Poet, screenwriter, fictionist, digital film teacher, and activist Wanggo Gallaga is turning 40 this year — but he’s already faced death — and survived — thrice in his lifetime.
Wanggo was only 29 years old when he was diagnosed with HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) infection in 2008. Initial HIV symptoms began in 2007, when he started getting repeated bouts of flu and fever–but they happened far apart enough to not arouse any suspicion.
However, by 2008, Wanggo was getting sick almost every month. Ear infections, bronchitis, even pneumonia. One day, while was having his x-ray taken because of another bout of illness, he asked to be tested for HIV.
The result was positive. Needless to say, this turned his life and his world upside down.
A week after his diagnosis, Wanggo contracted meningitis (an infection of the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord) and almost died.
Later on, Wanggo contracted meningitis a second time. After he survived that, he had kidney failure. He survived this, as well.
He was extremely lucky to have been diagnosed before his HIV infection became AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome). Usually, once HIV worsens into AIDS, it is a death sentence; it’s only a matter of time before the disease kills the patient.
Fortunately, Wanggo’s story is one of hope and survival. He spoke to Canto to talk about how poetry and his other writings, as well as the support of family and friends, help him survive and even thrive as a PLHIV (person living with HIV).
Canto: What would you say to the young people today about the HIV epidemic?
Wanggo: Protect yourself. Love yourself. All it takes is to be careful. You don’t have to get HIV if you don’t want to. It’s preventable. All you need to do is use a condom.
But be discerning too. With who you share your body with and why you do so.
Don’t make the same mistake I did and equate sex with love. It’s not the same thing. We can get so needy for that intimacy and we think it’s real.
But a hookup is just a hookup. Some people are built for that. Not everyone is. So be careful with yourself and with others.
And all it boils down to is to love yourself enough to take of yourself. And that is manifested in being safe in all your endeavors with your mind, body, and heart.
Canto: Do you have any insights to provide to those who are scared to open up — about being gay, or those who suspect they may have HIV but are afraid to get tested?
I’m lucky. I’m not like a lot of people. I’ve always had the support of my family and my friends for who I am and for my choices.
I was never discriminated for being gay or, after diagnosis, for being HIV-positive. I’ve always been lucky to have been surrounded by good people — my family, my friends, and the places that I’ve worked — and I’ve always been allowed to be me.
It’s probably a lot to do with my privilege. It’s not an easy task to open up but there are people and places and work opportunities where you will be loved for who you are. Go there.
But if you like your life that way, like in the closet, then do so. Bravo. There is strength in that choice as well. But there’s nothing more liberating than being exactly who you are and not having to apologize for it.
Hate and oppression are everywhere. And there are people trying to fight it. If you don’t make yourself known, we can’t come there to help you.
Canto: Has poetry helped you out of difficult times?
Poetry helped me regain the world I had outside of being a PLHIV (person living with HIV) For the first three or four years being an advocate, I was the “HIV guy.”
But I was also scrambling for my humanity back as well and poetry helped me get that back by writing about loss and unrequited love and finding peace of mind. Of working and commuting in the city.
Doing poems always helps me process how I’m feeling. Like I always say, “it gets the poison out.” I say that about poetry and crying. We need to do it to get the poison out.
My all-time favorite poems are On Blackwater Woods by Mary Oliver; The Archaic Torso of Apollo by Rainier Maria Rilke; Garden Pool by Luisa Carino. And a lot of poems by Rumi
Canto: Did you always want to write poetry?
When I was a kid, I joined declamation contests. I didn’t do it for the poetry. I did it because of the performance aspect of it. That’s what I liked about it. I didn’t really understand it at the time. I just liked them because they rhymed.
I remember reading a book at 14, not liking it, and saying, “I can write better than that.” I don’t remember the book anymore. But that’s how it started for me. I wanted to be a writer — a novelist, to be exact.
Canto: What happened to make you want to start writing?
I took up literature in college to be a writer but De La Salle at the time had a lot of poets in their faculty and I learned more about poetry than fiction. I fell in love with the medium there in college.
From then on, I would be writing essays and short stories and poems and showing them to my parents. They were all bad and amateur, of course. But I loved it and I never turned back. I kept going.
