Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Humor lost in musical adaption

Bring theater to the crowd and not the other way around. That was the goal of 9 Works Theatrical and Globe when they presented Green Day’s American Idiot at the Globe Iconic Store in June. The punk rock band’s hits indeed captured the attention of passers-by, while the unroofed amphitheater allowed them a peep at the show. This December, the two companies are teaming up again to bring A Christmas Carol to everyone, non-ticket holders included.

The two musicals are appealing in very distinct ways. The former has pop songs going for it. However thin its plot may be, American Idiot can hold an audience with its music alone. A Christmas Carol, on the other hand, is based on one of the most enduring change-of-heart tales by Charles Dickens.

We’re familiar with the story: Ebenezer Scrooge, an old-aged miserly man, who abhors Christmas — and somehow life as it is — is visited by three spirits, each showing him his past, present, and future. Witnessing the errors of his ways and their consequences, Scrooge wakes on Christmas morning, happy and ready to redeem himself.

That sounded simple, even quite cheesy. But the undeniable charm of the Dickens’ novella lies in its narrator’s wry and disarming voice. Listen to him describe how dead Marley (Scrooge’s business partner) is:
Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.
And Scrooge’s reaction upon meeting Marley’s ghost:
His body was transparent; so that Scrooge, observing him, and looking through his waistcoat, could see the two buttons on his coat behind.

Scrooge had often heard it said that Marley had no bowels, but he had never believed it until now.
Without an immediate use for narrators, it’s always interesting to see how A Christmas Carol is told in other medium. Film has visual flexibility, and the camera can zoom in on a character to show their hidden emotions. For a stage musical, one may expect clever use of props, detailed costume and make-up and, of course, a memorable score.

What is gained in 9 Works Theatrical’s production of Alan Menken, Lynn Ahrens, and Mike Ockrent’s musical adaptation of A Christmas Carol is intimacy. Globe Iconic Store is relatively small, and the stage is extended in the middle, with additional smaller stages in the corners. The audience, only a couple of feet away from the action, are privy to Scrooge’s nightmares — as if they’re dreaming them with him. They are so close to the actors that they’d be able to see a loose thread if there were any. From our vantage point, the designers and make-up artists have done an impeccable job.


Marley’s entrance, where he’s later joined by an ensemble of ghosts, is particularly spooky and awe-inspiring; and it sets the tone of the show: there will be overzealous singing, dancing, and running around the amphitheater from a huge cast. Incidentally, this brand of energy is both the strength and weakness of the performance.

The production numbers are dramatic, yet they fail to bring out the drama within Scrooge. Despite its two-hour run (excluding a 15-minute intermission), the musical feels frantic and clipped that the touching moments tend to drown in the spectacle. It doesn’t help that the noises within (drone of industrial fans, whiz of fog machines) and outside the venue compete with the performers exchanging dialogues.

Scrooge’s transformation from “Bah! Humbug!” to “Hallo!” (which the audience already anticipates) is hardly felt. Other than the reason stated above, the problem is due to a dearth of humor. That ingredient that makes Ebenezer Scrooge, Ebenezer Scrooge and not just another grumpy old man; that makes a very unlikeable character, liked; and that makes what could’ve been a corny and didactic resolution, heart-warming is sorely missing onstage.

In the book’s preface, Dickens wrote that he has endeavored to “raise the Ghost of an Idea” and hopes that it haunts his readers’ houses pleasantly. Safe to say that he got his wish. Since its publication in 1843, A Christmas Carol has lived on that we’re still talking about and reinterpreting it. The musical adaptation will surely arouse curiosity and may send shivers of joy to any spectator, though it’s doubtful that it’ll leave a lasting impression.

—Originally published on GIST

Friday, December 9, 2016

Too sweet

1.

There’s a scene in Annie where the orphan, Annie, billionaire Oliver Warbucks, and President Franklin Roosevelt and his cabinet sing Tomorrow at the White House; after which the powerful figures are revived with hope — something sorely missing before the young girl enters the room.

It’s difficult to be sold on that particular scene. Not because such serious characters have burst into song (hey, it’s a musical); but because they’ve gleefully burst into song, suddenly convinced that everything will be fine as the sun comes out tomorrow.

2.
Annie (with book by Thomas Meehan, music by Charles Strouse, and lyrics by Martin Charnin) is set in The Great Depression and revolves around a child’s unwavering search for her parents. One Christmas season, Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks scouts for an orphan to spend the holidays with, and Annie — who has been living in an orphanage under the supervision of the always-shouting drunkard Miss Hannigan — is chosen by the billionaire’s secretary, Grace Farrell. The two have been what each other needed: a parental figure for Annie, and a source of familial affection for the hard-working and hardened Warbucks.

The latter does everything to help the former, including offering a hefty sum of money to the couple who can prove that they are the parents of the child. As expected, impostors come in droves, and a pair that almost succeed in fooling everyone are Lily St. Regis and Rooster Hannigan, who is the brother of Miss Hannigan. The trio connive to pull off the ruse and agree to split the reward three-way.

With the aid of the FBI and President Roosevelt, no less, Daddy Warbucks and Annie learn that her real parents have died a long time ago. After the Hannigan siblings and St. Regis are caught, Daddy Warbucks proceeds to adopt Annie and celebrates Christmas with her.

3.

The musical is currently staged by Full House Theater Company and Resorts World Manila under the direction of Michael Stuart Williams. Isabeli Araneta-Elizalde and Krystal Brimmer alternate for the role of Annie, and joining them are Michael De Mesa as Daddy Warbucks and Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo as Miss Hannigan.


The cast play their roles with gusto — which can only do so much to humanize the underdeveloped characters, who sometimes make un-believable decisions. It’s puzzling, for example, how the busy and stressed out Warbucks (he snubs phone calls from heads of state) warms up to Annie the instant they meet. Or why Farrell is so taken by the little girl.

The production could’ve either gone melodramatic or comical in tone but instead it sits comfortably in the middle, that an emotion is barely stirred when a scene seems to call for it. A reason that Warbucks’ big realization about love trumping social influence and material possession isn’t as moving as it ought to be.

4.
One of the more poignant, emotionally charged moments in the musical is courtesy of Lauchengco-Yulo. Her solo number, Little Girls reveals Miss Hannigan’s heart, and in the end you root for her: “I’m an ordinary woman / with feelings / I’d like a man to nibble on my ear / But I’ll admit, no man has bit / so how come I’m the mother of the year?”

Lauchengco-Yulo makes an adorable Miss Hannigan — perhaps too adorable for the story’s own good. She’s not the strict, cruel antagonist some may expect her to be. It even appears like the children run circles around her. She earns your sympathy that when she’s implicated in fraud, you’ll wish they won’t put her in jail.

5.

Annie is like a fairy that sprinkles magic dust of optimism wherever she goes. When her parents’ death is confirmed, she confesses, “I’ve always known they’re gone,” explaining that if they’re indeed alive and care about her, they’d be looking for her, too. She’s not completely naive, after all; but her disposition — and the entire show, for that matter — is too optimistic to be true.

The candy-coated message of hope may not be palatable, but the tale’s revival is rather timely. The year has witnessed extremely divisive socio-political events around the globe, and Annie serves as a reminder that at least we still have the luxury of creating something to look forward to — and that a two-hour escape at the theater doesn’t hurt.

—Originally published on GIST

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Pretension is a virtue

How to be a princess: Practice kindness to an excess.
The spotlight shines on Sara Crewe, alone in her bed chanting in a foreign language. It’s not a familiar lullaby that’s coming out of her mouth, but something more intriguing. Before we could enjoy more of it, she’s interrupted by a young maid named Becky, who drops by to make sure that she’s okay and, while at it, get to know her better. Seconds later, men and women in traditional African clothing enter from all corners of the stage, singing and dancing to a festive tune — and we’re introduced to the world of a little princess.

Sara has been living in Africa, until her Timbuktu-bound father, Captain Crewe, has to send her to a London boarding school while he’s away. Because of Sara’s beauty, wealth — all the wonderful things going for her — the other girls at school, including headmistress Miss Minchin, aren’t very warm towards her. She’s however won friends with her personality, which she shapes by conforming to the ideals of a princess: kindness, grace, magnanimity.

To close its 79th season and usher in the holidays, Repertory Philippines brings A Little Princess, with book and lyrics by Brian Crawley and music by Andrew Lippa. The inspiring and energizing rhythms of African music pervade this stage adaptation of the Frances Hodgson Burnett classic (it’s interesting to note that Sara has lived in India in the original novel; makes you think if the decision to change locations is musically motivated). “African music is mostly five-four — not a common time signature I get to do in musicals, so that was a blast,” says musical director Ejay Yatco in describing the distinct pleasures of interpreting the score. “And I loved having live percussion.”

