Interview with Eric Tinsay Valles

Eric Tinsay Valles (b. 1968) recreates home in exile, whether physical or spiritual. He has won a Goh Sin Tub Creative Writing prize for poems in his second collection, After the Fall: Dirges Among Ruins (2014). His first poetry book was A World in Transit (2011). He co-edited Get Lucky (2015), an anthology of Singapore and Filipino writings, SG Poems 2015-2016 (2016), Anima Methodi (2018) and The Nature of Poetry (2019). He has been featured in & Words, Reflecting on the Merlion, Southeast Asian Review of English, Routledge’s New Writing: The International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing and other journals. His critical essays have appeared in The Asiatic and Writing Diaspora. He has been invited to read poetry or commentaries at Baylor, Melbourne and Oxford Universities as well as Kistrech Poetry Festival. He is a director of Poetry Festival (Singapore).

In this interview, Jonathan and Eric discuss Eric’s academic work on trauma theory, the place of Christianity in creative work, the sensation of dislocation that accompanies migration, and Eric’s upcoming literary projects. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


What/is this world? And what doth man desire?/
Now with his love, and now in his cold grave/
Alone without any company.

– Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales (Trans.)

A World in Transit: A Prologue
Eric Tinsay Valles

Blaring boarding calls
Suspend Tagalog [1] in mid-sentence.
More deafening are stifled sobs
Of maids, singers and poets crafting
Monologues to hear babies through college
From Singapore, Madrid or Daly City. 

Plum-fleshed mouths quaver
As they imagine little ones scalded
By fever with them absent in their telenovela.
Chestnut eyes wink at counter buzzards
For extra luggage space; goodbyes
Yelped via mobile text on travelators.

Heroes march to colonize ex-colonial masters;
Chuck mango peels to the bin;
Lug sacks bursting with denials;
Dream of a dizzying-lit house, all-night singing;
Dread straining sun-kissed throat
At table with a boss spouting gibberish.

Bar singers in tube tops,
Sundown skins shunned by Malate, [2]
Croon the blues in a gilded cage.
Poets wrestle with identity and the bottle,
Flush native idioms with vomit,
Soul wings heavy with snatches of

Breakfasts of bread and salt,
Red banners bawling at street protests,
The Child Jesus floating in jasmine,
English slaughtered in playful banter,
Tug homeward with each air ticket
Paid for with absent-minded sweat.

[1] The dominant language in the Philippines
[2] Pronounced “Mah.lah teh.” This is an entertainment district dotted with bars in Manila.

This poem first appeared in Bukker Tillibul, an online journal of the Swinburne University of Technology.


Jonathan: How did you begin your journey in creative writing?

Eric: I suppose people get a sense of their vocation, what they want to be, when they’re kids. When I was in Primary Four, I wrote for the newspaper in school. It was called The Link. And I decided to write a poem entitled ‘The Wanderer,’ and it was kind of prophetic because I’ve been writing about wanderers since. I had no way of knowing that I would continue writing about that theme. Writing became a habit, and the habit became an integral part of my life. Poetry is the literary form that I am most accustomed to. I’ve continued writing in that genre even if I would like to branch out into other genres like the novel. I’m trying to write a novel in verse as part of my dissertation. It’s very ambitious and I don’t know if I’m going to finish it.

I was privileged in a way as far as writing about Christian themes, because I lived in the Philippines, a country that is predominantly, at least nominally, Christian. It was very natural for us to pray in public, for example, at the start of meetings. I went to church on weekdays. It’s not alien to talk about Jesus or Mary. When people get into accidents or are startled, they blurt out “Oh Jesus, Mary, Joseph” or something similar. Its Christian culture seeps into my work, naturally. When I write about weddings in the middle of a coup attempt, for example, there are characters like priests. Nuns faced tanks on the main thoroughfare of Manila during the 1986 People’s Power revolution.

We are conscious of the working of grace in our daily lives, which is, I suppose, unlike the experience of people in other places. Christianity is part of what I know and experience. It is one of those very basic things that make up my identity.

Jonathan: I think it’s interesting that you mentioned that the kind of deep saturation of Christianity in the culture of The Philippines– in language and in the way that people engage with and process daily life. But there’s also that fraught history of Christianity arriving alongside the Spanish and then the Americans that’s wrapped up with all kinds of physical and psychological violence.

Eric: It was a traumatic experience, for sure, but life is traumatic everywhere. We have to cope with the violence of colonialism. In a certain sense, colonialism gave us the gift of Christianity, but, of course, there was oppression, the sexual assault of some women, and our forgetting of ancient traditions and forms of script. Those are some of the givens of life we have to accept, and writers have to do the same. I don’t look at history with ideological lenses, so for me, there are pluses and minuses that have produced our complex present.

