In Cavite, young people find power in poetry

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“Naghahalo at nagkakaroon ng konek ang urbanidad saka ‘yung rural aspects ng pamumuhay. Ganoon ang panulat ng mga Kabitenyo,” says Cavite Young Writers Association president Kid Orit. Photo by CRYSTAL RIGOR NACION

A young woman takes the stage and recites a poem about a love so healing and transformative. Her words tap into a desire we’re rarely brave enough to acknowledge out loud. She takes a breath, as if exhausted from the admission, and then — “Ayaaan.” The energetic beats of the “Uptown Funk” instrumental begin to sync with the stage lights. She turns her microphone to the audience. “Okay pa ba kayoooo?”

This is Himig at Salita, one of art collective Titik Poetry’s Buwan ng Wika events, held at a shopping mall in Silang, Cavite — hence the mall show treatment.

Spoken word performers Aubrey Joy Salvador and Mai Escoto hosting Himig at Salita, one of Titik Poetry’s Buwan ng Wika events, at Premier Plaza Mall, Silang, Cavite. Photo courtesy of HIMIG AT SALITA

The place is packed, not only with event goers, but also with shoppers toting around groceries who stop to look. There are audience members as young as 13. Alison, 16, initially came for the musicians in the lineup; she left with a rediscovered love for poetry and a Titik Poetry shirt she won at a game.

The game, which would have blown my mind when I was 16, was to make up verses on the spot. Alison told me she hasn’t written poetry in three years. Of course, she easily created meaningful lines with little to no time to think, delivered with the cadence of a veteran spoken word artist. She won by a landslide as determined by the most powerful judging criteria in the Philippines: palakasan ng palakpak.

Frankly, I had the time of my life.

Titik Poetry didn’t start out at malls; founder Verlin Santos never even intended to create a collective. It was supposed to be a one-off event, then called Titik Poetry and Open Mic Night, at a bar in Bacoor in 2015.

Rai Javier holding a songwriting workshop at Padayon Arts Festival, Titik Poetry’s 8th anniversary celebration at Cafe Salvacion, Dasmariñas, Cavite. Photo by CRYSTAL RIGOR NACION

“Nagpe-perform na ako [ng spoken word], tapos laging ginaganap sa Manila. Ang layo at ang mahal ng pamasahe, eh estudyante lang ako no’n,” says Santos, who is now part of the Local Council for Culture and the Arts at the City Government of Bacoor. “Bakit hindi ko na lang kaya dalhin sa Cavite ‘yung eksensa? “Nung tinanong ng mga dumalo kung kailan ‘yung next at paano sumali, doon ako nagka-ideya na pwede siyang masundan. Pwede pala siyang maging grupo.”

Since then, Titik has performed in stages both big and small. The most memorable for Santos are their performances in wet markets, jeep terminals, and buses, which he likens to flash mobs or busking. “Nung nag-uumpisa kami, may mga gig kasi na hindi nagbabayad [ng performers], pero dahil passion mo talaga at gustong-gusto mong mag-perform, pupuntahan mo kahit nasa Quezon City pa ‘yan. ‘Dun kami gumagawa ng pamasahe, ‘pag nagpe-perform kami sa bus.”

Titik eventually became a mainstay at cafes in Cavite and nearby cities, like The Backyard Food Community, Hugot Cafe, and Cafe Avenue, before the COVID-19 pandemic forced many of these places to close. The inaugural Etibakbakan, a Cavite-wide poetry slam where Titik held competitions in each of Cavite’s major cities, also shifted online because of the pandemic.

AMSAD USAD performing at Padayon Arts Festival. Photo by CRYSTAL RIGOR NACION

Thankfully, new venues have now started to emerge: Titik held their anniversary celebration last May at Cafe Salvacion in Dasmariñas City, an idyllic cafe-slash-campsite that made me go, “May ganito pala sa Dasma?” when I first visited. Etibakbakan also returned, going nationwide last year.

“Maraming nakikipag-tie up sa amin [na venues] ngayon, pero [wala na kami gaanong] luxury ng time para mag-conduct nang mag-conduct ng open mic,” Santos admits. “Siyempre tumatanda rin kami, nag-aadulting.”

