Luis G. Dato and His Milieu Book Interview

I was there at the time of the interview. I was one of the children peeking down the stairs, trying to take a glimpse of the visitors. “They were chatting in English!”, I thought. Before lolo Luis G. Dato went downstairs to meet the them, I saw him smiling and was very happy (one of the few moments that I saw him in a state of bliss!) Out of excitement, he mindlessly wind the old grandfather’s clock — that they have on the wall on the way — before going downstairs. He met them in his pajamas.

After two years of this interview, at the age of 79, lolo serenely crossed the bar.

As of date, I was able to independently publish out of his manuscript, of almost 500 works, a total of 6 books by way of amazon.com and here on this website, The Instant Lyre, Sonnets to the Brown Goddess, Cantahon sa Bikol, Pro Deo, Manila A Collection of Verse, and Land of Mai.

“The Writer and His Milieu” was published in 1984 and re-published by Anvil Publishing in 2017. It is available on Google Books. No Copyright infringement intended.


Luis G. Dato

the writer and his milieu jpg Luis G. Dato and His Milieu Book Interview
An oral history of first generation writers in English /  Edilberto N. Alegre, Doreen G. Fernandez, Manila, Philippines : De La Salle University Press, 1984

The quest for Luis G. Dato (1906 – ) was the longest and most difficult engaged in for this book. The only acquaintance known to have interviewed him was poet Virgilio Almario who said that, already a number of years back, he had been difficult to find, and difficult to get started on poetry, since politics was a pressing matter of concern. A Bicolana researcher said that she had heard it suggested that to get to Luis Dato, the intercession of a priest was necessary. An unconfirmed report said that he had moved to a distant town, and was ill. When the quest was nearing the proportions of legend, we found ourselves in the Bicol region with the intent of interviewing the elusive Angela Manalang Gloria. In Naga, on our behalf, Bienvenido N. Santos, our host, initiated inquiries, and miraculously, on our way back to Legaspi, we stopped in quiet Ba-ao, Camarines Sur, entered a silent, car-less street, and found Luis G. Dato at home. His gladness at seeing his former dean at the University of Nueva Caceres, the friend with whom he had discussed poetry and life, the adıministrator who had understood and supported his way of teaching, made our visit welcome, our mission acceptable even without explanation. Straightaway, Ben Santos plunged into a unique interview-remembering, exhorting,cajoling his friend into talking about poetry, into writing again, into releasing his 500 poems for publication, into agreeing to another visit. Luis Dato was gentle, pleased,smiling, but obviously unwell. He never spoke about illness, however, only about very definite views about poetry and poets, and very strong opinions about current affairs and people behind them. He held firm to his standards of poetry, and to his spirit of protest. Around the circle of conversation serene family life ebbed and flowed — a wife wordlessly serving refreshments and bringing a son’s address; daughters and granddaughters who minded children, ran errands, peeked down stairwells. Like his fellow poets Angela Manalang Gloria and Jose Garcia Villa, Luis Dato stood by principles of craft and art formed in the days when he was a student at the University of the Philippines. Poetry had to rhyme, had to have melody, had to sound like poetry and not like prose. This he had believed as a student and as an aspiring, then an established, writer published in Bicol papers, in the Collegian and the Literary Apprentice, in Manila magazines. This he still believed, and this he showed by not bothering to read the modern poets, for they did not relate to his understanding of the poetic craft. He did not mention how often his poems had been anthologized-by Jose Garcia Villa, in Philippine Prose and Poetry. It was with near reluctance that he spoke of himself as poet, he who had written, in “The Spouse,” about a young wife, “hair disheveled in the night of passion,. .. warm limbs humid with the sacred strife,” looking upon the “Form behind the furrow, who is her Mind, her Motion, Time and Space.” When we said goodbye, Bienvenido Santos said that he wanted to return, but Luis Dato said nothing, his smile eloquent as poetry — and as sad.

LUIS DATO
with BIENVENIDO N. SANTOS
Ba-ao, Camarines Sur
31 January 1983

BNS: We went to see Angela Manalang Gloria. We had a beautiful experience with her, talking with her. And she said: “You must see Luis Dato.” You were contemporaries, it seems?

