Review Issue 15

   Issue #15 : July-December 2011

Adam David

Let’s Sing Another Song Boys, This One Has Grown Old and Bitter
or Come On In Out Of the Rain

Part one of an analysis and appreciation of the editors’ introduction
for the poetry anthology Under The Storm, edited by Khavn de la Cruz and Joel Toledo

      Correct me if I’m wrong, of course, but in my ten years of reading, writing for, and editing various anthologies, I have come to the belief that an anthology as a book as a reading experience—lives and breathes by its theme. Theme is the compass by which the editor, the contributor, and the reader orient themselves in appreciating an anthology’s worth, it is what gives an anthology its structure and identity, even if it is as broad as a survey of this year’s offering of speculative fiction or as pointedly specific as an argument for seeing speculative fiction as an aesthetically-transgressive genre capable of politically-charged revelations about 21st century society. Theme is the readers’, contributors’, and editors’ point of entry to understanding the anthology’s contents, which is why an anthology’s thematic concerns are traditionally deployed where they will be most noticed, most easily understood, first in the call for submissions, then in the first few pages of the book, namely in its title and in its introduction. Without a theme, an anthology is merely a ragtag collection of random works arbitrarily chosen and haphazardly assembled for no reason—good or bad—at all.

      So how does one appreciate the worth of Under The Storm, the beautiful poetry anthology assembled in haste on confusing and confused thematic scaffoldings: first framed as a compilation of variously subjective definitions and creative applications of the trendy and trending mid2000s catch-all term “wasak,” shifting to the miscounted 115 corrected to 113 years of (contested) Philippine Independence, shifting finally to the year-long celebration of Rizal’s 150th birthday? The anthology boasts a hundred and fifty verses from a hundred and fifty voices “struggling to be free,” from what exactly the reader is never really told, merely left to assume from the side-stepping, slight, and meagre information given by the introduction. And based on the introduction, just what exactly is this “storm” of which the title speaks, of which this anthology poses itself as under?

      If the introduction is to be believed, apparently, it is the storm not of Martial Law nor conservative censorship of the arts nor practical writerly issues like plagiarism. If the introduction is to be believed, apparently, it is the storm of anthologies that “dare” to define the “new,” that “dare” to not include—nay, “dare” to not invite—the “supposed canon of Philippine Literature,” the very same writers whose works have persisted to enjoy regular and unquestioned and more importantly unquestionable publication these last ten, twenty, thirty years; it is the storm of “trendy” theory, or specifically, the “trendy” young theory-loving poets, apparently dangerously contagious to the “young” (or rather, younger) and “impressionable” writers; it is the storm of self-referentiality, of pop culture allusions, of wit in poetry that is not “unassuming” nor “sublimated;” it is the storm of the simply “intelligently creamy,” of the cage that theory and defining the “new” have conspired to construct around the poor Contemporary Philippine Poet—and by association Contemporary Philippine Poetic Practice—the cage from which this anthology—and by association the editors—strive to free the poor Contemporary Philippine Poet—and by association Contemporary Philippine Poetic Practice. If the introduction is to be believed, apparently, the poor Contemporary Philippine Poet—Contemporary Philippine Poetic Practice—is being caged by and also being weathered like a besieged country by nothing less than the storm of theory.

