One never expects much of sorties like it. We were at the launch of the revitalized “It’s More Fun in The Philippines” campaign at the National Museum of Natural History, on the invitation of Tourism Secretary Berna Romulo Puyat (who looked amazing in a terno dress that morning). Having attended lifestyle media to-dos for more than the numbers of years our parents paid for our education, we know enough not to get excited, to leave our expectations in the Grab car, look for someone we can chat with, find something to munch on, and wait for everything to blow over. Except there was something not right with this one. The spiels didn’t sound schmaltzy or terribly pretentious. Something was off. The campaign being launched was anchored on real results (the impressive improvements done in Boracay) and real experiences (as captured by real tourists taking their selfies in different destinations in the Philippines). It was a pleasant, if unsettling, surprise.
Anyway, there we were—and by we I mean me and my former cubicle mate at Esquire, Audrey —two of the most jaded, most deadma people I know. We found ourselves joining the museum tour and getting treated to these snackable (online publishing jargon for "short") cultural presentations in between galleries. It began with a low-key singkil dance, and was capped by an instrumental treat from Raimund Marasigan (sadly, nothing we can sing along with). Somewhere between these two, and between being made to look at Lolong the croc’s replica and a group of fake beetles that look like Paul Smith brooches, we were stunned by a surprisingly poignant modern dance routine from the UP Dance Company and then, a few minutes later, were moved by—wait for it—a spoken word performance.
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Who knew there was more to spoken word beyond romantic hugot? Clearly we were new to it. (We enjoy hugot as much as the next guy, don’t Lang Leav us). It was an impassioned delivery of an English poem about the universe crashing into pieces, filled with dystopic imagery that managed to sound both romantic and humanly tragic, universal and also personal. While the act was made more alive by a male dancer in casual clothes pirouetting around the guy speaking, it was the spoken word that got us. We were stumped enough that we asked for his name, the spoken word guy.
He is Alfonso Manalastas—even his name sounds like the balagtasan—a boyish 26 year old who says he has been making money in his spoken word gigs since 2016.
But I had to ask if it was indeed a spoken word performance, what he did—not being familiar with the nuances of the genre. Was he not just reciting poetry? “It was a spoken word performance,” he confirmed over Facebook Messenger. The difference between his act and reciting a poem “arrives as early as the writing stage,” said Alfonso who also wrote the poem he delivered by the way. “When you write a piece with the intention of performing it, it already factors in the beat and cadence in how the writing takes shape. Apart from the tonal nuances of performing a spoken word piece, it also takes advantage of the space, working as some form of interaction between performer and audience.” He added, “With spoken word performance, the artist can alter the way he intends to convey the writing in real time.”
Here in this video is Alfonso in his element, but in another event.
He was less angry that afternoon at the National Museum.
Alfonso has been writing and performing spoken word since 2015, joining open mic events here and there. Now based in QC, he is originally from Butuan City, Agusan del Norte.
While one would assume he started writing poetry for anthologies or college journals, the writing and performing, according to Alfonso, actually came first. “I’ve only taken a more serious attempt at page poetry in 2018 when I was accepted as a fellow in my first national writers’ workshop and was published in Likhaan 12: The Journal of Contemporary Philippine Literature under the UP Press,” he offered.
How did he start writing spoken word poetry? “There is no one way to get started except for one, unequivocal condition: you must have a genuine and long-lasting passion for writing and reading, and by extension, performing. If your intention to perform spoken word is corrupted by a thirst for fame and virality, you aren’t likely to last in the spoken word scene.”
Alfonso says he usually writes out of intuition. “I tend to write about things I feel most strongly about. Perhaps this is a product of my sociopolitical frustrations with the contexts I have operated in —but my body of work is largely built around socio-politically charged themes like misogyny, historical revisionism, and mental health among others.”
The poem he delivered at the DOT launch, entitled Archaeology, is a small fraction of a collection he happened to be in the midst of completing. “When I was asked to perform for the event, I was advised to keep my performance under two minutes and that the piece should ideally revolve around environmental sustainability,” said the writer. “Luckily, I was able to rummage through the drafts of a poetry collection I am working on, and one of the pieces I have finished writing portrays an environmental dystopia juxtaposed with the smallness of our romantic frustrations—and it happened to be a short enough piece!”
The poem is a product of a writing exercise after attending his first national writers’ workshop. He and his writing fellows decided to work on the theme of aftermaths. “It can range from something as raunchy as post-sex, or something grander like end of the world.” Alfonso came up with Archaeology, which he very generously agreed to share with ANCX.ph.
ArchaeologyWhen the last living cell inside the last living organism on the last habitable island under the glint of the last observable light expires, the planet earth will be reduced to nothing but a dry shell. By then, humans will have become extinct. Unburdened, finally, after centuries of war, pain, hunger, unreliable internet providers, and unrequited love. Oceans, all seventy percent of the world’s surface will have already dissipated. The melting ice caps of the arctic regions— both numb and numbing in their failure to be saved —rendered irrelevant in the face of a world’s simple lust for water. Buildings once tall enough to poke holes through the clouds and touch the seat of god
now kneeling, diminished into fallen debris as atonement for such defiance. This means, when distant life forms arrive to investigate the history of our survival, to congregate and decide how we have lived, they will discover nothing but the wilted buds of our unmarked graves. All the leftovers from our mothers’ pots no longer glistening
in an attempt to be consumed. No fingerprint or surveillance footage will live to tell the horrors of all the crimes ever committed. Oblivious to our decree, they won’t even be able to tell the difference between the skeletons reared by hunger and the ones by war.
And what will become of gardens
but mere landfills for our hollowed souls? So, an invitation: before time erases us in a world’s grand gesture of forgetting, hold my hand like no one’s watching. Rest your head on the crook of my neck. Whisper my name in public. Our secret is safe.