Poetics: Paolo Enrico Melendez

Poetics: Paolo Enrico Melendez

fi(ə)rs

 

Allow me to start with a shot to the foot: I am a writer in mid-career only in terms of age. Few people know me. When some of those few people invite me to visit UST, as a judge in a writing contest or panelist in a workshop, another guest more often than not will confess that he had to Google me. And the top hits are almost always about the notorious American murderers, Erik and Lyle Menendez.

That’s not surprising, when I think of my mid-career trajectory. As a younger man, I was on track for the whole creative writing gig. Student awards for fiction and non-fiction. Editorial position with the liberal arts college paper. Admin job at the UST writing center. Then a succession of jobs with various music and lifestyle magazines. I even got into a couple of Free Press Awards shortlists.

Sure, there were the various and vigorous anxieties that came with working in the culture industry. The constant fear of failure and rejection. The weight of tradition. The press of peers whose talent was both inspiration and intimidation. And, of course, the financial precarity. Nevertheless, it all felt right to me, back then. I had a sense that I was in my right place, playing the role I was meant to play.

That role was to witness the violence seizing my hometown of Tanauan, Batangas. I fictionalized the place under the name Kapetera, and wrote of rubouts and raids, small-minded politicos and a timid populace. I wrote of four-day meth binges and punk concerts in the blacked out town gym. Through my fiction, I denounced the diminution of traditional public space, confessed to the guilt of living in Manila and thus being away from ground zero, and exorcized the grief of losing two childhood friends to the city and its angular spasms.

Sometime in the mid-Aughts, I was recruited by a legal marketing copy team based in Bonifacio Global City. The offer was good and the pitch was even better. “It’ll be writing a thesis every damn day!” the manager said. “What the hell,” I thought. A dive into corporate culture was sure to yield more material than I can shake a transgressive fiction anthology at.

The days I spent working there were long, but easy. I was on autopilot, from the morning bath to the evening drink. There were style guides and best practice documents, video walkthroughs and quick reference guides. Brainstorming was always by committee. And the writing was rigid in a different way: a piety to the triune divinity of Brand, Value Proposition, and Key Messaging.

Pretty soon I stopped caring about material for any creative writing. I enjoyed the ahistoricity. And, more than anything, I found the anonymity comforting: a banishment of the shape-shifting anxieties which had clawed at my guts like the feared werebeasts of my Batangas hometown. We were fierce. I was the team big shot. My confidence was molten.

I stayed a good six years total. I learned later that that was more than enough time for people to forget a fledgling byline.

I credit two things for my eventual return to creative writing: A severe case of burnout and depression, which I had gone through from the latter part of 2013 to the middle of 2015, and the persistence of one of my longtime magazine editors, the late Luis Katigbak.

 

Here’s what I’d been doing for the good part of the last decade: brochures declaring deregulated real estate jurisdictions; reports praising the legal dexterity of large food conglomerates defending their patents; white papers on cost-effective tax maneuvers. I project-managed our company’s first legal marketing collateral on hydraulic fracking. I edited retirement videos for automotive industry lawyers. I began to hold unironic ideas about the survival of the fittest, about how one must evolve or die. Without humor, I posted a status that said, “Ang sarap mag-sellout.”

So taken in by things was I that I didn’t notice I was burning myself out. One weekend, I passed out alone in my apartment. I had to take a month off work. Fatigue bled into ideations of self-harm.

 

Luis was the rumble strip to this ride. A couple of months after my forced leave, he asked me to contribute to Esquire’s regular feature, 1000 Words About Our Culture. Doubts that had begun to swim up during my convalescence fully surfaced in the writing of that piece. I had underwritten states defanged by big business; celebrated the loss of independent farmers; enabled tax havens. I had praised fracking without understanding is ecological impact. I had sent off lawyers who were still making money off rust belt residuals. I had almost danced at a Christmas party. And I had actually played the guitar to Rent’s “Seasons of Love.” By the time Tacloban was pounded by typhoon Haiyan, I was ready to resign.

I can’t write much about what happened next, because to this day, I have yet to reconstruct the eight or so months that are missing from my memory. I only know that I started to see a shrink, who advised me to go back to my personal projects like my life depended on it, as it were. I began to write more frequently for Luis and Esquire, and those first tentative sorties back into creative writing did indeed feel like working out a triage.

 

My work with Luis indirectly led to my hiring under another magazine, Rogue. As one of the editors, I write features, and handle the opinions sections. All standard creative journo stuff, some of which I compiled in my first book, Ratatat! Bang!

Luis also drove me to conceptualize my first fiction project. In writing my contribution to Esquire’s fiction issue, I thought of “fierce” as a word thrown around a lot, back at my old company. It meant keeping your head down, powering through, moving forward. It meant synergies and paradigms, efficiencies and best practices. It meant being victims of your own success, putting your best foot forward. It meant overcoming competition and overwhelming confidence: the swagger and stance of the new Filipino corporate professional.

In a nice bit of coincidence, it also shares the pronunciation of the word “Fears.”

I envision fi(ə)rs as a multi-book project. One shall be the titular novella, set in a time when multi-billion peso mergers are concluded, and swarms of cicadas unseasonably emerge from the ground. fi(ə)rs’ main character is an employee who returns to his old company to collect his separation pay, on the first day of what will turn out to be a weeklong habagat. He is stranded, and is forced to ask help from his one remaining friend in the company: his recruiter.

It’s companion novella will be called etc., which will feature interconnected narratives, and recurring characters who inhabit the same timeline and reality as the ones in fi(ə)rs. The stories will tell of a local ghost that follows a journalist to a rally; a provincial road paved over so often that it levels with a balikbayan’s bedroom window; a data analyst who fashions a fetish out of OB slips to ward off bad luck and attract wealth. One story in this collection is called, Another Held Off End of the World, an excerpt of which I have submitted as part of my workshop manuscript.

I like to think of fi(ə)rs, etc. as a very personal exorcism of guilt, and a much needed release valve to a mental pressure that has not quite dissipated. It is also my attempt to replace the missing parts of 2014 and 2015 with a reality of my fabricating, and its corresponding inhabitants. But more than anything else, I like to think of fi(ə)rs, etc. as continuing the work that Luis helped set in motion.

I have conceptualized these new stories as I inhabit my latest reality. On the MRT, squished together with hundreds of other tired commuters. On days when my cash card is frozen, or when news breaks of a dictator’s undeserved burial honors. During the long walk home alone after a rally, or the ride to interview a politician whose views I find contemptible, and whose power allows him to have me murdered, should I be too critical in my write up.
The stories must be vicious: the physical assault I rarely condone in real life. They must assail the things I hate: conformity, power, timidity, smallness of imagination. They must nurture the things I love: humor and madness, equality and depth. They must have texture and sound. They must be funny and sad, for in both modes I am able to hide my fears, which are considerable. They will be short, for my day job is long. They will be about commitment and connections and other things that terrify me. They must be weird, because the times are weird. But above all, they must be a reflection of what I am now: humbled, writing from a place of uncertainty, starting from scratch.

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