What It's Like To Be Spoken Word Artist Juan Miguel Severo
Because you asked for it, you're getting it, Candy Girls! We finally had the chance to get in touch with On the Wings of Love's spoken word artist Juan Miguel Severo and we asked all the questions you've been dying to know the answers to.
In this interview, Juan Miguel (or Gege as his friends call him) talked about his beginnings, how he deals with blah moments when writing, and a few books he recommends for those who are want to get started on writing and spoken word as an art form. Make sure to take down notes as you read, you guys!
Please tell us about your beginnings as an actor and as a spoken word artist.
"I tried denying it for years but eventually I had to give in. I really am passionate about performing. I decided back in college that I would be a writer who performs and a performer who writes. I went on auditions for theater and film but couldn't land on a role. And it's incredibly frustrating—sometimes even depressing—for an artist not to have an outlet. So when I discovered spoken word poetry, a form where the artist is both author and performer, I immediately fell in love with it and decided that I'd eventually try it. It took two years for me to learn about Sev's Cafe, that there's a monthly spoken word open mic night there. In May 2014, I went there and performed spoken word for the first time. It was then that I met my group, Words Anonymous, and life has been pretty incredible since.
Please describe your typical working day for us.
"Most of the work happens at night. Maybe because I have a screwed up body clock or maybe because it's more quiet. It's almost impossible for me to write when the sun's still up so when I don't have a show or I'm not taping episodes for On the Wings of Love, I just stay in and try to write as much as I can at home. These days, the pile of emails I have to answer can get overwhelming though that it makes me sad. Just to be clear, I am grateful that what I do is being appreciated and it led them to sending me these invitations and messages, but answering emails take away a huge chunk of time I should be spending writing new material. Having said that, please allow me to take this opportunity to apologize to those who sent messages I was not able to reply to. As much as I want to respond to everything, doing so would no longer let me be the guy they wanted to send an email to to begin with. Okay, back to the question. Haha. Usually the writing bug bites me after midnight and I finish when the sun is back.
"When I have a gig or a show, I wake up in the afternoon, write a set list, and practice all my pieces whenever possible. I practice everywhere. In the shower, in the cab, or the train while on my way to the venue. If you ever see me walking around the mall or staying at a coffee shop with my earphones on, mouthing words to myself, and making silly hand gestures, please don't think I'm weird. That's just me trying to memorize. Haha.
"Kapag taping naman ng OTWOL, gano'n din. I'm usually on call in the evening so since I live in Malabon and we tape in Quezon City, I hang out at some coffee shop nearby while the staff and crew aren't on set yet and that's when I usually write Rico's poems."
Please describe your typical day or time on the set of On the Wings of Love for us.
"The bar place where we tape the spoken word scenes is very much operational so we usually do those around midnight, kapag wala nang customers at tahimik na yung nagvi-videoke sa kapitbahay. Funny. There was one time we couldn't start yet because the videoke music was still too loud. At ang kinakanta nila? Tada! "Hanap Hanap" by James and Nadine. Usually we pack up around 2 or 3 in the morning, depends on how many takes I need to nail a piece or how many pieces I need to perform that night. Pinaka-late kaming natapos 5AM na. Minsan pa naman I still edit the poems on the set, as in minutes before take. What I really like about it though is how they just let me. They trust me with the scenes so much that the creatives ask for a copy of each poem after we already shot it! Anyway, whenever I'm on standby pa, nagbabasa lang ako sa loob ng tent, nagi-internet, or talking to Albie [Casiño] and the rest of the cast and crew. Albie and I played this game once with Ysabel [Ortega], yung boss namin sa show. Pakana ni Albie 'to e. We just ask each other How I Met Your Mother trivia questions, because we're big fans of the show, at kung sino'ng magbigay ng tanong na hindi masasagot ng iba sa kanya ang point. Albie won and I still haven't forgiven myself.
"Wow, ang lame pala pakinggan 'pag inexplain. But for me it was like competing for the national level ng Math Olympiad. Gano'n kami kaseryoso sa game dahil gano'n kami kalaking fans ng HIMYM."
How did everyone welcome your art form on the set? Were you surprised at how well televiewers received your performances and pieces after your first performance?
"I was really surprised and happy about the reception. When Sampung Bagay (Rico's first performance) aired, I was currently in the middle of an argument with someone and had to pause and say 'Uy, hala wait lang, trending topic ako sa Twitter!' plus expletives. The cast and staff have been vocal about how much they appreciate it, too. Nadine would fish if I actually went through the situations in the poem, and James asked how much of it is written and how much room is there for improvisation. Nakakatuwa yung interes nila. Si Direk Jojo [Saguin], nagpo-post pa ng mga linyang sinulat ko sa IG niya. At syempre Direk Tonette [Jadaone], who's been a friend to me for years and responsible for why I was cast as Rico in the first place, would express how proud she was of me akala mo nanay ko siya. Nakakatuwa. Whenever these people express their appreciation for what I do, I feel like butter melting on a hot frying pan. Ang sarap at bango ko. Haha, wow.
