Sunday, August 14, 2011

12 or 20 (second series) questions: with Eileen R. Tabios

Eileen R. Tabios has released 18 print, 4 electronic and 1 CD poetry collections, an art-essay collection, a poetry essay/interview anthology, a short story book and a collection of novels. Recipient of the Philippines' National Book Award for Poetry, she most recently released SILK EGG: COLLECTED NOVELS (Shearsman, 2011) and THE THORN ROSARY: SELECTED PROSE POEMS 1998-2010 (Marsh Hawk Press, 2010).  She has exhibited visual poetry and visual art in the United States and Asia and also edited, co-edited or conceptualized nine anthologies of poetry, fiction and essays. She blogs as the "Chatelaine", and edits Galatea Resurrects (A Poetry Engagement), a popular poetry review journal.  As a further extension of her poetics, she also founded Meritage Press, a multi-disciplinary literary and arts press based in San Francisco & St. Helena.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first book is BLACK LIGHTNING: Poetry in Progress (Asian American Writers Workshop/Temple University) through which I interviewed leading Asian American poets about a specific poem (or two) that they wrote.  Critical to BLACK LIGHTNING's process was how most poets gave me early drafts of the same poem so I was able to trace their thought process as they made drafting changes from the first or an early draft to the final version.  These poems ranged from basic questions as to what inspired the poem to technical questions like, say, why they changed the positioning of a line-break or form.  Since I did this project knowing nothing about poetry and possessed no prior training in it (I had just switched careers from international banking to poetry), it was my way to get an in-depth education from poet-masters representing a variety of styles: Meena Alexander, Indran Amirthanayagam, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Luis Cabalquinto, Marilyn Chin, Sesshu Foster, Jessica Hagedorm, Kimiko Hahn, Garrett Hongo, Li-Young Lee, Timothy Liu, David Mura, Arthur Sze, John Yau and Tan Lin.  From this unique gift of an introduction to poetry, I learned (which is not to say that all the poets in the book feel this way) that the poem need not be determined by the poet; sometimes linguistic resonance holds sway.  I learned that as part of giving up control over the poem, the poet should delve specifically into what the poet does not know because it's not about the poet determining ahead of the poem-writing what to say/write so much as engaging in a the process that’s, yes, based on words, but also might reveal something about one's self and/or the world.

My first poetry collection, BEYOND LIFE SENTENCES, was released about the time as BLACK LIGHTNING.  It was released about a year-and-a-half from when I penned my first poem and so it includes some "baby poems" that, at one point, shamed me (I'm not embarrassed over them now but am instead affectionate towards them).  It was published by one of the leading publishers in the Philippines, Anvil Publishing, and I'm bemused that it received that country's National Book Award for Poetry.  With hindsight, I am grateful for the award as it gave me a legitimacy that's been useful for my subsequent literary activism activities, including the promotion of Asian American and Filipino poetry.  I think a poetry award is only as useful as what the poet might use it for—if it’s to bolster a resume, that’s one thing.  But if the award can be used to promote something larger and deserving of attention, that’s better, isn’t it?

My most recent work is SILK EGG: Collected Novels 2009-2009 (Shearsman, Exeter, U.K., 2011) [] which features a dozen novels I wrote in one month back in 2009.  Some critics consider them prose poems masquerading as novels.  How others characterize them is all fine with me—I'm really also about genre subversions, or perhaps more accurately, that the definition of a poem is a really wide expanse and can take unexpected forms. While BEYOND LIFE SENTENCES contained some "experimental" poems, I'd have to say that SILK EGG, with every word, has pushed farthest my attempts to manifest the unlikelier forms of the poem.

The difference between one book and another, by the way, is a question I love because I want each of my books (so far I've written over 20 different poetry collections) to be different from each other.  If the poem or poetry is a universe—and I believe it is—its creatures are varied and I want my writings to reflect that.  One way I’ve tested my results is whether, in hindsight, each book is predictable based on prior books.  Of course there are certain themes, or even words, one can’t get away from but hopefully the results are not predictable.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

I didn't come to poetry; poetry came to me (and often holds me kicking and screaming rebelliously within its fold).  When I left my last banking job at age 35, it was with the thought of writing novels and I had just finished the first draft of (what else?) a murder mystery novel set in a bank.  I departed from banking when summer was beginning so I thought I'd take the summer "easy" and write, oh, poems (easy stuff like that) before returning to the novel in the fall.  So everyday that summer, I woke up and went to the dining table as my new "office" and read or wrote poems.  For my early research, I basically went to the local Barnes and Noble bookstore and read through every poetry book on their shelves (I did not yet know how limited or conservative B&N's offerings are in poetry).

