Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Interview with Eileen R. Tabios

Tom Beckett: "Poetry as a way of life." What does that mean for you, Eileen?

Eileen Tabios: I often answer the question based on the color of the sky. As the sky is a lovely uninterrupted sapphire at the time I answer your question, I’ll say that the phrase means that I would like no seam between how I live and how I write my poems. That just as I want to write good poems (however “good” is defined), I’d like to live as a good person, which is to say, as a responsible human being. I know that some poets who may be awful as people are nonetheless capable of writing and have written good poems. But I’d like no difference, if possible, for myself. As a poetics, this means that I choose to have faith that being a good person is relevant to writing good poems -- there is much proof that the poetic process need not work this way but I’ve decided that, consciously anyway, I would like to minimize psychic dysfunctional tendencies between my psyche and poetry.

This may not be possible all the time, but I do know where it works. In order for me to be a responsible human being -- a “good person” -- I have to pay attention to what’s going on in the world. That paying attention benefits my poems because they widen the pool of references and inspiration from which my poems can be sourced. So, that’s one example, which also hearkens to how I consider my desired poetry practice to be a matter of maximizing lucidity. There’s a poem I once attempted; it didn’t work out but there were two lines from that poem that I keep close to me: “To bring a poem into the world / is to bring the world into a poem.”

Another example relates to my interest in spreading the word about Asian American and/or Filipino literature. That interest has affected my poetry projects, including -- as you know -- the conceptualization of the Hay(na)ku poetic form, as well as an earlier project, “Poems Form/From The Six Directions” (more information about that can be accessed at OurOwnVoice’s archives, as well as more comprehensively in my new book I TAKE THEE, ENGLISH, FOR MY BELOVED or ENGLISH). In both cases, that cultural activism resulted in poetry projects that otherwise might not exist were I not interested in bringing attention to these often marginalized or overlooked literatures.

A much more recent example may be the collection of poems that came to help form a chapbook published by the lovely Belladonna people Erica Kaufman and Rachel Levitsky. That chapbook, entitled THE ESTRUS GAZE(S), consists primarily of poems I wrote while researching autism. Autism is a major epidemic, reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to be the fastest-growing developmental disability. One in 166 children being born are now diagnosed as autistic on one level, versus the estimate of 1 in 10,000 about a decade ago. At current growth rates, that statistic can rise as high as 1 in 7 children by 2015, according to AutismAwareness.com. It is a frustrating matter as no one can really pinpoint the cause of autism, and social, political and health policies have yet to catch up to the ramifications. So, I’m in the middle of a series of poetry projects that have the concurrent benefit of raising this health concern with socio-political implications. And I do it through poetry.

Having said all that, I need to say for the record that I feel a poem can transcend -- including bypass -- authorial intent. So my hope is that a poem is effective for a reader whether or not that reader ends up also becoming interested in the socio-political-cultural concerns that interest me.

TB: That seamlessness you desire between how a poet lives and writes is what Joan Retallack attempts to capture in her neologism "poethics." And I think you're right: attention is the key. Intentions are often lost in one's work's directions. At least that's been my experience.

In a relatively short period of time you have created an enormous body of work. It's hard to know where to begin. So, let me ask, where for you does poetry begin?

ET: I like the word “poethics” for that mating of “poetry” and “ethics”; I think many poets have not been courageous enough to consider ethics as of primary relevance to poetry, though that may raise its own challenge of trying to avoid ethics as paradigm. Anyway, it’s good you mention the word attention. Because I don’t think poetry begins (or ends) somewhere or sometime. I think poetry exists all around us and my job as a poet is to be attentive enough to recognize its facets. For me, this is the difference between a “poem” and “poetry.” A poem is a snapshot, a manifestation frozen in time. The poetry experience -- as in the engagement with any one poem -- continues beyond where the poem (if it’s a written manifestation) ends on a page.

