While I’m writing this, Peter Solis Nery is probably deep at work on the next installment of his online lecture on a Facebook page that he has created solely for the purpose of discussing his poetics. After 28 books and 19 awards in drama, short fiction and poetry, Peter Solis Nery thinks he hasn’t peaked at 50 years old. By “peaked” I mean someone achieving considerable force and influence in the public sphere that he gets mobbed for interviews and quotes anywhere he goes. Peaking in one’s career means that when people get impatient waiting for an author ’s next book, they start putting up unofficial social media pages to quench their thirst. When an author has peaked, he has a fans club in many parts of the world. Members of these clubs hold online conferences and soirees to discuss an author’s work, short of celebrating his immortality even while he’s still alive.
Someone who has reached his peak is called a media sensation in the Philippines. This is a very powerful phrase because it rakes in millions of pesos– or dollars– as the case may be. In the Philippines, this brings to mind the ascent of Korean pop idols and television talent searches that promise a house and lot and a couple of million pesos to the winner. Korean boy bands have ruled Philippine music charts since the late-2000 and their concerts can fill up humongous venues such as the Cuneta Astrodome and the Philippine Arena in Bulacan. People purchase tickets online for these concerts five months away.
That’s getting one’s career peak for you. That’s what Peter Solis Nery wishes he had got. I say wishes because like everyone else in the writing industry, if you can call it an industry at all, we aren’t treated and mobbed like Korean boy bands. Getting published in the Philippines is extremely difficult, let alone making a name for one’s self. In a lot of ways, however, Peter Solis Nery did not have to go through these circumstances early on in his so-called writing career. He arrived on the scene, so to speak, by way of his being a college paper editor and having affiliations with local writing circles. Then, he kept winning awards year after year. Still, he had to prove his mettle to those who thought he was only a flash in the pan. He proved them wrong. He’s pretty much around and, very, very visible.
One cannot ignore the compulsive rush that threads through Peter Solis Nery’s new book called “Obsessions”. It’s as if the works in this book are buoyed by that force. I’m making these statements as someone who has been privy to some of the author’s well- kept writing secrets. And I can say that the amount of time and attention Peter Solis Nery spends on a work is ridiculously much longer than the amount of time he spends online . I’d like to make it clear that I’m not forcing any connection between these works and the concept behind the book. And I don’t believe anyone should do it this way either. I mention this because 8 out of 10 prefaces forcefully connect a concept or other to the works in a book. One feels compelled to issue an authoritative statement on the merits and demerits of the book one prefaces. Everyone does this because it is a convenient thing to do. It is, in fact, expected. But I’m not going to do that here in keeping with Peter Solis Nery’s wish to be inimitable and singular.
There are ten pieces in the book three of which I’ve read in slightly different form: I’ve written short commentaries on other versions of “Tears of Betty Boo”, “The Cardinal With The Most Unlikely Name”, and “Ang Biyudang Nagsuot Ng Dilaw”. The last piece, a play, “Forever, Batman and Robin”, is a tamer, softer piece than Peter Solis Nery’s “GRINDER” (which I would have wished to be here in this book as well). “Tears of Betty Boo” is a period piece that relives the “secret” affair between soprano Jovita Fuentes and Philippine president Manuel Roxas Sr. It is not the story that concerns me here but what Peter Solis Nery says is the method he uses in telling the story.
He says there’s a good deal of flash fiction narrative at work in this story and I’m not going to quarrel with him on that. Occasionally, however, I find that the characters in this story speak in stilted sentences Although I get the fact that this is a nod to the “dog-eared” page element of the story, especially since the figures here come from the “buena familia” of Roxas City circa the early 20th century. A narrative device of this kind would want to have us believe that what we‘re reading is lifted from a photo album from a bygone age. And for evoking such a response, we cannot (or we’d rather not) pick out anything that jars our reading experience of the story. I do sense, however, that in my reading, it’s the characters that narrate the story for me, not the arc.