Then September arrived, which was when I had scheduled myself to return to fiction writing.  It was at that moment of would-be departure from poetry when I realized that poetry was the form I'd been searching for all of my life.  I've always loved words (my first career was in journalism) but I'd always thought that, when it came time for creative writing, it'd be for the novel.  That summer, with the consistent hours of always engaging with poetry (I deliberately gave it as many hours as, and later more hours than, I used to give my banking job, which far exceeded the stereotype 9-to-5 daily), poetry became a passion.  As I'd had no intention of becoming a poet, I feel poetry chose me rather than the other way around.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

At first I wrote first drafts which I'd then edit laboriously.  But for most of my writing years—until about two years ago—I practiced the "first draft, last draft" approach in terms of the written draft.  The first written draft was not truly a "first” draft in that I feel a lot of my preparatory process occurred internally as well as necessitated some actual living on my part as a "drafting" session towards a poem.  Then, about three years ago, with the influence of what became the process towards adopting two children, I began to write about orphans (I adopted a 13-year-old son about two-and-a-half years ago, and a 12-year-old daughter a month ago; interestingly, I'm not really moved to write poems about them but instead write about the orphans I've met or who came to my attention during the adoption process).  This required me, actually, to have to "say" something in particular rather than relying as much as I had on random results.  So now my writing process is more time-consuming.  The writing itself is still short, but it takes a while to begin a poem because of the type of research required by advocating for orphans (as I wish to do as well in my poetry) or learning the effects of adverse circumstances on young children (which I've never experienced directly).

4 - Where does a poem or work of fiction usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

While I consider myself primarily a poet, I've also written fiction.  For many of my earlier failed attempts at a novel, I took out the best chapters which subsequently became stand-alone short stories.  I do have a published collection of ekphrastic short stories: BEHIND THE BLUE CANVAS (Giraffe Books, Quezon City, 2004).  I also have enough stories about the Filipino-American experience to comprise a book but haven't really shopped around for publication, though its stories all have been published in journals. I don’t write as much fiction as I used to, but while I was writing in both fiction and poetry. I felt that the difference in the forms required me to say something for fiction whereas I only had to feel something (deeply) for poetry.

For poetry, I tend to take the series approach. I suspect it’s because I’m as interested in the overall context of a poem rather than its singular manifestation; such “context” can encompass poetics, underlying theoretical or other structures to poem-making, etc by the poet for which I’m more likely to learn from a body of poems versus a few number of poems.   I also appreciate how a poetry collection can be more than just a collection of individual poems—I think the "book" or "collection" dimension of poetry publications is another layer that warrants its own attention.  For me, that's manifested itself in creating multi-genre versus single-form poetry books (for example, I TAKE THEE, ENGLISH, FOR MY BELOVED [] and THE LIGHT SANG AS IT LEFT YOUR EYES: OUR AUTOBIOGRAPHY [], both from Marsh Hawk Press). 

My first “Selected” poems project, THE THORN ROSARY: SELECTED PROSE POEMS 1998-2010 [] (Marsh Hawk) best exemplifies how the same individual poems can be recontextualized in a book different from another book. Some readers have picked up on this and noted in their reviews or blogs that they came across poems they’d previously read in my Selected, but it was presented in a way where they responded differently reading it in the Selected context.  (THE THORN ROSARY presents introductory and afterword essays by two scholars, Thomas Fink and Joi Barrios, which certainly may influence the readings.)

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

Public readings can be part of my creative process.  But for many reasons including my hectic schedule, I haven’t done (I think) a reading in over two, perhaps three, years.  When they were part of my process, I recall liking to read a lot of new poems as reading the poems to an audience helped me find the “tin notes” within lines.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

I have had plenty of theoretical concerns behind my writings.  None of them now apply to my current work, or perhaps even more recent work from the past several years.  But as an example of a former, major theoretical concern, it was about exploring how a consciousness of English as a colonizing tool for my birthland, the Philippines, led me to write poems in non-linear narrative ways as a way to dissuade the telling—e.g., controlling or colonizing—mode.  In terms of current questions, I immediately think I have none that I can claim preemptively (though it is true that after I create a poem, the poem makes me realize what question I had had an interest in exploring). 

