eK! is electronic Kabalen, a web-exclusive Kapampangan journal of ideas

papa osmubal
oscar balajadia THERE IS a certain stage in people's lives that is rather ironic. It is when they show hatred and dislike of somebody they actually like or love. They even annoyingly babble out this purported abhorrence to their friends who, of course and as is always the case, are also friends to somebody they putatively hate. To make matters mawkishly hokey, these friends actually know what it is exactly boiling deep within their yammering friends. They sure know that the bellyache and the detestation their friends display are merely camouflaged revelation or confession of their true feelings for someone. Call it mediated flirting.

That is so all-fired corny and childish, one may say. But I confess that that is how I attach epithets to my still teenage-like relationship with writing. I always tell people that I don't really like writing, when in fact it is the next most important thing in my life after my family. Or sometimes it even gets on top of everything, including the family, depending on the situation and my mood.

I was in first year high school when I started feeling that I was under this execration called writing. I was a rather silent but rebellious kid who had a lot to say about heaps of things, but who would not impart them. One day it just occurred to me that the world needed to hear from me. I felt that I had just been accorded this unsought responsibility.

Years before I got Izaak Walton's classic in my hands, I had already developed strong passion for angling, reading, and writing. I was really very young then, because I remember I was just slightly taller than the rice plants and grasses on the farms where I would go after school to angle for frogs. Catching those karag  (bullfrogs) was a challenge and fun. I would say it was also an intellectual undertaking, as I had to outsmart the frogs to catch them. My mother would make betute  (fried stuffed frogs) and tortang tugak  (minced frogs sauteed with potatoes, tomatoes, eggs, and green peas) with my catch when days were kind and generous.

Angling can be a lonely, boring enterprise that you literally feel the world slowly move under your feet and your heartbeat, and the afternoon breeze is the only sound you can hear. That is why every time I went angling I had with me pieces of paper, a pencil, and a book. That was my initial training in creative writing (and the rest I humbly credit to my teachers at school, particularly to Robby Tantingco and Cecile Yumul, who happens to be one of the writers on eK!). I was never in literary workshops and I will never be in one.

Writing came to me by accident. That is to say I don't have any idea how I got it. It grew out of me the way my hair and nails do. At first I was just keeping second-hand notebooks I inherited from my older cousins and siblings that I used as journals and entry logs for the fleeting ideas and my doodles. I wrote and drew just about everything. But, for unknown reasons, I just wanted to write poems. At first I started writing like Fernando Maramag. Then I went bananas with e.e. cummings, Jose Garcia Villa, and the socialist Carl Sandburg.

I discovered the practical use of writing in my life when I started to fall in love. I wrote a lot about the girls I fell in and out of love with. The pains and happiness of love inflamed the young poet in me. My imitation of the sonneteer Maramag was put into good use and paid off. Those billets-doux in rhyme attracted some comely lasses.

I have been a poet through and through, but I am not saying I was not into stuff that kids of my time loved having or doing. I was a normal, active lad. I was not a nerd. I did dabble into BMX jumps, Strut dance, and Breakdance. I played a lot of volleyball and basketball, and I was darn fast like lightning and I could jump. I still remember my barrio-mates calling me Gary Vargas back then— if you knew the former PBA player Gary Vargas (who I guess was from Pampanga) and his way of playing, you would know how I handled that ball and why they called me that. In the seminary, I terrorized my fellow seminarians with my ball handling and jumping. That was way back in time before I turned into a beer-filled balloon that I am now. And I did play some Ping-Pong every now and then. (Now my wife, who does not stop boasting that she is Chinese while spinning that racket in her hand, has a pretty hard time beating me—but she beats me good, making that ball miraculously careen here and there.) Unlike most of the teens in my time, I did not use the basketball (or any ball), BMX, Strut, and Breakdance as come-ons to attract girls. It was my art and poetry that hypnotized the girls.

In my town's private high school, called Magalang Institute (before rust, corruption, oblivion, mismanagement, and termites rendered the school inappropriate to learning), that once granted me full scholarship, I was a total "Emily Dickinson" type of bard. I only had myself as my own reader, and the only person who knew I was writing poetry was one childhood friend and classmate of mine who officially categorized me as a geek and dweeb.

My enrolment at Holy Angel University (HAU) exposed me to some serious writing. There I became involved in campus press and activism. I became a propaganda mouthpiece of the League of Filipino Students (LFS) at HAU and one of the editors of the official student organ of the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS), called Nexus.

Some of those who I would always hang out with to read and write poetry at HAU were fellow LFS members and friends: the John Lennon die-hard groupie Chris Nunag who, if I still remember correctly, was then working as artist-illustrator for an Angeles City newspaper published and edited by Ody Fabian; Jimbert de Guzman, who later worked full-time for Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan) in San Fernando; and Chris Grutas, who later became a local journalist in Pampanga. (It was through the journalist-artist Jojo Pasion Malig that I learned three years ago of the tragic demise of my dear old buddy Chris Grutas in a car accident.)

Fellow students at HAU hailed me as a poetry maestro, having been twice awarded the HAU Poet of the Year (or Puwit  of the Year, as my classmates and friends jokingly called me), and once the HAU Short Story Writer of the Year. I forgot the precise years because that was eons ago.

