Nestor Pestelos and the Poetry of Development

NMP Book cover

Yesterday, I was invited to introduce the book of Nestor M. Pestelos at its launch in the Quezon National High School.

While waiting for him to arrive, some students of QNHS interviewed me. One question which I sought to answer is how poetry relates to development work. Nestor is better know as a development worker, with international agencies, the province of Bohol, and now with his NGO. But listening to yesterday’s stories about him, his schoolmates and teachers knew him as a poet, with a “magical realist” style and sensibility.

Listening to him tell the story of his move from Quezon to Bohol, I realise better why he calls himself an “old warrior.” He was part of our Dekada 70 generation. He was hunted, eventually captured and detained, many of his closest friends tortured and killed.

Yesterday, I reflected aloud on how poetry is important for development work. But after knowing more about Nestor’s life, I want to rewrite what I said.

In the meantime, let me post the short essay I contributed to his book:

Nestor Pestelos and the Poetry of Development

Prose is the default language of development.

His lifetime commitment has given Nestor Pestelos a rich development vocabulary, including key words like logical frameworks and SWOT analysis, performance indicators and means of verification, benchmarks and baselines, milestones and timelines, impacts, assumptions and risks.

Nestor is also familiar with the math and algorithms of development. He even spent his retirement funds developing software for mapping and measuring poverty, the Poverty Database Monitoring System.

Now, late in his life, he has published 33 poems.

Are these poems his escape from the prose of development? A way to set his spirit free from the limits of development discourse?

Nestor explains: “I was writing these poems as therapy. As I approached and turned 70 I became increasingly self-critical of the road I had taken. I felt that all my hard work in development, which claimed most of a lifetime, had not amounted to anything significant at all…

“I needed again to believe in something – to gain optimism despite moral setbacks everywhere. In writing the poems, snatching time in- between meetings or worrying about them, I gained emotional distance from events or personalities which frustrated me.”

Two successive events jolted Nestor and his wife Jojie. His father in-law died a day before the magnitude 7.2 earthquake hit Bohol in October 2013: “We realized much more how fragile life was. Images of corpses on the streets in the aftermath of typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda in Samar and Leyte reinforced this feeling.”

He stopped writing poems.

Nestor and Jojie plunged into distributing relief goods, raising funds and soliciting construction materials to build transition core houses so that families could move from their tents and makeshift shelter.

There was overwhelming response from within and outside Bohol. The earthquake victims and communities moved as one to help build their houses.

Nestor writes: “The disaster galvanized whole communities again towards a common goal. Indeed, the earthquake restored our waning faith in local communities. We were surprised by their capacity to fight off dependency and hopelessness.”

Did Nestor give up poetry when he decided to focus on relief, reconstruction, and development? Not really, if we believe Juan Galman, an Argentinian poet:

Poetry is a way of living.
Look at the people at your side. Do they eat? Suffer? Sing? Cry?

Help them fight for their hands, their eyes, their mouth, for the kiss to kiss and the kiss to give away, for their table, their bread, their letter a and their letter h, for their past — were they not children? — for their present, for the piece of peace, of history and happiness that belongs to them, for the piece of love, big, small, sad, joy, that belongs to them and is taken away in the name of what, of what?

Your life will then be an innumerable river to be called pedro, juan, ana, maria, bird, lung, the air, my shirt, violin, sunset, stone, that handkerchief, old waltz, wooden horse.

Poetry is this. Afterward, write it.

In his introduction, Nestor links his initial “dimly-perceived need to publish a collection of poems” to his advocacy to build more core houses for those rendered homeless by the earthquake: “We will then go beyond therapy if we again venture to write and publish another set of poems.”

As he pours his energy into reconstruction and development work, Nestor is doing poetry.

We hope he will write it, soon.

Explore posts in the same categories: Leadership, Lifelong Learning, Popular education

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