Mar 31, 2012

Black Ghosts

                                 There, at the very
                                 tip of His tongue.  Pure
                                 brothers, bright brothers,
                                 I confess my fear.
                                                          –penultimate stanza of "He"

I have had the good fortune of hearing other voices speak my pieces. Three occasions come to mind: E– read the final lines of "Sa Ngalan ng Anak" at a Baguio restaurant, A– read "February 24, 2006" over a pool in Pansol, and students (some I remember from Eng 4 days) read the entire "Dead Wait" under the shade of the Fertility Tree in partial fulfillment of their requirements in Oral Interpretation. Just the other day, B– said that his Speech Comm class read my poems weeks ago at Destiny. Sadly, I was unavailable (there were chores, and chores always had a charm of their own). I hope they'll remember their reading night long after their Los Baños days.

I suppose I could envy other writers whose works get spoken on a regular basis via various media, the internet, cafés. Maybe I do (and the Othello rule regarding jealousy is you should always assume it is there, somewhere, defining you). However, I remember how uneasy I felt during these reading occasions. I still don't fully understand why. A handful of hypotheses:

a) their voices just sounded too different from those inside my head,
b) I felt vulnerable,
c) it's one thing to read a typo and another thing to hear it,
d) all occasions where I am not purely a spectator unnerve me, with the exception of classes, and/or
e) they spoke it better than I wrote it.

While writing the list above, I felt (or remember feeling) how the awkwardness was different whenever the reading happened in an academic context.

Sometimes I overhear students cursing Leithold, Rizal, and other authors of required readings. Why? For being difficult? For being required? For being another name to put among the already massive list of names of people who are better than you at something? Perhaps my awkwardness results from some knowledge of this violence, a sense of culpability even, the guilt of being a teacher who forces civilization upon generations of young barbarians. That I was, even temporarily, part of this list – a required reading – somehow complicates the guilt, perhaps even multiplies it.

I recall one particular reading. Second floor, CAS Annex 2. The class of Prof L– were set to read, not only my works, but also those of my colleagues R– and E–. Prof L– divided his students among us and tasked them to choose from what we wrote. Some of them approached me for samples about a week earlier, and I lent them the Kadiliman folio and the PEN anthologies. During the reading proper, my colleagues and I had a hand in grading the students as well as the option of voicing our sentiments regarding the way they interpreted our pieces. I heard the finest reading of my own work that day: S–'s reading of "The Childhoods." I must have commented on that, but I fail to recall my words. Also, I must have blushed. Already I am losing her reading and that afternoon to the cruel incompetence of my memory. I don't know if I'll live to hear anyone top her reading.

It's possible I don't want to hear anyone top that. Or, that I have already heard someone surpass it, but maybe I persist in denying the fact. In that same class, K– read "He," one of first published poems. Like S–, K– would later become my student (S– in Mythology, K– in Prose), but that afternoon, both of them were fresh faces (it occurred to me, right after I wrote the word "faces," that S–, who was fair-skinned, gave voice to the avenging angel of "The Childhoods" while K–, dark-skinned, spoke the lines of my Lucifer).

K–'s reading was spirited, her voice, full-bodied. No, let me be honest with myself here, there's something more. Le mot juste: her reading was angry. In fact, when she introduced herself, she said (God I wish remembered her exact words!) something like: I am praying for this author that he may someday find Jesus as his personal Lord and Savior (did she or did she not cross herself after she said that?).

The class was silent after she read (or did anyone clap and is something inside me refusing to remember?), and Prof L– asked if I wanted to say anything. "What can I say? She's preaching to me."

Months later I would learn she's a working student, that she sang for a living. I have the deepest respect for working students, but part of that respect is that I don't cut them any slack. To this day, I wish to believe that I graded her fairly. She was awfully silent, rarely looked me in the eye; did she learn anything from class? Did she make any friends? How did she feel the moment she learned that I would teach her prose styles?

I bet she was unafraid.