29 Jun No Comments Geejay Essays, Issue 43

Verses: A Storm of Filipino Poets

by Eileen R. Tabios

VERSES TYPHOON YOLANDA: A Storm of Filipino Poets

VERSES TYPHOON YOLANDA: A Storm of Filipino Poets Edited By Eileen R. Tabios

Despair. To learn of a drowning mother counseling her child, “Let go” so the child can save herself? The child, I believe, let go. But I also know the child will never be able to let go of that moment…

Or, to learn of a newly-born girl dying days after the typhoon despite her mother and father trading shifts in manually blowing air into her lungs because there was no power …

Subsequent damage estimates would be overwhelming—the numbers are unimaginable even as statistics alone surely elide the effects of the tragedy: 14 million affected, 4 million displaced, 1.1 million houses destroyed, over 3,200 schools damaged and so on.

In response, I, a prolific writer, chose not to write. As a poet, I had zero interest in writing about Typhoon Haiyan or Yolanda. My response was akin to Angelo Lacuesta who wrote a poem, “Pastoral” about Yolanda resulting in a blank page—you can see this sample poem over at BIBLIOTHECA INVISIBILIS (an online archive of the invisible): http://libraryofinvisible.blogspot.com/2014/03/angelo-r-lacuesta.html

But not to write about Typhoon Yolanda is not the same as to remain silent about Typhoon Yolanda. I chose, instead, to edit a fundraising anthology—I asked Filipino poets who, unlike me, were moved to write on (or found older poems that applied to) the tragedy to “donate” poems for a book whose sales profits would go to the survivors of the typhoon. Thus, was born VERSES TYPHOON YOLANDA: A Storm of Filipino Poets (Meritage Press, San Francisco & St. Helena, 2014). More information about the book is available at http://versestyphoonyolanda.blogspot.com

The poet-contributors would come not just from the Philippines but from the diaspora: the United States, Britain, the Netherlands, South Africa. The contributors would come to include an entire class of students at Skyline College in California. The contributors would come to number 133 authors—by any standard, an unusually large number of writers participating in a single book.

All of the writers, I believe, acted from a desire, not just to witness but, to help. To write poems might require witnessing; to fundraise is to help. In this sense, VERSES TYPHOON YOLANDA is a rarity by melding the literary with the activism beyond talk-story, beyond just sharing information. By the time this article goes to press in OOV, I anticipate that profits from the books would have helped at least four groups aiding or representing Yolanda’s survivors: ShelterBox, Yellow Boat of Hope Foundation (who gives aid to fishermen), Panay-Bukidnon Tribes, and National Alliance For Filipino Concerns. Book donations also have been committed to various libraries, churches and hospitals in Tacloban where a book launch is planned on August 8; coordinated by poet-fictionist Almira Gilles, the event is expected to be held at University of the Philippines-Tacloban.

The fundraising aspect of VERSES TYPHOON YOLANDA affected how I approached the project. From the moment I conceived of the anthology, I knew that I would not treat it as only a literary project, that is, I did not want to “judge” submitted poems based on literary merit alone. For that point-of-view would mean that I—on one level—diminished the intention of the poet-submitter to help those afflicted by the typhoon, something I did not wish to do.

Thus, without telling anyone (until this essay for OOV), I decided that I would accept every poem submitted—specifically, I would accept one poem from each poet so that all poet-submitters would be represented. I made this decision even as the approach presented the risk that so many poets would submit that the volume of poems would be unwieldy.

But this risk ended up not being an issue even though the amount of authors involved at 133 is a hefty number (the distinct majority of literary anthologies do not include writers that total more than a hundred). Candidly, I never worried much about this risk—the nature of poetry doesn’t usually translate into an overwhelming volume of interest such that the numbers would be unwieldy. Frankly, I would have welcomed this problem had it arisen as it would have been a nice problem: so many people writing poems! (I also had some ideas on how to address it if it was a problem to create a single book from everybody’s contributions).

I did anticipate that the approach would require me to be proactive in making (gentle) suggestions for improving some of the submitted poems (though the majority of poems didn’t need any editing). In most anthologies and journals I’ve edited in the past, I usually looked at poems as they were sent to me and, except for the simple typo, rarely suggested changes (“improvements” for a poem is often subjective). In any event, befitting my faith in the talent of Filipino poets, I feel all of the poems published in VERSES TYPHOON YOLANDA are valid.

I also was not in a position to judge the literary merit of the poems submitted in Filipino languages: Filipino, Cebuano/Bisaya, Waray, and Hiligaynon. I depended on the authors’ English translations. But I did feel it important to represent Filipino in the anthology—I thought it a more respectful treatment. I also wanted a collaborative, community-oriented approach: in addition to relying on the Filipino language poets, I asked all participants for title suggestions. Indeed, I thank Luisa A. Igloria for being the one to suggest the final title for the anthology.

