And now a word from Marc Gaba, whose essay on the now defunct annual Likhaan anthologies, “Period Piece,” was discussed in class the other day (and will still be discussed next meeting, given the hyperactive discussion it triggered):

“In many ways, the term “best” is politically unsound, intellectually brutish—which is why I like it: it generates thought. Or rather, it forces anyone to whom the term corresponds to some thing, to articulate judgement arrived at a candid instant, long before the language for it appears and appears to have failed the ecstatic sensation of the judgement as it was made. Whether the anthologies of “the best” exist or not, we—or those of us who believe in (or recognize the fact of) human agency—live influenced by an idea of a supreme good, articulated or not. That it is historical, meaning not only that it’s determined by material circumstances belonging to the vague expanse called the present but also that it is in flux, excuses the naivete implicit in the act of using it, the blindnesses choice relies on to be made. The assessment of contemporary work by the future is no more valid than contemporary assessment: in either case, the moment declares what it needs. Only if the moment of the assessment occurs in a shared present, therefore, can aesthetic judgement be judged.”

Certainly, in the midst of conditions that deem the production of art (poetry) irrelevant—the absence of a committed readership, its incapacity to have a healthy relationship with the marketplace, its inability to heal or generate income or build bridges in ways other than figurative, etcetera, etcetera—it is difficult to remain mindful and watchful of the work being produced today and the handful of venues that support their production. Why bother being critical of work that nobody reads anyway? Last I heard, National Bookstore sold a total of around 200 local poetry books last year (this includes single-author books and anthologies). That’s 200 books against, hmm, how many are we again in this reproductively irresponsible country? Of course we can say that people go to National Bookstore to buy school supplies, not books, but this or any other explanation doesn’t really soften the blow, not unless it magically converts the dismal number into something more respectable and indicative of a flourishing engagement with our local literature. Conversely, why bother being critical of work that nobody reads? Shouldn’t we favor encouragement over critical rigor? Shouldn’t we embrace wholesale, with minimal or without critique (bound to break hearts and bruise egos and fracture friendships—no matter how soberly written—in this tiny scene so fair) the output of the few who persevere in the craft?

I think critical rigor, more than blanket praise or motherly love and protectiveness, can prove to be the best form of encouragement, that is, if we are to extend the scope of encouragement to accommodate a constant raising of stakes. Sabi nga ni Vlad Gonzales nang pag-usapan niya ang manunulat bilang intelektwal na pagdating sa kritisismo, “kung totoong pumapanig ako sa kaintelektuwalang sinasabi ko’y itatrato ko ang mga ganitong suri bilang katig sa mga susunod na proyekto. Mapupuwersa akong aralin at paulit-ulit na suriin ang mga paksang tinatalakay ko, at kung paano ko ito inilalapat sa panulat.” It may unnerve or upset writers, who are of course protective of their work, and it may frustrate and offend readers who disagree with its assertions, but criticism, when composed out of genuine interaction with a text, is a reliable remedy against all things static, stagnant, and same-old. I’m rereading The Odyssey; right now for another class and it’s funny how bad things happen to Odysseus when he falls asleep—his men open the bag of winds given to him by Aeolus, blowing them off course yet again, or his men slaughter the cattle of Helios, which they’d been warned not to do. Not that his staying awake would have changed matters in their predetermined world, but fortunately, we are not of their world. Wakefulness and vigilance can forge and expand conversations, can shape and reinvent outcomes. And so it goes.

Which leads me to the matter of choice in general and anthologizing in particular. “All artworks are, at the most basic level, simply an accrual of relationships that are the result of choices: this, not that,” Ann Lauterbach writes, something we can very well say of anthologies, no matter how reticent the editors are in articulating the particulars of their decision-making—a source of frustration for Gaba in his review of the Likhaan anthologies. If we are to view anthologies as concrete manifestations of choices made by editors/critics in articulating to us the landscape of contemporary Philippine poetry in English, then what are we to deduce about the current state of the art from two recent anthologies, At Home in Unhomeliness: An Anthology of Philippine Postcolonial Poetry in English; (published by Philippine PEN and UST Publishing House in 2007), edited by J. Neil Garcia, and Crowns and Oranges: Works by Young Philippine Poets; (published by Anvil in 2009), edited by Cirilo Bautista and Ken Ishikawa? While it is not an anthology and does not focus solely on local contemporary poetry, it might be interesting to include in the discussion The Routledge Concise History of Southeast Asian Writing in English (out in July 2009), edited by Rajeev Patke and Philip Holden, which provides in a few pages its own take on the writing of young Filipino poets. What choices are being made in the poems of new(er)(ish) writers? What choices are being made by editors in their representation and assessment of such choices? Might as well put my resurfacing insomnia to good use and find out.