Eileen R. Tabios and Thomas Fink
Thomas Fink: In “Babaylan Poetics & the MDR Generator,” you describe your MDR (“Murder, Death and Resurrection”) project. This generator “contains a data base of 1,146 lines [that] can be combined randomly to make a large number of poems,” and in fact, AMNESIA: Somebody’s Memoir (Black Radish, 2016), the book in which this statement of poetics appears, is “an example of a single poem of 1,146 lines” (89). Thus, “any combination of” the generator’s “1,146 lines succeeds in creating a poem,” enabling you to “create—generate—new poems unthinkingly from its database.” Not only do you note that “the poems cohere partly by the scaffolding beginning each line with the phrase ‘I forgot,’” inspired by Tom Beckett’s catalog poem of the same name, but you state that AMNESIA‘s lines are all from “27 previously-published poetry collections” of yours. Reading through the book, I can recognize many wonderful lines from poems I read years ago.
If the new sections making up the long poem that is AMNESIA feature an order that is created “unthinkingly,” might that mean that there’s only a small chance that the progression of lines on any given page will have some compelling associative “logic” for the reader as the original poems, for which you actually thought about a rationale for ordering lines? In the new book and in others where the MDR method has been employed, mathematical probability suggests the likelihood that the progression of lines will seem arbitrary to most readers. Indeed, those who deeply appreciate your Marsh Hawk Press books such as Reproductions of the Empty Flagpole (2002), I Take Thee, English, for My Beloved (2005), and The Light Sang As It Left Your Eyes (2007) may still delight in individual lines—perhaps a lot of them—but may kvetch that the new work does not stand up aesthetically. Many would say that a revision is either supposed to be an improvement on the original or at least provide a recognizably coherent new combination of lines, that the potential for extremely numerous recombinations is not useful unless one can achieve an aesthetically satisfying realization of a recombinatory practice. How would you address these concerns? Does the MDR poetic experiment question or displace common notions of aesthetic value, and if so, how?
Eileen R. Tabios: Thank you for your interest, Tom. First, an important clarification: the 1,146 lines are not just excerpting from previous work. Excerpts exist. But because the lines were created through a reading experience of previous work the lines also at times incorporate my responses to what I was reading—and in many instances (which just reflects the fragility of my memory) I didn’t have a good recollection of my earlier writings so that I engaged in the reading as a reader and not as author. I believe my approach, as clarified, contradicts the description of these poems or lines as (mere) “revision.”
But to your questions: there is an assumption underlying your questions that whatever I am doing is different in terms of reader response to poems. The way I’ve created the poems may be different to many but the associations a reader may bring or not bring to these poems are, in my opinion, no more unstable or no less guaranteed than what any reader brings to any poem. Subjectivity is … subjectivity. What is “coherent” to some may be incoherent to others. For The MDR Poetry Generator (MDR), I chose to trust radically in the reader such that I pushed as radically as I could (by being “unthinking”) that phenomenon to which others before me (e.g. Gertrude Stein) have alluded about how one can pick a word and arbitrarily put another word next to it and a subsequent reader still might glean a relationship from the two words. THE OPPOSITE OF CLAUSTROPHOBIA (Knives, Forks and Spoons Press, 2017) is one of the books that came out of The MDR Generator; a review by Alan Baker of Leafe/Litter Magazine (http://leafepress.com/litter9/tabiosreview2/tabiosreview2.html) noted a relationship I hadn’t thought about when formulating its text; Alan looked at a line that begins “I forgot my father is not and never has been President of the United States,” which then cites the names of 12 Presidents from Harry S. Truman to Barack Obama. That line is immediately followed by the line “I forgot music became a jail.” Were I to pick the most difficult two-line combination possible from the 1,146 lines, this combination would be a possibility. And yet Alan found the combination powerful—“it has more punch than many overtly political poems I can think of”—as well as poignant. I could not have anticipated his response. But it shows that the MDR’s poems, or the particular one he read, are/is valid. Perhaps it’s not valid for all readers but certainly valid to some reader(s)—that’s all we can expect of all poems because any one poem can generate a multiplicity of reactions.
