I was five years old when I created my first book.
Or so my mother says in an essay discovered among her papers two years after she passed in 2012. I’ll start there. Here’s Mom:
My daughter, Eileen Tabios, was five years old when she wrote her first book. I have been smiling over this memory recently as our family celebrates the publication of her two books: a poetry collection, Beyond Life Sentences (Anvil, 1998), and a group of essays and interviews about Asian American poets, Black Lightning (Asian American Writers Workshop, 1998).
I still remember how, as a little girl, Eileen visited me in my bedroom one day and pointed to a red box where I kept pens, paper clips and pencils. “I need a box for my books—that’ll do,” she announced.
“I’ve been keeping my books in this,” she explained as she held up an envelope bulging with little folded papers, “but it won’t close and I don’t want to lose them.”
She put the envelope on my desk. “I’ll show you the last book I made,” she offered, taking one of the folded papers and unfolding it. Her “book” was a strip of paper cut from her brother’s school supplies. I imagined her little hands cutting the paper with sharp scissors and felt alarm. I was about to say something about being careful with scissors, but she proceeded to “read” her book to me.
“The grass in the park is wet,” she said, pointing to the bottom of the first space of the folded paper. I saw a green smudge.
“See the little raindrops,” she said, pointing to penciled dots, “but I was not wet because Manang Rosing held the umbrella over me.”
“This is Trixie,” she said as she touched a little horizontal stick figure that had a circle on one end and a line that curved downward on the opposite end. I noticed that she depicted her puppy’s legs with two little lines below the horizontal line.
“And this is me,” she said as she pointed towards a stick figure beside Trixie.
“This is Manang Rosing. She’s holding an umbrella so I won’t get wet,” she continued as she touched the taller stick figure beside her. One arm was connected to a short line that, in turn, was connected to a half circle above the shorter figure. I made a mental note to tell the maid not to take the child out for a walk when it was raining.
“We watched some boys marching around in the park,” Eileen continued, touching another space on the folded paper. I saw a row of stick figures. Each figure had one arm raised and extended forward. The row of figures managed somehow to look like marching soldiers. Then it dawned on me that she must have seen the students who were in the ROTC (Reserve Officers Training Corp.) of the local college. They usually had weekly drills in the park near our house.
“This old man was angry with the boys,” my daughter added, touching a tall stick figure who stood slightly apart from the row, “because he kept yelling at them.”
“The rain did not stop so Manang Rosing said we should go home before we got soaked like the boys,” my little writer went on.
“Then, we are home,” she said as she touched the last space on her book. “This is you,” she touched the shorter of the two figures, “and this is Daddy,” she touched the taller one.
“What’s this?” I asked, touching a red smudge at the end of my husband’s arm.
“That’s the bag of cookies that Daddy brings home,” she replied.
“And what’s this?” I touched one of two squares which I thought were boxes.
“That’s the church next door. Don’t you know? And this is our house,” she added, touching the other square. She sounded like I should know our neighborhood better.
“My daughter, the writer,” I thought fondly. Then more hopefully, I thought to myself, “Why not?”
“Can I have the box now, Mama?” she reminded me as she folded her “book” and placed it in the envelope. After I emptied the box, she took it from me and proceeded back towards her room. I heard a “Thank you” before she closed the door.
I sat down on a chair as I mused, “My daughter, the writer.” I was delighted by her early leaning towards scholarly pursuits. I was impressed with the originality she showed in making her books. “My daughter cuts paper books, not paper dolls!”
Then I thought, “I should teach my little writer some words that she can use when she talks about her books. Words like “paperback” for her book, “library” for her box, and “page” for the spaces of the folded paper. I could teach her to number the pages of her book with one short line for page 1, two short lines for page 2 and so on. This also could help her understand the concept of numbers since she already could count from one to ten on her fingers.
I began to become more excited as I fantasized further. There would be my little writer talking to our friends in the living room. She would be “reading” one of her books, and the guests would be under her spell. She would finish her book and fold it. Then she would hold up the folded paper and ask no one in particular, “Do you know that my book is called a paperback?” And she would answer her own question, “It’s because it does not have a hard cover.”
“And I have my own library,” she would continue, holding up her red box for all to see. “My Daddy and Mama have their library, too,” she would add, pointing to the tall bookshelves against the wall of our living room.
