Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Confessions of a Workshop Fellow, Part 2

Rational Technology for June 3, 2006

At 45 years, the Dumaguete National Writers Workshop is the longest-running English literature workshop in the country, if not in Southeast Asia. The workshop has become a rite-of-passage for many of the country's best writers. Its alumni is a veritable who's who of modern Philippine literature.

Veteran workshop alumni comprise the board of panelists, taking turns during the workshop's three week run. For this year's workshop, the panelists were: Marjorie Evasco, Susan Lara, Anthony Tan, Danny Reyes, Jimmy Abad, Krip Yuson, and Dumaguete's own Cesar Ruiz Aquino and Bobby Villasis. Among this group, they have over a century's teaching experience and several doctoral and post-doctoral degrees from all over the world.

Given such a distinguished panel and at such a close level of interaction between them and the panelists, the workshop is at least a semester's worth of master's degree in literature. Underpinning the evaluation of the fellows' submitted manuscripts are the established techniques of criticism, peppered with references to the works of literary greats. For the aspiring writer who's just learning the craft, you can't get a better mentoring program than what the workshop provides.

Yet despite these credentials, the workshop never feels dry and academic, and least of all, snobbish. Instead, it feels like erudite dinner conversation among old friends who just so happen to be experts at their common trade. Discussions can become animated, especially when there is some point of disagreement, but the resolution is always convivial. You can just sit there and listen and learn by osmosis. (In fact, the workshop is open to guests.)

This atmosphere is due in no small part to the real friendship that exists between the panelists. The workshop is in a way a reunion for the distinguished panel members as they drop their professorial mantles and come together as friends. And, of course, they also come to visit Mom Edith.

Without a doubt, "Mom" -- Dr. Edith Tiempo -- is the main reason for the friendly atmosphere that pervades the workshop. Mom Edith remains the soul of the workshop that she started in 1962 with her husband the late Dr. Edilberto Tiempo. Mom Edith is as sharp as ever, not a detail missing her attention and quoting relevant poems and points committed to memory. She delivers all of it with ease and grace, hardly a trace of effort, and that's the hallmark of a true expert. Listen, and you'll come to understand why she's a National Artist.

But why "Mom"? I must confess that I never really understood why so many of the workshop alumni used that term of endearment, at least not until the workshop. Up until the second week, I continued to hesitate, afraid that it would be too familiar. For me, it was either "Dr. Tiempo" or "Ma'am Edith." Somewhere along the way though, all that motherly attention finally pierced through my defenses, and it's been "Mom" Edith since. I'm proud to be able to call her that.

And I feel very lucky, too. For a time, it was rumored that Mom Edith would take a break from running the workshop. I don't know. I just don't think it would be quite the same, with all due respect to the other panelists. I just feel so fortunate that I managed to catch her this time around.

For all its familial atmosphere, though, the workshop is a workshop, and its primary objective is to turn out the new generation of Philippine writers. I couldn't help but take stock of the promise of fellows that I was with: Palanca-winner Dr. Noel Pingoy, the hematologist with deep insight into the human condition and the lyrical prose to express it with; Patricia Evangelista, celebrity-on-the-rise with playful but spot-on commentary of Philippine society; Michelan Sarile, criminologist with her quiet, whispering poetry; Darwin Chiong, media executive whose contemporary poems touch on everyday frustrations; Andrea Teran, environmentalist with romantic paeans to human relationships; Ana Neri, speech therapist, whose lush poems alternate between the maternal and the erotic.

Then there are the storytellers: Doug Candano, community development project manager who detachedly weaves engrossing, sometimes terrifying yarns; Ino Habana, who is building the touch for magic realism and horror; Erin Cabanawan, book publishing exec, who writes stories catch modern provincial life accurately; and the youngest of the batch, 17-year old Larissa Suarez, who, despite her youthfulness, already writes with an experienced hand and delves on mature topics.

Sitting in session with them for all of three weeks -- laughing, joking, drinking, strolling -- one tends to forget that these are artists serious in honing their craft. These are the folks whose works will fill, even define, the literature of this generation. This, after all, is what the National Writers Workshop is about: producing artists.

And me? Ah, well, I am just a lucky philistine. But you already know that.


  1. Hey there.

    Great entries on the workshop. I would have loved to be part of such an experience when I was there but I was always too intimidated to apply.

    Just wanted to say that I regularly read your blog and would've posted a comment sooner but I thought I had to have a blogger account.

  2. stumbled to this site one lazy afternoon of surfing. don't know if you remember me. Hello anyways... ;-)

  3. Hi, guys, thanks for the shout-outs.

    Amee: you're in my blogfeeds as well. Love hearing about your adventures, and reading your commentary.

    Ernie: my first editor! How are you? Glad I found your blog because of the comment you left. I didn't you'd moved to New York. Congratulations!

  4. Aha you remember! ;-) Things are good, yes I moved to NJ/NY some 8 years ago. Hope everything's well with you. Keep in touch man.

  5. publishing exec? more like dakilang alalay. but thanks for the instant promotion...hehe.