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Constraints Breed Creativity in Quintin Pastrana’s “Ambahan: A Love Story”

The man talks about his new poetry book about love and how the rules of an old Mangyan poetry form helped him put it together.

When it comes to art, polymath Leonardo Da Vinci and author Andre Gide share a sentiment: that it lives through constraints and that it dies of too much freedom.

The ambahan, a form of poetry devised by the Hanunuo Mangyan tribe of Occidental Mindoro, has constraints. It must have a meter of seven syllable lines and rhythmic end-syllables. In other words, it has rules but they aren’t taxing enough to fully subdue creativity. According to writer, literacy advocate and energy entrepreneur Quintin Jose V. Pastrana, this is one of the reasons why it is a suitable medium of expression and why he has chosen it to be the beating heart and the wellspring of his new poetry book. 

With “Ambahan: A Love Story,” Pastrana has deep dived into the culture and spirit of the Mangyan style to craft 50 poems in the traditional seven-syllable lines. Published by Far Eastern University Press and released earlier this year, it is composed of Pastrana’s English poems with Filipino translations from poet and author Danton Remoto. Each piece is also accompanied by versions written in Surat Mangyan, the pre-Spanish writing system used by the people that originated this form of poetry.

“My muse is ephemeral, eternal, and knows who she is,” Pastrana said, elusively, in answer to if these love poems were inspired by a single person. Nevertheless, he picked a fitting poetic form to discuss her.

Ambahan, gained a lot of public attention due to the works of Dutch anthropologist Antoon Postma, a missionary who came to the Philippines in the late 1950s. Postma spent about 50 years studying Surat Mangyan. During his stay here, he left the Society of the Divine Word (SVD) order and married Yam-ay Insik, a Mangyan maiden. While studying the tribal script, meanwhile, he was inevitably led to the ambahan. He learned of its uses, its position as a preferred method to record major life changes and express all creative thought. He also discovered that they are carved with a knife on leaves or bamboo strips and tubes. Through them, the Hanunuo Mangyan not only document births, deaths, and marriages, but they also articulate love. In fact, this traditional form of poetry is most often learned by young men and women primarily to woo their intended.

Pastrana himself has a history with this poetic form. As a writer of fiction and poetry—with a degree in Creative Writing from Oxford, as well as having pursued a Lannan Poetry Fellowship in Washington, DC—he co-edited the 2018 collection “Bamboo Whispers.” This introduced a wider (arguably international) audience to this rhythmic poetry that also usually took the form of an improvised chant that the Hanunuo Mangyan used for specific occasions. It wasn’t just for praising a girl you liked, but also for teaching children manners, a relative bidding goodbye, or even competing ala-Balagtasan or slam spoken word style at festivals.

True to the Ambahan’s practical and creative range, this time on the new book, Pastrana expresses love not only of the romantic kind (“Your Face,”) but also in the Thoreau and Whitman-ish sentiments of affection for nature (“Nocturne,”) and the in-between spaces of “desire and chemistry” (“Orpheus Redux.”)

A walk through a beach with broken terrain made hazardous by a cloudy night sky becomes a scenario for meditation and tenderness in “Nocturne.” 

“I parsed each footstep with the / current’s breathing, and all eyes / observing how I wandered / in the pensive nightfall’s hearth, / and what began to stir as / I traced how far we had come;”

“Nocturne’ was when I literally wandered into a forested riverbank in Agusan against my better nature,” clarified Pastrana. “But at this point in time, for example, and given where I am at this stage in my life, [my poems] like ‘Now ‘Til Us’ and ‘Still Life’ speak to me more than most.”

Pastrana does have a point in terms of poetic development and maturation. Just the next page over, after “Nocturne,” the ecstatic “Now ‘Til Us” reflects on a romantic loved one, comparing parts of nature and biology.

“Resurfacing in this stone / rescued from these drowning shores / It is piebald like the moon: / smooth, familiar to the touch / like the grain of your pubis—”  

Falling between love poem and manifesto of naturalism, many of Pastrana’s poems have the character of the original ambahan as a form of re-invented tradition. They serve as an individual’s thoughts (Pastrana’s) but also reflect a collective memory sans authorship (the Mangyans never signed their names on their writings.) 

These new ambahans of Pastrana’s are no longer copied from, and transferred on perishable bamboo slats, containers of tobacco or even the scabbard of a machete. It is made with the new knife of a keyboard. His authorship carved only so far as an offering to shine the spotlight on this art that deserves a new life without reduction of spirit. A byline that seeks kinship with others who love verse and literature as much as he does.

KARL R. DE MESA: Kindly recall when and how you first encountered the ambahan. What attracted you to its form and culture?

QUINTIN PASTRANA: After my first year MFA, I was trying to string together poems with the advice of finding a more authentic voice and form, and during one of the library projects I was involved with during the break in Mindoro, I learned more of that beautiful treasure of the Mangyans, worked with them and the Mangyan Heritage Center to produce the National Book Award winning volume of Mangyan Ambahans, and haven’t look back since.  I can’t write in anything but ambahan. The versatility of the ambahan—just like the Tagalog Tanaga—is its heptasyllabic structure (tight enough to crystalize meaning, and long enough to trace the span of the human breath) so it’s artful and natural—almost conversational at the same time. 

KDM: Why love poems in particular for the new book? Wasn’t it hard to sustain this one thematically?

QP: Love and its happy hydra of incarnations. My mother, my Muse, our nation, my dog, even my favorite drink — like the Jesuits say, to find God in all things. It’s the immanence and ubiquity of love—as Ondaatje wrote in the “English Patient”:  love is so small it can tear itself through the eye of a needle. The poems can do that and they’ve been unschackled and arranged in an alphabetic, random arc to help people find their own narrative with each poem versus my own story which is still hiding in plain sight, as one of the poems say.

KDM: Take us behind the scenes of the first book, “Bamboo Whispers” which was a more collaborative project. What were the challenges of putting that one out?

QP: “Bamboo Whispers” (published by Bookmark in 2018) was a total immersive experience:  we met and consulted with the Hanunuo Mangyan elders to learn more of and sift through thousands of their poems, and with the groundbreaking research of the legendary Anton Poostma the beauty of the culture, the visceral imagery from the everyday to the passages of life—were transformative for me and my fellow editors, and was the impetus for me to go down this path on my own, with this gift and platform for poetry.

KDM: Bridging the gap between the first book and the new one, did you look forward to it or was it a daunting prospect at first?

QP: I think it was an inflection point—this pandemic—which lent this vital urgency to both curate and complete this book. A good provenance, with a new voice that I hoped to bring forward with my own verse. 

KDM: Composition wise how hard or easy was it to think and write in this concrete counted verse form? Does it hinder or embolden lyricism, flow, or thought?

QP: Andre Gide wrote that art is born of constraint and dies of too much freedom—and with the happy frame of an ambahan, you have the best of both—discipline, versatility leading to what I hope is better impact. It’s like TS Eliot’s and Sonya Sanchez’s admonition—live the Objective Correlative:  write deliberately and artfully enough not to express, but induce emotion.

KDM: How can we make this form of poetry more popular and attractive to Filipino wordsmiths and lovers of verse?   

QP: It’s not a tough sell. It’s indigenous, a strong point of pride, very accessible, and organic a vessel to pour your soul into—and in other more talented artists’ hands—so much real magic is waiting.

“Ambahan: A Love Story” can be purchased at Lazada, Shopee, Manila House, Ayala Museum and Art Books, or the FEU Publications TAMS Store  

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