My first sweet whiff of poet Cirilo F. Bautista’s works hardly included his poetry. It was his prose, penned in the weekly Panorama that stirred in me the dormant writer. Every week, scissor or cutter in hand, I clipped his page and read till the wee hours my little compendium of his stylistic prose. There was also this rare book of five short stories which I have probably read dozens of times, bought from an old ramshackle bookshop down south, if memory serves. I have since then kept these treasures along with otherliterary booties on my shelves.
I have often told myself that in the off-chance I get to interview this man of epic vision, I would grab it without blinking. The occasion came decades later and with it the likelihood of visiting his humble home in Quezon City. The timing couldn’t have been more precise. Just weeks ago, the poet Cirilo F. Bautista was conferred the esteemed status of National Artist for Literature.
Poets, in my mind at least, are ordinary being with extraordinary vision. While the storyteller hunts for images within the realm of time, his feet muddied from long hours of living and reliving life as we know it, the poet soars with his wings, then plunges his readers into the dark, nearly wordless domain of verse. The poet is the philosopher among literateurs, the fire that doesn’t burn the bush. Its rhythms and rhymes are the soul that one can see through the eyes of a story.
Is poetry relevant in this day and age of one-hundred-word online posts? Is there a future for poetry in a country literally engulfed in the search for the mundane? Cirilo Bautista answers a resounding “yes,” but it’s one affirmation whose success depends entirely on the poet.
But such is Cirilo F. Bautista, whose fire and faith in humankind equals the fire of, and faith, in his verse.
PHILIPPINES GRAPHIC: Sir, on the National Artist issue: What were your initial feelings upon receiving it? I would suppose it was something expected.
NATIONAL ARTIST CIRILO F. BAUTISTA: Not really. At first I was happy.I had wanted that award, and I would say I didn’t expect it, with all these things going on in the country, in the NCCA and in the organizations of writers, and what happened the last time with CecilleGuidote. So I was expecting something more troublesome, at least no awards again. So when they said I’ve won it, I said thank you, but I won’t believe it until I see a proof of it, something to confirm it. People were already calling me up and texting me so I thought there must be something to this, and many of them are people who are reliable. So I thought there must be something to this. I was surprised. Well,you think it’s an important achievement. Many want it but not everybody could get it—that’s the trouble with these kinds of awards. So many deserving it but very few getting it. We have to compete with all kinds of people and judges. Not necessarily in terms of the quality of your work, but compete in terms of political realities. There’s a lot of politics there as we saw in the past.
Does it trouble you that such politicking exists in the world of the Arts?
Yes, and it’s not good for the arts. But I don’t know how they can change it, how they can improve it, because whenever you have something that involves judgment, you already have politics. The guy who is judging is already a politician by the very fact that he is judging. To be swayed by things he hears and sees, and then he makes decisions on the basis of his own judgment. It will not be the same as yours or mine, so that’s already the politics there. And if many of them don’t agree or many of them agree, you will see the kind or the colour of politics that are involved.
On you as a poet… You think Filipino poetry has relevance still in this day and age? In the sense where it can actually sway the powers-that-be?
Perhaps. The answer depends on the poets. We can simply say right away that no, they have no longer relevant. But who knows? One poet comes out tomorrow and he starts unsettling all of us and changes our vision of life. So, I think there will come a time in the country that poets would show their real value as a kind of agent, at least of change.
Do you feel it hasn’t happened yet?
Not yet in this present time because our involvements are so basic. Our poets are not really writing poetry, they are writing politics. Their concerns are overcome by political considerations aside from economic considerations. You give a poet everything he wants, and he will write well. Probably, he will change the world—there would be nothing for him to do.
I remember your speech at the Palanca awards night last year.You said most writers are burdened with financial problems. They’re basically poorly paid and it’s so hard because writers are forced to straddle between the world of needs and the world of art.
That’s true. And in our country, that hasalways been like it, that’s why it’s bad for us.It has never changed. Never have I seen our poets economically well off to the poets that are, say, at the turn of the century. The Tagalog poets or regional poets: they are all suffering the same thing for many factors. One is politics. Then you have neglect by the authorities and by indifference to each other. Much, of course, of that situation is caused by poets themselves. We create our own atmosphere, we create our own world. And if I don’t care, well, what else? That’s why I say: Just one poet to come out and be different and do something that would change the world that we live in.
Do you think your poems are not as unsettling as you would like them to be?
Well, no, I am satisfied with what I have written. ButI would not say “unsettling”. When I write, I don’t want to unsettle minds. In fact, I would like to massage minds, to make them feel something: That there is a world in this gathering of words, on this piece of paper that could be useful to them in many ways. So I want to influence them to think in a certain way, to look at things in a certain way, because as we always say, poetry is not really the reality as we see it, but the reality as we perceive it. So my perception of ittallies with your perception of it, then we will have a union. We’ll have a harmonium by ways that the poem or the poetry can have certain effects on or between us.
You think your poems have served the purpose for which you wrote them?
I think so. Well, there are some poems that I would rather do away with but, you know, it’s always like that. You can’t hit a hundred percent. But to a large extent, I am satisfied. Most of the poems that I was not satisfied with, I threw away early in the game.
