By Alvin dela Serna Lopez, reprinted with permission from the poetry anthology In The Gesture of Words

A Page of the Ten Thousand Lines Project for World PeaceTen years and two poetry collections later, Edwin Cordevilla began penning what would become so far his most challenging work – an epic that the Filipino poet describes as his “pitch to global peace-building and personal contribution for the construction of international culture of peace.” Completed in 2012 and undergoing its publication in book form as of this writing, the Ten Thousand Lines Project for World Peace goes past what every poet has sung about war and peace: the poem finds it unnecessary to dwell on the physical struggle between individual interests and intentions but instead asserts itself as a mystic depiction of our internal conflicts and the passions that cause us to confuse ambition with aspiration.

The poem begins with an attempt to reach out to the darkness beleaguering and controlling the poetic, examining the universe of the terror and seeking to understand the wisdoms of its waging, only to meet an answer far different from those trumpeted by its victors and advocates.

Without moralizing on his themes Cordevilla pulls the reader’s consciousness into his own but does not necessarily impose his personal world-view. Instead, he lets the reader wander freely in the space created by his tenets until the reader ponders on the various why’s of his tragedies. Lines such as the following illustrate a cornering jab in our misconception of the glories of the battlefield:

And today same wars happen
Where the pawns no longer remember
How they all started.

We have known of our prolonged conflicts, those which causes have been blurred by the rhetoric of dreams and dread, which kernel has been blanketed with a coat of obsession instead of fervor, of fallacy instead of philosophy.

In contrast to the later parts, the epic’s earlier episodes are epistles sent to the being outside the poet. In several lines Cordevilla addresses a particular adversary, a warrior-poet who controlled half the world’s fear for two decades. Yet instead of a frontal assault on the culprit, he speaks of the spiritual cohesion among us, being borne out of one flesh capable of feeling the same degree of pain, the same degree of happiness, and the same degree of love. We are then asked why, despite this connection, do we throw ourselves into strengthening and glorifying a machinery built to tear humanity apart through physical and moral attrition.

Cordevilla would write to the being outside himself for a lengthy period of time, until one day he discovered the end of the warrior-poet whom he intended to address. Out of the confusion that followed, the epicist found himself answering the riddle of the Theban sphinx, suddenly uttering a revelation condensed into a single word–Man. Such would occupy the next of the Ten Thousand Lines as he whose work once sought to confront evil in the hearts of others discovered that the same evil lay present in himself as it lies dormant with all men. At this point he knew that he had to face not the mortal enemy of man but the immortal enemy of mankind; not the conscience without, but the conscience within in order to understand the moral and philosophical ills that brought up societies’ self-inflicted tragedies.

It is in this inward journey where the epic takes its most beautiful turn. The poet seeks to “Humble the hand that writes these words,” a struggle that echoes Alexander Pope’s famous heroic couplet: “Know then thyself, presume not God to scan/The proper study of Mankind is Man.”

Cordevilla is a master of molding powerful metaphors out of clear and simple phrases. His poem issues swarms of powerful images and symbolisms from the familiar, where they burst out in the open like fireflies in the evening. And while in some aspects he is an admirer of T. S. Eliot, one can say that in the epic Cordevilla’s approach to poetry is a direct revolt against Eliot’s dictum that poetry must be difficult in order to digest the growing complexities of society. Cordevilla’s symbolisms are spare of the massive literary conceits and pretentions which characterize the agitated ambitions of modernist poetry. Yet do not mistake him for a traditionalist; his avant-gardism takes the shape of taking simple language into a hundred combinations and permutations to produce a vivid art of truth and beauty without compromising its intelligibility on one hand or resulting to truisms on the other. Such skill requires not a lifelong study of the great literatures of the world but an introspection into the universe of one’s inner knowledge.

While his piece agrees that the poet’s ever larger task is to break through these complexities, Cordevilla takes it further by mellowing their shattered fragments down to melodious bits so that, in his own words, a poem “can be read and understood by even an eight-year-old.” The following lines from an earlier episode are touched with musicality that appropriately accompanies the verse’s freedom and lucidity:

I have touched you like I touch you
Like I touch you with these words
I touch you, with these words I see
You fanged by the rising tide
Of darkening history, there O yes
There in the deep deep belly
Of the behemoth the volcano
Raging with afterwars, afterthoughts,
In the later memory doomed
By the vibrations in angelic throats.
In time there shall be no time,
In no time there shall be the time,
And the knee like a camel’s bone
Breaking breaking breaking,
A thunder howl in the possible space,
All that is willing will
The holy water of peace.