Notwithstanding my openness to doing so, I didn’t end up publishing all submitted poems. But none were rejected. The poems that didn’t end up in the anthology were those whose authors did not provide English translations or who never replied to my follow-up emailed queries.

Ultimately, each of the 133 poems in the book ended up being important to contributing to a sum-effect much greater than the parts. That is, they all contributed to a narrative arc that create a portrait of Typhoon Yolanda’s effect—a portrait much more complex and expansive than most of the media coverage of the disaster. It is an effect that would not have been possible had I approached the anthology project more conventionally rather than choosing to trust in the power of Filipino poetry. To quote poet-scholar Leny M. Strobel from her Preface to the anthology,

“In these one hundred and thirty-three poems, we are invited to shed tears and see and feel more closely and deeply our Story as a people. There are connections to be made: the location of our islands on the typhoon belt, the impact of climate change on island nations, the arrogance of the global north and refusal to reckon with climate refugees, the history of supremacy and the colonizing gaze that engulfs all in its path, the numbing effects of consuming, and the internalized shame and oppression of folks on the receiving end of dominating narratives.

“Yet our Story as a people in the face of Yolanda speaks of something other than the ways in which CNN has reported about us. The poems in this anthology hint at this, teases out the ineffable, and makes us ponder.”

*****

I’d like to present just one example of the powerful poems in VERSES TYPHOON YOLANDA. Here is a poem in the chained hay(na)ku form, itself a Filipino diasporic poetic form which you can read more about at http://haynakupoetry.blogspot.com

Jazmin
By Aileen Ibardaloza

You
cannot howl
like the wind.

You
can only
stand mute like

a
half deaf
girl standing in

the
middle of
a decimated town

after
a seventeen-
foot storm surge

killed
thousands, and
displaced thousands more.

Jazmin,
the girl
from Samar, who

is
deaf in
one ear, is

muted
by the
howl of her

remaining
family members.
How could they

have
prepared for
this? How to

survive
like they
always have on

one
hundred dollars
a month. But

they
were a
family of nine

then.
How not
to howl like

the
wind. Be
like a flower

instead.
White petalled,
and sweetly fragrant.

This is a poem with which one can directly relate simply through the reading experience. But in sharing some background notes from the poet, one can glean the powerful root-source from which Aileen Ibardaloza performed her poetic alchemy:

In “Jazmin” (pronounced Haz-meen), I chose to allude to how poverty has intensified the socioeconomic consequences of Yolanda. “Jazmin / the girl / from Samar, who / is / deaf in / one ear…” grapples with loss and an uncertain future – she hails from a province where poverty incidence is at 55.4%, in a country that has been ranked by a UN agency as the third most vulnerable to climate change. In a nutshell, poverty has made her more susceptible to all disasters, man-made or otherwise, and all disasters effectively ensure that is kept in abject poverty. Breaking this cycle requires an adaptive social protection framework that supports and strengthens sustainable, climate change-resilient livelihoods.

*****

I love books. But VERSES TYPHOON YOLANDA (VTY) is a book I wish never had to exist.

I’ve released over 20 books as an author. VTY also is my tenth anthology as editor or curator. I’ve always enjoyed the book production process—seeing the birth of a new book. However, VTY’s book production process was the first time I didn’t enjoy this period in a book’s creation. I received great support from Michelle Bautista, a VTY contributor who designed the book. But in proofing the book, I had to keep rereading the poems. Later in the process, I didn’t have to keep rereading all the poems but in doing my checks I usually always had to deal with the opening poem. Well, it was just bludgeoning to have to read the book’s first poem at least 25 times before the production process was finished—a book’s opening is important and I kept checking it to make sure I made the right choice in setting the tone I desired as editor. Here, then, is VTY’s first poem—its reference to “cardboard” at times brought me to tears:

Lament
By Jennifer Madriaga

You have become driftwood.
Only the sea knows the full story
of how you were battered and
shaped into death, limbs twisted,
lungs saturated with brine.
Then you were tossed aside
as the sea retreated and forgot
its viciousness.

But you are loved
though I do not know your name,
only that you were too frail
for the fury of the sea.

I love you in your stillness as
the living cover you with cardboard
to shelter you from the sun and
the gaze of shocked survivors.

I love you and the Universe
you once contained, which include
memories of the sea and its splendor,
its varying shades of blue and gray
depending on the day.

You are precious to me, and
you are not forgotten.
You still ride in the current of life
as I type this, as my heart feels full
at knowing the ending of your story.

*****

Dear Reader, you, too, can help in at least two ways:

1) Purchase the book through Meritage Press’ Lulu account at http://www.lulu.com/shop/eileen-tabios/verses-typhoon-yolanda-a-storm-of-filipino-poets/paperback/product-21515174.html , and/or

2) use the book for (part of) a fundraiser for Yolanda survivors. In the case of the latter, I and Meritage Press are willing to sell the book at cost and have you keep the profits for use in your fundraising (for more information or any other facets of the book, contact me at MeritagePress@aol.com).

© Eileen R. Tabios