It takes a writer as big as Lang Leav to get mainstream media interested in authorial catfights, or to delve into the meaning and purpose of poetry. This happened last week, when Lang Leav came to the Philippines on a book tour. Lang Leav is as big here as she is anywhere else, probably even bigger, because there is something about the Filipinos’ penchant for hugot — for things that are direct, short, relatable, sweetly painful — that makes Leav’s work particularly popular fare.
The authors and journalists who covered her visit seem to have mixed opinions. Not one dared to claim that they really enjoy Leav’s work, which is simple and direct, the prototype of this decade’s instapoetry, bereft of complexity. One article by talented poet Mookie Katigbak-Lacuesta was at turns guarded, even scornful, and the author has been accused of both condescension and gatekeeping. Another article, written by
Gian Lao for CNN, was more measured, focusing not on the merit of Leav’s poetry but on what it means to be a writer and who literature is for (spoiler: it’s for everyone), and why we begrudge Lang Leav the title poet.
Whatever one’s feelings about Lang Leav, it’s plain that so many are drawn to her poetry for the same reason that the establishment may scorn it. It’s easy and simple, and it thrives on a readership that has fallen in love with hugot culture.
We’re a “Republic of Sawi,” as Gideon Lasco wrote in a 2017 essay. The cornerstones are social media aphorisms, bittersweet Filipino rom-coms and the spoken-word poetry of the heartbroken. Not even the artists themselves can escape this wave: No matter what political, complex and intersectional poetry he may pen, Juan Miguel Severo’s most viewed and liked poems will always be his sawi ones. I’m guilty as well, on a much smaller scale. “Buti pa ang skin, may closure,” I wrote on Instagram in 2014, a reference both to a doomed romance and to my job to close the skin after surgery. There’s no shortage of material when it comes to hugot, because anything can be a pithy double entendre, evoking emotion of failed or unrequited love. The only thing Filipinos love more than a romance is a doomed romance. Hugot lines don’t need context, because the readers will always provide their own; they don’t need complexity, because the charm lies in how simple lines can resonate even with different experiences.
There shouldn’t be a problem with hugot, which offers catharsis and even levity for the lovelorn, but recent events do make me think of how it affects our appreciation and support for artists who will not, for lack of a better word, trade on this commodity. An outspoken Twitter user wrote recently about how there are so many talented female artists in the Philippines writing in various musical genres, and yet so much airtime belongs to Moira dela Torre, famous for sweet, breathy vocals and for some very hugot worthy songs. Others commented that so many Filipinos defending Lang Leav have no idea who Mookie Katigbak-Lacuesta is — a celebrated poet, probably more discussed abroad than locally, a writer of poetry that is transcendent, layered, visceral; poetry that is about love, too, but that is worlds away from hugot.
Gian Lao writes cautiously about the academization, the exclusivism of poetry as we know it, and Lang Leav openly celebrates its democratization, the way her writing has helped a generation to find literature, how her poems are both a gateway and an end in themselves. One imagines the frustration of artists who strike out in different paths, at turns reckless and vulnerable, only to be met with this thirst for the simple, for hugot. It feels like we’re still stuck in the era of “That Thing Called Tadhana” and “Walang Forever,” when flocks of the heartbroken went on pilgrimages to Sagada for catharsis, for forgetting. Hugot art has been wonderful and meaningful, but our artists are capable of so much more, and maybe the Lang Leav
debacle, rather than making us rise to her defense, ought to call on us to support our local artists and the richness and complexity they have to offer.
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