“Inspirational Innovation”: A Review of Eileen R. Tabios’ The In(ter)vention of the Hay(na)ku

“Inspirational Innovation”: A Review of Eileen R. Tabios’ The In(ter)vention of the Hay(na)ku (East Rockaway: Marsh Hawk Press, 2019, ISBN: 978-0-9969911-6-2)
The great white whale for all true Creatives is the alchemical creation of something New. Wholly new. Something Never Before Done.
But, in reality, how many emotional crews and spiritual lower legs have we sacrificed in the pursuit of such seeming folly?
I was recently engaged in a discussion with creative colleagues when the idea that “there is nothing new” left to create came up. For one of us, it was a statement originally made to him some 30 years ago by a professor in the college where he had enrolled.
So—is it true? Outside of deconstructionism and post-postmodernism, aside from homage and pastiche (all four of which are prevalent in my own work), is there anything truly new?
This retrospective collection says yes.
Embracing variations on the haiku and tercet forms while honoring Philippine culture and elements of the Diaspora, Tabios’ Hay(na)ku form has, to put it mildly, caught on with a worldwide community of poets, breeding variations that both honor the form from which they come and the strength of the form itself.
For those new to Tabios’ work (and with her credits tallying 50 collections, visual art, mini-books, websites of reviews and other writings, and 15 anthologies in which she has played a role, who isn’t new to it in some respect?—herself included, as you shall see), this collection offers histories and essays about not only Hay(na)ku but several aspects of this innovative artist’s work.
At this point, I lose count, but I estimate that this is the twelfth or thirteenth review of Tabios’ work that I have undertaken. A great deal of the material in this collection is familiar to me—even more so because Tabios recycles much of her writing using a “poetry generator” and through her experimentation with new and existing forms.
Simply by placing it in a new context, with new divisions and crafted proximities that suit the flow of the work, be it by year or by style, Tabios renders Old now New. In the process, she also illuminates the nigredo from which her poetic alchemy emerges: Life, Death, and Resurrection; Romantic Relationships; Memory (and Forgetting); the artist’s relationship with other artists (including homage, overlap, and subtler inspiration), the aforementioned Philippine Diaspora, and orphans/adoption. One gets that sense that, as free-ranging and transdisciplinary as Tabios is (and she must be to generate so much fresh and innovative text), that she is equally as intimate with these self-same subjects. One can feel the arc of the original inspiration, the spiritual depth-diving with which she engages said subjects to such an extent that the silver thread that holds them is taut enough to pluck and hear the tone as though it were the Music of the Spheres manifestly made.
So make no mistake—Tabios is not innovating and recycling to mask a lack of writing power. Take this tercet, from “listening to what woke me”:
in the city, as summer evaporates off the streets
the stilled, sharp blades of a three-pronged fan
behind the curve of its grated metal mask (27)
Hear the music?
Although Tabios does not write exclusively for those who might be disparagingly called “hyper-intellectuals,” being well read and culturally adept has its added rewards when engaging with her work. Not only does she riff on and take as the jumping-off point an impressive myriad of source material, she clearly loves to play frolic with language. Take “Adjectives From The Last Time They Met,” where the conceit is a cornucopian panoply of words like “taphophobia,” “hastilude,” “sternutation,” “argy-bargy,” “nictitating,” “xanthic, ” “cyanic,” and “nugatory” (Microsoft Word recognizes less than half of them… Shame on you, B. Gates…)
In the section devoted to the history and form of the Hay(na)ku, my favorite expression of it is the method of using 3 words, then 2, then 1. It is elegant, both visually and in the way it reinforces the reductionism of the form itself. Here is an example, from “The Singer”:
When they heard
him, they

the whips over
his ancestors,

they were forced
out from
India. (130)

Deriving from and building on the Hay(na)ku is a form called Haybun. The selections here are from 147 Million Orphans. Haybun takes a Hay(na)ku tercet as its start, followed by a prose poem. Although not all verse poets are adept at doing prose, Tabios’s prose poems hold a depth and artistry begging slow, multiple reads.

Next in the collection is a section on the Murder, Death, Resurrection (MDR) poetry generator. Now, this may not be strictly new—Burroughs and Gysin get credit for pioneering “cut-up” poetry, and everyone from David Bowie to yours truly have used it in some way, shape, or form. But Tabios, ever the innovator, has, in one iteration of this exploration, taken 1,167 lines from 27 collections and arranged them in tercets, starting each with “I Forgot,” an homage to Tom Beckett’s poem. The result is a masterful journey through memory. As with Burroughs, Gysin, and the rest, the process yields nothing less than a new reality. Words as spells, as they were meant to be, with adjusted frequencies that change the elements around them.

I could go on, but I think it’s time for the reviewer to stop and your role as reader to begin.

One last thing… to me, the most important (and perhaps to Tabios too): Be Inspired. Stay open. Don’t be passive. Find your own forms. Riff on Tabios’. Take some of your writing—even grocery lists will work—and see

What you can
do new

Write on.


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