Riding high on the hit teleserye “On The Wings of Love,” Juan Miguel Severo could very well be the only poet on television these days.
It’s one thing for shows to feature spoken word poets, but Severo is given a rare chance to write, act and perform his pieces nationwide on TV.
The spoken word artist started making his rounds of cafes such as Sev’s, Route 196 and Bunk, usually alongside other local poets, before joining OTWOL.
He was initially brought in by director Antoinette Jadaone as a writer before he was cast as one of the friends of Jigs played by Albie Casino, the rival of main character James Reid for Nadine Lustre’s heart.
The two go a long way back in college as orgmates in UP Cinema at the College of Mass Communication. Severo was already a regular in Jadaone’s films, but always often with bit and even nameless roles. He was applicant no. 2 in “English Only Please,” and a fan club president of a star in “Beauty in a Bottle.” He also appeared in indie films such as “I-libings,” “Ruweda” and “Oros.”
“At first, he was barkada no. 2, but Jigs’ friends were so ’nega’ and serious that we wanted to put in a funny man, some comedic relief. That’s when I asked Gege for the role,” Jadaone said.
“Tonette suggested to the creatives to take me in as a writer because I know her sense of humor as a director. But I got a call for a part. I was game,” Severo said.
The sequences were later revised to include Severo’s role. Social media went abuzz, recognizing Severo from his popular videos such as “Ang Huling Tula na Isusulat Ko Para Sa’Yo” and “Naniniwala Ako,” and this prompted the show’s executives to find out why Severo had a following.
Even Dreamscape Entertainment’s boss Deo Endrinal came across Severo’s performances on YouTube and introduced the idea of including spoken word poetry in the show.
“At first, we just wanted to try it for a week, but it was a hit. We decided to make it a mainstay. Sometimes, Gege would perform on stage. Other times, his poems become the backdrop instead of music in visual montages of James and Nadine,” Jadaone added.
While many see Rico as Severo’s alter ego, the 27-year-old poet said he had deliberately made Rico’s poems different from his personal projects.
“Rico’s poems are more structured and more measured, as compared to my personal works which are more freestyle and free-flowing,” he said.
This deliberate change in “voice” is important to Severo, because it widens his imagination to carry different characters as a writer.
“Of course I am still the one writing everything but as much as possible, I want each character to be different. Here, I want to act, eh,” he said.
“If I don’t change the ’voice’, the writing style and performance of the character, then it’s like Juan Miguel Severo is not acting as Rico but just breaking the fourth wall,” referring to the contrast between his TV and live stage performances.
In time, the poems performed by Rico, such as “Sampung Bagay na Matututunan mo sa Pag-ibig,” “Ang Mga Lugar ay Pawang Mga Lugar Lamang,” “Para sa mga Tawa” and “Kapag Sinabi Kong Mahal Kita,” were trending online. His 1,500 followers on Twitter swelled to 30,000 overnight.
His recent performance on weekend variety show ASAP with the major stars was a breakthrough for Severo. On Twitter as @TheRainBro, he could not contain the excitement in breaking what many consider as a ceiling for his art form.
“You performed Spoken Word in ASAP. Let that sink in, Juan Miguel,” he tweeted.
Jadaone was just as ecstatic. The song number by Reid and Lustre featured a chorus with Severo’s poem. He performed another piece during the Spread The Love tour of the show at a jampacked Market! Market! in Taguig.
“I am genuinely happy that spoken word poetry has been featured on TV, especially since this art form is not yet that known outside certain circles,” Jadaone said.
At first, Severo was given a poem to read, but when it became evident that it would work better if he were in command of his own words, he was later given free rein with his own works. Once the scripts are sent, the writers are confident in placing a blank space for his works.
Severo is given a theme for his poems’ pegs, and he makes it a point to watch every episode to create the proper context.
And the best part? “I don’t get edited,” Severo added.
Except for minor revisions mostly dealing with constraints on airtime, Severo is thankful that he is given creative freedom for his works.
Severo’s works are mainly written in Filipino, but he shared that he has started writing poems in English. Even in his FB account, most of his notes and drafts were in English. The first spoken word piece he wrote was in English, but he realized that in spoken word, one should write in the language one is most comfortable with.
“Even if I’m comfortable to write in English, mas sanay pa rin ako magsalita in Filipino,” he said.
“The first time I wrote and performed a spoken word piece in Filipino, it was a different feeling, a different high,” Severo shared.
“It’s like a Ron and Hermione moment—it’s as if you have a longtime friend who came suddenly dressed up to the nines, and you fell head over heels in love with her. Then you realize, matagal mo na pala syang mahal. That’s how I feel about it,” he said, laughing at his own analogy.
He first wrote “Basang Sapatos,” a piece he rarely performs these days about growing up in Malabon and falling in love with someone from the same place, and how they were both used to floods. His first performance, however, was “Mga Basang Unan,” one of the hits that garnered thousands of views online.
Severo revealed it was originally meant to be a trilogy, with the last one dubbed “Basang Libro,” but he never managed to complete the third piece.
Aside from OTWOL, Severo is busy writing poems and plays. His debut play “Hintayan ng Langit” was part of this year’s Virgin Labfest. The play was so well received that it was also shown to Filipino communities in New York through the office of the Philippine Consul general in the United States. He intends to join again next year.
He is also excited to finish a new project called “Parada ng Mga Makasalanan” (A Parade of Sinners), taken from the perspective of seven sinners, each representing a deadly sin.
“It’s exhausting to write because these are personal poems. You try to embody yourself in the position of whoever is speaking. The idea is for those sinners in the poems to justify their sins,” he said.
For example, the first sinner is a whore, to represent lust. So the whore says, “This is my body, I can do whatever I want with my it with anyone I please.” For wrath, it’s from the perspective of a father whose daughter was raped. And for envy, it’s from the perspective of a teenager who wants a life in the city, but is stuck in a hacienda as a sakada (sugar cane farmer).
Severo explained his exploration of themes is an effort to deviate from solely writing love poems.
“It’s not bad per se, but as a writer, you don’t want to repeat yourself. I want to try different territory,” he said.
From poetry on page to stage, and now on TV, Severo considers it his responsibility to spread the word on spoken word poetry.
“I am happy and excited that the art form is going places, reaching a wider audience. I also fear misrepresenting it because of the show,” he said. “I want to let people know that spoken word poetry is not just limited to love poems or specific themes.”
Just like how he started, he encourages people to discover the works of other local spoken words artists.
“I really hope that people don’t stop with me. I want them to really fall in love with the art form, enough for them to discover other artists. Because I did that.”
He was exposed to Sarah Kay and Phil Kaye and all their videos, then eventually found other influences, including Andrea Gibson and Jeanann Verlee.
“I hope the audience would do the same. That after watching my repertoire, they should start watching other local spoken word poets, too,” he said, citing groups such as Words Anonymous, The White Wall Poetry and For Word and By Word.