Educating the Shih: A Filipina Poetics

by Eileen R. Tabios

Because I am a poet, I want to write about—to focus on—poetry. It’s impossible to articulate fully this angel-beast creature called “poetry,” though one can approximate as I do by writing this essay—but to write *about* poetry is not the same as manifesting poetry. Poetry writes itself.

Poetry writes itself—what does that mean? It partly means that the poet gets out of the way of the poem birthing itself. This isn’t just about Paul Valéry’s statement (with which I agree) that a poem is written by someone other than the poet and addressed to someone other than the reader. It’s when, in writing the poem, there’s an energy—a forward propulsion—at work that exists beyond the poet’s will. It is shih energy unfolding itself, an energy described in Sun Tzu’s The Art of War as being so strong that when it’s a “rush of water,” it gets to “the point of tossing rocks about.” From my recent work, an example is my newest book, 5 Shades of Gray —the collection’s 30 poems were all written in a two-hour rush or energy. I hadn’t intended to write these poems. They just surfaced one afternoon. To do my job as a poet, I knew to heed their call and not be distracted away from sitting down on the table with pad and pen to write them out from the energy I had not willed but was suddenly feeling. I later would edit the collection but most of the poems remain untouched from their first drafts.

It would be simplistic, however, to say that the drafting process only required about two hours. These poems also arose from research I conducted about 15 years ago which involved, among other things, reading at least 20 books (encompassing psychology and philosophy) on the topic of dominance/submission. For 5 Shades of Gray, the poems wrote themselves without prior intention on my part, but tapped into my preparation for them from research I conducted last century. (The poems were triggered when I more recently read about that global phenomenon known as Fifty Shades of Grey, a trilogy by British writer E.L. James exploring BDSM (bondage/discipline, dominance/submission, sadism/masochism) and whose sales include topping 40 million copies worldwide and book rights in at least 37 countries.)

In other words, there is a process of preparing one’s self as a poet to unleash the shih energy required to create/enervate an effective poem. A poem may not come out of such preparation; it certainly may not come out right away. But it is during this preparation process where my concerns as a Filipina poet come to the fore. During this process, I conduct research, educate myself, and participate in acts of cultural activism. My job as a Filipina poet is to learn about my people’s history and try to live my life in a way that addresses discovered needs within this community, whether it’s creating publishing outlets for Filipino writers to obviate historical marginalization of their arts or giving visiting lectures to various college students’ classrooms or acting as a mentor to younger poets. My ancestors’ culture(s) and history(ies) will never end up in one of my poems unless I first lived—and experienced!—a certain way. For example, in terms of promoting the beauty of Filipina culture, including literature, I co-edited (with Nick Carbo) BABAYLAN, the first international anthology of Filipina writers published in the U.S. through Aunt Lute Press.

A lot of preparation goes into a poem that may not be discernible in the poem itself. The manifestation of my concerns do not always bear the ethnic marker(s) that would tag them as “Filipino.” My first U.S.-published collection of poetry, Reproductions of the Empty Flagpole (Marsh Hawk Press, 2008), utilizes what I call “abstract” language—abstract in the way of the visual arts’ abstract expressionism. In the poem-excerpt below, for instance, I wanted to evoke lines like brushstrokes (and some of the incomplete sentences or phrases are meant to evoke shorter brushstrokes); but for strengthening the lines, I wanted to evoke the same rush of energy that so energized the best of abstract-expressionist paintings. In reading the majority of these poems—for example, the first paragraph from the prose poem “Asthma”

Though the panes are crafted from capiz shells gathered from a sea’s bounty, his windows hover over an urban canyon that has never been shadowed by an eagle’s wings. She feels what she sees: the lack of a mountain’s jade face. Traversed by a river flowing like my tears silvered by moonshine. Whose salt etched my cheeks when I watched an ocean seduce him. We share a fate perpetually revolving around water. Whose liquidity cannot cohere. Into a body one touches to ignite desire and a long-forgotten memory. We are consistent in our urges to continue traveling as if Home exists. Thus, awaits.

—there would seem to be nothing particularly Filipino/a about them except for the reference to “capiz,” Filipino seashells. In the above example, though, I would argue that the elements or tones of migration, loss, homesickness, longing and delayed gratification (among others) are “Filipina,” if only by hearkening the diasporic and often troubled elements of Filipino history.

I distinguish between process and the resulting poem(s) also because a poem is often more than the poet. A poem often transcends the poet’s autobiography, with autobiography including what personally interests the poet. This results (in part) from the poet’s raw material: words. Specifically, how words resonate beyond their particular definitions; for instance, a word can resonate due to its sound and not (just) meaning). A word might also resonate due to what it triggers in someone’s imagination. For example, I have had little interest in physics. But I’ve written poems referencing quantum physics because of its vocabularies (e.g. “perturbation theory”—the first time I read this phrase my mind immediately took off in riffs over theories that would perturb: how’s about the creation of the alien in the movies “Alien” and “Prometheus”!) and its concepts (e.g. parallel universes, time reversibility, etc). Words contain their own internal/inherent sources of energy and it’s part of a poet’s task to be attuned to such tremors.

