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The life and letters of Cirilo F. Bautista

The former Panorama columnist and National Artist for Literature talks poetry, literature, the museum he’s building, and what noble things writers—especially poets—can do with words

Portrait by Noel B. Pabalate

GOLDEN STANDARD With exceptional achievements and contributions to the development of the country’s literary arts, Bautista is acknowledged by peers and critics, and the nationa at large as the foremost writer of his generation.

GOLDEN STANDARD With exceptional achievements and contributions to the development of the country’s literary arts, Bautista is acknowledged by peers and critics, and the nationa at large as the foremost writer of his generation.

For the longest time, since he was named National Artist for Literature in 2015 and even more so before that, it has no longer been necessary to even ask if Cirilo F. Bautista is a gifted man of letters. A genius. Out of words deftly set down with commanding lyrical facility and rhythmic beauty, Bautista writes poems, epics, novels, prose, short stories, critical essays, translations, journalistic texts, and opinion pieces that not only epitomize the inherent goodness in every Filipino, but also broaden social principles for a country clamoring for unity.

GREAT GATHERING National Artists Cirilo F. Bautista, Ramon Santos, F. Sionil Jose, and Bienvenido Lumbera a Linggo ng Parangal event at Univeristy of Philippines-Diliman

GREAT GATHERING National Artists Cirilo F. Bautista, Ramon Santos, F. Sionil Jose, and Bienvenido Lumbera a Linggo ng Parangal event at Univeristy of Philippines-Diliman

He is, however, best known and revered for his poems (his magnum opus: the historical epic The Trilogy of Saint Lazarus, 2001). And despite his prolific career as a novelist, translator, critic, teacher, and one of the masters of contemporary Filipino literature in English and Tagalog, he’d prefer people to know and remember him as a poet. “A poet to me is the topmost kind of writer in literature. God is a poet. You don’t hear God telling short stories. God speaks in poetry, lines, and verses. It’s a noble kind of thing. That’s why it’s very hard to go into it. To understand it.” Bautista loves poetry more than any literary work because he believes he understands what a poet is trying to say and do; what poetry is all about. Many people don’t understand poetry so they don’t read it. “And that’s good,” Cirilo says. “[If] you don’t understand it, don’t try to kill yourself trying to. But when you get the hang of it, if you study it well enough, you will see it’s a different thing. You must love it before you can really go into it.” So what then are poets trying to say? The same thing novelists, fictionists, and other writers are trying to say, according to the National Artist, but spoken in a different,  more profound language. “The poet is a linguistic writer, a linguistic producer. In poetry, you speak of the beauty of language. You don’t speak of the beauty of language in prose or in journalism. But in poetry, you do because that’s what it is for. You have rhymes, you have rhythm, you have stanzas—forms, which help produce that kind of effect: musical and rich. That’s why we call some poems as lyric, they’re musical. And the sound, that’s why you have to hear the sound of the poem,” Bautista says. A noble call Touted as one of the foremost Filipino poets—with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from the University of Santo

