I first learned to love my language in a café on the side of a Malate road, blocked off from street-view by a gigantic condominium, nestled in between two parking lots. Framed by a lone guardhouse, Sev’s café is easy to miss, and as I rode past the red-light districts of Malate trying to spot the gap in the concrete driveway which would lead to the café, I began to understand the mythic place it has in the history of Philippine spoken word.
Sev’s, founded by Howie Severino as a location for the patronage of the arts, is everything a writer dreams of. It’s a storytelling haven in the middle of an urban jungle, a church for the congregation of lonely poets – crowded, musty, occasionally lit by tacky disco balls during the Christmas season – yet within a gathering of pressed people one always feels at home, moored by the shared and rapt attention of each visitor as musicians and spoken word performers take the stage.
When I visited Sev’s in February of this year, I had never once attended a poetry event outside of Xavier School. Until then, I’d only heard spoken word performed as an English requirement in class, or on YouTube by Sarah Kay, but Sev’s café was the real thing.
My first Sev’s event was headlined by Juan Miguel Severo, a famous Filipino spoken word poet and member of local spoken word group Words Anonymous. Until then, I’d always been skeptical of Filipino poetry – growing up as a typical conyo kid in Xavier School with English as a first language, I’d attended class after Filipino class where I felt as if my heritage were being shoved down my throat with each repeated reference to Rizal’s “Sa Aking Mga Kabata.” (fun fact: not actually written by Rizal) I’d been unappreciative and cynical of the beauty of Filipino, and slogged through both Ibong Adarna and Florante at Laura, reverting to the English translations if they were available, creating my own if they were not. I struggled with prefixes, suffixes, and midfixes, and spoke Filipino with a heavy, slurred accent that immediately made me sound like a stranger in my own land.
That changed in Sev’s café. When Juan Miguel took the stage and performed, the syllables tumbled out like music. All the repeated ba’s and ma’s that I’d thought clumsy before turned into an impassioned symphony, and I found myself caught up in the humor and heartbreak that could only be conveyed by those Filipino words. The midfixes that had made no sense to me before illuminated stories of worn brick and tired hands, shaped into an unknown music that made English seem weary and inflexible. And the musicality of it – the way Filipino flowed, repeated, like a song with the same musical cue filling each verse – moved me in a way no spoken word piece had before. It was poetry, in the rawest sense of the word.
I left Sev’s that February night, sure in my return, and I’d visit again and again over the course of the year to hear poem after beautiful poem – Henri Igna’s recounting of a thirteen minute ferris-wheel romance; Abby Orbeta’s moving and funny rendition of a college crush prevented by “Papa Jesus”; and each time I heard a new Filipino piece, my previous disdain for my language changed into a heartfelt respect, an acknowledgement that no other set of words could move one’s soul so, a humble acceptance that I’d been wrong to think the way I had before.
And in Sev’s, I found that language didn’t always have to be spoken. When a café hosts so many stories, its bricks and bones become a testament to all the hurt that’s passed within its doors. Sev’s became, to me, a home away from home, a place for those who felt too much to come together and no longer be strangers, steeped in a shared love for stories in all forms and tongues. No other place could have held the same mystery for a seventeen year-old still unversed in public transportation and Manila traffic, and all the disparate parts my memory recollects now take on a storyteller’s sheen – the narrow passageway to the single bathroom at the back of the café lined by crates of San Miguel and framed by a broken soap dispenser; ginger coffee gathering at the bottom of a glass mason jar; the painted tapestry of Andres Bonifacio framing the performers’ stage; the stumbling sound of my footsteps, hands adjusting a microphone stand in front of an awaiting audience.
Now Sev’s is being taken down for the installation of a septic pump, and all those well-worn bricks and stones of story will, in a few weeks, have disappeared. And I wonder now if all the wanderers who found their way to Sev’s will have another place to call home like they did before. For me, those walls will always call to mind falling in love with a language that suddenly felt like my own. But now the heartbreak stories open mic performers once shared on Sev’s stage seem somewhat cruel in retrospect, with those same walls torn down like the last touch of a lover’s arms before she says goodbye.
If there is any solace, it’s that Sev’s will leave in its wake a generation of storytellers, whose words – written, whispered, spoken – will not let that place rest gently. Sev’s has birthed musicians, artists, writers, and poets who found peace within its chaotic frame, and all those voices will find themselves raised to reconstruct a home in syllables instead of in concrete and stone. So every time a lover says goodbye, every time an old heartache burns anew, all these members of diaspora – a spoken word poet in Quezon City, a comic book aficionado in Makati, a visual artist in Binondo – will recall the name of a café where once those hurts of theirs were loosed into the air for all to hear. And in time the lost and lonely will find their way back to a home whose dust has settled on the lips of all those who have felt too deeply to stay silent.