And as I go about my day trying to be attentive [she pauses and looks around trying to be attentive and, uh, suddenly notices her window needs washing…], what begins the creation of a poem is typically a feeling. I may notice or realize something that elicits a feeling that makes me pause from whatever I was doing [not that dirty window, though, but, say, how that light is suddenly polka-dotted to become a screen behind which a mountain slumbers] to reach for the pen with which to write a new poem. The feeling is physical, too, being often like a simmer in the belly. And I slip into that feeling that forms a word traveling from the simmer in my belly and moving through my veins and releasing itself through my writing hand. And, from there, it’s very process-based: the first word engenders the next word(s), and those first two(-plus) words engenders the next words…and so on.

After that first word, the writing process might be called free-associative. But if I’d done my homework as a poet prior to coming up with that first word, it’s not a totally dumb process. That is, if I’d been paying attention to the world, learning as much about it as I can, those prior lessons will spew forth wonderful material for literary use in an unforced way, and hopefully unexpected ways that make the poem interesting. The unforcedness is key -- the references need to pop up naturally, which is to say, as a demand of the poem versus something that I’m trying to write into the poem. The unforcedness is also a key because, nowadays, I try to write along the lines of “first draft, last draft” -- instead of when I was younger and might take up to a year editing a poem trying to make it “right.” I want all the “editing” and other considerations related to birthing a poem to occur inside of me so that the poem pops out whole, like Athena from Zeus’ forehead or, from Filipino creation myth, how the first man and woman emerged fully formed from a split bamboo.

But as regards your description of my “enormous body of work,” I don’t know that I’m any more prolific than many poets. Where I may seem more prolific is that I seem to have great luck finding ways to get poetry books published. It’s interesting how that occurs as I don’t follow many of these “how to get published” tips. In my first few years as a poet, I used to blanket the continent with submissions (ignoring the rules about no simultaneous submissions etc). Nowadays, I rarely submit poems to individual journals (much of my recent – and few -- submissions were first solicited or go to journals where I’ve formed enough of a domestic, if you will, relationship over recent years). And it’s not because I privilege the book form to having poems published in journals. It’s because I think the poetry book -- its book-ness -- is also an art form. For me, there has come to be an aesthetic challenge in forming poetry collections that doesn’t exist with just putting out poems in journals.

As you know, my 2005 book ENGLISH is 504 pages. Part of the intended aesthetic for that book, by the way, is that I wanted its form to insert itself into mundane facets of life rather than just lying on a bookshelf. Hence, it can be used as a doorstop, or to help make one of my favorite foods, the Swedish/Finnish gravlax. For the latter, wrap the book in foil and use it as a brick to place atop the salmon as it’s being cured. I’m not talking fancifully here but still addressing my poetics: Poetry belongs outside the library!

Now, were I doing my career correctly [she pauses to yawn], at least according to some people, I would be submitting poems to all the right journals [another yawn], hoping some might be selected for some anthology like the Pushcart or Best American Poetry and then, having collected all the appropriate credits, put together a new poetry book. [She pauses to take a nap … wakes up from nap, and continues to answer the question…] I don’t do that.

And the reason I don’t do all that is because, for me anyway, Poetry is karmic. I can trace all of my so-called poetry achievements to the fact that I was trying to promote Poetry in general (including another poet) versus trying to promote myself. I know that may sound weird given the preening Moi persona on my blog, but that prideful Moi is about something else. What I mean here to say is that the reason why I’m blessed with publishers seems to relate to what I’ve fumbled my way into understanding: If you take care of Poetry, Poetry will take care of you. Hence, as an example (and it’s not necessarily the most important example), all these books!

TB: Your blog, The Chatelaine's Poetics, is a delicious mix of poetry, poetics, criticism, history, myth-making, schtickifying, autobiography, eroticism, and so much more than I can wrap into this one puny sentence. It is itself, in short, an incredible body of work. Would you talk a bit about blogging and what it means to you?