I laughed quietly, imagining the looks on our friends’ faces. I thought some would look incredulous and others impressed. They would ask, “Where did this little girl, this baby, get her ideas? What five-year-old says paperback or library as easily as she says ice cream or candy?”
“My little writer,” I would answer proudly, looking fondly at my daughter who would be returning to her room, oblivious to the surprise she would have caused.
As I ended my fantasy, I noticed my husband had arrived and was standing in front of me with a quizzical look.
“You’re laughing all by yourself. That’s not a good sign. What’s so funny?” he asked.
“Your daughter has a surprise for you,” I replied. “Did you remember to drop by the bakery for something?”
“What were you laughing about?” my husband persisted as he sat down. “I brought home some doughnuts. They’re still warm.”
“I’ll let your daughter tell you her surprise. I’m glad you remembered to bring home something to eat. It seems she expects that of you whenever you come home,” I said, rising to tell Eileen of the doughnuts.
—END OF MOM’S TALE—
I don’t remember myself at age five. I’ll take Mom’s word that the above incidents happened. But between age five and when I (consciously) became a poet at age 35, a lot of non-literary things first occurred. Such included becoming a banker for three of the world’s biggest banks headquartered in England, Japan, and Switzerland. That first bank allows me, to this day, to occasionally joke: “I thought that to be a poet meant being like T.S. Eliot—you first had to be a British banker.”
Anyway, I switched careers from banking to poetry. But at the time I resigned my last banking job, I thought my goal was writing ye olde Great American Novel. For my last two years as a banker, I also wrote a novel. Each day after my day-job ended, I’d go home and work at that masterpiece-in-progress. I resigned almost immediately after I was able to write “The End” at the bottom of the manuscript.
Sure, the moment also coincided with my and my husband’s family income reaching a point where we could survive on his income alone in New York City. But I’ve long thought it symbolic that I became a full-time writer when I showed that I could finish a first draft of a novel.
Summer was about to begin when I left banking. I was exhausted from my long hours as a banker combined with writing when I should have been sleeping. So I thought I’d take it easy for that summer and return to my novel in the Fall. I decided to “take it easy” by writing poems. I’d not previously thought much about writing poetry so I must have thought of poems because they’re (supposed to be) … short.
Leaving banking for creative writing was an act fraught with guilt. While I was grateful that my husband’s promotions allowed us not to rely on an income from me, this was the first time since college graduation that I didn’t have a job and had to earn my own money. That guilt made me resolve to give two years to the effort—two years as it was the same time period required to write my novel—and if I hadn’t achieved anything worthwhile (without yet knowing how to define “worthwhile”) in that time period, I’d return to a paying job. That guilt also made me determined that I would actually try to be a writer by writing instead of ending up watching soap operas (the equivalent back then of Netflix bingeing) while working at home.
To avoid becoming victimized by soap operas, I began my new “career” by ensuring that I would be at my “office” for the minimum stereotyped banking hours of 9-5. As a banker I’d actually worked much longer hours than 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. but chose the stereotype as a constraint. My office was the dining table. So, every weekday (and most weekends since my husband worked 7 days a week as was typical of “Big Law” practice back then), I would sit myself before the dining table to work. The idea was that, regardless of whether I was actually writing something and whether it was any “good,” I had to be at that dining table. I had to be present to do the work of writing.
Present. I didn’t yet know that my approach of just writing exemplified the best advice on “How to Write”: just write. Write without self-censorship on quality. Just write.
My banking hours meant that I usually ended up writing at least five poems a day, excluding false starts. Of course I understood that I also should be reading poems since I was writing in that form, in the same way that I read a lot of novels before, during, and after writing my own novel. The best advice I’ve encountered on “How to Write Well” is to read.
I had no clue which poets to read. So I went to the local Barnes & Noble—I lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan at the time and there was (still is?) a branch on Broadway and 82nd Street. I started reading the poets alphabetically as they were stocked on the bookstore’s shelves. It’s possible I read every single poetry book they had by the time summer ended. I didn’t yet know that the typical commercial chain bookstore offered a limited range and amount of poetry—but it was not a matter I could judge at the time as I’d never paid attention to poetry until then.
Thus, summer progressed with me reading and writing poetry at my dining table. Perhaps a month or so into the process, I realized I’d accumulated what seemed to be a decent “inventory” of poems (inventory—I still retain my financially-related lingo). I looked at that stack of poems and thought, “What exactly am I supposed to do with you all now?”
