ROCHITA LOENEN-RUIZ writes FEATURE ARTICLE
Eileen Tabios, Poet and Writer
In her book, I take Thee English, My beloved, Eileen Tabios writes:
“I consider Poetry to be a practice, a way of living. For me, living as a poet requires maximizing awareness of the world in order to be effective as a poet. By “effective”, I refer to my hope that my poems create spaces for experiences that readers find meaningful if not pleasurable.” -Six Directions: Poetry as a way of Life -
Reading Eileen’s poetry requires more than a cursory glance. Her poems have a compelling effect on the reader so one is called back and back again to read and reread lines and verses. Her work evokes an emotional and physical response in the reader. One never tires of reading it. With regards to her poetics, its effectiveness is in how her work extends beyond the written page.
Eileen Tabios’ work moves the reader to beyond the page, beyond thought into action. Whether that action implies picking up the pen, awakening to the vibrancy of an undeniable heritage and doing something about it, or buying more books by Filipino authors is what the writer leaves to the reader.
Born in the Philippines, Eileen moved to the U.S. when she was ten years old.
A graduate of political science, economics and international finance. As an undergraduate, she spent most of her time working for the college newspaper, Columbia University’s Daily Spectator which, while a college publication, was a legitimate professional daily -- the eight largest daily in New York City.
After receiving her MBA, she went on to work for nearly ten years in the finance industry. In 1995, she gave up a life of finance and embraced life as a fulltime creative writer.
Today, she has ten poetry collections to her name. Among them the much acclaimed, I Take Thee, English, For My Beloved, and, Reproductions of the Empty Flagpole. A modern day poet, Eileen’s works appear not only in print publications, but also on electronic and cd publications. She has also released a short story collection, and a collection of art essays, as well as edited or co-edited five books of poetry, fiction and essays.
Aside from writing, Eileen also edits and publishes collections written by other poets. Founder and Publisher of a multi-disciplinary publishing company, Meritage Press. She is at once writer, poet, editor, critic, publisher and cultural activist, all these in order to achieve her goal of advancing and promoting poetry.
To someone reading Eileen’s work for the first time, it is impossible to ignore the influence of heritage on her work. In her book, Reproductions of an Empty Flagpole, Eileen writes
“I am called “Balikbayan” because the girl in me is a country of rope hammocks and waling-waling orchids -- a land with irresistible gravity, because in it, I forget the world’s magnificent indifference. In this country, my grandmother’s birthland, even the dead are never cold and I become a child at ease with trawling through rooms in the dark. In this land, throughout this archipelago, I am capable of silencing afternoons with a finger.”
-excerpt from Corolla, Reproductions of an Empty Flagpole -
There is so much in this book that resonates with readers like you and me. In the poem, “Eulogy”, she speaks of consistently travelling “to search for what will touch off an implosion in my heart”, and in the poem “The Empty Flagpole” she asks “What does it say about me when I ask for asylum in places where people wish to leave?”
It is statements like these that reach out and cause us to face the truth of our lives as wanderers and travellers, far from home, but still at home. Perhaps, these are questions we have asked, and perhaps these are statements we could have said.
In her blog, http://chatelaine-poetics.blogspot.com, Eileen Tabios speaks of going home to a people and not to a country. Regarding identity, she says the following:
I am reluctant to define identity because I feel identity is not stable, or that it's in flux (or perhaps this instability is my definition of it). And such instability, I believe, would exist regardless of any immigration issues. But, synchronistically, this seems to fit with how I sense my position as a diasporic Filipino: that is, without denying my "roots", as you put it, I feel that ultimately I am rootless. By this I mean that my "Philippines" is a place in my mind and heart, which may or may not fit the actual country identified today as the Philippines.
Certainly, the Philippines that existed when I was still living there (from ages 1-10) no longer exists -- it was before Marcos declared Martial Law and I still hold dear within my memory the sense from that time that the Philippines was at the brink of major progress. Well, what's transpired with and after Marcos has not been, on many levels, progressive, and I've not come to any accommodations with this in part because I've not really returned there. So I'm left with my childhood memory, and often dismay at what I've observed has happened with and since Marcos....
