The Obligations of the Writer

Nonfiction by | July 5, 2009

(In memory of my father, Florentino Evasco)

Invoking the Presences
I would like to begin with a poem which I wrote many years ago for my father, Florentino Evasco. On March 14, he would have been 85 years old. This poem is published in my first book Dreamweavers and part of a cycle entitled “Blood Remembering.” It is called “The Mound of Bones”:

Behind the house,
A mound of earth
Kept my father
Busy digging.
From here the house
Was to extend
A listening ear
To the bamboo grove
And the frogpond.
But father struck
A pile of bones
And was soon lost
In contemplation.
Mother died
When he was fifty.
He told me then the secret
Of the mound of bones:
How the enchanted trees
Dug deep roots and curled
Around the skulls;
How one day, another man
Will uproot other trees and
Unearth our own,
And be lost in
His own reflection.

Heeding the Call
Each lifetime is an “immense journey” towards a reflective understanding of the mysteries which call to us the invitation to discover our own truths. For my father who crafted fine furniture with his hands, it was the mystery of trees that led him deeper into himself. When he planted narra and mahogany trees in the mountains of his hometown in Maribojoc, Bohol, or when he worked with wood to shape it into a child’s crib, a grandmother’s rocking chair, or a daughter’s four-poster bed, his hands knew the joy of caressing that mystery.

I used to watch him work silently and because I asked, I eventually learned the names of the tools and materials that inhabited his workshop: martilyo, lansang, sapilya, gabas, iskuala, panonton, limbas, barina, tigib, suelas. I also learned that each of these had a particular function in his craft. As a master craftsman he handled his tools efficiently, hardly wasting any material or energy in doing the work well.

This personal story can perhaps serve as a metaphoric guide, a journey which we are doing in response to the call of the living mystery of words. I would like to believe that we all chose to become writers motivated only by a deep need to listen to the call of words. For if we truly loved words, we would seek its music the way one who is thirsty follows the sweet sound of water. Thus, this is to be our way of being today: we are seekers of the watershed, the healing springs, the rushing falls, rivers and streams, the deep wells, the lakes and reservoirs from where our lives as writers draw sustenance.

Taking the journey
When we pursue this journey called the writing life, more often than not, we take our bearings from an active and exciting reading life. Many students who interview me for their projects inevitably ask the question: when did you start writing? And like the trickster who loves to keep the consciousness constantly agile, I always bring the question from its literal concerns to its imaginative dimensions. I would retell of that time in a Grade One classroom where I listened to my teacher, Mrs. Sinajon read the story of Hansel and Gretel and remained disconsolate even after the part where evil witch is finally pushed into the oven.

This, I suppose was the earliest initiation to the way a story can bring the imagination to a place where nothing is ever what it appears to be. Why, I asked my teacher, did their father allow them to be lost in the forest? Did he not love them? And was he sorry afterwards when he knew the truth? My teacher must have given me answers safe enough for a six-year old to take home. I did not know it then, but on hindsight it seems that the power of the story was already making me interested in the inner promptings of the human mind and heart, especially its capacity for cruelty.

From that time on, reading was a way of finding some answers or asking more questions. Until now, I am a card-carrying member of the worldwide peaceful anarchists’ organization of read-caholics, and you will know us by our habit of sitting in solitude with a good book, completely immersed in the talismanic world created in it. Often, we are very happy people. We open a book to read a story, a poem, a play, or an essay, and we know by experience that we open a new door into the many layers of reality in this world.

Like all of you, I had my share of useless books passed around by my equally giggly friends in high school. These were called “romances” and were supposed to be in harmony with the workings of our adolescent pituitary glands. I may have read more than five of these but aside from the sexual thrill in reading the touching and kissing scenes, I did not remember any of the characters, their problems or their hard-earned wisdom. It did not take very long for the formula story to become tedious and I stopped wasting my time on such books. In senior high under the guidance of a German nun who was most difficult to please, and whose dissident wit we enjoyed, we enjoyed the medieval story of unfortunate love between “Aucassin and Nicolette,” performed the play “Our Town” by Thornton Wilder, discussed the tragic imperatives of “Antigone,” and sang “No Man Is an Island” in four voices.

