Interview with Eric Tinsay Valles

Poetry exists for many reasons: many write for catharsis, some explore poetry as an aesthetic, and others write to provoke a response. Here at Ethos, we agree that the best kind of poetry—no matter its initial intention—leaves many thinking, breaks (or makes) their hearts, and (not as often) causes discomfort.

Eric Tinsay Valles is the man behind After the Fall: Dirges among Ruins. This collection of poetry attempts to remember blood that has been spilled in the history of the universe, either from violence of war or traumatic events of everyday occurrence. The voices in these poems are coherent in times of conflict, and are a true testament to the human experience.

Describe your latest collection, After the Fall: Dirges among Ruins, in one word.

Cathartic, because, it’s all about trauma, really, because people find it difficult to come to terms with personal crises, violence in war, and so this is an attempt to give voice to some of these people.

How does poetry help you communicate these things in a way that other writing forms cannot?

Poetry is an intense art form, and sometimes people remember verses longer than they would lines from stories or novels. I guess verses get etched on people’s memories longer.

How did the idea of writing After the Fall come about?

I started with trying to write about cities, but then there have been a lot of poets writing about cities, so I changed that. I wanted to write about 9/11, but there were other writers who had poetry collections about that incident, so I tried to broaden the scope, in a way. So now the collection covers violence, wartime from way back in history and it’s also a meditation on violence and traumatic events.

How is After the Fall different from your previous collection?

In a way it’s not totally different, because the first collection, A World in Transit, is about migration, and trauma, you can say, is essential to the migrant experience. It happens to everybody: even expats go through some form of trauma when they shift in culture, when they negotiate spaces. But this one is probably harder to write because it covers more acts of violence and there’s a possibility that some people might get turned off by some of the things that are in the second collection. There’s a possibility.

What are some of your favorite poems in the collection?

There are several. “Restoring a Mural in Changi Prison” is one, and… the seed for that was during a writers’ retreat at the Changi Museum. We were there for the entire day, and we went through different exhibits. I was just moved by the murals there, and they were completed after the painter actually underwent some psychiatric therapy. He was invited to come back to Singapore thrice but he refused, because it was like reliving all those harrowing experiences. But he managed to come back.

And, others. This is about trauma, right? There are a couple of poems towards the end about my reasons for leaving Taipei, where I lived for six years, prior to Singapore. I was a journalist there, and it was harrowing trying to learn a new language. It’s a totally different culture from the Filipino one, and there was an entirely new language that I needed to get familiar with, and the people are quite into themselves, and not as open to outsiders as other cultures. I mentioned there (in “Stinky Tofu” and “Last Newspaper Assignment”) in the course of my work, somebody threatened to sue me. I was a business reporter there and I actually put out a company secret on the business page. That was problematic for a lot of people because the company manager was relocated and I couldn’t contact him and other people. There were some other managers who were convincing me to spill the beans on the one who revealed the secret.

The problem with language was always there; I was attending press conferences and my mandarin is really not quite good, so I had to rely on the little mandarin that I understood, and then my friends who translated the main points of the conferences back to English for me. So there’s me being an alien, and then I came here to do graduate studies.

If you are caught in a fire and you have space in your hands for one book, what would it be and why?

I would grab Flannery O'Connor’s Collected Works (The Library of America), because a lot of the things I appreciate and believe about poetry, hope and the craft of writing are found there.

After the Fall: Dirges Among Ruins is available for purchase at BooksActually, Booktique, Books Kinokuniya, MPH, and here.