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Eileen Tabios interviewed by John Bloomberg-Rissman


Note: this interview first appeared on Arduity ( Thanks to editor john Armstrong for allowing us to reproduce it here.


John Blomberg-Rissman (JBR):
I want to start by quoting a bit from Enrique Dussel’s Ethics of Liberation and then elaborating on it. “We are confronted by the overwhelming but contradictory reality of a ‘world system’ … which has globalized its reach to the most distant corners of the planet at the same time that it has paradoxically excluded a majority of humanity.” Dussel goes on to identify the world system with the hegemony of Western Europe, the United States, and a few other “latecomer” countries, e.g., post-1989 Russia and Japan. It seems to me that this hegemony has been more or less firmly in place since the 18th century, which also saw the birth of aesthetics as a new and specific disciplined way of relating to “art objects” (including poetry), which took as its other ekel, disgust (the fact that ekel is German is not just gratuitous information), which as Winfried Menninghaus’s research has shown, is best exemplified by the figure of the old woman, by people of color, especially Africans, by the actual human body, etc (e.g. a runny nose). At the same time that aesthetics was being formulated, the same generation of Germans was beginning to redefine philosophy as that which began with the Greeks, and to exclude everything Asian, African, etc as not-philosophy, because only white Europeans were capable of actual rational thought. This kind of thinking clearly came to dominate western thought, and, dare I say, helped justify colonization and exploitation, and Dussel’s exclusion of the majority of humans from a seat at the table. OK. Sorry for being so long-winded, but I wanted to set this up. Tho I don’t want to ask you to speak for anyone but yourself, you are a woman of color hailing from the Philippines, a former colony, who has nevertheless chosen to write in a conqueror’s language, no, has done more than to choose to write in English, but who has actually taken it as your beloved. What kind(s) of difficulties (if any) has this presented? I would like this question to be heard on both a macro and micro level, but let’s start with the macro, a là Spivak: “can the subaltern speak?” and, if and apparently so, what difficulties, to use an Arduity-word, you might have / continue to encounter, and how you see your work fitting / not fitting / etc into an aesthetic regime that is at its very heart racist, misogynist, etc etc?


Eileen R. Tabios (ERT):
John, thank you for your Introduction—I should clarify that I consider myself more of a “trans-colonial” versus “post-colonial” simply because I’d like my work not to be constrained by inherited history (that may be a futile desire, but I identify the need to go beyond what others have imposed on me and my background).  As regards your first question, I initially took your question at face value and wrote an answer.  When my answer was at 2,999 words, I realized that my answer was not reflective of how I truly feel because it didn’t question the premise which you mostly intended for setting up the conversation.  I guess I am not totally comfortable with all of the framing (so to speak) of your question—the frame being the first part of the question up to when you said you “wanted to set this up.”  A longer look at history may be relevant—I think humans, especially after switching from the hunter-gatherer to agricultural-based lifestyles, have displayed a tendency to improve themselves at the expense of others’ positions. Thus, the matters you note are just examples of a longer-lived pattern which is more directly the problem. I think the problems you rightly note come from this tendency, and as enhanced by the introduction of such matters as surplus and ownership into human lifestyle, and that the immensity of the problems we have today is not (just) because of the other-ing tendency you observe but because we have a larger population than we’ve had before and their consumption is not supported by the planet’s resources. 

Also, I have no particular problem with how the three Greeks have come to be identified as some philosophical core in the West since the same world has accepted India’s form of numbering. 

So perhaps I should start by just saying that first, and seeing what you think as I sense the frame of your question is important to you…


First of all, I hope you did not trash your original response because it's probably interesting in itself and I'm sure bits are salvageable. In any case, OK, you response is fair enough, and, really, I would expect no less.

So, you ask: what in my framing is important to me. There are two ways of answering that which occur to me at the moment. The first is: what is important in that frame to me, regardless that we are having a conversation and/or interview. In other words, what bothers me (as an artist, we'll keep it at that) about living under the intellectual hegemony of the west? The other way to answer this is: what is important to me about the way I frame the question in terms of this interview? In other words, what was / am I hoping to elicit?

I'm going to answer the second here, because that seems more relevant to us, not just to me. Tho I could answer the first if you'd like me to. OK. This is what occurs to me. Paul Celan continued to write in German because even tho it was the enemy's language it was also his language. But the fact that it was not just his anymore, but the language of those who had killed his family etc etc, had certain effects on his use of the language (led to the rise of certain "difficulties" in his work) (this is not, of course, an attempt to reduce his work to some sort of monocausal thing). You have chosen (for the most part) to write in not just the enemy's language, but to (more or less) embrace an aesthetic that was designed to exclude you, as a woman and as a person of color. What difficulties has that presented you with? How have you managed and/or subverted them?

