Category Archives: Uncategorized

Hope and Memory

On 18 September, 10am ET, the online Zoom event for the announcement of the manuscript that would win the 2022 Gaudy Boy Poetry Book Prize started. The organisers of the prize, Singapore Unbound and Gaudy Boy Press, are based in New York.

It was 4pm in Cape Town, South Africa where I was, half a world away from my country of birth, the Philippines which is six hours ahead. By the time I was about to read, the son and namesake of the former dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, was landing in New Jersey. It was his first time to return to the USA where numerous legal cases had been filed against him and his family. But he was untouchable, having gained diplomatic immunity as the supposed president of the Philippines in the recent elections which “failed to meet the international standard of a free, honest and fair election” according to the International Observer Mission.

On 21 September 1972, the late dictator announced martial law in the country. His regime was brought to a dramatic end when the people chased his family out of the presidential palace in 1986. Now the Marcos family appears to be back in power, propped up by the brutal legacy of the Duterte regime. They are once again flaunting their excesses without a hint of remorse for all those years of tormenting a people.

So on that day, as part of the five shortlisted poets for the Gaudy Boy Poetry Book Prize, I decided to highlight particular poems from my manuscript, Waking Up to the Pattern Left by a Snail Overnight, that hoped to revisit the martial law years. With my voice quaking, I read from a prepared text:

This September marks the 50th anniversary of the declaration of Martial Law in the Philippines by the late deposed dictator Ferdinand Marcos. The lies that continue to be spread by Cambridge Analytica-trained social media handlers of the Marcoses will keep trying to decimate the memory of those who fought the regime.

My manuscript doesn’t just tackle martial law, but I chose these particular poems today to highlight the anniversary of the declaration.

I did not think my manuscript would win. For many years my country of birth, sad to say, never really took to my work as I had hoped. I have had more recognition in South Africa and elsewhere. I was told not just a few times to consider stopping putting out books, for who reads them anyway?

Days after the announcement, sometimes even when I’m driving, I would still suddenly be struck by a surge of emotion not unlike when I momentarily remembered a loved one who had just died. But this time, instead of tremendous grief, it was of overflowing joy.

I will have to keep reading this press release to remind myself that maybe I should keep writing no matter what happens:

What presence, what exquisite sensitivity. Such perspicacity of mind and heart illuminates Jim Pascual Agustin’s crystalline poems. Masterfully observed, shone through with Zen penetration, these songs of innocence and experience divine a universe of complex lives lived, torn asunder, celebrated, and mended. You are enveloped in these entirely believable scenarios filled with people and creatures finding themselves in everyday moments, and extraordinary circumstances. With a few deft strokes, many of the poems here range far and delve inwards. Politics, nationality, identity, family, laws of nature – everything everywhere all at once, yet intimately, pulsatingly at home.
Prize Citation by judge Yeow Kai Chai

Thank you, Yeow Kai Chai, for finding something worthy in my work. Thank you, Jee Leong Koh and the wonderful team behind the Gaudy Boy Poetry Book Prize.

Books by Jim Pascual Agustin

Bloodred Dragonflies (Deep South, 2022/San Anselmo Publications, 2022)

Crocodiles in Belfast & other poems (San Anselmo Publications, 2020)

How to Make a Salagubang Helicopter & other poems (San Anselmo Publications, 2019)

Wings of Smoke (The Onslaught Press, 2017)

Sanga sa Basang Lupa at iba pang kuwento (University of Sto. Tomas Publishing House, 2016)

A Thousand Eyes (USTPH, 2015)

Kalmot ng Pusa sa Tagiliran (USTPH, 2013)

Sound Before Water (USTPH, 2013)

Baha-bahagdang Karupukan (USTPH, 2011)

Alien to Any Skin (USTPH, 2011)

Salimbayan (Publikasyong Sipat, 1994)

Beneath an Angry Star (Anvil Publishing, 1992)

Injured in the Night – a poem for Joel Pablo Salud

Here is part of what I said during the Zoom event (watch it on YouTube) for the announcement of the winning manuscript for the 2022 Gaudy Boy Poetry Book Prize:

This September marks the 50th anniversary of the declaration of Martial Law in the Philippines by the late deposed dictator Ferdinand Marcos. The lies that continue to be spread by Cambridge Analytica-trained social media handlers of the Marcoses will keep trying to decimate the memory of those who fought the regime.

