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Literature thrives in a city above the clouds
by Marilou Guieb

BAGUIO WRITERS GROUP -- The Baguio Writers’ Group is a recipient of the Gawad Bukaneg Award for Outstanding Literary Group. Rio Alma, the late Ed Maranan, Grace Subido, Babeth Lolarga, Frank Cimatu, and Karina Bolasco received the award for the group. -- Contributed photo

Dumay Solinggay. Poet. Dancer. Performance artist. Her birth name is Florenda Pedro, but choosing to take on the indigenous names of both her grandmothers reveals the restless creative spirit in her.

Junley Lazaga is known as a mentor and a creative writer himself teaching at the University of the Philippines Baguio. He says of Dumay, she breathes poetry, she lives poetry, carries her poetic format in her life ways. He sees that her other art expressions are but an extension of her poetry written in the languages familiar and meaningful to her – Iloco, Kankana-ey, and English.

She writes of her grandmother, places she experiences, the depth of emotions and insights on life, weaving words that seek deeper layers of meaning beneath the face value of things. Like most poets do. Lazaga says she well represents the young writers in Baguio. Highly experimental, immersed in the abundance of styles creative writing can be, and dominantly free verse in writing poetry.

Dumay says it is her love of reading that led her to creative writing. But like several of young writers in the city, workshops helped shape their craft.

Dumay is the character of today’s young creative writers, Lazaga says, who find their way into niches of art spots discovering their potentials in the written word.

The beginnings of literacy

That literary works are of Western influence is perhaps a fact that cannot be helped, for even in subliminal memory, literacy was ingrained early on in the consciousness of the early schoolers by Americans.

One only has to trace back to the legends, folklore, epics of ancient times to know how poetically early people viewed the world. But all in oral tradition.

It was part of the American mission to educate, and thereby brought in the Thomasites in 1908, propagating the use of English language in the country’s basic education.

But often mistaken, as a Thomasite is the fondly remembered Alice Kelly, who was the wife of James Kelly who established his camp in 1901 at the Itogon mining sites. He died a year later from cholera, but his widow decided to stay on as it had become her passion to educate young Igorot girls, and this led to the establishment of the Bua School for Girls.

An amusing anecdote has threaded its way on to generations. Kelly was instrumental in imbibing speaking English the American way among the young girls and would start the class with the greeting “Good morning, Mrs. Kelly.” It spread on to the other youngsters and everyone they met anywhere would be greeted with “Good morning, Mrs. Kelly,” whoever they may be, man or woman.

It can also be noted that Otto Scherrer, who was appointed as the first Benguet provincial secretary in 1900, ventured into a serious exploration of the literature and languages of the mountain region, highly contributing to the preservation in written form of the poetic oral language of the mountain people. Life from womb to tomb was closely linked to the cosmos, the gods and spirits and nature, and by context alone lends to poetry.

A standout in fiction writing in the early history of literature in the city was Sinai Hamada who produced most of his works in the 1930s and the latest a “Collection of Short Stories” in 1975. 

Another Baguio-based luminary in the field of creative writing, the late Francis Macansantos, considered Hamada’s enduring piece, “Tanabata’s Wife,” the most popular of his short stories, the finest Filipino love story ever written. But even as Hamada surfaced cultural aspects and the atmosphere of native life, the style is evidently the product of American foundation on education.

There was a segment of time though among a distinct group of writers that English was not the predominant language used in creative writing.

A few decades back sees an organization of Ilocano writers called GUMIL. First established in 1966 as GUMIL Filipinas with chapters nationwide, it held its first election in 1998 at the University of Baguio and later reorganized in 1987 as GUMIL-Baguio with the late Bagnos Cudiamat as president. Lazaga rambles on names – Luzvimin Aquino, Dr. Clarito de Francia, Jimmy Agpalo. Some names are familiar to me, like Art Tibaldo, Carol Gamiao, and DomC Cimatu. 

Creative writing and journalism blended in the works of this group. They also held seminar-workshops on campus journalism and creative writing.

But when their president passed away, the group became dormant but is recently rising again.

Every generation in the city produced gems in the field of literature, their works more publicly acclaimed than the authors themselves who stay behind their typewriters and computers to produce their silent art while their works go the rounds in the circles of readers.

There is DomC Cimatu, Peppot Ilagan and his witty creative non-fiction piece; Luchi Maranan prolific in expressing nationalistic sentiments in prose and poetry; Babeth Lolarga and her short stories and essays; Palanca awardees couple Butch and Precy Macansantos and daughter Monica; poet Luisa Igloria, woman writer Merci Dulawan, Jennifer Cariño, Scott Saboy, and Delfin Tolentino of UPB, Padma Perez, and countless others. And can Baguio ever forget Ed Maranan, who died only last May for being the son of the city with a record 35 Carlos Palanca awards in Literature to his name. The long list almost makes Baguio synonymous with a city of creative writers.

