Joma Sison on prose and poetry
Jose Ma. Sison ranting on the evening news is not a pretty sight, worse when he is agitated after being cussed by President Duterte on nationwide TV and radio. An exile in his twilight is a soft target: Sison is irrelevant to Pinoy millennials; he is seemingly out of tune in a world that has long said goodbye to the Soviet Union, which was once a utopian model for national liberation and paradise. Sison on Skype in 2017 is so different from the Sison I pursued for half a day in 1986, when I was a young journalist on assignment and trying, in between his speaking engagements, to get enough material for a Sunday feature on his nonpolitical side—the revolutionary as poet.
In 1986, Sison published “Prison and Beyond,” a slim compilation of poems written in 1958-1983. Our conversation focused on what to him was more relevant: prose or poetry?
“I became so preoccupied with theoretical work and prose writing with practical tasks—political, educational and organizational—in the national democratic movement from the late ’60s to the time of my arrest in 1977. There were times when I would still try to write poems, but it was always difficult to complete them. The few poems that I was able to write were twice taken by the military—once when I had to leave a portfolio of personal papers, and when I was captured. (Surely these poems are in some intelligence dossier waiting to be found by a persistent or lucky historian.—ARO)
“Most of my poems may definite na kalaban. They celebrate something. Now my being engaged in political struggle and writing for that struggle was more comprehensive. But when it comes to profundity, probably sa
poems. In lesser words you try to concentrate more, but in political prose you make an analysis. When writing political prose, what may be considered propaganda in its dignified sense, at a given time, can be elevated to theory by victory [laughs]. Di ba? Look at the theory of Lenin on State and the Revolution. Akala mo polemical prose iyan against the revisionists, but when proven by revolutionary practice, it becomes a theoretical piece, ano? But Marx is different. From the moment it was written, talagang theoretical na.”
Since the movement Sison led is far from victory, his political prose did not make theory, so one wonders if he should have stuck to poetry. After all, Amado V. Hernandez wrote a lot behind bars, like his most poignant poem, “Isang Dipang Langit,” and the novel “Luha ng Buwaya.”
Sison narrated: “There was no paper available during the first 18 months [of imprisonment], so kino-compose ko, tapos nire-recite ko, to make me fall asleep. Then I discovered the power of prayer. It’s nothing but when you keep repeating, nagda-dry up ang throat mo tapos at peace ka na, makakatulog ka na. Pampatulog ko ang poems ko. Kahit panlaban kay Marcos mahimbing ang tulog ko, lalo kapag nakahiga ka at nakakabit sa cot [demonstrates how his wrists and ankles were shackled to the cot].
“Poems could be brought out easier than prose because they’re smaller. Especially during the early years, talagang thorough ang body search. Well, they can also be memorized, but the other means I won’t say, so the other detainees can do them, too. Alam nila kung paano magpalusot. Alam mo super maximum iyong MSU (maximum security unit) pinakamahirap, pero later on nagkakapalan, yung after 18 months, my most difficult 18 months. The first 18 months are the worst. These are what I’d call ‘trade secrets,’ but I can’t divulge them. If I go to jail again I can’t use them anymore!”
Our interview concluded with his thoughts on his jealous muse:
“The goddess of poetry is jealous. Kailangan talaga iko-concentrate mo iyang pagsusulat ng poetry. There will be times when I will write poems, I hope, but there’s no telling if you are pulled by the demand of prose, especially political prose. That jealous goddess might abandon you. You need time to reflect before you write poems, but if there are too many interviews [laughs] and too many speeches to make, political prose may win over poetry, and then comes correcting papers when you start teaching!”
Much has transpired in the past three decades, and the question of Sison’s legacy or relevance is left for history to decide.
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