Arts and Culture

Inkcanto: Palanca Awards Night survival tips

The 62nd Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature will be held in a few days, conforming to tradition, on September 1st.  It’s generally considered to be the “Oscars” of Philippine literature, in the sense that it’s the most prestigious and glamorous literary awards event in the country. It’s also the oldest awards event having been founded in 1950.

All the great Filipino writers have either won or judged in the Palanca Awards—which, as you can imagine, spurs many young writers to aspire to greatness by proving themselves in that contest.

Anyway, I joined the Palanca awards thrice, many years ago. I won two out of those three times. I judged twice for the awards. This means that I was able to attend a few of those glamorous awards ceremonies, where writers finally come out of the cobwebbed, coffee-stained recesses of their imaginations to put on decent clothes, brush their teeth and comb their hair, and actually acquire a semblance of being human for a few hours.

(This also means I just made an unsuccessfully veiled attempt to brag pathetically—other writers have won Palancas 10, 20 times, have been inducted in the Hall of Fame, etc.)

Poets (L-R) Cirilo Bautista; Jimmy Abad; Ricky de Ungria; and Krip Yuson at the 2010 Palanca Awards. Note how big the First Prize medal is. Photo courtesy of Krip Yuson

If you are a young writer and it is your ambition to win a Palanca Award, then here are a few random tips that you would find useful, if not in winning an actual Palanca, then at least in how to enjoy the awards night, should you find yourself there.

Be nice to other writers. This applies to before you win a Palanca as much as to when you’re at the awards night already. The professional writing community in the Philippines is small and it’s inevitable that some writers you meet along the way might become judges in the Palanca Awards.

I can imagine a scenario where two genius young writers are battling it out for victory in the Poetry in English category, for example. The difference between their scores is just a few decimal places.

“I recognize these two collections. This collection, “Arduous Cow Excrement” is by Mark Galan, who has cleverly used the pseudonym, “Nalag Kram”. This other collection, “Arduously Ambivalent Bovine Poop: An Erasure” is by Jethro Basbas, who is using “Ma. Kathy Pfubis” for his alias. They’re very talented young writers. Genius level,”said the Chair of the Judges.

“I agree. Both of them are geniuses. But they’re both jerks, too,” said co-judge number one.
“Yes. Geniuses and jerks,” said co-judge number two,” however, I would like to point something out to our esteemed Chair…”

“What is it?” asked the Chair.

“Well, Mark has been talking to all the other writers in U.P. and he’s been telling them that he has observed the Chair several times, chewing on what he, at first, thought were blue M&Ms. According to him, upon closer inspection, he found out that they were actually Viagra pills,” said the co-judge.
Unfortunately, the Chair of the Judges for Poetry in English happens to be a woman. So who do you think wins—Mark or Jethro?

Submit a readable, error-free collection. As a judge for the Poetry in English category, I had to read 150 poetry collections. That’s not 150 poems. That’s 150 collections, with each collection having 8 to 10 poems. Do the math. That’s 1,500 poems that I have to read, appreciate, and assess in 3 or 4 weeks’ time. I had to quickly eliminate the obviously crappy ones—and even the ones that were very hard to read.

Some collections were typed single-spaced—already a violation of the rules—and typed in tiny font sizes. I didn’t bother to read them anymore for the sake of my eyesight. Others were photocopied cheaply on Xerox machines that had more dust than ink. I threw those collections away because there was no sense in judging a collection with faded text. One collection had the word “4rth” on the title. That word doesn’t even exist.
I had to wonder: Is this a typo error or something deliberate? If it’s deliberate, then is it because the writer is avant-garde or just stupid? Is the writer stupid AND avant-garde? I threw it away and went on with the other 138 collections left. “4rth” my a**.

Be stylish. I know that most of the time, “stylish” and “writer” don’t really go together. However, the Palanca Awards is the night where writers get the chance to strut their stuff—to be noticed not just for their writing but for their, um, “character.” The awards night, of course, is a formal occasion: so it’s either a suit and tie, or a barong-tagalog, for the men and the appropriate evening dress for women.
However, those outfits won’t get you noticed. You have to create your own style. For example, you could wear what I call the Rockin’ National Artist Look:

National Artist for Literature F. Sionil Jose Source:

Alternatively, you could wear the groovy Writer-As-TV-Star-Rocker-And-Pop-Icon Look:

He’s not Lourd de Veyra. Photo by Inkcanto

If you win First Prize in one category, or even First Prize in Several Categories, then you have more license to create your own style: people will be noticing the huge gold medals hanging from your neck first, anyway.

Embarrass yourself—but grandly and with entertainment value. The actual party starts rolling AFTER the awards are concluded. This is the part where brilliant writers like Charlson Ong and Marne Kilates break into song, to everyone’s delight. By that time, everyone is drunk anyway. Another good singer I remember during Palanca night is Mike Bigornia (God rest his soul) and I daresay his voice is sorely missed.

One awards night I attended had the awesome writer Greg Brillantes playing the piano to accompany one of the drunken male writers for a song number. Someone told me—I can’t remember who it was—that Brillantes had actually become deaf, in one ear or both, I don’t remember anymore.

Well, eventually, the song number really did begin to sound like a performance featuring a singing drunk writer and a deaf pianist who wasn’t Beethoven. But it wasn’t embarrassing at all. We were all cheering and very happy over the performance.

Respect the open bar. I don’t know if there’s still going to be an open bar this coming Palanca night but in the few times I attended, I rather happily tried my best to get drunk out of my mind. Free-flowing alcoholic beverages are the best way to accomplish that.

Still, there must be etiquette. For example, wait your turn politely. Don’t cut in when the bartender is still taking an order from National Artist Virgilio Almario, for example. Or from anyone else who ordered first. Remember that writers can get rowdy, so don’t add to the bartender’s stress—the same bartender who has the power to put whatever he wants into your drink.

Respect the women and young people. There will be women at the Awards night. And even if you’ve heard the rumor that poet Mookie Katigbak is the most beautiful female writer in Philippine literature, check first if the rumor came from her handsome husband, fictionist Sarge Lacuesta. The thing is, there will be women at the party—not just women writers but mothers, aunts, sisters, who would be appalled if you behaved horribly and disrespectfully. Being a writer and drunk are not valid excuses. Also, the Palanca Awards has categories for child-writers so you would not want to traumatize those kids.

Respect the official speeches. Put your cellphone in silent mode and try not Tweet furiously while the official speeches are going on. This is something you have to do, even if the one doing the speech is the great, late Blas Ople, who mumbles into the mic in his slightly slurry, subterranean baritone.

It was quite an effort for me to listen to Mr. Ople when he gave his very long speech because of this mumbling. The speakers were emanating a sound similar to that of hypnotized centipedes wearing combat boots, marching in step. But I still listened and did get inspired by Mr. Ople. Unfortunately, I got drunk later that night and the alcohol fried whatever neurons remembered what Mr. Ople talked about.

I hope these tips help you have a fabulous night at the Palanca Awards. My only wish, a wish that I’ve held for years, is that the Palanca Foundation decides to give away trophies instead of medals—after all, the Oscars have, well, “Oscar”, the statue of the naked golden guy with a huge sword covering his crotch.

We can’t have a similarly designed statue for writers because then we’d have to have a pen covering the naked dude’s crotch. (Seriously, though, “Oscar” isn’t really naked. He’s supposed to be a knight holding a crusader’s sword.)

In case there are now plans to give away Oscar-type statues to writers—whether from the Palancas or some other award organization—I humbly submit this design model:


See you on Palanca night!