ET: I think the blog can be its own poetic form, and that’s how I choose to approach it. In part, it works as a poetry performance vehicle -- it’s fair to say, for example, that the hay(na)ku and other projects relied very much on the blog. It’s a multi-layered vehicle (of which tweaking the ridiculousness of the ego and the so-called poetry world are but two facets). The blog is also useful for me for letting me say things publicly that, perhaps, I would be nervous about saying in person. What I’ve discovered is that the blog allows me to overcome my natural shyness (hard to believe I’m shy, eh?) because I do consider shyness a limiting element to my poetry.

Significantly, one of my blog’s basic constraints is that I wish to post only on things that have what I feel are positive energy as regards poetry. Ultimately, I want those following my blog to see an example of how JOYOUS poetry is, and what a JOY it is, indeed, to live Poetry as a way of life.

TB: If your writing is a body, then a deep engagement with the visual arts runs through it like a spine. Help me to better understand the roles ekphrasis plays in your work.

ET: That visual arts is a spine in my body of art (all puns intended) is definitely accurate. The arts came to be a scaffolding partly because I’ve been interested in it for so long. While living in New York City for about 20 years, trawling through art galleries was a favored activity. When I left Wall Street in 1996 to become a full-time poet (by this, I also mean writer, editor and sometime critic), I worked at home. For breaks, I visited art galleries three times a week every week while the gallery season was open. So I’m really interested in art, specifically contemporary art which I’ve followed for about 25 years, as I like being abreast of the so-called art of one’s times.

Although I’ve written poems (and stories) inspired by various art works, I’d say that the arts’ primary influence is from the standpoints of techniques and strategies. For instance, I’ve written poems which have been described with such (literary) terms as parataxis or disjunctiveness. More accurately in terms of tracking what influenced me, those poems were influenced by minimalism or cubism where images are fractured. I’ve also been called mistakenly a (post-) L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poet by some who misinterpret my interest in the materiality and surface of words, elements I picked up from the visual arts. (Not, by the way, that I was insulted by the “charge” of being a L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poet.) But in fact, I’ve been more influenced by the visual arts than the literary arts in writing my poems.

For another example, the majority of the prose poems that make up my collection, REPRODUCTIONS OF THE EMPTY FLAGPOLE (Marsh Hawk Press, 2002), were inspired by the energy-ridden brushstrokes in abstract expressionist paintings. Several of those poems lack a period to the last sentence, to evoke the idea that just as a brushstroke continues past the edge of a canvas, the poem continues off of the page.

Abstraction is a key influence because of how it leaves open the interpretation of the image, in the same way that I wish to write poems where meanings can’t be fixed. Why? Because the lack of stability to meaning undercuts the notion of communication. As a Filipino poet who writes in English, I like to write poems where I’m not communicating something specific because the spread of English as a communications tool in the Philippines was one means through which the United States solidified its colonial rule of the Philippines in the 20th century.

This notion of giving up authorial control is deliberate as I consider it, metaphorically, to be the opposite of colonialism. This idea is reflected in my “footnote poems,” including those available online through the e-chap, There, Where the Pages Would End and more fully developed in ENGLISH. It’s also reflected in poems like “: HAYSTACK” from THE ESTRUS GAZE(S) where each line, including the title, begins with a colon so that, presumably, it’s the reader who fleshes out what story or significance existed prior to the colon and the articulated conclusion:


: salt from expired matchheads

: background defined as the melting colors from a spinning globe

: unfamiliarity with the edges of one’s body

: a meltdown if the evening ends without exactly seven lightning bugs in a jar

: this flawed archaeology when conducted fearfully!

: “heaven” defined as “a place where nothing changes”

: pebbles

I could say more (endlessly more!) but let me end by saying that I also revel in conceptual art. Frankly, I think all art is conceptual so the label is tautological, perhaps. But within the tradition of the visual arts’ so-called conceptual art, some critics have charged that the object quite often is not as interesting as the underlying concepts that led to its creation. If true, that doesn’t necessarily reduce my enjoyment of the object because to rely on just the object then, is to fail to meet the art on its own terms (and wouldn’t that be a good test of whether audience engagement occurred sufficiently?). I think that lucidity is based not just on what the eye witnesses but with what and how the mind/heart engages. Similarly, those who are willing to deeply invest in their reactions to poems are my ideal readers -- hearkening back, again, to attention. Hmmm. I have a sense of starting to fumble now because I sense that what I’m writing posits that engagement has to be very complicated -- and, it need not be.