In almost every scene, there is a song and dance number that’s larger-than-life, like a child’s wild imagination. At times they disrupt the flow of the story, and even appear comical (a few giggles may be heard as meticulously costumed dancers jump from out of nowhere); but they never fail to elicit an appreciative applause from the audience. Credits go to director Dexter Martinez Santos’ breath-taking choreography, and the performers’ commitment and spot-on execution.

This visual and aural vibrancy makes up for whatever complexity the story lacks. Those who grew up reading the book and watching the movie and TV reincarnations of the beloved tale may find the onstage narrative slow, that come the second act, the action seems to rise and fall in a snap. Sara’s downfall after news of her father’s death is barely explored for it to draw an emotional response. We also won’t see a more colorful, even three-dimensional Lavinia. She consistently serves as a catty, resentful contrast to Sara, that’s why it’s jarring when she has suddenly reconciled with the little princess towards the end.

Two characters that are a joy to watch are Roselyn Perez’s Miss Minchin and Jillian Ita-as’ Sara Crewe. Eschewing the stereotypical heroine-villainess dichotomy, the lead actors play their roles in a way that make them believable and deserving of empathy. Roselyn’s interpretation of Lucky (Had I had her start in life / I’m sure I might take part in life / Had I been lucky / lucky like her) is painful yet defiant, giving a glimpse of Miss Minchin’s vulnerability without abating her steely nature. Jillian, on the other hand, provides the charming blend of tough, smart, and caring.

A Little Princess is an engaging musical that encourages playfulness and wise use of imagination. We become what we pretend. One of the nicest scenes in the show has Lavinia mocking Sara’s pretensions to being a princess. To which Sara replies, “If I do like to play pretend, Lavinia, it’s lucky for you,” because if she didn’t, she would’ve already done something savage to Lavinia. This is not your typical Christmas story for children. It isn’t filled with ghosts or supernatural creatures. There is no magic here. Only a girl with an imagination, some damn good music, and human beings practicing kindness to an excess.

—Originally published on GIST

Sunday, November 27, 2016

And Justice for all

My favorite responses to Justice's new album, Woman.

1. From Zedd, who convinced me to sit down with Cross.



2. 'The distortion was so overdriven yet it somehow was melodic.' Yes. Same. Let there be light did it for me.



3. Did Skrillex intentionally say 'roll'?



4. An emotional thread. But yeah, here's music I can live in for years.



5. A most accurate description of Love SOS. My favorite in the album, and the universe.



6. That first note! (And last note and everything in between.)

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Road to Justice

10. Hard and filthy are two adjectives Justice fans often use to describe the French electronic music duo’s sound; and in the fandom’s lexicon, they only mean the highest of compliments. My first encounter with Justice didn’t evoke such words, though. Rather it was, Wow-whoa-what is this-oh my Lord! There are layers upon layers of distortion, yes; there are heart-stopping drum beats, yes; but there are also the most appealing rhythm and melodies; and nothing that I would ever associate with noise. Truth is I find their sound akin to classical music. If you gave Let there be light (“Cross”) a violin arrangement, or Canon (“Audio, Video, Disco”) a full orchestra version, they could sit beside your “Bach for Barbecue” favorites.

11. November 18 was duly marked on my calendar. It was the release date of Gaspard AugĂ©’s and Xavier de Rosnay’s third album, “Woman.” In September, Justice released the teaser single, Randy, which got me giddy with excitement. The mellow, melodious and radio-friendly number opens with a quick drum roll, which, if you listen to the entire album, kind of echoes a riff from the preceding track. This sense of continuity despite the variations in tempo and mood of each song has been present in all their albums and you have to appreciate the sonic experience it allows. I guess that’s why they’re great DJs — they know how to keep you on dance floor, if not at least keep your ears intrigued.

12. November 4 on BBC Radio 1 with Annie Mac. Gaspard and Xavier showcased a Party Playlist. They included The Paradise’s In love with you, which was also in their 2007 BBC Essential Mix. The Alan Braxe-produced song features Romuald Louverjon crying, “In love with you” over and over. When it finished, Annie asked the guys, “What is it about the French sound that is so French?” to which Gaspard replied, “I think the main ingredient is something very sad and happy at the same time… something naively romantic.”

13. In the same show, the Parisian duo shared that their biggest influences are pop music and love songs. Annie recalled their DJ set in Ibiza where, following Zane Lowe’s set, Justice played Donna Summer’s Dim all the lights. “It completely changed the mood,” said Annie. “You’re fearless about playing exactly what you want.”

14. If In love with you is a sweet surrender, Love S.O.S (undoubtedly influenced by the former) is pure helplessness. Here, Louverjon lends his vocals as well, and, as with the Alan Braxe track, the lyrics are economical. It begins with a sound I haven’t heard from Justice before: a siren’s — which stays wailing for a good two-and-a-half minutes and then quiets as Louverjon whispers, “L-O-V-E S.O.S. love” repetitively, as if fighting through the flatline; and the siren returns along with a richer musical texture. I have never had quite a physical response to music — and music alone (not the memory it exhumes or within a social context like parties) — until this song.

15. My assumption is, since English is not their native language, they’re more thoughtful about using it. Lyrics can be incomprehensible, outright weird and annoying, and I’ve stopped taking them seriously. I’ve always enjoyed Justice’s vocals-less numbers, but when they decide that someone will sing in a track, the voice is always part of a harmonious whole. And the words, they are simple enough to be meaningful in a way that mantras are; as in: “Use imagination as a destination” (Pleasure), “Music and lines, rhythm and melodies / so many nights, so many memories” (Stop), and “When you know you’ve arrived and it’s time / don’t shoot low, aim it high” (Randy).

16. Unlike its predecessors, “Cross” and “Audio, Video, Disco,” “Woman” starts off not with a pounding epic-scaled song (like Genesis and Horsepower) but with the dreamy, futuristic Safe and Sound. The space disco vibe is prominent in the album, especially with Pleasure, Stop, and Fire. Those craving grandiosity will find it in the seven-minute Chorus, which also has an element of gospel in it. And Alakazam!, as listeners have noted, picks up where Phantom, Pt. 2 left off — the title may have suggested it, but that tune is like a magic spell’s beginning, middle, and aftermath.

17. Gaspard and Xavier (and granted many other artists) avoid talking about the science behind their art. I try to but fall short. So I’ll resort to more gushing instead. Justice crafted three studio albums in a span of ten years. Slow by popular standards. I don’t mind. I could live for a decade with “Woman.”

—Originally published on GIST

*

Read part 1 here.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

The failure of the first draft

Amy Ewing and Me
“I’m very dark,” Amy Ewing would say, and you kind of both agree and disagree. Amy punctuates every thought with either a smile or laughter. When we met, the US election results were coming in and while she never concealed her frustration, she quickly set the topic aside because we were supposed to discuss her books, not politics.

She is dark, yes, in a way that her stories have gloomy themes and her characters navigate frightful spaces. But during our short conversation, all I saw was color. Literally, at first. You can’t miss Amy in a crowd, that is, it’s hard to miss anyone with purple hair. “I had a really bad month two years ago, and I came out of it feeling like I survived it and needed to make a change,” she explained when I asked what’s the deal with it. She also has tattoos with bittersweet tales behind them, one of which involving the death of a dear friend.

Needless to say, Amy is no stranger to tragedy. In 2008 she was laid off. With so much time in her hands, she had to figure out what she wanted. “I was working as a sales rep. I was terrible at it. It was probably one of the reasons why I got laid off,” she said, again laughing in the end. Amy went to NYU to study acting and had always wanted to be an actor, but she also loved reading fantasy and writing privately. Knowing all these, a friend suggested that she give YA fiction a try.

“And I did,” continued Amy. “The thing about writing is you can do it on your own and no one is responsible for it but you — which is awesome and terrifying. I don’t think I’ve ever pushed myself until I started writing. I realized, ‘Oh you were just really scared.’”

Monday, November 14, 2016

You have one day of total freedom—no rules, no government, no consequences—what will you do?

Harrison Gilbertson has the face and demeanor of a heartbreaker. He walks across the room with the gait of someone who just woke up, hair unkempt, not meeting anyone’s eyes. Everything changes, however, when he smiles. There is a sincerity about him that convinces you of how much he respects his craft and how little he cares about celebrity trimmings like fame and adulation.

