I can’t recall exactly when and where I first met Cirilo, but it must have been in the late 1970s, likely at a Palanca awards night or some literary gathering, infrequent as that was in those days. Much earlier, I had been so impressed with The Archipelago, the first book of his epic poetry Trilogy of St. Lazarus. I was utterly entranced with the language, diction, vision and ambition.
In 1981, Cirilo gathered together four other poets in English — Jimmy Abad, Freddie Salanga, Ricky de Ungria and myself — and proposed that we form a group that we named Philippine Literary Arts Council, or PLAC. Our first activity was a public reading together with celebrity readers and musical artists, for the televised cultural show, Paco Park Presents.
The following year, he asked Ricky and me to join him at a government agency, the President’s Center for Special Studies or PCSS run by Adrian Cristobal in support of then President Ferdinand Marcos. This was after Martial Law had been terminated.
Cirilo or “Toti” crafted or edited speeches and messages. Employed part-time, Ric and I came in thrice a week. Mostly we sat around and shot the breeze when there weren’t any messages to write or correct for brochures and program souvenirs.
Since there was little work to do, Ric and I volunteered to start a couple of projects. The first was a literary calendar that featured the birthdays of Filipino writers, plus other milestones. The second went beyond a one-shot project: the publication of a quarterly literary magazine that we named “JOSE.”
Our project proposal rationalized: “Because Jose P. Rizal. Because Jose Garcia Villa. Because Huseng Batute. Maybe Filipino writers should replace ‘Gat’ and address one another as ‘Jose.’”
Toti smiled when he read that. He brought up the matter with Adrian, who responded heartily by sending back our proposal with his approval encapsulated in one word: “Eklat!”
Ricky and I worked on that stylish quarterly for a year, relying on excellent contributions from poets and writers all over the country as well as artists and photographers for the snazzy visual content.
We were happy with our baby. Until Benigno Aquino was assassinated in 1983. PLAC then decided to publish a “poetic tribute” titled In Memoriam, with five poems each from the five of us. Jimmy gained funding for its printing from then UP acting president Emmanuel Soriano.
When Adrian found out about it, there was no other recourse but to quit PCSS. The consequence of disseminating our protest poems ended Cirilo’s full employment. But there’s one vivid image that remains, through all these years: of him working at his desk in the small room where I usually chatted him up during idle hours.
Oh, he never was idle. He filled the time making artworks, diligently using colored pencils for his detailed geometric abstractions — one large one of which he eventually gifted me, and which I’ve since treasured.
That memory can only confirm that Cirilo was fully committed to creativity, not just as a premier poet and eventual critic, fictionist, essayist, editor and mentor. All of his waking hours were devoted to accomplishing one vision after another of how the world should be.
PLAC went on to launch a national reading circuit that took us to Baguio, Cebu and Dumaguete. We read our poems and were interviewed on radio. We began to publish CARACOA, a poetry journal, initially on a quarterly basis. When sponsorship funds ran out, we managed to continue it sporadically for nearly 30 thematic issues that spanned over two decades. It brought to print so many Filipino poets, including some based abroad.
PLAC expanded its membership to include upcoming poets who had won national prizes or authored a book. We mounted several gallery exhibits billed as the Chromatext series — a mash-up of poetry and visual arts. We had two such exhibits at Pinaglabanan Galleries in San Juan in the mid-1980s, and a couple of rebooted editions at the CCP Main Gallery two decades later.
We went on beach outings together, for fun and frolic. We conducted workshops right by the sea when we served as panelists in Dumaguete.
Decades of deep friendship and camaraderie strengthened our bond beyond a love for poetry. In recent years, we saw less of one another, especially when worsening muscular dystrophy confined Cirilo at home.
But when he was declared National Artist for Literature four years ago, we reunited for a happy meal at the Quezon City home he has shared with his beloved spouse RoseMarie. The conviviality and humor were revived in full.
Last year I texted him for his contribution to the Bloodlust anthology. He immediately sent recent poems in hardcopy that once again exposed the harsh socio-political realities that had descended upon us.
It was just like the old days, when we were much younger, and needed one another to partake of the spirit of resistance that all poets revel in.
On a hospital bed weeks ago, he gave a thumbs-up sign to Jimmy and me. The image came back from 35 years ago: a person of sheer discipline behind that desk, rendering geometric art to supplement the sinuous majesty of his poetry. And that’s how I’ll always remember him.
Alfred “Krip” Yuson has authored 23 books, including novels, poetry collections, short fiction, essays, and children’s stories, and has edited various other titles. Yuson was conferred the Southeast Asia Write Award (SEA Write) in 1992 in Bangkok, and has been elevated to the Hall of Fame of the Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature. He has frequently represented the Philippines in literary conferences, festivals and reading tours in the United States, Japan, China, Finland, Scotland, Thailand, Malaysia, United Kingdom, Australia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, South Africa, and Columbia, and his works may be found in many international anthologies. He has also been conferred the Gawad Balagtas by the Unyon ng Manunulat ng Pilipinas (UMPIL).