“He who does not know how to look back at where he came from will never get to his destination.”
― José Rizal
Poetry plays the part of the unsung hero in the history of the Philippines. Peeled skin of bamboo covered in sacred stories and forgotten letters of revolution were trampled on and buried by centuries of colonization. Now some stories still lay there, reminiscing on days when they were the only form of Filipino History, waiting for a group of young and adventurous Filipino poets willing to sift through hundreds of years of scattered maps, struggle and passion. PSL is the ship that will attempt to guide us through the raging, unpredictable tides of Filipino history and identity, in hopes that in five weeks’ time, each participant will dock their own style on whichever coast inspires them.
My name is Patrick de Belen. I am a 22-year-old spoken word artist, youth educator and lover of words. As a middle-class, Canadian-born Filipino with two young immigrant parents from Manila, my ethnic identity was pretty much a Scrabble bag full of ‘P’s and ‘C’s. One day I’ll be ducking tsinelas being flung from across the room by my beautiful mother, and one day I’ll be practicing my cursive in a 30-minute time out. I ate poutine with a spoon and fork once. So obviously, my tanned skin, thick black hair, narrow eyes and flat nose weren’t enough to define what it meant to be a Filipino. So I spent years of half-understood phone conversations with my Lola overseas and news reports of violent, unforgiving typhoons, searching for a way to reconnect with my roots.
It didn’t help that my group of friends in elementary school looked like a mini version of the UN, or that moving to the suburbs for high school meant being confused with being Hawaiian. (It wasn’t my peers’ fault--other than the nannies, my family was pretty much the only Filipino family on the block.) When I first began to realize that creative writing and poetry was a budding talent of mine, the Eurocentric curriculum of Grade 12 English was quick to add to my identity crisis. Mr. Shakespeare was interesting; don’t get me wrong. But in the process of Sparknotes’ing Hamlet, I wondered where my love for poetry came from.
I enrolled in PSL by total fluke. I attended a monthly poetry event in Kapisanan and saw a flyer hanging from a wall. I thought it would be a great way to grow with my writing and possibly learn some new poetic styles. It ended up being so much more. Leonard Cervantes, the previous coordinator of this program, helped me find exactly what I was looking for. Poetry became the vehicle in my quest to explore hundreds of years of Filipino history. I was overwhelmed with the amount of ancient tales and buried forms of poetry that overflowed what was once an empty space in my identity. Three years later, I am pursuing a career as a spoken word artist, and I cannot express how excited I am to use my skills of contemporary storytelling and knowledge of Filipino poetry as the new coordinator of the “Poetry Is Our Second Language” program.
So prepare to dive into centuries of written tales and performed pieces, sectioned off into 4 periods: Pre-colonial, Spanish Colonial, U.S colonial and Contemporary. Ambahans carved into bamboo, intense poetic-political debates called Balagtasans and the revolutionary words of Jose Rizal are some of the many styles we will encounter on this journey. We will anchor every session with guest speakers, open mics and a chance to add our own contemporary spin to these traditional forms of poetry. At the end of the series, we will publish our own collection of work created over the course of 5 weeks, as well as plan a showcase to celebrate the rebirth and preservation of a forgotten source of poetry.
At the very least, you will brush up on your Filipino history as well as learn a handful of new and interesting Filipino poets and poetic forms. But I have a feeling that you will embark on an invigorating quest to strengthen your ethnic identity as a Filipino-Canadian through literary arts, and mark your own ‘X’ in the history of Filipino poetry.