It was Robby Tantingco who established the annual HAU Literary Awards. It was also he (and the CAS of which he was then the acting dean) who nominated me to the Ten Outstanding Students of the Philippines (TOSP) for literature in my last year at the university. I did not bring the prize home, but another Angelite did. And as losers always say, "To be a nominee is itself an honor." And then again, it was the same Robby Tantingco who I managed to cajole and bamboozle, so to speak, to publish my first poetry book. It was in Tagalog (apologies to the torrid Kapampangan regionalists), and it created a buzz among students at HAU at that time because it was, according to many, the first ever poetry book by an enrolled HAU student published by HAU through its Office of the Student Affairs (OSA). Looking back, I would say, it was a poetry book that was devoid of poetry. I might have already been forgiven by those who read the book, considering that I was but a greenhorn then.

It was also in my HAU days when I first got published in Manila-based publications like the Philippine Free Press and the now defunct National Midweek. I remember the HAU OSA helping me withdraw my publication "payments" a couple or so times because I wrote the pieces under my nom de guerre. That is one weighty drawback of writing under a fictitious name. But there is still another drawback that is much weightier than that: writing under a pseudonym makes you think your ideas are not yours, which creates some sort of inner conflict and insecurity because you always feel envious of your alter-ego. There are countless nights when I have to deal with this by swigging wine and beer, but the next thing I know I am holding a pen and a piece of paper, again involuntarily indulging that bloody alter-ego. But then again, another disadvantage is that people can blame, curse, and imprison you—which they can't do the same to your alter-ego. That aggravates my relationship with my alter-ego that somehow fuels my reservation towards writing.

At University of Macau, where very recently I received my MA, some of my professors said I could contribute something valuable to arts and letters if I only just exerted more effort and give more attention to my work. They might have had an inkling of how lazy and impatient I can get. I told them I don't always write. Obviously I was lying, because I am one who can't leave home and roam around town without a pen and pieces of paper tucked in my pockets. One will not believe me if I say once I went out of the house without forgetting to put my pen and pieces of paper in my pocket and yet I never even noticed I was wearing my shirt inside-out.

I have written almost all of my poems in unlikely places: toilets, bus stations, gardens, parks, malls, grocery stores, footbridges, elevators, buses, and taxis. But toilets are a perennial favorite writing place.

Based on my personal experience, ideas are a pain in the neck. They come at wrong times and in wrong places. I wrote all my poems at those wrong times and in those wrong places. One day in a Macau cinema the usherette called my attention to switch off my tiny flashlight, although before that I had already heard other moviegoers whine and sigh. I told her it was an emergency and I was looking for my ID and address book. I was in fact writing a poem, the theme and idea of which I picked up from the film they were showing. The poem later appeared in one online magazine called Poor Mojo's Almanac(k). Every time I read the piece I feel like I am watching the movie itself. It relives the past, those moments gone by, the characters and their language, the cinema, and me and the usherette arguing in the murk in measured whispers.

I am a slave to writing. I can't just manipulate it. I mean it just happens when it happens and I don't plan it because I can't. I just can't do anything about it. That is why I can never be a real writer. Writing can never be my profession. That can never happen to me. In my memory, I have never written on purpose. I can't just say, "OK, I am going to sit tonight and write a piece about this and that." No, I can't do that. But one professor who became my thesis adviser at University of Macau would not believe any of that. I wrote most of my MA thesis in two months. That is 120 pages of the entire 150-page thesis.

I was given one school year (two semesters) to write my thesis after completing the in-class lectures that I had to attend. After that I had consultation with my thesis adviser only once for the thesis introduction. And then I disappeared. My adviser never heard of/from me again since. It took me a good eight months before I was able to meet with him again. I showed up at his office with nothing but the introduction I had shown him at our first meeting eight months back.

I saw pity oozing out from my adviser's eyes when we said goodbye. "Let's meet again after three weeks," he said, his voice was low and trembling. And after three weeks I gave him the draft of the entire thesis.

"You did not turn up in almost a year," he blurted out. There was disbelief in his voice, and his eyes were proclaiming that not everybody can, in fact, turn water into wine and divide seas into two. "And now here you are with your thesis! Why did you not show this to me the last time we met?" I said I wrote it just after our last meeting.

We fixed the thesis for a month and a week. Upon graduation I was awarded "excellent" (which we call "with honors" in the Philippines ) because of that dissertation.

"We will award you 'excellent' for this dissertation. It is well-written. Obviously you can write, "said the chairperson of the thesis panel when she announced the result of my oral defense.

I scratched my head and said, "But I am too lazy and impatient. I rush things. I procrastinate and I don't carefully proofread my work." She shook her head and said, "Yes." Frankly, that was the first time I saw someone say "yes" while shaking their head.

I am not built for writing because, as I have already admitted, I am very lazy and impatient. But that is not the reason why I don't like writing. In all honesty and frankness, I don't like writing because too often it doesn't make me sleep at night.

And tonight is one of those nights.

[About the author. Papa Osmubal is Oscar Balajadia of Magalang, now Macau resident and married to a Chinese local. He has been a Catholic seminarian, Catholic missionary, bookstore staff, teaching assistant, and teacher. Currently at daytime he is the Assistant Librarian at The International School of Canada in Macau, while at nighttime he moonlights as part-time teacher and tutor. His poems have appeared in various anthologies and publications, online and hardcopy. He has work archived in the University of Columbia Granger's World of Poetry  and other places. A work of his will also appear in the forthcoming W.W. Norton Poetry Anthology of Contemporary Voices from the East.  He is a contributing writer to Chick Flicks, Our Own Voice (OOV): Writing from the Filipino Diaspora, and other publications.]

-Posted: 8:22 AM 2/19/08 | More of this author on eK!