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Eileen R. Tabios Interview

 

Eileen R. Tabios has released over 50 collections of poetry, fiction, essays, and experimental biographies from publishers in nine countries and cyberspace. Her books include a form-based “Selected Poems” series, The In(ter)vention of the Hay(na)ku: Selected Tercets 1996-2019, The Great American Novel: Selected Visual Poetry (2001-2019), Invent(St)Ory: Selected Catalog Poems & New 1996-2015, and The Thorn Rosary: Selected Prose Poems & New 1998-2010. She’s also released the first book-length haybun collection, 147 Million Orphans (MMXI-MML); a collection of short novels, Silk Egg; an experimental autobiography Against Misanthropy; as well as two bilingual and one trilingual editions encompassing English, Spanish, and Romanian.

Her award-winning body of work includes invention of the hay(na)ku poetic form (whose 15-year anniversary in 2019 was celebrated in the U.S. with exhibitions, a new anthology, and readings at the San Francisco and St. Helena Public Libraries) as well as a first poetry book, Beyond Life Sentences, which received the Philippines’ National Book Award for Poetry. Translated into ten languages, she also has edited, co-edited or conceptualized 15 anthologies of poetry, fiction and essays, as well as exhibited visual art in the United States, Philippines, Malaysia, and Serbia. Her writing and editing works have received recognition through awards, grants and residencies. 

Recently, she finished her first long-form novel which required twently years to create, and has begun searching for a publisher. In the early stage of her search, her novel has been described as ‘ambitious‘ and the writing ‘truly beautiful’.

More information is available at here website here.

 

 

Jeffrey Side has had poetry published in various magazines such as Poetry Salzburg Review, and on poetry web sites such as Underground Window, A Little Poetry, Poethia, Nthposition, Eratio, Pirene’s Fountain, Fieralingue, Moria, Ancient Heart, Blazevox, Lily, Big Bridge, Jacket, Textimagepoem, Apochryphaltext, 9th St. Laboratories, P. F. S. Post, Great Works, Hutt, The Dande Review, Poetry Bay and Dusie.

 

He has reviewed poetry for Jacket, Eyewear, The Colorado Review, New Hope International, Stride, Acumen and Shearsman. From 1996 to 2000 he was the deputy editor of The Argotist magazine.

 

His publications include, Carrier of the Seed, Distorted Reflections, Slimvol, Collected Poetry Reviews 2004-2013, Cyclones in High Northern Latitudes (with Jake Berry) and Outside Voices: An Email Correspondence (with Jake Berry), available as a free ebook here.  

 

 

 

JS: For many years you worked as an economist, a journalist, a stock market analyst and a banker. Were you writing poetry during this period?

 

ERT: Not at all. Not writing or even reading. I didn’t pay attention to poetry until I switched out of banking at age 35.

 

JS: What made you want to start writing, and writing poetry in particular, after you left banking?

 

ERT: I’ve always loved words, as a reader and as a writer. My first career (before banking) was journalism. So I loved to write, even turning aside a career in broadcast journalism because it was only print journalism that allowed me more focus on words. In banking, I also wrote a lot of reports, but of course banking was simply because I needed to pay the rent. In my spare time, I wrote a novel—a murder mystery set in a bank (how banal!). When I finished the first draft of that novel, I thought to try a period of full-time creative writing. I intended to be a novelist, but when I left banking it happened to be the beginning of summer. So I thought I’d take a break and return to the novel in the Fall. For that “break”, I thought I’d rest from my exhausting finance career by doing “something easy”. Poems are short; I thought they’d be easy.

 

I spent the summer writing verses but also reading a lot of poetry. I’d never paid much attention to poetry before so in figuring out what this poetry is, I actually ended up reading through most of the poetry section of the local Barnes and Noble store. I didn’t yet know the limited poetry selection typically offered by trade stores—limited not just in content but styles of poetry—but what they had was more poetry than I’d previously been exposed to. Anyway, when Fall arrived and I was supposed to return to fiction writing, I realized that poetry was the form I’d been looking for all of my life as a writer. So I remained focused on poetry writing (though I did do other forms like short story writing). As for that novel? Off to the circular bin…

 

JS: You’ve written over 50 collections of poetry, fiction, essays and experimental biographies. Was this diversity of genre and quantity of publication something that you had envisioned you would have achieved when you started writing?

