Eileen R. Tabios
Love in a Time of Belligerence, X-Peri Series, Swan World, 2017
Interviews Eileen R. Tabios
JMK: What was the first piece of experimental writing that influenced your current trajectory and how can it be seen in your work today?
ERT: The first “experimental” poets to move me in a deep way were John Yau, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge and Arthur Sze. I met them—both humans and their poems—through my book BLACK LIGHTNING (1998) that interviewed leading Asian American poets. I had just began writing poems two years earlier, so they had a major impact. At about that time, I also discovered the work of Jose Garcia Villa and I admired his eager textual experiments. Their work helped me break linear narrative which is how I began writing poems. Their poetry taught me alternative paths to poem-creation which, for me, came to incorporate a trust in the reader’s ability to help create significance out of a poem (this trust in the reader versus the poet preaching meaning at the reader also fit the transcolonial tendencies I brought to English which had been used to help colonize my birth land, the Philippines). I tend to think that the poet begins the poem’s experience, but it’s the reader (or audience) who finishes it.
This trust in the reader is seen in my work through my belief that words come with meanings and significances far beyond the dictionary and (thus) which the poet cannot anticipate. Thus, if you put any combination of words (and perhaps letters, but haven’t gotten there yet) together at random, it’s possible for a poem to surface. I push this perspective most recently in my “Murder, Death, Resurrection Project” which includes what I call “The MDR Poetry Generator”. This Generator contains a database of 1,167 lines that can be combined randomly to make a large number of poems; the shortest would be a couplet and the longest would be a poem of 1,167 lines. More information about it is available HERE: MDR I’ll also be releasing what will be this five-year poetry performance project’s monograph in 2018.
JMK: If your collective work were a piece of music, what would it be?
ERT: I actually feel this question should not be answered by me but by readers who know my work.
Once, someone ascribed cello music to my poetry, something I did not anticipate and for which I had no authorial intention. But I don’t disagree with that assessment.
JMK: I can see that, for me, it would be something post-classical, Nils Frahm, Max Richter, Olafur Arnalds, a kind of refined classical piece interceded by electronic movements…
ERT: I’m heartened they are raised by my poetry … though not from any intentions on my part—which is an example of how poetry transcends autobiography.
JMK: How would you describe the current state of poetry? Could you name some writers/ publishers that excite you right now?
ERT: Judging from poetry I recommend on LinkedIn, my top favorite publishers seem to be Ugly Duckling Presse at the number one spot, and then (in no particular order) Ahsahta Press, Black Radish Books, BlazeVOX Books, Dos Madres Press, Dusie, Farrar Straus Giroux, Flood Editions, gradient books, Graywolf Press, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Les Figues Press, Litmus Press, Lunar Chandelier Press, Marsh Hawk Press, New Directions, Norton, Omnidawn, Otoliths Books, Shearsman Books, Singing Horse Press, Talisman, Wave Books, Wesleyan and Zephyr Press.
Obviously there are authors who would be among my favorites and who are not necessarily published by the above. I won’t name names but cite instead those who actively interrogate (experiment with) form. Perhaps that’s why, looking at the above list of publishers, I have a preference for mostly those who are invested in the experimental tendency as a way to widen poetry’s expanse (there are some exceptions as some published an author or two with experimental tendencies who caught my eye but don’t generally have that interest as publisher).
I’d describe the current state of poetry as blessedly active. It’s also specifically active in reflecting the effects of technology (the internet, social media, et al). I don’t find this to be negative but I do sense some imbalance. The issue with technology is how it maximizes speed for quick results—by itself that process is not good or bad. But there is a lot to be said for its opposite, which is scale. Many things require large scale in order to be created or be effective. Scale includes time and attention. And sometimes technologically-based efficiency works against that. Right now, the scale seems tipped against works that require the depth of scale.
JMK: Is your MDR project a reflection of this culture, a kind of satire, as the work produced therein boasts a similar depth of source material, using manual algorithms to generate large-scale poetry?
ERT: Hm—I’d never thought of it as satire, though that’s certainly a legitimate read of the project, as are your reasons for thinking so. And perhaps, unconsciously on my part, there is that aspect as I’m nodding more in agreement than not.
Yet my conscious intention was actually to pay homage to the brilliance of those who created the programs that generate poetry. But I should note—partly as I’m not as technologically brilliant as those programmers—that my MDR is inspired by them but is deliberately manually generated. When I created the lines for MDR’s database, I read through each of the root source: 27 prior poetry collections. I then created lines not simply by copy-n-pasting excerpts but by noting my personal/subjective/temporal reactions at the time of readings; with hindsight, I perhaps emulated “artificial intelligence” rather than a computer program.
(As an aside, I’d like to share a link to a relatively obscure essay I wrote about my loving engagement with one of the contemporary world’s most adept poet-practitioners of technology/computer programs, Jukka-Pekka Kervinen: Moria Poetry You can see that I rely on manual versus computer programming partly due to my beliefs in subjectivity.)
The MDR certainly poses several layers of implications about poetry and modern society—or I hope there are. But several of these significances are as up to the reader as they are to me.
JMK: How would you describe “Babaylan Poetics” to a new reader, and the personal and political motivations behind this form?
ERT: “Babaylan” refers to an indigenous Filipino leader who functions as a healer and community leader, among other roles. I had referenced the term to relate to indigenous Filipino practices, specifically “kapwa,” a construct of Filipino psychology meaning togetherness. That is, that all beings are related. In an earlier poetics essay, I’d correlated these indigenous elements with my poetics as such:
There’s an image from pre-colonial Philippine times of a human standing with a hand lifted upwards; if you happened to be at a certain distance from the man and took a snapshot, it would look like the human was touching the sky. I’d described the significance of this image as the moment, the space, from which I attempt to create poems. In the indigenous myth, the human, by being rooted onto the planet but also touching the sky, is connected to everything in the universe and across all time, including that the human is rooted to the past and future—indeed, there is no unfolding of time. In that moment, all of existence—past, present and future—has coalesced into a singular moment, a single gem with an infinite expanse. In that moment, were I that human, I am connected to everything so that there is nothing or no one I do not know. I am everyone and everything, and everything and everyone is me. In that moment, to paraphrase something I once I heard from some Buddhist, German or French philosopher, or Star Trek character, ‘No one or nothing is alien to me.'”
Last night I did a reading of my poem “PilipinZ” from my new book Love In A Time of Belligerence and it ends with the lines:
“But I will never forget we walk on the same planet and breathe the same air. I will never forget the same sun shines on us. I created my own legacy: No one is a stranger to me.”
It may be an impossible goal, but in poetry that’s my goal: that no one or nothing is a stranger to me. I hope to practice a poetics of both knowledge and empathy.