The lines chime in with Jose Garcia Villa’s ideal of a poem that is magical and “musical as a seagull.”

Cordevilla is not new to writing long verses – take it from his works The Last Rose and Jose Rizal. Yet in the Ten Thousand Lines Project for World Peace there is an organic and spiritual beauty visible in its spontaneous progression that makes it among the most memorable literary pieces ever written about the subject.

TPS Logo W/Out Decription

Alvin dela Serna Lopez: How did you conceive of the Ten Thousand Lines Project for World Peace? What is the significance of the number 10,000, or why have you chosen this length?

Edwin Cordevilla: The initial plan was 100,000 lines but I immediately realized that it’s mortally impossible, at least for me. I settled at 10,000 lines as target. Eventually the number would become the metaphor in itself. The entire epic attempted to mirror the entire universe, including glimpses of parallel universes. It attempted to embrace human reality and parallel realities. I could have dwelt entirely on the concepts of love and peace, but then, the act of writing the epic is in itself an act of love, towards the possibility of peace.

AL: Poets usually treat the concept of “peace” as something that is socio-political in nature. Yet in the poem you begin by treating peace as transcendent, as if you began the work after some sort of celestial revelation. What was it that inspired you or influenced you to begin Ten Thousand Lines with such metaphysical intensity?

EC: It’s hard to explain, but when I write a poem, I enter a meditative state. I become the eye behind the eyes. I let the soul flow into words, the soul that is wordless becomes words in the act of poetry. In writing an epic about peace, words are incidental, and although incidental they become the visible proof of the existence and motion of what is really invisible. The paradox is thus achieved: my non-verbal and invisible soul conversing with your non-verbal and invisible soul through the art of poetry, that is both very sonic and very visual.

AL: It fascinates me how this paradoxical communication not only bridges two “non-verbal and invisible” souls, but also puts them into communion. I notice that this sort of connection occurs not only between the poet and the reader but also between the different personae in the epic’s vast mythology. In Set 5 it is between two sun-birds while in Set 6 it is between you and nature. Later on you will also speak of just you and the road. Are these just a coincidence, or is it because, as I understand it, for you the “You” and the “I” are the microcosmic equivalent of universal union and symmetry, and thus, harmony? Just how important is this relationship of the “You” and the “I” to the primary theme of the epic?

EC: We are never really alone in this world. In our individual journey, one may be alone, but in truth, he is never alone. Someone is always watching. As writers, we write for someone, even for the Muse. We imagine our audience, we approximate their thoughts, their feelings, their looks, even their prejudices. This communion, this relationship, is an incident in our parallel existences. It gives us confirmation, a sign, a signal. We are each other’s angel although oftentimes we tend to not notice it. The moment’s angel may have not realized it either, until in some future time, he remembers, or he’s made to realize it. This is not a coincidence, it is part of a pattern, and it is part of the framework behind the design. What we can touch and see and hear are mere surfaces of the pattern. We are really connected one way or the other. We are all in here together for a higher purpose, to serve a higher reason, as testimonies and evidence of life’s beautiful truth. We are all in motion, we are all in the hour, and we are all moments leading to the hyper-moment.

AL: While apolitical, the epic seems to contain a few references to topical incidents, for instance allusions to the desert and to two lovers who end up victims of war and terror. Are these allusions general or do they pertain to specific events which actually occurred?

EC: I wrote several allusions on Osama bin Laden in the epic, as it may be worth noting that when I started writing Ten Thousand Lines, he was still very much alive, in hiding, even threatening and plotting his next attack.

Did you know that Bin Laden wrote poems? That was one of my primary motivations, to send a message of peace to him and his minions through poetry. I was working on the second quarter of the epic when he was killed. It frustrated me, not because I don’t want him to be stopped. I wanted to hurt him and hopefully transform his views through the beauty that I see. There is so much more beyond the political, this world has so much more going on than the political; so much truth beyond the commonplace war strategies.

AL: Indeed it was sad that Bin Laden used poetry as a means of gathering followers – sad that such an art was exploited to serve a belligerent agenda. Nonetheless, do you mean that his death deprived the picture of a warrior-poet who could have been an instrumental key as the major persona who could be confronted by a peace poet?