Is the mathematical probability of finding a receptive reader less than with other poems because of how they were created through The MDR Poetry Generator? I don’t believe so, though I don’t see how either side could be proven. As an aside, I should note that I recently read from AMNESIA in front of my local church congregation (its open-minded Pastor asked me to read in place of a sermon that day)—which is to say, not the typical poetry audience; my husband, who attended that church opined that, ironically, that was the “best” poetry reading he’d ever experienced from me. The audience seemed to agree as my books sold out after the church service (obviously, Tom, you know as much as I do how difficult it is to sell a poetry book). More importantly, I think the poems generated by the MDR should be read/heard/experienced on their own regardless of how they were created. We don’t, after all, often know what went on in a poet’s mind when s/he wrote a poem, even a traditional poem. If, to quote from your question, this work “does not stand up aesthetically,” that assessment should be based on the results—the poems themselves—rather than how they were created.
I do think it’s convenient for me that this interview is occurring three years after the first poetry collection out of The MDR Poetry Generator: 44 RESURRECTIONS which came out in 2014 as an e-chap from PostModernPoetry E-Ratio Editions. There have been enough positive responses to the eight books or chapbooks that have come out of this project that if reactions I receive from hereon are all negative, there is still enough to suggest that the work is effective—enough people found them valid.
You also ask if “the MDR poetic experiment question or displace common notions of aesthetic value, and if so, how.” I actually think I understand what you mean by “common notions” but (such may be just a curatorial convenience on your part as interviewer and my part as the interviewee and) of course I must immediately first question the formulation of the so-called “common.” But that’s an old story by now, so let me just get more directly to what the question raises. The answer is Yes.
Yes, The MDR Poetry Generator questions and displaces certain notions of aesthetic values in many ways. I believe the MDR—partly by successfully manifesting its conceit that any combination of its lines can create a successful or valid poem—manages to question notions of originality, (the authority of) biography in assessing poems, among others.
Fink: Indeed, a reader should judge a poem on the basis of the actual reading and not on thoughts—whether approbation or negative prejudice—about a procedure used to generate it. But I don’t think the list of Presidents followed by the line, “I forgot music became a jail,” is such a difficult combination. Like Alan Baker, I really appreciate the juxtaposition, because the “music” of the names leads to an aspect of what they signify, metonymies attached to them; Presidents are “jailed” in their often ridiculously difficult historical circumstances, and people in the U.S. and the world can be “imprisoned” by decisions that these leaders make.
I was not suggesting anything about my view of the aesthetic quality of your eight books or chapbooks in question. In fact, I have not yet read them with the kind of care needed to venture an assessment.
However, even in advance of doing a careful reading, I’m thinking now that your experiment can be quite successful in getting readers who expect sufficient areas of continuity to offset randomness to perceive this in the work: 1) Your materials are most often full sentences—without syntactical “oddities” that would derail “ordinary” sense-making—culled from your earlier work, as well as sentences that respond to those sentences, rather than fragments with juxtapositions of individual words that rarely go together, as in, for example, Clark Coolidge and some of the Language Poets; 2) There are significant thematic continuities in your work over the years, and so it is likely enough that a line from one book will “speak” to a line in another; 3) Those readers who are accustomed to your work will be acclimatized not only to stylistic features but to a collage method where linear narrative drift is often less evident than collage-oriented juxtapositions where continuities emerge intermittently and gradually after an initial reading experience of disjunction.
I imagine, then, that your experiment can work and perhaps marvelously, but I want to quibble a bit with the general poetics that may underpin it in relation to the dynamics of a reader’s interaction with the text. I acknowledge that a reader, as you say, “might glean a relationship from” the arbitrary juxtaposition of any two words. However, the longer a writer goes on with this process in a single text, the more chance that the reader (whom you have trusted radically) will find that the breakdown of available possibilities of meaning-making—for example that even though she can relate the first two words and the second and third, the fourth and fifth derail the prior relations—is either a wonderfully vertiginous experience of undoing or the apprehension of a “nothing” within linguistic materiality or a frustration without pleasure or edification that does not reward continuing attention. To wit, here’s a poem I have just composed—using the form you invented, the hay(na)ku—by randomly opening the dictionary repeatedly and pointing my finger at one word after another:
ingenuous bedazzle flashbulb
hindsight rented styles
city pronounce automobile.