My manuscript  doesn’t just tackle martial law, but I chose these particular poems today to highlight the anniversary of the declaration.

There are four sections – Bound by Wood, The Belly of a Termite, Something in Its Grip, and Resonate. The first three sections deal with nature, politics, and departures respectively. The fourth has all three, but the themes are bound together by a single line from a song by Icelandic musician Bjork, a line “misheard” in different ways becomes the title of each poem in the final section.

“Injured in the Night” is among the poems I read, written for Joel Pablo Salud who has many interesting stories about those martial law years.

Injured in the Night
for Joel Pablo Salud

September is a war of memories
in the home country. Roads and alleys,
unmarked cemeteries. Billboards
are nothing but metal skeletons hiding
behind the clash of colours on tarpaulin.
The promise of whiter skin looms
over the patchwork maze of shacks.

No one mends a bullet-ridden car.
It becomes fodder to the crunching jaws
of scrap machinery, not a piece of evidence.

Who will remember those injured
in the night, the disappeared?
Are we only here to scavenge
a landscape where smoke coils
long after the last burning?



Even Dictators have Birthdays

They were once loved as babies, if only by their own mothers or whoever hoped they would be honourable human beings one day.

And no matter how much they abuse the people they pretend to serve, their reign eventually comes to an end. For all dictators die.

Even their families who take over whatever dictators leave behind will also one day die. None of them can forever possess the riches they’ve claimed throughout their lives.

Try as they may, they cannot change the facts of history. They can twist it briefly with the money they stole while they can still breathe. But more will remember the evil deeds they have committed.

Ferdinand E. Marcos was a plunderer and human rights violator. To this day his family continues to benefit from his decades of theft and abuse.

May justice be served on you wherever you are, Marcos. We can never celebrate your birthday. Your sick legacy did not end with your death. We shall never forget.

Photo by South African poet and photographer Ken Barris

A few years ago, when my book How to Make a Salagubang Helicopter & other poems was about to be published, my publisher asked me to contact a professional photographer so there can be a portrait of me in the book. I hate being photographed – not really camera-friendly, haha – but my publisher insisted. I got hold of SA poet and photographer Ken Barris. He took a number of shots – he was very patient with me. I should have had a proper sleep the night before. Anyway, this was the best of the lot, or so I’m told.

The organisers of the 2022 Gaudy Boy Poetry Book Prize required me to send a photo for their social media posts for the upcoming awarding event which will be on Zoom.

I get to read to strangers!

The news I mentioned a few days ago… Finalists of 2022 Gaudy Boy Poetry Book Prize 🔥

The news I teased about the other day can now be revealed… My manuscript, “Waking Up to the Pattern Left by a Snail Overnight” has been selected as a finalist for the 2022 Gaudy Boy Poetry Book Prize!!!

Reading at the University of Stellenbosch

I will be reading from my book Bloodred Dragonflies at Stellenbosch University.

Thursday 11 August 2022 at 12pm. There will be time for Q&A and discussions.

This event will be face to face in the Yellow Molteno, Arts & Social Sciences Building (English Department, 5th Floor).

The invitation that was sent out has this…

Jim Pascual Agustin was born in the Philippines and grew up under the shadow of the Marcos dictatorship. Since 1994, he has been living in Cape Town. He writes in Filipino and English, and has published ten books of poetry and a collection of stories. Bloodred Dragonflies is Agustin’s first book to be published in South Africa (Deep South, Makhanda, 2022). A selection from three decades of work, it includes new poems and some recently translated versions of poems from the Filipino. His poems, constructed from subtle images, close observations of nature and refracted memories, demonstrate how innocence can stay alive under the most difficult conditions.

Some blurbs from previous books…

Not easy to want to read, these poems nonetheless demand it. That demand is what I think I want most from a poem.

– Mark Statman, LunchTicket

Agustin’s writing is sharp and measured, each line plump with thought and vivid remembrance, relentless in its delivery, but light enough in its form to keep you pressing on, keenly.

– Dave Mann, BooksLive

Agustin’s poetry is direct and lucid, lyrical and sharp, poised and polished. I cannot remember when last I read a collection in which every poem was so affecting.

– Karin Schimke, The Cape Times

Ang Nakalimutang Banggitin ni Gojo

Nakikita ko lang siya
Lagi sa telebisyon.
Nagsasalita na parang tatay.
“Uuwi na si Lolo” ni Genaro Ruiz Gojo Cruz

Sa hiram na tinig ng apo,
pinadaloy mo ang mga salitang hindi naiiba
sa daigdig ng karaniwang bata

karaniwang pagkauhaw sa kalinga
karaniwang pagkasabik sa pag-uwi at muling pagkikita
karaniwang pagnanais na huwag nang mawalay pa.