A LIGHT MOMENT Rosemarie and Cirilo Bautista at a book launch in UST

A LIGHT MOMENT Rosemarie and Cirilo Bautista at a book launch in UST

Tomas (UST), a Master of Arts in Literature from St. Louis University, Doctor of Arts in Language and Literature from De La Salle University (DLSU)—Bautista has penned some of the greatest poetry books in contemporary Philippine literature: Believe and Betray (2006), Sugat ng Salita (1985), Kirot ng Kataga (1995), and Breaking Signs, a collection of his columns in Philippine Panorama. But to him, mastery of language, literature, letters, and poetics is not enough to be a great writer, much more a poet. “So many things are required, not only your ability to write and so on. You must have, I suppose, what people can’t always have, a noble heart. You must have a noble heart to be a poet. It’s very difficult because that means you are a perfect person. (Poetry) seeks perfection. Only the great writers have come close to that: Shakespeare, Dante, Milton, Homer. They had that kind of ability, to show you their heart through their work,” he says. This is not to say that Bautista’s foray into writing and his eternal love affair with words were any less noble. “I’ve been reading for as long as I can remember,” he says. As a child, he would read whatever he could lay his hands on, which were usually the most popular Tagalog literature magazines in the ’50s, Bulaklak and Liwayway. He was the kind of child who was withdrawn. He kept to himself and was very shy. “I hardly spoke during those times, so I spoke to books and magazines. I learned the language, I learned literature. In reading, I learned what was a short story or a poem. I had models in those things that I read,” he says. “Nobody can break into your world when you’re [reading] like that, it’s all yours. And you’ll see results when you are able to write, so that’s good enough for me.” When he got into grade school, Cirilo joined the student paper as a staffer. In high school, he joined the paper again, this time as literary editor. It was in senior year when he had his first ever published short story (with a byline and writer’s fee, to boot), in Liwayway, no less. But Bautista wanted to be a painter more than a writer then. “Painting was my first love,” he muses. “When I was applying for college, I went to the UST College of Fine Arts. But because we were very poor, I saw that the requirements and materials were very expensive. So my father said, ‘No, I can’t afford that. Just go into writing. All you need is a pencil and a piece of paper.’”—pencils and paper and a gift (or a propensity) to create worlds, stir emotions, draw characters, and “show your heart” through words, phrases, sentences. The rest, as they say, is history or an epic or a poem that speaks—sings—of everything and anything about the Filipino, love, heartbreak, nationalism, success, failure. Writing and its purpose “I would say writing is a primary drive in my life. Without it, I will not be who and what I am now. Because I started believing that I could write somewhere in my life, it became the focus of my existence. It’s just like eating or sleeping, it has that kind of importance to me. So I was very glad that I got the National Artist recognition. At least (they) recognize my work. What was said in the citation is really why I am writing,” he says. “I always say love what you’re doing when you’re a writer. You cannot be half-hearted about it. You have to give your all. You decide this will be the best piece you will write about. And you are not satisfied with just simple writing. Just ordinary writing. You try to make it the best. Literary writing is a very competitive field. There are so many good writers, and every year we produce new ones from college. So how is your work different from theirs? When you feel that it’s lousy, try again. If you want to compete with them, you have to learn. You need dedication.” One of the misconceptions about writers that Bautista, as a writer and a teacher, wants to rectify is that writers are lazy—just sitting down the whole day smoking and brooding. “But if you remember that writing is also thinking, that writing is also imagining, you’ll understand the way writers are. They have many eccentricities because that’s a result of their thinking. A lot,” he says. Bautista is a morning kind of guy. He likes to write very early in the morning. But now that he’s retired, he can get part of his evening time to write. There are three rooms in his house where he has a poem going on, which he writes by hand. One room he is currently renovating to house the Cirilo F. Bautista Museum of Literature, which will contain books he has written, books written about him, books that he has read, his trophies, medals, and practically everything about him and his works. “We really don’t have these kinds of museums here. Those that we have in the libraries are mere special sections for various writers,” he says. None of the type where you will learn about a writer in a kind of intimate manner, in his own house, and, with hope, meet the National Artist himself and his lovely wife, architect and former dean of the DLS-College of Saint Benilde’s School of Design and Arts Dr. Rosemarie Bautista. As accomplished as he is, Bautista still endeavors to get his work out there and disseminated more. Aside from building the museum, he’s sending his poems to magazines—mostly in America—that will like to publish them. “That’s the idea eh. You are writing, you have the time to write then you must publish what you’ve written to share with others, especially poetry. It is communal, meant to be shared with others. Criticism sometimes scares writers. But why don’t you want to be criticized? If you are criticized by a good critic, you get something out of it. To develop a kind of relationship with the critics is a positive thing.” Bautista adds that writers are also afraid of editors. And the only way to get past that fear is to try. No stranger to rejection, he says that if one editor doesn’t like your work, send it to another. When you find an editor who likes you, send him/her more. “The editor makes his choices and you also make yours. Getting published is as hard as anything. It just needs effort and a little luck,” he says. Reading is everything Bautista’s tip to students and writers is the oldest trick in the book: read, read, read and write, write, write. “Tennessee Williams said a writer needs to write. He says needs, as if it is a compulsion, a necessity. If you’re a writer and you are not writing, then by logic you are not a writer. You are something else,” he says. And as if he can’t emphasize it enough, he says, “Read.” “Read anything and everything. Later on, as you grow older, read only what you like to read. Your favorite authors and so on. Because then you can have a discriminating taste. And when you’re mature, you have your own family, and you’re more knowledgeable of the world, you can read the kind of books that will make you a better person,” he says. More and more Filipino writers and poets now are publishing their works because more and more Filipinos are reading them. It’s a great time for Philippine literature, people say. Not just in English and Tagalog but also in Bicolano, Cebuano, Ilokano, Kinaray-a, among others. But for Bautista, the only way for Philippine literature to have a true renaissance, is to enable the whole country, which has over 13 indigenous languages, to have a high development in publishing poetry and fiction. How to do it? Bautista admits that he really doesn’t know. But unification is a good place to start. “It’s a big problem. We can only talk about it but the actual attention to give to it and the actual accomplishment necessary are very difficult to arrive at. You want to unite the islands. Give them their equal chance at, for instance, scholarships and funding for literature development, which we do not have. In the end, it all boils down to money,” he says. In some countries like America, there are supporting institutions that function to give funding to writers, to institutions of writing, contests, and workshops. The Americans have arrived at that system because they are rich. “The more money you have the more you can develop your culture,” says Bautista. But don’t blame the government just yet. “It’s not that our leaders don’t appreciate literature, they do. I’ve talked to them. But I don’t think they will pay enough attention to it unless they can solve our basic problems: poverty, crime, corruption, and many others. Once they solve that, they can turn their attention to ‘non-practical’ things like literature. There are so many poor people. They cannot eat our books. They cannot eat our poems. I see it as an economic problem.” So to keep the passion alive in literary circles (no matter how small), to keep Philippine literature, culture, and the arts afloat in a country brimming with so much talent even a monthly Order of National Artist conferment is too few for too many deserving people, read, read, read, and write, write, write. “There is no other way to do it,” Bautista ends.