Great, isn’t it? Well, certainly “bedazzled” and “flashbulb” is a happy coincidence, and “rented styles” could be an interesting critique of culture, and some of us really do “pronounce” the names of our “automobiles” carefully, snobbishly, but how could the whole nine lines go the whole nine yards of being a decent poem without some cutting, adding, and rearranging? And imagine if this “poem” went on for another 100 hay(na)kus with this procedure? Oy vey.
Anyway, the largest aspect of poetics, perhaps, is the “Babaylan Poetics”: articulated in “Babaylan Poetics & the MDR Generator”:
“A Babaylan from the Philippines’ pre-colonial times was someone who mediated with the spirit world, was blessed with the gifts of healing, foretelling and insight, and a community leader…. [T]here’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… it would look like the human is touching the sky.” (91)
Next, you quote a prior essay where you characterize the Babaylan spirit as the fundamental connectedness of all beings and all phenomena, and then you relate Babaylan Poetics to AMNESIA: “At its simplest level, Babaylan Poetics operates within the poem(s) of AMNESIA through its insistence that seemingly random topics and references all relate to each other” (91). And this has implications for human behavior, since the kind of “othering” that enabled colonialism (and the miseries of postcolonialism) and a host of other ills, including ecological turmoil, to exist finds no support in this belief in total connectedness: “Babaylan Poetics believes that differences cannot erase how we are interconnected with each other—that we all live in the same world” (92). As a Nichiren Shoshu believer, I think I would be slandering the Buddhist Law not to consider all sentient and insentient beings and other environmental factors interconnected. My question cannot be with this underlying and all-pervasive point but with its application in poetry, and I’ve been thinking about this since the late 1970s, when I wrote an early dissertation on John Ashbery. How much of the work in establishing connections between seemingly disparate elements can the reader be expected to supply, and how much work can the poet be expected to supply? And if there should be expectations of the poet, what strategies are available for her or him to help the reader without helping too much?
Tabios: It’s interesting that you (and Alan) found the list of Presidents followed by the line, “I forgot music became a jail,” not to be, as you put it, “such a difficult combination.” I personally thought that combination to be possibly nonsense (in any event, it didn’t do anything for me as a reader). And that’s interesting—and perhaps the point of the larger MDR project—because that’s the opposite of how writing and then reading unfolds, right? Usually, an author believes (rightly or wrongly) that what s/he wrote has some “meaning” and then a reader might come along and think the author cracked and that what s/he wrote is nonsense. But for this example, I as author was the one who considered this combination to be (possibly) nonsense and then it became you and Alan as readers who elevated the combination to contain some meaning. And it’s a meaning I don’t dispute now—I like your read about Presidents being jailed by their circumstances as well as how the world is imprisoned by their decisions—though I didn’t expect your interpretation. And that’s the point: I was willing to put out there that combination and trust, again radically, that some reader would interpret it differently from whatever I was thinking—that it could all be just nonsense—when I wrote/published it.
We often assume that the author has some intention in mind about what that author writes, and if it’s written well that presumably the reader (or some reader(s)) would get it. But I’m a writer who understands that the same word(s) can mean different things to different readers. So why have authorial intention (always) control the narrative, so to speak, in poetry? (Versus, say, prose where communication is often important but often not the point in poetry.) What if the author just puts out various texts and then sits back to see what happens? (Let alone, as you noted, present sentences with their (grammatical) bias towards communicating something specific, versus fragments?) So that’s (partly) what I did with The MDR Poetry Generator.
Yet I wasn’t pushing nonsense, per se—not even for the example of the combination we’re discussing that I thought could be nonsense. I wasn’t pushing nonsense because of my belief, nay faith in, “Babaylan Poetics”—that everything is related. But my—and any one individual’s—imagination or intelligence has limits. Everything may be related but I—nor any one individual—cannot define or identify all of the possible relationships. Hence, I relied on readers also to apply significance to something I authored. This is a logical offshoot of what we understand about subjectivity.