I learned about poetry in college while taking up literature. It’s there that I really got into it. I studied under Cirilo Bautista, Luisa Carino-Igloria, and Marj Evasco.
Canto: Who were the teachers who inspired you to write while in college?
I was accepted into the UST writing workshop and learned more from Ophelia Dimalanta, Lourd de Veyra, and Ramil Digal Gulle.
Luisa Carino and Marj Evasco [in DLSU] had a real influence on me. I took two classes with Luisa and four or five classes with Miss Marj.
We’d talk in the faculty department after class so they really shaped the poets I’d read and how I learned to really read and decode poetry.
Canto: Did your poetry change after you were diagnosed with HIV and were coming to grips with your illness? If yes, in what way?
I was writing poetry a lot after college from 2000 to around 2004. They were just exercises and personal stuff that I knew weren’t good enough to publish and I was too lazy to fix them and revise them. I just liked writing them.
[By the time I was working ] in television and reading a lot of novels, it sort of went in the back burner at the time.
After my diagnosis, I began writing random thoughts on Facebook notes and people were calling them “poetic.” And I didn’t realize I was writing poetry again.
Then, after my second hospitalization and my second near-death due to meningitis, I left for Bacolod to recuperate and a friend gave me “Just Kids” by Patti Smith. That book got me back into writing poetry.
That was in 2010. After I read “Just Kids”, I began writing poetry again and haven’t stopped since.
Canto: What else do you write besides poetry?
I write film scripts and poems. I also do AVP scripts for corporate work and movie reviews in ClickTheCity. Sometimes I get asked to write an essay for a website or a newspaper.
I’ve written two short fiction pieces in the last five years. So, yeah, most of my writing now is film and poetry.
Canto: How did your diagnosis change the way you write?
Well, it wasn’t the HIV per se that changed my writing style. I was older. Smarter, wiser, and have read more. That maturity came through.
I was less verbose. Less inclined to spoon feed. I learned how to be more concise and precise.
I don’t ramble as much in my poems, which I used to do a lot in my older work.
Canto: What topics or themes do you write about?
A lot of times, especially before, I would write about love. About desire and longing. Poetry was a means to be angry at being single. LOL. It’s embarrassing but it’s true. I have pages and pages of old works all about people I loved who didn’t love me back and empty sexual encounters that didn’t lead to love.
I also have a set of poems about mortality, about death; I have had three near-death experiences (twice from meningitis and once with kidney failure). Death and pain is a pervading imagery in my work.
I do have poems dedicated to people. Two for my dad. Two for a good friend of mine.
Canto: Your poem, “Beneath My Skin” is about a person living with HIV right?
“Beneath My Skin” is a poem I wrote on Instagram reacting to an art piece I saw in Pinto Art Gallery.
It was so beautiful that I was driven to write this piece, which is about living with HIV. “Beneath My Skin” was later performed by Cherie Gil for an HIV Awareness event and then it was published in the Panorama magazine.
Canto: Thank you so much for sharing your story and your poetry with us.
Beneath My Skin
By Wanggo Gallaga
first published in Panorama (December 6, 2015; Volume 43, No. 49)
And why are you so frightened of what lies
beneath my skin? What do you think resides there
that can hurt you? I’m just like you — underneath
this flesh is music and poetry and a fire borrowed
from the heavens so that I can sing and dance
and color the world until the flames die out.
What stains my blood is part of my body’s history
and not some prophecy of yours. These hollow bones
have not cracked under the pressure of this world’s
fierce weight and I have strength enough to carry you across
the chasms that I have crossed as you could carry me
through the ones you have traversed in your own wanderings.
What lies beneath this skin?
A beating heart. The rhythm
of a life. A soul on its journey towards everything
and nothing at the same time. This is just a shell,
a vessel made of flesh, and what I’ve done to it
in my own explorations have no real bearing
to what really lies beneath:
under this skin is the joy of me, the sadness
of me, what I love and what I fear, what makes me
good and what drives me to stray, an apology,
laughter, moonlight, shade, a garden filled with flowers
and trees bearing fruit, a city filled with people
with their own stories, an ocean teeming with life.
I could go on and on.
But there is no end
to the definitions of one person.
Beneath this skin is a heart.
And that is nothing to fear.