LD: Yes. I remember my brother…

BNS: Rodolfo?

LD: … writing in her album. He told me about it later: “As a poet she is a revelation; as a woman she is a mystery.”

BNS: Remember the times when we were in Naga, and we used to talk about poetry a lot?

LD: Yes, yes.

BNS: We had one big issue, and the issue was: why did I keep winning prizes, and you didn’t, “when I write better poetry,” you said. And I believed you-okay, I believe you. But I told you, and maybe you still remember, that since the time you and I were writing-especially you, since you began earlier than I did-poetry has gone through a lot of changes.

LD: Yes, yes.

BNS: But you stuck to your guns-that that was the only poetry, like “Spouse,” for instance, and “Intramuros.” And Angela Manalang Gloria, when we were talking to her, maintained the same thing. So perhaps there is some truth to that,-to what happens when you are willing to ignore the tide of change lapping at your door. Oh, we had great times. You’d talk of politics, and I would take you right back to poetry, because anybody can talk politics, but not everybody can talk about poetry. Right? Are you still writing?

LD: No,

DGF: Why not?

LD: I’ve lost interest. I don’t like the way Marcos is running our country.

BNS: why will you allow Marcos to…

DGF: … discourage your writing?

LD: He is affecting the lives of 40 million Filipinos.

BNS: Okay. But why should that affect the life of a good poet? I always say that, as a writer, there is something which nobody, but nobody, can take away from me. So you’re wrong, ‘Noy, you’re wrong. Perhaps, beginning today, you’ll start writing again.

DGF: What used to be your incentive for writing?

LD: We had lots of freedom; you could write about anything. Now, we cannot.

BNS: Yes, we can; we don’t have to show it to him.

LD: Yes, if we don’t have it published. Once you have it published, he can do anything.

BNS: Yes, but of all the arts, poetry is the one which is difficult to pinpoint as subversive or whatever, because poetry uses metaphor. Many people don’t understand metaphor.

LD: That’s true.

BNS: So why lose that incentive? You’re a great poet.

LD: A poet speaks not only when he is free to write, but when he is happy. I am not happy about…

BNS: I object to that. A poet writes only when he is not happy-at least that is the kind of poet I am. I am writing poetry again because I keep thinking of you. See? I write from a sense of sadness — at the way things are. If I were angry, I’d throw stones; l’d throw rocks. But I don’t get angry, I get sad. So I write poems. And you, you celebrate, when you are happy.

LD: Maybe you’re right. At any rate, I feel a poet can write if he is not very angry, I am simply mad.

ENA: Can we talk about the time when you were a student? Are there any contemporaries whom you remember?

LD: I remember several. I remember (Jose Garcia) Villa. He sat where there was one seat between us.

DGF: In what course was this?

LD: First year law, which he did not finish. He skipped that finals. I remember he borrowed my notes, but he never returned them.

DGF: So you took law at the UP?

LD: I finished the second semester of the third year-and then finished law 20 years later. But I have not taken the bar.

DGF: Why did you leave the UP?

LD: That’s a long story.

BNS: Who were the other poets?

LD: Jose M. Hernandez.

BNS: Was he not the one who wrote the U.P. song?

LD: “Sublime supernal deathless pioneers…”

BNS: We used to sing it. There was another of your contemporaries — Eugenio Santos. He was the editor when I was writing poetry. There used to be poetical tournaments, poetical jousts. Hose Hernandez and…

LD: Alvaro Martinez, Martinez was badly outclassed.

ENA: This was balagtasan in English.

LD/BNS: Yes.

BNS: Do you remember where they held it?

LD: I was out of the UP then, but I heard about it.

BNS: I was there.

ENA: Were your first writings published in the Collegian?

LD: Yes, the poems were first published in the Collegian.

DGF: Did you ever take a course in creative writing?

LD: I did not; I just read the authors.

ENA: Do you remember some of your teachers in English?

LD: Vicente Hilario, Cristino Jamias, A.V.H. Hartendorp.

BNS: Hartendorp? The editor? He’s dead now.

LD: So Hartendorp is dead.