Ah well, it is true that whenever I talk about (my) poetry, I often spout off one contradiction after another. But then again, poetry, to me, is also paradox.

TB: We've spoken a bit of your body of work, what about the body in your work? Sexuality figures importantly in what you have written. How do sex and text play out for you?

ET: To the relationship between body and my poems, the short answer is A VERY BAD BACK. Very bad. I get massages -- deep tissue massages -- 1 to 2 times a week because all the time I spend on writing has taken a toll on my back. These massages are not relaxation luxuries; they are really physical therapy. The tension between my body and my words -- and it really is nothing but a full-pledged war -- goes beyond all the sitting that I do when I write. Intense emotions tend to tighten my body. This is the downside of attempting to live Poetry as a way of life. Poetry is intense and my body has become one tightly-clenched fist. That fuckin’ poetry….

Having a bad back, by the way, has facilitated this personal poetical mythology of poets as fallen angels -- where wings have to be camouflaged so that they become tightly-furled nubs embedded deeply in the shoulders…Cough…because in poetry, I feel that one must fall in order to ascend -- which relates, perhaps, to a quote by Joan Retallack which you recently featured on your blog: "I want to say to artists, and particularly poets, Resist pressures to regress, deny, escape, transcend. Pop culture and religion do that well enough on their own. If we're going to continue to make meaningful, sensually nourishing forms in the twenty-first century, art must thrive as a mode of engaged living in medias mess." (However, even as I nod agreeably over this quote, I hasten to say, too, that I am not suggesting this to other poets and artists -- this way of living is how I choose to do it as a poet, but I don’t believe in telling other artists how to approach their work.)

As regards sexuality, it’s simply a strategy to make sure that my poems not only touch “you” the reader but indeed mate with you, bond deeply with you. And because I have wanted in past poems for that connection to be really primal, I’ve tended to allude to what some folks may call “non-vanilla” sex rather than just, uh, sex.

I understand that sex -- which is to say, what, personality or is that person-hood? -- is a no no in some poetry circles. I also understand that for a Filipina woman to be discussing things like dominant/submissive sex is a real eyebrow-raiser among many Filipinos steeped in religion or machismo. I further understand that my use of sexuality can be considered a feminist talking-back at those who would continue propagating the notion of submissive Oriental women. But my overt inclusion of sexuality in my poems was not intended by me to be part of these discourses -- even as I don’t mind and, indeed, enjoy when others read them into addressing those contexts. I rely on sexuality as a poetry technique to make sure that, Honey, when you read some of my poems, you get hot, itchy, and mayhap begin to burn. Sexuality is just a technique in my poems, nothing more or less. Or rather: Elemental, moi dear Watson! Sometimes, a cigar is just a cock!

TB: Yes, yes, yesssss! I'm going take a cold shower. In the meantime though, do you think poets have any special social responsibilities?

ET: I feel that I, as a poet, should have social responsibilities. As for other poets, I don’t think I -- or anyone -- should define how other poets should make their poems.

TB: Hmm…Let me ask then, what sense of "limits" or of "boundaries" or "frontiers" do you bring to a poem?

ET: I don’t bring any such limits to the poem. The poem directs me as to those and other matters. The poem determines its self.

I’m not trying to be flakey here; it’s just that, for example, at the time that I am writing a poem, I feel a sense of underlying energy (which may be fueled by how the words I’m using resonate with me). So, the poem ceases (its text) when I feel that energy die out.

My poems are very much a function of the process itself -- at that time of beginning the poem, I have no idea how the poem will unfold and end. I know the poem only when the poem has been written, which is why I title 99% of my poems after I wrote them.