I was ready for the heavier stuff even as I was beginning to love the poetry of the Beatles, the conscience of Simon and Garfunkel, the rebellion of Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, and the sensual mouth of Mick Jagger. Like your times now, mine was one that called for gravitas and claritas. At the height of the Vietnam War, the peace of our evening sleep and dreams was haunted by the drone of American planes ferrying their dead and wounded to the nearby base in Mactan, Cebu.

What is the point of all these autobiographical details? We could answer it by saying that we are trying to illustrate the point that the writing life is ever in process and can never be separated from the quality of one’s engagement with that life. If one chooses to be a writer at some point, it has to be a thoughtful and responsible choice that can be sustained for the long haul, an entire lifetime. One doesn’t choose to write simply because the whole barkada or one’s boyfriend is in the staff of the school’s literary magazine.

Of course, one can start there, but the decision has to bring to relentless light the fact that good writing, the only one that is worthwhile doing, must be given full and loving attention. Once this is understood– that one’s time and talent are committed to the service of shaping the material at hand into the story, the poem, the play or the essay– it may even happen that when one is engaged in the process of writing, the barkada or the boyfriend will have to wait or go away. That’s the bad news; the good news is that you’ll get over it.

Leaping across the circle of fire
But how is it to love writing fully and well?

Let me talk about the writer’s unconditional love for the craft with another story, this time about a dear friend Danny M. Reyes. By the time I knew Danny, he was already working on his poetry collection for his M.A. thesis. One day, the apartment where his family lived burned down, and he did not only lose his beautiful library, he lost the hard copy and back-up files of his poetry collection. However, this test of spirit did not faze him. Instead, in the next few years of his life, he struggled to write new poems, some of them informed by the shades of the poems lost forever. The M.A. degree had to be shelved for a while because the way of keeping time in the real world is not the same as the flow of time in poetry.

After he finished the collection and submitted these for the M.A. degree, he spent a few more years carefully polishing the poems to make them shine until he felt they were ready to live in a book. On September 29, 1999 he launched his first collection. In the program that marked the occasion, I said: “Truly, Promising Lights is a beautiful incarnation of a life lived in the service of what Danny calls ‘the divine errand of art and desire.’ It is a first book that has danced through the circle of fire…poems that go through this ordeal and survive to sing its glowing and transcendent body, are the ones that offer us the light to show us home.”

Here is Danny Reyes’ poem “Ravages,” which articulates this faith and the spirit’s capacity for alchemy—the art of transforming base matter into gold:

One flagrant minute
Of the night,
So luminous, so awesome.
We look up:
Only fire’s luminance—
Ruthless, gutting
The night.
Glass shatters
To give way,
Flames take
The windows,
Hands that possess
Everything – old pictures,
Loops of worn limericks,
Mother’s purple book
Of hours, the known
I, who look up,
Am small
And the fire
Is a force I have
Just known.
I, forbidden
To look back,
Am mortal
In my love,
But this brief while
Which I now fear
Is truer
Than all my life.
Teak, silk, and ink-
Stained sheaves burn
Their passions, now.
The sky’s cove receives
The lengthening spires,
The purest traces
Of loss.
And I must find
My home,
In this razed
And battered ground,
Among the betrayed
Rooms of the hour.
But there is
Only this space,
A clearing drawn
By flames, rained
Upon by soot,
Where my heart can
Rest in bareness
To say yes, to have
The nothingness,
To heed
This shelter
From the ravages.

Entering the magnificent city
Poetry is the true home of Danny Reyes’ life. If he had not persisted in writing poetry in spite of the fire and the terrible attendant loss, he would have been lost even to himself. For many of us, this is also true, and we imagine that we write because we have glimpsed the luminous towers of poetry’s Byzantium, that “magnificent city” where all the writers of the world have built monuments and shelters for the human spirit. We desire to be called citizens of this realm and safeguard it against all harm.

