Friday, April 27, 2007


Allen Gaborro recently reviewed The Secret Lives of Punctuations, Vol. I (Salamat for the attention and intelligence, Allen!) for Philippine News and he notes (click on excerpt below for full review):

"Such deconstructionist poetry as Tabios’s has the ability to either inspire wonderfully limitless layers of meaning among the open-minded or downright contempt among old school poetry enthusiasts."

That's not a bad encapsulation of the reaction to date of Filipino readers to my poetry. In fact, it's probably very inconvenient to those who dislike my poetic approach that my "Filipino credentials", on the other hand, are unassailable -- by which I mean mostly the cultural activism in which I engage that promotes many Filipino artists and writers. Simplistically, Filipino artists who've adhered to other aesthetic concerns beyond the politically/culturally didactic are often charged with being purely "art for art's sake" to the extent of ignoring matters of ethnicity. (Well, can't do that with me, can ya?)

I rarely discuss publicly this matter. I am grateful to those Filipinos who've supported my work. But I feel any Filipino rejection deeply, even when it can be easy enough to dismiss closed minds...and even though I do deep down understand that the issue isn't really personal, given the history of silencing. It's complicated -- we Filipinos who are invested in ensuring our stories don't get ignored, then face a poetry like mine, which is generally (narratively) silent on such subjects. If you were to delve deeper into my literary output, you would see that I actually have written a healthy percentage of stories about Filipinos (I do stories in short stories; I do poetry in poetry). And that my seemingly "abstract" poetry raises ethnicity through an investigation of form (vs content, to the extent one separates such). But, mostly, Filipino readers who don't see how my poetry "fits" into their paradigms of how a Filipino should behave don't investigate further -- they just reject, criticize (e.g. anonymous interventions in the internet on references to me) or ignore.

I feel generally blessed when it's come to reviews -- both in receiving such reviews and having reviews be positive. But most are written by non-Filipinos. This point shows something larger about the reception to my work. So this new review by Allen Gaborro matters more than just any positive review would. It matters because it's written by a Filipino and published in a Filipino publication. Allen, by the way, raises Jackson Pollock in discussing my poetry -- that's one of the highest compliments I've received. But it's not the first time that Pollock has been raised as regards my poetry -- it's just that I'm pretty sure Allen is the first Filipino critic to mention it. And this mention, by the way, has special significance to me because perhaps two or three decades ago, a Filipino writer prominent in the Filipino and Asian American community dismissed another Asian American poet for being inspired by the New York mid-20th century abstract expressionists, implying that an AA poet who finds inspiration in those arts rather than hir ethnic history is being pretentious.

"Pretentious" is a word that's been ascribed by some Filipinos to my work. It's always amazing to me that they don't investigate the implications of this type of criticism -- that, what, this Pinay is over-reaching? And that, what, Filipinos are so stupid that they need poems narratively spoon-fed to them? (Geez -- don't get me started on those who believe "simple" or spare language (specifically English) has something to do with Filipino authenticity!) Allen Gaborro's response shows what I've long believed -- I don't need to pander to Filipinos to get acceptance from Filipinos.

Allen Gaborro's review is available HERE, but also reprinted in full at Punctuations' web site because I don't know how long the former will remain up.


Having said that, ahem, let me address Allen's conclusion that says "Tabios gives readers every opportunity to gaze out on the far side of their existence and see that “reality,” poetic or otherwise, is contingent upon the dynamic energies that run throughout their unique human imaginations. That said, hard work and great patience will be required on the part of readers if they are to understand and appreciate Tabios’s poetry. But that will only make the interpretive chase that much more sweeter."

It's a positive statement, but it does allude to a very common preconception (mayhap misconception) about my work -- from both Filipinos and non-Filipinos. Some assume that my work is difficult. Certainly, I can see how my Punctuations can be considered that. But as much of my work is quite accessible (I'm using terms like difficult and accessible loosely, but you get my drift, yah?) -- what's so difficult about the flamenco poems, for example, which are available (in still unedited form) in the Beach House' archives.

And this is what's happened to my work. Those invested in more traditional narrativity come across poems like those in my Punctuations book and reject me. Then those invested in post-avantism come across poems like those in my flamenco chap or some in my ENGLISH brick and reject me. Matter of fact, ENGLISH has difficulty being accepted out there because its 504 pages is, not just 504 pages but, can't be neatly categorized within poetic styles.

You know what? If I was to try to encapsulate my ideal reader, I'd say something like -- someone who reads as an individual, not as a representative of a group. My poems are invested in how you feel, not how you think you should feel. Try it, Peep -- odds are there's a surprise in this for you: you'd be amazed at just how much you'll discover that as a sole human being, you're a pretty great individual.

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