pop goes the world: poetry and friendship

This was a piece kept in my reserve bank of articles (for fillers and just in case I can’t submit before my weekly deadline) and published by my editor, Adelle Chua, on Christmas Day.

POP GOES THE WORLD By Jenny Ortuoste for Manila Standard-Today, Published 25 December 2010, Friday

Poetry and Friendship

How mysterious is friendship, and the bonds that tie people together across years and distances. When I was in the sixth grade in a church school in Pasay City, one of the people I admired and looked up to was a high school senior named Joel H. Vega. We lent each other books, and talked about literature and how words could be powerful enough to move us in ways others could not understand, or even care to learn.

Joel graduated, and I saw him only once after that. He visited our school about a year or two after he had left, to tell me that he had entered the University of the Philippines in Los Baños and was taking journalism. He encouraged me to develop my writing skills and take the same course.

When I became a senior myself and had to decide on my college course, I was confused. My other high school classmates were going for nursing, biology, dentistry, and the other life sciences. (One of them, Amerlon Enriquez, became a physician and is now based in Iowa. He often contributes to MST’s “Diaspora”.)

Healthcare was the career path encouraged by our school. Not being particularly altruistic nor desirous of encountering blood and other body fluids on a daily basis, I remembered Joel’s words, and so I ended up also in the journalism program in UP (Diliman), where I spent four happy years.

Now I make my living from writing. And my choice of career I owe to Joel, and to a chance remark on his part, perhaps forgotten soon as it was said, but that had a profound and significant influence on my life.

After 24 or 25 years we got in touch again through the Internet. Joel is based in the Netherlands, working as a medical journalist, and before that worked in other countries also as a writer. Always as a writer. His life is filled with words and music and art and travel and culture and I am so happy for him.

One thing that made me even happier —and proud—was when I learned that he is a published writer and poet. His poetry has been anthologized many times in Philippine and US literary journals, and he also wrote a collection of essays—Dir’iyah—about life as an expat in the Middle East.

One of his most popular poems, “The Fifth & Careful Season” (2004), begins thus: “Beyond October, before the lure / Of orange, the swarm flies across Nevada’s skies. / Listen, the talebearer says, / Listen as they drag the weight / Of distances from as far as Peru / And Cebu…”

About this piece, Joel says: “I am particularly delighted with (it)… because I somehow hit a sensitive nerve with that poem. Besides, the images, words, rhythm, etc, just all came together…. Poems like that don’t come to me often. It can be my most successful poem to date as it has been re-printed thrice, and with that poem I bagged the Meritage Press ( a small Filipino-owned lit press in California ) annual poetry ‘fun’ contest in 2005.”

From there he has gone on to a more prestigious recognition—third place in the Poetry category of the 2010 Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature. His award-winning suite of poems was published in the December 6 issue of Philippines Graphic magazine.

He flew in from the Netherlands a couple of weeks ago to spend Christmas here, and our reunion after a couple of decades was boisterous and joyous. We arranged to meet at a mall and he thought he wouldn’t recognize me but I did him and in each other’s presence the years fell away, and we were book-hungry, word-mad teenagers again for a few hours.

Joel also occasionally contributes essays on his multi-cultural experiences to MST’s “Diaspora” column, but I look forward to one day reading all of his poems in one volume that I hope gets published so that this wandering poet’s works may be read and appreciated in the land of his birth.   ***

Photo is of Joel at Marcel Proust’s grave at Pere Lachaise cemetery, August 2010. Image comes from his blog, 18th Moon. See also his year-long blog project 365 Great Pinoy Stuff.

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