By Nickky Faustine P. de Guzman

It’s 10:30 in the evening, and the night is still young and yearning. It’s spoken poetry night at Le Café Curieux in Makati. The bar is packed, and people keep on coming and going. Amid the crowd, an imposing looking woman greets everyone at the bar. Aslie Aslanian first gave spoken poetry acts a home back in 2000. The scene for poetry performance has grown since then, and is now spoken and heard in many bars and cafés in the city.

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“I will dream big and amazing and spectacular and awesome dreams.”

Jourdan Sebastian opened the night with “Dreamer’s Manifesto,” a piece he wrote in his twenties and performed back when he was one of the few spoken poetry artists in the Philippines. He started in 2000.

“I will face my fear. I will stop running away from it and turn around. And when I am face-to-face and eye-to-eye with it, I will grab the bull by its balls and make it scream surrender.”

“Nobody was really watching back then,” Mr. Sebastian told BusinessWorld. The majority of spoken word performances back then were held at the bars in Malate, Manila. “Then it gained traction in Intramuros, Manila,” he said. 

This is where Ms. Aslanian comes into the picture. She, along with her partner, opened the bar called Sanctum Unmasked, tucked into the walls of Intramuros.

“It (the bar) institutionalized spoken word poetry and other open mic performances. We gave it a home. It’s a classic case of building community and a place of expression, which we lack in this country,” said Ms. Aslanian, cigarette in hand.

The bar opened in 2000 and closed in 2004. “How do you sustain a bar in Intramuros? It was time. We did what had to be done,” she said when asked why the café closed.

While she moved on to Manila’s clubbing scene, Mr. Sebastian, a “Sanctum baby,” continued his performances in small cafés like I Love You Store and Open Spoken.

He started doing spoken poetry when he was 23 years old. His contemporaries include artists Myke Solomon, the musical director of PETA; and Teddy Corpuz, the vocalist of Rocksteady band and an ABS-CBN TV personality.

The “Dreamer’s Manifesto” that he performed with such vigor on the night BusinessWorld watched, he had launched in Sanctum Unmasked. He said he has performed it more than 12,000 hours combined since then. Audiences both here and abroad have heard it.

“We were the old generation. The ‘OGs.’ We were hungry young poets back then,” he said, smiling.

The saga of spoken poetry is like a lilt of a poet in action: up, down, and with pregnant pauses. Their attempt to continue the spoken word after Sanctum Unmasked was not linear and continuous, because “we were doing other things.”

Aside from being a poet, Mr. Sebastian is a filmmaker, director, artist, and social advocate.

While the OG’s were busy, some younger poets took up the art of spoken word poetry and started to create their own personalities and voices. One of the most popular contemporary groups these days is Words Anonymous (WA), of which artist Juan Miguel Severo is a member.

One of Mr. Severo’s performances, “Ang Huling Tula na Isusulat ko Para Sa’yo” garnered more than one million hits when it was uploaded on YouTube in 2015. Now his spoken poetry has been compiled in a book called Habang Wala Pa Sila.

Gumawa tayo ng kasunduan, patatawarin kita pero patatawarin mo rin ako para sa wakas ay matapos ko na itong tula na masyado ng matagal na nakatira dito

At patawad kung magiging masyadong mahaba at marami masyadong bulanas pero pangako huli na ‘to, huli na ‘to, huli na ‘to…”  — “Ang Huling Tula Na Isusulat Ko Sayo

(Let us make an agreement, I will forgive you but you will also forgive me so that in the end I will be able finish this poem that has lived here too long

And forgive me if it becomes too long and has far too many twists and turns but I promise this is the last, this is the last, this is the last…) — “Ang Huling Tula Na Isusulat Ko Sayo

Sev’s Café, where the viral video was shot, closed down last year. But WA, born in 2014 with only five members, has found other places to perform — in schools, cafés, and collectives, and at private occasions like the second anniversary of the PETA Theater Center. Now it has 15 artists, ages 20 to 30. The goal is to continue and grow live art expressions “one poem at a time,” said one of its members, Kat Roxas.

Spoken Word Poetry, an art beyond the hugot
Comic Rex Navarette takes the mic at the original Sanctum Spoken Word bar located in the walls of Intramuros, Manila over a decade ago. — Courtesy of Aslie Aslanian

“We don’t have a universal organization [among spoken word artists in the Philippines], but we do enjoy working with the other poetry collectives in the country, and we support each other. I think we’re all just pushing each other to get spoken word to where we want it to be, and we work together to achieve that,” said Ms. Roxas.

There are many spoken word groups and artists in the country besides WA and Sanctum. One of them is celebrated performance poet and social advocate Kooky Tuason, who was one of the performers that night at Le Café Curieux.

She started working with spoken poetry in 2005 when she produced an album called Romancing Venus Vol. 1. This was followed by Romancing Venus Vol. 2 in 2006, and Bigkas Pilipinas in 2007.

Bigkas Pilipinas went on to become the first spoken-word themed radio show in the Philippines, and ran until 2009. Currently, her spoken word poetry show, For Word and By Word, on view on her Web site, is in its fourth season.

