Vince Gotera presents Foreword to
The Connoisseur of Alleys by Eileen R. Tabios
(Marsh Hawk Press, New York, 2016)
That phrase appears over and over like a litany in The Connoisseur of Alleys, beginning every sentence in this bravura collection by Eileen R. Tabios.
To forget, extinction of memory, coupled with the first person pronoun. It is the self that forgets. The speaker forgets. Mind, body, and soul. The entire being forgets. A fact of life, a law of the universe, the inevitability of entropy.
After saying “I forgot,” to name what one forgot is immediately a contradiction. A lie. But an artistic one. An artful one. A lie in art, and thus a truth. Because art by its very nature is always a contradiction. A lie but nonetheless Truth with a big T.
As Walt Whitman wrote, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” The possibility of order contained within the self, the opposite of entropy.
Here is an excerpt from the poetry in this book, chosen at random, literally picked out by riffling through the pages and pointing with my finger.
I forgot a plea to be buried under a canopy of red roses.... I forgot Pygmalion sculpted himself into an embrace, and used stone in hopes the hold would never break.... I forgot the brutality of cracked skies captured by ancient warriors with “lightning marks” as long grooves along the wooden shafts of their arrows....
Such vaunted forgettings are a beautiful ordering and re-ordering in the face of, despite, entropy and death. They remind us ineffably of what it means to be alive, to be human.
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Eileen R. Tabios is arguably the most prolific and inventive experimental writer in the U.S. The debut of the online poetry journal h& <handandpoetry.blogspot.com> in April 2015 featured Tabios’s radical visual poem, “I Forgot Forgetting My Skin Was Ruin.” (Look: double forgetting!) It’s revealing that this auspicious debut of an experimental magazine is heralded by a Tabios piece. And the h& bio on this occasion underlines the richness and breadth of her work:
Eileen R. Tabios has released more than 20 print, five electronic and one CD poetry collections; an art essay collection; a “collected novels” book; a poetry essay/interview anthology; a short story collection; and two experimental biographies. Her 2015 books include the experimental autobiography against misanthropy: a life in poetry and the poetry collection i forgot light burns.
In July 2015 another h& bio that accompanied a visual piece “written” with Tabios’s own hair provides more detail about her avant-garde accomplishments:
Eileen R. Tabios loves books and has released about 30 collections of poetry, essays, fiction and experimental biographies from publishers in nine countries and cyberspace. Her poems have been translated into seven languages as well as computer-generated hybrid languages, Paintings, Video, Drawings, Visual Poetry, Mixed Media Collages, Kali Martial Arts, Music, Modern Dance and Sculpture. These images comprise her series “The Outsider’s Dilemma” and are asemics she’s written with her white hair; she describes their conceptualization in her essay, “The Mortality Asemics“ for Queen Mob’s Teahouse. Forthcoming this year will be invent(st)ory, a Selected List Poem covering 1996-2015.
To cite a select few more projects among her many, Tabios is the founder, publisher, and editor of Meritage Press. Among the fine books that have issued from this press is Verses Typhoon Yolanda: A Storm of Filipino Poets, an anthology she compiled and edited to raise emergency funds for the Filipino survivors of Typhoon Haiyan (called Typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines). Tabios is also the founder and editor of the poetry journal Galatea Resurrects as well as her newly established online venue, The Halo-Halo Review, which aggregates reviews of and other writings about Filipino authors on the internet, and its outlet The Mangozine, which publishes new reviews, author interviews, and reader testimonials about Filipino literature in English.
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One of Eileen Tabios’s most fascinating projects is The MDR Poetry Generator, which “wrote” the poems in The Connoisseur of Alleys. (For more on this, see Tabios’s afterword to this collection.) When she first told me of the poetry generator, I was immediately reminded of the computer program Racter, which “wrote” the 1984 book The Policeman's Beard is Half Constructed: Computer Prose and Poetry. This computer program created text by concatenating strings of words according to syntactic algorithms, producing text that was often whimsical and sprightly. Over the three decades since Racter’s heyday, poet-scientists have invented increasingly sophisticated computational poetry engines or robots, perhaps moving closer and closer to passing a poetic Turing test: can we tell if a poem was written by a human or a machine?
