Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

These are our times -about human vulnerability



-------- Original Message --------
Subject: Re: World Poetry Movement
Date: Tue, 8 Jan 2013 15:02:48 +0800
From: merlie alunan 

Dear Hatto,
The last year and the new ended and opened respectively with horrifying notes, and elsewhere, away from the safety of my writing room, the haven where I live my lonely solitary life, awaiting it must be, surely the inevitable end--but not thinking of it, a guest neither welcome nor feared--wars are being fought, crimes are perpetrated, children are dying from neglect, violence, greed they cannot understand. Rough winds are blowing, razing the fragile shelters of the unfortunate, mountains melt in the flood, seas breach their bounds, droughts turn land into deserts, earthquakes shake the grounds we stand on. You wrote to me about the European aid for the victims of Typhon Bopha. Until now, two towns in Mindanao, demolished by the storm are struggling to recover. We have sent in what help we can, while ourselves are daily threatened--my island home lies in the pathway of all the storms that ever enter into the area of Philippine's responsibility. In the wake of Bopha, barely three weeks apart another storm ripped through the country causing floods, loss of agricultural products, destruction of farmlands, and now we have that to recover from that again.
But this is not why I have not responded to three or four of your letters. Early in December I set myself a deadline to finish cleaning up a manuscript for publication. The publisher has recommended certain revisions and I have actually been working on them over the months. I was ready to input the revisions. But I found out I had to review the entire manuscript to put everything in place. This is a book on the oral narratives of Leyte (my island home, my province). Leyte speaks a language called Waray, one of five major Visayan languages, distinct from Filipino dubbed as the National Language. I might have written you once that my country has on record 170 languages. More of these languages are on the verge of extinction, spoken by small tribal groups in the hinterlands who live off the mainstream and who have no means to defend their language from extinction. Waray is probably not ready to say die, but until recently, people have stopped writing in the language, except for a few diehards, mostly grassroots poets who have been writing by rote (my own term), copying what they heard from older writers. One of the most respected writers in the Philippines today, Dr. Resil Mojares, calls this _mitotic writing,_ that is, blind imitation of ill-understood literary forms. We can only call these as residual poetics for no one actually reads them today, nor even try to understand the logic of these forms. Twenty years ago, I decided to teach myself to write in Cebuano, another Visayan language, spoken in the southern part of the Philippine Archipelago, including the large island of Mindanao.

So now I write in two languages, in English, and in Cebuano. I do not have enough mastery of Waray to write in it, but I have enough to allow me to compile and edit a book in Waray. By this round-about way I make you understand why I had to grimly focus myself these last six weeks on this book, looking up only now and then for the obligatory rituals of the holidays--Christmas dinner, the feast of the New Year, and silly conversations with my three-month old granddaughter.   This lonely solitary task is a gesture of resistance against the depletion and deterioration of mother languages in the Philippines. I took up this advocacy twenty years ago when I began encouraging my students to write in their mother tongues--Waray it has to be, since the last thirty years of my teaching life was here in Tacloban City, Leyte.
That advocacy has been rewarded--in 2010 to 2011, five slim volumes of poetry were published, written by young people between the ages of 24 to 35--this after almost fifty years when virtually nothing came out of this culture. The publication of these oral narratives represents an effort to retrieve the voices of the home-grown story teller. What can these stories teach us, teach the young Filipino. At the very least it can show us language in action. The sociologist can discover in these stories a wealth of information on social interrelationships, human relationships with nature, our sense of the sacred, our aspirations, our metaphors for the good life, the good man, our apprehensions of evil.
There is a way in which the word, the story, delivers these apprehensions. Our intellectuals in the country have often decried our lack of philosophy--our religion, our rituals, our gestures of art are imitative and derivative from Western resources. Is it because we have not tried to search for this philosophy in the very ways in which we use our own languages to describe our own experiences? For no doubt implicit in the nature of our languages are embedded notions, attitudes, feelings which no other language in the world, no matter how sophisticated, can ever pick up and reflect. As you may notice, I speak, write, and think in English, but when I shift to my native tongue, I get in touch with nuances which English cannot ever express. When I learned to write in Cebuano, I can reflect feelings which I cannot project in my poems in English, especially those touching native life.   This week, the nation is aghast to learn about a man who went about his neighborhood indiscriminately shooting eight people down, even children, for no apparent reason but that he wanted to do. On New Year's Eve, a little girl was hit by a stray bullet and died 38 hours after. No one knows whose gun it came from. People have killed for food, for the right to land, air and water. What do you call the man who kills for sport, to prove that he can enjoy the most splendid power of all--to deal death with his own hands? The man who kills for his depraved sense of honor? Or the man who cold- bloodedly plots the death of thousands for an ideology, for a religion, even for profit? On occasions when these events happen, we search our minds for words to say, but there never are correct words to say. Rather we must search our minds to discover how human life has become so cheap and so easily hostaged to a single man's caprice. Or how such a man should rise in our midst and turn his murderous weapons against the innocent. For surely any one of us could do what he has done, any one who has the same brain, heart, hands could turn against his kind and act the murderer, for the same institutions that produced this man also produced us. There is a disconnect between such a man and the random world who become his victims.   What can the poet do against this? What an awful question to face. For the poet, surely, is the most ordinary of persons, the most powerless, the world thinks he has nothing to tell. What people need is solid, material, urgent--food, medicine, a safe place to stay, clothing, work for their hands. The poet cannot produce any of these. Yet I must dedicate my days and my ebbing strength to making this book possible. For the children I won't even see. For a future I don't know will ever happen.   Yet you have faith in these, my friends. I rest my faith with you. If poets join voices across the world, perhaps the world will listen to these stray voices becoming one, seeking from the noise and turbulence of our times, the simple song of humankind.   May the year be kinder to us and may the work of our hands and heart prosper.   Merlie  


Athens 9.1.2013

Dear Merlie,

thanks for writing to us such a detailed account of the situation in the Philippines. It made me quiver in part because it does touch upon the plain fact how precarious is life and ever more so
when natural catastrophes combine forces with social, political and economic ones, so that no escape seems possible.