All this then leads back to your questions: “How much of the work in establishing connections between seemingly disparate elements can the reader be expected to supply, and how much work can the poet be expected to supply? And, if there should be expectations of the poet, what strategies are available for her or him to help the reader without helping too much?”
I wonder if these questions (and answers) can be approached generally. That is, perhaps the questions should be applied to a specific poem or poetry project and, thus, then can be answered within the context—which can include standard(s)—of that referenced poem or poetry project. Or, if I approach your questions generally, I’d be thinking that we humans are all constrained by our individual identities and not all beings are the same. So how could we structure or create a poem with an abstract or general-ized readership in mind? But if the question was asked as regards a specific project, then perhaps it can be answered more reasonably. A specific project comes with particular elements from which standards for understanding the work can arise. For example, if we’re discussing a narrative poem and the poet titled a work “Land” but all of the poem’s lines were about skies, then maybe the work didn’t succeed (as unadjusted by metaphor) or at least was poorly-titled—that’s a discussion that’s logistically feasible. Or if it’s John Ashbery, or a particular Ashbery poem, one can discern, say, a poetic music that becomes the way by which the wide-ranging and numerous (narrative) leaps within a single poem harmonize into effectiveness. A music not so different from what made your hay(na)ku sequence work.
To turn to the MDR poems, you had raised your hay(na)ku poem to ask whether the work would succeed if you had continued on at length picking words at random to ultimately create 100 hay(na)ku. AMNESIA, which I consider to be a book-length poem, could seem to be a similar situation as it’s a single poem with 1,146 lines. But—and here’s a rationale for my point about wondering about the sense of asking these questions generally instead of with specific works in mind—one of the MDR’s notions is that any combination of its lines would work. This means that you could read AMNESIA’s lines not in the order in which they are published in the book. Or you could even just read some, instead of all, of the lines and still have experienced the book (it is titled “AMNESIA,” after all). More than one reader or reviewer have read the books produced by the MDR Poetry Generator by opening the books at random. I’m reading from THE OPPOSITE OF CLAUSTROPHOBIA tomorrow evening and I’m choosing to read whatever is the first line atop each of the book’s pages. All this is “allowed” by the specific claims proffered by the project. The specificity matters.
However, in turn, this means that the poet’s responsibility is to ensure the work is sufficiently clear so that the work’s claims or/thus standards are clear. Ashbery (I believe) does it inherently through his poems. I may or may not do so within my poems (that’s for my readers, not me, to say) but I also do so by deliberately including a poetics essay within the poetry book. But absent such a(n explanatory) essay, I had faith the poems would work on their own (because of “Babaylan Poetics”). The standards by which poems can be judged/analyzed/found meaningful, thus, can be excavated from the poems themselves—for example, a poet who uses fragments and caesuras is already suggesting something about the reader’s role of being the one to de-silence the unwritten as well as featured spaces. To answer your question about your hay(na)ku—whether you could go on randomly for a long time or into 100 hay(na)ku—it depends on your concept for the project. Is there a reason you have to go on for a long time? For the MDR Poetry Generator, the lines total 1,146 lines for a reason: that’s the number effected by its source material of 26 prior poetry collections. For your hay(na)ku example, if, say, music was its rationale, then scale matters and you might decide to end the poem when the music (including energy), in your mind, has ebbed.
As regards how much work a reader should be expected to supply to connect disparate elements, obviously the poet can’t be responsible for a reader’s laziness or other constraints. But I don’t believe that, generally, the reader should be expected to supply any particular level of commitment; that’s not the poet’s role to demand such a thing. The poet’s role is like any artist’s: ensure one’s conceptualization of the project is clear in one’s mind and try to make the work manifest its underlying concept(s). The reader’s role is whatever the reader wants it to be, whether it’s a cursory reading or a proactive one, for the nature of Poetry is one where one gets out of it exactly what one puts into it (as a commitment to experience or understand the work).