EC: Bin Laden was a major component of the original challenge. His poetry was part of his charisma in winning faithful followers. The desert has its own magic in bringing out the metaphors from poets who embrace and kiss its sands. When his death filled the news, I was at a loss for sometime for want of a new challenge, a new mountain to climb; until I realized that the true enemy was residing within me, as Bin Laden’s true enemy really resided within his own self. It proved that to conquer that particular enemy was no less a challenge. Then I resumed writing the epic with that rare opportunity to defeat the enemy within.

AL: It is worth noting that Set 13 is directly addressed to Bin Laden, whom you describe as “Petal-adorned, decorated with the most/Beautiful of lyrics” but whose breath sprays of death with “Fire that terrifies every soul.” This was written years before his death, but later on in the same set there is that remarkable and somehow prophetic sign of the “last rose” which the peace poet hands over to the warrior-poet. In the other segments is there a part where the epic dwells on him again, this time after his death, and how does the approach differ from this time on?

EC: Actually, it was a little over a year later after writing those “prophetic words” that Osama bin Laden was finally killed by American anti-terrorist teams in a covert operation in Pakistan. It was a sad turnout, as there was no transformation, nothing to that effect, he was killed only to be replaced by another, who, for all you know, might be more ruthless.

You’re right, it was in Set 13 when the narrator of the epic seemingly addresses Bin Laden directly. I eventually changed the word “set” to “episode” to mark each entry. It was after I finished writing more than sixty episodes later that the news of his death broke out. It inspired me to write the episode entitled, “For You Who Are Dead By Assassins’ Bullets,” which belonged in the chapter entitled, “Into the Unknown.”

AL: What were those extreme contrasts between your and Osama Bin Laden’s philosophies which you could have further used as elements in the development of the epic, had he lived long enough to see its completion?

EC: I don’t subscribe to the idea of using physical violence to achieve one’s purpose. I believe in the way of peace as having a more lasting transformative effect to an individual and to society as a whole. Violence breeds more violence. Our universe is subject to karmic laws. I teach myself to plant seeds of love, not hate. Love leads to understanding, while hate to numbness. Love gives way to the flower of humility. Humility leads to the respect of the life of another; it leads to the belief of the potential of another for goodness. Behind the surface of things is a pattern that is good, a beautiful pattern that sets our individual roles towards the symphony of life.

The death of Bin Laden only elevated the artistry of the epic; it only ushered me to the next grade of my education — that there is more to life and poetry than transforming the Bin Ladens of this world.

That level was the phase when I had to confront my own demons.

AL: Often one of the biggest challenges in writing an epic is sustaining that enthusiasm, that philosophical energy and devotion to the subject. For you everything seems to come with spontaneity and freedom. How hard was it to determine whether an epic such as this had to be ended?

EC: I have attempted to end the epic at least a couple of times. The last time, I even submitted a raw manuscript to a former professor of mine believing the epic was already complete. But, it was not the case. At that time, the epic simply refused to end. I got tired as I have a life to live, with so many things to attend to; missed out on too many things for more than two years of writing the poem. The epic has its own life; it was telling me that I could not yet stop, that I still had a long way to go before I could cross the finish line. That’s why I relished the chance to finally announce its completion in public during the launch of my other book, The Occasions of Air, Fire, Water, Earth at the Solidaridad Bookshop in Manila. In truth, it was the epic that told me how to start, it told me how to proceed, and it told me that it was already satisfied with my labor.

AL: Like other writers do you have rituals before, during or after your writing?

EC: I meditate a lot. I know I am in a state of creativity when I can already see my own thoughts, observe my own mind and when I can already put a rein and ride on my own emotions. It’s the moment when I cease from being just the body.

AL: Who are the poets or writers who influenced your writing style?

EC: On top of them are the writers of the Holy Bible, especially the Book of John in the New Testament and writings of King David and prophet Isaiah in the Old Testament. From the classics, I adore William Shakespeare, Walt Whitman and Dylan Thomas. The lesser literary gods for me that I admired are W.B. Yeats, Wolfgang von Goethe and e.e. cummings.

Of course, there are other epics, as Beowulf and the Mindanao epic Darangen that have inspired me. Other writers who influenced me one way or the other were Alexander Dumas and Antoine de Saint Exupery.