Of course, I understand that that's just a paraphrase of my original question, shorn of the footnotes and references. But maybe that helps narrow down what I am really getting at. I'll veer now a bit into a "what is important in that frame to me" zone. Yes, every culture has done that same kind of "othering". I don't like that aspect of them either. And I know that western culture is much more than just an exclusion machine, I know that's the same for every culture. But what troubles me right now about western culture is its globalization. It's like a monocrop. And monocropping is never a good idea. Using the monocropping metaphor, it seems that one thing poets might be about today is, well, if Monsanto is a black magic way of inculcating disease resistance into a monocrop, maybe poetry might be a white magic way of doing the same thing. 

What's really interesting to me about your response is how different it is from what you told me yesterday, that I had asked exactly the right question. Apparently ... not. Or something. 


The easy part first, John.  Yesterday I read “the right question” because I’d focused on the second half of the question which mostly addressed poetry.  Today, my attention snagged against the framing, too.  But that the question is the right one is still true, as befits how much I wrote in response and how much the rest of my answer now recycles much of what I wrote yesterday.  So, I’ll continue below and with some clarity of your “frame.”  But before I do so, I want to present an answer that was created with your frame in mind; it was written on my behalf by another Filipino poet, Angelo Suarez, whose books include POEM OF DIMINISHING POETICITY and the forthcoming Philippine English: A Novel.  I asked Angelo to speak to your first question as if he was me because I thought it would be interesting if not relevant to see a version of a reply from someone who does not see me as a subaltern and whose knowledge of me revolves mostly around my published writings (including on social media). As you know, the person never exactly matches one’s public persona but my public persona mostly revolves around poetry which is the matter we’re discussing.  So, to your first question, here is Angelo’s response on my behalf:

Obviously I can speak: that you are interviewing me is an indication of my work's & also my visibility w/in this aesthetic regime. Nevertheless my visibility comes marked w/ both complicity & oppression, i.e., my visibility is an indication of an ability to play along—or perhaps not so much an ability to play along but an ability to survive being played by—the oppressive conditions that you speak of. This love affair for English, for instance, finds me producing texts not only in what you see in books, but texts that come in the form of a publishing practice—by w/c I mean to say I have also come to run a publishing house. It is one thing to exercise resistance by writing poetry; it is another thing to exercise resistance by taking control of the forces of production that allow my poetry to be printed & disseminated. Publishing & affiliating myself w/ communities of independent publishers present themselves as forms of composition outside of books that help determine how books are made, presented, distributed—conditions that in turn generate, in a simultaneously Foucauldian & Benjaminian sense, the author-as-producer function. But look—I can only carry out this so-called resistance insofar as I can afford it. It's one thing to be Filipino; it's another thing to be poor. Beneath all this talk about visibility is whether I can afford to make myself visible. I don't pretend to be dirt-poor. Let me just say that I was lucky enough to not have been born into a subjectivity that is genuinely subaltern & therefore cannot speak. I can speak, my poetry is recognized as poetry in the poetry & publishing communities I move in, but 1st of all because I have time to produce it rather than rummage thru garbage bins looking for food to survive on.

And while there’s nothing in there for me to dispute, I affirm that its incompleteness (not Angelo’s fault) affirms my discomfort with your original question.  So let me add to Angelo’s words by continuing to say:

As you know, history obviously didn’t begin with the Western articulation of it, though it can be true that its economic power affects/widens the distribution of its point of views (it wasn’t that long ago, for example—and maybe it’s still the case!—that U.S.-American textbooks portrayed the Philippine-American War as a Filipino “insurrection” or “rebellion” against an implied legitimate U.S. rule when it was actually a defensive battle against U.S. invasion).

But I try to go long on history, reaching certainly further than your frame. My understanding of such a history contextualizes how I view events.  So, if we go back to, say, the human switch from hunter-gathering to agricultural-based lifestyles, we will see how certain lifestyles bring out or reward of encourage certain values over others.  To live by agriculture (which means re-engineering plants and animals for human consumption) you fundamentally change the human-nature relationship from one of reciprocity (you care for the land and it cares for you) to one of use and exploitation. War, slavery, etc.—these things are ancient. Indeed, if we go back even longer to the hunter-gatherer stage, we’ll still see elements, I believe, of man’s self-oriented nature (and maybe that’s just part of creatures who have to be concerned with survival).