Initially (as I wrote out my response), I thought my view on the reader’s role may be useless for classroom situations. But perhaps not. In an academic situation, I suppose the question can be addressed within the artifice of observing that a more indepth consideration by the reader is more likely to generate the grade of an “A” versus a “C”. For the student reader who wants an “A,” there should be a way for that reader to get the top grade if the poet had done the job well by ensuring that the work is not opaque (even if it seems opaque). That’s a general-ized answer. There are possible contradictions to the approach I describe but I suspect the noting of contradictions then would require specific examples, as it should. And then discussion is possible.
But in general, the poet’s role is to ensure one’s conceptualization of the poem or poetry project is strong and clear, and then have the work successfully manifest such, as determined by the poet’s standards (that’s why the poet is named as author). The reader’s role is none of the poet’s business. If the reader’s role is artificially someone else’s business besides the reader’s—e.g. a concern of a teacher—then the student-reader certainly can be guided by the teacher who, if the poet did the job well, would have been given clues as to how the poem or poetry project might be experienced. I say “might be experienced” because of course poems also transcend authorial intention and it’s possible that other interpretations or ways into the poem will open up beyond whatever might be anticipated by the author. And such would be appropriate, too, because the matter at hand is Poetry and Poetry is—or I believe, anyway—slippery.
As an aside (though it’s not mere aside), that slipperiness can lead to mystery. But it’s often mystery that makes a poem “universal” because it then lends itself to varying subjectivities where there is possibly more than one reader for the work.
Fink: First, I will elaborate on what I consider theoretical strengths of what you’ve just said. Since, as you tell us, “the same word(s) can mean different things to different readers,” “authorial intention” can’t “control” the way poetry is read. I hold that truth to be self-evident, and an author must rely “on readers… to apply significance,” knowing that “any one individual’s imagination or intelligence has limits.” No one can “define or identify all of the possible relationships” even as “everything” is “related” and available for juxtaposition in a poem. So we can’t “structure or create a poem with” a totalized concept of what a readership “needs.” Authorial intention always exists—even when it seems to be denied—but works within a specific horizon; as you indicate, your project does not eliminate this but constitutes it in a particular way. “Put[ting] out various texts” involving predominantly full sentences “and then sit[ting] back to see what happens” is an intention, one acknowledging the power that the reader’s perceptual apparatus and intention exert on the text’s reception.
It’s reasonable to ask for the quality of the poem/poetry project to be judged by standards implicit or explicit in the work itself (metapoetic elements) or in a poetics statement and not by standards external to it. Your explanation of the need for AMNESIA to be 1,146 lines nicely justifies the length of the work. “Any combination of its lines would work” because the poet has asked the reader to choose how to read the text and to “forget” other ways, if she chooses. What critics and scholars will often do is then evaluate the significance of standards of a poetic project for their potential contribution to the ongoing development and/or continuity of literature. And the author can pay attention to this—or not.
Some critics have wanted to hold the poet “responsible for a reader’s laziness” by eschewing work on the basis of its difficulties without assessing its clearly manifested poetics but dismissing it without any reflection. This, I think, is unfortunate. And yes, poets can’t make demands of readers, though they can offer demanding concepts and work and hope that some readers will want to meet the challenge and opportunity. You say that “the reader’s role is none of the poet’s business,” yet some poets speculate on the reader’s role in the poetry and in poetics statements, so perhaps you mean that insisting upon the reader’s precise role rather than suggesting it is not the poet’s province.
I would like to repeat your adage to students in my introduction to literature, introduction to poetry, and other lit courses: “The nature of Poetry is one where one gets out of it exactly what one puts into it (as a commitment to experience or understand the work).” Yes, indeed. And one hopes that the motivation for a careful, effective reading is not just the difference between an “A” and a “C” grade but more intrinsic than that. As much as a teacher or professor demands it, that’s up to the student.
And now I want to ask about another intention of yours, one woven into the fabric of what we’ve discussed so far: how does this project, in particular, fulfill your aim of disrupting “conventional uses of English—from linear narrative to normative syntax to dictionary definitions” to create “poetry that transforms “language into its own—and stripped of its past as a tool for damage—as well as ‘returning the borrowed tongue’” (89) that was foisted by U.S. colonizers on your native Philippines?