The Australian actor is in the Philippines for a promotional tour of Fallen, the film adaptation of the Lauren Kate book of the same title. It tells the supernatural love story of Lucinda ‘Luce’ Price (Addison Timlin) and Daniel Grigori (Jeremy Irvine), who are both sent to Sword and Cross, a reform school in Savannah. Rounding up the list of major characters is Cameron ‘Cam’ Briel, which Harrison plays. Cam is a fallen angel who becomes Luce’s other love interest, or, as succinctly described by Harrison, “the boy who gets in the way.”

Inspired by his role, we wonder if Harrison has committed any delinquent act and been held in detention before. “I should say that I have, just for fun, but no I haven’t,” he says, laughing. Seems like his inner bad boy isn’t ready to come out for an interview. But it doesn’t matter, we’re delighted with the Harrison who lights up as he talks about the pleasures of acting and how he wants his young yet already exciting career to unfold.

(Read the full interview on GIST.)

*

Except for Dick Gordon, I always fall in love with every person I interview.

Last Monday I met Harrison Gilbertson. The guy geeks out on acting and I regret not asking more questions about his craft.

Before parting I requested that he pose a la Cam Briel (the character he plays in the film he's promoting) for our readers, for fun. In a split-second he transformed. After getting the shots I wanted, I said, 'Wow, you really got into the Cam character; you're not even talking to me anymore.' He quickly changed expressions again, went back to the shy, happy guy, and said, 'Oh no sorry!'

Harrison Gilbertson poses a la Cam Briel

*

He's the complete opposite of bad boy Cam Briel. In fact he won't do anything slightly criminal if he had one day in a world with no rules.

'No rules, so no gravity? I’d fly back to the Philippines and fly to all the islands.' —Harrison Gilbertson

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Notes on journal-writing

Sundays — mine — are meant for reading under the late afternoon sun, coffee in hand and all the other beautiful clichĂ©s I work hard to afford. Today I deviate from routine. Not that I planned it. You don’t schedule an itch.

At the cafĂ©, rather than taking a novel out of the bag, I took out a notebook and a pen. Dear A, fuck you. Nah, I’m better than that. (Nah, you don’t have the guts.) I said I would just draft the letter then move on with my reading.

Three hours later, I was still writing. With that time you’d think I’d fill out an entire notebook, but no, the finished product was a concise letter telling A that she hurt me, that her actions disgusted me — everything I wanted to say, how I wanted it said.

It was perfect. I was so satisfied that as soon as I reread it down to the last sentence and the final full stop, just to make sure the right words were chosen and arranged in the right order, I didn’t feel the need to send it anymore.

*

Porcelain is too expensive to break, not to mention too much of a mess to clean up. Shouting is cathartic, but the neighbors may not be sympathetic. Kicking puppies will land you in hell.

The paper can take a beating. But besides emotional release, writing cures the heart’s hangovers. In trying to articulate problems and feelings, you dissect them in the process.

When you’re (over-)thinking, words and images float around your head. Somehow the paper, its physical limits and intrinsic rules — go from left to right, from top to bottom, from one end of a train of thought to the beginning of another — force you to chill out and get out of your head to see things from a sobering distance.

*

Twenty things I should do/have before I turn 20: A handsome, loving boyfriend, preferably Edward Furlong(ish); 20,000 pesos in the bank; make a wish on a falling star; travel to the US; do something important; decorate my dream bedroom; a 23-inch waist…
….
Things to do before I turn 25: Publish a book, get a notebook computer, drive my own car, have my dream bedroom, earn my first million, have a wardrobe filled with fashionable clothes and shoes, travel to Europe…
….
Bucket list of sorts:
….
Milestones:

*

The Peter Justesen catalogue was one of my favorite reading materials when I was barely a teenager. I remember cutting out a photo of a cute laptop computer and then pasting it in a scrap book. While staring at it, I’d imagine an older me typing the day away at work and then coming home to a nice little apartment at night.

Little did I know that I was creating a version of a vision board. You lay out your desired narrative in images, like what scriptwriters and novelists do, and like what said artists do, you build a story that’s so good it deserves to happen.

It’s not that simple, of course. Otherwise I’d be married to Edward Furlong now (or divorced). The point is, maybe this bucket list, vision board, dream journal — whatever you want to call it — is a contract between our present and future selves. It’s a reminder to find ourselves and stay true to who we are.

Or maybe, these pages of desires are gifts from our past selves, who knew that we’d someday need the comic relief.

Collage by Sean Eidder

*

The pilot episode of the BBC drama, Sherlock, starts with retired soldier Dr. John Watson talking to his therapist about his blank personal blog. “John, you’re a soldier, it’s going to take you a while to adjust to civilian life; and writing a blog about everything that happens to you will honestly help you,” says the latter.

“Nothing happens to me,” replies John.

Then the opening credits play, and there, ladies and gentlemen, we have a quintessential example of dramatic irony. What will follow, as the viewers expect, is a life filled with textbook adventures — meeting interesting people like Sherlock Holmes, solving mysteries, getting into and out of dangerous situations, cheating death.

In real life, however, “My life is boring” is considered real talk.

*

English has no match for the romance in this string of Tagalog words: “May pagtingin ako sa iyo.” Saying “You’re special” doesn’t even come close. We say, “pagtingin” — I have a way of seeing you. The power, indeed, is in the beholder.

And while certain human beings inspire intrigue more than others, I believe we can train ourselves to see anyone and any thing, including our own existence — however mundane, however familiar — differently and with that readiness to fall in love. And that’s by writing.

Recording the day’s events, recalling the features of an acquaintance, we perceive the tiniest of details, we see more than meets the eye. The picture won’t always be pretty (side-effect of having a sharp vision), but at least it’s never boring.

—Originally published on GIST

Notes on journal-writing (excluded fragments)

(I wrote something about journal-writing for this month's issue of GIST. The theme is fantasy—keeping the magic alive. These are some of the fragments I considered putting in the early drafts.)

*

Keeping a journal, along with exercising and eating healthy, always pops up on our New Year’s Resolutions. We know of its benefits, but we fail to follow through. A common complaint is, “What’s there to write?” And yet, we also say, as a blanket excuse for our failure to do the things we hope to do: “I don’t have time.” If you’re using up all 24 hours of your day, then you must have a pretty exciting life to write about.

*

“I can only write when I’m sad,” said M, a new writer friend, echoing many a writer wannabe. “Have you tried using your imagination?” I said. He wasn’t pleased.

“Let’s say sadness is a requisite for writing, then you shouldn’t have any problem at all. The world is full of it!” continued I, in my head.

“Inspiration is for amateurs.” —Chuck Close(?) Will check later.

*

Rereading a journal entry written with an 11-yearl-old’s handwriting, depending on your mood, can either be funny or pathetic. Although count on it to always be enlightening. Materialism gives way to philanthropy; 'wanting to have' turns into 'wanting what you have'; falling stars don’t make dreams come true.

*
The master said You must write what you see.
But what I see does not move me.
The master answered Change what you see.

—Louise GlĂĽck, Vita Nova
*

There's eating, there's sex, there's music, there's video games, there's reading. But have you ever experienced the pleasure of thinking? Really thinking? Ideas having form, getting in and out of an actual train of thought, convincing yourself otherwise, landing on a new plane so different from where you lifted off.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Dazed and distracted

Morgan Matson has no qualms about admitting to petty crime in order to be where she is now: sipping Coke at a luxury hotel miles away from home, counting down the hours till she meets her adoring readers.

It’s a long weekend in the Philippines for The Unexpected Everything author — a book signing in Cebu, another in Makati, then an appearance at the Manila International Book Fair. And before all that, the press.

“I just graduated college and I knew I wanted to write, but I didn’t know where to start. I was in LA at the time and we had mailboxes with a shelf for bigger packages in our apartment building. One of my neighbors ordered a catalogue for extension classes at a university, and I just took it. A month later I was back in school,” a giggling Morgan tells GIST.

Through those classes, Morgan was able to build a portfolio, get teacher recommendations, and other requirements for graduate school. Most of all it allowed her to get into the writing groove. “It all started from stealing that catalogue and I feel really bad now,” she continues with a trace of guilt. “Sorry, neighbor.”

Our conversation wanders off into music, musicals, apps, and social media — somehow betraying our age (she’s celebrating her 35th birthday in the country). She’s a slave to technology and is as easily distracted as any young professional out there. Though it may not seem like it given that she’s already published four thick volumes of fiction, all of which are best-sellers.