Well, having become a frequent visitor to Barnes and Noble, I had noticed literary journals and such on their publications rack. Among them was Writer’s Digest and the now-defunct Poet’s Magazine which featured submission calls. I started sending poems to publications located throughout the continent.
No, I didn’t order the journals and read them first to determine if my poems were a “fit.” I just sent my poems out there to whoever said they were open to submissions. Being an ex-banker, I naturally began an Excel database when I started submitting. It was from that database that I later realized that in my first few months of submitting poems, my acceptance rate was about 30%. I thought that a dismal return (though others later would tell me that was a wonderful acceptance result) but it was enough to provide encouragement to keep buying postage—yes, these were during the days when one typically submitted via snailmail and enclosed a Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope (SASE). My acceptances came from a wide variety of publications since I wasn’t screening where to send my poems. My favorite first-year publication was one edited by a teen somewhere in the Midwest; she published them on stapled pink paper. To my joy as it allowed me to be impressed with myself during a time when external validation was rare, I also received acceptances from more officious, I mean, official-looking perfect-bound journals, some with university affiliations. I even entered one of Poet’s Magazine’s contests and won (Iva Mary Williams Poetry Award). Thus, did life progress at my dining table.
Summer came to an end. I looked up from my dining table on Sept. 1, 1995 and thought, Isn’t this when poetry-writing is supposed to end? Isn’t this when I return to the Great American Novel?
But something had happened during the three months of concentrated focus on reading and writing poetry. On the day I was supposed to leave this “easy” form, I realized that poetry was exactly the literary form I’d been looking for all my life. I had always loved words—my first career was journalism. But when I thought to become a full-time creative writer, I had assumed my goal to be in fiction and novel-writing. Focusing on poetry for an intense period of time—my hours at the dining table office soon came to rival, then exceed, the long hours I once spent in banking—made me realize that poetry, for me, offered the possibility of purity.
Yes, purity. By which I mean(t) that poetry, for me, offers the possibility of exploring the full nature of the word. Poetry made me realize that there are aspects to the word that transcend definition and context. Elements like rhythm, evocativeness, visuality, energy, power—such were elements I never or rarely had a chance to uncover in prior exercises with words, from journalism to my recently-completed novel.
Of course the novel also can tap into the afore-mentioned elements. But I, as a would-be novelist, had not been able to do so. As I thought about poetry and whether that should be the new form on which to embark as a writer, I stood up from the dining table and went to the drawer where I’d placed my novel manuscript. I looked through its pages—the process affirmed my decision to write poems instead of fiction. I set the novel manuscript aside. I assume I trashed it as I don’t recall now what happened to its stack of pages. With hindsight, that two-year endeavor during the waning days of my banking job deserved to be tossed: it was a murder mystery set in, but of course, a bank. I hope I never get that banal again.
A year after my “career” switch from banking to poetry, I released my first poetry chapbook, After the Egyptians Determined the Shape of the World is a Circle from a small press in Maryland; I’d somehow stumbled across (the wonderful but now defunct) Pometaphysics Publishing during my random submissions everywhere. That chapbook certainly was a convenient marker for determining whether I’d achieved something worthwhile within two years of being a full-time writer. Less than three years later, I would release my first poetry book Beyond Life Sentences which would receive the Philippines National Book Award for Poetry from the Manila Critics Circle. More than 20 years later, I’ve released over 50 books from publishers in nine countries and cyberspace. And with this record, I still don’t have a paying job. (While I hadn’t expected a poetry salary to near what I earned as a banker, I also hadn’t expected it would rarely pay.)
Following my decision to remain with poetry at the end of that summer, I looked around for ways to meet like-minded writers. My search led me to the Asian American Writers Workshop (AAWW), where I would come to edit its literary journal, The Asian Pacific American (APA) Journal.
In the same year that I released Beyond Life Sentences, I also released BLACK LIGHTNING, an innovative and not yet-replicated/updated anthology featuring Asian American poets working through a sample poem in progress. The book features 15 poets going through a poem’s various drafts and answering my questions about decisions they made while writing a poem—from basic questions like the poem’s inspiration to technical questions as to how they decided line-breaks. BLACK LIGHTNING was spurred by my engagement with its first poet, Arthur Sze, over his award-winning poem “Archipelago.” My conversation with Arthur was published in The APA Journal. The feature was met with enthusiasm and even used in classrooms. Due to its reception, AAWW and I agreed to address more poets for a book that became BLACK LIGHTNING. We were supported by Arthur introducing us to the Witter Bynner Foundation who would come to support the book with a helpful grant.
