South Africa-based Filipino poet Jim Pascual Agustin has a new book out and he still rages against extrajudicial killings in the Philippines.
While his new book, How to Make a Salagubang Helicopter and Other Poems, is not an all-out political work, it makes his stand against President Rodrigo Duterte’s drug war very clear.
His poetry has already brought the matter of EJKs in the Philippines to an international literary audience. Specifically, Jim did this in 2016, when he won the prestigious Gabo Prize for Literature and Translation in Multilingual Texts. (The Gabo Prize is named after Nobel Prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez; it is given by the University of Antioch in Los Angeles, CA.)
Jim won for his translation into English of his own anti-EJK poem “Danica Mae”. In his blog, he explains why he wrote it:
“Since the current president, Rodrigo Duterte, came to power the country has been gripped with a madness that his most blind supporters continue to embrace.
“I wrote ‘Danica Mae’ in response to the state-sanctioned killings that have summarily ended the lives of nearly 6,000 people as of this writing. I wish it wasn’t necessary to write it.”
His winning English translation of the poem is in his new book. Here’s the full text:
The President’s helicopter will never land
near your barangay. He will never walk
up to your mother’s house, dust his shoes
off before stepping through the door.
He’ll never look around where you kept
your toys. His eyes won’t linger on your clothes
as they hang or lay folded, now separate
from the family laundry. He won’t ask
what your favorite ice cream
flavor was, or how you held a crayon
in your hand, or whether you covered
your mouth whenever you laughed.
Whatever I say won’t matter,
not to you. Not even as I declare that bullets
did not end your life, words did.
The bullets were nothing but bits
of metal that could have been
a door to your toy car,
or the buttons of a dress
you will never now wear.
News of Duterte and the atrocities he is accused of instigating seem to haunt Jim’s latest book, appearing in poems like “Duterte’s Dead” and “Duterte Confesses His Crimes”.
But not every poem in How to Make a Salagubang Helicopter and Other Poems is political. Others are lyric fugues of quiet beauty that wrap you in sadness, longing, and transport you into a moment of dream-like mystery or unease:
Sometimes Sadness has No Face
The sun is high and your own shadow
hides under your feet. There are knives
small as needles going deeper
into the roots of your hair
You pass the bright display window
of a shop. It looks like your skin
is being held back on the cold glass.
Though you stare at your own eyes
it is someone else you see.
With eyes closed, you desire
to wake up in another world. Not this, alone.
There are many who bump against your arm,
shoulder, elbow. None of them have a history
linked to yours, no matter how close
their skin feels that moment.
The way back is not the way
home. This you keep forgetting.
Jim’s poems are best enjoyed by speaking or reciting them or hearing them recited during an intimate gathering.
Here’s an example. Actress Angel Aquino recites that poem in this video:
We asked Jim about what it’s like to be a Filipino poet in South Africa and why news from his homeland keeps him seeking “a greater humanity”.
CANTO: You’ve been in South Africa for years. Would you be able to share the reasons for that — it’s as though you’ve chosen to exile yourself.
JIM PASCUAL AGUSTIN: I took my first international flight, bound for South Africa, in October 1994, a day after a typhoon had just devastated the country. That morning, hoping to see friends who didn’t even know I was leaving, I walked around Ateneo, past massive acacias that had been uprooted overnight.
I bumped into Mang Jaime, the “tokayo” janitor I was friends with. He kidded me about going after the girl he had seen me with many times around campus.
And he was right. I met this girl, this woman, on my first visit to the Mountain Province in August 1993. My dear friend Teddy Griarte Espela had invited me to join him in Banaue and Sagada. He knows the story.
The monsoon season, a long ride on the roof of a bus where a fully grown pig was tied, the view of fallen vehicles down the sides of cliffs, pure air and endless green, conversations about literature in between jumping off when the driver shouted at us as the bus tilted too close to the edge.
This wonderful person just happened to have been born in Canada and grew up in South Africa. She was the only reason I left for Cape Town. I thought I was only visiting. I had no funds, no passport, no real idea of what I might encounter. I ended up staying. So, in short, for love.
What drew you to the salagubang image? What meaning does it hold for you?
Children are less aware of meaning. They often just do (or ignore) what they are told by adults or their peers. Understanding, questioning, being able to grasp ideas of morality or true awareness of our connections with the environment – those come much later, if at all. That’s why it’s absurd and ridiculous to lower the age of criminality. As a kid no one told me the salagubang could feel pain. Now there’s guilt in remembering all those acts of violence toward other creatures. But after I’d written it, I read it again – as I usually do, as if it weren’t mine, for revisions – I saw how power is wielded on many levels. It’s a microcosm of Duterte types, those so-called leaders.
Could you describe the experience of having to rage against the Duterte government from far away? Is it a lonelier, more isolating experience?
Distance is relative. It can be conquered in many ways, not just physical. If you’ve ever experienced grief, then it must be easier to understand the rage and resistance toward what has taken place since Duterte declared this pretend drug war, this killing spree and endless threatening of each and anyone who opposes his selfish schemes.