 

ERT: No, I didn’t—couldn’t have—anticipated my productivity. But in the beginning, I also had no preconceptions about output. I never had a literary background (e.g. studying it in school or working in some association with the literary world) prior to the day when I began writing full-time as a creative writer. I’m self-trained through reading; everything I know about writing is through reading. So I would say there were two elements that relate to how I became well-published. The first, of course, is that I write a lot. But I also remember an established poet once telling me not to release a book more frequently than once every five years—that such might damage one’s poetry career. I immediately thought that not applicable to me. I had waited so long in my life to be able to get to a place to write creatively. I certainly was not going to let others’ views of “career” limit my output then!  

 

When I began writing in the mid-1990s, this was before the advances in printing technology that’s supported a lot of indie and small press efforts. By the time my writing advanced to a stage of book manuscripts, the printing technology had advanced such that book publishing was more affordable for small presses. This is significant for me because much of my publications are by such indie or small presses. I moved to this direction because I felt and still feel that much of the more innovative work in poetry is being published by such presses. I am actually heartened when my work is accepted by that group of poet-editors who I feel are the ones advancing the form. The downsides are marketing and promotion resources—they don’t exist much for small poetry presses. But I’m quite clear in what I’m looking for in poetry: it’s not the big audience but the smart audience, some of whom are new but open-minded as regards poetry or those able to glean that I’m doing something not addressed previously by others. (As regards the latter, this poetic concern to do something new doesn’t relate to the Western impetus to do something new but relates to my postcolonial concerns as Filipino engaged with troubling English as a colonizing language—another story.) 

 

As for the diversity of genre, I couldn’t have anticipated that early on because it reflects a maturation of my poetics. Today, I feel that Poetry (with a capital P) is something whose borders need not be defined—it is so wide-ranging that it encompasses many different forms (including genre). I just finished a long-form novel and yet I consider that “novel” to also be a manifestation of my poetry. I’ve done visual art from the same impetus. And I’ve changed life perspectives from the same impetus. I consider Poetry to be a way of life, not simply words.

 

JS: What you say in parenthesis in your last answer is interesting. Can you expand on it?

 

ERT: I was born in the Philippines which was colonized by the United States. Through that colonization, English became the widespread language across the archipelago, becoming the language of education, business, politics and so on. As someone educated in English in the Philippines, as well as an emigrant to the U.S. at age 10, English is the only language in which I’m fluent. For me, it’s impossible to write poetry in English without addressing its colonial past. This translates to me wanting to write English poems in non-traditional or non-normative ways, to not limit my poems to English's role as communication because it was through communication that colonization occurred. This lends itself to my poems turning surrealistic, fragmented, elliptical, visual, abstract, and other ways that transcend the dictionary definition of words. I’ve been called an “experimental poet”, as a result. But I’m really being my own version of transcolonial—not quite the same as postcolonial in that I don’t wish to be bound by the post-ness of colonialism; I also want to transcend or go beyond that past. I believe, and this would be logical if so, I coined that word “transcolonial” for this descriptive purpose.

 

JS: Your are credited as having invented the “hay(na)ku”, which is a poetic structure in which the first line comprises one word, the second line comprises two words, and the third line comprises three words, totalling six words. How did that come about?

 

ERT: The hay(na)ku’s initial root is when I began a “Counting Diary”, as inspired by the character Cameron in Richard Brautigan’s The Hawkline Monster: ‘Cameron was a counter. He vomited 19 times to San Francisco. He liked to count everything’. Then I came to Jack Kerouac’s Selected Letters where he noted the notion of an “American haiku” not having more than 3 words in a line. So I thought of a “Filipino haiku” where the three lines would have 1, 2, 3 words each. (The entire history is available in an essay online at http://haynakupoetry.blogspot.com/2005/07/hay-naku-history.html). 

 

But as interesting as its creation is how and why the hay(na)ku spread worldwide. Finnish artist-publisher Jukka-Pekka Kervinen (who published some of the nearly hay(na)ku anthologies) had expressed surprise the form came to last as long as 15 years—an anniversary celebrated by and at the San Francisco Public Library in 2018. I think the hay(na)ku spread and continues to spread because of the internet’s reach and, perhaps more significantly, because while I created the form I’m quite open to variations of the form. Thus, I did with the form what I like to do with the poems I write/make, which is to allow for a generous space for others’ (including readers’) involvement. Because of my openness to hay(na)ku variations, visual artists, too, came to play with the form. Some of the hay(na)ku variations are on a list online on my website at https://eileenrtabios.com/haynaku/haynaku-variations/  And I continue to be open, indeed, to not just new poets writing hay(na)ku but perhaps creating their own variations of it!

