What I could have learned from Mr. Icban

Published April 11, 2021, 12:12 AM

by AA Patawaran

Mr. Icban never really noticed me, until I wrote a poem.

I attended the 10-day Singapore Writers Festival and brought home with me this burning desire to write in verse. I used to write poetry as a kid, but I outgrew it. While working for glossy magazines, I started writing poetry again to accompany the fashion editorials or travel photographs when, instead of facts, what I would like to convey was a mood or an atmosphere—but moving to the newspaper, I had this mistaken notion that there was no room for poetry in the news, even in the lifestyle beat.

“Poet ka pala. You are a poet,” said Mr. Icban, when my coverage of the writers’ festival came out in the lifestyle section of this paper. I was overwhelmed by the many voices and the many writing styles I encountered during the two-week-long writing congregation that, instead of a straight-up report or an elaborate essay, I decided to write about it in the form of a poem I called “A Few Words to Our Poets in Hiding.”

After that, as if it were a secret he unraveled, he would always point it out. “Ah, the poet,” he would say when we ran into each other in the hallways. “AA, the poet, keep it up. We don’t have many poets anymore,” he would say while we sat across each other at our Monday morning meetings or when we tucked in close to each other to occasional Monday lunches at the Manila Hotel. “Oh and he is a poet too,” he never failed to add every time I was introduced to someone as an editor in his presence.

To this day, I have yet to muster the courage to call myself a poet. Mr. Icban was the first to ever call me that, long before I wrote a book of poetry, long before it even crossed my mind that I could write a book of poems.

Mr. Icban or Dr. Crispulo Icban Jr., dear departed Jun Icban, editor in chief of the Manila Bulletin for 18 years, was “the embodiment of old-school journalism,” described as he was by former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in whose administration he served as press secretary. I consider it an honor to have had my name in the same space as his all these years in the Manila Bulletin staffbox. In Panorama, my name is right under his, although he told me on more than one occasion, “Dapat wala na ako diyan. My name shouldn’t be there. That’s all yours.” Once, during a cocktail party at the Fiesta Pavilion, he took me by the arm to Sen. Alberto Romulo, who said to me, “I want to shake the hand of the man who made Panorama readable again.”

As a journalist, to my regret, I did not have the privilege of working closely with Mr. Icban. I considered myself too junior to be worthy of his time, although I did on few occasions showed him my work. On these occasions, he would walk to my desk with the printout in his hand. Rising to my feet to show respect and gratitude, I would expect some hard lessons, only to be given a pat on the back. He was a gentle giant, generous with praise.

Mr. Icban’s passing struck me with profound sadness. More than professional, ours was a personal relationship, our moments few and far between but nonetheless memorable, such as when we were talking about The Fiddler on the Roof—he was a fan of musicals—and he sang “If I Were a Rich Man” to me, his arms carving the air as though he were conducting an orchestra.

More than anything, I mourn the loss of Mr. Icban because he was one of very few left standing who appreciate good writing in any form, to whom the nuts and bolts of good writing, even journalism, even digital journalism, are words crafted in pursuit not only of the truth or the facts or the scoop and the viral, but also meaning, rhythm, and beauty.

His daughter Nini told me that Mr. Icban’s life as a journalist started with the Reader’s Digest. I wonder if in his youth, this American magazine, which was founded only 14 years before he was born, already had the popular vocabulary quiz called “Increase Your Word Power.” That quiz got me so interested in words that growing up I would memorize 20 unfamiliar words from the dictionary every day. I suppose it was one of the reasons I became a writer.

I’m glad I have this in common with a great writer like Mr. Icban, to whom, more than a job, more than a profession, more than a career, writing was a life.