Monday, September 25, 2023

Excerpt from THE INVENTOR by Eileen R. Tabios


Following is an excerpt from Eileen R. Tabios' recent book, The Inventor. It is reprinted with her permission. 

Marsh Hawk Press’ Introduction of THE INVENTOR by Eileen R. Tabios:

In 2023, Marsh Hawk Press releases Eileen R. Tabios’ THE INVENTOR, a unique project for providing insights into creating poetic forms against an autobiographical background and part of our “Chapter One” series acclaimed by Publishers Weekly for presenting the writers’ craft in real life. From Eileen R. Tabios: “I wrote THE INVENTOR, not because it’s about my life but, because it’s an autobiography that connects history, language, and poetry in a unique way beyond narratives. I learned English because it became widespread in my birth land, the Philippines, through U.S. colonialism. That caused me, as a young poet, to feel estranged from my raw material: English. My poetry practice, however, would lift me out of politics to meet poetry more directly as its own type of language. Ultimately, my prolonged engagement with poetry enabled me to create poetry inventions that metaphorically disrupts colonialism by generating communities of readers and writers worldwide. These inventions include the hay(na)ku which has spread globally among poets and the “Flooid” whose pre-writing condition precedent of a “good deed” makes poetry live redemptively and beyond the page. In THE INVENTOR, I show how Poetry is not mere words but a proactive approach to improving our relationships with each other and life on our planet.”




From THE INVENTOR: A Poet’s Transcolonial Autobiography

By Eileen R. Tabios


My first book was of poetry and contained no words. 

I also wrote it when I was about two or three years old, but that first book was a harbinger to what would become my poet’s life: my poetry is not my words. 

I was born in 1960 in a country that was among the United States’ first colonies: the Philippines. As a result of the U.S.’ forays beyond North America for expanding its empire, English became the predominant language across the Philippine archipelago, becoming speech for politics, commerce, and education. As soon as I entered school, I was introduced to English so that, as a 10-year-old immigrant to the United States, language was not a barrier to assimilating into my new country.


My mother, Beatriz Tilan Tabios, was an elementary school teacher at Brent School, itself a colonial legacy as it educated the children of U.S.-American military, missionaries, and mining prospectors stationed in the Philippines. My father, Filamore Tabios, Sr., taught accounting at the local Baguio University in addition to working as a businessman. They raised their children to appreciate reading, with numerous volumes of Encyclopedia Brittanica dominating my memory of our living room’s bookshelves. My brothers favored science fiction and comics. For the latter, you could rent-to-read comics for a few centavos with patrons standing in or just outside the stores to read. Since my parents didn’t allow me to patronize those shops, I mostly read Grimms’ Fairy Tales and Homer’s The Odyssey at home. When I passed by those comic book stalls, some of their male contingent would hoot out a paradoxical compliment for being another colonial insult, “White legs! White legs!” I would glare even as I envied them: how I wish I could read what they were reading!

Colonialism affected curriculum so that when, during World War II, my mother’s family occasionally fled to the mountains to avoid Japanese soldiers visiting their village, Mama would pack a Shakespeare volume along with a small bag of rice. While the rice was to lessen the stress of meals their mountain hosts would have to provide, Shakespeare was to feed my bibliophile mother in a different way. As a student, she’d also memorized William Ernest Henley’s 1875 poem “Invictus,” so that she came to recite it out loud decades later when we watched the 2009 Clint Eastwood-directed “Invictus,” to the appreciation of the movie audience who might otherwise have shushed those talking out loud.

In 1970, newly arrived in the United States, reading became my haven as I proved to be unpopular in elementary school after a first school day of being inspected as a new immigrant student. I hid amidst sentences and paragraphs—I hid in words. Steeped in words, my first career became journalism. I wasn’t thinking of journalism as a goal when I joined the staff of my middle school’s magazine. But that initial exposure solidified my love for words, even as I couldn’t imagine manifesting that love through other means like creative writing. I focused on journalism because news reporting offered the benefit of taking me out of my introspection—I was a shy child—to deal with the outside world for covering its news. In Gardena, located in the South Bay region of Los Angeles County, I became the editor of my high school newspaper, Gardena High’s Smoke Signals, as well as the high school correspondent for the local paper, Gardena Valley News. When I attended Barnard College, I joined the staff of Spectator, Columbia University’s daily newspaper and eventually became its News Editor. After college, my first job was an entry position at The New York Times.