Or perhaps it’s not true that I have none.  I might have one, that is, “What poetry can lead to action?”  And that action need not be by others (like the poem’s audience) but me.  What poetry can I write that would facilitate me taking some action that might have a positive impact?  Hence, my current manuscript-in-progress of 147 MILLION ORPHANS by which title alone might draw attention to what I consider the greatest humanitarian tragedy of our time, the existence of orphans around the world.  I don’t, by the way, separate the way I live from how I create poems, hence, too, my latest poetry performance project entitled POETS ON ADOPTION.  []

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

The role is varied and also depends as much on individual writers’ strengths and not just their desires.  In any event, it's not my position that I should determine such role for others. 

For me, one role is to facilitate increased attention to poetry within a culture that often marginalizes this form.  Hence, I founded and edit GALATEA RESURRECTS (A Poetry Engagement) [] that presents reviews or engagements with poems.  The poem respondents are often respected critics but many are also non-poets (e.g. I had a lawyer review an anthology of poetry and law published by the University of Iowa Press), including my tween son and my mother.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential

Both.  Difficult and essential.  Though I've mostly edited myself in the past.  It's a blessing to find someone interested enough to be a poet's editor.  I've been blessed by the in-house editor given to me at Marsh Hawk Press [] for my Marsh Hawk Press books—Thomas Fink. []  Sure, he's a scholar and a critic but he's also a poet and a painter, the latter two of which are most relevant to my endeavors. 

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
"In the arts, including writing, community is often unreliable but can also be irrelevant."

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?

Perhaps such movements were more discernible to me when I actually had different definitions for each genre.  Now, I believe everything I create is a—or can be a—poem and so the movements have ceased to be defined by particularities of a genre.  I write the poem, and perhaps that poem is also a novel...? 

Actually, I believe an excellent example of my "critical prose" as poetry are the writings on visual art that comprise my book MY ROMANCE (Giraffe Books, 2001).  I pushed my subjectivity as the viewer to the extreme and understand those essays sometimes become emotional in ways that many critics might feel uncomfortable displaying.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

I've ran out of time for much writing, what with the adoption process and now the parenting responsibilities.  I do feel that the most important role I can take on nowadays is to be a good parent rather than to be a good writer—while at the same time seeing no reason to choose between the two roles.  But as a result of time constraints, for the past few months I've only written new poems when someone solicited me and I wanted to respond. An example relates to 147 MILLION ORPHANS, a “haybun” which is a form that combines hay(na)ku [] and other text. The hay(na)ku is a 21st century diasporic poetic form whose core is a tercet-based stanza with the first line being one word, the second line being two words, and the third line being three words. I’m excited about 147 MILLION ORPHANS partly because each word forming a hay(na)ku is taken chronologically from an 8th grade project by my son who was charged to learn English partly by studying 25 new words a week.  I blogged for months about 147 MILLION ORPHANS because I just loved the idea of using my son’s words that he learned over the course of a schoolyear.  But I was mostly relishing its concept, and only wrote its first few poems after Anselm Berrigan solicited me for The Brooklyn Rail.  I respect both Anselm and The Rail and so wanted to respond to the solicitation.  The first published poems—and written—poems then from 147 MILLION ORPHANS is available HERE. []

I hope that I can get into a groove—but remember that my newly-adopted daughter has only been home for three weeks as I write this—where I can start writing again without having to wait for an external prod like a solicitation.  Having said that, I've enjoyed my private joke of testing whether, if I waited to write only if someone requested a poem(s), would I still generate such new writings?  I mean, I've been prolific enough so that I can be judged as a writer.  So every solicitation I receive—for which I am immensely grateful—is proof to me that I'd written something previously that moved someone enough to be interested. 

So short answer for now: I no longer have a routine.  I just write when someone asks me for poems (and am both lucky and sad that I have a few outstanding solicitations to which I must still respond).  But I do recognize I can't continue on this mode forever ... the ability to create is a gift and I don't want to disrespect it by not practicing it more than I've done in the post-adoption period.  Besides, I want to abide by a favorite definition of “poet” from the time when, for my amusement, I used to define “poet” as many ways as I can. My favourite definition suggests that “poet” is someone with at least two unpublished manuscripts in hir drawer—at the moment, I have none, unless one counts one fully-drafted manuscript but which still needs a lot of tinkering. 