So while I am as appalled as you over abuse and injustice, I’m not ultimately surprised.  I am responding this way because you mention “globalization” which I also feel is an overall profile and arc of historical events.  And a trajectory.  When you combine overpopulation and/or human levels of consumption with growing scarcity—and even if not scarcity but the imbalanced distribution—of resources, there’s a logic I see in the resulting inequitable distribution of resources, and the resulting biases in terms of such areas as aesthetics.  A logic because I identified (grumpily but so what?) long ago this tendency in the human race to act only or mostly on their behalf.

Now, certain decolonization scholars (I think of Leny Strobel and Lily Mendoza) offset my dour view of human nature by reminding me of various indigenous practices whereby humans were very careful about not taking more from the land/natural resources than they can put back.  Even when, with the effects of elements out of human control—specifically climate—people thought it wise to generate surpluses, many of those early folks still didn’t abuse the environment—tried not to take more than they needed to take (“need” would include appropriate surpluses).  I’m not an anthropologist or expert historian, and am forced to elide the controversy as to how much of a paradise existed in pre-modern times.  But we’ve obviously gone a long way from respecting, and loving, our ties to nature. It’s not such a stretch to move from there to colonizing other people; much of the Western (though this tendency is not just Western) cultural elements you decry rely on having other peoples as well as the environment subservient to one’s use or advantage. Thus, it would seem logical that aesthetics, too, becomes a tool for larger forces more directly concerned with power: the Other is not just disgusting but it’s convenient that they are disgusting.  And of course!  The nature of selfishness—and power (you know what that Greek said)—is such a strong force!  As well, racism is not just a disgust with the other.  Racism is a convenient tool for trying to keep another group subservient.

Entonces, we come to today where much of the wealthy and powerful have incentives not to change their practices in that necessary changes would require diluting their power.  A way to facilitate change is education, assuming they have the moral compass to abide by what they learn about unsustainable and unfair practices. But while it can be a convincing argument that taking care of the planet generally benefits them, they’re also being asked to forego short-term gratification for long-term benefits.  It is difficult to improve our record when the system is so structured towards shorter-term priorities (e.g., for politicians, winning elections and employing the voters, and for financiers, hitting profit returns that are often calculated annually). Even as there is progress in disseminating more information about racism, misogynism, climate change et al, it is taking a long time for progress to occur because of the underlying power structure.  (By the way, I focus on the wealthy because they own more assets and thus behavioral change on their part would have a larger impact; but the change in better behavior needs to occur for everyone.)

As I write this, two moments have just occurred: the anniversary of the martial law declaration in the Philippines (Sept. 21) and the largest-recorded global climate change marches and protests.  Two different issues but sharing the same impediment: the people who have the ability to make the biggest change possess incentives not to make those changes.  In the Philippines, the political elite is the economic elite and so are invested in preserving their power rather than advancing the nation’s overall development in a positive way (I actually wrote my senior political science paper on this topic at Barnard College and nothing’s changed in this dynamic since 24 years ago when I was a collegiala).  In the climate issue, those who can make more impact are the countries who also take the most benefit from pollutant practices. At the U.N. summit following the global marches, many asked for wealthier, developed countries to be the first to act on climate change, both because they are the primary contributors (even as much of the effect is suffered by poorer countries) both historically and presently. Nothing yet on the negotiating table indicates we are on the path to meeting certain goals as noted by Ban Ki-Moon to the U.N. summit attendees: having emissions peak by 2020 and drop sharply thereafter so that the world will be carbon neutral by the end of this century.

I am quite pessimistic about the human race winning its race against time.  I feel that sooner or later the human race will have to undergo a massive transition to reboot itself from what’s down the road we’re traveling.  Perhaps many of the historical horrors you note—like Germany during WWII—are just smaller manifestations of the inevitable cataclysm awaiting the human race absent a global shift to the kind of culture based on not taking more than what we can replace. The hope is that before that transition which may not be survivable, there would be sufficient education and moral fortitude to make the tough decisions that will improve our future.  But despite the many positive developments on the individual / grass roots / micro level, the trajectory continues to be dire.  Systemic change isn’t happening quickly enough.  I think the human race is on a suicide path. I’ve wondered if possibly the only solution would be if technology advances quickly enough for space travel to occur and humans find empty planets where more Earthlings can go to survive. Assuming such planets exist, of course. And if the culture they bring with them has progressed beyond the current ownership-based culture (man’s innate nature may continue to be self-oriented but culture can develop to control such).