“Spoken poetry is a tool for healing. I live and breathe words — words that are positive. Spoken word has been my advocacy because I believe in the power of words. I am not Christian or a Catholic but I believe in God… We are created by the Creator and we should be creating also because we’re created in the likeness of Him. And it’s a matter of creating words, the right kind of words. Instead of curse why not bless?,” she told BusinessWorld.

She said she likes to empower and chooses not to dwell on the past with sappy, sadistic, and sad hugot lines (slang for deeply drawn sentimental emotions, usually about love). She prefers to bask in the positivity of love and life.

“Instead of talking of pain about love, I’d rather talk about the positive side of it. I thrive on being in love, being in that moment. I see love around me. I’d rather not dwell on what was, because to me every single day you have is [an opportunity to make a] sound decision to make your life happen. You have to find ways to be in love.

“I know what it’s like to be there. And it’s not a good feeling. In the end, I am the only one suffering because those are my words. The more you allow yourself to embrace the thought of pain and swim in it, the more you feel stuck. You want to be happy. You want to talk about love. We are the ones who fail love. Kaya nasisira ang image ng love (The reason why love’s image is tarnished) is because we do not understand what love is. Unlearn what we have learned about love and use it as a tool for healing.”

While there are many spoken word groups and artists in the country that speak of hugot — because many Millennials can relate to it — members of WA are quick to say their poetry goes beyond that. This perception that it is all hugot is something they want to change.

“As writers, our topics, as well as our writing styles, vary. We write about love, but we also have pieces on mental health, country, feminism, environmentalism, the LGBTQIA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, Asexual), bullying, sex. A lot of people say that the pieces are about hugot, automatically assuming that hugot translates to love. We’re trying to change that connotation. We write about the things we’re passionate about, about the things we love, so in a sense, we do write about love — but it’s not confined to a romantic love,” said Ms. Roxas.

Back at Le Café Curieux, Ms. Aslanian is doing the thing that she loves: connecting people. “There is so much talent in this country, it’s mind-blowing. Who is going to connect them?”

Sometimes though she would cut into the performances of her friend-artists to tell the crowd: “I’m getting mad. Listen to the performance folks!”

She told me in private amid the buzz of the bar: “I’ve heckled people. I’ve called them off the stage.”

“I am a natural editor,” she said.

A few months ago, Ms. Aslanian, reenergized and missing the vibe of live performance nights, called Mr. Sebastian to continue their calling.

Sanctum 2.0, which has a home at Le Café Curieux, has been reborn.

“We (the OGs) never really jumped in [today’s spoken word scene]. Then recently Aslie called us together, eh nasarapan ulit kami (we felt good). I still haven’t met that guy (Severo) though. Now we’re back, (and I’m) incorporating it as a platform for my advocacies,” said Mr. Sebastian.

If back in the day Mr. Sebastian and the OGs performed poetry about teenage angst and rants and identity crises, their acts today have become avenues for social connection. His advocacy centers on three Cs: climate change, conflict, and corruption, which are reflected in his current pieces.

Some performances that night at the café were personal but relatable, with topics including body issues and self-esteem. There were also rap songs and comedic pieces tackling social, political, and economic issues.

For Mr. Sebastian and the rest of the spoken word artists, the importance of spoken poetry is its power to transcend, to go beyond rhyme in search of reason. 

Yung tibok ko may nakakatibok,” said Mr. Sebastian.

He could only wish that people would sometimes “shut the fuck up” when there is a live performance on stage. It’s proper decorum he wants to establish so people can connect eye-to-eye and heart-to-heart.

But the noise doesn’t matter to Ms. Tuason, “because it’s all about the calling — it’s a personal message. Alam mo ’yung feeling na (you know the feeling that) ‘it hit me.’ If the message is for you, then it would reach you. I don’t mind if people do not listen to me because siguro (it may be that) the message is not for you or it’s not your time yet [to hear it].”

But then again, not all open mic gigs are noisy. It depends on the crowd and the place.

“It’s less of commanding attention and more of communicating with the audience, not just through words but through the general vibe in the event. We’ve been blessed with receptive crowds for the most part, but we’ve had our share of uninterested or distracting audiences. In cases like that, we just do our best to establish a connection with at least one person in the crowd and we perform as best as we can,” said Ms. Roxas.

It was past midnight but the energy was nowhere near dying down. Spoken word poetry and the Philippines’ art underground couldn’t be livelier.

“At this point, let spoken word organizations be decentralized kasi iba-iba din ang style and message (because the styles and messages are different),” said Mr. Sebastian. “[But] with the internet and social media as our playground [for sharing the art, I think] sasabog ang spoken word (spoken word will burst out).”

The Spoken Word at Cafe Curieux happens every last Thursday of the month, while the hiphop/rap open mic entitled “16 Bars, and then some!” happens every 2nd or 3rd Thursday of the month, also at Cafe Curieux. The next Spoken Word event is on April 28, featuring, Rayvi Sunico, Jamie Wilson, Bambi Olivares-Wiser, Wawi Navarroza, and others.