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
When I was younger, it’d be something that elicits a deep emotional response.  A great book.  A great painting.  An argument. Awe.  Betrayal. Disillusionment. Ecstasy.

Nowadays, I’d answer that I’d simply force the issue and write something, anything.  In this case, I don’t worry about whether the result would be good or bad—but it’s actually interesting how most of the results don’t end up disappointing me, perhaps because at some point after one starts, the words kick in with their own resonance to influence the subsequent word choices.  So if I want to write and I’m “stalled”, I just simply begin.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

The scent of roses. 

Interestingly, jasmine has played a bigger role (as a presence, as a word) in my poems than the rose.  But at their heaviest perfumes, the rose seems to outweigh the power of jasmine.  The matter of jasmine, I realize, is one of the rare occasions when I realize the word does not live up to its reality—there, of course, are many examples of words failing to live up to what they symbolize but, for whatever reason, I’m very conscious of the jasmine in this regard.  (Perhaps because I consider jasmine beautiful and feel that with Beauty comes Responsibility?)

There is a section in my garden for cutting blooms for the house.  In that “cutting garden,” they  are all roses.

As for “home”, no doubt relatedly, my middle name is “Rose.”

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

The visual arts have been a huge source for my writings (though not so much in recent years).  Not necessarily in terms of individual art works but in terms of the processes by which visual artists create.  For example, as regards the nature of abstract expressionist brushstrokes which I feel, at their best, possess the energy to transcend the borders of the canvas, I once wrote prose poems where the last sentence did not end with a period as I wanted to present the idea that the poem (or poem's experience) continues past the limits of the page.

Science and math also have provided much influence.  I have a book of “uncollected poems” entitled FOOTNOTES TO ALGEBRA. []   As regards science, examples include quantum physics and what it raises about the observed defining the gaze, as well as the matter of the blue event horizon raising the notion of a fall never completing itself.

I think any form can influence other works—it's not so much a question of which form but which manifestation contains energy, power, resonance, et al.  It'd make sense, then, that many examples would be art-related.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

So many.  So many.  But the reason I don't mention many names is that I also feel I’ve outgrown their influences.  One exception is a particular statement by the Danish poet Paul LaFleur—he once said, “Being a poet is not writing a poem, but finding a new way to live.”  That statements remains as close to heart as it was when I discovered it as a newbie poet.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Be more close to nature, indigenously even.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

Another occupation?  Perhaps to try to reform the foster care system of the United States.  Though that’s not a total desire so much as a wish to do something responsible.

In terms of desire, run a multinational conglomerate or be a librarian.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

The words have always been inside.  For me, the question would be more along the lines of "How has writing kept your interest?"  Because I've worked in many occupations and being a poet has kept my interest longer than any other occupation.  And I think it's because to be a poet is to be unlimited in one's interests and ways of living.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Aww: the question that will reveal just how pedestrian I am!

Last great book:  MAN’S SEARCH FOR MEANING by Victor E. Frankl  (While I consider this book “great,” this ranking doesn’t mean much—I deliberately read a lot of novelistic crap because such, by not forcing me to think, relaxes my brain. My brain is as tight as my body and both need massages, even if such apparently differs in desired technique as my brain requires relaxation while my body requires punishingly deep tissue.)

Last great film:  THE PERFECT GAME.  [] Yo! The Little Leaguer innit pitched a perfect game 8 years before Sandy Coufax!  Undoubtedly sentimental but I don’t look down on sentimentality. And it’s interesting how this heroic (pun intended) film doesn't seem to have gotten much traction in the U.S.  I wonder if it's because it pits a Mexican team against a U.S.-American team and the former wins—such certainly goes against the grain of many Hollywood nationalistic pop movies.

20 - What are you currently working on?
A haybun-length manuscript entitled 147 MILLION ORPHANS.  Cooking skills (as one who spent nearly twenty years in New York City dialing the phone for take-out, having to prepare food for meals is one of the most difficult aspects of parenting.)  Patience.  New poetry.  Poetry as a way of life.

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