The author is not and was never dead. The poet’s concerns—yes, identity!—inevitably lurks within his/her/hir poem. Again, such need not be through discernible narrative references; it can show up through poetic form and other decisions not synonymous with definitions—for example, my reference above to abstract language relates to my attempts to avoid the telling/ordering aspect of language, characteristics which occurred when English was used in the Philippines as a colonial tool. Even 5 Shades of Gray, which would seem to have nothing to do with being Filipino (or any other nationality) ultimately takes a position that one could argue is post- or transcolonial Filipino if one were aware of the Philippines’ history as a former colonial subject of Spain and the United States. That is, 5 Shades of Gray also questions the stability of the “master” position.

Of course, sometimes I create poems that are discernibly “Filipina” because of their subject matter. My book Menage A Trois With the 21st Century includes a section of Gabriela Silang poems; a sample poem is available on Ron Silliman’s Blog . Gabriela Silang was the first woman general in the Philippines who led one of the longest (possibly longest) local rebellions against colonial Spaniards in the 18th century. Because she died at age 32, I created poems envisioning a new life for her in the 21st century—a life where she was able to do things she was not able to experience when her life was constricted by having to be a rebel against colonial rule. In these poems, I position her in various contexts ranging from attending dinner parties to reading Baudelaire to driving through a vineyard to (even) skiing. But what is most “Filipina” about these poems, in my own opinion, are not the narratives which include citing Gabriela Silang’s name. What’s most Filipina are the tones of grief, sadness, betrayal, regret and other emotions which certainly are effects of a history of suffering, such as what the Philippines underwent during its colonial, and more recent martial law dictatorship, past.

One of Poetry’s gifts to me is how it guided me to pay attention to my and my people’s histories. The effective poet is usually one who pays attention. When one wishes to be as aware a human being as one can be, it’s impossible to ignore one’s own roots. Because I am a Filipina, I am interested in my ancestors’ culture(s) and history(ies) and research these matters to learn about them. While I may not determine ahead of time what will comprise a particular poem, I do know that ultimately I wish my poems to address Filipina history and culture—and such would not be possible if I, as a person, were ignorant of them.

Yet I am not a nationalistic poet, for anything and everything can be relevant to a poem. I’ve learned, for poetry, to be open-minded in terms of what I next will learn or about which to be concerned. My education as a poet is ongoing and encompasses whatever the world offers. My role, too, as a poet might be articulated as including being open to the world in all of its multiplicities.

Such openness, though, is also a Filipina position. Indeed, it is an indigenous Filipino position. As a poet, I hold dear to my heart an image from an ancient Philippine myth. It’s of a human standing with a hand lifted upwards such that if you happened to be at a certain distance and were to take a snapshot, it would look like the human was touching the sky. That is the moment, the space, from which I attempt to create poems. In this 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, No one or nothing is alien to me.

I wish no subject matter, therefore, to be alien to me as a Filipina poet.

Relatedly, I hope for a readership that’s not just members of the Filipina community. If someone is to read my work comprehensively, inevitably they will be introduced to Filipino culture. It’s an introduction—an invitation—I offer to anybody, Filipino or not. I am interested in mirroring the history of the Philippines which is a diasporic one—it’s the history of the world. As a result, I am interested in involving the world in my poems. Like poetry, the Filipino experience is not limited by geography. Thus, I helped broker the birth of a poetic form called the hay(na)ku.

The hay(na)ku’s core is a tercet with the first line being one word, the second line being two words, and the third line being three words. Part of its inspiration is a funny Filipino childhood rhyme: isa, dalawa, tatlo, ang Tatay mo’y kalbo (pronounce phonetically to catch the rhythm), which translates to one, two, three, your Dad is bald. But it also has non-Filipino roots, specifically a novel by Richard Brautigan, The Hawkline Monster, which offers the character Cameron who “liked to count everything” (e.g., he once counted himself vomiting 19 times on his way to San Francisco). The fact that the hay(na)ku has both Filipino and non-Filipino sources reflects the Philippines’ history as a diasporic one, and my acknowledgment of the interconnection of all things and all beings as offered in the indigenous Filipino myth I described earlier.

Synchronistically befitting its nature as a Filipino diasporic poetic form, the hay(na)ku has spread in practice around the world since its public inauguration on Philippines Independence Day, June 12, 2003. The form, initially called “Pinoy haiku” before it was renamed the “hay(na)ku” by Filipino poet Vince Gotera, has generated three hay(na)ku anthologies, appeared in over fifty single-poet collections, popped up in numerous journals, and showed up in anthologies including Best American Poetry. When the hay(na)ku touches other poets—and most of the hay(na)ku writers have been non-Filipino—it inevitably introduces Filipino culture to them.