BNS: Do you remember how much he paid you for your poems?

LD: Yes.

BNS: How much?

LD: Ten (pesos).

BNS: He only paid me five. I think that tells the story.

ENA: What made you write? Why were you interested in writing?

LD: My love for it.

DGF: Did you have a teacher who was very inspiring in your writing of poetry?

LD: I had a teacher who encouraged me to write poetry. He was an Englishman — C.V. Wickers.

DGF: Angela Manalang Gloria said that he was the one who encouraged her to write too, and made her change her course.

LD: But he left the UP soon after.

ENA: Were you in the same class as Angela Manalang Gloria?

LD: We were never classmates.

DGF: Did you ever practice law?

LD: No. I went back to Manila in 1951, to take the bar exams. But when I applied to take the bar, my application was disapproved on the ground that I lacked some subjects in the new curriculum. So I went to (Claro M.) Recto, who prepared a motion for the Supreme Court. If I passed the bar, I promised not to practice law until I had passed the subjects which I had not taken. If I failed, I promised not to take the bar until I had taken those subjects. The motion was heard in division, and it was denied by a vote of 3 to 2. So I could not take the bar. I would have been too old by the time I would have taken my back subjects.

BNS: How old are you now?

LD: I will be 77 next July.

BNS: I will be 72 in March.

DGF: You have been teaching?

LD: Yes. I retired in 1978.

GF: Do you remember what was your first published poem?

LD: I remember. One of the stanzas was:

Shades of night are slowly falling
All a long my way….
I’m to life’s illusion calling.
Calling all the day.

It was back in 1922. That was the first poem I wrote.

DGF: What was the title?

LD: I forget the title, but it was a two-stanzas poem, four lines per stanza.

DGF: where was it published?

LD: It was published in the local paper, Juan de la Cruz

DGF: You must have been very young then.

LD: I was 16.

DGF: You certainly started early.

BNS: One of your best known poems is “Spouse,” right? You remember “Spouse”?

LD: Yes. But it’s not a very good poem.

BNS: You are right. Which is your favorite poem?

LD: My favorite is my translation of the Pasyon, the Bicol Pasyon.

DGF: You translated the whole Pasyon?

LD: Most of it. It was published by Yabes.

ENA: In the Philippine Social Science and Humanities Review.

DGF: What edition of the Pasyon did you use?

LD: The author is not known, but I think it was done by a priest. I based my translation on that.

ENA: Was it in rhymed verse?

LD: Most of my poems are rhymed, but in some I also used free verse.

ENA: Did your using rhyme or free verse depend upon the subject matter?

LD: It was not the subject matter; it was my desire to try a new genre of poetry. But I found out that free verse was not very effective. And I was convinced that rhyme and meter, even in a little poem, is the form that proved successful — in all.

BNS: Robert Frost thought the same way.

LD:I think it’s the same in Spain, Germany, France.

BNS: I think it was Robert Frost who said that writing in free verse is like playing tennis without a net.

DGF: Which poet or poems do you like?

LD: (Edgar Allan) Poe. My favorite poet is Byron. I don’t share the popular estimate that Shakespeare is a great poet. I don’t believe him to be a great poet.

DGF: Why not?

LD: He doesn’t compare with Byron.

BNS: Are you referring to the sonnets?

LD: No, but to his play…

BNS: The poetry in his plays; the lyricism in his plays…

LD: I think Byron and Keats and Shelley are better poets than Shakespeare, at least in the form of poetry.

ENA: At what point in your education did you come across Edgar Allan Poe?

LD: In high school, in the second year. We took up “The Raven.”

DGF: I hear that you know all his poems by heart.

LD:I memorized some of them…

BNS: “Annabel Lee”…

LD: “Ulalume.” One time I recited “Ulalume” to (Carlos P.) Romulo in our classroom. He was open-mouthed.

ENA: What is it in Poe that you like?

LD: I like the rhythm. There is not much sense; there is not much thought. But he knew rhythm.

BNS: Anyhow, even more in poetry — the thought is incidental to the poem.

DGF: Do you have a favorite among Poe’s poems?

