Tag Archives: poetry

Recognition or Oblivion

Recognition or Oblivion

I wish to congratulate my good friend, Joel H. Vega, whose book, Drift, was awarded the Philippine National Book Award for Poetry in English for 2019. My own book, How to Make a Salagubang Helicopter & other poems, was the co-finalist.

In previous years two other books of mine were recognized as finalists by the National Book Development Board: Baha-bahagdang Karupukan (poetry in Filipino) and Sanga sa Basang Lupa at iba pang kuwento (short stories in Filipino).

There are many books published every year in the Philippines. I’m grateful that the NBDB has seen my work worthy of being noticed multiple times.

I think it is an interesting exercise, these awards. They aim to spread literacy and book appreciation. They could be seen as stepping stones to bigger things. More book deals for the author, maybe an increase in sales.

But in a way, these awards could be misleading. They could also act as a type of gatekeeping. Will those books that never got noticed by the gatekeepers be “forgotten” or will the readers who admire such books make certain they are not left out, that they are actually read and appreciated.

Who chooses – who are these gatekeepers – and what is the process of their selection? More so, if funds spent on these awards are public funds, surely the public – perhaps as represented by librarians in schools and universities – should have some say?

I am posing these questions after having read how the National Book Awards in the US is conducted. https://www.nationalbook.org/national-book-awards/how-works/

At the same time, I am not totally ignorant of the absence of libraries in public places in the Philippines. The biggest libraries are in exclusive universities – for the children of the elite – and in some properly functioning public universities. There is no actual nationwide library system. Public education has made sure of a highly literate, though impoverished, population. This literacy has been useful in getting employment locally through call centers in the cities and through many positions of service outside the country.

I grew up speaking Filipino. English is not my mother tongue. My mother and father grew up speaking Ilocano and Tagalog/Filipino, and perhaps one other local language. English came to me through public school and Sesame Street. Books came much later, years after I consumed local comic books from a stand in a wet market on the walk back home of a good few kilometers.

In my youth, I had no experience of what it’s like reading books that weren’t required at school. The so-called library at the public school I went to had stuffed animals instead of real books.

I would like to be surprised by being told that the situation is much different now compared to decades ago, that there is now a public library at every barangay.

The first library I entered and was able to use was in a Jesuit-run high school. I was lucky enough to receive a financial scholarship through the singular efforts and kindness of an Irish American, the late Fr. James O’Brien. He also shared his love of learning to hundreds of young, less privileged students like me. He taught us English through stories and poetry, while making clear that it was to be used so we could stand up for ourselves among those who considered the local languages inferior. He spoke excellent Filipino and Bicolano.

That library – and later the university library and the British Council library in Manila – became a kind of refuge for me. They felt more holy than all the churches and chapels that dotted the country.

So where to start with spreading a wider appreciation of books in the Philippines? I’m not saying ditch these awards. They are one way, though perhaps quite flawed, of leading possible readers to discover an author or a book.

In order to truly expand the appreciation of books, there would have to be a healthy reading public. You cannot force people to read, but you should provide them with libraries where they can experience for themselves the joys of reading.

The National Book Development Board, with the help of the Department of Education, should work towards building a national public library network. These libraries could be initially stocked with the literary output of Filipino authors published by established publishers as well as by smaller independent publishers, even brave authors who self-publish work that might not seem “easily marketable” by a publishing house. They should fill these libraries with books in as many Philippine languages as possible. Translations of international work to the local languages should be encouraged and funded. After that, instead of spending public funds, they should welcome donations of international titles.

What then of the existing structures for these awards? I’m an outsider, to be honest. Always have been. Perhaps I’m a little sore that my work has only been partly recognized again by the gatekeepers.

A few years back I released a poetry book – Alien to Any Skin (UST Publishing House, 2011) – alongside the shortlisted Baha-bahagdang Karupukan. I was deeply disappointed that Alien to Any Skin was not even shortlisted, though thankful that the other book was. It was a very special paper child, Alien, if I may say so. There, I’ve said it now.

How to Make a Salagubang Helicopter & other poems is an altogether different book, but no less special. It is a book that demands a readership and recognition now, not just because of the poetry, but also because of the pertinent issues it challenges the reader to face: bullying, violence, and, more particularly, the deadly consequences of the fake war on drugs by the Duterte regime. It also contains poems that have little to do with such issues, and more about a search for a common humanity.

These days the Philippines is ground zero for social media misinformation. The basic literacy that Filipinos received through the public school system is what has made them vulnerable to the lies that the current regime uses to block legitimate criticism.

I hope that my book won’t be left in the halls of oblivion. I want it to one day be read, sooner rather than later, by more critical thinking readers.

How to Make a Salagubang Helicopter & other poems is widely available in both independent and chain book stores in the Philippines or through the Facebook page or website of San Anselmo Publications. A Kindle edition is also available on Amazon.


