Issue of March 26, 2017
Mt. Province

Panagbenga Flower Festival
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Public disturbance
My students asked if they could perform their spoken word piece in Poblacion (Sagada, Mountain Province). That is, perform poetry before Sagada folk and tourists at the Longid Centrum. I was elated that some students would be so willing to take the spoken word assignment that far. I approved. Some students volunteered to perform in public space and they need not be reminded that they had to memorize their piece.

No codigo. Just guts, heart, and lots of hugot.

Spoken word poetry is any poetry recited aloud. It is often interchanged with what some may call “performance poetry.” This format spurns the written form and brings poetic expression “from the page to the stage.”

And to the stage it was, one afternoon, when we walked from the school to the Centrum, where the vendors linger, where people waited for the buses to arrive. I instructed the other students to watch from the waiting shed and from the second floor of a building.

The first performer faced the people who knew they were in for something new that afternoon. He started with, “Did you know the average person spends four years of his life looking down at his cell phone? / Kind of ironic, isn't it? / How these touch-screens can make us lose touch,” and stared round at the blinking crowd, his classmates watching him in silent anticipation.

“It’s no wonder in a world filled with iMacs, iPads, and iPhones / So many I’s, so many selfies, not enough us’s and we’s. / See, technology / Has made us more selfish and separate than ever.” He went on to recite the rest of Prince Ea’s “Can We Auto-Correct Humanity?” Despite the occasional slip or stumble, he managed to open the way for the next performers. The Centrum crowd was still unmovable as the second performer rolled in.

The second performer had his arms outstretched, with a book in one hand, and declared, “The habit of reading books is one of the greatest resources of mankind!” The piece was a speech by William Lyon Phelps, but he recited it with much emphasis on the rhythm and internal rhymes that it sounded almost like free verse. “Your own books belong to you. Treat them with affectionate intimacy that annihilates formality.”

Then another student brought onto the stage Repablikan's “High School Life,” which drew applause from the folks, even from those sitting in a jeep going to Bontoc. But just as the fourth performer was about to step up, a policeman came. He inquired about the noisemaking.

The officer interpreted the event as a “public disturbance” caused by these students “acting like crazy people.” He suggested that we should secure a permit from their office next time.

I was not ready to argue with a police officer on the right to freedom of expression, as I also recognized that his reaction may reflect public opinion. After the event, I asked the people in town about what they thought of the performances. To my relief, they had a generally positive feedback, citing that such practices, albeit unusual for Sagada, were meant to “expose” these kids to public speaking.

Later I asked the students to write about the experience in the Centrum, with special emphasis on the police presence. I was again relieved to discover that the students understood that what they did was not “public disturbance” at all, but was a means of exposure for them, and most of all, an exercise of “free speech.”

If the spoken word performances had taken place in Baguio, or any urban space, there would not have been any hullabaloo. But I am only happy to recognize the inspiration that spurred my students to move to a real stage to perform their spoken word. After all, the idea came from them. And they are Sagada youth. Imagine what changes they could make with poetry. Imagine how they could shape their society with words alone. I look forward to the coming years when they would continue to look for stages where they can spread ideas, without fear of remonstrance. Poetry challenges the status quo. Change happens by means of disturbance. In this way, may they continue to be what they are said to be. May they continue to be a public disturbance.

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