Scarlet Letters from Baguio

Padma Perez of Mt. Cloud Bookshop, opening the poetry slam

Padma Perez of Mt. Cloud Bookshop, opening the poetry slam

I found myself up in Baguio for the end of November and on World AIDS Day.

I was asked by a family friend, Padma Perez, to judge a poetry slam. She and Angelo Esperanzate of Aids Society of the Philippines asked me to be one of the judges of Scarlet Letters from Baguio. It was a poetry slam with a theme on HIV and AIDS. It was held at this gorgeous bookshop, Mt. Cloud Bookshop in Baguio.

I’ve always wondered why there hasn’t been that much effort in connecting the arts with HIV awareness programs. Niccolo Cosme does it marvelously with the Headshot Clinic. But the Headshot Clinic has a more social media angle towards it, whereas, let’s say a poetry slam, can be both entertaining and moving in ways that making a bold statement online can’t do.

I’m not discounting the Headshot Clinic, to be clear. I think it’s a fantastic program for spreading information and getting people interested and talking — but we need more. More than just forums and seminars and conferences where the people who attend are really part and parcel of the battle and the discourse can be technical and can be perceived as cold.

Art has a powerful subversive effect, when done well. It creeps in and stays there and lingers, in the heart and in the mind. Art exhibits is a great way to stir emotions; films, music, theater productions. They can be life changing and can attract a different set of people into the conversation about HIV. If they are affected, they bring it with them for life.

Scarlet Letters from Baguio -- photo taken from The Aids Society of the Philippines

Scarlet Letters from Baguio — photo taken from The Aids Society of the Philippines

I was excited. I have never been asked to judge a poetry slam before so I was tickled pink by the prospect of being able to share all my training and experience in poetry. Baguio, I discovered, has a strong culture of poetry. They have begun doing poetry slam competitions every year for the past two years. So, this was a different way of attacking the problem; through art.

It began with 15 contestants who had to interpret and perform a poem that was given to them, on the spot. Then, the judges, which included Karlo Altamonte, Jenny Carino, Dianna Mendoza, and myself, had to bring them down to 8. The 8, then had to perform a piece they wrote themselves, which they could do in advance. If they had planned to join the event early, they could prepare in ahead of time. If they just decided to join at that moment, then they had to make one up right away. The judges were allowed to comment on the 8 finalists, like So You Think You Can Dance, and then cut down the contestants to the top 5.

I was told I made a very good judge. I was tickled pink completely by that.

On the final round, the 5 finalists were given a surprise theme and were given 10 minutes to come up with a piece. They performed and the judges left for a bit to deliberate.

At the end of our deliberations, we awarded the third prize to Jessica Faye Marino, second place to Salix Lim Perez, and the first place went to Rey Angelo Aurelio.

It was quite wonderful. It was such a different environment to be in for an HIV awareness activity. The mix of poetry and performance lent a different atmosphere to the proceedings and allowed a different message to pass through.

Poetry had saved me during the toughest times of my denial phase, when I thought I was dealing with the discovery that I am HIV positive. I tried to live a life that was happy; I tried to be strong. But I wrote poems and they showed otherwise. I was bothered by things and you could see it. It bled into my poetry. It gave me a voice that I dared not use. I found a way to get it out of my chest, even if I tried so hard never to let it show.

And the truth is, I never wrote about HIV. I wrote about life, about living, about being alive. I wrote about love and the absence of love. I wrote about things but never about HIV. But that’s what I needed to talk about. That’s how I dealt with it. And it was a marvelous release.

People tend to forget that the heart needs these expressions, these chances to let out what is inside, or else it festers and consumes you from within.

the judges and the 5 finalists of Scarlet Letters from Baguio -- taken from The AIDS Society of the Philippines

the judges and the 5 finalists of Scarlet Letters from Baguio — taken from The AIDS Society of the Philippines

I wish there were more programs and activities that would mend HIV awareness with the arts. It is such a beautiful way of passing along the message.

A big thank you to Mt. Cloud, the AIDS Society of the Philippines, the city of Baguio, and the wonderful poets who contributed their creativity and energy to the poetry slam, and to the people who came to listen.

I had so much fun judging and sharing what I know. I hope I can get to do it again.

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