(Excerpts from a lecture delivered by the author on the subject — Responding to the Pandemic Through Poetry – sponsored by the University of the Philippines Baguio City, Feb. 22, 2021.)
By Pablo A. Tariman
First of all, I would like to thank Ms. Fara Martia Manuel-Nolasco — chair, Committee on Culture and the Arts, University of the Philippines Baguio – for inviting me to this timely symposium.
The theme of the symposium is called DEMJA which in Ibaloi means “open the eyes after a long time.”
I pretty much relate to the theme because my poetry output during the pandemic was literally an act of re-opening my (poetic) eyes after a silence of almost 50 years.
My last published poem appeared in the 1971 issue of the Sunday Times Magazine.
The chair of the UP committee on culture and the arts noted that two of my latest poems – “If You Can’t Write A Poem” and “Ode To Frontliners” — carry “valuable observations that show how the world shifted amidst the ongoing crisis.”
I can say that my second literary life ushered in by the pandemic shifted dramatically during the beginning of the lockdown.
With newspapers no longer keen on getting the services of contributors for cost-cutting reasons, I slowed down on bread-and-butter stories, feasted on musicians offering comfort music on the internet.
One day, I saw an image of pets in an Iloilo household. There’s a dog, a piglet and cat in harmony with each other in the owners’ living room.
Then I found myself writing a short ode to animals and humans.
My early output reflected a lot on how I was reacting from my solitary world early in my pandemic existence. With only a grandson and my little garden as refuge, I realized I was thrown in a situation that never happened to me before.
Then I saw empty streets. Then empty churches. Empty schools. Empty train coaches. And empty shopping malls.
These were all described in my poem Marooned which came out in Vera Files.
After nearly a year of lockdown, I have written quite a lot, which surprised me. I don’t keep track of poems as though they were precious coins from a cash register. Only when I was seriously thinking of a book of poems that I realized I have actually written a lot.
I wrote about hunger on the streets, how people lost jobs and my personal reaction on how the government is dealing with the pandemic.
My quiet poems in the beginning turned angry as I see public servants faring badly in coping with the situation.
One of them, The Heart of Fury, turned viral and got powerful reactions that I didn’t expect.
Another poem, Grief Without Words, also turned viral and was liked by over 6,000 netizens with very emotional reactions that I thought poems would never get on the internet.
Frankly, I have no illusions my initial output would be something worth placing on the literary pedestal.
I write from pure instinct early in the morning and never stopped up to this day.
Until I got the feedback, I realized I didn’t do too badly on my second life as a poet.
I get swamped with people asking permission to use my poems in film docus, in anthologies and even in Human Rights documentations.
Then online magazines asked for interviews on how I found a second literary life in poetry and referred to me as the unlikely Bard of Social Media.
Then some poems found spaces in national dailies, notably the Manila Bulletin.
At year’s end, someone from the Office of the City Mayor of Pasig requested me if I could write a poem dedicated to frontliners to be used in a marker to be unveiled on Rizal Day (Dec. 30) which fell on my birthday. For the first time in my literary life, my poem dedicated to frontliners was given a special program complete with marching band with the special presence of a young mayor I highly respect – Mayor Vico Sotto.
Until I read the feedbacks, I didn’t know how my poems will be received.
To be sure, the pandemic allowed me the isolation I needed after years of weekly deadlines covering the seven arts from music to dance and cinema.
What prodded me to write those poems with sizable weekly output?
I am just as vulnerable as the rest of humans caught in lockdown.
I knew my sources of income are down to just a few publications and at age 72, I fear I didn’t have much time.
Old age has never been a reference point when writing poetry but you are surprised you acquire glimpses of wisdom not easily accessible to young writers.
You see death more like phases of redemption in another life and part of a cycle of life. When you were younger, you used to fear it. At my age now, I can confront it and I fare better using the medium of poetry. What I cannot confront with pure prose, I felt I can do better in poetry.
But why write poems on FB?
During the pandemic, the only medium available to me was what almost everybody was into these days – Facebook.
I rued then that I will not wait for months and years to find my voice as a poet. The social media is not known as a respectable literary platform. But it is the only platform available to me during the pandemic. Of course I was ready to be eaten by the lions of the craft.
I know I am not alone.
I also learned that poet laureates from California to New York found a new calling posting verses to comfort families grappling with pandemic fears and the fight against racial injustice.
But at my age now, I don’t treat poetry as a competition between seasoned writers and the aspiring ones.
The truth is I learn a lot reading young poets and I am always in awe of their craft.
But I do believe every poet belongs to a certain audience and a certain time with subjects reflective of their generation.
Mine is a very private act of expressing myself and exorcising my own aging psyche.
I like it when I can express fear and uncertainties in another medium and surprisingly get a good feedback.
After 45 years covering the living arts, I found myself living and breathing poetry with an unlikely setting – the pandemic.
What did I get out of this pandemic preoccupation?
Not much though.
Poetry can’t pay rent and it can’t raise per capita income.
But one reader wrote something which sums up how I feel about poetry.
Wrote a netizen: “Your poetry certainly allowed you to have an overdue reunion with your soul.”