All the books I could’ve written if I weren’t on my phone all the time

“As soon as I come home, after this trip, I’m going to go off Twitter for two months because I’m going to write my (next) book,” she says, adding that Twitter and Instagram are two of her biggest productivity offenders.

In fact we may not be reading The Unexpected Everything if the notoriously addictive microblogging site hadn’t been “out of order” three years ago. “I was on a book tour for Since You’ve Been Gone in Washington DC. Normally I’d just go out for lunch and have my phone with me, looking at Twitter. But it was down, so I’d gone to lunch by myself, carrying a book with me. My mind was wandering and I started thinking about growing up in (a political environment) — ‘What kind of girl would that be, who’d grow up always having to be aware of everything she says and how she is perceived?’ And then I thought, ‘Oh that’s interesting.’ That’s where the idea came from,” she shares, then after a short pause, cries: “What were all the other books I could’ve written if I weren’t on my phone all the time!”

Change “writing” to your choice endeavor and “Twitter” to your digital addiction and you’d be exclaiming, “Same!” to Morgan. Her struggles with being organized and passion for pop culture make her very relatable — something that can be said about her characters as well. You’d see in the pages of her novels girls and boys going on road trips, making playlists, and chatting via messaging apps, complete with emojis.

Since reading Ann Brashares (Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants), Meg Cabot (The Princess Diaries), and Sarah Dessen (Along for the Ride) — authors whom Morgan names as her influences — she’s aspired for the same accessibility in their stories. “There’s a little bit of magic and (fairy tale) in them, but they’re mostly based on realism,” she says. “These women gave me the confidence to think that maybe I could do it, too.”

A photo posted by Razel Estrella (@fishpeep) on


You don’t need the brooding bad boy who treats you badly

Her first attempt at writing YA fiction was, in her words, “so bad,” that’s why she pursued the night classes and, eventually, graduate studies. “I find that structure helps me a lot. I work best when there’s someone who’ll say, ‘Okay, write ten pages and bring them into class next week,’” explains Morgan.

One thing she reveals she can’t learn in school is the formula for generating plots. “You wish it happens the same way, so you could recreate the circumstances that lead to new ideas,” she continues. “But inspiration is like one of those rabbits that, in trying to chase it, goes further away. You have to just be living your life not trying to find a new idea, and that’s sort of when one pops up.”

With The Unexpected Everything, the theme may have been inspired by politics, but Morgan is not the storyteller who’d deliberately tuck commentaries in her books. “I can’t think that way when I’m writing,” she says. Upon reflection, though, she notes that her characters exemplify her beliefs. “All the love interests (in my novels) are nice guys. Through them, I’m kind of saying, ‘Don’t settle for less, young women. You don’t need to have the brooding bad boy who treats you badly. There are really good boys out there. Give them a shot.’”

She adds that the book has a different view on friendship as well. “There are so many books where there are friends turning on each other, with so much drama and infighting,” continues Morgan. “Your friendships can be wonderful things that make you happy. You don’t have to be friends with someone who makes you feel bad.”

My books aren’t movies

Many successful contemporary YA novels are famous for their action-packed storyline and fantastic worlds. And right away they’re branded a success when they’re optioned for a major motion picture. We ask if it’s a dream; Morgan replies that it might have been a few years ago. “Some books make great movies. You go, ‘Oh I see this, I see everything.’ And I’m not sure that my books are movies,” reasons Morgan. “Their climax is emotional. It’s not necessarily big and dramatic. It’s someone admitting something — sometimes to themselves, which does not make for a great movie.”

It’s not to say that she’s shutting down any prospects of an adaptation. She’s even entertained our subtle prodding for her to pen a stage play or a musical; she has a background in theater and loves music, after all (Morgan highly recommends Sing Street). “It’d be interesting to do that for your own book, sort of tear it apart,” she affirms.

Before getting too far ahead in the future, we stir the conversation back to the present, to her book tour. “The fact that I’m here halfway across the world because people read my books and liked them, that blows my mind,” the young novelist says about her adventure so far. “I love meeting readers because so much of your working life is you alone by the computer in silence.”

Finish something

“My mother is still like, ‘Are you sure you don’t want a regular job?’” shares Morgan, stressing that her mom is as concerned as the next parent whose child has just confessed that she wanted to become a writer. It’s also her message of consolation to aspiring writers — don’t be discouraged despite the little support. But she’s quick to caution them on making hasty decisions, suggesting that they find a job where they can exercise their talents and at the same time earn a living.

“Sometimes it doesn’t have to be one or the other,” she says. “You can always do both until you can do just one. You should want to do different stuff before you write full-time anyway, because you have to get as much experience as you can. Pursue your dreams, but be practical. You can’t write if you’re worried about making your rent.”

Morgan herself worked at a publishing house as an editor and wrote on the side before becoming a full-time writer. She only quit her day job after selling her first book — which she finished with great difficulty. “First books are really hard because you have to figure out what works for you,” shares Morgan. “You’re learning it all at the same moment. But I’ll also say that don’t just focus on writing. People don’t think about the fact that you’re going to need something to write about.”

What she has discovered four books later, however, is that it doesn’t get easier on the next novel. But as challenges are a given in anything that’s worth undertaking, Morgan’s biggest piece of advice is: finish something. “I clearly remember that moment — ‘Oh no, I’m going down the hill; I’m going to finish this book.’ And then I knew I could write another book because I’ve done it already,” she recalls. “That’s how you know you could write a book: because you’ve written a book.”

—Originally published on GIST.PH

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Last name

Morgan and Me. It was raining.
This afternoon I had my copy of The unexpected everything signed by its author, Morgan Matson. I gave her my card so she won't misspell my name and, after reading it, she said, 'Oh your name is so beautiful'.

Before I could finish my 'Thank you', thinking she found Razel quite cute, she exclaimed, 'Even Estrella (she pronounced it Es-Tre-LA)—that means "star", right?'

No one has told me that before. Razel is quite an ice breaker, but Estrella (except for that time when our Physics teacher asked us on the first day of class, as a way of getting to know each other, the origin of our names) didn't really generate any excitement.

I always tell writer friends that I don't have a writer name. Something sonorous, something resonant. This blog was, for a long period, under the pseudonym Diwata Nakpil (good times). And I've been fantasizing about marrying someone with a last name that would, when attached to my first name, make that sound that a latch makes upon locking the door. That click. That feeling that lets you know, it fits; it's safe.

Embarrassing that, no matter how old and mature you think you are, you still need another person to be your mirror and light. Convinced by her that my name is 'so beautiful', I'll look at my byline with a kinder attitude from hereon.

Morgan Matson. That rolls off the tongue. It has lots of things going for it—alliteration, assonance, consonance. Wonderful writer name. Wonderful girl.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Soaring language

Me and Paula
“The Vega Gull is peacock blue with silver wings, more splendid than any bird I’ve known…” begins the narrator, coaxing the reader to draw in his mind’s eye a feathered creature, complete with beak and claws. By the end of the sentence, however, he’ll learn that the bird being spoken of is made of steel: “…and somehow mine to fly.”

With those few words, author Paula McLain right away sets the tone of Circling the Sun. The novel — her follow-up to her best-selling debut The Paris Wife — will have adventures, twists (whether in plot or thought); and conveyed by language that soars.

This same lyrical voice manifests itself when you speak with McLain. It’s the voice that’s able to admit, “I’m never ambitious” in a gentle yet unapologetic way. “No one in my family had ever been to college. And I grew up in foster homes, and no one in those families had been to college. So no one ever said to me, ‘You should be a doctor, an astronaut, the president of the United States,’” expounded the California-born fictionist.

It wasn’t until she joined a writing program, an MFA in Poetry at the University of Michigan — where she was surrounded by other writers and professors who took notice of her talent — that McLain saw herself differently. After trying her hand at a memoir, she thought of writing from the point of view of someone who lived in history. “That was my big idea that gave me a readership,” she remarked, referring to The Paris Wife, which centers on Hadley Richardson, the first wife of Ernest Hemingway.

McLain’s work became her ticket to travel around places she wouldn’t have otherwise gone to. Last month, she was in the country for The Philippine Readers and Writers Festival, where we had the chance to meet. “We (writers) go in pretty incredible places in our imagination, but it’s also fun when we actually go into the real world and collect stories,” she said with an openness that eluded her younger self. “I was socially awkward as a kid,” she shared, “so it was easier to fall into a book and just kind of be not where I was — not on a school bus — and talk to people.” Putting up a wall made of books, McLain kept to herself and wrote poems.

