutered, but extremely well-behaved, falling in line with nary a sound, and only occasionally gushing over some incredibly shaped topiary.

Wish I could say the same of the DLSU 5 – Ida, Bea, Happy, Kitkat and Chanelle – whom Marj entrusted in my chaperoning care when she left a day and a half earlier. On an invite from journalist and long-time Hong Kong resident Isabel Taylor Escoda, I escorted the energetic troupe to Lantau Island (clad in my Ateneo parka, of course, so they’d know whose broad back to follow) to climb up a hundred steps to reach the Big Buddha (reputedly the largest in the world, if it’s not a close second to the one in Kamakura, Japan). Thank Buddha heavens the long-missed artist Arnel Agawin came along to share the ice cream cones that came as a ticket bonus for reaching Buddha’s shadow. I’m sure a poem’s in the offing over that possibly Tantric connection.

On the white-sand Silvermine Beach we had a fine picnic lunch, after which the Greenies made out like Mary Poppins before the surf, twirling their souvenir paper umbrellas in glorious hang time.

That evening we attended the launch of Asia Literary Review, which replaced the former Dimsum literary journal, with Nury Vittachi keeping on as editor. Then it was wine, beer, whisky and pulutan at the Foreign Correspondents Club’s live jazz bar with the DLSU 5, whose IDs I first had to check before ordering the booze. A fine night, too, with poetry talk jamming well with guitar, keyboard, drums and sexy saxophone.

Then on the last day it was touching base with Jane Camens anew (she’s announcing a new Asian literary prize soon), meeting up with Ayu Utami and Chris Tao if briefly, bidding farewell and thanks to Dave McKirdy whose birthday it was, to be celebrated with an Open Mic poetry reading at the Fringe Club, which unfortunately I couldn’t stay around for that evening.

Memorable it will be, that hiatus in Hong Kong. Well done, indeed.


Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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