"But honestly, I have mixed feelings about the attention because spoken word as an art form is still very young and I don't want to be someone who misrepresents it. There's always a pressure to do a good and honest representation and introduction of the craft to a wider audience. So again I'll take this opportunity to remind people that our show is a rom-com so of course most if not all of Rico's pieces are about love. But they should remember that the themes and topics spoken word poetry can cover are boundless. I hope that while I get to introduce the art form to a lot of people through the show, I don't give them the impression na hanggang pag-ibig lang ang puwedeng maging laman ng isang piyesang spoken word. I hope more people go to actual spoken word events so they can know more about the local spoken word scene."
What do you usually do on your spare time?
"I cry. Haha. Joke lang. I read, I catch up on my favorite TV shows, I watch movies, I write."
When did you realize that you were already successful at what you're doing?
"I think it only sunk in after a show in Iloilo late last year. You have to know that for so many years I identify myself as an extrovert. Lately, appearing in television and film and doing spoken word shows are making an introvert out of me. I so badly wanted to have some time alone after that show in Iloilo that I rode a boat to Guimaras the morning after and went to the most secluded beach in the island to have enough quiet time and write. That's one sign of success, I think: Having the strong need to spend time by and with your self because such an instance has gotten rarer. Another is about those invitations in my inbox I was talking about earlier, ones that I couldn't answer or have no choice but to decline. I think you know you're successful when you finally become used to saying no."
What's your college major, and do you think your course matters in the industry you’re in?
"I took up two years of Architecture in UP Diliman, became a non-major student for more than one academic year while taking film subjects. I was planning to shift to BA Film when I started working in the film industry as an art director, slate guy, caretaker ng camera, at kung anu-ano pang raket. While there are classes that I will always cherish because of the things I learned in them, I think there's nothing more educational for me than field work and conversations with people who work in the industry. Honestly, para sa akin, if you plan to the build a career in the arts, your priority should be your portfolio and not your transcript. So yes, of course, by all means, be the best student you can be—your parents will be happy to see you march and get a diploma, e. But do not limit yourself to the syllabi and check lists provided by academic institutions. If you are in the arts, you'll need more than passing scores in exams. You'll need to experience as much of the world as you can."
You tweeted before that your writing process is similar to Mia's in Walang Forever. Was there a time when you thought that what you've written wasn't as good as the ones you've done before? What do you do when a moment like that happens? Where do you find your inspiration?
"Oo naman! Maraming beses. I wrote a lot of stuff that never made it out of the house because I don't think they're good enough. Actually not 'not good enough,' e. I find them terrible, period. But the only cure to not being satisfied with one's work is to keep on working. So if nothing good is coming out, I rest. I don't delete the bad ones I've written because I kept journals since I was 14 and it taught me that even if pangit ang isang nasulat mo you can still get something good from it—like a line, or phrase, or imagery, metaphor. May mga poems ako now na may imagery na naisip ko noong high school pa ako. One of my more popular poems, Mga Basang Unan was written in 2014. But the image it painted, yung pillows drenched in tears because you cried yourself to sleep, I wrote that as an idea sa journal ko when I was 15, I think.
"Also, there's this quote by Martha Graham that I really love; it's where Sara Bareilles got the title of her album The Blessed Unrest. It's long but the gist of it is that no artist is pleased and it's this dissatisfaction, this 'blessed unrest' that makes us more alive. That quote has made me more at peace with my insecurities and made the 'cure' that is to keep on working much easier to take on. And when I need a new inspiration, I watch films, listen to music, read, look at old photos, talk to people. Inspiration can be found everywhere because there's poetry in everything. You just have to not discriminate and treat everything as a potential metaphor."
What's your advice for those who aspire to be a spoken word artist just like you or to those who want to be a writer like you?
"Be reminded that spoken word poetry is a different discipline altogether. It's not here to replace traditional or page poetry, it's also a performing art. And please read as much as you can and expose yourself to all sorts of art forms for inspiration. But most importantly, be in touch with the world and with yourself. Know yourself more so you can write more truthfully. Write more so you can know yourself more truthfully. Write. Write. Write."
What books would you recommend to those who want to get started on writing their own poems?
"Hmm. Tutal sa love poems naman ako associated, sige, try to look for Abad and Yuson's One Hundred Love Poems. It's a collection of love poems by Filipino poets since 1905. I think it's important because these poems capture how we love as a people, as Filipinos. It's published by UP Press. Bukod doon, mahal ko ang Pulotgata ni Danton Remoto, Dark Hours by Conchitina Cruz, anything J. Neil Garcia, and it's Jerry B. Gracio's Apokripos that has made me want to write more so maybe check that out, too.
"Maglalabas din pala ako ng libro this February. It's called Habang Wala Pa Sila. It's a collection of—surprise!—love poems. I hope you guys get a copy of it when it comes out."
Is there a chance that you'll be holding workshops or classes in the future?
"Words Anonymous, my group of spoken word artists, already has a syllabus so if people are interested, I won't be the primary facilitator there but I'll be there. Haha. So if people want to learn more abour spoken word, they can like our Facebook page and wait for announcements. We definitely want to facilitate workshops this year."
Know more people we should feature on the website? Let us know in the comments. We always love hearing from you. :)