Eileen R. Tabios is a poet working in multiple genres and in-between. She also loves books by writing, reading, publishing, critiquing, romancing and advocating for them. This blog will feature her bibliophilic activities with posts on current book engagements and links to her books and projects related to books.

Friday, January 10, 2014


[If you are a poet and would like to participate in this "Poetry and Money" Series, go HERE  for information. Previous Respondents: John Bloomberg-Rissman, Erin Virgil, and Jean Vengua.]

A 3-Question Interview, A Sample Poem, and Book List Featuring

Tony Robles

1)  You are a poet.  How do you make money to survive?

In all honesty, it took me a long time to realize I was a poet.  I think a writer once wrote that poets are born, and that we are born to "Hustle roses down the avenues of the dead".  My jobs have been a constant source of inspiration for my poetry in that there seems to be much absurdity in the workplace, much intractability in terms of right and wrong, power dynamics and just playing the game.  There has been a lot of rejection and hurt in those places of employment, and believe me, I didn’t forget when, on my last day of working at that fast food restaurant in San Francisco’s financial district, I was sent to restock the walk in freezer.  But I realized that that episode would foreshadow many work-related incidents.  But a poet once said, "If you don't hurt, you don't know". 

I had initially entertained dreams of working in media.  I studied broadcasting at City College of San Francisco (An institution, by the way, under attack by the forces of privatization that has a student body of 90,000 and has been fighting to keep its accreditation).  I ended up working as a radio announcer, working in small market radio capitols such as Stockton, Napa and Vallejo.  The radio job was at a station in the middle of a wheat field in Stockton near the airport.  I got inside the studio and began putting records on the turntable when I saw a cow looking at me from outside the window.  The look in the cow's eyes seemed to say, "Rookie" and I went about playing records at the wrong speed and making various mistakes that all radio rookies make.  It would get very hot in that studio and it was teeming with moths and other insects.  Once, in the middle of a newscast, a moth flew into my mouth.  I coughed, choked and gagged but had the presence of mind to hit the commercial cartridge that was loaded into the machine.  I hit it and a commercial came on for the US Army, prompting us to "Be all that you can be".  As the commercial played, I ran to the bathroom where I gargled and regained my composure.  But I think that all the talk on the radio, the time and temperature, the music trivia, the bad jokes (such as, "They asked president Reagan what he thought of Rowe vs Wade and he said, "It doesn't matter if you row or wade, just as long as you know how to swim) was a quest of finding my voice.  What I said on the radio was inconsequential, but at the time I thought it was profound, as well as the cows who kept a steady audience at the window.  But I realized I really wasn't saying anything.  I was in Stockton, an important place in Filipino American History and I didn't even realize the significance of it.  So when I got out of media, I worked other places--insurance company, doorman (http://poormagazine.org/node/3767), security officer--and realized that most of these jobs are designed to not allow you to have a voice.  For the past several years I have worked as a housing advocate in San Francisco, which is eviction central right now.  I have been involved in the struggle for housing rights for the last 10 years or so.  I find that the work I do in helping seniors keep their homes and fighting the abusive landlords or trying to get accountability from the tech industry that is fueling much of the eviction epidemic in San Francisco, is closer to poetry than I could have gotten in academia or in a media related job.  It is a job that is truly worthy of my time, creativity and soul.

2)  How does your choice affect your process of making your poems?

I haven’t had much of a choice in the jobs I’ve held in the past couple of years, especially when the economy tanked in ’08 or ’09.  I ended up getting a job as a security guard at a supermarket in a working class neighborhood—with low income folks, folks of color—regular people.  The way the poor were criminalized and the hegemony of the staff, guards and workers alike, was thick and heavy and the only thing I could do was not let it get to me.  My fellow guards would refer to the store as “my store”, as if they had a personal investment in it, or owned shares on the corporate level.  It was very absurd.  And the way they viewed the shoppers as criminals was insulting.  But that job was the only employment I could get, and I wanted to get out desperately.  But a few good things came out of it.  I wrote poems about the place, one of which, “The Bee Keeper” was published and I wrote a short story while working there called, “In My Country” which was nominated for a Pushcart prize.  But poems can hit at any time.  It seems the more mundane and demoralizing the job, the more productive I am.  I have to make sure to keep a pad and pen close by at all times. 

3)  What would you consider to be the pros and cons of how you have earned your income? 

Having to work in these plantations—security guard, doorman—has been good in that it has shown me that the words of my uncle, the poet Al Robles, is true; that, “Our struggle is the best part of our poetry and our poetry is the best part of our struggle”.  I haven’t sold my soul to any of these jobs, which is easy to do given the hegemony that is needed to keep workers and people separated from each other.    




We’re two working
Men going at our
Own pace

He’s just a

We’re both born
In this city and work
At an apartment complex
Housing the affluent

He mops and sweeps the
Marble floors while I greet
Residents who inquire about the
Status of their dry cleaning

Sometimes they complain
That the water is too hot
In the spa

(Burns their

I’m just a
Desk clerk

I refer those issues
To the appropriate

The janitor and I are
Required to raise the
American flag in the morning

The flag is tightly
Wrapped into a triangle
That pokes my side as I
Carry it

The janitor walks
Ahead of me

He fastens the flag
Into place and raises it
By pulling a rope

The flag slithers
Up the pole

We look to the ground
Where snails have sprouted
All around like moles

Others would kick or
step on them but
He picks each one
Raises it to the
Kiss of weeping leaves

The snails look
At us and laugh

We head back
To the apartment complex
at a snail's

just a janitor
just a desk clerk



Lakas and theManilatown Fish (Children’s Book Press, 2003) 

Lakas and theMakibaka Hotel (Children’s Book Press, 2006) 

Fillmore Flip (novel forthcoming from Ithuriel Spear Press in late 2014 or early 2015)

In the anthology Growing up FilipinoII (PALH Books, 2009) 

As Co-Editor, Born ‘n Raised in Frisco (POOR Press)

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