Tabios: Yes, thank you for clarifying that point: it’s not that the reader’s role is not of concern to the poet but, yes, that “insisting upon the reader’s precise role … is not the poet’s province.”
As regards your questions about how The MDR Poetry Generator disrupts “conventional uses of English,” I believe it does so in several ways. But I want to preface my answer by saying something you may know already but may not be known to others who may end up reading our conversation: the MDR is the latest in a two-decade long approach containing poetic practices that attempt to disrupt English. Earlier such practices involved the forms of surrealism, abstract language, collage, prose poetry/multi-genre and ekphrasis, among others. This is all to say that disrupting English was an almost immediate concern once I turned my attention to poetry. As to how such unfolds in the MDR project:
First, it already disrupts the “Speaker”—who is talking? One of the project’s conceits is that lines combined randomly from the database form poems. But when I shut my eyes and blindly poke at a printout to determine the lines for a new poem, who is the author there? And yet the process doesn’t erase me as author: I was the one after all who created the lines. And yet the “I” who created the lines is an unstable identity: it’s relevant that the lines were not (just) excerpted from prior work, but written as a response to prior work. That “response” ever shifts in the same way that one may respond to the same poem differently at different times of reading, and in the same way different people respond differently to the same poem.
By disrupting the Speaker, of course, it also disrupts authority—a matter of concern when the poetic approach is a result of talking back against the authority of the colonizer which involved English as a tool.
Secondly, each of the lines begin with a contradiction: “I forgot XYZ…” Obviously, when you articulate what you forgot, you are remembering. When you declaim from an “I” with a contradiction, you are showing that “I” to be an untrustworthy source, which can emphasize how language was/is manipulated, and manipulated not always on behalf of truth. There may exist a dictionary with definition to words, but whoever ends up using from the dictionary might use words outside of their definitions. Thus, when a colonizer says, “Trust me (and in my actions),” it is appropriate for the wise listener to look beyond/behind the words.
Thirdly, what are referenced as forgotten may never have actually occurred to or with the speaker. The entirety of history is questioned because what actually happened versus what one only read becomes conflated. (And isn’t “history” often written by “victors”?) Here, language again is shown to be unstable.
All of the above contrasts with how, when one is colonizing another people or geography, it is indisputable who the colonizer is: it is empire. The make-up of that empire and the nuances of its layered psychology may be unstable, but empire is … empire. When a colonized person is abducted, tortured and killed, the result is undisputable: someone was killed, even as one may engage in a discourse about what led to his death. Empire is empire; the dead is dead.
The MDR’s use of language is as unstable as how a colonizer wishes language to be definitive when delivering orders.
Poetry is also subversive in how the dead need not remain dead; poetry can resuscitate. “MDR” stands for Murder, Death and Resurrection.
Where then is the “poetry?” Perhaps it exists in how the MDR Poetry Project leads to conversations such as the one we’re having, which inevitably means raising the issue of the colonizing action of the United States by illegally taking over the Philippines last century (an issue that’s been elided in U.S. history textbooks and to which there remain much indifference in the U.S.).
Perhaps the MDR’s poetry also exists in the reader being persuaded to go along with one of the tenets of my ars poetica: I write in order to make the reader feel something, versus to tell the reader something. By making the reader feel, the reader becomes engaged and the reader and the poem then form a relationship: they are with each other. This contrasts with a poem delivering a message to the reader-as-receptacle. In the former, the reader has power to define the poem’s effect; in the latter, the reader’s power is more limited. My notion of reader-response here involves empowering the reader.
Note how the two ways I describe above as regards the MDR’s poetic effect are contradictory: the first is addressing narrative content and the second is eliding such content. This contradiction, this conflictedness, is also part of my history with English and my poetry, or the poetry in the MDR Poetry Project.
As a Filipino who came to be fluent in English—and I sadly am only fluent in this one language, English—each utterance I make bears the weight of the history of the language I use. It is logical—and appropriate—that when I write poetry in English, my poems self-disrupt English.
