Months before President Benigno Aquino 3rd announced the 17th batch of National Artists, word already gone around on the conferment of one multi-awarded Filipino writer by the name Cirilo Bautista.
Thus, when the official proclamation was made on June 20, it came as no surprise that the 73-year-old was named National Artist for Literature.
Ever unassuming, Bautista refused to accept premature congratulatory greetings from friends and colleagues until President Aquino made the declaration formal.
“That’s well and good, but I won’t believe it until I get the confirmation,” he had said.
But now that he is indeed a National Artist, the celebrated poet, author, critic, columnist, and professor of literature embraces the recognition with joy.
“When I first heard of the news, I was really happy and relieved that what my friends were telling me is true. Hearing about it early on, I was able to give some thought on what to do as a kind of recompense for the award that was to be given to me. So now that it has become final, I am working on a lot of things, and I am giving my best in these books,” Bautista told the Sunday Times Magzine in a one-on-one interview.
While his works demonstrate flair and complexity in his unique poetic language, Bautista is a simple-mannered man who lives quietly with his lovely wife Rosemarie in a post-colonial home in Quezon City.
“I think being named National Artist is the greatest achievement in my career. In a sense, it is the highest recognition you can get as a writer in our country, and the best award that you can win as a Filipino citizen. To wish beyond that is wishful thinking. I can dream for the Nobel Prize but that’s too far away, so I confine myself and do my best in my country,” he contemplated.
Having published 18 books written in different forms of poetry, anthology, epic, and fiction, Bautista displays mastery in his craft as he easily shifts from English and Tagalog in his writings. From his first book, The Cave and Other Poems, he continually churned out works worthy of recognition all over the world. Some of these include The Archipelago, The Trilogy Of Saint Lazarus, and Galaw ng Asoge, among many others.
Throughout the years, Bautista received numerous awards in the Philippines and abroad, including the Hall of Fame in the field of Literature, which was given to him after winning nine Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for poetry, fiction and essay. A truly deserving National Artist, Dr. Cirilo Bautista, PhD, tells a remarkable story of how he fell in love with the beauty of words, and his lifelong commitment in writing them the best way he could.
On his own
Coming from a poor family with uneducated parents, it was evident early on that the young Bautista was different from his four other siblings. His reclusive and phlegmatic temperament saw him reading any available material he could get his hands on in the small community of Balik Balik, in Sampaloc, Manila, where he lived.
“I grew up in a basically ‘linguistic’ environment, in the sense that my environment was filled with literature—starting with cheap local magazines like Liwayway, or the newspapers I found lying around,” he recalled. “The public library was very, very helpful for me. Even as a young boy, I would go to the public library in Sampaloc every week and I would read books that I never saw in my life.”
Resilient from his family’s misfortune, he was often left on his own to do as he pleased. “When you are a kid in that kind of situation, you will not even realize that you are poor,” he chuckled.
But instead of playing with friends like most kids do, he chose to spend his time feeding his curious fascination with words. It was upon entering elementary school that he discovered his true affection for literature and the message it brings.
“When I started in elementary school, the environment I described was finally formalized. I had the library available, and the teachers who facilitated my learning. As young as I was then, I was always glad to hear people talk, and to see the words come to life,” Bautista continued.
Like a teenage boy talking about the girl of his dreams, he proclaimed, “I really love words. I really love them! Wherever I sit down, I would read anything that I could, even unimportant words. Until now, if you put anything in my sight and it has letters, I will read it.”
Being a voracious reader, Bautista turned out to be an excellent student as he graduated First Honorable Mention in elementary and Valedictorian in high school. Unsurprisingly he completed a degree in English as Magna Cum Laude, and again when he finished his Master’s in Literature.
A serious thought
The intellectual young man pursued college at the University of Santo Tomas and took up AB English because it was the only option available back then for those interested in taking Literature or Creative Writing courses.
It was during the class’ introduction to classical works that Bautista decided to become a writer. Without a doubt, he knew that writing was an integral part of his life.
“It was in college when I told myself that I can really become a writer. That’s when everything became important to me. I never thought of becoming anything else [but a writer]while I was in college,” Bautista stated.
He spent his days as the literary editor of UST’s official publication, The Varsitarian, occasionally hanging out with his closest friends, while he learned and absorbed the literary works of classical writers from the Philippines and around the world.
“I read the classics and went through them extensively. I remember buying a set of books and paid them by installment. It was a collection of works containing all the classics of Literature, Philosophy, and Science that were all in one volume.”
While most students found Classical Literature uninteresting, the poetic spirit of Bautista enjoyed “decoding” the meaning of verbose works. Among his many favorites is the literature of National Hero Jose Rizal, as well as works of European poets in the 20th century.
“It isn’t really hard to understand the classics or any other literature for that matter, once you get their language. You become an expert in learning the language of a writer if you read a lot,” the National Artist said.
Becoming a professional
Clueless on what to do after college, Bautista was like any other fresh graduate who struggled to find a job in order to survive. It was only months after he secured his diploma that a friend invited him to teach English at the St. Louis University in Baguio City, where he subsequently took up his Master’s degree in Literature.