Or I can put it another way. If there are limits I brought to the poem, it’s because I didn’t do a good job with my preparation prior to beginning the making of that poem (which is a different matter from me limiting how a poem might unfold). Examples could be as mundane as not having developed my vocabulary enough so that I am unable to find what I think is the apt word to include in a poem (that happened to me once when I couldn’t, for some reason, remember the word “kilt” and had to go with “skirt” which wasn’t as good for the poem). And I’ve mentioned before how I’ve felt that I should educate myself as much as possible about the world so that I both live as responsibly as I can and also create more diverse raw material, if you will, for my future poems.

I suppose one could argue that the nature of one’s subjectivity is a de facto limit to the poem one authors, even as one aims to be as free as possible in developing the poem. But that’s different from what I assume you were asking about -- the more deliberate decision to limit a poem’s structure.

The exceptions are, of course, those poems written within predetermined constraints (as in Oulipo-type exercises) or form (e.g. sonnets or the hay(na)ku). But I assume you weren’t referring to such exercises.

TB: I wasn't thinking about formal constraints. I was trying to ask in my clumsy way what it is that you struggle with most in your writing.

ET: Oh [raise eyebrow]. Well, in that case [lower eyebrow]… I suppose I struggle to provide pleasure. I struggle to surprise myself, to write something that I’ll read later and think, among other things, “That’s fresh.” I struggle to write poems that burn -- I want that fire hot enough to turn my writing fingers black and crisp [note to self: go get more of that aloe cream as those crispy-looking fingertips ain’t aesthetically pleasing to the eyes]. I struggle to write poems that will seduce the reader into becoming educated about some socio-political cause that requires our attention as responsible citizens. I struggle for a sense of dark beauty because Beauty is basic to my aesthetic concerns and I find that darkness offers, in oenophile jargon, a lingering finish.

I struggle for many things but, ultimately, I suspect that I struggle most to write things that I have never written before…or read before. If I need to say the obvious: I am very ambitious in terms of what I hope to do as a poet (but ambition, please, in ways that have nothing to do with careerist concerns, and here I paraphrase Alice Notley who once said that not being careerist doesn’t mean one isn’t being professional).

If I wasn’t ambitious, if I didn’t bother to be ambitious, I feel I shouldn’t bother being a poet. But with this ambition, at least I know that my failures are not likely to be boring. The world may not need more bad or banal poems, but it can always use some entertainment. If you reach high and fail, that fall is likely to be fascinating. So, sure – Let me, as a poet, also entertain you!


In any event, my professional ambition manifests itself nowadays in no longer wanting to write new poems unless they address poetic form in some new manner (at least new to me). That doesn’t mean that all of my future poems will address form in some groundbreaking way. What it does mean is that I’ve upped further the threshold by which a poem shall spew itself out into the world from a body -- my body -- that is increasingly tight with letting new poems loose. I don’t mind setting up barriers against my birthing new poems; I figure that if the poems are willing to struggle to come out (let alone come out whole a la first draft, last draft), that urgency will be reflected in its form.

But if, in the future, a new poem comes from me that doesn’t address form in a new way, I have faith that it will be because there was another redeeming value for its existence. The poem, as we’ve agreed, doesn’t necessarily abide by authorial intent.

Hmmm. The poem doesn’t necessarily abide by authorial intent… Well. I guess that’s also to say, I may be the poet but there may be absolutely zero value and insight in this interview as regards the poems I write.


Blogger Ivy said...

Thank you both for a very ... umm... stimulating interview. ;-)

12:10 PM  
Blogger Jim Ryals said...

Tom -

You are destroying the Chatelain's image!

You made her seem like a mature, sensitive poet. One who has something other than self aggrandizement in mind.

5 billion peeps (billions and billions are served) are going to be stunned.

Seriously, thanks for an interview that captures the friend I know and love so well.

10:25 PM  
Blogger EILEEN said...

Ivy, let me lick my lips over your comment. Jim, let me stick my tongue out at you. But seriously, I did a brief folo-up on my blog and thanks both for your support. And Hiya Tom -- you dry yet?

7:26 PM  

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