Eileen R. Tabios

“I tinker a lot with subverting the form of (auto)biography.”


IMMIGRANT: Hay(na)ku & Other Poems In A New Land (Moria Books’ Locofo Chaps, 2017)

Could you share with us a representative or pivotal poem (or excerpt) from your chapbook? Perhaps something that introduces the work of the chapbook, or that invites the reader into the world of the chapbook? 

I intended, and hopefully it succeeds, that the chap’s first poem presents such an invitation. In part, this reflects the nature of the chap—because of its slimness, I thought there’d more chance (than in a thicker, full-length book) that a reader might read it chronologically from the first to the last page. So I wanted the opening poem, “South of ___ (fill in the blank)” to be an invitation; indeed, it ends with

“… hold my hand as the day unfolds.

To hold my hand
simply offer an uplifted palm
and trust in my response.”

Why did you choose this poem (or excerpt)?

I chose it, and the three poems following it, because they are from my first (and now-out-of-print) chap After The Egyptians Determined The Shape of the World is a Circle which was issued in 1996. I wanted to present poems from the beginning of my writing life to the present (the chap ends with a recent poem). By spanning the entirety of my writing life, I wanted that span to mirror the “life” of the collection’s protagonist, who—as noted in the title—is an immigrant. I tinker a lot with subverting the form of (auto)biography and this chap’s persona is an immigrant poet who, as it turns out, not just writes poems but contributes to poetry by enlarging its expanse, specifically by inventing a new poetry form. That poetry form is called “hay(na)ku” and its core is a tercet with the first line being one word,  the second line being two words, and the third line being three words (more information about the hay(na)ku is available at https://eileenrtabios.com/haynaku/). So the poet’s contribution is an example of the theme of how immigrants contribute to the “land” where they emigrate—an important reminder given the current heightened attacks on immigrants and refugees.

What are some of your favorite chapbooks? Or what are some chapbooks that have influenced your writing?

My favorite chapbook has to be Pack Rat Sieve by Mei-mei Berssenbruge, issued by Contact II (New York) in 1983. It was about 3 x 6”. By fitting easily in my purse, I was in daily contact with it for years such that it physically deteriorated from all my handling. At one point, I had to tape up all of the pages and still kept handling it for rereadings until it finally fell apart.  The power of that chap was its incredibly resonant poem. It’s an example of how a chap can provide at least this service to a great poem—by highlighting it on its own. Certainly, that this chap existed allowed me to be in 24-7 communion with it and I’m not sure, with hindsight, that inclusion in a full-length book would have allowed my not just emotional/psychological but bodily engagement with the poem’s existence over a prolonged period of time. It’s easy to carry around and slip out a small, slim chap for daily reads.

What might these favorite or influential chapbooks suggest about you and your writing?

Berssenbrugge’s chap encourages me that my goal moving forward may be to write poems where each is worthy of a single-chap publication (if it came to that). In the past as I created full-length books (and I have created long poetry books), some poems are not as effective as stand-alone pieces; they’re still decent poems but also (over-)rely on their context within a book. Moving forward, I’m going to focus more on a poem’s stand-alone quality. One of my favorite poets, Jose Garcia Villa, once said that every single word in a poem has to be necessary. Similarly, I’d like every new poem I write to be necessary as a stand-alone unit.

Does the chapbook form have an impact on the politics of the poems that appear inside it?

My IMMIGRANT chap is part of a politically-oriented series (http://www.moriapoetry.com/locofo.html) created by the editor of Moria Books, William “Bill” Allegrezza. Bill wants to create 100 chaps during the first hundred days of the new presidential administration. He plans to mail copies of the chaps to the White House after the series is produced. So that series, by itself, certainly affirms how the chapbook form can have a political impact. Given the series’ need to find 100 chaps in a hundred days, the chap’s relative briefness allows poets to create a short collection. Bill suggested that chaps can be as short as 5 pages, and up to 25 pages. Many poets can muster that, and thus participate in the Locofo series which I consider to be one of the most effective protest and/or resistance acts.

What obsessions led you to write your chapbook?

While IMMIGRANT had a particular impetus based on recent anti-immigrant actions, it also reflects my long-time obsession with disrupting the form of (auto)-biography—it’s a notion that is more expansively explained in my 2016 chap, EXCAVATING THE FILIPINO IN ME (Tinfish, Hawai’i, 2016). From that chap is this excerpt:

“Disrupting the (traditional) form and genre of autobiography and biography is one of my interests… [T]here’s certainly many reasons why one (or I) desires to disrupt auto/biography—from the general factors of how one may or may not ever know the true story, how one elides the true story, and how I believe identity is both constrained by inherited circumstances as well as fluctuates such that any life story narrative is at best a snapshot narrative rather than something that can hold true over time. I call these ‘general’ factors because they can apply to everybody, thus how *knowing one’s self* is one of the most difficult goals to achieve.