And it seems to be a continual situation, for Menna in Wales wrote her little observation:

"I read in the Phillippines - Manila and Ilo Ilo -- about a decade ago
and was aware of the vulnerability of their situation. In fact I think I
inspired a few to keep on writing in Tagalog -- alongside English."

Indeed, 'vulnerability' is a key word by which human beings can and do give themselves self recognition. Unfortunately, this aspect has also led to all sorts of myths about greatness - a basic denial of this human truth. Invincibility as with Achilles meant but one little flaw on his
body due to a leave which came floating down while he was washed with that special protective oil, meant hubris. The latter leads to human fate, if ignored.

Without wishing to over extend thoughts linking Ancient Greece to our present, it is critical that poets do keep reminding others of their vulnerabilities even while they may themselves be the first ones to be exposed to shifting powers and means of survival.

When I came to the United States in 2003, the after effect of 911 was still fully to be felt. Security measures at the border were tight. Home security patrolled everywhere. The United States had been caught off guard. And more important, suddenly even New York, long a haven for migrants fleeing impossible conditions such as the Jews Nazi Germany, looked vulnerable. More than anything this blow to the self belief of the United States that it was so great that no one would dare to attack it, came to the fore. It would have been more important rather than
going to war in Afghanistan and Iraq, to face this question of vulnerability at a much more humble level, at home, in terms of not playing merely the victim of a terrorist attack, but someone with responsibility as to what is being done in the name of 'security'. At that time I developed while lecturing at the Chicago Art Institute some theses concerning vulnerability. You may look it up to consult if some of the basic ideas there can and do apply to our current thinking in need of some definite adaptation to what tasks lie ahead.


To come then to the various types of vulnerabilities you mentioned, there is this important one of languages, languages which exist as you describe at a bare minimum with but a few trying to write down some of the thoughts expressed when sitting in the evening around some cooking

I think together with what Mena and Waqas, but also Gabriel attribute to be the power of poetry does depend upon becoming free of some kind of 'neutrality' (is it inscribed in the English language as the 'master' of all languages?), in order to 'feel' the words we use in relation to the meanings we wish to convey.

As said, I have been down with a bad cold for the past days and during one of my wildest dreams I had someone pull a joke on me. It was about a poem demanding to cough out the names of the poets but instead of audible names coming out of the hoarse throat, I tried to test the limits of the English language. And then came through my German. It means an affirmation of what we can convey to others in our own language, and through which we relate to the world as if some infinite space. Thus it matters that English has, for example, only 'experience' as one word while in German we have 'Erfahrung' (basic experience after working many years in
a profession like Dileep as doctor) and 'Erlebnisse' (subjective moments like experiencing the birth of a child).

Since the letter of yours does provide a profound insight into your dedication with something to show for it at that, and five books of poetry in original languages at that is no simple feat, I want to say invaluable is that you share that with us and even explain it to us in English. I can see you learning the other language or Cebuano, one of the Visayan languages. All this, I would dare to say, puts also translation into another focus. My experience has been, and here Menna
in her paper says it so well, we can speak in our own languages but still have the ease of translating each other, so as to facilitate communication and give evidence to the existence of so many world languages. The many that exist in the Philippine alone is an astonishing
revelation to me. It brings me back to what I had wondered about from the very start, for how did mankind end up with such a diverse communication network and each language having the ability to communicate with ease, as would put it the Polish journalist Kapuscinski, with other languages and therefore with the outer world. It means the different languages do not really need one language to communicate with each other, but as Waqas puts it English as 'master'
language poses a crucial question on how this is going to be handled in future.

Before ending this letter, I want to repeat something which Gabriel has heard already from me. Maybe some of you know James Clifford, an anthropologist who wrote the book 'Predicament of Culture'. In that book - a collection of essays with one being about Indians unable to prove their own identity at court and thus their way of using land goes unrecognized while that of private owners is recognized - he mentions Josef Conrad who indicated through his life three languages: Polish as the language of origin since he was born in Poland, French as language
of desire after he fell in love with a French woman and went with her to Africa, and English as the language of social norm which he observed once he married a British woman and moved to England to start writing only in English. The conclusion of that has been we all have different
identities in other languages.

And to conclude with what Menna writes since it links to the marvellous essay by Waqas:
"I have recently translated a Panjabi play from English into Welsh called ' Tiptoes of a lifetime' ( Tirmazi Mazar) and it's all about the partition of India/Pakistan in 1947. It's an interesting account and I always like to show that Wales isn't only bilingual but also multi lingual ( as there are strong Indian and Pakistan communities in Wales)."

With warmest regards


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