“Happy Ending” and “David + Jonathan” consist of a mash up. These two are essentially the same work, a short story, one in Filipino and the other in Hiligaynon. Mashing up is a clever way of juxtaposing two or more works, say, a classic novel with a comic book . The creator creatively pursues an angle from which he can bend and inject something he has juiced from one work into the next. Where these two or more parts meld, a new arc is born. And that’s the new direction a mash up work is going. In “Happy Ending” and “David + Jonathan”, Peter Solis Nery plucks Jonathan out of Ireland and puts him on a vacation in the Philippines, back to his hometown in Altavas, Aklan. The telling is quirky in a Peter Solis Nery kind of way: he pulls your leg and tickles your underfoot with references to popcorn culture. This is the author’s way of making you feel comfortable while you are inside his home, inside his stories. He tells you that everything is in order: that you’re here because you want to have fun and, maybe, learn a thing or two. But being inside you’re certainly not going to get proselytized to a point where you abandon your well-held beliefs. If Peter Solis Nery wants to frolic, he gets to be very light you’d think he’s shallow. He has no qualms about being shallow. In his online lectures he categorically states that everything has been said before, and that the world’s heaviest subjects such as death, love, sex, have been written about so much by the masters. To up the ante, the writer has to change the rules of the game. If not create a new game. This is what Peter Solis Nery means by play, an allusion to language games, or the games poets play.
The mash up—telling the same story twice but putting in an alternative element that changes the course of the arc—is what lends these two works something of a masterly touch. Peter Solis Nery can create contrasting scenes side by side without gushing over at his own tricks: predatory Manila in “Happy Endings” and bucolic Altavas, Aklan in “David+ Jonathan.” With the same central character moving, feeling and thinking in the two stories, the consistency of telling is solidly planted. I should note that reading these stories feels like reading a syndicated advice column for distressed OFWs in a tabloid.
The element of play comes full on in the poetry section called “Core Samples”. These are poems meant for millennials. In today’s parlance being called a millennial could be either pejorative or celebratory. In the first instance it means that one is internet savvy, has presence in all the social media platforms and has five thousand friends.
In the second it refers to someone who easily falls prey to social media manipulation. Millennials are thought to lack the faculty of critical thinking and empathy.
The poems in “Core Samples” deal with these issues. Peter Solis Nery uses catchwords from the millennial lexicon. There’s so much pun and word play in “I Saw The Signs”: “There is a death of play in poetry so grave intelligent poets miss the fun.” In “The Creation of God” Peter Solis Nery proposes an alternative version of creation by making a blanket statement that our imagination created God and not God who created our imagination. Play comes to fore in “The Art of Being Cheesy.” Peter Solis Nery is never apologetic for being one. In this poem he alludes to– he mashes up (pun if you will)– Jose Garcia Villa’s “First, a poem must be magical.” It is parody at its cheesiest because the poem wants to reach out to young people who don’t read poetry. And of the few who do, they consume large amounts of instagram prose masquerading as poetry.
This has been a hotly debated subject in Philippine writing recently where poets stood divided over being “serious” and “actual” on the one hand, and being popular and viral on the other. The poems “Obsessions” try to straddle both sides, as if making a statement that there’s no point debating because in the end a poet’s worth is determined by his readers. It’s not the academics or writing institutions that dictate a poet’s value but the people who buy the poet’s books. So, if a self-styled poet can fill bookshelves and book shelves of her own titles and get paid millions of dollars in advance for writing another poetry book, who are we to question her art? Before we point fingers at anyone, we ought to understand that there are many factors that come into play in the dynamics of reading and buying poetry. If they say poetry is a lonely craft in the Philippines, well it’s definitely not the case in many other counties. We’ve of read of poets getting rich in Australia, New Zealand, the UK, the USA, and the rest of Europe.
I’m not so sure if there’s any secret involved in the equation. Nor am I wont to chastise the reading public for not appreciating my poetry or anyone else’s. In the end, I think it’s ultimately a question of taste. If you see yourself going in this direction (pleasing your readers), then prepare to face the consequences. Nobody forced you to go there in the first place. Otherwise, constantly reinvent yourself.