Much of the hay(na)ku’s popularity has risen from its very Filipino flexibility. Due to the numerous travails and suffering experienced by Filipinos, Filipinos have often learned to be flexible. I wished this flexibility to be possessed by the hay(na)ku; its flexibility manifests itself in its willingness to morph into an infinite number of variations. Instead of just the single tercet, for example, a poem could be a series of tercets to create a long poem known as the “chained hay(na)ku.” The word-count could be reversed in the tercet to create a “reverse hay(na)ku.” Or, the hay(na)ku could become a “haybun”, a combination of a tercet and prose. Examples of the haybun can be seen at an issue of Peep/Show ….A Taxonomic Exercise in Textual and Visual Seriality…. , edited by. Anne Gorrick and Lynn Behrendt, which presents excerpts from my manuscript-in-progress, 147 Million Orphans: A Haybun.

In addressing how I have worked as a poet, I am obviously aware of others, including potential readers. “Community,” however, is a more complicated affair. A community is formed for a reason(s), but I don’t craft my poems ahead of time by keeping particular communities’ concerns in mind, including those concerns by various Filipino communities (I use the plural “communities” since it’s not a homogenous group but many groups). After the poem is written, that poem and/or I as its author may or may not be accepted into certain communities, whether formed aesthetically or ethnically. This course of things does not matter to me during the creative act. It is a matter of interest, though, because the reader is of general interest to me. I believe that once I release a poem into the world that poem is not under my control (if it ever was). I believe that a poet begins a poem, but it’s the reader who finishes it by defining what that particular poetry experience will become.

My thoughts on the role of the reader is not just a poetics but a form of Filipina poetics. My history encompasses a birthland that’s been ordered about—told to—by colonizers for more than 300 years. I don’t wish, therefore, to tell others how to read (my) poems; I wish there to be a space for their opinions to not just matter but be significant in defining the poetry experience.

Nonetheless, subjectivity is an old topic by now—we all know that a single poem can mean different things (including be meaningless) to different people. Some Filipino pundits have not considered my poems “Filipino” or sufficiently Filipino because the poems don’t abide by their notions of what makes a Filipino poem (usually because the narrative is not discernibly Filipino). This reactive phase is not my concern in terms of determining how I should live or create as a poet, even as I don’t ignore either such reactions (to the extent I learn about them).

My job is to create poems. I’ve tried to explain why all of my poems inevitably are “Filipina” poems. Whether they’re (all) judged as such is, ultimately, not meaningful to how I conduct my work. “The poem writes itself” also means that the poem will determine its own fate (including whether to be ignored or to become widespread)—a fate not totally determined by the poet’s own activities. What is meaningful to my job as a poet is that I don’t waste this gift of poetry-making. My role is to live a line from a poem I wrote for a poetry-performance intervention project curated by Dan Waber; for this project, I created “Encouragement,” wherein I wrote—and wish for you as much as myself—

Don’t let silence talk for you.

Speaking on your own behalf means you don’t let others talk for you, or let yourself be silenced by others. This tenet obviously is relevant to those with a colonial past. In my sample poems for this issue of The Bakery, there’s a reference at one point to the boxer Mike Tyson and how others have called him “The Baddest Man on the Planet.” In the poem, I advocate for calling the boxer by his “true name”: Michael Gerard Tyson. Such recognition—respect for other human beings as well as self-respect—is part of why Filipinas must speak on their own behalf rather than being silent in face of some of the labels ascribed generally and stereotypically to them, e.g. “mail order bride,” “maid,” “brown monkeys,” and so on. Don’t let silence talk for you.

As one who considers herself trans-colonial (i.e., not simply post-colonial but self-defined by terms transcending colonization, not the least of which is aspiring to love and compassion), I recognize my ability to tap into the shih of poetry. It’s my job as a poet to not simply unleash its energy but to educate its flow with how I first live as a poet. As for community or communities for myself and my poetry, I am willing to abide by what rises organically (or not) as a result of what poems and poetry experiences I have managed to offer the world.

Eileen R. Tabios is one of the featured poets in Poetas y Diwatas, the Monthly Special guest-edited by Barbara Jane Reyes. Be sure to read Eileen’s poems here. More thoughts from the featured poets will be appear throughout the month so keep an eye out for them!

1 Comment - Leave a comment
  1. Aileen says:

    The role of the poet, ultimately, is to build bridges, between generations, between cultures, between disciplines, “…by being rooted onto the planet but also touching the sky…connected to everything in the universe and across all time…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. (Doctor Who couldn’t have said it better ;-) 

    The line, “Don’t let silence talk for you”, struck me so strongly, and reminded me of generations of Filipinas, whose voices were never heard, because society dictated it. Mark Rafalo, paraphrasing Stella Hadler, said (in Real Time with Bill Maher), “you have a responsibility as an artist to reflect the culture that you’re in and give back to that culture in some way. To be politically savvy, to understand what’s going on, and speak for the people who can’t speak for themselves.” This essay, delightful to read because of its fluidity, but more importantly, it does an excellent job of exploring Filipina poetics. It invites communities to participate in the process, to engage, and experience the shih. It tells the world our story.

    Having said that, I can’t for 5 Shades of Gray (I need another conversation starter after Fifty Shades ;-)

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