Issue#1: Oct. - Dec. 2002

Gelacio Guillermo

On Indigenous and Contemporary Poetry

[Note: Dated 23 Aug 2002, this article is the author's "Statement on the Asia-Pacific Conference-Workshop on Indigenous and Contemporary Poetry, 20-24 August 2002 conducted by the Philippine Literary Arts Council (PLAC) and Writers Union of the Philippines (UMPIL) and funded by the Japan Foundation."]

Let me clarify certain points I raised Tuesday regarding the subject of your conference.

In last Sunday's edition of the Philippine Daily Inquirer (8/18/02), an article ("Epic chanter appeals for end to military stay" by Ma. Diosa Labiste) featured a 102-year old woman, Elena Gardoce Francisco, who descended from her mountain home in Panay island to Iloilo city to sing her protest, in the form of ambahan and in the language of the Tumandok, against the depredations wrought by the state military forces in their ancestral lands. As early as 1962, thousands of hectares of these lands were sequestered to serve as a military reservation through a proclamation signed by then President Diosdado Macapagal, the father of the present President, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, standard bearer of U.S. President Bush's war against terror in these parts.

From this account and other earlier reports, we can make certain observations pertinent to this conference:

1. Centuries-old indigenous art, in this case the art of story telling through chant or song, is still very much a part of the communal life of the indigenous peoples in their mountain villages throughout the country. In the Visayas, the indigenous peoples have their ambahan, sugidanon, composo and ismayling, this last being a spectacle involving a man and a woman engaged in a poetic joust on current issues affecting their communities, singing and dancing to the accompaniment of a guitar. In Mindanao, they have their daleng-daleng and baleleng. In the mountain regions of northern Luzon, they have the ullalem, uggayam, el-la-lay, annuway and salidum-ay.

2. Much of the traditional content of this art is giving way to new feelings, images, ideas, and aspirations as the indigenous peoples go through the process of transforming their lives and communities through production and struggle. This adaptation to new circumstances ensures the survival and continuing relevance of these art forms to the day-to-day life of the national minorities who have long been marginalized by the dominant forces in this society. From being a repository of magical, feudal and other backward values (without ignoring their traditional wisdoms which have sustained the indigenous communities through the centuries), today these indigenous art forms are expressive of the people's present struggles against militarization, forced evacuations, land-grabbing, forest denudation through logging, mining and dam construction, ecological reservations for the exploitation of multinational corporations, etc. Moreover, they are imbued with new values which provide the people a guide to govern their communities for their own political, economic and cultural development.

3. The durability and power of indigenous art lies in its collective character. No barrier exists between the artists/performers and their audiences as they share a common existence with all its joys and travails, work to do and struggles to wage. It binds their hearts and minds to pursue a common objective, especially as their communities are continually imperilled by exploitative forces from the central government, the military and big compradors and landlords. These characteristics of indigenous art are lost to lowlanders or urban dwellers who, among other things, are exposed to a variety of art forms, especially through the mass media, books, theaters and cinemas. Such loss is due to historical developments in a semi-colonial, semi-feudal society which have brought about the great divide between the vast countryside and a minuscule of cities and town centers, between the christian chauvinists in the lowlands and the indigenous highlanders, between the authoritarianism of the state and the right of the indigenous peoples to self-determination, between the many poor and few rich, between literacy and orality, etc.

Not that there are no attempts to popularize these indigenous art forms in the urban areas, especially by well-meaning, non-indigenous artists. In the song form, for instance, some of these artists and musical groups have 'contemporarized' some 'ethnic' pieces by turning them into art songs or pop hits in their desire to capture urban audience interests. Some tunes have been converted into commercial ditties. These transactions do not sit well with the indigenous peoples (the Lumad or non-Muslim indigenous peoples in Davao refuse to accept certain urban artists' innovations to suit modern tastes; the Igorot and the Kalinga of the Cordilleras will have nothing to do with jazzed up versions of their salidum-ay). What is worse is when this art is used against the interests of the very people from whose bosom it has originated, as in government and military propaganda for bogus land reform or pacification campaigns.

In urban poetry, or poetry written by urban-based poets, there are examples of what are nomenclatured as 'modern epics.' While the indigenous peoples indeed have epics they still chant or sing for days or weeks, these 'modern epics' do not spring from the bardic tradition, either local or Western (the prime example being Homer's Odyssey and Virgil's Iliad, but from the modern literary, text-based) tradition of the long poem. Western literary critics have long ago announced the demise of the epic for modern literature because the very basis of the epic tradition, which is the spirit of collective unity of a society, has been torn asunder in class-divided modern capitalist societies and their subaltern nation-states. Much bombinating is involved in these local/urban/academic 'epics.'

At this point, it is best to assume that it is only the indigenous peoples themselves who can truly set new functions for their art, who can innovate on the basis of their needs, resources and abilities. Such an art in situ as this cannot be created, without losing its raison d'etre, by non-indigenous writers/artists in strange environments for purposes which the indigenous peoples have not themselves set. Such uprooting is at best called an influence; other than that, it is commodification in the form of artifact.

How then to relate indigenous poetry with contemporary poetry? The conference objective is stated, thus: "to seek, determine and disseminate whatever linkages may still exist between indigenous and ontemporary poetry." The formulation of the objective as it goes is a manifestation of what we have mentioned as the great divide, for the statement presumes that indigenous poetry is an altogether different and separate entity from contemporary poetry, even suggesting its reduction to the status of a mere cultural relic. There is also an assumption of characteristics of contemporary poetry which indigenous poetry may find hard to claim.

The truth is, indigenous poetry in its present manifestations and transformations, its capability to take up the life-and-death concerns of the communities, its collective power for education and mobilization, is very much a part of c-o-n-t-e-m-p-o-r-a-r-y ( "existing, occurring, or living at the same time; belonging to the same time") poetry. This category is so large, varied, multi-languaged, and inclusive that it makes no critical sense, unless one is doing a survey of all available poetic texts and non-texts (oral) created at a specific time and place and defining their political and cultural implications.

Indigenous poetry is not 'linked' to contemporary poetry; it is part and parcel of contemporary poetry in so far as its present manifestations are responsive to the demands and pressures of the time. On the other hand, much of the so-called modern poetry in the Philippines today, whether in Pilipino or English or any of the other languages in the country, may not at all fall under this category, considering that it is no more than a simulacrum of the most effete poetry in the high capitalist world on fire, with no connection at all to our basket case of a society except where it rehashes the most retrogressive feelings and ideas so dearly endorsed by cultural managers and canon-makers in Philippine literature.

Imagine this: A very, very old woman, ensconced inside a bamboo basket securely fastened on the back of her son, being transported in this wise from her mountain home to the asphalted streets of the city, taking all of six hours over hills and dales, to recite or sing her ambahan in her dagil language, not for show or entertainment or remuneration, but to give voice to the anger of her people against the military forces wrecking havoc on their lives, their land, their livelihood, the honor of their women, the education of their children, the peace of their communities. She sings before lowland people who have lost (or never had) the gift of ambahan but are willing to listen, to be embraced by her song, to struggle in solidarity with those in the mountains of Panay and Aklan. She sings in the old remembered way; she also makes it new. She is an indigenous poet/singer; what song she sings (the poem that easily lends itself to singing) is hers and her people's in struggle.

By singing this way, why, she and and her ambahan should make it to CONTEMPORARY POETRY!

Trouble is, that is the least of her concerns.