Racter and its/her/his descendants are machine versions of the Surrealist game Exquisite Corpse, a Mad Libs–style game in which words are plugged into parts-of-speech blanks in a prearranged sentence skeleton. The first sentence produced in the game was “Le cadavre exquis boira le vin nouveau” or “The exquisite corpse shall drink the new wine,” using the pattern noun + adjective + verb + noun + adjective in French. This sentence also produced the name of the game.
Other poetry-writing heuristics that came from France were originated by Oulipo, a group of writers and mathematicians who created ways to compose by constraining what could be written through preconceived rules (e.g., using only one vowel or avoiding given letters in a writing). The word “oulipo” is an abbreviation for “Ouvroir de litterature potentielle,” roughly translated as “workshop for potential literature.” One of the more popular oulipo “games” is N+7, where all nouns in a pre-existing sentence are replaced by the 7th subsequent noun in a dictionary. This could be played as N+13 or V+5 (for verbs), and so on. The Surrealist ur-sentence “the exquisite corpse shall drink the new wine” could then be re-rendered via N+10 and V+10 and even A+10 (adjectives) as “the exsensed corpuscle shall drizzle the newborn winepress.”
The MDR Poetry Generator doesn’t randomize based on a dictionary or lexicon but rather assembles text specific to Tabios’s established body of poetry, through selection and replacement like the heuristics described above. In essence, creating new poems from old poems. In The Connoisseur of Alleys, Tabios applies the poetry generator to arrange and rearrange text related to 27 previously published poetry collections. To do this she re-read these collections and, immersed in the emotions of those re-readings, created—re-created—lines based on her earlier poems, populating a database of verse from which the poetry generator could “write.”
The resulting poems are ineluctably beautiful and dizzying, in all the best possible senses. In fascinating ways, they interact with and rethink and “re-feel” the previous poems, thus commenting on both the earlier texts and also the earlier Tabios, the younger author who wrote the original poems now being mined and reconstructed. At the same time, new and radical emotion comes from the current poems being constructed and newly construed.
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A phrase from Comte de Lautréamont’s prose poem Les Chants de Maldoror (1869) has been used by many as a definition of surrealism: “the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella.” Such fanciful and bizarre juxtaposition is one of the many sources of beauty and the sublime in The Connoisseur of Alleys. Sentences and lines resurrected from the earlier works resonate and reverberate with each other in a preordained fashion so that each poem ebbs and flows, builds to a crescendo, echoing each of the other poems’ ebbs, flows, and crescendos. There is certainly “chance meeting” in the way Tabios’s text collides with itself but there is nothing chance about the delicacy and beauty that comes from those collisions.
These poems are, to borrow from Whitman again, “large and contain multitudes.” They are a striking tribute to art and to poetry—both Tabios’s own earlier work and, really, all poetry—underlining and emphasizing for ourselves our own humanity and grace. Again, a random quotation (page-riffled and finger-pointed):
I forgot the damp eyes were mine.... I forgot that if you call an island “Isla Mujeres,” half of the population will be anguished.... I forgot to be human is to be forgiven.... I forgot the taste of your mouth was song of licorice....
I forgot. And in forgetting, I remembered. Excruciatingly and exquisitely. May we all forget and remember so eloquently and elegantly. Eileen Tabios, thank you. Salamat.
Vince Gotera is a professor of English at the University of Northern Iowa, where he served as Editor of the North American Review (2000-2016). He is Editor of Star*Line, the print journal of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association. His poetry titles include Dragonfly, Ghost Wars, Fighting Kite, and the upcoming Pacific Crossing. Recent poems appeared in Altered Reality Magazine, The American Journal of Poetry, Crab Orchard Review, Eye to the Telescope, Parody Poetry Journal, and Voices de la Luna. He blogs at The Man with the Blue Guitar.