The most visible of these contemporary wri-ters is Frank Cimatu, a two-time winner for poetry in the Memorial Awards Palanca and other Palanca awards in different categories. He has also been acclaimed top prize winner for poetry in the Philippine Free Press Literary Awards for poetry and another for essay writing. His bodies of works were explored in a masteral thesis of University of the Philippines Communication Arts Professor Grace Subido for its postmodernism features. Cimatu himself comments on his experimentation with poetic forms, such as the sestina that characterizes his works. “The sestina is demanding and highly addictive. It is like a game,” he says. The sestina is a 30 nine-line poem composed of six strophes composed of six lines each and envoi of three lines. 

Perhaps the most influential writers group and significant in its achievement in keeping creative writing vibrant in the city is the Baguio Writers Group. Strangely it was born out of a time of almost nothingness in literature. The late Cirilo Bautista, noted writer and a founder of the BWG, once said when he first came to the city in the 1960s, “The literary life was practically non-existent though Sinai Hamada, the great fictionist was around but was occupied with editing the Baguio Midland Courier.”

He goes on to tell the story describing the sister of Sinai, “the ever gracious and amiable Cecile Afable, former editor of the Courier, who put up the Ato Bookshop and Art Gallery.” “She held painting exhibitions and literary teas regularly and artists, writers would invariably drop by to hear from Cecile the latest on arts and political development in the region.”

It was Afable who encouraged the emerging of a small group of writers. By the 1990s, they formed the BWG upon the initiative of Cirilo Bautista with core members Nap Javier, Francis Macansantos, Gabriel Keith, and Frank Cimatu.

It has now expanded to over a thousand members and followers on Facebook and has been instrumental in organizing workshops and poetry readings to encourage other young writers, the likes of Dumay and Rocky Cajigan, to name a few.

Baguio Writers Group was in fact awarded the Gawad Balagtas Award by UMPIL for promoting creative writing in the region. 

Cimatu said that the first UP Writers Workshop was held here in 1968, and that speaks a lot about the literary atmosphere by then as Baguio becoming a writers’ haven.

Lazaga spoke of the value of what young writers gather from mentors and the impetus workshops give them. Dumay speaks of these workshops as expansion of their network of like artists and how the exchanges make the creative atmosphere more vibrant.

Some 10 years ago, a Cordillera Creative Writers Workshop was held, which gave rise to UBBOG, an organization of Cordillera young writers that Lazaga helped establish. UBBOG writers remain active and prolific in their craft, with three journals of creative writing published. The said workshop is still held every two years.

Young writers groups for the last 10 years have become vibrant, Lazaga said. It finds its own spots on city occasions and spaces for poetry readings like during the Panagbenga or the city’s famous flower festival and poetry get-togethers at the Mt. Cloud Bookshop. Some of these groups are the Monday Poets, Pedantic Pedestrians.

But what is it that brings out the inspiration among the creatively inclined inhabitants in Baguio and beckons to the like-minded artists here?

Cirilo Bautista in his foreword of the book “Baguio Calligraphy” tells how Nick Joaquin would occasionally hire a cab from Manila to Dainty Restaurant and drink two or three bottles of beer while watching the passing scene and leave on the same cab. Emmanuel Lacaba would come knocking on his door just to talk about Philippine poetry. Kit Tatad would leave notes for diners. They are but a few of the artists drawn to the city.

Perhaps it is in this foreword too that the answer lies:

“Even now, though its pristine beauty has been largely smeared by uncontrolled commercialization, Baguio still retains magnetism for literary artists, as seen in this anthology. The writers here all have, at one time or another, been touched by Baguio as literature,... they expose time and experience, the building blocks of wisdom, to reflect on Baguio's phenomenal influence on their souls. In their hands, mountains, flowers, the busy streets of traders, fog, coldness, and trees assume layers of metaphorical exposition, thus giving the readers a varying vision of the city – interesting, beautiful, unique, saddening, frightening, and nostalgic, but always, deathless.”

-- Jogin Tamayo

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:: What is a Baguio film: A docu in the making
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PWU Baguio
Technical Education & Skills Development Authority – CAR
University of Baguio

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Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources – CAR
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National Grid Corporation of the Philippines
New Media Services
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Pines City Colleges
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Assumption Medical Diagnostic Center
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Choobi Choobi
Congressman Mark O. Go
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Gen. Benjie B. Magalong
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Governor Crescencio C. Pacalso
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Mother Earth Deli Basket
Nagomi Spa
Narda’s / Sunflower Ridge
Northern Luzon School for the Visually Impaired, Inc.
Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Montessori, Inc.
Philex Mining Corporation
Police Regional Office – CAR
Regional Development Council – CAR and National Economic and Development Authority – CAR
Regional Tripartate Wages and Productivity Board – CAR
SN Aboitiz
Tony Boy Tabora
Veterans Bank


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