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Leandro Reyes: The Weight of Words

How “Lola Basyang’s” great-grandson uses the pressure afforded by his heritage to pursue a career as a spoken word artist.

WORDS BY ANGELO CANTERA / IMAGES BY EMMAN PEREGRIN

Leandro Reyes began his career as a spoken word artist because of the same scenario that has urged many to make the most of their lives: he was confronted by an ending.

This happened at the start of 2016; Sev’s Café, arguably the go-to venue for spoken word poetry in Metro Manila during its heyday, was forced to close down. To the stakeholders of the scene at that time—from the artists that saw Sev’s as their home to the café’s regular patrons—this was something of a death in the community, a “hugot story” (so café’s management wrote on Facebook) that launched a bevy of online mourning. To Reyes, meanwhile, this was nothing short of a wake-up call.

“Friends who knew that I wrote poetry told me to come to Sev’s and perform,” he shared. “I was planning to but I was still gathering the courage to do that. But then it closed and I asked myself ‘how many establishments like that need to close down before I actually perform at one?”

None, as it turned out. Following Sev’s closure, Reyes became one of the most active spoken word artists in Metro Manila. His gangly frame, “done-for-the-backrow” gestures, and largely accessible verses have become regular features in venues that offer his craft as entertainment. Meanwhile, his body of work—a collection of pieces that have allowed him to play roles like a torch-bearing friend  (“Umpisa, Gitna, Dulo,”) a smitten comic book aficionado (“The Amazing,”) and a scarred victim of schoolyard bullying (“Salamat”)—has earned him the respect and admiration of his peers.

All things considered, his following is growing at the moment, and he is expected to cultivate it further through his upcoming projects. For example, “Love Smog and All Things Warm,” the book that he will be launching on February 24 at Makati City’s Commune. A collaborative effort with illustrator Camcas Cervantes, the project will see three of his poems interpreted visually. It will also be yet another item on the list of things he has contributed to local literature.

“There are so many big names right now and I’m just happy to be playing ball with them,” he shared. “My only regret right now is that Sev’s had to close down before I could get myself to start performing.”

This, of course, is a common story. Endings inspire beginnings. The idea of death pressures the living and, as it was once said by George S. Patton Jr., “pressure creates diamonds.” It is a matter of opinion as to whether or not Reyes’ works can be considered as such. But, to anyone who knows the man and his heritage, it is nevertheless a fact that pressure has urged him to create and not be complacent in the process of creation.

Kept on his toes

There are people who share the same family name with historical figures and a number of them have experienced this: they go to school, they find themselves in a discussion concerning the person they share their last name with and they get asked—seriously or otherwise—if the said person is a relative of theirs. Sitting at Commune November last year, in the midst of preparations for his future shows and the launch of his book, Reyes stated that was one of those people.

After all, there is a man named Severino Reyes and he is one of the most well-known figures in Philippine literature. Under the pen name, Lola Basyang, he has written numerous stories that get retold to this day. His contributions to local literature are such that it would be a school’s disservice to its students if it does not discuss him and his work.  It was during one of these talks, of course, when one of the younger Reyes’ instructors popped the question: “kamaganak mo ba siya? [Are you related to him?]”

“I answered ‘yes,’ with a straight face,” Reyes said while going through one of Commune’s icy beverages. “He thought that I was joking and I said ‘no, he is my great-grandfather.”

He was more than that though as the man later discussed. Due to the older Reyes’ successes in the field of stories, he is regarded as a hero in his family, a figure that inspired his now 26-year-old great-grandson to somewhat follow in his footsteps. The man was also a playwright and a director during his time and it was because of this that the younger Reyes also decided to take part in theater productions at a young age. More importantly, the late writer was a proof of concept, a historical fact which explicates the possibility of making a living with literature.

“I am proud to be his relative,” he said. “[He] is one of the triggers that pushed me into theater and writing.”

But their affiliation does have a price, he said. And ever since the younger Reyes unveiled his relationship with his great grandfather, he began paying it.

“I felt the pressure instantly,” he shared. “[Because it is known that we’re related,] I felt that I had to be good.” As a student, this meant that he had to be exceptional in Filipino and that he needed to get high grades. And as a 20-something artist of the word, this meant that he had to be exceptional at his craft so as to not besmirch the legacy of his kin.

This was the man’s burden. And for a time, it was one that he found too heavy to bear. Attesting to this was one of the nights when he performed at Conspiracy Garden Café. He was a new performer then but the host for the event was an associate who knew the truth about his heritage.

“So, when I was introduced as the great grandson of Severino Reyes, yung pressure trumiple [the pressure tripled,]” he said. “And I buckled. I really felt the weight of the name that I was carrying.”

It’s been awhile since that happened though. And at the second floor of Commune that November, the younger Reyes was far from being a fumbling newbie, the kind who once walked on stage sweating, panicked by his own misgivings. He can now stand in front of strangers to share his craft without seeming at the very least bothered.

He did that just minutes after talking about his great grandfather. Before a crowd at the café, he shared a piece about relationships, how its length means nothing compared to its depth. He also spoke about self-acceptance, about being OK with your “useless man nipples” and the balls that once felt absent when you were afraid. He mused about being naked, and while he did so garbed in a white shirt, a grey jacket and tortilla pants, he nevertheless succeeded in playing the role of someone baring himself with confidence.

“It’s alright,” he said, his entire body seemingly invested in his words. “It’s alright.”

But make no mistake; the pressure is still there. He is still, after all, the great grandson of a man many consider to be great. But this is a weight he has gotten used to well enough to bear it with grace. And now that it can hardly make his knees quiver, it does him the favor of keeping him on his toes.

“Now, whenever there is a commitment to artistry of any kind, I prepare days in advance thinking that I don’t just represent myself, I also represent him,” he said. “It’s good to have this kind of pressure because it helps me to prepare.”

And from the looks of things, he does have a lot to prepare for.

Taking on more weight

When Reyes talked about the heavy burden he bears as a spoken word artist, he was actually getting ready to take on more weight.

It was November, after all; just a few days away from the first solo show of Collaboratry.PH, the spoken word group that he founded with several of his colleagues in 2016. Prior to this, the collective has gotten involved with a number of event but this was the first of its kind wherein the group will be mostly responsible for the quality of the program.

“I’m nervous and excited,” he said. “But mostly nervous.”

With good reason, he believed. Collaboratory after all was partly his idea. Stemming from his desire to learn how artists can work with each other despite having different styles of conceptualization, the group was formed to test theories on creative mergers. Its end goal: to produce compelling works of art that none of its members can achieve individually.

“We discovered that there are so many things you can unlock when you work with each other,” he said. And the merits of these discovers were days away from being put through the wringer on the collective’s first show.

“It’s exciting,” he said. “But we’re not discounting the fact that this can potentially blow up in our faces.”

He had the same worries regarding his book project with Cervantes. This being his first major foray into the publishing word, he admitted that the experience of completing it has left him a bit anxious.

“It’s almost done,” Reyes said during a phone conversation several days ago. “We’re just putting in the final touches.”

And after that, of course, comes the phase of anticipation; one hardly different from what he has experienced at spoken word events: that heart-thumping feeling of waiting for the host to call his name so that he can step into stage and perform. It is in these phases, he said, when the familiar feelings get pronounced: the pressure to do well, for example; that desire to represent his great grandfather and now his collective the best way he can.

“It’ll always be there,” he said, “the pressure.” But considering what this has done for him in the past, how it has driven him to become the artist that he is today, he “wouldn’t have it any other way.”

 

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