Eileen Tabios: A Lady of Words

Fortunately for fans of inventive and beautifully descriptive poetry, at the age of thirty-five Eileen Tabios felt the call to leave her career in international project finance and give expression to the words waiting in her heart.  Had she not done so, the world would have been deprived of one of its most prolific and creative poets in modern times.  Born in Ilocos Sur, Philippines, she came to the United States at age ten when her family fled the repressive government of Ferdinand Marcos.  Fast forwarding twenty-five years found Tabios taking her first steps down the path that would launch her writing career, and make her perhaps one of the most published Asian American poets in history. 

Tabios often writes in prose-poetry, which strings together metaphorical and highly illustrative sentences into long paragraphs, but remains distinct from traditional prose in its more abstract and disjointed concepts.  She also composes in free verse, and is the inventor of the hay(na)ku form, which bears some similarity to the Japanese haiku style in its economy of words.  Hay(na)ku consists of a tercet of six words: one in the first line, two in the second line, and three in the third.  The form can be reversed, where the longest line is placed first and the shortest last, still totaling six words.  Syllables and rhymes are not regulated in this form.  Multiple hay(na)ku can be linked together or “chained” to form a longer poem, for example:




to unlock 

the steel handcuffs

of an aftermath? 

How to 


(source: http://www.poemeleon.org/eileen-tabios2/)

Tabios has been a longtime fan of the visual arts, and has even exhibited some of her own creations in this field in the U.S. and Asia.  However, she’s better known for her poems about other artists’ works, a technique called ekprhasis.  For example, Richard Tuttle’s sculptures made of wire, pencils and nails inspired Tabios to pen this poem:

The Wire Sculpture

The shadow is thin but what slices air is thinner.  The press

of approximation is confidently approximate.  It does not matter

to the naked eye.  What is solid is what is visible.  Once

more, you look back at the sculpture.  But the light has changed

with the progress of the hour.  You leave and dwell instead on the

simmer deep within your belly.  How a shadow’s imperfection

humbles you.  How a shadow recalls a life you once wanted to

possess versus the life that folds itself around your awkward


(source:  The Thorn Rosary, page 84; Marsh Hawk Press, 2010)

Similarly, Tabios’ poems have been interpreted by other artists in the forms of dance, visual art, videos, and more.  Another technique she uses is “scumbling”, a term borrowed from painting whereby various glazes or light pigment applications are layered over existing paint.  Applying this method to writing, Tabios starts with a poem by another author and adds her own words and phrasing, morphing it into a related but unique creation.  She is also known for using poetry to express political ideas, particularly relating to the many successive foreign occupations or colonizations of the Philippines, including those by Spanish and American forces.

In addition to her mainstay of poetry, Ms. Tabios has also written a few short story collections and novels, although many of these novels read more like poems, with chapters of only a few sentences, and consisting of a few dozen pages in their entirety.  She has edited the works of many other writers and collaborated with them on various compilation projects, including Black Lightning: Poetry in Progress, an anthology featuring the results of an Asian American writers’ workshop.  Furthermore, Tabios edits the online journal GALATEA RESURRECTS: A Poetry Engagement and co-edits The Asian Pacific American Journal.  She also runs Meritage Press, an independent publisher that seeks to provide exposure to visual and performing artists in addition to poets and writers.  Meritage published the Babaylan series, which is specifically dedicated to Filipino literature.  From the Meritage Press webpage:

The word "Babaylan" is a Bisayan word that can be translated to mean Poet-Priestess. As noted in the groundbreaking anthology BABAYLAN: An Anthology of Flilipina and Flilipina American Writers (Aunt Lute Press, 1999) co-edited by Eileen Tabios and Nick Carbo, the Babaylans were storytellers, healers and community leaders in the Philippines whose positions were disrupted by the invasion of Spanish colonizers over four centuries ago. BABAYLAN resurrects itself in the 21st century to facilitate the dissemination of Filipino literature.