In “The Art of Nouveau Adobo” Peter Solis Nery admonishes us: “..(W) e start with the same familiar Ingredients—poverty, hopelessness, love and despair/ Even if the recipe only calls for a kilo of chicken./ We mix-match, we adjust, poverty is the mother/ Of all Filipino inventors, we are all creative artists..” We get all sorts of (under)tone and here, the strongest one tells us that we are incurably stricken with the eternal excuse that poverty is the driving force that propels Filipinos to excel; or , if things go awry, we can fall back on poverty as an excuse to just let things slide. Is this not proselytizing? Not at all. It’s word play and free association. If it hits you, fine; if it misses fine, what do you care?
In fact we see more of this in the following poem. I read “Fractals of Filipinos by Filipinos for Filipinos Or, Mr. John Taggart, I See Patterns in Chaos, Too” as Peter Solis Nery’s lamentation on the valorization of “pretentious” poetry in the Philippines. He makes a case for a kind poetics that should not alienate its readers. Peter Solis Nery belongs to a school of poetry that shuns the highbrow. Going by the volumes of new serious poetry published in the Philippines, he has come to believe that the production and consumption of poetry have become elitist. Yet poets keep complaining that few people buy their books. So they end up reading—and buying– each other. In many ways one can say that the practice of poetry and literary production in the Philippines, has become peer masturbation. But Peter Solis Nery is certainly not against the idea of peer masturbation. In fact he is explicitly vocal about it and his sex life: he advocates safe sex and gets tested for AIDS once a year. At one point he publicly announced that he wanted to have a baby (by a woman volunteer, of course) but nobody took the offer. Things like that sit well in Peter Solis Nery’s lap. But, pushing poetry out of people’s reach by building walls instead of reading glasses– that gets Peter Solis Nery’s goat. In “Fractals” he foments sarcasm: “ If it’s not really a fractal, at least it’s fractured poetry.” We see this element of play, lightness, childish levity in “Paglikha Ng Impierno,” “Walking in the Shoes of Poets”, “Ang Makulay na Taon ng Mga Tulang Pambata.” These are no-nonsense good reads for children 30 years old and below. In “Cardinal With A Most Unlikely Name” and “Ang Byudang Nagsuot ng Dilaw”, Peter Solis Nery goes back to his comfort zone: retelling old works in new ways: Not exactly mashed up this time, but he bends a part here and there. These two were previously full length plays.
I’ve said all these because I’m making an effort to read Peter Solis Nery’s book as an outsider . In doing so I willfully abandon the frame mind of a writer because I want to have an authentic look at them. I also want to negate my own biases. I wish scholars put a stop to this notion of writing a preface serving as a readers’ guide to a writer’s book. The other thing that I’m contemplating to abandon is the idea that I may not be Peter Solis Nery’s target reader. Our author is pretty equivocal about who he is writing for: He is writing for the people off Iloilo, The Philippines. And I’m not making any assumptions that I am one of his imagined audiences. The trouble with subscribing to this imagined audience or reader response theory is that you’re making the writer assume what he writes will be picked up in some way when he throws it out there. And, when he writes in a certain way he will be read more or read less as the case may be. This issue has polarized writers in the Philippine across generations. The Establishment, you see, demands that a (good) writer should be conscious of who he writes for. A (good) writer has to have a connection with his audience. To my mind it is this need to connect that gives rise to the problem at hand: you are being held hostage between connecting with your audience and connecting with your deepest urge to create.
This takes on a stronger resonance in the Philippines where there are mutually adversarial camps of creators and writers each elbowing another for fame and glory. This results in a war of GMA versus ABS CBN proportions. This eclipses the authentic, street-level pushers of writing who create for creation’s sake and have taken publishing matters into their own hands. The university, in fact, looks down on self-publishing and holds peer-reviewed publications in high esteem. That’s what it is like out there right here, right now.
Peter Solis Nery refuses to play this game. So do I. If you bring this mindset in reading “GRINDER” or “Forever, Batman and Robin”, or “Insatiable: A Literary Biography of Peter Solis Nery” , you’ll fall flat on your face. These works offer something different on your plate. “Forever, Batman and Robin” is a psycho posh lust with balls. You can’t say this play doesn’t have an audience. Any closeted jerk with a superhero fetish would swoon over the drama here. If you tell me nobody reads stuff like this, then blast it, I do and there are 16, 200,000 of us.