Here’s where the poetry, for me, now arises. (I’m ignoring for now religion’s salve to the picture I just described.)  Poetry (or my poetry, since I don’t wish to speak for anyone but myself) arises as both behavior and language. 

In terms of behavior, where are the moments of joy, of beauty, of grace within this doomsday path humans are on? From where or how do we come up with reasons that make it worthwhile to continue living?  To rush out of our beds to greet the day?  To smile? To laugh? Well, for me, these moments would occur through the positive interactions made possible by love and respect for other people, creatures and the environment.  Many are already behaving this way—including those working for policies curbing drastic climate changes.  But they continue recycling the plastic bags, if you will, without dampening the overall rise of emissions!  So if I look at these moments, and if I bear in mind my own apocalyptic forecast for the human race, I view these moments—the stubbornness of their continued existence against all odds—as poetry in the sense that poetry’s task is not to affirm the (unjust) status quo but to disrupt it. 

And so language. I write in English, you observe.  But no.  I write in Poetry.  (It happens to be English poetry but I think the language we are addressing for purpose of our discussion is Poetry and not English.)  Poetry is its own language.  It can be the case that poetry, by being different from language’s usual usage for communication, politics and commerce, questions if not disrupts societal norms.  Such norms encompass what you call “an aesthetic regime that is at its very heart racist, misogynist, etc.”

Thus, my poetry language reflects having to disturb the norm which, even when generating moments of beauty, encompasses states of complacency and lack of imagination; such factors often create poor poems as well as no effective solutions for societal problems. In other venues, I’ve actually said that my (poetry) words attempt to transcend dictionary definitions.  I also reflect the influences of abstraction and cubism to disrupt syntax.  I use these and other elements (collage, found texts et al) also to reconsider the notion of “author” when each individual is bound by his/her/hir times and I rebel at these times.  As a poet, I attempt not to work only within what I inherit because what’s inherited is fucked up, of which my colonial history is only one facet.  English was the colonizer of my birthland, the Philippines.  English, but not Poetry.

And where’s the difficulty?  The arduity, for me?  It gets back to something I discovered as a newbie poet which took me 18 years to begin to comprehend.  It’s a statement by the Danish poet Paul Lafleur when he said, “Being a poet is not writing a poem, but finding a new way to live.”  (I hope my memory is correct; I’ve not found Lafleur or this statement since but it’s sufficient that the statement sticks.)  The arduity of my poetry is that if I’m not living a certain way, it won’t matter how well my poems are crafted.  My desired poetry is an action, not an object—a verb, not a noun. 

“A new way to live” is a call to act.  It’s not enough to have experienced something and then write a poem about it.  It’s not even enough to use poetry as a questioning or searching device, which is the fashion in some quarters by poets who agree that poetry is not just writing about what someone knows or has experienced. Self-epiphany or just epiphany, by the standards I desire for poetry, is too modest a goal. For me, one must also choose to do something as led to you by how you live as a poet.  Since I didn’t start paying attention to poetry until my mid-thirties, I have a convenient basis for comparing my two ways of living: one without poetry and one as a poet.  A key difference between the two ways of life is that if one is to be an effective poet (or probably any other type of artist), one must be as observant and intelligent as one is capable.  I call one of my primary jobs as a poet to be that of maximizing my lucidity.  (Not to say I’m brilliantly lucid but just to see as clearly and as intelligently as I can.)  And in seeing the world more clearly, one ends up writing better poems. You bring more material to the poem-making; by being consciously aware, you bring more intelligence, empathy and other elements that can improve the poem.

And it is circuitous. As one tries to be a better, more intelligent observer—thus a better maker of poems—one also becomes a better citizen.  Unless one is a psychopath or just plain greedy or selfish, one becomes a more responsible citizen—thus, one becomes more concerned over such ills as racism, misogynism and environmental damage.  Here, for me, is where the arduity of poetry lies.  Here, for me, is why I say poetry is not words.  Yes, the poem is word(s) (or the visual image or how else poets may manifest their poems).  But the difference for me between a poem and poetry is that the poem is a moment in time or a still object and poetry is what went into its making as well as the effect that it causes.  A poem is a snapshot; poetry is the movie. So the arduity of poetry for me is figuring out how to live as a responsible human being in a larger context where what I do and how I behave ultimately will be meaningless.

You’re a librarian.  I love humanity for how it’s created its libraries.  But if one reads all the books available and extrapolate knowledge from what’s not written, surely the conclusion is that nearly all of human history after our hunter-gatherer stage has been consistent in manifesting a suicide pact.  Do you agree, Senor Librarian?