She published two poetry collections at the start of her career and also penned non-fiction. Her newest opus, Circling the Sun, is another biographical novel. Here, McLain revisits the life of female aviator and racehorse trainer Beryl Markham, whom she calls “badass.” Toying with historical events sounds tricky, but McLain’s obsession with her subject and command of language make her a narrator whom you’ll trust to take you on a smooth, enjoyable ride back in time.

My copy of Circling the Sun

Thursday, August 25, 2016

1. Wearing sunglasses on rainy days

After a successful LASIK surgery in 2009, my ophthalmologist prescribed the usual: eat healthy, exercise, sleep well, do not marry the computer screen. And then the unusual: wear polarized lenses.

My idea was to (technically) go under the knife, so I could once and for all do away with glasses, which are a hindrance to an active lifestyle, not to mention expensive in the long-run. But before I could object, the good doctor reasoned: they (1) reduce glare and eyestrain; (2) improve eyesight; and (3) protect the eyes from the sun, dust, and other harmful elements, natural or otherwise.

Paranoid and obsessive about my brand-new vision, I bought the best sunnies my money could afford. Since then I couldn’t leave the house without sunglasses. They’ve become apparatuses of extreme importance (along with my watch and cellphone, and former prescription glasses) that I couldn’t be bothered to take them off even upon entering a mall or when the weather turns gloomy.

The other morning, on my way to work, someone shouted, “Lakas ni ate, nakasalamin,” declaring the absurdity of wearing shades while the rain is pouring. To be fair, ten years ago, if I ran across a lady sporting Ray-Ban aviators in the middle of a windstorm, I’d be equally perplexed. But how I wanted to shout back at the rude passer-by: “Wala kang pakialam!”

2. Throwing ‘dialectic’ in casual conversation.

It doesn’t get any easier in your thirties. You’d think at this age, you’d stop feeling the need to explain yourself and conform. You’re wrong. The teenage confusion, the doubt, they don’t go away; they evolve into a new, adult form called over-thinking.

At a friend’s party, the conversation over sushi rolls took a socio-political swerve and one of the more sober participants was arguing her case. She was about to drop the term “dialectic” but instead opted for an easier-to-digest alternative that I don’t remember now.

I can smell fear of sounding too intelligent from a mile because I harbor it, too. Being told, “Wow, lalim!” after every statement you make will make you want to shut up for life — which is impossible. And this is one root of over-thinking. I can’t do that, it’s offensive… but I have to stand my ground. I can’t say that, they won’t understand… but that’s condescension. I must own my eccentricities, but I don’t want to drive people away. I hate people.

3. Approaching the cool girl.

Why was it easier to make friends in grade school? Back then my seat mate instantly became my best friend. Was it because we were stuck beside each other in the same room every day for months that we learned to bond for survival? Or was it just pure childhood innocence?

What I know so far is that my days of innocence are gone and taking its place is a crippling self-awareness. Even if I — by the grace of universe — were seated beside an interesting lady (I know because I follow her on Twitter), I couldn’t bring myself to say hi. Because other than the possibility of her being a total snob, I might say something embarrassing, or worse, bore her.

4. Failing.

And not in a grand, romantic way. Not in a way that makes for a classic graduation speech or a plot point of a blockbuster sports film; but in an everyday, “Damn another red light” kind of way.

In school they ask us, “What do you want to contribute to the world?” The question presupposes that whatever we are (and are not) doing now has no impact on our immediate environment. This framework endorses the notion that to do good (“to have succeeded”), we have to do something measurable — huge, to be precise: support a charity, write a patriotic novel, become president.

But it’s the little things, yeah? What defines us are the small, daily decisions we make when no one’s looking — sorry, documenting. I personally don’t fear failure as much as I fear the label “failure.” If we stop beating ourselves (and each other) up when things don’t work out despite all our efforts, then maybe we could do more and be more — or simply be.

—Originally published on GIST.PH

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Why cosplay

It’s fun. Playing dress-up, pretending to be someone else and being admired for it is an inarguable source of joy. But when does someone cross the line between hobby and passion, between putting on a costume and becoming a character? What drives those whom we now call “cosplayers” to shell out P10,000 and spend hour after gruelling hour applying make-up to, say, be Two-Face for a day?

“I’ve been fond of video games and anime since grade school, so I felt like cosplay was the next step to being a fan,” explains writer and cosplayer Luie Magbanua. “I really got into it when I was in university and found a group of friends to cosplay with. What keeps me passionate about it is the love of the character that I want to emulate.” Cosplay, it seems, is the most blatant, flattering expression of allegiance to a pop culture treasure, and goes hand-in-hand with community formation — like how it is in Western superhero flicks, where individuals with superpower, in their perceived isolation, discover each other and band.

“Back then, cosplay wasn’t even a word!” shares Mika Fabella of The Philippine X-Men Team (FILXMEN), an organization of X-Men enthusiasts. “I was just in costume because I loved the fandom. We used to go around malls in full costume and people would look at us weirdly, like, ‘Ano’ng meron? Halloween ba?’ Nowadays, it’s so much easier. If you go to a mall in costume, people assume it’s for a cosplay convention.”

Fellow FILXMEN member Myke Dela Paz takes cosplay’s popularity as a corollary of the geek developing as the new cool. And with cosplayers having their own booths in conventions, signing autographs, posing for photos, and generally wowing audiences, it’s tempting to lump them together as another breed of celebrity. In a previous interview, Spider-Man cosplayer and former Kikomachine bassist Dan Geromo comments on this speci c allure of the practice: “Puwede pala ‘yong ganiyang klaseng buhay, ‘yong para kang pseudo-celebrity; hindi mo gamit ang totoo mong mukha.You just get into a character and automatically people will respond positively. Parang si Jollibee. Parang pagmamascot,” he says. “I thought, ang sarap siguro kung ganiyan ang trabaho mo.”

Fame can no doubt be a result of cosplaying, but Stephen Aguilar, also of FILXMEN, would rather see it as a bonus and not as an end. “Even though cosplay has become mainstream, it’s still a recent movement, so people are still confused about its role in pop culture. People think cosplayers are just hungry for attention and find it easier to dismiss us as celebrity wannabes,” he opines. “They see us at the cons and think that we’re just walking photo booths. That’s why I feel the need to emphasize the artistic side to it — the long hours, intricate craft sessions, and ambitious photo sessions. It’s like painting or playing music, but instead of a brush or a guitar, we use our bodies as instruments and the whole experience as our canvas,” he continues. “I see cosplayers as artists, and as artists they try to one-up one another. This pushes us forward and keeps things interesting.”

For these serious practitioners, the paradox is that this whole act of stepping into another’s skin is in fact their great means of self-expression. “Cosplaying is an extension of how much of a geek I am,” shares Mika. “I always say that I cosplay because I’m a grown adult and I still like to play dress-up and make-believe. That’s really what it is: you’re role-playing — the same thing you used to do as a kid, except now you can do it with the facilities and resources that you have as an adult.” With adulthood, however, comes adult problems: like cash.

Luie notes that one of the most challenging aspects of cosplaying is the budget, especially if you’re a perfectionist; while Stephen remarks that finding reliable tailors and suppliers is also a cause of headache. Age is another challenge: “Lately lumalaki ang tiyan natin at bumababa ang metabolism, so I need to do cardio first,” Dan points out.

“But when they go, ‘Oh my gosh, look it’s (name of character)!’, it’s all worth it,” says Luie, and it’s a sentiment that these cosplayers share. “My favorite reactions so far have been those I’ve seen with my Weeping Angel cosplay,” says Mika. “They would scream and run away and yell out, ‘Don’t blink!’ I loved it because I had so much fun scaring people, and also instantly discovering more people who like Doctor Who!”

It’s magic. We all know it’s an illusion — that underneath this superhero (and supervillain for that matter) is an ordinary person who happens to be crazy enough to paint themselves and walk in body-distorting garments. But who could deny its wonders? ”The best part about cosplaying, I can sum up in a short story: I was dressed as Psylocke at a convention one time. We were having our photos taken and in the crowd, I saw a little boy holding a Psylocke figure, staring at me in disbelief,” narrates Mika. “He really thought I was Psylocke! It’s that feeling, that moment of being able to convince all the kids and kids-at-heart that yes, the characters and the stories you know and love can be real. And the biggest part of making them real is you.”

