Saturday, September 12, 2015


Eileen R. Tabios presents “A POETICS Author’s Note” to The Secret Lives of Punctuations, Vol. I (xPress(ed), Finland, 2006)


“In my poetry I do not try to find the words to express what I want
            to say.
In my poetry I try to find ways to express what the words have
            to say.”
—Carl Andre

“Though these visions are influenced by ancestors, the sculpture is not used in ritual or ceremony.  In the West, most African art is defined as consisting of either religious icons or practical artifacts, meaning tools used in daily life.  But this definition has been imposed on Africa by outsiders and certainly does not fit Shona sculpture or other contemporary African art forms.  Shona sculpture is neither worshipped nor functional.  It is purely decorative—art for art’s sake.”
—from Spirits in Stone: Zimbabwe Shona Sculpture by Anthony and Laura Ponter

I wrote “The Masvikiru Quatrains” as a result of
Jukka-Pekka Kervinen's  poetry collection, cornucopia (xPress(ed), 2004).  From Zimbabwe's Shona culture, "masvikiru" means "spirit mediums." But before I tell you about my poems, let me share some background about their inspiration.

Jukka wrote cornucopia as a sample of what he calls "statistical writing." Basically, the poem results from a computer program, in this case one that utilizes three statistical distributions—uniform, binomial, and Gaussian (normal)—to avoid patterns. The (pattern) exception is that, in punctuation, a period is used each time the program encounters a space in its source vocabulary.  For cornucopia, Jukka’s sources were excerpts from
John Locke’s “The Essay of Toleration” and Antonio Gramsci’s "Letters from Prison.”

I enjoy collaborating with Jukka partly because he takes, as a beginning point, a very different—nay, perhaps the opposite—tack from how I approach my poems. That is, he deliberately tries to be dispassionate whereas I, robustly believing in subjectivity, fling myself naked, hair matted and blood rushing into the poetry-writing. [Cough.]

Exemplifying what I mean about Jukka’s approach is that, consistent with his long-time investigations into computer-generated texts and poems, Jukka says that he never edits the results: "My 'philosophy' is simple and clear: if I use the computer to generate music/poems I must be satisfied with the results without any editing. I don't change a single word/note. Otherwise I must do whole thing without computers!"

And yet the reason why cornucopia works as a poem is the strength of its poetic music—as soundscape—such that reading through it effortlessly allowed me to write new poems which I intended as pure (abstract) music. This leads me to the other reason why I like collaborating with Jukka: we may begin from disparate if not opposite points, but we end up in the same space for the poem: music.

cornucopia consists of 65 pages of words. There are no discernible beginnings or endings to the piece. There are no titles, line breaks or paragraph breaks. It's just a 65-page block of words. Yet, as I began reading it, I started reading music by sensing such music (through rhyme and rhythm and my subjective interpretations of pacing and tone) even as I also considered the text "visual" a la dark, seemingly single-color canvases.

After my read—and conclusion that what I experienced through such reading was music—I asked  Jukka about his work. Jukka replied that he also found the computer-generated results "surprisingly musical." But as Jukka—who is also a composer—explained, "One reason for this might be that the program was first used to generate a cello piece (punctuation vs. silence/very loud (low) strokes)."

Jukka’s referenced cello piece is available on the Internet at (see “Compositions-Computer-generated scores-eXudes for cello solo”).

I hadn’t intended to write poems as I read through cornucopia, but I found that each page offered a new poem.  Specifically, each line on the page generated a three word line.  For each line, the first word is followed by a colon so that the next two words offers a relationship to the first word based on said colon (I happened to be in the midst of investigating the colon punctuation mark when I began writing this series).  Because the diction is based more on sound (music) vs. narrative meaning, I wanted to push the challenge of creating a colon-based relationship within each three-word line.

Reflecting the fact that each page of cornucopia contains 39 lines, the poems are formed from quatrains. Every fifth line on the page was deleted, with that line deletion becoming  equivalent to a stanza break.  Thus, each poem consists of eight quatrains, except for the last poem which is comprised of five quatrains as the last page contains only 24 lines.

To write—and hopefully for the reader to read—these quatrains was/is an experience based on a sense of musicality in cornucopia.  Moreover, cornucopia is so musical that even as I wrote my poems, I sensed that there were other parallel poems threaded through each of the pages.  This may be made clearer by looking at the original cornucopia text for the first poem, “The Fourth Page” (shown in “Selected Notes to Poems”).  In looking at the prose poem form of the source text, you might sense—as I do—that one could just as easily have formed different three-word combinations than what I chose for “The Masvikiru Quatrains.”  For instance, rather than the poem’s version of the first quatrain

foolery:  pollinate eyrie
progress: retinal runners-up
forger: nimbus dowdy
round-the-clock: penetrate rot

I could have written—chipped out from the stone-prose—the following for the first quatrain:

notoriety: smirch resilience
baptize: runners-up kilowatt
impersonate: unceasing nimbus
ménage: disingenuous moonscape

Another example is how the series’ last poem, “The Thirtieth to the Sixty-Fifth Page,” was created by stringing together the first quatrains from each of the referenced poems.  For me, this implies that had this series’ concern been only music, I also could have written the series’ individual 66 poems as a single poem like Jukka’s cornucopia, without page breaks or titles.


However, I didn’t write this series only from a sense of soundscape.  Not only did I wish to extend my exploration of the colon punctuation mark, but I also wanted to translate Zimbabwean Shona sculpture methodology into writing poems.  By the latter, I mean that I had to chip away at cornucopia's prose blocks to release new poems. Shona sculptors believe that (ancestral) spirits reside in stones and when they sculpt from stones, they basically are trying to release the spirits into what we later see as sculpted forms. From cornucopia, I sought to write poems to release the many hidden strains of music I sensed as spirits beneath each of cornucopia's pages.

As I learned about Shona sculpture, I also felt a kinship between the sculptors’ approach and my long-time desire to write poems along the “first draft, last draft” vein.  In Spirits in Stone: Zimbabwe Shona Sculpture, the authors Anthony and Laura Ponter describe the Shona sculpting process as:

“The artists do not experience angst in the creative or carving process.  When a sculpture does not emerge, it is simply cast aside.  There is no regret.  When a carving exploded during the firing process, destroying more than a month of work, artist Crispin June Mutambika said simply, ‘It wasn’t meant to be.’ Shrugging off any disappointment, he picked up another stone and began anew.” [126-127]

All of the poems in this book, including “The Masvikiru Quatrains,” were written along the first draft, last draft mode.  Nowadays, I attempt all of my poems in that manner.  If a draft doesn’t work, I don’t file it (for further extensive or copious editing).  I trash the “failed” first draft, believing that if there was some “spirit” (or poetic energy) sufficiently strong to generate a poem, it will come back to me and perhaps at that later date I will be more adept at guiding out its form in one (unedited) passage.  I relate my way of writing to something the Ponters said: “Like most other acts in Shona culture, the carving is … destined from its beginning.”

To relate the poems further to Shona sculpture, one might say that Jukka and I have found as a common “ancestor” a type of music that draws out an empathy that we hold in common, a type of music that makes us kin.  Through music, Jukka and I zero out notions of Other-hood.  Through Poetry, we become the same flesh, blood … and even computer.


More information about Eileen R. Tabios is at her website.

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