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Agam in DC: first US launch done, New York and the Bay Area next

By Red Constantino

Busboys and Poets on 5th and K is a lovely place. You enter it through a lush, handsomely lit corner bookshop and a front-of-the-house counter decorated with a “Close Guantanamo” poster.

A short step after the main room opens with an enormous steel staircase in the center coiling up to the mezzanine. Beneath it a busy bar twinkles with liquor bottles and mixing implements, surrounded by languid patrons on high chairs nursing early cocktails.20141007_AgamDC_1
Large paintings decorate the wide walls of the restaurant. Many are colorful portraits of revolutionary figures, poets and activists across generations and geographies.

Facing the street, huge glass windows from floor to high ceiling frame the view outside.

The open kitchen is frantic with steam. Servers bussing great plates and glasses cross the space and towards the right a heavy wooden door opens to the events room, which was larger than we expected.

It made us anxious. It looked like a small theater, with great murals and dimpled, russet-colored leather sofas lining the long room. Heavy chairs and tables made with thick slabs of wood were arranged to occupy the entire space and right in front, a stage large enough for a four-piece band to play in.

We launched the literary anthology Agam in Washington DC last October 8 with modest expectations. It was to be exactly 11 months before the first year anniversary of the day supertyphoon Yolanda hit the Philippines; apart from book event, there was just so many other things going on during the period.

Announcements were made on short notice, during a week replete with activities related to the annual meetings of the World Bank and IMF, in addition to an event organized by the Philippine Embassy and another book launch — by the physician and popular author Helen Caldicott — on the same day and almost the same time in the main branch of the establishment we were working with.

We expected not a few invitations to be declined, assuming people had time to respond at all. The hope was a few colleagues from co-sponsoring organizations, and maybe some friends, would turn up. Pints of beer would be shared and maybe whiskey, and we’d all heave a sigh of relief.

But it turned out that we had a full house; towards the middle of the program, people were already standing at the back, and we ran out of copies even before we moved out of the room, issuing promises and getting the addresses of people asking how and where they can get more copies. Agam’s contributors would have been mighty pleased to see the book-signing queue snaking its way through the animated crowd.

We talked during the program about the making of Agam — the ideas behind the book and the approaches different writers had taken in putting together their stories. It was important as well to touch on the cadence we had sought in choosing which stories would go first to be followed by what piece, located in what chapter, knowing full well that an inherent part of the challenge was created by images in Agam generating their own narratives and the narratives producing an array of imageries that ultimately did not compete with one another, producing a flow that concluded with tenacity and hope.

Instead of the usual book readings, we showed videos of kids from Tacloban reading excerpts from some of Agam’s stories. And we ended with a short presentation of the RE-Charge Tacloban project, where proceeds from the sale of each Agam copy would go. A seven-month effort that began in April, in a 750-square meter parcel of swampy land that was during Yolanda’s storm surge submerged under 10 feet of water was now lit up and powered by sunlight, with structures in place for training, exhibits, community events, quarters and offices and shops, and a motor pool for electric vehicles.

20141008_AgamDC_3People who had read about the event on office and community noticeboards dropped by, including students and nurses and a groups of young Filipino Americans. A throng of Peace Corps folks showed up led by the sunshine of Joy Javillonar; one, Sherry Manning, was drawing up plans to launch Agam in Denver in early 2015. And of course friends from the World Resources Institute, some of whom, top analysts at WRI, even volunteered for cashier and logistics duties.

To work again on something common, however briefly, with old friends who value your work and your values, it is a precious thing.

The DC launch could not have happened without John Coequyt of Sierra Club and Steve Kretzmann of Oil Change International, who trusted enough the heart and effort that was put in by the Agam team to craft and publish Agam. New friends were made as well, like Nefta Freeman of the Institute for Policy Studies, who helped hook us up with Busboys and who represented Janet Redman, who unfortunately could not make it to the event.

I lifted a pint of IPA for Jeng Maceda, who is helping to coordinate book events from San Francisco, and another to Tom Kruse of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, who with Cristina Rumbaitis del Rio of the Rockefeller Foundation, is holding the Agam baton in New York.

The night ended well and slided into the calm glow of restrained celebrations, and it was burnished of course by the presence of three wonderful women — the able emceeing of iCSC board chair and founder Athena Ballesteros, and Sandra Smithey and Traci Romine of the Mott Foundation, both of whom chose to stay in the background, where magic resides.

On to Manhattan and Berkeley. And maybe even Denver. #