It’s been over two years since that lesson on the porch of Edith Tiempo. There were 15 of us, fortunate enough to be in that little world, about to be taught a quick yet meaningful lesson in writing by the Grand Dame of Filipino Poetry herself.
I still remember the lesson from Mom Edith: form must grow together with content. Meaning arises naturally from the subject of the piece, but it should also reverberate. “How do you write a better poem? You should read and revise, but do not revise to the point of destroying your work altogether” she said. “Like a bell… the sound still reverberates. And a good poem is no different from the sound of a good bell.”
The bells toll in grief for Mom Edith’s passing, but they ring true in her legacy. Not only for the body of work she left behind, but in the minds and hearts of the writers she taught over the years. We were all her children.
Our batch – one made memorable by the cases of beer drank at Hayahay and the infamous story of ten people getting stranded in Siquijor Island for literally missing the boat – was “fortunate enough to learn at the feet of Mom Edith.” That surely may be construed as something high and mighty, but there was no other place where I personally learned more about the art of writing than in the National Writers’ Workshop.
Or, more properly, Mom Edith’s workshop: the one she worked hard for and sustained, the one that she made renowned and respected, and the hundreds of fellows that have considered her the matriarch of a group of writers that includes some of the country’s greatest and most respected poets, essayists, and fictionists.
It was fun to see it: the way she treated Jimmy Abad as still her student, the way Ernesto Yee referred to her affectionately as “Mama,” or the way even Susan Lara and Chari Lucero listened intently; even if for the entire duration of the workshop, we looked upon them as teachers and mentors. If anything, it was a sign of how pervasive Mom Edith’s legacy is.
I wouldn’t say that I know her work by heart – which is a shame, really – but if anything, her greatest gift to the craft and the work was what she taught. If not for the workshop she and her husband started, the ways of our words would not grow. She laid standards, lit beacons, and in my case, rang a bell that somehow stood for me as the standard and beacon of what good writing should be.
We live in a world where art is only recognized upon death, or when they’re controversial enough to be part of the headlines. In her passing I think the most timely and fitting way to pay tribute to Mom Edith is to share her work:
WHAT DISTANCE GIVES
When you reach for me in that obscure
World where like ashes of the air
Your eyes and hands and voice batter
With a stark and ghostly urgency
The transparent doors of my closed lids,
I struggle to confine the precarious grace,
The force, the impulse of this fantasy;
Yes, I grieve. But in its sure
Wise way it is this grief that bids
The ghost to go.
This is the reality we stand to lose:
That the push of muscle strength
Is also the dear enfolding brute embrace
Of reason shocking all our length,
The loss is gain for the will to choose
The distance-given right to know.
When we left her residence at Montemar that afternoon, I left her two tokens of my appreciation: weaved tapestry, and a couple of wooden figurines of highland warriors. I’m willing to bet that they’re set aside somewhere in her curios and tokens collected over the years. I’m sure that I’m just one among the hundreds she has called her “children” by way of the art and craft of writing, yet I’m equally as sure that the most fitting way to say thanks to the Old Lady of Montemar is to keep writing. To know that form and content grows together, that meaning comes forth naturally but making that meaning reverberate is the task of writing itself.
There are those out there who can probably write better eulogies or more fitting tributes, but I think it’s best to leave mine here as a belated gesture of thanks. Among the many teachers I have had who taught and encouraged me to write, it is the confidence, trust, and magnanimity of Edith Tiempo and her workshop that made me see more meaning into what I do. Perhaps, one day, I can pay it forward.
Tonight, her sons and daughters grieve for her loss. Tomorrow, and for days on end, we shall celebrate the work she has made possible. Rest in peace, Mom Edith… and thank you.