But as I said, the poetry behaviorally has been to live as if the human race is not extinguishing itself.  To be good when it ultimately doesn’t matter.  For me, one of poetry’s recent impacts has been delving deeper into a particular parallel world that exists alongside of us all: the world of orphans around the world whose plight doesn’t receive the media coverage of wars and natural disasters but where the numbers and lost human potential involved make it one of the top two humanitarian tragedies of our time (the other, of course, would be the damage we are perpetuating on our planet).  I ended up doing some orphan advocacy work (I won’t get into details on that, partly for privacy issues), but my involvement also led me to poems about this situation, including the first book-length haybun poetry book, 147 MILLION ORPHANS (gradient books, 2014).  A similar relationship between orphan advocacy and poems exists in my collaborative book with j/j hastain, the relational elations of OPHANED ALGEBRA (Marsh Hawk Press, 2012).  The key thing here is that neither project would have been possible were I not doing something in my life that helps alleviate the plight of orphans. Those books are not just a function of imagination but actual (and non-virtual) action. The aesthetic results could not have occurred without certain prior acts, as facilitated by my refusal to simply accept what is the (dominant) status quo in many countries where insufficient support is given to orphaned children.

Indeed, the fact that there are 147 million orphans—possibly more; I’ve seen estimates go as high as 217 million—is a statistical effect of this culture that’s formed through power.  A child orphan quite clearly defines the powerless. Nothing I do will likely change this terrain on a macro level.  But I don’t accept it and disrupt it to the extent I can.

Thus, there’s logic to how my poetry (what I read in addition to what I make) leans towards (though not solely) what others categorize as experimental or innovative.  I have theorized this preference—it’s easy enough for me to do so just by hearkening the role of language, in this case English, as a colonizing tool by the U.S. on my birthland.  I could theorize it further by simply accessing some of my experiences as a Filipina immigrant to the United States.  But I can also simply say that, aesthetically, I am attracted to what is not the “same ol’ shit” so that, actually, unlike how you cite the formulation of disgust, I look at something different as something more interesting and, thus, often more compelling (ultimately attractive) for my attention. 

Being open to difference can dilute disrespect such as what too many show our planet and other peoples.  But it circuitously tracks back to how the attitude of not taking more than one can return is an attitude of respect and love towards others outside of our individual selves.  It’s an apt attitude for befitting how all of existence is interconnected.  The arduity of Poetry which has both widened and clarified my lens is to live responsibly when my decisions ultimately will go up in the flames of humanity rebooting itself.  It is arduous but the poet or person who lives this way paradoxically would not find it arduous if one attempts to behave from a position of Love.  And Love is one of the most successful mitigants of Power—that such happens more in the micro rather than the (disheartening macro) is not cause for discouragement.  We all live in the micro.

Also, let’s say that I’m wrong with my dour view of the future.  If so, it’s because Love will have won in the macro as well, and it behooves me to not let myself get in the way of that possibility.  But what I learn from my decolonizing scholar friends is that humanity cannot rely only on the rational—it’s not sufficient to try to persuade others to do thte right thing based solely on what is presumably the good thing to do vs. the bad. So what might turn the Love for ourselves and our immediate families and communities to a more universal love that would hasten systemic change—that would take down power?  Perhaps this particular type of Love must reflect remembering the position of not taking more than one can return.  Such requires one to have a spiritual connection with the land, with other creatures (human and non), with the environment and so on. On this matter, by the way, indigenous cultures have much to teach us. 

In sum, the arduity of my poetry is to behave and write as if we are not doomed.  To behave by not merely accepting the behavioral manifestations and language of injustice.  To behave as if justice matters.


In a way then, this quote, which sort of sums up the macro-arduity of being a poet these days, and which pierces me to the core, René Char’s “I want to never forget how I was forced to become a monster of justice and intolerance, a narrow minded simplifier, an arctic character uninterested in anyone who was not in league with him to kill the dogs of hell”, which I took out of Sean Bonney’s completely to the point “Lamentation” of 24 Sept 014, would appear to have relevance to you, too. I mean, that Paul Lafleur quote, “Being a poet is not writing a poem, but finding a new way to live”, is apparently not only an arduity in itself, it’s also an arduity in this particular world, the poet’s “given.” It’s not as if finding that new way to live occurs in a vacuum, it occurs in a world with 147 million orphans, who are just some of those who may be taking this planet past its carrying capacity, it occurs in a world in which there may well be “no future”, to quote the famous and still apt punk expression. Oh, there are so many directions I could go in response to what you say here, and I wish we were sitting at the same table and had all the time in the world so I could, but I’d just like to touch on one here, which I think relates to at least one of the difficulties many people have with contemporary or perhaps I might say better say modernist poetry. You write: “But what I learn from my decolonizing scholar friends is that humanity cannot rely only on the rational— …” I’ll stop the quote here, because it’s not the ethical aspect of this I want to discuss, it’s how a sense of the limits of the western rational post-Aristotelean logical space, might manifest in a poet’s syntax, which I take to be, really, just a way of connecting one thing to another. How might this sense of the limits of the rational manifest in your work?