But what about the bad-press that creative writers have received about how they live in their “ivory towers” unconcerned with the matters of consequence in the world of daily life? I would counter this ignorant and uninformed criticism with another statement of faith: that the writer lives in exactly the same world as everybody else does; the only difference is that, by discipline, temperament and persuasion, the writer can speak the truth from which others would cringe, can point to the beauty that others would take for granted or despise, can touch base with the goodness that lies side by side with the ignominious in our humanity.

When the writer’s capacity for truth, beauty and goodness is compromised or corrupted, the writing life ceases to be of any true spiritual value to anyone, including the writer himself or herself.

Trusting the difficult
What is the price for choosing the writing life, for loving the muse of Literature? This is a question that reminds me of that wonderful rubai by Jellaludin Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks which goes: “I would love to kiss you./ The price of kissing is your life./ Now my loving is running toward my life saying/ What a bargain, let’s buy it.”

The price of kissing, embracing, loving the writing life is your life itself. And like the lover in Rumi’s poem, one must be able to ecstatically celebrate one’s constant “yes” to the demands of such life. It will not always be easy to celebrate one’s “yes,” because there are forces which will continually tear the writer apart and away from the purity of the choice. And if one is not tough-minded and strong-hearted to persist in fulfilling the choice, the desire to write well will weaken and eventually die. Just take a moment to consider this: how many of the present staff in your school’s literary magazine will still be writing poetry, fiction, drama or the essay ten or twenty years after college? How many will be strong enough to finally publish a good collection and let it take its rightful place in the traditions of Literature in the country and the world?

Maybe, in every workshop batch, two or three of the craziest ones will survive. These are the ones who will have learned how to trust the difficult, as Rilke had advised a young poet in his times. They are the ones who will have affirmed their desire to write the books that would enrich the reading lives of your children and the children after them.

Affirming the path
In closing, I would like you to read “It is time to come home,” which I wrote on the new moon of January, the beginning of the lunar year of the earth Ox, after my December visit to Maribojoc in my home-island, Bohol.

It is time to come home
(for Leoncio Evasco, Jr. and Procopio Resabal)
By Marjorie Evasco

He has just paddled the banca out of Postan Gamay,
where the branches of the mangrove arch above the water
a temple of dark green silence.
In his heart he keeps the oars quiet.

Delivered back to the light and sound of the world, he sees,
hears, wild emerald doves and orioles stir the river,
dipping their wings for a bath and sunning on a wire
strung across the breadth of Abatan.
It will soon be sunset.

He catches his breath at the shimmer of wings when the birds
shake droplets loose from their feathers. A light breeze passes
through the nipa fronds on the riverbank; fetches faint sounds
of a church bell calling the faithful to prayer.
It is time to come home.

As the sun slips behind Maribojoc mountains, he comes
to Bitoon, the deeper part of the river; stops for a chance
to hear the bell thrown long ago by the people of Malabago
to defy anger of shamans, priests, and greed of marauders.
No one owns the bell but the river.

His friend, the wise healer of Toril, tells him the story
one starless night when he heard Lingganay Ugis
ringing. The young men in the river towns also heard it.
Many dived in to see for themselves the marvel.
The temple bell lies still on the riverbed.

At the mouth of Abatan children are hook-and-line fishing.
He calls to ask them if they were trying to catch Cogtong,
giant fish guarding the bell. They laugh and tell him: No, but
we’ve seen him flash huge red eyes, whip his very strong tail.
The old bell-keeper is alive and well.

Marjorie Evasco is an award-winning and internationally-recognized poet. She is a Professor of literature and creative writing at De La Salle University-Manila. She delivered this lecture at the opening of the 2009 Davao Writers Workshop held on May 4 – 9, 2009, in which she was the honored guest panelist.

2 thoughts on “The Obligations of the Writer”

  1. Thanks, ma’am Marj. You are such an inspiration and a motivator. I have always found private, secret places in your poems where I can let my soul play. God bless you!

  2. I can’t forget your father , Florentino Evasco, the best teacher I ever meet at The Bohol School of Arts and Trades, 1966.
    He always start the class with short stories, and we were are motivated to listen the lesson.

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