 

JS: In an interview for the Asian Pacific American Journal, you said: ‘In poetry, I try to create an emotion that transcends the dictionary sense of what words mean or what they typically evoke in the current cultural context. There are words that are beautiful outside their meaning, like azure or jasmine or cobalt... For me, this is partly the place of abstract poetry, in addition to what’s happening in that space between, words, lines, sentences and paragraphs’. I agree with this approach very much. How much resistance (if any) have you had to such an approach from critics or publishers?

 

ERT:  I’m glad the approach resonates with you, Jeffrey! It’s an approach I’d created in a vacuum (mostly from my love of abstract expressionist art) so it’s always good to hear it validated by another writer.

 

As regards critical response, my first book incorporated a lot of this type of poems and it was published in the Philippines where it received the National Book Award for Poetry—those poems can be seen through my first U.S.-published book, Reproductions of the Empty Flagpole (Marsh Hawk), that sold out its first printing in about six months or so (granted, it’s a small press’ first printing but, still!) And I wouldn’t be surprised if that book has sold more than all of my other books combined. Those poems were also picked up in my selected prose poem collection, The Thorn Rosary (Marsh Hawk). In this sense, the poems seem to have received favorable responses (before they were published in books, many of course were published in literary journals). Also several good reviews—though receiving good reviews is not a great symbol for great critical reception. Bad poetry reviews are rarely published. So if someone read my books and didn’t like them, they’re as likely to just ignore them than actually write a bad review.

 

Having said all that, in terms of critical reception—and I would include academia here—my approach takes me outside discernible identity-related poetics and so my books are not go-to publications for those invested in Filipino, Pilipinx, Asian American and related-other literature. I think it’s because linkages with those concerns would not be obvious from the narrative content of the majority of my poems (though some exist). But if I’m disappointed, it’s because I feel there is a 100% linkage with those concerns through the approach to language. For instance, abstraction is one means to disrupt the historical use of English as communication for colonial purposes. But it requires more thought, a deeper thought, to address poems and language in this manner. It’s easier if the text itself is saying the obvious…

 

But having said all that again, I’m fairly clear in what I’m looking for in a poetry audience. It’s not to have a big audience but an open-minded audience really interested in poetry. So, ultimately, I am totally accepting of the kind of readership I have and the limits to expanding such readership. I don’t need to push my poems on anyone. In fact, 90% of the “marketing” I do for my poetry books are because I’m trying to do right by my publishers versus that, you know, I really need someone to read my poems. [Picture me smiling here please].

 

JS: Your approach to writing poetry could be described as intertextual, in that you often borrow textual elements that you find in other people’s poetry to include in your own. In your poem, ‘Beginning Lucidity’, you borrowed from Anne Truitt's Daybook: The Journal of an Artist. Is your approach to intertextuality born of a desire to create a text that has no authorial “origin”—i.e. a text that represents a sort of literary universal subconscious?

 

ERT: My primary impetus on this approach is love. That is, I usually practice this approach only if I’m enthralled or find moving the words I'm reading. Such was the case with Anne Truitt’s words—I was absolutely in love with the writing. 

 

There are other—and lesser—motivations. One is political in that in interrogating English’s history in the Philippines, I don’t want to be “original” in the language. Another would be my interest in exploring the idea that words have no single author (haven’t gotten in depth on this layer yet). I’m also interested, through this approach, in exploring subjectivity and, yes, what you say about unearthing some subconscious. But ultimately, it’s about love. Because this practice requires me to spend time with the underlying text and why would I choose to spend time on something I don’t love? On that last question, perhaps, someone might answer, to manifest some sort of protest. But when it comes to protest poetry, I have been thinking that it may be best (best, as in effective) that the form of such is not one that one has to explain; explanations would dilute the protest. So, I come around to affirming again: intertextual because love.

 

JS: You’ve mentioned elsewhere that the English language was a tool for American colonialism in the Philippines. Is part of your incentive for using abstraction in English-language poems, a way of linguistically redressing the imposition of the English language onto Filipino linguistic culture? Abstraction being used as a way to “deconstruct” this imposed language, so to speak?

 

ERT: Yes and no. Yes in that abstraction makes the language less clear for purposes of communication and meaning. For language to be a colonizing tool, there has to be communication (how else to give an order?) which, in turn, requires a mutually agreed upon meaning of words between the colonizer and the colonized. Deconstruction, thus, is not applicable to what I’m doing as it hews to meaning, which is not part of my intent. Muddling meaning is. Relatedly, by the way, before the U.S., Spain was the prior colonizer of the Philippines. Back then, Filipinos used to take Spanish and dilute its meaning through puns and sound. That was another way to play with the language and dilute the language’s originally intended meanings. 