I believe the definition of “rational” is not fixed.  But let me try to answer your question by not (immediately) digressing. 

My “work,” as you put it, is incentivized by love.  Because of that, the rational would be a limit to my work. Love is not rational if it spurs—and it often has—actions belying logic.  Is it rational for one to die for a cause when self-preservation is such a strong instinct?  Is it rational to behave against one’s principles because of love?  Is it rational to sense, or have faith, that one is so interconnected with the rest of creation that, as I’ve penned in a poem, No one or nothing is a stranger to me?  Is it rational to write poems?

The interesting thing about Love is that because it defies mere logic it also can become a great source of creativity.  For my work, creativity demands going beyond acceptance of what one inherits, whether it’s a world order and/or language.  Having said that, I will say that it is rational for one to wish to not abide by inheritance because look at the world! 

So, I would answer that my sense of limits from the rational manifests itself in the many ways I as a poet, among other things, have attempted to disrupt notions of authorship as well as the conventionality of language: the way I’ve torqued language through such points of views as abstraction, randomness, cubism, music, erasures, etc. Linear narrative comes up short for my poetry since it is contextualized within a world that contains results not derived from linear progressions.  Certainly, justice does not unfold linearly, if it even unfolds. I’ve also done other things as a poet—Suarez, for instance, noted my approach to publishing—but am only addressing the specifics of your question revolving around syntax. (By the way, I don’t do nonsense—a reader may call one of my poems nonsense but as a consciously-applied tool I don’t do nonsense.)

My most recent work, “Murder, Death and Resurrection” (MDR) includes an MDR Poetry Generator that brings together much of my poetics and poet tics.  Basically, the MDR Poetry Generator contains a data base of 1,146 lines which I can combine randomly to make a huge amount of poems; the shortest would be a couplet and the longest would be a poem of 1,146 lines. Examples of couplets (and longer forms) are available at my e-book 44 RESURRECTIONS, also the first poetry collection emanating out of the generator.  A book forthcoming in 2015, AMNESIA: SOMEBODY’S MEMOIR, would be an example of a single poem of 1,146 lines.

The MDR Poetry Generator’s conceit is that any combination of its 1,146 lines succeed in creating a poem.  Thus, I can create—generate—new poems unthinkingly from its lines.  For example, several of the poems in 44 RESURRECTIONS were created by me blindly pointing at lines on a print-out to combine.  While the poems cohere partly by the scaffolding of beginning each line with the phrase “I forgot…” (a tactic inspired by reading Tom Beckett’s fabulous poem “I Forgot” in his book DIPSTICK (DIPTYCH)), these poems reflect long-held interests in abstract and cubist language such that I’d always been interested in writing poems whose lines are not fixed in order and, indeed, can be reordered (as a newbie poet, I was very interested in the prose poem form and was interested in writing paragraphs which can be reordered within the poem).

Yet while the MDR Poetry Generator presents poems not generated through my personal preferences, the results are not distanced from the author: I created the 1,146 lines from reading through 27 previously-published poetry collections.  If randomness is the operating system for new poems, those new poems nonetheless contain all the love that went into the making of its database of lines.  The results dislocate without eliminating authorship.

Now, the math is over my head for calculating the number of poems possible from these 1,146 lines.  I ended up hiring my son’s math tutor, Carl Ericson, to calculate it for me.  For the $30 (don’t laugh) I was paying for his efforts, Carl could not find an explicit formula for evaluating my question.  But he did find an approximation formula to use.  His approximated answer to the total poems possible to be generated by the MDR Poetry Generator is a number that has 3,011 digits.  I don’t know enough to dispute or accept the math (I am working on getting a second opinion, actually, from a brilliant man who won the equivalent of the Nobel in some kind of engineering field).  But if it is true that the number of  permutated poems is huge, I can keep handing out poems for the rest of my lifetime without having to write anew.  (Are the poems any good?  Using publication as a means of answering that question, the poems are just like my other non-generated poems: despite some rejections, there are also acceptances such that a significant number has found publication homes.)