Ms. Tabios writes the The Blind Chatelaine's Keys poetry blog as well as its many sub-blogs such as Galatea's Poetry Library, Galatea's Art Collection and Moi Community Bookshelf. Several other poetics blogs are managed or regularly contributed to by Tabios, including the Meritage Press Blog, Babaylan Speaks, The Hay(na)ku Blog, and Marsh Hawk Press Blog. These blogs link to some online publications of Tabios’ poetry, such as Athena, but probably the best introduction to the variety of her work is The Thorn Rosary book (see http://www.marshhawkpress.org/Tabios4.htm).  This is a sizeable compilation of selections from several of her prior publications, and includes samplings of each of her many poetic styles.

Regardless of the form in which she chooses to compose, Tabios wrangles words the way a painter maneuvers his pigments, blending and crafting them to evoke beautiful images that leap as vividly into the reader’s mind as a bold portrait does to a beholder’s eye. In her poem Sk[e]in, she manages to evoke the sensually flowing qualities of silk, wind and song with just a few lines:



silk stiffens wind

wind smolders silk

silk lengthens song

song sunders silk

silk stiffens song

song stroking wind

silk sunders wind

wind smolders song

(source:  The Thorn Rosary, page 271.  Marsh Hawk Press, 2010).

In her personal life, Tabios is married and adopted a thirteen-year-old son from Colombia in 2009; she will adopt a 12-year-old daughter later this year.  The difficult emotions of the adoption process and the scars born by children who are abused by family or neglected in orphanages provided material for several poems.  She lives in St. Helena, California where she also pens poems inspired by wine.  Judging by this stanza from her poem entitled E-mail to a Young Poet, Tabios is grateful for her success and has not regretted the decision to follow her muse:

 In poetry, I leapt off all unexpected cliffs (though not initially from courage but

from thumbing one’s nose at the world).  Not once – not once! – have I ever not flown.

(source:  The Thorn Rosary, page 310.  Marsh Hawk Press, 2010).


Poems and excerpts used with written permission of the author.


(Solo works, exclusive of projects for which Tabios served as editor or collabortator).

Silk Egg:  Collected Novels.  Shearsman Books, January 2011.


The Thorn Rosary, Selected Prose Poems & New (1998-2010).  Marsh Hawk Press, March 2010.

Roman Holiday.  Naissance Chapbooks, 2009.

Novel Chatelaine.  A Teeny Tiny Press, 2009.

Footnotes To Algebra:  Uncollected Poems 1995-2009.  BlazeVOX Books, July 2009.

nota bene eiswein.  Ahadada Books, January 2009.

The Blind Chatelaine’s Keys:  Her Biography Through Your Poetics.  BlazeVOX Books, August 2008.

The Light Sang as It Left Your Eyes:  Our Autobiography.  Marsh Hawk Press, September 2007.

SILENCES:  The Autobiography of Loss.  Blue Lion Books, March 2007.

Dredging for Atlantis.  Otoliths, January 2007.


The Secret Lives of Punctuations, Vol. I.  xPress(ed), May 2006.

The Estrus Gaze(s).  Belladonna Books, 2005.

Post Bling-Bling.  Lulu.com, September 2005.

I Take Thee, English, For My Beloved.  Marsh Hawk Press, September 2005.

Crucial Bliss Epilogues.  Tamafhyr Mountain Poetry, 2004.

Menage a Trois with the 21st Century.  xPress(ed), September 2004.

Behind The Blue Canvas.  Giraffe Books, January 2004.

There, Where the Pages Would End.  xPress(ed), 2003.

Reproductions of the Empty Flagpole.  Marsh Hawk Press, November 2002.

My Romance.  Giraffe Books, March 2002.


Enheduanna in the 21st Century.  xPress(ed), 2002.

Ecstatic Mutations.  Giraffe Books, October 2000.

Beyond Life Sentences (Contemporary Philippine Poetry).  Anvil Publishing, August 1998.

After The Egyptians Determined The Shape of the World is a Circle.  Pometaphysics Publishing, 1996.


Philippines' Manila Critics Circle National Book Award for Poetry (for Beyond Life Sentences)

Potrero Nuevo Fund Prize

Gustavus Meyers Outstanding Book Award in the Advancement of Human Rights

PEN/Oakland Josephine Miles National Literary Award

Foreword Magazine Anthology of the Year

Poet Magazine’s Iva Mary Williams Poetry Award

Judds Hill’s Annual Poetry Prize

Philippine American Writers & Artists’ Catalagan Award

Many grants from prestigious organizations, including the Witter Bynner Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the New York State Council on the Humanities.

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