As a journalist, I was trained by those who covered news before the advent of “New Journalism,” a style of news writing developed in the 1960s and 1970s that’s characterized by a subjective perspective—of reporters immersing themselves or their opinions into their stories. On the other hand, I was trained to cover matters “objectively”—I’ll never forget a crusty, old male editor gruffly reminding me, Just the facts, Ma’am! I still believe journalists should attempt to be objective, even though I know it can be impossible—as poetry reveals, it’s impossible to get away from one’s “I.”

I loved journalism. I spent my high school and college years working towards my goal of winning a Pulitzer Prize for excellent reportage. After college, I worked in an entry position at The New York Times with other news clerks who eventually received that Pulitzer. But I fell in love and lost myself in that love. No need to belabor that story, except to say that it caused me to disregard my job and eventually move on to a new career. Since I was covering financial news towards the end of my journalism career, I entered the finance industry and later worked for three of the world’s biggest banks representing Britain, Japan, and Switzerland. As I would joke ten years later after switching “careers” one more time to become a poet, I thought I had to become a banker in order to become a poet because that’s what T.S. Eliot did.

I returned to writing when, in entering what became the last two years of my banking career, I recalled my old dreams. I didn’t want to return to journalism since that seemed pointless. But in feeling my love for words, I decided to write a novel—the so-called Great American Novel—in the evenings after my banking hours. I resigned from banking after I put “The End” to the novel’s first draft. Since my last banking day was a June 30, I thought I’d take the summer off from work—I was exhausted from a finance career that required longer hours than the stereotyped 9 to 5. I thought to return to the novel in the fall. Meanwhile, to recover from my finance career, I thought I’d write in a shorter form than the novel and thought of poems.

At that point, I hadn’t paid much attention to poetry; the only youthful involvement I recall with poetry was some elementary school activity of memorizing long poems for a competition that I did not win. That post-banking summer, I learned poetry from scratch by reading almost all the poetry collections in my neighborhood’s Barnes & Noble bookstore. While reading, I also wrote poems. As a result of that immersion, after summer ended and I was supposed to return to my novel, I realized that poetry was the form I’d been looking for as a writer. I had felt something pure about words from keeping company with poems—pure in the sense that words seem to bear certain characteristics that create their own nature versus the utilitarian purpose(s) for which humans used them. I felt a deep urge to know words more fully than as the communications medium required by journalism or financial research papers. Poet-biographer Richard Perceval Graves (and other poets) posit, “poets are born, not made.” If so, I’d be an example of Graves’ “general rule.” I immediately felt a rightness to working as a poet, as if I’d finally found the right role for relating with words, a role that I once thought was fulfilled by journalism.

That hot New York summer, thus, turned my primary focus away from fiction to poetry. As for that novel, I later read it with fresh eyes and objectively—or as a reader versus its author—understood it to be crap. It was a murder mystery set in a bank—how tediously predictable. I’ve since lost track of the manuscript’s whereabouts, but I am grateful to it, not for any literary merit but for getting me out of banking and into poetry.

Newly committed to poetry, I began considering aspects of my raw material of language and remembered how English entered my birthland as a colonizing tool. When I came across Nick Carbo’s edited anthology of Filipino and Filipino American poets, I was jolted by the empathy and recognition I felt for its title: Returning the Borrowed Tongue (1996). The “borrowed tongue” refers to Filipinos becoming fluent in their colonizer’s language. The phrase is also a euphemism since “enforced tongue” would be more accurate. I then understood that, as a poet, I didn’t want to write in this inherited English. Writing well is the best revenge, according to many writers including some Filipino poets, but it wasn’t enough for me to master its grammar and possess a wide vocabulary. I wanted to upend English itself by disrupting its dictionary definitions, disputing its structures, and however else I could concoct. It’s synchronistic that my “first book” can be categorized as visual poetry, itself a category that questions normative genres by second-guessing text’s primacy through visual imagery. 