Obviously, the MDR Poetry Generator is not limited by Aristotelian logic.  And I’ll add this non-Western theoretical component: I also practice what I call “Babaylan Poetics”—a poetics that’s based on indigenous Filipino practices.  There’s an image from pre-colonial Philippine times of a human standing with a hand lifted upwards; if you happened to be at a certain distance from the man and took a snapshot, it would look like the human was touching the sky.  In a poetics essay in my book THE AWAKENING,  I’d described the significance of this image as

“…the moment, the space, from which I attempt to create poems. In the indigenous 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, to paraphrase something I once I heard from some Buddhist, German or French philosopher, or Star Trek character, ‘No one or nothing is alien to me.’”

Within this indigenous moment or space, both intentionalized authorship and the randomness with which the lines are combined from the MDR Poetry Generator are irrelevant—All is One and One is All.  There is no separation between writer versus words versus reader.  And when I pollute the planet, I pollute myself; when I debase someone else, I debase myself; when I take advantage of another, I take advantage of myself… you get the drift…

So what does the MDR Poetry Generator allow me?  Time.  It requires time to make poems.  Now, I can make new poems in the time required to copynpaste them onto a page—saving time from having to conceptualize, imagine, experiment, edit, etc. 

Thus, the MDR Poetry Generator allows me more time for poetry-as-behavior.  For poetry as action.  For poetry as disrupting the human race’s hurtle  towards oblivion.  For poetry as good works, if you will. 


Thanks. Two more questions.

1) You seem to accept that within the poem anything goes, except for "nonsense". Why no nonsense? Why that limit?

2) I'd like to pass a long passage by you, from David Buuck / Juliana Spahr's An Army of Lovers, because I am relating what, if I understand aright, your notion that the real difficulty relating to poetry these days is simply being a poet as a form of "trying to stay [or become] human" in a real mess of a world (the quote is from a OD [original dadaist] Hans Richter). I wonder how you might respond to it? Is there overlap between your “positions”? Are there distinctions?

“They had fought a lot about this, how to get themselves out of what they had taken to calling the impasse, which was their inability to figure out why they continued to write poetry in a time when poetry seemed not to matter, and when their attempts to collaborate with one or maybe two or maybe four hands in order to break through this impasse continued to fail. They had said to each other that they didn’t want to write any more poems that demonstrated their adept use of irony and book smarts to communicate their knowing superiority to capitalism. And they didn’t want to write any more poems that narrated their pseudoedgy sexual exploits in a way to suggest that such exploits were somehow in and of themselves political. And they didn’t want to write any more poems that made people feel sad or guilty or go oh no. But still, it was hard for them to figure out what to do with poetry in a time when 19.5 acres were required to sustain their first-world lifestyles, not to mention that within the 19.5 acres were the deaths and devastation from the mining, oil, natural gas, and nuclear industries, the deaths and torture from the policies of their government, the rising acidity of the ocean, the effects of climate change on populations without access to the equivalent of 19.5 acres of resources. And rather than provoking in them the desire to write more poems, this sense of futility, further aggravating their anger and shame, instead infected them, manifesting in all variety of ailments and effects. As a result, they would begin to tremble and shake, minuscule tremors rippling out from their enteric nervous systems and through the fibers in their organ meat, or coursing through their bloodstream and their compromised immune systems and out into the world beyond their bodies, the pent-up frustration and rage slowly seeping out of them, awkwardly, publicly, ineffectually.

… [JBR: they go thru a breathing exercise in the midst of the city, unprotected from anything, that is somewhat reminiscent of what Lew Welch meant by a “poet walk”, and decide to go on with the work in spite of everything] …

And then maybe just then will be heard a dank vibration, halfway between hum and roar, gurgling up from the tangle of nerves that thread round our guts, our first brains brewing in intestinal funk, then up and out the throat, the invisible sound waves resonating between each animal body, twisting into feedback loops of blistering distortion within and among all the raw mammalian feelers, coursing through the circuits, each meridian charged up with electrified chi. Yes, that just happened, we are materialists who read horoscopes and poets who say chi, freed from constriction and habit, from impasse and defeat, from all that says no inside of us, from all that has been done in our name and still shits out of us, with or without clumps of it ever sticking in our fur so that we will never forget, so that now in the variable buzz of all in consort, tone poems coalescing into tenfold operatics, the fibers of all muscles rippling with the ground tremors of the high-heeled work-booted parade, with leaping and grasping, with or without eye contact, with or without the holding of hands or the light touching of the back or the front, all pressed up against the sweet metallic smell of our entanglement, group-flesh groping ever toward something greater than ourselves, because an army of lovers cannot fail, and with chins up and chests out, bursting forth from the ground into all directions, fists lifted, a thousand middle fingers thrust up in pride and vigor, for all tomorrow’s parties today, in heat and in fury, nostrils flaring, each as each can and as each desires, shoulders to it now, leaning over what will have had to have been done to become that which we cannot yet dare envision beyond the sweet taste of it on our moist upper lips—” (lifted from BOMB 118] 