The redemption (resurrection) in all of this is that Poetry is a language all of its own, not constrained or defined by empire (or other factors). And disruption is actually a means for me, as a poet, to end up writing in Poetry versus English.
I noted above how MDR’s standing for Murder, Death and Resurrection is apt when discussing colonialism’s aftermath. But the project also has a personal meaning unique to me. When I began writing anew by responding to earlier work, it was at a time when I was sick of writing poetry. So I thought to “murder” my old poems by “resurrecting” new poems from them—a point of view aligned with my (and others’) thoughts about words per se never being original anyway. I ended up with the MDR poems in an attempt to freshen up my poetry. I have many concerns, including the issues which we’ve discussed, but always my primary interest as a poet is poetry itself—here, I was interested in a renewal, or a resurrection, for my Poetry (language).
Fink: What I’m about to say may be obvious to you, but it deserves mention. When you talk about “disrupting the Speaker” as a component of your praxis, I think it’s important to note that this is most significantly a political intervention when you arrange for other speakers, those whose utterance makes it clear that they have been othered by the colonial commander or some other form of political oppression, to contest him (usually, him) through the ethical force of their subject positions, and so it is a matter of displacing the authority arbitrarily vested by colonialism in a singe voice/identity through alternate perspectives on power. This excerpt is not necessarily representative of a Filipino/a postcolonial perspective, unless I’m unaware of who Clementina is, but it functions well to illustrate my point:
I forgot him singing the bleak silence of stars.
I forgot him singing a shivering woman with no defense as soldiers arrived to do what they did to her and her too-young daughters.
I forgot him singing a man thrown in jail for stealing grapes to appease the ugly grunts of his starving wife and children.
I forgot him singing the whips over his ancestors as they were driven out of India.
I forgot Clementina laughing at her bruises, both then and those yet to come. (48)
So I would have to say that even with the “I forgot” anaphora, some of the speakers are very reliable and others more questionable. This is in keeping with what you said about the indisputable results of colonial oppression.
But it’s your last point in the previous response that I want to ask about, and I will now proceed to get annoyingly literal in taking your tropes seriously: is it really “murder” and “resurrection”? For me, a reader, the poems in a book like Reproductions of the Empty Flagpole will always be alive, available for rereading, as will those in AMNESIA. They don’t need resurrection, and you’ve convinced me through some of your earlier answers in this exchange that the old and the new are different poems. Is it necessary to kill the patient (your old poetry) or can s/he just donate cloned organs for use in another body and survive? Is the renewal that you desire, which includes interpretation and further framing of prior lines, as you have carefully pointed out, for the benefit of you as a poet or, as the MDR designation claims, for your poetry’s “resurrection”?
Tabios: As regards what you observe about the Clementina excerpt, you’re correct—and by raising it you allow me to note what I’ve also been meaning to say except that it got lost in the layers of what I’ve been attempting to say [insert rueful smile]. To wit, it obviously is very difficult to get a word separated from its dictionary meaning. (This reminds me of when I once read of a poet observing the difficulty of looking at visual art with letters or words and finding it difficult to simply view the art visually instead of “reading” them—not totally sure but I think the poet I’m referencing here is Charles Bernstein.) Despite my interest in disruption, the words inevitably exist with some prior definition which is difficult to loosen. Rather than fight that all of the time, sometimes I then use other techniques for disruption—in the above excerpt, the use of “I forgot” to begin each line already disrupts. One of its results, actually, is the conflation of the five separate incidents in each of the five lines into one poetic moment—the historical narrative here is turned awry. This tactic need not be the reader’s concern; for me as the poet, I too was concerned with something else: laying out a space which may encourage an emotional relationship between the reader and what are read. When the reader takes the above excerpt at its face value, so to speak—and isn’t that how most poems are read?—do the lines and their combination compel an emotional engagement? That reaction may be more significant than my authorial intention for linguistic disruption.
As regards your questions about whether the MDR is for the benefit of me as a poet or for my poetry’s resurrection? Good question. But before directly addressing that question, I of course must raise the “preface” that there’s a limit to relying on any poet’s professed intention(s) as regards the poems themselves. So if you say my earlier poems will always be alive for you as a reader, my appropriate response would be (in addition to gratitude), Okay, Fullstop. If a reader says their experience with the poem is not how the poet intended (if the poet’s intention is known), that’s fine. For the poem is not the poet and vice versa.