This explains why a lot of other groups in the province have dissolved or organized less public events. Art collective Tadhana, formed in 2016, used to perform in numerous events as a group or as individuals. “When the pandemic happened, huminto na din ang events. Matapos ang pandemiya naman, karamihan [ay] graduates na and nag-start na mag-pursue ng kani-kaniyang careers,” says founder Shine Bennet. Still, they try to squeeze in a few small events, sometimes online.

Writers and artists selling their zines at Cavite Young Writers Association’s 2nd Workshop Graduation in 2019. Photo courtesy of CAVITE YOUNG WRITERS ASSOCIATION

Cavite Young Writers Association (CYWA), meanwhile, focused on keeping their members engaged in writing through workshops. “Nung nauso ‘yung spoken word poetry, we collaborated with other organizations [to perform in events],” recalls current CYWA president Kid Orit. “Pero mas nag-focus ako doon sa craft-building at skill-sharing ng mga miyembro, sa kung paano ba nila mas pagyayamanin ‘yung pagsulat nila.”

“Dati, campus-based ‘yung writing org ko, [kaya] madaling makipagkita at maghanap ng kasama or mag-ccritique ng gawa mo,” says Orit, who joined CYWA in 2010, fresh out of college. He attended one of the organization’s seminars and met prominent Caviteño writers like Dr. Efren Abueg and Eros Atalia. “I was fortunate to find CYWA [after graduating], to have my work read by fellow writers within the community.”

Because Cavite is so large and its members so far apart, it’s not always easy for CYWA to gather. They also don’t have a permanent facility, often utilizing the houses of more senior members. Orit took on this challenge when he became president, driven by the belief that writers are inseparable from their communities — and they are made better for it.

It is also Cavite’s sheer size and diversity that lends its poets their distinct voices. Orit describes Cavite poetry as “hybrid”: “Cavite is not that far from Manila, and yet there are parts of Cavite na very rural. So naghahalo ‘yung urbanidad saka ‘yung rural aspects ng pamumuhay.”

Santos of Titik Poetry believes there is no shortage of excellent poets in Cavite, which urges the collective to provide more stages for them. Beyond students and young poets, Titik holds open mics and workshops for persons deprived of liberty (PDLs) in cities like Imus, General Trias, and Bacoor. “Ang mga salitang ‘pagsisisi,’ ‘kalayaan,’ at ‘pamilya,’ kapag sa labas mo narinig, ah okay. Pero kapag sa loob [ng kulungan], iiyak ka talaga,” Santos says. As a peace advocate, he also organizes open mics for children in Marawi. “‘Yung shini-share ng mga tao ay testament sa experiences nila. [Tuwing may open mic], nabibigyan sila ng pagkakataong mag-share, kasi walang nagpapahiram ng mic sa kanila. Kahit wala kang sound system o stage, pwede kang mag-organize ng open mic. Basta nandoon ‘yung community.”

“Ang mantra namin [sa Titik Poetry], gamitin ang art at poetry hindi lang for entertainment, kundi isang platform for education,” Santos adds.

“Sa pag-usbong ng community-based writers, nakita ng kabataang manunulat na hindi lang hawak ng mga educational institution ang espasyo para pagyamanin ang kanilang pasulat, kaya kapag malapit sa inyo ang event, puntahan natin. Kung may pambili ng zines, bilhin natin. Kung may pa-workshop sila, subukan nating sumali.”

More groups continue to provide community for the writers of Cavite, including Ingay Likha and the Alitaptap Artist Village in Amadeo. Orit encourages us to support independent collectives, especially in our own localities. “Sa pag-usbong ng community-based writers, nakita ng kabataang manunulat na hindi lang hawak ng mga educational institution ang espasyo para pagyamanin ang kanilang pasulat,” says Orit. “Kaya kapag malapit sa inyo ang event, puntahan natin. Kung may pambili ng zines, bilhin natin. Kung may pa-workshop sila, subukan nating sumali.”