LUGAR LANG| The writers workshop as landscape

AT THE closing of the Davao Writers Workshop, the fellows heaved a collective melancholic “Awwww…” every time it was mentioned that it was the last day of the workshop.

It’s a strange sentiment, considering that we spent only five days together, November 30 to December 4, sitting in a conference room, and talking about creative writing. One would think it was a mere academic exercise we didn’t have to get attached to, but for most of the participants, the experience had higher stakes. That is to say, they invested more of themselves in their writing and in their hopes that the workshop would help them grow. But the friendships forged in these intense five days for those so invested last for years, forming a circle of support for their writing as well as for their living.

This year was particularly special for me because our guest panelist, Dr. John Labella from Ateneo de Manila University, was my co-fellow in the 1996 Silliman Writers Workshop in Dumaguete, where we met. John admitted that his primary reason for accepting the invitation was our friendship, which had suffered many years of absence because of how our individual paths diverged. We really hadn’t seen each other since 1996! Like many “lost” friends, we found each other again through Facebook. It was exhilarating both to reminisce about the past we shared and to witness how much we have changed, and thus reaffirm our old connection.

In his keynote lecture entitled “Poems In Search of Landscape,” Labella talked about how landscape can function in poetry beyond the old model of being a scene one is looking at, or providing a passive backdrop for the writer’s rumination. He explained how landscape can be the “place of searching and questioning,” a geographical surface “ready to be turned into image” of significance because the viewer-poet is actually surrounded by it, not merely looking at it.

Using various poems, Labella discussed how landscape embodies the “haptic engagement” of the writer with the place, with the whole body as camera, testing its limits against the kineticism of mountains or rivers. In other poems, the poet is truly immersed in the scene, “contemplating without detachment,” or haunted by what is missing. But I was particularly struck by his examples of how poetry can also present a political geography, showing the relationship between landscape and a people’s history of displacement, for instance. These points resonated in the manuscripts discussed throughout the week, showing how significant place is for the young Mindanawon writer.

In the raw energy of the manuscripts, geography stood out as a strong trigger for each writer beginning to find his or her voice. As a setting for narrative, Mindanao provided a rich source from Davao to Cateel to Maguindanao to Marawi. But more important, the writers had a sense of how these narratives of place where directly connected to the people, showing their innate understanding of the “overlap between psyche and cosmos,” referred to by Labella. Our shared concerns about the violence happening in our communities and how it is shaping our consciousness as a people gave the pieces a necessary urgency, but gravitas is what writers must later strive to hone in their work. Our Mindanawon landscape is a blade that cuts both writer and reader, and to be able to wield it with skill, we must all treat it with awe and diligence.

As both a writing student and teacher, I know how difficult it is to bring my work to a public that has been tasked to scrutinize it. The workshop setting is not for sissies. And it is not for the arrogant either. The teaching panel of the Davao Writers Workshop tries to strike a balance of concern for the fragility of beginning writers and the rigor that writing entails, but we can never control just how each student receives our feedback. We are grateful when the magic happens and the student truly listens and applies the feedback to their revision and new writing. But every year, we also encounter fellows who resist the experience and go back to their homes unmoved (or defensive, or worse, defeated). Sayang, but none of us can force learning on anyone.

This year, we added a writing component to the workshop format, in which we asked each fellow to interact with a painting by a Davao artist and write an ekphrastic piece. We did a quick workshop of their fresh drafts and were happy to note some changes in some of the writing. Some of these revised pieces will be included in our forthcoming anthology, Davao Harvest 3. That we held the workshop at the unique Ponce Suites Gallery Hotel owned by the family of renowned Davao artist Kublai Millan was a surprising element that underscored the idea that all art is in conversation with each other; we need only tune in.

And so the ninth run of the Davao Writers Workshop came to a successful end, despite the usual and the unexpected challenges. Congratulations to everyone involved, particularly to our new director, UP instructor Darylle Rubino, his deputy, Gracielle Deanne Tubera of Ateneo de Davao University, and the Davao Writers Guild. Onward to the next round, padayon!

Follow or message me on Twitter @jhoannalynncruz

Posted in Opinion