Having said that, there is an artifice, if not artificiality, in my articulating the project to be one of murder, death and resurrection—these are weighty terms. Part of their weight, for me, is that I was raised a Christian and of course murder, death and resurrection are exactly what happened to Jesus Christ. The reference is weighty, the reference is solemn, the reference is fraught for me and (or because) the reference is deliberately blasphemous. But what was happening here was a deliberately and aggressively radical exhortation at myself to get my act together as regards the future of my poetry. I had felt stalled, and stalled deep. So I had to find a radical solution: murder.
I chose to put it all on these terms of murder and death to heighten pressure on myself to address and solve the stagnation I was feeling in my poetry.
But my poetry, too, has always been one of Faith. We all know of—or rather, live—the idea that just the act and decision to write poems can be acts of faith—faith that the poems matter when so much of the contexts provided by our world do not consider poems important. From that more general faith that poets share is my specific faith in the MDR project: that even if I “murdered” my previously-made poems, they would arise, be resurrected. And I would be rewarded for this blasphemy. There’s that old saying about creation requiring destruction…
So my poetry was resurrected in two ways. First, the MDR Poetry Generator was created. The MDR is both an outcome as well as a source for generating a de facto infinite number of more outcomes through the poems that it could generate. A gift that keeps on giving, as they say. By which I mean that the number of poems the MDR could combine from the 1,146-line database—“permutations” in mathematical terms—is a number that contains 3,011 digits. That number, or more accurately, estimate was calculated by Carl Ericson, my son’s high school tutor and a math tutor for many others in my local community as well as Errol Koenig, a student at Johns Hopkins Applied Mathematics & Statistics department. (If you’re interested, Errol derived the number through the equation 1146!-1146, a number that roughly rounds to 1.129300103 E+3010 [that is, 1.129300103 times 10 to the 3,010th power] – a 3,011-digit number!). So, theoretically, I could cease imagination and all original thought and still make a new poem for possibly the rest of my life. Of course, such would be boring and I stopped making new “I Forgot” poems after about the135th poem.
The second source of resurrection is actually the meeting of the goal to which I had hoped the MDR would lead me. That is, I anticipated that I would get bored with continuing to make poems through the MDR—I actually had a reader suggest that it was time for me to find new metaphors, not realizing that the point of the MDR was combinations and recombinations of a fixed number of lines versus creating new lines. But I did hope that going through the creation, then manifestations, of the MDR would make me work through that former period of stagnation—and such did happen. I am pleased to say that I am now writing new poems whose lines do not begin with “I forgot…”
Ultimately, I went through the MDR’s process and regained fresh impetus in poem-making. For which: first, I don’t forget… After all, ultimately, I hope the point of Poetry—or my poetry—is not amnesia. There are too many things in life that should not be forgotten.
In 2013, Eileen R. Tabios created The MDR Poetry Project Generator (MDR). The MDR generated numerous poems and visual poetry as well as the following eight books and chapbooks from 2014-2017:
44 RESURRECTIONS (PostModernPoetry E-Ratio, 2014)
I FORGOT LIGHT BURNS (Moria Books, 2015)
DUENDE IN THE ALLEYS (Swirl Editions, 2015)
AMNESIA: Somebody’s Memoir (Black Radish Books, 2016)
THE OPPOSITE OF CLAUSTROPHOBIA: Prime’s Anti-Autobiography (The Knives, Forks and Spoons Press, 2016)
THE CONNOISSEUR OF ALLEYS (Marsh Hawk Press, 2016)
EXCAVATING THE FILIPINO IN ME (Tinfish, 2016)
WHAT SHIVERING MONKS COMPREHEND (Moria/Locofo Series, 2017)
Forthcoming in 2018 is a poetry collection that may be the last to be generated by the MDR: HIRAETH: Tercets From The Last Archipelago. While generated by the MDR, its lines will not begin with “I forgot …”