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(By Mayo Uno Martin)
How typical. Arriving at Cafe Papemelroti along Roces Avenue, Quezon City, I find them on the second floor, rummaging through Books For Less" second hand books. A wave and minutes later, the members of High Chair finally head downstairs for some coffee and beer.
For the group, it's all routine. Invade a bookstore, score some cheap find, find some place to regroup and goof around. Or, if they're in the mood, talk about poetry all night long.
Which may or may not be your typical notion of how poets go about with their night lives. Not that their whereabouts at night are as crucial as to the nation's collective psyche as Kris Aquino's. But poets, believe it or not, do have an audience. And High Chair wants to make sure they stay.
Formed last year, the group consists of young poets Alex Gregorio, Allan Popa, Mabi David, Kristine Domingo and Marc Gaba. All twenty something upstarts who've decided to up the stakes in the business of poetry.
"High Chair is a not-for-profit company built on the belief that poetry matters,” explains Gaba. What started out as a verse-loving barkada has transformed into something more palpable. The indie publishing company has come out with its first project, Popa's third book of poetry Samsara, and in a couple of months, they'll be launching a website on poetry.
"Somehow, may general consensus na bored kami sa ginagawa namin sa buhay," smiles Popa. With most of them holding 9-5 jobs, it was simply an outlet. In a lightbulb moment, the group decided to get busy. With poetry?
Whether as a reaction to aesthetic or political trends, literary groups have sprung up occasionally through the years. From the pre-War Veronicans to the Martial Law group Galian sa Arte at Tula to the `80" Linangan sa Imahen, Retorika at Anyo and the Philippine Literary Arts Council. For High Chair, the impetus was a kind of discontent with the current state of poetry, which, they say, is stuck in a rut.
"We're pushing for a certain aesthetic to a certain degree that's exploring the possibilities of language more,” explains Gregorio. "Works that, normally, the academic circle or the publishing groups right now, will not necessarily publish or pay attention to."
More than just trying to spread the good word on the Word, High Chair brings to fore an issue that has been ignored for the longest time in literature. That of complacency.
A couple of people in academic circle have already pointed out that the writers" community has formed a kind of system that has excluded certain voices in the literary canon taught to students and patronized by readers. "From contests, workshop, creative writing centers, creative writing courses, magazine publishing, anthologies... Only a handful of people have been deciding what poetry is,” says Popa. "The literary community still has a particular bias for a certain predominant style of Philippine poetry, both in English and Filipino."
"Sometimes, they would publish a piece anyway just because the poem was written by somebody whom they think they should publish," adds Gaba. "Even though, in fact, they do not believe in the works. This happens."
For the ordinary reader, controversies in literature may seem new. After all, books continue to be published (if not read) and writers are still emerging on a regular basis. But as the members of High Chair point out, back-patting is the norm, and contests and workshops have become the ticket to an exclusive club of "made" writers.
This has been to the detriment of Philippine poetry, they say. The same thing being said in the same manner. "Through the anthologies of other presses, we come into contact with poems written by many, many filipinos except that some of them, you do get turned off," says Gaba. "No intellection to speak of, self-centered, self-absorbed (in a very limited sense), no detachment involved, so self-serving, self-aggrandizement. No understanding even of what a metaphor is!"
The members of High Chair talk from experience, having also attended workshops and classes, won in some contests and published in the same magazines. They say there's more to poetry than mere recognition. "I think anybody who's trying to learn something would have to start with something basic," says Gaba, "and I think all of us profited from that structure, except that our hunger has not been satiated, so we had to explore the art individually and by ourselves."
"We as readers continue to explore voices other than those that have been fed to us by, say, creative writing courses. And we've discovered that there are still other ways of writing poetry," adds Popa.
Their tastes in poetry are varied, from modern American/British poets like Sylvia Plath, Robert Frost and Marianne Moore to contemporary ones like Jorie Graham, Louise Gluck and Anne Carson. Among local poets they admire, there's Benilda Santos, the late Rolando Tinio, Lamberto Antonio, Pete Lacaba and Simeon Dumdum.
"One good thing to point out, when we formed the group, we wanted to share each of our own liking for poetry, compulsions for the writing of poetry," says Gregorio. "Because when you start reading poetry and when you fall in love with poetry, there's always a certain excitement. You'll always be on the lookout for new stuff."
These new voices they speak of will soon find space in their upcoming website, where they'll be publishing poetry as well as interviews with other poets, essays on poetry, "honest" reviews of poetry books written by Filipinos. They'll even have a section where surfers can send poetry for comments from them. Other activities lined up include lectures, readings and workshops. They also aim to publish two books and three chapbooks a year. All of these, they say, will be coming from their own pockets.” So donations are welcome,” smiles Gregorio.
"There's a pretty good deal of poetry being written that deserves to be published and listened to,” says Gaba. "Exciting voices, inventive writing."