BLACK LIGHTNING was also useful to me as a self-trained poet. As someone without an MFA, I was quite tickled by its use as a creative writing textbook with, at some point, Rutgers University Press becoming its distributor. Obviously, my motivation for writing its first feature stemmed exactly from having had no prior training or education in poetry. BLACK LIGHTNING was my MFA surrogate and my poetry benefited from being exposed to the poetry, poetics, and working methods of its poets: Meena Alexander, Indran Amirthanayagam, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Luis Cabalquinto, Marilyn Chin, Sesshu Foster, Jessica Hagedorn, Kimiko Hahn, Garrett Hongo, Li-Young Lee, Timothy Liu, David Mura, Arthur Sze (who also provided an introductory essay), John Yau and Tan Lin. Though the focus of the book is on Asian American poets, BLACK LIGHTNING might also be the first collection ever of poetry-in-progress articles that actually feature the drafting stages of the subject poems. Thus, it was an invaluable addition to creative writing and poetry literature in general. I both benefited from and created the book—a dual position I’d continue to treasure through each writing of a poem.
Years later, I would recall my mother’s recollection of my first book. I remembered her tale because I wanted to make—of course!—a book from that memory. I hadn’t yet stumbled across her essay among her papers and so my recollection was based on our oral conversations. From that memory (which was not as detailed as her recounting of it in her paper), I fashioned a tiny book, small enough to fit on my palm. I entitled it—of course!—My First Book. Here is what I wrote about the process of making that book, a book-in-progress process first featured on SitWithMoi, a blog I once maintained about tiny books on tiny chairs:
The following untitled piece is my first piece of writing. I’m not sure but I think I wrote it when I was about two years old [I would learn from my mother’s paper that I was closer to five]. With this SitWithMoi blog post, I am humbled to offer the world release of this historic work:
The grass is green.
The sun is out shining.
The sun burnt the grass.
I know—so young, and already I had a dark side! Anyway, this piece of writing is also the text to my first book! Entonces, I thought to make a mini-book replicating this first book, a 1/1 edition which I’m sure no longer exists—it was left behind in Baguio City, Philippines where I grew up as a youngster.
By the way, I know of my first book not because I remember writing it. I just grew up hearing my mom’s recollection of the incident. After I read my words to her, my mother apparently played along with much enthusiastic encouragement. She even helped me fashion bookshelves from shoe boxes for more books!
So, this mini-book, My First Book, replicates what I created when I was a youngster. I was moved to make it when I received a postcard announcement of a 2013 exhibition of Larry Poons paintings presented by Danese and Loretta Howard galleries. I thought the reproduced painting was so gorgeous that I wanted to use it as the cover to My First Book:
The card was large enough to be folded into front and back covers as well as the verso cover pages to a 2” x 1.5” book:
You would open the book to see the title page:
You then would turn the page to a page with a green highlighter scrawl (I didn’t have crayons around so used highlighters instead) at the bottom of the page. That’s right—I didn’t use words to write my first book. I don’t think I knew how to write then. But I obviously could conceptualize. So I scribbled green across the page and would interpret it to Mom as “The grass is green”:
You’d turn the page to see similar treatment—yellow highlighter blob atop page—that I would interpret as “The sun is out shining”:
And you’d turn the page to see brown crayola (I did find a brown crayon) on the bottom of the page for my interpretation, “The sun burnt the grass”:
The colors unfortunately bleed through the slim pages – but that’s okay as that allowed me to create a summary of the story:
Having gotten this far in making this book, I was feeling so pleased with it that I decided it deserves an author photo! And so I went through my mother’s stuff because I knew she had childhood photos of me. I decided on this one—I was at elementary school:
I chose that photo because of what Mom wrote on its back, which so displayed the love and pride she felt for me … not just for me but for all her children; she was a very encouraging parent:
The above faded text reads as: “Eileen, on their promotional program. The little rolled paper is her ‘diploma’. It is a paper with 3 sentences bearing the best wishes of her teachers and the principal. I think she is almost 5 feet tall now.”
I remember those white shoes in the photo (white shoes! How retro!). I was so happy Mom got me the pair, and so pleased with myself for having them!
As I would say in an Author’s Note in the book, I dedicate the book to my mother, Beatriz Tilan Tabios, for all of her encouragement. I am also the type of writer that I became because of my mother.