PinoyLit: Jose Garcia Villa

Jose Garcia Villa's pic Poet, critic, short story writer, and painter, Jose Garcia Villa was a consummate artist in poetry and in person as well. At parties given him by friends and admirers whenever he came home for a brief visit, things memorable usually happened. Take that scene many years ago at the home of the late Federico Mangahas, a close friend of Villa's. The poet, resplendent in his shiny attire, his belt an ordinary knotted cow's rope, stood at a corner talking with a young woman. Someone in the crowd remarked: "What's the idea wearing a belt like that?" No answer. Only the faint laughter of a woman was heard. Or was it a giggle perhaps? Then there was one evening, with few people around, when he sat down Buddha-like on a semi-marble bench under Dalupan Hall at UE waiting for somebody. That was the year he came home from America to receive a doctor's degree, honoris causa, from FEU. Somebody asked: "What are you doing?" He looked up slowly and answered bemused: "I am just catching up trying to be immoral." Sounded something like that. There was only murmuring among the crowd. They were not sure whether the man was joking or serious. They were awed to learn that he was the famed Jose Garcia Villa. What did the people remember? The Buddha-like posture? Or what he said?

That was Villa the artist. There's something about his person or what he does or says that makes people gravitate toward him. Stare at him or listen to him.

Villa is the undisputed Filipino supremo of the practitioners of the "artsakists." His followers have diminished in number but are still considerable.

Villa was born in Singalong, Manila, on 05 August 1908. His parents were Simeon Villa, personal physician of revolutionary general Emilio Aguinaldo, and Guia Garcia. He graduated from the UP High School in 1925 and enrolled in the pre-med course. He didn't enjoy working on cadavers and so he switched to pre-law, which he didn't like either. A short biography prepared by the Foreign Service Institute said Villa was first interested in painting but turned to writing after reading Sherwood Anderson's "Winesburg, Ohio."

Meanwhile, he devoted a good part of his time writing short stories and poems. Soon he started exerting his leadership among the UP writers.

His ideas on literature were provocative. He stirred strong feelings. He was thought too individualistic. He published his series of erotic poems, "Man Songs" in 1929. It was too bold for the staid UP administrators, who summarily suspended Villa from the university. He was even fined P70 for "obscenity" by the Manila Court of First Instance.

With the P1,000 he won as a prize from the Philippines Free Press for his "Mir-i-Nisa," adjudged the best short story that year (1929), he migrated to the United States. He enrolled at the University of New Mexico where he edited and published a mimeographed literary magazine he founded: Clay. Several young American writers who eventually became famous contributed. Villa wrote several short stories published in prestigious American magazines and anthologies.

Here is a partial list of his published books:

  • Philippine Short Stories, best 25 stories of 1928 (1929)
  • Footnote to Youth, short stories (1933)
  • Many Voices, poems (1939)
  • Poems (1941)
  • Have Come Am Here, poems ((1941)
  • Selected Poems and New (1942)
  • A Doveglion Book of Philippine Poetry (1962)

Through the sponsorship of Conrad Aiken, noted American poet and critic, Villa was granted the Guggenheim Fellowship in creative writing. He was also awarded $1,000 for "outstanding work in American literature." He won first prize in poetry at the UP Golden Jubilee Literary Contests (1958) and was conferred the degree Doctor of Literature, honoris causa, by FEU (1959); the Pro Patria Award for literature (1961); Heritage Awards for literature, for poetry and short stories (1962); and National Artist Award for Literature (1973).

On 07 February 1997, Jose Garcia Villa died at a New York hospital, two days after he was found unconscious in his apartment. He was 88.

The Department of Foreign Affairs said Villa, popularly known as the "comma poet," died at 12:37 a.m. (New York time) of "cerebral stroke and multilobar pneumonia" at the St. Vincent Hospital in Greenwich.

He is survived by his two sons, Randy and Lance, and three grandchildren.

Interment was scheduled on Feb. 10 in New York, the DFA said. It added that Villa had expressed the wish to be buried wearing a barong. Though he lived in New York for 67 years, he remained happily a Filipino citizen.

Biographical Reference: Filipino Writers in English by Florentino B. Valeros and Estrellita V. Gruenberg, New Day Publishers, Quezon City, 1987.


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