“But then when, in my case, one is forced to grapple with immigration, diaspora, minority/POC positionings in the land where the migratory transplant ends, then the memoir, by being a genre that posits it can present an accurate life story, becomes a landscape fertile for disruption. I have a book in 2016 from Black Radish Books (who I cite because they’re a press that’s known for innovatively experimental authors), and that book title says it all: AMNESIA: Somebody’s Memoir.”

Which poem in your chapbook has the most meaningful back story to you? What’s the back story?

The poem “Dear Mama,” is the most meaningful in that I wrote it for IMMIGRANT. But it’s also one of the, so far, very few successful attempts to write in response to my mother’s passing over seven years ago. It’s interesting how, when my father passed, I swiftly wrote out and published a book about him. As regards my mother’s passing, I seem to be relatively speechless. We were so close that words, to date, usually fail to articulate our relationship. In “Dear Mama,” I mention some of the sacrifices my mother underwent as an immigrant, including giving up her pre-immigration career as a schoolteacher because she needed to earn more money to help feed her four children than the salary she could find as a non-U.S. educated teacher.

What was the final poem you wrote or significantly revised for the chapbook, and how did that affect your sense that the chapbook was complete?

The last poem I wrote for the collection, also the last poem in the collection, indeed made me feel that its existence allowed the chapbook to be complete. That’s because the poem “On a TRAPPIST-1 Planet” was written in response to the February 2017 revelation of astronomers discovering “not one, not two, but seven Earth-sized planets orbiting a star called TRAPPIST-1.” So the poem imagines a day when earthlings travel to one of those planets—immigration on a planetary basis. And the poem asks, “Earthling, how have you treated immigrants? // Do you know the difference between ‘space travel’ and ‘colonialism’? // Have you heard of karma?”

What has the editorial and production experience with the press who picked up your chapbook been like? To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?

Locofo Chaps allowed me to pick my own cover image. In this case, it’s a black-and-white photo of me as a toddler featured within a colonial frame my mother chose. I believe my mother chose the frame because along its borders were books and both she and I love books. But the figurine of a girl presented along the frame’s right border is clearly non-Filipino and, as a Caucasian, might be said to represent a U.S.-American. I thought that fitted IMMIGRANT’s theme since I—and the collection’s poet-persona—obviously emigrated to the United States.

If you have written more than one chapbook or novella, could you describe each of them in chronological order?

Here is a list of my chaps in chronological order. Some are print chaps and others are electronic chaps. It’s fair to say that the electronic publishing, in part due to being relatively inexpensive for its publishers, allowed me to present a group of poems on a more focused basis. Since several of these e-chaps would come to be part of full-length print books, that focus was helpful as I reconsidered and edited them anew for purpose of the print books’ contexts. On the other hand, some chaps are meant to be stand-alone collections on their own. Yet others are excerpts from longer works. I love the chap form for its versatility:

After The Egyptians Determined The Shape of the World is a Circle, 1996
Enheduanna in the 21st Century, 2002
There, Where the Pages Would End, 2003
Crucial Bliss Epilogues, 2004
The Estrus Gaze(s), 2005
It’s Curtains, 2006
The Singer and Others: Flamenco Hay(na)ku, 2007
Roman Holiday, 2010
The Gilded Age of Kickstarters, 2016
IMMIGRANT: Hay(na)ku & Other Poems in a New Land, 2017

What are you working on now?

I’ve been fairly prolific and am working to spread the word on my 2016 and 2017 publications which, to date, total five books, two mini-books, six chapbooks and one edited anthology. The latter is a chap anthology, PUNETA: POLITICAL PILIPINX POETRY (Locofo, 2017). I also expect to have a new chap come out shortly, Comprehending Mortality, which is a collaboration with John Bloomberg-Rissman; for me, the project was inspired partly from the recent passing of my beloved dog, Achilles. Having said that, and again because I’m prolific, I’m also finalizing the editing for my next book HIRAETH: Tercets From the Last Archipelago. It will come out either later this year or in early 2018.

If you could choose another artistic path (painting, music, dance, etc.) what would it be and why?

Painting and other forms of visual art. I love the visual arts and they actually inspire a lot of poems. My first U.S.-published book, Reproductions of the Empty Flagpole (Marsh Hawk Press) was an ekphrasis collection. I appreciate the visual arts for works that are tangible and observable. I’m so often in my head dealing with abstractions when I write that I envy visual artists their ability to see and touch their works.

What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?

Read widely and a lot!


Eileen R. Tabios has released over 40 collections of poetry, fiction, essays, and experimental biographies from publishers in eight countries and cyberspace. Her most recent include her first trilingual (English, Romanian, Spanish) edition YOUR FATHER IS BALD (Bibliotheca Universalis, 2017); THE OPPOSITE OF CLAUSTROPHOBIA (Knives, Forks and Spoons Press, 2017); and AMNESIA: SOMEBODY’S MEMOIR (Black Radish Books, 2016). Recipient of the Philippines’ National Book Award for Poetry for her first poetry book, she has been translated into eight languages and invented the poetic form “hay(na)ku.” She also is currently writing a long-form novel. More information is available at http://eileenrtabios.com



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