—Originally published on GIST

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Hands-free

In The Mix. August 18, 2016.
The 1975, James Bay, Panic! At The Disco
Third Eye Blind, Elle King, Twin Pines
When Brendon Urie said, 'If you heard about my band the very first time, it was probably from this song,' I thought they were going to play Lying Is The Most Fun A Girl Can Have Without Taking Her Clothes Off, because that’s the song that introduced me to Panic! At The Disco (it was my ringtone at one point in time).

*

I kind of enjoyed Panic!'s set more, even though I mainly came for The 1975. My box was dancing silly when Panic! was playing. When The 1975 came out, most of them were glued to their phones.

*

Girl on our right was screaming all the lyrics to all Panic! songs. ALL.

*

Girl on our left only came to life when The 1975 took the stage. She had this one-dance-move-fits-all-songs going on. ALL.

*

My favorite surprise was You (which light play was poetry). Didn’t expect them to perform it. When I was just discovering the band, I'd leave their EPs on loop till I fell asleep. You's chorus—the repetition of those simple words, 'It takes a bit more', and that hurried guitar-strumming against an andante tempo—would wake me up like a gentle but scared child, asking to be held in the dark.

It is the sound and song structure that I will always associate with the band.

*

It was the best concert I've been to since working in the media industry. It feels great to buy tickets to support artists you believe in and not worry about framing the experience in a sellable story.

Most of all it feels great to throw both your hands up in the air.

But you can't take the digital jungle out of the girl. I had to have some souvenirs, so I took out my phone during the performances of my least favorite songs.

A video posted by Razel Estrella (@fishpeep) on


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Tiny downer: Thought of having dinner first while waiting for my friend. Rain poured and delayed things as it often does. When we entered the arena, Third Eye Blind was already wrapping up their set. (I was also looking forward to seeing them.) Glass half-full: I heard Jumper and Semi-Charmed Life live.

What did I miss? Did they perform How's It Going To Be, Losing A Whole Year, Deep Inside Of You, Never Let You Go, and other hits?

*

My original companion had to cancel at the last minute. I was stressed out a bit because that might mean one wasted ticket (I could always sell it to scalpers or be a hero and give it to a desperate fan, but those were the last options).

Long boring story short, I managed to tag Nicole along. It didn't take much convincing on my part because she's a big fan of The 1975 and Panic! as well—and now a James Bay fan.

Classic case of things falling into place.

If I may quote her: 'Yesterday was just a blur of good surprises. The kind of day that just shakes everything up and reminds me a lot of good things happen, too.'

*

Do you wanna dance, do you wanna dance, do you wanna dance, dance

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Road to Justice

1. The press release landed in my inbox May last year. “In 2007, Gaspard AugĂ© and Xavier de Rosnay — better known together as Justice — released the single, D.A.N.C.E., which infectious beats captured a multitude of music fans… On May 14, 2015 the Parisian dance production duo will drop by the Philippines to heat up the Valkyrie dance floor,” it read. Why have these infectious beats not captured this music fan yet? I asked myself. So I searched for the song, which turned out to be catchy as fu…advertised (all those nods to Michael Jackson adding to its charm). I saved D.A.N.C.E. to my music bank then moved on with life.

2. The trailer for DJ film We Are Your Friends, starring Zach Efron, came out in the same summer. Included in the motion picture soundtrack was Justice’s remix of Simian’s Never Be Alone. Despite Efron’s good looks and my inclination towards EDM, other forms of distraction won my attention at the time. I neither saw the movie nor heard the OST.

3. YouTube recommended that I watch this Zedd interview, so I did. One of the questions was what got him into electronic music (he was a drummer for a metal band before becoming Zedd). His response: he bought Justice’s album, “Cross” and figured he wanted to make music like that. While metaphorically throwing my hands up, I thought, That’s it, I need to sit down with Justice.

4. Played “Cross.” TTHHEE PPAARRTTYY, with its relaxed, almost-bored cadence, instantly appealed to me. But it was the vocalist’s affectation of coolness and tongue-in-cheek lyrics that sold the song. Imagine Paris Hilton playing dumb blonde — it’s so easy to be annoyed by it if you take it seriously; but take it as an act and you’ll enjoy the ride. DVNO also stood out as a sing- and bop-along tune that has a sense of humor about it (part of the hook goes, “No need to ask my name to figure out how cool I am”).

5. Went on a stalking spree. What are Justice up to now? Are they touring? Do they have new music? Research led me to this Euro 2016 ad, which features Genesis, the first track on “Cross.” Maybe it was the setting of the video, but watching it made me realize what I liked about Justice: theirs is the kind of music I would leave in the background — not overbearing, not boring — and before it could fade in the subconscious, a soaring phrase will suddenly grab you by the collar, demand that you return to listening. Like classical music, only electronic.

6. Played “Cross” again. Tracks sans lyrics highlight how rhythmically engaging Gaspard and Xavier are, and how thoughtful their musical decisions are. Let There Be Light is particularly rewarding. It opens with fast drum beats, then by the fourth bar a distorted sound drills through and grows coarser every eight measures. At the three-minute mark your grandma might already condemn the noise; but let it run for a few more seconds and the notes shall gracefully fall into a quiet, pleasant version of the distortion — there’s the light and we discern the supple skeleton of the song.



7. I wanted more. Listening to their discography was imperative. Listening to what they listen to was sheer pleasure. I checked out every available mix they made and stumbled upon Jamelia’s Something About You and The Paradise’s In Love With You — songs I just knew I’d play for ever but wouldn’t have discovered if it weren’t for the French duo.

8. Justice released Safe And Sound last month. For some reason the single reminds me of Karl Jenkins’ Adiemus — perhaps due to the choir singing, the dream-like vibe, and the fact that I can’t immediately make out the lyrics. Jenkins is said to have utilized the human voice purely as a musical instrument and thus created “words” integral to the sonic experience. I’m not one to read much into a song’s lyrics, but I think Safe and Sound’s work both on the sonic and, however cryptic, semantic levels. In short, I like it.

9. I regret not catching their show when I had the chance (the pain is aggravated each time I listen to their live album, “Access All Arenas”). But I’m not too late a fan. Justice confirmed that they’ll soon release another studio album. I’ll be waiting, stalking, and — negative reviews aside — watching We Are Your Friends till that moment arrives.

—Originally published on GIST.PH

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Read part 2 here.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Influences

Art by Sean Eidder

A trip to the bookstore during my high school years entailed a good stretch of time hunching over a shelf at the poetry section. Not because I enjoyed reading poems but because I didn’t know how to.

My long-standing love affair with poetry began as how love affairs often do: visually and with a dose of ignorance. That the lines didn’t reach the other end of the margin made me think of the poet as a rebel, defying the rules of writing we were taught to venerate. More so when I saw text arranged in unusual ways, whether syntactically or spatially on the page.

“Why cut a phrase in specific places?” I would ask myself. “How are these decisions made?” When William Carlos Williams declared, “so much depends upon a red wheelbarrow,” why had he not plainly put it in a straight line but instead delivered it as such: “so much depends / upon // a red wheel / barrow”? And, while at it, where were the punctuation marks and what the hell were these things that were so dependent upon a red — not blue or white or green — wheelbarrow?

There was something about this strange order and sparseness that made me want to dive deeper both into the words and into the spaces between and around them. The poem, though it may not fill up the paper, can make it weigh more than any novel out there. A few English composition and World Literature classes later, I had a glimpse of the poem’s inner workings and, armed with new knowledge plus my friends’ and professors’ recommended titles, the trip to the bookstores (and the library, of course) became occasions to look forward to.

Somewhere, somehow, another curious but confused reader may not know where to start. I’d be the first to say I’m no expert to make a definitive guide, but here are verses from the poems that unlocked in me a passion for the craft when I first read them (and they’re best read out loud). Ezra Pound famously says literature is “news that stays news.” Each time I recall these poems (as I do now), the same sensations run through me: the shock of recognition, the rush of current in my body, and the tinge of envy right after (Wish I wrote that—).

1.

If anyone asks you
how the perfect satisfaction
of all our sexual wanting
will look, lift your face
and say,
Like this.

— “Like This” by Rumi (Book: The Essential Rumi)

2.

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

— “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop (Book: The Complete Poems 1927-1979)

3.

It well may be that in a difficult hour,
Pinned down by pain and moaning for release,
Or nagged by want past resolution’s power,
I might be driven to sell your love for peace,
Or trade the memory of this night for food.
It well may be. I do not think I would.

— “Love is Not All (Sonnet XXX)” by Edna St. Vincent Millay (Book: Collected Poems)

4.

Kung ibig mo akong kilalanin,
Sisirin mo ako hanggang buto,
Liparin mo ako hanggang utak,
Umilanglang ka hanggang kaluluwa—
Hubad ako room mula ulo hanggang paa.

