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Young Sarangans use spoken word poetry to revitalize local literature

Members of the Sarangani Writers League (SWL) bonded together for a face-to-face 'Bigkas Sarangani' after an almost three-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Bigkas Sarangani is a form of spoken word poetry that SWL members often do as part of their regular activities and also as a way to hone and enhance their literary prowess. (Photo courtesy of the Sarangani Writers League)

By reviving the “oldest literature,” the youth of Sarangani Province have given life to timeless words through spoken word poetry.

This move is championed by the Sarangani Writers League (SWL), a group of young poets and writers who come together annually to celebrate this art form, allowing them to share their poetic creations in both English and Filipino languages, including local languages such as Cebuano and Hiligaynon.

Their face-to-face assembly, known as "Bigkas Sarangani," was temporarily halted due to the pandemic but experienced a rebirth this year as restrictions eased.

Beyond being a medium of expression, spoken-word poetry strengthens bonds and nurtures emerging talents. As the SWL poets weave their verses against the backdrop of Sarangani's beauty and traditions, they not only honor literary heritage but also forge connections among themselves, promoting a sense of unity.

In this vibrant blend of modernity and tradition, the SWL and its spoken word poetry initiative resonate with the lasting life of literature, offering a powerful voice to the aspirations of the youth.

Humble beginnings

Around 2017, two passionate literature enthusiasts from the SOCCSKSARGEN region who are also part of the group called SOX Writers formed a smaller group for Sarangani Province. It was called the Sarangani Writers League (SWL), founded by Henry Tumamac, a writer known also as the founding father of Aklat Alamid, which publishes children's stories, and Genory Vanz Alfasain, another writer and local literature advocate.

Carlou Barroca Espedillon, a founding member and the current chairperson of SWL, recalled that they began working diligently to promote and cultivate local literature in Sarangani.

“And at the same time, nagbibigay ng platform sa rising authors na makapag-publish sila ng kanilang gawa. Napakaraming writers sa Sarangani, and it is our honor na mabigyan sila ng tsansa na maihayag ang kanilang mga gawa na makilala ang province and the region sa mapa ng local literature ng Pilipinas [We're giving emerging authors a platform to publish their work. There are numerous writers in Sarangani, and it's our privilege to give them a chance to share their creations, putting our province and region on the map of local Philippine literature],” he said.

Espedillon, drawing from his own experience, noted that local writers often struggle to promote their work compared to the established literary communities in other parts of the Philippines.

“Sa Mindanao naman marami tayong writers, marami tayong published works. Ang challenge natin is paano natin siya mailalabas sa general public, and paano natin maku-cultivate further ang present pool of writing talents sa ating province [In Mindanao, we have many writers, and we have a lot of published works. The challenge for us is how we can bring them out to the general public and how we can further cultivate the present pool of writing talents in our province],”  he added.

This is where SWL comes in, Espedillon said, emphasizing that SWL provides local writers with an opportunity to excel and showcase their province in the Philippine literature landscape.

Carlou Barroca Espedillon, chairperson of the Sarangani Writers League (SWL), and Kyle Cherifaith Bago, SWL secretary, attended the recent Philippine Book Festival in Davao City to gain more insights about writing poetry and publishing. (Photo courtesy of the Sarangani Writers League)

Why choose spoken word poetry?

According to Espedillon, many don't view spoken word poetry as a literary form, but SWL is on a mission to change that perspective. They believe this art form is rooted in ancient traditions, which is why it is one of the oldest forms of literature in the world.

“Kasi ‘diba yung mga sinaunang gawa natin, they usually were not written first; they were words of the mouth. Ngayon, thousands of years later, it was reinvented by this generation na dumami na ulit ‘yung mga nagso-spoken word poetry, ‘yung mga slam poetry competition [Because, you know, our ancient works were usually not written down initially; they were spoken words. Now, thousands of years later, this generation has reinvented it, leading to an increase in those engaging in spoken word poetry and slam poetry competitions],” he explained, citing an opportunity through the "hugot" of younger generations to introduce such expressive art forms.

The birth of "Bigkas Sarangani" in 2018 aimed to bring young Sarangans together to celebrate literature using spoken word poetry. The event featured participants delivering their poetic pieces on themes like love, patriotism, dreams, life musings, and more, often around a bonfire. The "Open Mic" sessions after official entries also allow spontaneous performances that capture the inspiration of the moment.