 

JS: Can you tell us something about how you first got involved with your various publishing ventures, such as Meritage Press, Galatea Resurrects and The Halo-Halo Review?

 

ERT: These three projects all reflect my interest in cultural advocacy on behalf of sectors of literature which don’t receive as much attention as they deserve. 

 

Galatea Resurrects presents “engagements” (usually reviews) with poetry. It can be a tough slog to get a poetry book published, but an equally sloggy matter for that book to receive attention like reviews. And in terms of getting reviews, those poetry publications that often push the expanse of the art don’t get as much attention as those working in more established/inherited forms. So while Galatea Resurrects is open to engagements with any type of poetry project, a focus organically grew over time on publications by smaller and indie presses where many more innovative poetry activities are unfolding. (Galatea Resurrects is on sabbatical right now.)

 

Another sector that doesn’t receive as much attention is Filipino-Pilipinz literature. So I created The Halo-Halo Review, though mostly for English-language writings as I’m not fluent in the various Filipino languages. But it’s open to all literary genres, not just poetry. That’s taking longer to take off than Galatea Resurrects did. But I’m persevering for now. Many of the leading contemporary writers in the Filipino community have appeared in its pages. But, reflecting the dearth of attention to this sector, I find it difficult to find reviewers (much more than I did for Galatea Resurrects). But I’m persevering!

                       

Meritage Press actually was a press that I created with Pinoy Poetics in mind. Pinoy Poetics is an anthology of mostly autobiographical poetics essays by Filipino and Filipino-American poets. It would have been a difficult project to publish so I just thought to DIY publish it. But it wasn’t the first book published by Meritage Press whose first project was an etchings-based collaboration between John Yau and Archie Rand. This reflects how, though I thought of a press for Pinoy Poetics, I didn’t want to create a Filipino press—I wanted the press to “normalize” Filipino literature in that it exists and stands alongside literatures that currently are more recognized. So I wanted to create a press focused generally on literature and art. I thought of asking John Yau to be my first author because what I’ve learned about the poetry world is its reliance—over-reliance, in my opinion—on cultural capital. This meant that for a new venture to receive attention, it would be helpful if its first releases were of authors who are well-respected. I met John through my early book Black Lightning (among other things, he helped me find its cover art by Theresa Chong) and he was receptive to my request. Archie Rand, of course, is another stellar, well-respected artist and I was pleased to present their collaboration. I wanted the press to be “respected” by the time we came to publish Pinoy Poetics.

 

JS: Have you any thoughts on the current state of poetry in the U.S. from your perspective? Which direction do you see poetry heading in there? In the past 15 years or so, US poetry saw the advent of two poetic “movements”, that of Flarf poetry and Conceptual poetry, both of which became something of a cause célèbre in various US poetry circles. Do you see any similar “movements” on the horizon?

 

ERT: I don’t have much to say on this question because I don't consider poetry in terms of the “U.S.” Poetry transcends national boundaries. Having said that, I note that you cite the past 15 years. Synchronistically, the poetic form I invented, the hay(na)ku, celebrated its 15-year-anniversary last year (2018) and the form continues to pick up new practitioners. But no one is calling the hay(na)ku a movement for the right reasons: it’s a poetry form that cuts across poetry coteries, poetry circles, poetry tendencies, etc. as well as across national boundaries (due to the internet, it’s become global). It’s a supple poetic form, and deliberately designed that way because it wants to welcome anybody and everybody to it. That welcoming aspect is part of my poetics and contradicts movements that are inclusive rather than exclusive. Because of that, I might say that the hay(na)ku is something I see healthily continuing on to the future.

 

JS: I completely agree that poetry transcends national boundaries; I was just wandering if you had any views about it within a U.S. context, seeing as that is where you have lived for the greater part of your life. But I could open the question out to include other countries that you have a literary interest in. Would that be a better line of enquiry?

 

ERT: Well, I was considering and reconsidering the notion of poetry transcending national boundaries. I just want to clarify that such should not be confused with—and not that I’m saying you confused it with—that poetry can be regional. This suggests it can be possible that “region” at any point of time can be the same as “national” (though I can’t come up with examples off of the top of my head). Having said that, I probably shouldn’t comment on any poetries outside the U.S. since publishing in those other countries would not necessarily make me knowledgeable about them given that I don’t live there. So we’re back to the U.S. context for me and yet I wouldn’t consider this a particularly fruitful line of inquiry of me. Poetry doesn’t concern me in terms of its movements that seems more (to take the positive spin) to be of a critical and/or scholarly point of view. And while I read those things, they’re not of primary concern to me. Perhaps it’s because when I’ve directly engaged with poems in non-mediated ways, some of my reactions would be outside of how critics or even the authors might “suggest” I read them. Which is to say, I don’t usually experience poems as representatives of movements so I can’t say I have much to say on the topic.