Langa, for the first time

October 1994 was the first time I had a glimpse of Langa. From the air, as the domestic plane which brought me from Johannesburg descended toward Cape Town International, Langa looked like a massive quilt with uneven stitching.

Each time I leave and return to Cape Town I would see that imposing landscape. Yet I never set foot there, not until last Thursday, 17 May 2018. I drove to Langa for an event organised by the Jacana Literary Foundation to meet with local aspiring poets. It was a hastily put together affair, and despite the initial awkwardness it turned out into an eye-opening impromptu performance/sharing/workshop with all participants ending up laughing together as though we’d known each other for years.

Fellow poets Moses Seletisha (First Prize winner of the 2017 Sol Plaatje EU Poetry Award) and Rabbie Serumula were also there to share their thoughts and amazing words.

I read two poems by other poets and then one of my own (one of the three that was included in The Sol Plaatje European Union Poetry Anthology VII).

Today I’ll share the one called “Lament for a Dead Cow” which I discovered by accident in the anthology Sunburst.


Wings of Smoke gets reviewed on Eclectica Magazine

ECLETICA MAGAZINE wings of smoke

I’m always thankful for every reader who spends some time with my work – whether it’s a haiku attempt, an essay,  a story, a poem. Then there’s that completely different kind of high when someone not only reads a whole book, but writes a review to share what s/he feels about it.

Wings of Smoke received very warm reviews from Aerodrome and The FilAm. And now this one from Ecletica Magazine! Lovers of poetry will find Jennifer Finstrom’s review engaging and, I hope, make readers consider getting a copy of the book.


Canopic Jar features my poetry!

Fellow Onslaught Press author and amazing poet Rethabile Masilo, winner of the Glenna Luschei Prize for African Poetry, invited me to send work for consideration at Canopic Jar, an arts journal. I was delighted, but could only hope the other editors of the online journal would like my work. It turns out they did!

On Friday, 12 May 2017, Rethabile tagged me on Facebook to say that my work is on the “Featured Voices” section of Canopic Jar. But I couldn’t get online to post and share the news until now.

HERE is the LINK to Canopic Jar. Hope you enjoy and share the page with your friends, or anyone who you think might like such poetry.

Thank you, Rethabile! More power to Canopic Jar!

If you have the budget, dear reader, please consider buying my new book, Wings of Smoke! And for those who are in the Philippines, my most recent books published by the University of Santo Tomas Publishing House are still available and can be ordered through the USTPH Facebook page.

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Aerodrome reviews WINGS OF SMOKE

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Some people have little care for words. Some learn a few that stick to them like bubblegum to orange hair, they end up using the same words over and over on television or Twitter. Surprisingly, one such person apparently managed to convince millions, mesmerised by his words, to vote him into power.

I don’t pretend to know more words than the average writer, but I try to care for the words that I let go, the words I allow to land on a page. In a world that seems to be increasingly overtaken by the loud and forceful, rather than those who seek truth and a common humanity, one has to be thankful for being read at all.

I previously posted links to the first review of WINGS OF SMOKE. I am delighted and deeply humbled by another review that has just been published at Aerodrome. Endless thanks to South African poet Christine Coates for her very kind words toward my latest paper child.

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ABOUT THE BOOK

Wings of Smoke (The Onslaught Press, UK, 2017) is Agustin’s latest poetry collection, launched in the UK and worldwide in February 2017. The book may be ordered via the publisher’s website – www.onslaughtpress.com – and Amazon. It will be made available in South Africa from March 2017 mainly through the author who will be reading and launching the book at various venues: at the Writing for Liberty Conference at the Centre for the Book on 28 March, at Off the Wall (A Touch of Madness Restaurant) in Observatory on 30 March and at Kalk Bay Books on 4 April. More readings are to follow during the year.


It’s alive! It’s alive!

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My UK publisher, The Onslaught Press, posted this photo on Twitter of my new book alongside two other new titles. So my paper child is real. Alive. 🙂

Some inside pages were also posted.


Veins Cut Open – an audio recording attempt (although the poem is about xenophobia in SA, it might as well be about Trump and his troops)

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I’ve got a new paper child about to be born – WINGS OF SMOKE. I’ll write about it in the next few days, I hope. “Veins Cut Open” is one of the poems, it was first published in the Sol Plaatje EU Award Anthology. I recorded an audio reading of it – instead of just posting the text – to give you an idea of what’s in the book. Well, I just felt like it. haha. Tell me what you think.

I don’t have a great voice, I admit. But it’s the only one I have. Although I do drive my kids nuts when I take on various voices, sometimes singing made up lyrics of some language plucked out of nowhere.

So HERE IS THE SOUNDCLOUD LINK.