LD: “Ulalume.”
“Thus I pacified Psyche, and kissed her,
And I tempted her out of her gloom–
And conquered her scruples and gloom…”

And in the end:

“And I said, “What is written, sweet sister.
On the door of this legended tomb?
“She replied: “Ulalume — Ulalume —
“tis the vault of thy lost Ulalume!

“Romulo is still in the service?

BNS: Yes. He’s 84.

LD: He’s been serving Marcos.

BNS: Well, Romulo serves everybody.

LD: In fact, I was tempted in my more activist days to send him a wire: “Why serve under one who is not properly elected by the people?”

BNS: Marcos is a poet.

LD: Yes, a very bad poet.

DGF: Did you use to discuss your work with any of your teachers?

LD: No.

ENA: Did you publish most of your poems in the Collegian?

LD: Yes. And in the Philippine Magazine, A.V.H. Hartendorp, editor. But some of them I don’t remember. I collected them and wanted them published in a book.

ENA: Where were they going to be published?

LD: Here.

ENA: When we asked Angela Manalang Gloria whom she liked best her contemporaries, she mentioned your name. In fact, she mentioned only you.

LD: Perhaps she was influenced by our friendship.

ENA: Your friendship started at the UP? How did you meet when you were never classmates?

LD: Well, it was a small campus.

BNS: And they were both poets.

DGF: And both from the Bicol area.

LD: Her father was a former treasurer in Legaspi. She grew up in Bicol.

DGF: What was the date of your last published poem?

LD: About six or seven years ago.

DGF: So you stopped writing only recently.

LD: Yes, about six or seven years ago.

BNS: I think you are greater than Villa, because he stopped writing poems before the publication of his book in ’56 or ’57, about 30 years ago. You have outlasted him as a poet.

ENA: Approximately how many poems have you written?

LD: About 500. More than 200 of them are sonnets.

DGF: Where are these poems now?

LD: Some of them are lost. My second son in Manila made copies of the poems. I sent them to the Sison Press, but for some reason they have not published them.

BNS: They are losing money.

DGF: why don’t you get the manuscript back, and publish somewhere else?

LD: I have lost all interest in my poems. I’ve lost interest. I don’t think they are good, anyway.

ENA: Does your son in Manila have a copy of the book?

LD: He must have a file copy.

DGF: What is his name?

LD: Reynaldo.

ENA: How many of these 500 were published?

LD: Most of them.

BNS: Some of them in the local papers.

ENA: That is a very good output. Do the 500 exclude the pasyon?

LD: The pasyon is counted as only one. There are long poems; some are short.

DGF: Do you usually write your poems in longhand?

LD: No, I usually type. I compose on the typewriter.

ENA: Do your poems go through a lot of revision?

LD: Yes, I revise a lot.

BNS: You keep re-writing. You used to show me your re-writing. You used to write a lot of poems when we were together.

LF: Yes, that was my second wind.

ENA: What year was this?

BNS: ’61, ’62, ’63, ’64, ’65-the first half of the 60s.

DGF: Was Ben (Santos) partly responsible for the second wind, since you were together at the University of Nueva Caceres?

LD: No, I was already writing.

DGF: What year was the “first wind”? Was there a big gap?

LD: The 50s.

BNS: Have you heard of the third wind? Do you know who are eligible for the third wind? Those of our age.

DGF: Like Dr. Arturo Rotor.

BNS: Yes! Rotor!

DGF: He just wrote a new book of short stories.

ENA: And Angela Manalang Gloria is thinking of publishing what she has been writing all this time.

DGF: She’s on her third wind, too, so you’re in very good company.

LD: I don’t think my poems are any good.

DGF: Please leave that to us readers to decide; don’t deprive us.

BNS: Yes, your job is to write. You leave the judgment to posterity. Let us end this visit on a happy note. And the happy note is — you are much better than I thought you would be. And I am happy. I’ve stayed abroad most of the time since I left you. And this is a happy occasion. I hope you will change your mind about writing.

DGF: We are truly grateful for this opportunity to see you. We did not even know if we could find you, but thanks to Ben, and to the day’s grace, we did. Your readers will be as glad as we are.

Stephen Cenon
Stephen Cenon

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