— “Kung Ibig Mo Akong Makilala” by Elynia S. Mabanglo (Book: Mesa Para sa Isa)

5.

Akala ko, para nang piyanong
Nasusian ang iyong kalooban
At naihagis ang susi kung saan,
Hindi na matitipa ng sino at alinman
Ang mga tekladong tuklap, naninilaw.

— “Akala Ko” by Rolando S. Tinio (Book: A Trick of Mirrors)

6.

Six planets in her horoscope
augur well for this, her tryst:
in her hand, a glass of vin de table
(a steal at the local supermart),
her head befuddled by hope
and love, preferably a la carte.

— “Ms. Lulu Syntax at the Sexual Oyster Cafe” by Eric Gamalinda (Book: Lyrics from a Dead Language)

7.

Only the young can be alone freely.
The time is shorter now for company,
And sitting by a lamp more often brings
Not peace, but other things.

— “Vers de SociĂ©tĂ©” by Philip Larkin (Book: High Windows)

8.

So much of the city
is our bodies. Places in us
old light still slants through to.
Places that no longer exist but are full of feeling,
like phantom limbs.
Even the city carries ruins in its heart.
Longs to be touched in places
only it remembers.

— “Phantom Limbs” by Anne Michaels (Book: The Weight of Oranges / Miner’s Pond)

9.

[…] He
“gives his opinion and then rests on it”;
he renders service when there is
no reward, and is too reclusive for
some things to seem to touch
him, not because he
has no feeling but because he has so much.

— “The Student” by Marianne Moore (Book: Complete Poems)

10.

we’re anything brighter than even the sun
(we’re everything greater
than books
might mean)
we’re everyanything more than believe
(with a spin
leap
alive we’re alive)
we’re wonderful one times one

— “if everything happens that can’t be done” by E.E. Cummings (Book: One Times One)

11.

As they took him from the cross
I, the centurion, took him in my arms—
the tough lean body
of a man no longer young,
beardless, breathless,
but well hung.
He was still warm.
While they prepared the tomb
I kept guard over him.
His mother and the Magdalen
had gone to fetch clean linen
to shroud his nakedness.

— “The love that dares to speak its name” by James Kirkup (Published in Gay News in 1976)

12.

These are amazing: each
Joining a neighbor, as though speech
Were a still performance.
Arranging by chance

— “Some trees” by John Ashbery (Book: Some Trees)

13.

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

— “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” by Wallace Stevens (Book: The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens)

—Originally published on GIST

Saturday, July 9, 2016

I love your work so, so much

After years of underlining bits of text I deem too beautiful to forget from whatever reading material I get my hands on, this particular year proves the utility of the practice.

The internet and the nature of my job increase the likelihood of me interacting with people whose works I admire. Visual artists, musicians, writers. Just last week, I probably had the biggest small exchange of my life.

I posted Alice Fulton's 'What I like' on my Twitter, and she thanked me — and even said my name [EXCLAMATION POINT]



So I had to say something in return, it was my chance to, not out of the blue, tell her what I've always wanted to tell her, how brilliant I think she is, but of course in a very dignified manner. And, but, all I came up with was:



Since then this passage about what we truly mean when we say we love an artwork, that we think it's beautiful, was floating in my head. I knew I've highlighted that in one of those theory books and I knew it was either Ann Lauterbach or another female writer (Anais Nin, maybe; or Jeanette Winterson; hardly Sontag, coz I remember the prose being very lyrical and, um, kind). So I picked up 'The night sky' and saw that it was mildly annotated.

But there it was. What a pleasure to know exactly what you're looking for and then finding it, and then finding out you're getting more than what you expected. Rereading the lines plus the entire argument behind it lent me a new clarity.

A young poet friend remarks, "The divine part of humanity is its capacity to see the interconnectedness between all things. To be that interconnectedness." If this is so, then the Divinity we wish to resemble is testing us in subtle new ways, asking us to worship at the Temple of Information, whose Disembodied Oracular Source (who is speaking?) is lost in a thousand transcripts flying through the stratosphere, like pixilated ghosts, each with its particle of fact. To see connections in this, to find in it the syntax of the heart, to invent compelling stories and stunning images: to impose on this astounding influx form?

Form, after all, is chosen limits.

Limit, as a formal characteristic, is the expression of choice in the service of the possible.

The possible is the indeterminate futurity of meaning.

Form posits the optimum conditions for meaning to occur.

. . . .

When limits, or choices, are displayed in the service of the possiblity of meaning, in the making of art objects, we call the result beautiful. That is, we stand before a painting by Vermeer, or we read a poem by Paul Celan, or we listen to Shostakovich's Twenty-four Preludes and Fugues for piano, and we say this is beautiful. But what we are really announcing is our pleasure and gratitude in the fact of the choices the artist has made [emphasis mine]. We recognize something in how one stroke of the brush brushes up against another stroke of the brush; how one note moves toward and away from the next in an astounding sequence; how one word attaches itself to another and to another and to another until something that has to do with all the words separately—the history of their meaning—gathers into a nexus which allows us, which invites us, to experience something like the meaning of meaning.

. . . .

Art is not entertainment, and it is not decor. It is one of the rude fallacies of our time to want to reduce all art forms, and in particular literary arts, to their most facile and elemental role, and so deny their potential to awaken, provoke, and elicit our glee at being agents in the construction of meaning.

So the next time I meet one of my creative heroes, I'll show my appreciation by slapping them with Ann Lauterbach's 'The night sky'. Kidding. Will tell them, Thank you for making these creative decisions.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Keep creating

There is a scene in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood where divorcĂ©e Olivia tells her college-bound son Mason that it is the worst day of her life. Asked why, she replies, “You know what I’m realizing? My life is just going to go. Like that. This series of milestones — getting married, having kids, getting divorced… getting my masters degree, finally getting the job I wanted, sending Samantha off to college, sending you off to college. You know what’s next? It’s my fucking funeral! Just go and leave my picture!” Confused, Mason tells her she’s jumping way ahead, to which she answers back with resignation: “I just thought there would be more.”

This scene hits a chord and resonates with me until now, for it highlights my suspicions about success — our definitions of it (an accumulation of goals being one) and if it, as we seem to believe, enables happiness. Because I’ve been there and heard the same confession from others: getting what you want and still feel lacking.

What I do know is when people recall their happy stories and assert their identity, they rarely speak of “getting” but rather of “doing.” At least this job reveals to me as much. Interviewing artists, writers, and musicians — picking their brains about their craft — affirms the pleasures of creation (an occasion to be truly in-the-moment). It’s the one constant source of joy for them.

—Full story on GIST.PH

Sunday, July 3, 2016

'You're a man'

And of all the capitulations in his life, this was the one that seemed most like a victory. Never before had elation welled more powerfully inside him; never had beauty grown more purely out of truth; never in taking his wife had he tirumphed more completely over time and space. The past could dissolve at his will and so could the future; so could the walls of this house and the whole imprisioning wasteland beyond it, towns and trees. He had taken command of the universe because he was a man, and because the marvelous creature who opened and moved for him, tender and strong, was a woman.

—Richard Yates. Revolutionary Road. New York: Vintage Contemporaries, 2008.

I like stories where I can relate with all the characters. I am both Frank and April. I am even Maureen.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Gateway theater

I.

On the car ride home, right after watching a stage production of Green Day’s American Idiot, I thought of cats — the musical: on the one hand lambasted for its nonsense, if non-existent plot and sheer silliness (cats dancing and singing and fighting for a place in The Heavyside what?); and on the other hand loved by many, including me, for the playful poetry set to catchy tunes that can put today’s Top 40 to shame. American Idiot is quite the same: it’s less of a musical; more of a musical event.

Where the two shows dissociate is in tone, setting, intention, and everything else. The former is built in a fantastical world where you’re invited to have fun, while the latter is anchored in real life, in the now, and asks that you take it seriously.

Right off the bat it makes a statement. News reels and advertising clips flash on TV screens. The cast open their mouths and express aversion: “Don’t wanna be an American idiot.” Then we’re acquainted with lead characters Johnny, Will, and Tunny, who seem to be in their late 20s and are frustrated with the state of the nation, as well as their own lives, that they opt to leave for another city. Because maybe things will be better from thereon.


The first 15 minutes of American Idiot set up an expectation for a riveting story, as if telling the audience, Listen, we will discuss important matters — the personal, the political, love and war — it will be visceral. When Johnny and Tunny (Will has to stay behind after learning his girlfriend is pregnant) take the bus ride to The City, we hop along. But once they alight, their stories proceed in unclear directions, and we’re lost.