Meanwhile, Persian poet Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Balkhī [Rumi] is like a brother, a poetic twin.

AL: To which extent do you consider yourself a poetic twin to Rumi?

EC: I was already using certain metaphors that when I finally discovered Rumi I was amazed at how he used the same metaphors. There are striking similarities in how he saw writing as an art to mine. It was magic, it’s as if he knew me even before I discovered him. My ideal poem is a poem that can be read and understood by even an eight-year-old. That’s the case in Rumi’s poems; they can speak even to an eight-year-old. Although born 760 years ahead of me, when he speaks on the page it is as if it’s my own spirit speaking. Perhaps, it’s his common effect on his readers. It is another happy coincidence that we were both born on same date: September 30.

AL: Don’t you think more of yourself as a philosopher than a poet?

EC: A philosophic mind is another phase in one’s creative growth. Another phase is to have a divine mind that Rumi achieved; yet not detached from worldly realities. The divine mind is anchored in a heart that sees, understands and feels the sufferings of this world.

AL: Are there any other writing projects aside from the Ten Thousand Lines that you’ve been working on lately?

EC: I am working on much shorter poems now. Pure bliss!

AL: What is the difference between your writing before – for example on the collection Phoenix and Other Poems – and during the Ten Thousand Lines?

EC: “Prophesy,” that’s what I tell starting poets. Poetry is more than measure, cadence, and rhyme. Like an architect who sketches a building design, a poet draws his destiny with words. Words are very powerful, more powerful than people often think.

My first collection, Phoenix and Other Poems, which I classify as my rock solid juvenile phase, is composed of poems which are actually self-fulfilling prophecies. The second collection, The Occasions of Air, Fire, Water, Earth, accomplishes a similar end, but it is in this collection where the reader may see the poet immersing himself in human life and situations. In the non-traditional epic, Ten Thousand Lines Project for World Peace, the poet challenges the limits of language, form and the human spirit.

AL: Few are poets who possess a distinct voice such as yours. Most of them follow the standards dictated by the literary establishment and the prevailing criticism of the day. If you would have to express your own, what do you think should be the definition and purpose of poetry?

EC: Poetry is the soul made visible. Ultimately, it should also be tangible, that’s why I believe poems should be published in a book, to make them tangible. There is magic in holding a book of poems. It is a beautiful experience that should be enjoyed by everyone.

AL: How does reading a poem aloud enhance the value of the piece?

EC: Writing the poem and reading the poem aloud require different processes, as they are two distinct kinds of art. There are only a few poets who can read their own poems beautifully. Maybe the reason for this paradox is most poets are too attached to their poems. One must enjoy a certain aesthetic distance from the work to be able to deliver a good performance. Dylan Thomas and T.S Eliot are examples of two great oral interpreters of their own poems.

Hearing the poem being read aloud definitely enhances the value of the poem. From mere appreciation of its textual dimension, the listener gets to enjoy the sonic qualities of the poem as well.

AL: In a poem as spontaneous as the Ten Thousand Lines have you experienced the temptation of losing control of yourself and violating that appropriate aesthetic distance?

EC: Many times, Alvin, the reason I had to delete scores of lines in certain instances, sometimes even more than a hundred lines. It was always painful, although liberating.

AL: Eliot indeed managed to avoid that devouring attachment to his poems but isn’t he too impersonal?

EC: Eliot was too detached from his work indeed, one friend even said, “Eliot’s art is so dead.”

It was only recently that I found myself really enjoying his poetry; his superlative independence from his art impresses me.

Eliot’s subtle attack on William Blake came as no surprise. Blake has been part of my studies. The latter had a very clear vision of his art, and so was Eliot. I love Blake for his pureness, while I admire Eliot for his wit. Both serve their purposes in the empire of poetic art. Although both poets are worlds apart, both have successfully maintained and sustained their individual mystic. Mystic is what makes an artist a beautiful fellow creature.

AL: For a poet who has surely expended much of his energies on a work of this proportion, what did you feel when you became finally certain that you had just set down its last line back in March 2012?

EC: Liberation. God’s love was overflowing through me. I knew I just accomplished the first step in fulfillment of His plan. I was tempted to think though that finally I could already start with my own life. But, what life? I have already surrendered my life to the Ultimate Poetic. From the moment I penned the first line of the epic, it was inevitable – I was already His poem.