The Poetics & Physics of Hugot, with Juan Miguel Severo

Hugot — a word that has reached critical mass, a Filipino word that connotes emotional vulnerability, a word that directly translates “to pull out” or “to draw out.”

Hugot is undeniable in a culture that upholds the harmony of a group foremost, as opposed to speaking out on things that troubles one’s self. It thrives in societies where it is more acceptable to keep it all in, to hold all of it in — whether it is pain, loss, disappointment or heartache — because to create a ripple on the surface is more embarrassing.

It is drawn deep from the emotional ground of the self, where it is carefully kept, nurtured well by similar experiences. It takes root in the heart, plants itself in the mind, until it becomes one with the body. The body holds it closely.

And then it comes out — in the most inopportune times: while watching a movie, after seeing a happy couple at a park, in the middle of a poem.

It bears the undeniable mark of hurt, usually masked with a joke. With a tinge of nostalgia, or bitterness.

This is where Juan Miguel Severo comes in, touted as the “Hugot Boy” or “Hugot King.” My first introduction to Severo like many, was through a video that went viral: 

This video of Severo performing a spoken word piece in Tagalog is electric. It is fire. It is the first of its kind that I’ve ever seen, as a lover of poetry and an avid fan of spoken word poets like Saul Williams, Aja Monet and Kai Davis.

It is also undoubtedly rife with hugot (hugot lines as many would claim) to which I declare: Wrap me up in all of it, please. I am that tender-hearted Pinay who feels safest/happiest in places where emotions are deep, raw and unbridled.

In his debut collection of poetry Habang Wala Pa Sila: Mga Tula ng Pag-ibig, I reveled in the intimacy and vulnerability of poems. The book was a pasalubong (along with other books) from my parents after a trip to the Philippines over the summer.

And it wasn’t until my trip to Puerto Rico on the last week of August that I was finally able to immerse myself in it — at Culebra nonetheless, an island off of the main island of Puerto Rico 17 miles away:

Playa Flamenco (Culebra, Puerto Rico)

It’s been awhile since I read Filipino literature, and there are only a few poems in Tagalog that I remember clearly: Maria Lorena Barros’s and from a collection of political poems called Poetika/Politika.

The book is a collection of love poems, and one of my favorite things that Severo does is how he weaves emotional and geographical landscapes together. In a poem for his brother Bago Ka Umalis ng Bahay (Before You Leave the House), he writes (and I fumbly translate):

Na ang pagmamahal ay hindi basta
dalawang magkaibang punto sa mapa lamang,
kundi ang mga dagat, kapatagan, at kabundukan
na sinasakop nila sa kanilang pagitan.

Natutunan ko sa’yo na ang mga tao man ay isang lugar.
Ang puso ay bahay. And dibdib ay pulo.
Ang balikat ay bundok. Ang mga bisig, pantalan.

(That love isn’t just
two opposing points on a map,
but that it is the ocean, the vast lands, the mountains,
and the spaces they occupy in their midst.

I learned from you that people can be places.
That the heart can be a home. The chest, an island.
The shoulder, a mountain. The arms, a dock.)

And then there are poems like Ang Ikatlong Batas ng Pagkilos Ayon Kay Newton (The Third Law of Motion According to Newton) which combines physics and the life cycle of a failed relationship. The poem can only make sense in Tagalog, as it employs only four unique words which are repeated in a sequence and then read in reverse. Severo’s grasp of the language and the way he is able to craft a poem that is both stripped and weighty at the same time moves me.

Graywhale Cove State Beach (Montara, California)

It wasn’t until my trip to Puerto Rico that I was finally able to get some sun, experience a “real summer.” My time there was short, but it was enough to give me the respite I desperately needed. Any time away from the hustle of city life gives light to the soul, and I came back from the island to the U.S. mainland with a renewed zest for life.

Severo’s poem Guimaras exemplifies this experience, and he puts into words the exact process one undergoes upon return to city life. He recounts every detail with significance, from the boat ride to the island off of the Visayas region. He documents the sun’s positions, mirroring the depth of and the weight of life and love on a person. He finds beauty in the stars and in the dark of the night, he finds peace.

As I slowly readjust to the pace of and hum (more like, buzz) of daily life, it’s poems like Guimaras that propels me to slow down and take everything in. This is probably my favorite from the collection. It wasn’t after I read it too, the second time around, that I noticed the book’s title embedded in the poem.

Bukas daw ay babawiin na ako ng lungsod
upang muling balutin ng sidhi’t nito’t sikip,
ipapaalala ang mga pagkukulang ko’t
kung gaano ako kaliit. Kaya habang wala pa sila,
isusuko ko itong sarili sa kalawakan
at maglalaho sa kanyang ganda
hanggang sa maging ako na ang gabi
at ang gabi’y nagiging ako na.
Aangkinin ko ang lahat ng natatanaw
na dilim, na kislap — lahat ito’y ibubulsa.

(Tomorrow the city will take me back
and it will wrap me up in its intensity & closeness,
it’ll remind me of my misgivings
and how I’m inconsequential. So while they’re not here,
I will surrender this self unto the galaxy
and disappear in its beauty
until I become one with the night
and the night becomes me.
I will claim everything that is visible
the darkness, the glimmer — everything will be kept.)


Sa paghihintay ko sa dapit-hapon,
nawala sa isipan kong iba
ang rikit ng ilaw na nag-aaklas
sa karimlang gumagapi sa kanya.
Uuwi ako sa lungsod nang panatag sa pag-iisa.

(While I wait for the sunset,
it dawned on me
that the quality of light that strikes
in the coldness that surrounds it.
I will come back to the city, calm in my alone-ness.)


At sapagkat ako ang gabi, ang sinasabi ko sa’yo:
pagdating ko’y sasakluban kita.
Sapagkat ako ang gabi, ang sinasabi ko sa’yo:
dito ka sa ‘kin, humimbing ka.

(And because I am night, here’s what I’m telling you:
when I come I will envelope you.
Because I am night, what I’m telling you:
be here with me, sleep soundly.)

There are only a few poets who can make me hold my breath, who can have me clutching my chest with the tide of words they string together, towards the shore of my own longing: Rainer Maria Rilke, Nikky Finney, Cherrie Moraga, Warsan Shire. And as of late, Juan Miguel Severo.


4 thoughts on “The Poetics & Physics of Hugot, with Juan Miguel Severo

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