Halos malunod sa sabik
ang iyong piniling tinig.

Ngunit saang lungga mo hinugot
ang musmos na ito?
Sa kanyang kunwaring daigdig
na may telebisyon
walang inilublob sa pighati
walang minamahal na hindi na mayayakap
walang batang hindi na muling maririnig
ang tinig ng magulang.

Gojo, may sariling mga mata
kahit ang musmos. Alam niya
ang kulay ng dugo hindi man
sa sariling sugat bumulwak.

Hindi karaniwang lolo
ang pinakahihintay na umuwi
sa iyong kunwa-tula-pambata.
Ang lolong ito ay mamamatay-tao.


Random thoughts on the National Book Awards in the Philippines

In the Philippines, there is an annual event that authors look forward to – the National Book Awards. It is conducted by the Manila Critics Circle and the National Book Development Board. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the nominated books in the previous two years have been merged in the 2022 ceremonies.

These annual awards are worthy of support and praise as they recognize the value of Philippine writing and the vital role of the book industry in furthering literacy.

Full disclosure: my books of poetry and short fiction have been shortlisted a number of times in the past. Another book, Crocodiles in Belfast & other poems, was included in this year’s list. I write this piece as an outsider in the whole selection process. I am limited by physical distance and countless other circumstances. I dare to share my thoughts alone and do not represent any group or institution. These musings are not meant to offend. I therefore wish to hear what you think – each and all feedback will be much appreciated.

There are a few things that bothered me when I read through the selection process, which led me to pose the following questions.

Why do the publishers have to supply books for nomination? Shouldn’t the Manila Critics Circle and the NBDB show that they support local publishing by buying those books instead?

How many members of the Manila Critics Circle actually write book reviews to let readers know which books would be worth their while? Shouldn’t critics be critics who make their opinions and views public – ideally in accessible formats like journals and magazines (in print or online) – and not keep them behind closed doors during the annual selection process?

How many previous National Book Awards winning titles have eventually been read by the general population? Shouldn’t part of the nomination be the chance for the title to be listed among the Department of Education’s recommended books? Won’t it make sense for the National Book Development Board to raise funds to buy copies of the nominated books for dissemination to libraries around the country?

Apart from the pageantry of the annual awards, shouldn’t the NBDB push for a more just and fair distribution of and access to locally published books? Should it not dismantle the monopolistic hold on book distribution which is blatantly unfair to publishers who are not part of the behemoth that is the National Book Store and its sister publishing entities?

I had a look at how they conduct the selection process for the National Book Awards in the US as a point of comparison, knowing fully well they have a much robust and thriving book industry as well as a huge network of public libraries. I do not propose that the Manila Critics Circle and the NBDB make a complete overhaul of their selection process. It wouldn’t hurt to involve other interested parties such as librarians, the reading public, and others.

The NBDB could make a difference in the Philippines by funding the writing of book reviews and criticism. They could put up financial and logistical support for independent publishers in local and international book fairs. They could support self-publishing efforts to produce new and challenging work that mainstream publishers may not be keen to release. These are random suggestions and I am certain many more could be gathered from keen players in the Philippine book scene.

On an unrelated note… The return of the Marcoses to the highest political leadership of the country is tragic. The national elections were marred by disinformation, vote buying, and fraud. Highly dubious numbers during the supposed electronic transmission of the results point to an orchestrated manipulation, thus a disenfranchisement of the true sentiment of voters. These issues were widely reported by media and expressed by voters themselves online, but were largely swept aside by the Commission on Elections. A group of international election observers declared the process a failure, and the supposed winner as illegitimate.

The first few days of the new regime saw extravagant partying reminiscent of the excesses of the family before they were overthrown in a popular revolt in 1986.

Bloodred Dragonflies on video attempts

I’ve been fiddling with a free video app to try and share my work. The results may not be effective – and are definitely far from perfect. But hey, without a budget and much experience, whatever comes out of the exercise will have to suffice for now.

I’ve created a playlist that should have more as I go along. It’s on YouTube. Care to subscribe? I won’t get anything out of this. Hahaha. Not by a long shot.

The playlist should be updated automatically as I add more videos.