In2013, the art collective to which I belong, Pedantic Pedestrians, conducted Poetry (Re)Production, a project where we accosted strangers in public places in Baguio City to ask them of their conceptions of poetry and demonstrate these conceptions by writing a poem. The intention of the project is simple, even while also going beyond the simplicity: no longer just to literally ‘take’ poetry out into the streets, bringing them closer to the public, but to make this public concretize their idea of poetry. Members of the public are thus treated not as recipients of some finished poetic work but as potential creators of the works themselves. Further, what helped in crystallizing this intention is the common notion that literature, especially poetry, is exclusive, whether in the sense of being hard to grasp or pertaining to elevated forms of thought or confined in privileged places like schools, cafes or bookshops.
The ethnographic dimension enters once the intention has been identified. Going out to public spaces to ask people to participate in the project is hard already; even more challenging is to explain the project’s goals and detail what is expected of the participants. Yet in hindsight, I see how this process activated and expanded the sense of the “practicality” of writing—a notion which in itself is already subordinated by the view that privileges the literary text as a finished product. Borrowing Raymond Williams’ terms, the process of signification, like literary production, is emphasized more as constituted of “formal signs” and not as a “practical material activity” (Williams, 1977, p. 38). Echoing this subtle critique of formalism, Alice Guillermo underlines how form is “not a mere neutral vessel of meaning” but “a bearer of ideology” (Guillermo, 1989, p. 166) and thus can be used to both point out and participate in the contestations in society.
Going out to help ‘produce’ poetry demonstrates the practicality of writing—a corporeal evidence against the idealization of the solitary writer, dreamy and brimming with inspiration in the proverbial ivory tower. Asking strangers, ordinary people on the streets to think about their notions of poetry and act out these notions challenges the related mythologization of the specialized writer, the literary genius.
It is thus not accidental that in the early phases of the project’s incubation—one where we thought of having people ‘translate’ a canonical poem (say, from Tagalog to English, or from Tagalog to Ilokano)—the ‘canonical’ poem we chose for translation is by Virgilio Almario, a National Artist for Literature in the Philippines. Yet on the ground, already accosting people and facing prospective participants, I withdrew the translation part. I still made the participants read Almario’s poem May Mga Paslit as a kind of preparatory activity, perhaps unwittingly becoming the model from which their conceptions of poetry have been demonstrated in the poems they wrote. Being a National Artist, Almario serves as a good representative of the literary canon, the literature that is talked about in schools and universities, the literature that is often described as depicting the national condition even as it is hardly accessed by the nation’s people.
The results of the (re) productions seem to show the influence of pervasive notions about poetry in terms of being metaphorical and the themes it usually takes. One poem begins with the overt declaration, describing poetry as “matalinghaga” (metaphorical)—a declaration noteworthy for using the form of an address, prefaced by the familiar “Oh” (“Oh tulang matalinghaga”). The familiar denominator of poetic comparisons—“parang,” the Tagalog equivalent of “like” or “as” which are usually associated with the simile—is also present. The “parang” marker is used to compare poetry to a song (“awit”)—a comparison which can be read as leading to the functions assigned to poetry: entertaining (“mapag aliw”), enlightening, instructing and emotionally uplifting (“nagbigay na munting talino/ At kasiyahan”). It would thus not be a stretch to claim that this poetic (re) production indeed approximately articulates an ars poetica, describing poetry and its perceived functions.
Another poem talks about the country, “ang bayang Pilipinas,” perhaps coming from the idea that poetry should talk about ‘serious’ or ‘significant’ matters, an assumption belied by another poetic (re) production which simply catalogs what the writer sees around the locus of encounter—Burnham Lake and Rose Garden in Baguio City. While one poem smacks of a moralizing tone, with concluding lines that exhort Filipinos to work hard (“magbanat ng buto”) and rehearse the familiar expression “ang kabataan ang pag-asa ng bayan” (the youth is the hope of the nation), the other revels in the mundane, masked by no pretty imageries. In the latter poem, a list of what is visible: people riding a boat on the lake, students and senior citizens passing the time, those who work like vendors and masseurs. It is as if the poem heeds Rain Taxi’s subtle complaint against the “inability to dissociate ‘poetry’ from the twin norms of self-expression and figuration… the continuing—and eminently marketable—idea of the poet as a flamboyant, wounded, Byronic figure chafing against the indifference of the universe” (Perloff, 2013, p. 96). The person who penned the second poem does not seem to care about the universe’s indifference; instead, he made use of this impersonal environment as the stuff to comprise his poem.
Finally, one poetic (re)production addresses a beloved, concerns love—cued by “sintang irog” and “pag-ibig” (“dear beloved,” “love”)—another typical trait of many poems. The lover, the act of loving is associated with the senses of proximity and completeness so that conversely, not having a beloved, or not having this beloved near is equated with sadness, a negative valuation.
The preliminary thematic analysis of the three poems gathered from the ethnographic procedure can be expanded. Such kind of analysis is just one possible trajectory for interventions in the idea of the “poetic” relying on an ethnographic component. Another option is to zero in on the ethnographic encounter itself, encouraging the participants to talk about what they have created and try to relate them to notions like poetry which are often deemed in the abstract. Steadying one’s attention into that encounter—at once literary, cultural and ethnographic—can pave conditions for tackling issues that are no longer obsessed with a singular topic, i.e. poetry. Instead, a topic branches out—poetry as work, stranger as poet—links with others—poetry and institutions, writing poetry and challenging specializations—while also calling for new modes of forming knowledge and building ideas—more collaborative, more grounded.
The solitary poet might be shaking; the streets offers itself as sanctuary.