Eileen Tabios: From Barnard to hay(na)ku

Early Life and Barnard

Born in Candon, Philippines in 1960, Eileen Tabios ’82 spent her early childhood in Baguio City before moving to California at ten years old. According to her mother Beatriz Tilan Tabios, Tabios was a writer from the age of five, when she made her first book (which she would recreate many years later after switching career paths to become a full-time writer). Her mother was a writer as well, and admired how Tabios’ passion for writing developed and flourished as she grew up: she edited her high school’s newspaper, entered essay contests, and when she came to Barnard she wrote for and was on the production staff of the Bulletin. She also was on the literary staff of the 1982 edition of Mortarboard.

From Barnard to Banking

After receiving her bachelors degree in Political Science from Barnard, Tabios spent a short time working at the New York Times before switching her career path to focus on business. She got a job on Wall Street, and then went back to school to get an M.B.A. in Economics and International Business from New York University’s Stern School of Business. She worked as a banker, stock market analyst, and economist until, at age thirty-five, she decided to resign from her position as vice-president of Union Bank of Switzerland and shift gears back to her lifelong love: writing.

Transcoloniality and hay(na)ku: Becoming a Prolific Writer and Artist

Tabios dove into the literary scene in 1995, publishing one chapbook and three books (one poetry collection and two prose anthologies) by 1999. Since then, she has published over 60 collections of poetry, fiction, essays, and experimental biographies. For a full list of her publications, see her website. In addition to her books, she founded and is the editor for GALATEA RESURRECTS (A POETRY ENGAGEMENT), an online poetry review journal, as well as THE HALO-HALO REVIEW/Mangozine. She also runs Meritage Press (and its miniature imprint: Minitage Editions) and is the gallery director of North Folk Arts Projects.

THE HALO-HALO REVIEW/Mangozine and North Folk Arts Projects in particular focus on Filipino artists and authors. Tabios discusses the implications of language and her Filipino-American identity in an interview with Jeffrey Side:

I was born in the Philippines which was colonized by the United States. Through that colonization, English became the widespread language across the archipelago, becoming the language of education, business, politics and so on. As someone educated in English in the Philippines, as well as an emigrant to the U.S. at age 10, English is the only language in which I’m fluent. For me, it’s impossible to write poetry in English without addressing its colonial past. This translates to me wanting to write English poems in non-traditional or non-normative ways, to not limit my poems to English’s role as communication because it was through communication that colonization occurred. This lends itself to my poems turning surrealistic, fragmented, elliptical, visual, abstract, and other ways that transcend the dictionary definition of words. I’ve been called an “experimental poet”, as a result. But I’m really being my own version of transcolonial—not quite the same as postcolonial in that I don’t wish to be bound by the post-ness of colonialism; I also want to transcend or go beyond that past. I believe, and this would be logical if so, I coined that word “transcolonial” for this descriptive purpose.

Tabios’ uses technology to create and translate her transcolonial work. For example, she created the MDR Poetry Generator, which uses a database containing lines of her poetry to create new poems (many of which Tabios has gone on to publish). The inspiration for this project comes from what Tabios calls “‘Babaylan Poetics’—a poetics based on indigenous Filipino practices.” She notes in an essay about the generator:

I wanted to deepen my interrogation (and disruption) of English which had facilitated twentieth-century US colonialism in my birthland, the Philippines. Finally, I wanted to develop a consciously closer link to the Filipino indigenous value of “Kapwa.” “Kapwa” refers to “shared self” or “shared identity” whereby everyone and everything is connected.

Aside from Tabios’ self-started projects, she also curates, edits, and contributes to other journals and projects. Collaboration is a large part of her work, and her influence on the world of writing and art is significant. She even invented her own form of poetry: the hay(na)ku. In an interview on the blog Writing like an Asian, Tabios explains the origins of the name: “The form’s name is a pun off of the Filipino exclamation ‘Hay naku’ which is used in a variety of situations in the same way as the English ‘Oh.'” The hay(na)ku consists of a tercet, in which the first line is one word, the second line is two words, and the third line is three words. Sometimes poets will write “reverse hay(na)ku”s where the order is switched (three words, two words, one word).

However, writing is not Tabios’ only art form. She also has created many visual art pieces, including collages, photographs, and visual poetry installations. She mixes genre and form to create pieces such as ALPHABET: HAY(NA)KU DRAWINGS W/ POEM FOR RIMBAUD, a miniature book with drawings and poetry inside. She also created the poetry exchange Moi Community Bookshelf in 2016, encouraging connection through poetry across the internet.

Honors, awards, and how to read more!

Tabios has received recognition for her talent and creativity, in the form of the PEN Open Book Award, the Potrero Nuevo Fund Prize, the PEN Oakland–Josephine Miles National Literary Award, the Philippines’ Manila Critics Circle National Book Award for Poetry, and a Witter Bynner Poetry Grant.

For more on Tabios’ writing, projects, and/or her interest in miniature books, check out her blog and website.

-Sarah Barlow-Ochshorn ’20 and Jenna Jaquez ’20


Barnard Bulletin. Barnard College Archives. http://digitalcollections.barnard.edu/collections/barnard-bulletin?cq=catch_all_fields_mt%3A%28%22tabios%22%29&display=grid&islandora_solr_search_navigation=0. Accessed 23 May 2020.

Barnard College. Mortarboard. New York, NY, 1995. Barnard College Archives. http://digitalcollections.barnard.edu/islandora/object/bc:yearbook-1982#page/1/mode/2up. Accessed 23 May 2020.

“Eileen Tabios – Eileen Tabios Biography.” Poem Hunter. http://www.poemhunter.com/eileen-tabios/biography/. Accessed 9 April 2020.

“Eileen Tabios.” Gale Literature: Contemporary Authors, Gale, 2006. Gale In Context: Biography, https://link-gale-com.ezproxy.cul.columbia.edu/apps/doc/H1000167880/BIC?u=columbiau&sid=BIC&xid=4eadf853. Accessed 23 May 2020.

“Eileen R. Tabios.” Poetry Foundation. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/eileen-r-tabios. Accessed 23 May 2020.
Tabios, Beatriz Tilan. “My Daughter Eileen: A Story of Respect.” Our Own Voice: Beyond Homeland. January 2015. http://www.oovrag.com/oovnew/daughter-eileen-story-respect/.
Tabios, Eileen R. Eileen R. Tabios. https://eileenrtabios.com/. Accessed 23 May 2020.
Tabios, Eileen R. Interview by Jeffrey Side. The Argotist Online. https://www.argotistonline.co.uk/Tabios%20interview.htm. Accessed 9 April 2020.
Tabios, Eileen R. Interview “Feature: Five Qs with Eileen R. Tabios.”  Writing like an Asian. January 2014. http://writinglikeanasian.blogspot.com/2014/01/five-qs-with-eileen-tabios.html. Accessed 23 May 2020. 
Tabios, Eileen R. “My First Book.” Marsh Hawk Press. https://marshhawkpress.org/eileen-r-tabios-my-first-book/. Accessed 23 May 2020.
Tabios, Eileen R. “Murder death resurrection: Another way for poetry.” Jacket 2. 20 June 2019, http://jacket2.org/poems/murder-death-resurrection. Accessed 23 May 2019.

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