This gap in narration — or perhaps finding out in the end that it’s a simplistic narrative we’re following after all — weakens the emotional parts of the performances. Storytelling-wise, the characters haven’t gone through enough to earn their anger. It’s up to the actors, the creative team, and Green Day’s music to elicit sympathy from the audience.

II.

Theater advocates in the past few years have been on a crusade to develop the theater community — to produce diverse and quality shows, establish new outfits, and most of all attract more theater-goers. 9 Works Theatrical and Globe try a different approach by bringing theater to the people. The two companies are staging American Idiot to christen the Globe Iconic Store at Bonificaio High Street in Taguig City and showcase the strengths of the venue — huge HD billboards, impeccable sound and light systems, and accessibility.

The Globe Iconic Store is right at the BHS Amphitheater, flanked by rows of stores and restaurants. As an open area, passers-by and non-ticket holders can catch the show — something that both 9 Works Theatrical and Globe encourage. Because the goal is to engage the unengaged and keep them hooked. The ambition recalls the concept of gateways in popular culture (gateway bands, book gateways): that which lured you into diving into the unknown.

Despite its shortcomings, American Idiot is the piece that can do the job for theater. Who wouldn’t stop upon hearing the impassioned drum beats of Are we the waiting? And linger because even though it’s been overplayed on the radio (and over-memed on the internet), they’d like to hear Wake me up when September ends once more. I won’t dare call it an attempt at nostalgia, for that’s a cheap trick and American Idiot is not pulling it. Instead, the show reminds everyone the genius of Green Day.

To listen to the band’s music is to ride a horse on a run: it’s fast, proud, and wild; but somehow you know you won’t fall and you’ll gladly go wherever it goes. Where it slows down and gaits, it proves that punk rock is no stranger to elegant melody — something that the stage adaptation has successfully brought out.

The different voices and arrangements reveal a whole new dimension to the Green Day songs. It must help that the cast is composed of professional actors and musicians. Wolfgang frontman Basti Artadi fit the bill as the charismatic but dangerous St. Jimmy, the alter-ego of Johnny (played by former Rivermaya frontman Jason Fernandez). Also in the mix is Chicosci lead vocalist Miggy Chavez, who plays Will and sings with clarity and pathos.

A clear standout, though, is Yanah Laurel, who — and I will be crucified for this — steals the rockstar crown from Artadi. With her voice and stage presence, she powers through the loud instruments and cacophony of lights. When she inquires, “Where have all the bastards gone?” you feel like scrambling for answers.


III.

Before the show started, Globe presented a short film communicating its foray into live entertainment. Sounds blasted, digital images swim in the billboard screens on each side of the stage, and laser lights danced in the dark (did I just describe the last EDM party you attended?). All this technology was employed in American Idiot.

The mood was festive and for a time I was convinced that I was in fact watching a concert; and that’s enough to keep someone like me arrested. Director Robbie Guevara and the actors admit that performing outdoors — exposed to the elements and a hesitant crowd — is a challenge. But they’re on a mission to win audiences and they won’t have it any other way.

If there’s one thing 9 Works Theatrical and Globe are truly pioneering in this production, it’s undermining the snobbishness associated with theater. Here, theater is just among the visitors’ many distractions, outright competing for attention. It’s funny when you think about it, but that’s the reality, and we can rest easy knowing how distractions can escalate into passions.

—Originally published on GIST.PH

Friday, June 17, 2016

Built to last

Collage by Sean Eidder

Everyone, at least on social media, seems to ask if everlasting love still exists. The question has become so repetitive that it no longer is a question but a dictum: Walang forever.

I think otherwise. Happiness doesn’t get a lot press, and if it does, it only tells the treacly portion of the story. What we fail to see in every well-lighted photograph of a couple locked in an embrace are the long fights they had just days before, the doubts in their head, and the arduous path they took to know and rediscover each other.

It’s a shame that our schools don’t teach us about making a relationship work — that it takes actual hard work, that love doesn’t simply fall on our laps and stay on fire just because we will it to. That’s why I’m going to stop here, because my knowledge on the matter is suspect. Instead allow me to send a salute to all the married and about-to-be-married couples out there by way of a playlist.

Here’s to those of you who dare commit to a lifetime with someone who was once (and still is) a stranger, and in doing so make immeasurable, and previously unimaginable, sacrifices. You are the true radicals.



—Originally published on GIST

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Thinking inside the black box

It’s very exciting for artists to see an empty space,” said Ed Lacson Jr. after recounting the diverse, if not divergent productions that came to life at the barely one-year-old Power Mac Center Spotlight, where he serves as theater manager.

The 400-sqm. black box theater was built to complete Ayala Land’s hip lifestyle and entertainment district Circuit Makati and complement the 1,500-seater performing arts theater soon to rise within the development. “A black box is basically an empty space that any artist can use, whether for performing or visual arts. It’s a canvas that they can transform however they want to,” explained Lacson. “Its difference from a proscenium type of theater is the seating, which can be adjusted in whatever configuration you want.”

And like the blank page, the limits of which are defined by the writer, Power Mac Center Spotlight has been utilized by creative minds in various disciplines. Other than the expected plays and musicals, the venue has hosted talks, product launches, even Christmas parties in the past. Power Mac Center Spotlight has seen artist Christina Dy celebrate her birthday with a live performance; poet Juan Miguel Severo recite verses to an army of spoken word and OTWOL fanatics; and the Manila Symphony Orchestra play unplugged.

“There’s no limit to the type of event; we even had a graduation,” added Lacson. Small and flexible, a black box theater inspires freedom while allowing intimacy — something that both performer and audience relish. Its very structure invites experimentation and forces attention that even Filipino rock band The Black Vomits chose to stage their modern rock opera The Gray Ground here.

At The Gray Ground rehearsals
Created by writer, artist and The Black Vomits bassist Igan D’Bayan, The Gray Ground follows Jan, who’s in the throes of writer’s block while desperately writing a literary masterpiece; and features a song cycle described by D’Bayan as “the band members’ love letter to the rock opera and the concept album.”

“To be honest, I wanted to stage The Gray Ground in a bar or in a small dingy space — with beer, eerie green lights, and patient ears. The play, for lack of a better word, is more dialogue-­driven and our music moves the story forward. But once I started developing the protagonist Jan and rethinking the Kafkaesque, Lynchian, Black Mirror-­like world that he lives in, we decided to stage the play in a proper black box theater, a decision that led us to Circuit Makati,” shared D’Bayan.

“The venue is a tabula rasa,” he continued. “It’s up to director Bianka Bernabe, stage designer Marco Ortiga of The Crucible, Ruel Caasi of TWA (The Working Animals), and the students of the College of Saint Benilde (CSB) School of Design and Arts to transform Power Mac Center Spotlight into Jan’s weird and wonky world. Ayala Land and Circuit Makati were very open to our ideas and have been really supportive.”

“We’re supporting The Gray Ground because it’s a unique project,” said Mel Ignacio of Ayala Land. “And we also like it when the students are involved. CSB is very near; it’s the community that we want to cater to. We want the people to stay, live, work, and play in Makati. We want the people in the area to know about the venue and that’s what Igan’s show can do.”

How the team behind The Gray Ground will make the workings of a writer’s (blank) mind a compelling drama and at the same time bring rock opera into the local audience’ consciousness, we have yet to find out. But Lacson couldn’t wait for the ride: “I was looking at their designs. It was very forward, very avant-garde. They have a mosh pit together with the regular seats. I think it’s an exciting way to use the space.” he said.

“If we had a proper budget, we’d aim for something like Faust (2006) — something ordinary infringed by something gothic with lots of shadows, masked figures and supernatural reds,” shared D’Bayan. “Now, it’s more of an ‘imagined space.’ If we do our jobs, the audience­ members would really be transformed into the Gray Ground, with an area code between everywhere and nowhere.”

It’s easy to say the opposite of Lacson’s previous statement and still be right: It’s very scary — frustrating? unappetizing? — for artists to see an empty space. And this dichotomy between emptiness and creation, sharing (if not coming from) the same space is what makes Power Mac Center Spotlight and The Gray Ground quite a match. As D’Bayan explained, “What The Black Vomits will present in The Gray Ground is just one story swimming in a sea of stories. But in our tale, the devil is a blank computer screen for a man suffering from writer’s block — and space is where the next story is coming from.”

—Originally published in The Philippine STAR