HIV through poetry: Sex, anger, uncertainty

Diana G. Mendoza
The winning piece was chosen for its acceptance of being HIV-positive as the beginning of death and the hope for a life after

WORDSMITHS. Poets of Baguio converge at Mt Cloud to write about HIV.

BAGUIO CITY, Philippines- “Diretso ako sa langit

Ang hikbi ng puso kong tumatawid sa makipot na tulay

Huwag mo akong pigilan, kuwestyonin, kaawaan

Diretso ako sa langit

Samantalang babagtas ka sa araw-araw na sirkulo ng tinatawag mong buhay, hindi mo ako dapat kaawaan

Sa susunod na lalapit ka, titingnan ako mula ulo hanggang paa

Muling magiging layo ng puso kong walang sakdal malisya

Tumahimik ka

Sapagka’t ako ay diretso sa langit

Pakinggan mo ang huni ng ibong tumatawag sa akin pabalik

Sa mundo kong puno ng pagmamahal…dun ako aawit

Dahil alam mo, at tanggap ko

Na didiretso ako sa langit

Di gaya ng mundong liko at talipandas, ang puso ko ay wagas

Ako ay mamatay!

Ako ay sumuong sa impyerno subalit babalik nang puro sa mundo

Pagmamahal lamang ang mamumuno at walang mga huradong tutupok sa kaluluwa kong natutuyo.”

Mt Cloud 

Rey Angelo Aurelio, a 27-year-old theater greenhorn, wrote and performed this poem of death and dying and won the country’s first-ever poetry slam for HIV awareness held at the Mt. Cloud Bookshop in Baguio City last November 29, on the night preceding the eve of World AIDS Day and the first of a series of weeklong HIV awareness and prevention activities.

Dubbed “Scarlet Letters from Baguio: A Poetry Slam for HIV Awareness,” the event was mounted by Mt Cloud Bookshop through its proprietor Padmapani Perez, a poet and anthropologist who headed the Baguio Writers Group, and the AIDS Society of the Philippines, a professional, non-government organization that has been working on HIV awareness and prevention since 1996.

POET. Rey Aurelio runs away with the winning piece that speaks of death and hope.

The cozy two-storey bookshop, with its collection of mostly hard-to-find books and works of Baguio and Cordillera-borne authors, is easily the watering hole of the mountain city’s culturati-literati. Next to it is the Hill Station Tapas Bar and Restaurant and both are situated at the Casa Vallejo on top of Session Road.

A poetry slam is a competition of poets who recite original work, but this first-ever poetry slam for HIV awareness was sort of an open slam to all who were interested to compete both by performing already written pieces and their own work. The crowd consisting mostly of students, young professionals and budding writers and artists roused up the night by performing original work, including their own poems about HIV and AIDS.

The slam started at past 6 pm and, with beer or coffee in hand, to help brave the cold early evening, around 50 participants gathered inside and outside the bookshop. The first elimination round was called, and it required competing poets to read a chosen piece — a poem, song or monologue — and perform it before the audience on the spot.

From 15 competitors who were judged on performance, 9 were selected for Round 2. The 9 poets’ pieces and performances ranged from experiences of relationships and sex, to anger at being HIV-infected, to hope. They were judged on the poem and the competitor’s performance.

Round 3 went on with the final 5 poets who were given a surprise topic to write about, “What would you do if you find out you are HIV-positive?” They were asked to be in isolation for 10 minutes, and were called one by one to perform their freshly written piece. Three poets were declared winners.

The 4 judges were from various professions but were all lovers of the written and spoken word: Baguio-based actor/artist Karlo Altomonte and poet/artist/musician Jennifer Patricia Carino; writer and HIV advocate Wanggo Gallaga, and this writer.

Beginning and hope

Winning poet Aurelio’s piece, the only Filipino piece among the 3 winners, is an elegy to the portent of death but had strong, resonant images of defiance and hope. It was chosen for its acceptance of being HIV-positive as the beginning of death and the hope of a life after.

Beyond, there is no more stigma or discrimination against persons living with HIV, or in this case, persons who have died of AIDS. The poem’s winning element was complemented by Aurelio’s enthralling performance.

The two other winners were both students of the University of the Philippines-Baguio. The untitled poem of 1st runner up Solana Lim Perez intros with a quote from American singer and feminist icon Ani DiFranco’s work and ends with a call to bravery:

I am a phoenix, I say,
And I will not give in to self-pity,
I will not let myself become a charred,
Mess of a human!
I will become a phoenix,
I must.
That is,
If I can find some soul-equivalent to the numb strength,
I gain that lifts me slowly to my feet,
And out the clinic door.”

Second runner up Jessica Faye Marino’s poem, titled “Needles,” narrates the seeming struggles of living with guilt, blame, and pain: 

I am only the aftermath, you have been the disaster.

I am the needle tracks in your skin,

I am sin

I am the mornings you wake up to another stranger’s face.

I am disgrace and humiliation

Smeared across your already tainted soul

I am the first time you thought it was safe to try

I am the first time you thought it would be easy.

I am the disease.

Baguio-based journalist and poet Frank Cimatu said the HIV poetry slam has proven that Baguio is still supreme when it comes to the arts, especially poetry. “Baguio is on the top of the spoken word in the Philippines,” he said, “and right now, we have a venue,” referring to Mt. Cloud. –