Romulo (or Mulong) Sandoval was a prime example of a revolutionary poet who successfully merged high poetic artistry with solid political commitment. Even as he vied a number of times for literary awards – and successfully so – he never wrote for these alone, unlike many writers past and present. Always, he wrote for the people above all.
BY ALEXANDER MARTIN REMOLLINO
Last Feb. 8, poets old and young gathered at 70s Bistro, a famed watering hole for artists and NGO workers in Quezon City, to commemorate the 8th death anniversary of fellow poet Romulo Sandoval.
They remembered that the eve of Sandoval’s death was the launching of his first and only book of poems, Kanta sa Gabi (Song in the Night).
A video presentation of the book launch showed the already wheelchair-bound Sandoval browsing through a copy of his book, amid a stirring rendition of his poem “Pagkat Tayo’y Nagmamahal” (Because We Love) by the renowned poet-musician Jesus Manuel Santiago. The video documentary was done by Sine Patriyotiko. (He succumbed to cancer in 1997 and was buried in his native town.)
It was a gathering of big names, so to speak. They were there: protest poets Gelacio Guillermo, Roberto Ofanda Umil, Dr. Bienvenido Lumbera, Fidel Rillo, and Reuel Molina Aguila; painter Boy Dominguez, photojournalist Jimmy Domingo, poet-anthropologist Arnold Molina Azurin, poet-journalist Richard Gappi, newspaper columnist Conrado de Quiros, and others who had crossed paths with the man.
But there were also poets and other artists who never got to meet him personally, but know of his work and take inspiration from these.
Aguila and Lumbera would both quip about the program starting later than scheduled – a fitting tribute, they said in good-natured jest, to a man “notorious” for coming to meetings as much as two or three hours late. It brought to mind Dr. Elmer Ordoñez’s article, “Two Poets in a Class Society,” where he talked of Sandoval eluding arrest during martial law because he was late for a meeting of their group.
Now, why would anyone have wanted Sandoval arrested during those tumultuous times?
Sandoval is known by those who have followed Philippine literature closely as a major protest poet in the fine tradition of Andres Bonifacio, Jose Corazon de Jesus, Crisanto Evangelista, and Amado V. Hernandez. His poems, though few – and, as both Rillo and Lumbera would note – far between, were powerful expressions of the quest for national liberation and social justice, condemnations of imperialist and elite oppression and political repression.
Voice of the people
His partisanship for the cause of the people was to be expected, considering where he came from.
Sandoval was born on July 26, 1950 in Bauan, Batangas (100 kms. south of Manila), the son of a sidewalk vendor. Because he was a consistent honor student in grade school and high school, his parents worked hard to send him to Metro Manila for his college education.
He enrolled at the University of the Philippines (UP) in Diliman, Quezon City in 1967, where he was exposed to the then rising student activist movement.
Poet-musician Heber Bartolome relates that at UP where he also studied, he was with Sandoval in a group called Kapisanan ng Panitikang Pilipino (KPP, Association for Philippine Literature) – together with Fanny Garcia and Ricardo Lee, who would both become award-winning scriptwriters; and Valerio Nofuente, also a poet who would teach at UP and eventually be martyred in the last years of martial law. Bartolome described this group as involved in activism.
In 1971, Sandoval joined the Panulat para sa Kaunlaran ng Sambayanan (PAKSA or Writers for the Advancement of the People), a national organization of activist writers. PAKSA would be outlawed upon the declaration of martial law a year later.
Sandoval joined the revolutionary underground movement during martial law, even as he remained involved in above-ground cultural work.
In 1973, he was among the founders of the Galian sa Arte at Tula (GAT or Celebration in Art and Poetry), a group of poets promoting socially-committed poetry along the so-called “circumventionist” pattern which involved the use of semi-allegorical images to get past the martial-law censors while at the same time attacking the existing order. It was through GAT anthologies that many of his poems would see print.
In the underground, Sandoval was part of a group that translated revolutionary literature and documents into Filipino. He was one of those who translated Amado Guerrero’s Philippine Society and Revolution, as well as essays by Mao Zedong.
He was also involved in the publication of revolutionary anthologies, like STR: Mga Tula ng Rebolusyon (STR: Poems of the Revolution), Magsasaka: Ang Bayaning Di Kilala (The Peasant: The Unknown Hero), Mga Tula’t Awit ng Rebolusyong Pilipino (Poems and Songs of the Philippine Revolution), and Cesar Lacara’s Sa Tungki ng Ilong ng Kaaway (Under the Enemy’s Nose).
Sandoval was in the editorial board of Ulos (Thrust), the main cultural journal of the revolutionary underground movement, until his death; and was involved in the publication of other underground cultural journals like Dare to Struggle, Dare to Win, Kamao (Fist), and Tinig ng Bayan (Voice of the Nation). He occasionally helped in editing Rebolusyon (Revolution), the theoretical journal of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and Ang Bayan (The People), the Party’s official organ.
Above ground, he would be among the GAT pillars who would condemn former activist writers who sold out to the Marcos propaganda machinery.
In the 1980s and 1990s, he was involved in Gapas Foundation, an institution specializing in the collection and publication of literature on the peasantry. Shortly before his death, he was also involved in the Instityut sa Panitikan at Sining ng Sambayanan (IPASA or Institute for People’s Literature and Art), a legal institution collecting and publishing literature on the people’s war in the countryside.
Poetry and commitment
The partisans of art for art’s sake insist that merging poetry and politics spoils the art in poetry. At times they go as far as saying that overt politics takes all the poetry out of a poem.
The achievements of Romulo Sandoval show that this is not the case. He was a prime example of a revolutionary poet who successfully merged high poetic artistry with solid political commitment.
Even as he vied a number of times for literary awards – and successfully so – he never wrote for these alone unlike many writers past and present. Always, he wrote for the people above all. Bulatlat