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Balagtasan on the Bowery

07:07 PM October 18, 2011

NEW YORK—About two weeks ago, three Tagalog poets of note strode into town, fresh from an appearance at the first annual Filipino-American International Book Festival in San Francisco the beginning of October. Having been invited by the festival organizers I had met the trio there, where they were said to have delighted the largely Pinoy crowd with their skill in putting on the traditional art of poetic jousting, in courtly, mellifluous rhyming verse known as the Balagtasan. I couldn’t attend their by all accounts riveting display due to another event I was committed to.

The festival was a huge success, by the way. Put together by a host of dedicated long-time Bay Area activists and writers including Gemma Nemenzo, Oscar Peñaranda, Edwin Lozada, Allan Manalo, Karen Llagas, Ben Pimentel, and France Viana, and supported by a number of organizations, the festival gathered more than 100. Among the U.S.-based writers were Cecilia Manguerra Brainard, Evangeline Canonizado Buell, R. Zamora Linmark, Barbara Jean Reyes, Angela Torres, and Reme Grefalda. Those flying in from Manila included Pete Lacaba, Butch Dalisay, John Silva, Criselda Yabes and the Balagtasan poets. Two National Artists graced the festival: Virgilio Almario for literature, and Ben Cabrera for the visual arts.

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New York would provide my only chance to witness MTV (Mike, Teo, and Vim) engage in this hollowed bardic enterprise, named after Francisco Balagtas, the Bulakeño author of the classic Florante at Laura. (The poet’s real name was Francisco Baltazar. According to Nadera, Balagtas didn’t start the tradition, though it was named after him. Jose Corazon de Jesus, or Huseng Batute, and Florentino Collantes co-authored the first Balagtasan in 1924). The tradition predates slam and hip-hop poetry by almost a century, its declaimers and practitioners aiming to win over the sympathies of the audience, as well as the judge (the lakandiwa, if male, and the lakambini, if female).

Now the Bowery Poetry Club, a well-known downtown venue in Manhattan’s East Village that showcases the bardic arts of all stripes, from the formalist to the Surrealist, from the confessional to rap and slam, was the perfect setting for MTV, all attired in Barong Tagalog, to reprise their San Francisco show. The club’s setting is conducive to easy rapport with the audience, with no orchestra well separating onlookers from performers, and, with a bar at the rear selling beer and wine, encourages impromptu commentary from listeners. The topic of debate for Coroza and Antonio, with Nadera as Lakandiwa, was whether Filipinos should continue to trek abroad to seek work and to support families left behind. The arguments pro (Teo) and con (Mike) were familiar, especially to those in the audience who had emigrated to the States and to their U.S.-born offspring (who often long for a home country they hadn’t been born in). The two went at it, gently needling each other while building their respective arguments. In the end, based on audience applause, the Balagtasan was declared a tie, though I detected a slight edge in palms being brought together for Coroza. The real winners were of course us, especially those who had never witnessed this traditional art form. This was slam poetry as our grandparents practiced it, or at least witnessed, in town plazas and similar public spaces where verses were interwoven with current topics and concerns of the day, engaging the community, long before electronic beats, B-boys, baseball caps, and jeans worn low on the hips arrived on the scene.

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Not too far from the Club is Zucotti Park, which for more than a month now, has been the locus for the Occupy Wall Street protest movement, whose members (if such a term can be used, given the lack of formal structure and leadership; the only requirement for inclusion is the feeling of hopelessness and rage that most citizens feel, whether in New York or London or Tokyo or Manila, at their own benighted circumstances, with economies globally reeling even as income disparity has become more pronounced each year) are mostly young, smart, tech-savvy, and facing bleak futures. That OWS has generated similar protests in other cities not just in the U.S. but in other countries is eloquent testament to widespread disillusionment and anger. I certainly hope we see a similar protest in Manila, though one can argue that resistance to the status quo has in fact been ongoing, with armed insurgencies going back to the 1960s.

I mention the OWS as the Balagtasan debate did touch on aspects of the global economy that simultaneously makes the rich richer and beggars the rest of us whose governments, meant to serve their populations, are instead beholden to powerful corporate and political interests who view the toiling masses as disposable assets, a resource to be mined, to be profited from. I responded to the call for a march on Wednesday October 5th, to show solidarity with the OWS. It was a heartening display. Approximately 15,000 showed up: schoolteachers, transit workers, nurses, young professionals, retirees, students, the unemployed; black, yellow, brown, white, red; gay, straight, lesbian, transgendered; punks, Mods, hippies, bikers, suits, fashionistas and the un-fashionistas (myself among the latter) who wished to express collectively their frustration at a do-nothing political establishment, an establishment that bails out the haves and not the have-nots.

Falling in with members of the Filipino organization BAYAN-USA, it occurred to me that the process of keeping the Third World the Third World, was being applied right here in this country. Even a cursory look at certain facts reveals that increasingly the globe is being transformed into one market, and that distinctions between First World and Third World are fading. Consider that 1 percent of U.S. citizens cumulatively own more wealth than 90 percent of their compatriots; that the net worth, combined, of 150 million citizens is less than that of the richest 400; and that with Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, 65 percent of economic gains were scooped up by the richest 1 percent. Both Democrats and Republicans are to blame, though a lion’s share of that blame, and thus deserving most of our opprobrium, are the Republicans, weak-kneed captives of the Tea Party, and whose attitude has been morally repulsive, breathtaking in its disdain and cold-blooded attitude towards almost the entire spectrum of this country. Ever the cheerleaders for the mighty corporations and the wealthiest—their compassion towards the most fortunate is mind-boggling—for these naysayers to smell even a hint of progressive government policies that would benefit the nation as a whole is enough to set the pack baying, an insistent cacophony of No, No, and No. Marie Antoinette would have been extremely proud of these boys and girls.

Copyright @L.H. Francia

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TAGS: American, balagtasan, Culture, Filipino, Francisco Baltazar, Immigration, Migration, Poetry, tradition, United States
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