It’s very telling that it’s the 500th anniversary of the beginning of Christianity in the Philippines. It’s also the 500th year of the Western discovery of the Philippines, but the government doesn’t celebrate it as such. That is understandable because of the unfortunate colonial underpinnings. But there is no denying historical milestones.  And so, the church is celebrating the first mass in thanksgiving, truly a eucharist.

Jonathan: And the first missionaries?

Eric: Yes.  We can’t really change history. We make the most out of it. The unfortunate experience of our national hero and Southeast Asia’s first novelist Jose Rizal with friars produced the revolutionary romance classics Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo. His passion for poetry and the humanities was stoked by his education with the Jesuits. He repudiated religion as a freemason, a trajectory that was common among revolutionaries of his time. But he must have retracted his works and returned to the church partly because he wanted to solemnise his marriage with Josephine Bracken, an American. He must have also kept traces of the faith as he carried a rosary in his pocket for many years even as a freemason.

Jonathan: It’s definitely true that there remains it’s vital to engage and grapple with history, and the task of so many writers, as is with the case of Rizal, is to imagine a new path forward for communities and sometimes entire polities.

I’m also thinking about this slightly from the sense of coming out of detritus, coming out of difficult situations, which is very much a theme in your second collection, reckoning with trauma and instances of natural disaster. Was that also tied in with your academic work?

Eric: It was actually part of my dissertation. I wrote it in my first two years of a programme in literature and creative writing. It just so happened that Ethos published it even before I could finish the dissertation. I studied trauma theory and I had to write my own work, which was After the Fall: Dirges Among Ruins, my second book, and War Quilt, a novel in verse.

After the Fall: Dirges Among Ruins (2014)

Jonathan: Who are some of your literary influences?

Eric: I admire the work of Federico García Lorca, because he affirmed gypsies and the downtrodden in society in a way that draws from their literary tradition; Thom Gunn, because he empathised with contemporary people, AIDS victims, using classical rhetorical techniques; Elizabeth Bishop for the precision in her craft — “the art of losing … [is] hard to master” – as she wrote about psychological wounds in a very non-emotional manner; Pablo Neruda, for his wit and his seeing something glorious about the ordinary; and Seamus Heaney who wrote about ploughing and plumbing in such a rhythmic way. These are my heroes as far as modern poetry is concerned. Looking further back, I would like to write like Qoheleth or the Preacher in Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs.

Jonathan: The apotheosis of Biblical love poetry. You’ve mentioned that the initial focus of your dissertation was on examining the problem of good and evil, where you were working on Chaucer, Ben Jonson, and Flannery O’Connor, and how it eventually moved toward reckoning with traumatic events. I’ve been thinking about the idea of cultural memory as well, embodied memory, intergenerational trauma. What kinds of cultural contexts were you engaging with for your academic work?

Eric: I had to read about the Holocaust and its survivors in America for the trauma theory. I also had to read Japanese poems. One of the characters in my novel, you see, is a Japanese army lieutenant who’s actually from Taiwan, so he’s displaced in his own way. The main character is a Eurasian with whom I share the Catholic tradition. His love interest is a Chinese nurse, so I also had to read some Chinese stories. The challenge is to weave the disparate threads, stories and translations into a coherent whole. But the backbone of that project is trauma theory, as expounded by the likes of Dori Laub and Shoshana Felman.

Jonathan: And this verse novel will be set in Singapore?

Eric: Yeah, in Malaya, during World War 2, because Eurasians were relocated to Bahau with the help of the Catholic church and they tried to grow their own food with the hope of sending some back to Singapore. It was a way for the Japanese to get rid of Eurasians as a people because they were sympathetic to the British without committing crimes against humanity as in the Sook Ching. There was this negotiation with the Catholic church to move the Eurasians, most of whom were Catholic. And the bishop, Adrian Devals, went with them. About 1 500 of them died of cholera, dysentery and other diseases. They weren’t skilled at farming at all. There are stories circulating that they even brought a piano. But they suffered a lot. They were so affected by the misery and the deaths that Bahau was abandoned after the war, and they all came back here or moved to Australia or other places.

Jonathan: I suppose the place itself had become so closely intertwined with the pain, the suffering, the gruelling experience of having to live in abysmal conditions for an extended period of time. That not only bespeaks that relationship not only between trauma and memory but between trauma and a specific place as well, especially if you’re talking about a displaced people.

I’ve also noticed from some of your work that this is another running thread. So like the departure lounge in an airport or the poem that you wrote about the Filipino soldier during World War I during the ceasefire or even the taikonaut– he’s actually experiencing the most extreme kind of displacement in a way, because he’s beyond our material, immediate reality, beyond earth.