You as a poet and as a National Artist: Would you consider it right to take away from the president the privilege to choose the National Artist?
Well, it’s very simple: The award is given by the government. That is the reality. The award is given by the government, the president is the government. So, he is involved a hundred percent. If you don’t want him to be a part of the award, then the only recourse is to eliminate the award. The president can put up any award he likes. So we’re already restrained at the very startif you can already see who will win this award or that award. Losing doesn’t mean you are bad. No. There’s no mentioning here that those who did not get it are poor poets. No, nobody is saying that. There’s a saying that you win some, you lose some. You lose a contest, well, accept it; try again. I was nominated for that award for three years, for three times. You want to nominate me, go ahead, that’s it. That’s just a game; let’s see who will win. But the president can do anything he likes. It’s his turf to think of what is good for the people. The only trouble is if you have a bad president who does not know anything about art. And I always said for the past several years, including this president that we have, we never had a president sympathetic to the arts enough to create the change that I was mentioning a while ago. That’s our problem. That’s our trouble. With so much money—imagine the money going around—billions—and the poets are poor?
Is neglect the reason behind it?
We’re in a very sad state of neglect. I was just talking about that with my wife. Very sad, our situation now.Very sad.A very rich country controlled by a very few who don’t have a conscience. How can you improve the situation? How can you help progress?
Speaking of things along those lines, you said the problem with some artists is that they write more politics than their chosen genre. I’ve been a follower of your poetry for a long time and in the reading of your poems, one can get a whiff of political fire between the lines. Is there a way to bring them together, I mean art and politics?
What I mean by what I said is it’s not a hundred percent involvement with politics. I mean, As I was saying, a poet writes a poem, some form or another there, he drops certain ideas—political, geographical, religious, whatever—and tries to create a situation where the readers will be forced to look at those things and see, change their minds about it, so that they become better Christians or better writers, or better communists, or better economists. That’s the role of poetry. It’s just to make you see things the way the poet perceives it so that you will have that kind of change, at the same time, of course, maintaining that quality of excellence in the arts. We never should take that away. You can be a very good political poet, artistic poet—W.H. Auden, the best; Robert Frost was very political, very good, you know. And yet they were not crying out there about politics. They’re just writing quietly. But when you read them, you will be hit by them.
So, it must have art, even when writing politics…
Yes. Very nice; that’s art, you know. That’s art. Very simple and yet when it hits you, according to Emily Dickinson, it hits you between the eyes, as if you were struck by an axe. That’s poetic enlightenment that every poet wants to create. That one poet I’m envisioning must have a lot of axes to be able to change our situation now because we are in a very, very difficult situation. Look at any country in the world today: Probably you will say that the Philippines has the most problems. Politics, crimes, graft and corruption, kidnapping, war in the south, war with China—everything is there. And where are you in all these if you are a writer? How can you create your own space so that you will be able to speak your own say and do what you are supposed to do? Very difficult. The role of the artist is not getting any better. The wonder is they are still there. The wonder is there is still Graphic with poems and the short story.
Almost everyone actually disappeared already, even Free Press. So we’re the last one standing. They call us the last mag standing.
Yes, Free Press walana eh. That’s very saddening. Very saddening. Perhaps your generation can change that. You still have a lot of time. My generation, walana kami, we have given up on that. That’s why all we can do is talk about it. F. Sionil Jose pontificating about it. Because the wind has been taken out of our sail already by old age and circumstances.
Growing up as a writer—as a poet, specifically—what were the things you’ve learned? Growing up and seeing your life—you’re now a National Artist—from when you first wrote your poetry, what were the most important lessons you’ve learned as a poet?
One is patience. I couldn’t have written this long if I had no patience. I think a writer should have that, and I think most of our writers don’t have that. They easily discouraged by the things that I’ve said a while ago. But you must have patience. That means learning the craft. That’s the first thing I learned. And I was glad I did. I did not get impatient and said, “Oh, I cannot write what I want to write, I’ll stop.” I went on. I wrote lots of poems.
Have you ever been rejected by a publication?
Yes. Always there will be a rejection. You have to feel that. The experience is different. So I would say patience. And second, kindness to others. That could be related to poet. I am speaking of kindness to other writers. Most of our writers are not kind. They are so selfish. The whole country is selfish and we become selfish also. Nothing will happen. Kindness, I mean, trying to be open to other writers, to help them, to see what you can do for them, help them as any way you like. That’s also what I learned because I got very great advantages with friendships with others that I befriended in the course of my life, starting from the youngest to the eldest writer. F. Sionil Jose is a friend that I built from my college days. We go back a long way. We could have quarrels and so on, because we were always quarrelling. But I said, heck, have kindness. You cannot always be right. You can see great literature when you see that kind of quality in the work. But you do not call it kindness—you call it humanity. That kind of touch the writer gives, the writer who writes with a heart—that’s humanity, that’s kindness. What else?Be content with what you are able to do. There are so many things I wanted to writ; so many times I wanted to be like Nick Joaquin or F. Sionil Jose, but I cannot be. To be contented with what I have: That’s when I developed my own work. G
Reprinted from Philippines Graphic, Sept. 8, 2014 issue