If you haven’t lost someone dear to you, it may be a bit of a struggle, but it isn’t impossible. And it is never lonely or isolating when what you seek is a greater humanity.
Choosing to be blind is perhaps one of the saddest things one can do. How can you be a writer? How can you be worthy of being called a human being?
How would you answer a critic who says, “wala ka naman sa Pilipinas, bakit ka nakikialam?”
A country is as much an idea as it is a location. One’s country includes all the people you love who are there, all the people you don’t know but who also deserve the same rights as those you do. I could go further and say each country is mine as well as everyone else’s.
Documents and borders, they are concoctions to separate us. Dream to take those down instead of building walls. Some people just seem to prefer to imprison their minds.
How have your years of “exile” shaped your poetry through time? What changes have you noticed?
I wouldn’t call it “exile,” as it can be argued that I never really left. If you read all of my writing you might agree. I try not to look at “the shape of my poetry through time” – it sounds a little self-indulgent. I’d like to leave that for my publisher and anyone who tries to see if there’s any worth in them. The main thing I noticed is that I don’t write in Filipino as much now.
Before I left the Philippines I wrote over a dozen stories (finally published as Sanga sa Basang Lupa at iba pang kuwento, UST Publishing House, 2016) and hundreds of poems in Filipino. Nowadays, I write largely in English, except when I respond to the poetry of Rebecca T. Añonuevo.
What keeps you going as a poet, when some of your other contemporaries have stopped writing?
I was way, way more prolific before I left the country. No family, three jobs (if you count creative writing as a job), looooong hours stuck in polluted jeepneys. Now, I drive so being stuck in traffic is not even a chance to write. I have less time for myself. I’ve had to adjust by writing snippets at a time, jotting down what I can when I can.
Then I steal time before the kids wake up or late at night when everyone is down, and I still have thoughts circling about me like vultures. Knowing that I won’t be here forever is a good thought to keep.
Do I really want to leave with just that? Can I do more? Better?
Writing keeps me in check. It’s a way of breathing, really. A way to seek my own humanity. I don’t know if I would write more or less if I were more privileged. I probably would be lazier. I’ve always struggled.
Have you found the answer to: what is poetry for? Of what use is a poet to society? How would you answer those questions?
I try not to think about those questions. Why would I look for ways to block myself?
Do you find yourself comparing the violence in South Africa to that in the Philippines? What are the differences/similarities?
I came to South Africa not knowing much about the level of historical and social violence that was going on, and the turmoil never really stopped with the first democratic elections.
I didn’t know how messed up things were, although I had read the poetry of Dennis Brutus, the stories of Christopher Hope and Nadine Gordimer, and one novel by JM Coetzee, I was reading them in a vacuum. Hollywood-manufactured images didn’t help much either.
I used to warn friends not to visit Cape Town, although I knew it was probably one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Now, it’s the other way around. I tell people I meet here not to go to the Philippines. The difference is obvious.
The Philippine government is killing its own people these days. Here in South Africa, bumbling as the ANC government may be, they’re not using their own police force to murder thousands.
Would you mention maybe 5 Filipino poets you admire?
The living ones for now, in no order, Benilda S. Santos, Marjorie Evasco, Jose F. Lacaba, Danton Remoto, Bienvenido Lumbera, Ricardo de Ungria, Luisa A. Igloria, Eric Gamalinda, Gemino H. Abad, Emmanuel Quintos Velasco, Noel Romero del Prado… more!
What are your hopes for this new book?
To reach more readers, and for my publisher to be able to sell more than I could ever hope for. San Anselmo Publications deserves to be successful, for they have an infectious drive that can only bring excitement to Philippine literature.
It would be foolish to hope that my work could help to bring down an oppressive regime. But that’s what hope often looks like to those who don’t believe.
Your LEGO poem is intriguing. Could you talk about its history–and is it true that LEGO was the only toy you liked as a boy? Why?
I can’t say anything that won’t hurt its effectiveness as a poem. I wrote it in one sitting, if I remember correctly.
My family wasn’t rich. We also weren’t poor. There was a budget for toys. If we could afford it I would have asked for the giant Voltes V robot. I was jealous of a classmate who had one. He showed it to us at his apartment, but I wasn’t allowed to touch it.
When my Mom took me once to buy me a toy I had to choose the cheapest Danguard Ace that had a detachable head and clip-on wings as well as fists that shot out. It was awful.
The Lego pieces I chose were the smallest and cheapest sets. Then, I would put them together to make bigger toys. I also used them as mazes for ants – there’s a poem in one of my books about that.
I also cut leaves and twigs and pretended they were people. Then, you know of what we did with salagubangs.
Thank you for giving us your time, Jim.
For more information on “How to Make a Salagubang Helicopter and Other Poems”, including how to order copies of the book, go to the official Facebook Page of San Anselmo Press.