And then of course there is the other assumption that I have that part of it is tied to your experience moving from The Philippines, eventually settling in Singapore, and having that itinerant experience, the occasional experience of being an outsider as well.


A Taikonaut’s* View of Earth
Eric Tinsay Valles

Earthlight rising, with shadow patches,
Bird’s Nest stadium lights multiplied
Dazzling as I cling to handlebars,
My feet and dreams dangling in space.
With eyes shut, I see my little girl
Jumping into bed, calling Papa,
My wife beside her pointing
At me twinkling in the night sky.

Dark, quiet waters wash the earth,
Flushing out silt from sandy shores.
A flag I wave does not flutter in space,
Like my cheek planted on my love’s navel,
Heaving softly with each breath.
Both of us lie awake till dawn
Chasing away doubts unresolved
Before my rocket shoots through the firmament.

The world is aglow with rocks
Hemming in soot-dressed miners,
Forests laden with goods for sweatshops,
Treasures from the deep hauled by divers.
I raise a cup to my young family,
Their concerns invisible in the gem of earth.
My heart beats through a Teflon suit;
Roaring like a firetruck until my landing berth.

*A Chinese astronaut.

From A World in Transit (2011)


Eric: All those are tropes of the human condition. We’re all displaced. We’re not meant to be here. And our suffering or other pressures are just symptoms of our being meant for a better place after this life.

Displacement is also part of my experience of living in different places. Before coming here, I moved to Taiwan to help in Opus Dei, a Catholic group that I’m part of. Very few Filipino members wanted to move to Taipei, but I volunteered. I was in Taiwan for seven years as a journalist for an English-language daily. I studied Mandarin for the first time as an adult. That was a watershed moment, learning a new language, starting anew in a foreign country. Being an exile is an essential part of my experience.

So I write about what I’m familiar with: displacement. I’ve also been using that as a metaphor for the human condition and all sorts of situations like that of the taikonaut, in airport lounges, which is true to life because I’ve spent so many hours in airport lounges, especially in the States, where storms can cause flight delays. And that’s part of what I am.

Jonathan: It makes sense– your experience of both being displaced but also in those kinds of liminal spaces between coming and going.

Eric: There’s a lot of that in Singapore as well. Edwin Thumboo, for example, is half Indian and half Teochew, and he sees himself as this sort of outsider/insider. And he writes about migrants as well and people on the fringes. ‘Ulysses by the Merlion’ is the quintessential migrant poem of Singapore, and it draws on all the literary and cultural conditions that are present here. And in so doing, he was forging Singapore poetry.

Jonathan: That’s definitely true. There is an element of some kind of displacement in many Singaporeans’ lives. But I was also thinking of the way that people engage with their familial histories, especially those of Chinese or Indian descent whose ancestors were brought to or came to Singapore, or even those from the Malay community who experienced a kind of solastalgic or psychological displacement when Singapore separated from Malaysia. Then in subsequent generations, people who have gone abroad from Singapore and have that experience of then trying to process or clarify that sense of national identity and bringing that back with them. Or even this whole national positioning of playing an interpretive, translational role between English-speaking countries, “Western” countries, and Asian countries.

From a lot of the writing, art, and film that I’ve seen by Filipino artists, that is quite prevalent as well, especially because so many Filipinos and Filipinas go abroad for work. If I’m not wrong, one of The Philippines’ highest exports is nurses. And then of course, here in Singapore, there are a lot who come as domestic workers. So at least in my mind, almost every family in The Philippines has one relative who lives abroad and sends money home. That sense of displacement is also very much interwoven in a lot of writing that I’ve read from Filipino writers. One person that comes to mind, you can correct me if I’m wrong, that I see is a really big exemplar of that is Carlos Bulosan.

Eric: Bulosan and some of those published Filipino writers are recognised internationally because they have some connection with the US. There are many talented other writers back in the Philippines who don’t venture abroad and don’t have agents or publishers. The writers people abroad know are Filipino Americans.

Jonathan: Yes, but I was also thinking about Rolinda Onates Espanola and her work and some of the work coming up from the Pinoy writers here in Singapore like Lawrence Ypil and Rodrigo Dela Peña Jr. For lack of a better term, there is also a kind of classed division, because people come over as educators and marketing professionals, and then there are also people who come over to perform more physical labour.

Eric: There’re actually so many of us who are based in Singapore. Some, like Victor Ocampo, Noelle de Jesus-Chua and Felisa Batacan, write fiction. Besides Rolinda, there are other domestic helper poets like Belen Esposo Repollo. She’s published books here. All of us can form a guild. The Philippine experience is, as you say, diasporic, so we write about that primordial experience. Filipinos come from elsewhere. Most are from Borneo or Indonesia. Then there have been migration waves from China and colonial invasions from Spain and the US. And to say it’s class-based is also quite observant because The Philippines is a very hierarchical society. It’s very difficult to move ahead if you don’t know the right people and you’re in the wrong class. A lot of people in the lower classes move abroad because they’re thinking of a better life for their families.

