Postscript from Camp Lookout

Postscript from Camp Lookout

ImageBy Christine V. Lao 

I didn’t write much at the Writers’ Village. 

It was much more fun to hang out with 15 other aspiring writers, who were not only talented, but also invariably kind, and passionate about the written word. There was so much to discuss with, and learn from, the fellows of the 50th Silliman University National Writers’ Workshop. 

There were, for starters, the things I learned from my house mates. 

From Shane Carreon—an incredibly sophisticated poet from Cebu who churned out poetry so subtle you didn’t know how incredibly complex her vision was until you tried taking her poems apart—I was able to ask questions about the art of line-cutting, an issue that has bedeviled my own attempts at poetry for some time now. Shane had the incredible ability to make fictional situations come alive in her poetry, as though she had personally experienced them. 

From Eva B. Gubat, who wrote poetry that verged on the mysterious, I learned that reading poetry is its own reward—for I felt rewarded every time we tackled her poems, were invariably breathtaking. Her poems were praised for “giving form to thought”, and for startling readers into viewing a book cover, a situation of loss or grief, an experience, from a novel point of view. 

Despite introducing herself as a beginning writer from Cagayan de Oro, Philline Donggay produced beautifully crafted essays so full of spirit and charm, so gloriously detailed, and so wittily captioned, that Mom Rowena Tiempo-Torrevillas exclaimed, despite Philline’s own protestations, that she had the “eye, ear, and heart” of a writer. 

A frequent visitor to our house was nonfictionist Elaine Marie Tobias, also known as Tobey. Tobey had a deadpan sense of humor that was a great contrast to the intensity of her works which were fierce, fearless and incredibly honest. Tobey was the true leader of the fellows’ nightly drink-ups, even if she was too shy to carry the bottles of rhum and beer to Writers’ Village herself. 

Tobey’s roommate was Miel Villaruel, also a nonfictionist, who was as delicate and fragrant as the garden flowers she wrote so lovingly about. Every Sunday, Miel and I would take a habal-habal to the nearest Catholic church to hear Sunday mass. Once, we happened upon an ukay-ukay and bought ourselves some clothes. For Miel was a clotheshorse and her most provocative work featured a parade of clothes I wish I could fit into. 

Sharing house with Tobey and Miel was Andy Macalino, one of the smartest and sweetest girls I’ve ever known. Her fiction displayed great ambition, being full of big ideas about art and life. The panelists took notice and called her “the Future of Philippine fiction.”  I spent a lot of time with Andy, who liked teasing me, and making jokes at my expense. In exchange, she gifted me with hours of crazy intelligent conversation. 

And there was Alyza Taguilaso, whom I had admired from afar, ever since I read her  “Story of Love” in the online journal, Kritika Kultura. Alyza fearlessly approached the panelists and other fellows for critique and advice, and her openness, I thought, revealed her sincerity and dedication to craft. By the end of the workshop, I wasn’t the only fellow who was a fan of Alyza and her work. 

Finally, there was the workshop’s first delegate from Singapore—Jasmine Teh. Jasmine was game to try anything and everything the Philippines had to offer. She swam in rivers, ate balut, even rode on top of a passenger jeepney navigating very bumpy roads. Her poetry was full of strong, unforgettable images. She quickly became everyone’s friend, and blended so well that many of us (myself especially) would lapse into Filipino or Bisaya while she was with us, failing to recall that she was not from the Philippines. 

And then there were the boys of Balay Champaca. 

Glenn Diaz wrote perfectly nuanced, carefully observed personal dramas that were unobtrusively subversive in their implied critique of Philippine society and mores. Glenn said very little during discussions, and usually spoke up only to defend particular pieces of work that he believed in. The way he conducted himself during discussions, despite his obvious genius, inspired everyone to be just as gracious. 

Lean Lava’s stories tackled the big issues—life and death, memory and loss, hell and justice. Claiming that he had begun writing seriously just two months before the workshop, Lean was worried about how his works would be received. So when he obtained unanimous praise from the panelists, he said he had, like the characters of his stories, “died and gone to the afterlife”. 

Only 21-years-old, physics graduate and Johns Hopkins-bound Miggy Sulangi wrote nonfiction pieces that were such intelligent examples of understatement and sophistication that the panelists and fellows promptly fell in love with their author. Members of Miggy’s fan club would break out in squeals of “Marry me! Marry me!” after Miggy delievered one of his carefully considered opinions, or when they sighted him early in the morning, sweaty from a round of basketball. 

Next door were the boys from Balay Magnolia, all of whom hailed from Mindanao. 

Nonfictionist Roger Garcia’s retiring demeanor belied the teacherly wisdom he dispensed during workshop sessions. His nonfiction pieces were both moving and sincere, and full of local color and detail. Roger also had a beautiful voice, which rang throughout Camp Lookout on evenings when he led the group through marathon sing-a-longs of sentimental songs. 

Allen Samsuya’s brilliant poems were roundly praised for their perfect line cuts and technique. Allen authored what was one of the most admired and sexiest poems discussed at the workshop—a poem that made poet Myrna Pena Reyes go “Ha!”  Despite his undisputed skills, Allen was anything but arrogant. He was always quick to point out the positive aspects of his co-fellows’ works, often prefacing his comments with the words, “On a brighter note…” 

Fictionist Marius Monsanto penned unapologetically lengthy fiction pieces that touched on subjects as disparate as Ragnarok and konyo-speak in Davao. All his works were exercises in voice and technique that ended with a rewarding twist. I remember, in particular, how Marius was able to transform one of his protagonists into a completely unreliable narrator by the end of the piece, one who had no idea about how he appeared to the readers. 

And finally, there was the gifted poet Jeffrey Javier, the youngest and luckiest of the bunch. His passionate outbursts during workshop discussions were as captivating as his poetic vision. I learned a lot simply listening to discussions on his ekphrasis and prose poetry. His work revealed a desire to explore questions about the place of human beings in the universe, and in one session, his poetic intentions were favorably compared to those of fictionist Gregorio Brillantes.  Jepoy was praised for creating “motiffs adroitly accomplished and put together,” and for coming out with poems that were refreshingly and unabashedly happy. 

Can you blame me that I could not help but let my gaze wander away from my blank laptop screen and rest instead on these geniuses? Three weeks was too little time to soak up their wisdom—for all of them possessed wisdom, despite their youth—and charm. 

And now that I am back safe and sound in imperial Manila, I wonder when we will all see each other again, and whether we will ever get to relive the what we had experienced together at Camp Lookout. 

Probably not. But for now, the memories and photos posted on Facebook and elsewhere are reason enough to begin writing again, if only to let me relive all that was good, true, and beautiful—that is, all that we shared—at Camp Lookout.