As regards nonsense, again some of my poems may be considered nonsense by a reader.  But I’m referring to how I don’t want nonsense to be an intention at the time I write a new poem.  For what interests me in poetry, I feel nonsense is too superficial.  I am idealistic when it comes to poetry—I’d like to make sense in the sense that I’d like to touch a reader somehow, or have the reader have a fruitful engagement with my poem.  Thus, I want to bring to the poem a sincere effort to reach out to that reader (regardless of whether the poem will succeed), rather than elide through the excuse of deliberately presenting nonsense.  It may, of course, be an artificial concern since poems have significances separate from authorial intention and certainly readers have shown themselves capable of having well-considered engagements with what may seem nonsense to others.  But that’s my response as an author, and the author has never been dead.

As regards your second question, did you miss the parts that allude to why I’m also a misanthrope?  I believe humans are a mess. That’s why the world (humans have created) is a mess.  So the literal notion of "’trying to stay [or become] human’" in a real mess of a world” is something I’d find nonsensical, though my initial response may just be relating to the question too literally.  What I’d rather say is I honor what I perceive to be the intent underlying the quote which (correct me if I’m wrong) is a desire to live better and/or more responsibly. 

As for David Buuck / Juliana Spahr's An Army of Lovers—a book I’ve read, by the way—I truly appreciate and respect how these two poets bring so much more awareness than many other poets (and people) to the state of the world and poetry’s role in it.  I don’t want to judge overlaps or distinctions between their approaches and mine based solely on (your excerpt of) their book.  It’s possible though that such may be discerned by the reader, with mine, say, being what’s shared through my answers in this interview. The more important question may be how we behave in response to our thoughts as regards the state of the world and poetry.  What I call the poetry-as-behavior aspect.  On that, I don’t have enough information about David’s and Juliana’s lives.  As for my life, I don’t do enough.




from “I Forgot the First Woman General”


I forgot the sun hid from what I willingly bartered for Lucidity.

I forgot commitment costs.

I forgot radiance must penetrate if it is to caress, and its price can never reach blasphemy.

I forgot my heartbeats succumbing to radiance after curiosity taught me to bait handcuffs and whips.

I forgot “Geisha” lipstick clung to nights jousting at the West End Bar (New York City) when jazz still rained and reigned.

I forgot schools of fish dispersing to reveal the undulating sea floor as “suddenly flesh, suddenly scarred, suddenly aglow.”

I forgot diving so deeply into salty seas I witnessed coral form skyscrapers upside down as they narrowed towards the molten center of earth.

I forgot the scientist-poet who cautioned against “enhancing music” as more would trip “the fragile balance between sterility and sensuality.” 

I forgot possessing money for perfect hems consoles like martyrdom.

I forgot how to long for rose petals yawning like little girls, like the daughters I never bore.

I forgot how to italicize the word God.

I forgot no metaphors exist for genocide.

I forgot how the mountains of bones shared the pallor of thick, white candles burning in helplessly tin candelabras.

I forgot the green stalks holding up ylang-ylang orchids—how their thin limbs refused to break from the weight of lush petals and overly-fertile stamen.

I forgot where bones erupted mountains in Guatemala and Peru.

I forgot your reputation for waking at quantum velocity.

I forgot whether Love was relevant.

I forgot those days of unremitting brightness from ignoring all ancestors to stare directly at the sun, only to discover myself clasped by the cool dimness of a cathedral where hands penetrated marble bowls for holy water whose oily musk lingered on my filigreed fingers as if to sheathe my flesh—

I forgot centuries of woodcarvers immortalizing stigmata on the limbs of virgins and saints, eyes wide and white in exaltation—

I forgot the thermodynamics of farewells wherein exhaustion yielded the scent of armpits until sight clung to a riding crop, suddenly admired for its stiff leather spine—

I forgot black dimes interrupting the sun’s glare, an experience familiar to travelers visiting “Namibia in search of pure light”—

I yearned for amnesia when I saw dragonflies off-kilter, shoving through air like husbands with bruised eyes—

I forgot I yearned for amnesia—






Copyright © John Bloomberg-Rissman and Eileen Tabios, 2017