As he wrote and submitted works to various magazines and national papers, Bautista recalled his excitement when he finally saw his work published for the first time in Liwayway. It was as if “luck and serendipity” played a part seeing his literary piece published in the same magazine he grew up with in Sampaloc. He also contributed to Philippine Free Press back when another National Artist for Literature, Nick Joaquin, was still an editor in the paper.
After a short stint at St. Louis, Bautista transferred to De La Salle University for a new teaching job. It was also around the same time that he received a fellowship grant at the International Writing Program of the University of Iowa, which offers the best Creative Writing course in the world.
Clearly, Bautista’s talent for writing was immediately recognized as he was awarded an honorary degree after completing the program. To this day Bautista is the only Filipino to have received the recognition from the prestigious American school.
Soon after he returned to the Philippines, he published his first book, The Cave and Other Poems, which won second prize for poetry in the Palanca Awards. “The entire basis of that book was my experience from the Iowa University program. I was so happy that my first book received such recognition.” Bautista was only 27 years old at the time and in the years to follow, he would submit works to the Palanca awards, which were always judged as winning pieces.
When Martial Law broke out, Bautista found himself working for then President Ferdinand Marcos at the Presidential Institute for Special Studies office. But even as history described the Marcos era as a dark period in Philippine history, Bautista believes that arts and literature flourished most during the dictator’s leadership.
“If you have a government that prioritizes art, surely they will do something to improve the literary and artistic situation in the country.
That’s our misfortune [nowadays],” he lamented. “For many years presidents have not been prioritizing art in the Philippines. The last one to promulgate this would be the Marcoses. Contrary to what others think, they were the ones who really did something to encourage the fluorescence of arts. And since then, there have been no official pronouncements about literature or arts, and that is the fault of the Philippine government which has no literary taste.”
However, the assassination of then Sen. Benigno Aquino sparked a defiant Bautista who gathered poet-friends such as Krip Yuson, Jimmy Abad, and Ricardo de Ungria among many others, to write poems about their feelings on the national tragedy. The result was In Memoriam, a collection of poems on Aquino’s death.
Just a few months after being fired from Malacañang, Bautista received a call from then chairman of DLSU’s Language and Literature department, Dr. Isagani Cruz, now president of The Manila Times College. Cruz, who is a long-time friend of Bautista’s offered him to return to the university’s faculty after compensation packages for teachers were significantly improved.
He then took his Doctor of Arts in Language and Literature in the same university and achieved the highest teaching position during his 30-year tenure. With the support of DLSU, Bautista continued to write and publish his works that further established his position as a highly acclaimed literary writer.
“Teaching was an ideal profession for me to take up with writing. It kept me in touch with books so I could continually read, learn and write. I wrote and taught poetry and I enjoyed it. I did very well in teaching and writing, and I loved it,” Bautista shared.
After decades of reading and writing from his heart, Bautista continues to create literary pieces even after his retirement in 2006. For him, his “love for writing” pushes him to do his best in every piece he pursues.
“I am proud of all of my works, and even more proud with what I am working on now. Each has its appeal and value to me—it’s like a child that I’ve birthed and created to exist in this world,” he said of his current poems.
With more time in his hands, Bautista is more relaxed in reading books, magazines, and other materials he enjoys. “Now I read them in my own time—not in a hurry,” he happily said. Without lesson plans or grading sheets to worry about, he describes his retirement as “an ideal situation for any writer.”
“I am not working on any other thing at any given time. I can work on anything I want, which I am doing at the moment. It’s only a pity that it happens during retirement age. Imagine the literature that can be created if this happens during our 20s?” Bautista proposed, adding that “taking a rest before and after doing some writing work” is vital in his age and health condition.
His early relationship with words has taught him many lessons about himself, other people, and the world around him. He has long accepted that writing is his inescapable reality, even describing it as “a monkey on his back,” one that he must always try to release himself from as long as he is alive.
“I have developed rules for myself. I have set standards on what must be done. And my rule is to finish whatever I started. For me it’s a kind of personal commitment. I feel less of a man if I don’t see the end of each work,” he declared.
As he would like to see more native stories from the regions developed and made available in the country, Bautista calls for the government to give language and literature much-needed attention. He believes that the so-called “national language” is deteriorating, together with literary taste of Filipinos.
“The Filipino language needs attention from all sectors. They should start with prioritizing this in government planning—making language and literature a priority. This should include the improvement of the country’s literary situation, improvement of the book system, and the support and funding for talented writers,” he enumerated.
With these, Bautista hopes for a better literary society. Personally, he has nothing more to ask.
“I think I have developed into a capable writer. Personally, I am just satisfied with what I have done. And when they gave me the National Artist award, I was very happy because it sort of confirms my own idea about myself. I do enjoy what I’m writing.”
Humble as ever, he concluded, “But even with the National Artist Award, I am not on top of other literary writers. There are many other good writers around; only they haven’t been discovered yet.”