      The more popular definition of theory, or rather the one I’ve encountered the most in my reading and understanding of it, is that it is a lens from which we regard (and re-regard again and again) our ways of and our understanding of meaning. For me, theory, when applied to reading and writing, affords us a wider view of the processes and effects of the practical and creative act of appreciating literature, affords us a wider view of the processes and effects of the practical and critical act of reading a given text—it gives you the capacity to reply to the questions Why confessional poetry? and Did you like the poem? with a clarity and directness that To speak to you in a language you can hear and Yes, I did simply do not have. For me, having an appreciation and respect for theory is like knowing how your PC works: for sure, the only practical thing you need to know to use your PC is that when you press a button, something happens; but surely the PC owner who knows which particular voltage settings to use for which particular motherboard and chipset and power supply to fine-tune the machine for some extreme overclocking manages to get more out of the machine than the PC owner who doesn’t even know—doesn’t even want to know—what DDR2 RAM is. The language can get technical and alienating, but what specialized line of thinking doesn’t have jargon that isn’t technical and alienating for most people? Like extreme PC overclocking, theory is not for everyone, but like with extreme PC overclocking, I won’t dissuade anyone if they want to get into it. Theory is also one of the better sharper tools of critical thinking. I’ve always appreciated critical thinking. For me, it means inquiry. It means not being satisfied with your initial understanding of a text and deciding to read up some more on your dissatisfaction and coming back to the text and striving to understand it better. For me, critical thinking means recognising that one does not know everything, but one can get the process started towards knowing everything—it is a thoroughly secular and rational line of thinking, and also a need and a want that is left ultimately unfulfillable, but it at the very least recognises and empowers one’s capacity to attempt the learning. Critical thinking allows you the time and space to at least try to learn. Critical thinking is what turns opinion into a well- or even better-considered response, what turns a question into an investigation. This is the road where theory leads.

      And this is the mindset I brought into reading the introduction for Under The Storm. As a reader who paid whole-hog the P800 for a copy, I deigned to be treated to an explanation as to how this book’s selection—all one hundred and fifty of them—strove to connect the disparate elements of the already subjectively disparate definitions of “wasak” and 21st century nationalism, quite the daunting task worthy of a thousand poems and a thousand pesos, for sure, let alone a hundred-fifty and P800. Instead what I got as a reader were four pages on how this particular anthology is all about what a certain kind of anthology, a certain kind of poet, a certain kind of thinking, isn’t. Apparently, Under The Storm, the beautiful poetry anthology, is not about “wasak” or nationalism or any of the things that its calls for submissions and PR copy were and are all hinting at; this beautiful poetry anthology, it turns out, is really all about debunking the value of theory and critical thinking, more pointedly of theory and critical thinking deployed at defining the “new.”

      My thinking on the New—the importance of it and the importance of the pursuit of a definition of it—has already been documented at great length elsewhere so at this point in time, not wanting redundancy yet risking it nonetheless allow me to simply add just a few more: in my mind, the point of all the hemming, hawing, and handwringing about striving to define the New is all in aid of establishing a dialogue between Philippine Literary History and Contemporary Philippine Literature while searching for the hints of its inevitable Future. Defining the New is important at this point in time as the specific socio-cultural conditions we find ourselves in today—the entirety of global literary history being available in the Third World within seconds, on demand—deem it important. Which is also why this anthology’s question by association on the convergences of Philippine Poetry, 21st century Philippine identity, and the particular contemporary literary critical practice of crass and drastic reduction of high-art aesthetics as counter-culture chest-beating is also very important, deems defining the New as the only logical line of inquiry. The question of the New, the task of defining it, the demand for a dialogue about/with it, is all the more important today of all days, now that one of the most major theoretical, critical, and key questions in Contemporary Philippine Literature in the last five years or so is an absolute, cold, hard, inescapable reality—What of Philippine Literature post-Tiempo? And Under The Storm’s reply, the beautiful poetry anthology, its definition, its side of the dialogue, is “nothing new here. Just persistence.” Or in other words, Don’t think about it at all, keep calm and carry on. But carry on doing what exactly? What exactly is persisting in this anthology? Or rather, What is this anthology allowing to persist? If the introduction is to be believed, what it is allowing to persist is the existence of a certain kind of framework, one that espouses not the “new” nor critical thinking, but …something it would rather not define; it is the existence of a certain kind of poet, one that aspires towards craft, towards the willingness to labour over words, but not much about how and what they might mean for people other than themselves; it is the existence of a certain kind of thinking, one that rationalises itself out of doing its job, preferring to feel; it is the existence of a certain kind of mode of production, one that seeks to validate and benefit the already privileged, that seeks to perpetuate parochialism, as long as the marginal are patient, they will get to rub elbows with the elite, they will get their share of the loot … someday, just be patient, weather-weather lang ‘yan, again, nothing new here, just persistence. This is what Under The Storm, this beautiful poetry anthology, is apparently about, if the introduction is to be believed.