Wednesday, April 30, 2003

four months from now

Some people are going to crow for joy. Some will spiral into despair (like I did last year). Come September, the 2003 Palanca winners will be announced and provoke the usual rush of “who won?”, “did someone I know win?” , “what the hell were the judges thinking?” and very very very quietly “ohmigod, I’m a loser with a capital L”.

I barely restrained a belly laugh today when I turned the newspaper page and saw a huge thermometer. The copy on top reminded all readers that today was the deadline for the Carlos Palanca Awards for Literature and to make sure to “submit your masterpiece”.

Indeed. If I were a lot younger I’d agonize about a last minute entry and try to beat the midnight deadline. What joy.

There was a time when I had idea what the Palancas were and what they meant to people (not to all people, but to enough people – winning a Palanca ensures you an obit like this when you pass away – “Palanca Award winner Dingdong Schlong passed away…”).

I was frighteningly young, bristling with misplaced arrogance and blessed with a maverick nature that got me into trouble whenever I’d question the status quo. I also ended up being practically the lone student of the late playwright Wilfredo Ma. Guerrero at UP Diliman (I was never clear who or where my other classmates were). Anyway, Freddy told me that he thought a play I’d written was good enough to win the Palanca.

“What’s that?” I asked, unimpressed like a local idiot.

“Awards for excellence in writing. I want to win one plus become a National Artist.”

“I see.”

“I think we should join this year.”

“But my play is in verse, a cheoreo-poem. And it isn’t relevant.”

“Relevant to what?”

“To the country. We’re UP, remember? My play is religious. It has modern Greek chorus and only one realistic scene-

“But do you think you’re a good writer?”

“Well, yes, sure.”

“Only the best writers win. I haven’t won, but I intend to win this year. Let’s join together,” he smiled and I nodded back before he waved goodbye and proceeded to swim in his scandalous g-string at the UP pool.

That year, Retribution (his) and Fragments of Memory (mine) won. We were ecstatic. (Freddy would not win another Palanca nor would he become a National Artist. He died a few years later and was only belatedly recognized for the great man that he was – and he wrote in English.)

Nothing beats winning for the first time. At awards night, I discovered the clannish nature of the Palanca winners. Old hands sat together, freshfaced newbies sat unspeaking, not even to each other (how embarrassing to ask someone’s name). But that was the moment it all came together for me. Here was something I liked doing (writing). Here was something I liked doing too (competing). And, if I win again, I could claim victory on my own terms, on my own efforts – not because of some literary clique, politics or influence – no one knew who I was anyway. And of course I wanted to prove myself to myself as I wrestled with the notion of what a playwright was, anyway.

Besides, winning once could be a fluke.

So the following year, I entered one play. Short Time, my motel-set gay play, won. (I was playing around with the dramatic monologue and wanted just a bed on the stage, nothing else). I was delighted (it would also be the play people chose to stage the most without my knowledge or permission). At that point I knew I could write a play in either realistic or artsy-fartsy mode, and knew that structures could be subverted. At the awards night, I knew some people and was more relaxed. I stole glances at the crop of newbies but made no effort to be friendly.

But winning twice could be an accident.

So with a very wrong goal (just to win again as opposed to really improving my craft), I focused on creating two entries: one for one-act play and another for the full-length play. And to challenge myself, I decided to have the main character of the one-act play not appear; for the full-length piece, I decided to write a musical. Not that I had any idea what the structure of a musical was. Or what recitative versus lyric meant. But that was the challenge. So research, invention, chutzpa and a lot of writing enabled me to finish both entries. Because writing is never easy. Not for me.

Loving Toto and Island (the musical without music) won. At awards night, I knew enough of the clan of writers to speak in my regular loud voice (I had also judged previously and demystified the process) and make fun of the other winners (including myself because I declined the Foundation’s offer to stage Act One of Island – because of course I didn’t have any music).

So if winning thrice is a trend, what is winning four times? I’ll tell you what it is. Absolutely no guarantee of anything, certainly not winning again. And no credible measure of worth.

After that time, I felt enough vindication to go on with the rest of my life. I felt I didn’t need to compete with Butch Dalisay’s 72,378 Palancas in various categories. I was testing my ability, my sensibilities, my craft , after all. And I love to compete anyway. (An aside on the clannishness of the Palanca winners – it’s really cool bumping into each other across the years, whether it is a giant like Kryp Yuson or someone my age, like Sarge Lacuesta, or someone I know in different context like Adel Gabot – DJ Little David from radio. You can just exchange a glance or a half-smile and move on.)

Awards don’t really mean much (but note that I prefer to say that knowing I have a few myself – what cheek!) - which is not to demean the awards and everyone who’s ever won.

It’s just that it shouldn’t be the point of writing. It should not determine your output for the year because that would mean you are only writing for the 3 judges in category.

But still, to each his own. At the very least, there are new stories to read, new poems to see and new plays to watch – and hopefully, the winners become prolific.

So let’s see who’s who four months from now.

Maybe it’s someone I know.


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