Politics, of course, are not culture or the people. Where I feel at home with Filipinos often has to do with my relationship and engagements with other Filipinos. To the extent that certain races are more warm-hearted than others, I do feel a warmth and gentleness from Filipinos that I sometimes don't experience with non-Filipinos.
So how despite growing up in the United States, in a culture that is different from what we know, how is it that Eileen retains a strong connection to her roots, an awareness of culture, history and heritage that resonates in her work.
Eileen: Poetry brought me back to my roots. Since age 10, I grew up as an "Americanized teenager" and didn't really pay much attention to Filipino culture until age 35 when I rebirthed myself (if you will) as a poet. I think the return to one's culture is logical -- if art is inherently about identity, then I would have been a blockhead if I hadn't begun to explore my Filipinoness. What I hadn't expected was how that search would create more questions than answers.
In Reproductions of an Empty Flagpole, she calls our attention to historical facts we might have forgotten, such as the Philippine-American war and how English which is sometimes called by Filipinos to be the borrowed tongue would be more accurately called the enforced tongue.
Referring to “subverting the language”, Eileen says:
My intentions as regards that phrase has changed over time. When I was a younger poet, I was interested in subverting English because of its historical role as a tool for U.S. imperialism in the Philippines. But over time I've also come to find that position to be limiting. When I subvert language nowadays, which is to say, attempt to use it in a more fresh or an unexpected way, it's more of an aesthetic decision rather than a political one. Basically, language is alive and so I'd like to use words beyond the contexts in which I inherit them, e.g. when one uses a word not based on its dictionary definition but based on its sound, image against the page, or how they feel against your tongue or mold the insides of your mouth.
And again in reference to herself as a poet straddling two cultures, she replies:
Actually, I've decided to avoid having my identity be limited by this notion of straddling two cultures. My imagination, especially as a poet, needs a larger expanse than this notion for purpose of identity.
Having said that, I don't mind being called Filipino because that's what I am. But I don't actually believe in the hyphenated Filipino phrase, whether it's Filipino-American or Filipino-European or anything else. I believe in just the single word "Filipino" and that it's a large enough word to be applicable anywhere around the world -- it's a position of faith that I proactively take up because I am a poet who believes in the power of words, specifically how the Word can expand instead of limit.
Named as one of the foremost Filipino American poets of the 21st century. I asked her what this statement means to her, and her is what she said in response to my question:
Absolutely nothing. One should never believe one's p.r., though this phrase is something that others applied to me versus something I say about myself.
And, actually, in thinking about this phrase a bit more, I've decided it's irritating. I'm sure the author of the phrase meant well, but the nature of this phrase's approach is something I find limiting. If I'm to have ambition as a poet, it's to be, to use the phrase's jargon, foremost among all poets of all time. (Not to say that's my ambition, but I'm just deconstructing the phrase as presented....wink).
Hmmmm. Or maybe I should just shut up and accept all compliments with a simple "thank you." It's not like poets get so many compliments about what they do, you know what I mean?
Anyway, the only time I take any poetry-related compliments seriously is when I have to sell a book or promote a gig. But that's called marketing, not poetry -- or my poetry anyway. I often have to promote so many poetry projects (not just mine but also other poets') and so I've learned to be careful never to confuse marketing with poetry.
To the growing mass of Filipinos who are adopting other countries and other tongues, and to their children, she says:
That to learn and immerse oneself in a new culture or new cultures is not contradictory with remaining true to one's ancestral heritage.
Rochita Loenen-Ruiz is a writer of speculative fiction, science fiction and fantasy. Her works have appeared in various publications. Aside from this column, she also writes a regular interview column for the U.S.-based electronic publication: The Sword Review. She blogs sporadically at http://rcloenen-ruiz.blogspot.com