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.
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)