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November 15, 2004

JENNY ORILLOS

In 1985, the Marcos government declared the week of November 18 to 24 as National Poetry Week through Proclamation No. 2438, primarily in line with the UNESCO-funded 1985 Manila International Poetry Festival and Video Filming and Recording of the Living Voices of Poets. A national committee was convened to oversee the activities headed by then Minister of Education, Jaime C. Laya, with members coming from the government and non-government sector.

As the banner event of the National Poetry Week, the Manila International Poetry Festival was scarcely mentioned on the major newspapers of the time whose front pages were splashed with the (1985 Reagan-Gorbachev) Geneva Summit of the two then world “superpowers,” as well as the goings-on of local Philippine politics. Nevertheless, two very brief articles appeared in the November 18 and 23 issues of the Philippine Daily Express and mentioned the few public activities of the festival.

The Manila International Poetry Festival, the first of its kind in Philippine literary history, was co-hosted by the Ravens Writers and the University of the Philippines Film Center with the UNESCO as sponsor. The Festival Secretariat was housed at the defunct Café Orfeo, a residence formerly owned by designer Pitoy Moreno in Ermita that was converted into an art and film café.

The seven-day festival activities were peppered with poetry reading sessions and a book exhibit. The Japanese poet Kazuko Shiraishi, dubbed as Empress of Shinjuku, was to lead celebrated poets coming from China, Europe, Australia and the United States. The Philippine Daily Express write-up mentioned that National Artist Jose Garcia Villa was to arrive from New York to join Manila-based National Artist Nick Joaquin in the literary festivities. An exhibit of visual artist Ige Ramos, entitled “Three Poems & Holographs,” was held at the National Library in honor of the Festival. Details of the video filming and recording of the living poets as well as where it would be deposited for safekeeping were not publicized.

The motto of the festival was “Salve Poesia,” exemplified in a logo of a mythical winged tamaraw. This image plays on the supposed state of poets and their lot in this country as a dying species. Ironically, a month after the celebration, one of the more active groups of Filipino poets today, the Linangan sa Imahen, Retorika at Anyo (LIRA), was born under the wings of poet and National Artist Virgilio Almario (a.k.a. Rio Alma).

Perhaps echoing the general political atmosphere of 1985, the late Andres Cristobal Cruz comments in his Daily Express article on the poetry festival that “poetry is never endangered even when most dangerous and it is most dangerous when it speaks the honest truth about human kind’s search and struggle for peace and freedom and justice. This is because poetry, in the end, redeems us with the Word, reconciles us with the world, and adds to our sense of human worth.”

Sadly, the middle of November is barely remembered today as national poetry week. But then, the Philippines has joined the rest of the world every March 21 in celebrating World Poetry Day as proclaimed by the General Conference of the UNESCO in its 30th session in Paris in 1999. Also, there is the Balagtas Day every April 2 in memory of the man who wrote the classic “Florante at Laura” and regarded as the “Prince of Tagalog poets.”