However, due to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, physical gatherings for Bigkas Sarangani were replaced with virtual meetings for three years (2020–2022). This year, with the easing of restrictions, the event returned to its physical format.

Under the theme "Reconnecting Roots, Reconnecting Stories," Bigkas Sarangani returned to Kalonbarak Skyline Ridge, Malungon, Sarangani Province, on August 12 in line with International Youth Day, Linggo ng Kabataan, and Buwan ng Wika.

“First is nagsimula kami sa Malungon. So nagbabalik-tanaw kami kung saan kami nagsimula, sa Malungon. Secondly, we are reclaiming something na nawala sa amin dahil sa pandemic [First, we started in Malungon. So we are looking back to where we began, in Malungon. Secondly, we are reclaiming something that was taken from us due to the pandemic]—the lost time, the lost passion,” he explained.

Espedillon elaborated that the literary energy was really strong during the pre-pandemic period, which is why they are “trying to restore that passion while at the same time strengthening what they already have.”

This year, the SWL flagship project is supported by the Provincial Government of Sarangani under Gov. Rogelio Pacquiao’s Ronda Probinsya program, the municipal government of Malungon through its Local Youth Development Office, and the Sangguniang Kabataan of Malungon.

Non-members from around Sarangani, SOCCSKSARGEN, and other parts of Mindanao were also invited to witness and participate in the newly-revived Bigkas Sarangani.

Embracing local dialects for artistic expressions

Kyle Cherifaith Bago, a young writer and poet from Malungon and the current SWL secretary, sees spoken poetry as a beautiful tool for self-expression. For her, this year's Bigkas Sarangani represents returning to one's roots.

“It’s a form of looking into the beauty of your community and weaving such beauty into the words that you have to say, to write, and to share with your fellow literature enthusiasts,” she shared.

For Bago, who mostly writes in Cebuano, her local dialect—writing and speaking in vernacular—helps her embrace more of her "Bisaya" identity. She encouraged everyone to choose the language that lets them express themselves the best. She said that she supports the use of hybrid languages or code-switching, like blending Tagalog with Cebuano patterns for unique expression.

“Iyong Binisaya na Tagalog ba" she quipped. Bago said that although it is not a standard form of the Filipino language, it helps her express her thoughts smoothly and naturally, adding that she even wrote a poem in a tissue quickly because it was in “that language.”

“That, itself, is already like a good start if you want to become a poet someday or a writer. You should be more comfortable with that. Use a language that you’re most comfortable with, whether standard man na or dili (standard or not), and then you try to have fun playing with words, and then you express yourself,” she advised.

Meanwhile, Espedillon noted how the Filipino language can draw from the influences of many local dialects from across the Philippines. Sarangani Province alone has a rich linguistic diversity, including Tagalog, Cebuano, Maguindanaon, Hiligaynon, Blaan, and Tagakaolo, some of which they use as a medium for expressions.

Future plans

With around 12 members currently, mostly from the youth sector, the Sarangani Writers League hopes to expand its numbers, said Espedillon. Out of these 12 members, he proudly shared that 10 of them, including himself, have published their own books. The members specialize in various literary genres such as short stories, children's fiction, teen fiction, non-fiction, and zines. The organization also plans to compile their published works into a "Sarangani-centered" anthology.

Their future plans include partnering with organizations for writing workshops and nurturing the next generation of writers.

Espedillon told the Philippine Information Agency that writers from General Santos City and Sultan Kudarat Province shared that they also want to put up the same gathering of poets like Bigkas Sarangani in their respective areas.

This, according to him, showed how their efforts have created a bigger impact on the artists who want to be heard and on the whole Filipino community, which wants to preserve Filipino culture and literary arts.

“And hopefully, within the next five years or so, we will have another generation of young people who possess the confidence and skill to publish their own works," he said.

Espedillon advised aspiring writers not to fear expressing themselves through writing. He recommended joining groups like SWL to become part of the new generation of writers.

Through SWL's efforts, old stories find new life, new stories inspire change, and young voices resonate with the power of words.

“Sana suportahan natin ang lokal na panitikan ng Rehiyon Dose at ng Sarangani Province [Let's support the local literature of Region 12 and Sarangani Province],” he said. (HJPF - PIA SarGen)

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Harlem Jude Ferolino

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