What I didn’t realize until much later was that politics, though significant, was not the true nature of what I aspired to do as a poet. My accent is Filipino but what I was learning was to evolve from English as a tool for communications because to colonize, too, is to communicate, as in communicate the colonizer’s desires. What I was learning was to evolve from English towards the language of Poetry.

Poetry, for me, is a language that transcends genre or dictionary definitions. I realize I understood this at birth, as shown by my first “book.” It bore no title. It was created by my toddler-self folding a piece of paper to emulate a book’s pages. The first page bore a green Crayola scrawl at the bottom of the page. The second page bore a yellow Crayola circle at the top right corner of the page. The third page bore a brown Crayola scrawl at the bottom of the page. But those childish images clearly contained meaning akin to what would be found in text. It could be considered visual and asemic poetries. The “text” of its three pages might be interpreted as follows:


The grass is green. 

The sun is out shining. 

The sun burnt the grass.


From that start of upending English into Poetry so that its words became visual, I began writing poems characterized as “abstract,” “surreal,” and “fragmented.” A lover of the visual arts, I also sought inspiration in that medium to look away from literary traditions. Abstract expressionism was useful for creating prose poems because its form avoided line-breaks that might interrupt the energy flow within my lines; in addition, it helped me conceptualize deleting the period at the end of the prose poem’s last sentence to symbolize how the poem continues past the end of words, in the same way abstract expressionist brushstrokes seemingly continue past the edge of a canvas. My first U.S.-published poetry book is a collection of such prose poems: Reproductions of the Empty Flagpole (2002); Reproductions also reprinted the prose poems that appeared in my first poetry book, Beyond Life Sentences (1998) which was released in the Philippines and received its National Book Award for Poetry (from the Manila Critics Circle). Later, emulating sculptors—specifically Michelangelo carving out the Renaissance masterpiece “David” from a block of marble—I returned to those prose poems and chiseled out new verses from its paragraph-blocks of words to create a new book, Sun Stigmata (2014).

I didn’t leave fiction entirely. There, my rambunctious disputations of literary norms included entitling a book The Great American Novel (2019) for a collection of visual poetry. I created a compilation of seven-chapter novels, Silk Egg (2011), which could be considered prose poems instead of short novels. Recently, I finished my second novel, Collateral Damage, by arbitrarily collaging one-paragraph prose poems as the first paragraphs in all its chapters; these poems had not been written to develop the novel’s plot and would have no connection to developing the novel’s story, except for what the reader may read into them. Collateral Damage reflects my radical trust in, and desire to maximize the agency of, the reader.

Eventually, I moved towards inventing new poetry forms, and created the “hay(na)ku.” Its name is derived after a common Filipino expression “hay naku” or “ay naku,” which is akin to the English “Oh!” or “Oh my gosh!” and whose meaning depends on context. For examples, a lover might say, “Hay naku—your skin is so soft I just want to caress you” or a mother might yell to misbehaving children, “Hay naku! Stop screaming and get your butts over here!” I appreciated how the meaning of words need not be fixed, fluctuating due to different contexts. Such flux in meaning affirms my view that a poem’s reception differs per reader and can’t be controlled by the poet.

Equally significant, with the hay(na)ku I was able to create poetry by offering other poets a form in which to write. The hay(na)ku is a tercet, with the first line being one word, the second line being two words, and the third line being three words. By creating a form, it was up to others to use words to flesh out that form into poems. The hay(na)ku came to travel around the world with poets I could not have envisioned would be interested. Many were unknown to me, with some living in countries I’ve never visited, such as Macedonia, Finland, Australia, among others. For me, helping to create new poems with others’ words, not mine, befits how Poetry as a language is the opposite of colonialism: it is a language of community. Instead of being a language of authority (e.g., authorial authority), control, and exclusion, Poetry is a language for openness, acceptance, and inclusion. Poetry, thus, is already a decolonized language. How freeing I have found Poetry to be! 

~end of excerpt~


Read also:

In Honor of Eileen R. Tabios  

Philippine Literature: Filipino and Filipino American Literary Figures

 Tags: Philippines, Filipino, FilAm, Filipino American, Pinoy, literature, writer, authors, books

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