 

JS: How did Galatea Resurrects come about? As far as I know, there wasn’t before it (and probably still isn’t) a literary website that is dedicated to hosting poetry book reviews. There are many literary websites that include poetry book reviews amongst their other literary content but Galatea Resurrects seems unique in focusing exclusively on poetry book reviews. Also were did its name come from?

 

ERT: Yes, Galatea Resurrects came about specifically because there wasn’t (at least to my knowledge) such a publication that focused solely or mostly on poetry reviews or engagements. People are so focused on getting their poems published that less attention is given to engaging with what’s published. Here’s what I said in the Editor’s Introduction from the first issue that answers your question:

 

First, simply, I'd love for poetry to receive more attention within our culture. I hope GR helps facilitate such increased attention.

Second, I was interested in GR being specifically an online publication because online readership is often higher than for many poetry print publications. Relatedly, I wanted to add to the internet data base as regards poetry, given the widespread use of the internet for researching a variety of topics. Moreover, GR's addition to e-data would be accessible long after each issue's release date (I still get queries involving articles that were published in the internet many years ago). Thus, in addition to new reviews, GR is open to publishing commentary previously published in a print publication but unavailable within the internet.

Thirdly, poetry publishing offers a history—an honorable history—of poets finding the cheapest ways to publish poems and other poetry-related materials as poetry is rarely financially viable. I am particularly tickled by the example of, amidst 21st century technology, a stapled, xeroxed publication called MIRAGE #4 (PERIODICAL) co-edited by Kevin Killian and Dodie Bellamy and often hand-distributed within the Bay Area, CA. In such manner, I consider GR to be my version of an e-xerox or e-mimeo project. Blogger (at least for now) doesn't charge fees (except for its advanced versions) which no doubt relates to why it's become a popular vehicle among contemporary poets. GR is situated within that tradition that, e-wise, also manifests itself in poetry publishers' increasing use of print-on-demand technology as well as various Blogger-hosted magazines. This aspect also relates to the "Do-It-Yourself" approach explored by poets and publishers given how lack of money in poetry publications limits opportunities.

Fourthly, as regards cultural activism, I go back to the nature of the internet. My intent with GR is partly inspired by the existence of BagongPinay.com founded by Perla Daly and others. These Filipinas founded the site to offset how internet searches for "Filipina" usually comes up with negative myths, mail order bride sites which may be unsafe, porn sites, among other things. In this sense, I consider that boosting data content gratis for profit-making corporations is an acceptable price for longer-term benefits: in GR's case, more attention to poetry in all its forms, schools, approaches and other variety. 

GR, therefore, while presenting mostly poetry reviews, is not just about offering a space for boosting sales of reviewed publications (not that there's anything wrong with that result either, of course!).”

 

Another element I anticipated at the time of starting GR but whose success I couldn’t foretell was trying to offer a space to encourage new critics/reviewers. I didn’t want to pre-judge who is a “good” reader of poetry and so wanted to open up to students and other younger critics. I’m happy to be able to share that after 11 years, we achieved that goal. For instance, we published the first reviews written by writers, some of whom have since gone on to edit literary journals.

 

“Galatea” refers to the Pygmalion and Galatea Greek myth. But that myth had ended with statue-turned-human Galatea stepping off the pedestal. So I fictionalized her as someone who’s interested in poetry, art, wine, and nature. The concept of “resurrects” relates both to Galatea’s resurrection (from the death of being a mere object to becoming human) to how each engagement (review) of a poem resurrects the poem each time.

 

GR is currently on sabbatical, in part so that we can work on a print anthology that would present a selection of GR’s reviews over the past decades. It’s a unique project and its success is partly manifested by how long it lasted (11 years), so I thought a print version would be appropriate. I didn’t think GR would last much longer than a year or two. I have the good fortune of stellar poet-editor John Bloomberg-Rissman doing the editing. The anthology should come out later this year or next. 

 

JS: Thanks for doing the interview and good luck with all your future projects.

 

ERT: Thank you, Jeff. Thanks so much for your interest!

 

 

copyright © Eileen R. Tabios & Jeffrey Side