How did I cope with the now 19-month old pandemic?
Since there was very little arts reporting to be done with all the theaters closed and the performing artists immobilized, I turned to an old passion: poetry.
I am not exactly a stranger to poetry.
In Catanduanes where I was born and where I grew up, I read Edna St. Vincent Millay and Walt Whitman courtesy of an American Peace Corps volunteer named William Keating.
In 1971, my first published poem appeared in Sunday Times Magazine. It went thus:
Someone dropped a coin, the needle
Lifted and a polyphony of sounds came
Blasting in the early dawn.
“Oh, let it be, let it be…”
I thought the lyrics struck a familiar chord
Rich in human experience. The lyrics could
Be sheer poetry of the folks if only the
Machine would tone down a bit and give
Your ears a break.
“Seeking words of wisdom…”
Good phrasing, indeed! It could have
Been Russell or Goethe speaking. It
Reminds me of Aiken whose thoughts
Lost in the depths of the deep sea
Would find himself in the long maze
Of confusing corridors, blind alleys that
Lead to nowhere.
Somewhere along the song I asked:
Who am I? Why has life grown so bad?
What is good and what is bad?
Then I heard the final line:
“Oh, let it be…”
After 50 years in March 2020, I resumed writing poetry during the long lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
At year’s end, my poem “Ode to Frontliners” appeared on a marker dedicated to health workers. It was unveiled on my birthday (December 30) by Pasig City Mayor Vico Sotto with a special program complete with marching bands.
Two days after the inauguration of Joe Biden as US President, my poem, “A Poet is a Lonely Hunter,” appeared on the FB timeline of the celebrated young poet Amanda Gorman. I greeted her with this poem.
In February 2021, I was one of the speakers at the University of the Philippines Baguio (UPB) symposium on the subject of poetry in the time of the pandemic. By this time, I had written about hunger on the streets, how people lost jobs and my personal reaction to how the government was dealing with the pandemic. I turned in quiet poems in the beginning, but they turned angry as I saw public servants badly and ineptly coping with the health crisis.
My poems took notice of the empty streets that brought in temporary peace and quiet in the neighborhood. I thought of the people lining up outside pawnshops and jobless breadwinners coping with hunger in the family. I was touched deeply by the news of this boy who offered his school medals for sale to be able to feed his family. I paid tribute to people in the city walking and biking their way back to their hometowns for days on end. I did not spare myself. I wrote about my own mortality and how I would fare when it was my turn to be hospitalized or wheeled into the nearest crematorium.
I even confronted death when it happened to my second daughter, Kerima.
When I paused to look at what I’ve posted on FB after 17 months, I realized that I had already written close to more than 300 poems and counting.
This year, two of my poems made it to the Singapore-published anthology, The Best Asian Poetry 2021 edited by Sudeep Sen.
Writing poetry between 1 and 6 a.m. has become a habit. It is not an earthshaking thing. But I know it is a good start as any to go ahead and explore the heart and soul of poetry. I know I can still get better.
Looking back, I realized the pandemic has allowed me the isolation I need after years of weekly deadlines covering the arts from music to dance and cinema.
At age 72 and turning 73 on December 30, I know I don’t have much time. Moreover, old age has never been a reference point when I write poetry. You are surprised you acquire glimpses of wisdom not easily accessible to the young.
But why write poems on FB?
During the pandemic, the only medium available to me was what almost everybody was into these days– Facebook. Unlike waiting for reviews for printed poetry books, you get instant feedback in FB. I rued then that I will not wait for months or years to find a publisher and find my voice as a poet. The social media, though not perceived as a respectable literary platform, was there and offering a worldwide audience for free! I was ready to be eaten by both the young and seasoned lions of the craft. I also know I am not alone in this endeavor. I learned that poets from California to New York found a new calling by posting verses to comfort families grappling with pandemic fears and the fight against racial injustice.
After 46 years of covering the arts, I found myself living and breathing poetry with an unlikely setting–the pandemic. It is not the best time to appreciate poetry when everybody is preoccupied with just surviving. But Gorman’s appearance at the Washington D.C. presidential inaugural was a big media exposure for poets and poetry. It took a 22-year-old poet to do it.
What did I get out of writing poetry?
Materially, not much.
Poetry cannot pay the rent; it cannot raise one’s per capita income. But one distinguished netizen posted something about my poems which perfectly summed up how I felt about my second rebirth in poetry: “I am happy your poetry has allowed you to have an overdue reunion with your soul.”
(The author’s first book of poetry – “Love, Life and Loss — Poems During the Pandemic” – will come out in December 2021. For inquiries, text 09065104270 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org)