Get Lucky (2015), an anthology of writing by Singaporeans and Filipinos that Eric helped to edit.

Singapore is so different, because you’re quite egalitarian and it’s very difficult to tell billionaires from ordinary people because the really rich are not ostentatious. But in the Philippines the distinctions, even in skin tone, are sharp. Because of that, there’s little social mobility. That is the stuff of novels.

Jonathan: I was trying to formulate that question of the structural difficulties in the country that have driven so many people abroad, about the push toward a remittance economy as well, in some ways.

Eric: It’s always been like that, and it’s the reason that many Filipinos end up in the States. Every Filipino family has relatives in the States or elsewhere. We’re everywhere: in Iraq, Palestine, even in Ramallah and all those places where you don’t expect foreigners. We’re a people on the move.


A Filipino in Belleau Wood [1]
Eric Tinsay Valles

This is a grave in Chateau Thierry.

This is a marine
who lies in a grave in Chateau Thierry.

This is a requiem
for the marine from hilly Morong [2]
who lies in a grave in Chateau Thierry.

This is a score sheet
with all the notes
for the singing marine
who lies in a grave in Chateau Thierry.

This is a Filipino bugler
clutching the score sheet
with all the notes
for the obscure marine
who lies in a grave in Chateau Thierry.

This is the trench of sand
that the bugler lay in with the wounded,
clutching the score sheet
with all the notes
for the dead volunteer
Who lies in a grave in Chateau Thierry.

These are the traces and bare trees,
the sun and the waves of the sea
that the bugler braved,
clutching the scores
with all the notes
for the crushed marine
who lies in a grave in Chateau Thierry.

This is a white governor with a pen
who signs a letter in the big chamber
after reading about four thousand Filipino sakadas [3]
under fire, like the bugler,
playing notes
on the scores
for the honorable man
who lies in a grave in Chateau Thierry.

These are the traces and the trees and the “Silent Night”
that a German intoned in his trench
and to which the marine sang along
before gunfire broke the silence into endless day.
This is a white governor with a pen
signing a letter in the big chamber
feeling guilt about four thousand sakada soldiers
with the bugler nearby
Improvising notes
on the scores
for the singer, the marine
who lies in a grave in Chateau Thierry.

This is the Filipino who died far from home.
These are the traces and the trees and the “Silent Night”
that a German sang in his trench
and to which the marine sang along
before gunfire broke the silence into endless day.
This is a white governor with a pen
honoring four thousand sakada soldiers
and a scarred bugler
who plays boogie woogie
with veterans from his company
for the near-forgotten marine
who lies in a grave in Chateau Thierry.

[1] Tomas Mateo Claudio died in Chateau Thierry, France in the deadly Battle of Belleau Wood. It was in Belleau Wood that Allied and German soldiers sang “Silent Night” on Christmas day before resuming fighting the following day.
[2] A town in Rizal province, the Philippines.
[3] Contract workers.


Jonathan: As you said, even as a metaphor, being part of a diaspora is symptomatic of feeling ill at ease with a place or not feeling fully home at a place. That points to that yearning for belonging elsewhere. Yet, there’s still a lot of difficulty and sacrifice wrapped up in that at least in terms of our time here on earth.

Eric: But it’s also what human beings yearn for: belonging. That corresponds with the theological virtue of hope. And we will not be where we belong until we are one with Jesus Christ in an overflow of love.

Jonathan: One of the things that you mentioned elsewhere was wanting to bear witness to Jesus Christ in your poetic location. Where do you see yourself within this task?

Eric: So I’m definitely Christian, but I don’t write about Christian themes per se. It’s just part of the architectonics, as it were, in my work. My culture is Christian, but my themes are not necessarily so. They meet in my experience, some of which is articulated on the page. The migrant experience that I write about could be a metaphor for the situation of a Christian after original sin. If the reader is drawn to look up some of the Christian references in my work, that is close enough to the act of preaching in a secular world.

Jonathan: But that’s kind of more of an analogical connection as opposed to an explicit one per se.

Eric: Yes, but that’s an essential part of Christian rhetoric even from the beginning. You can read it in St. Augustine’s On Christian Teaching (426), in which he suggests that preachers make do with Egyptian gold, as the chosen people did. We don’t really have to turn our back on rhetoric, whether classical or contemporary. But we can talk about the new dispensation in which life is charged with grace using the same tools as secular writers and artists do. There can be art in homiletics as there can be some homiletics in art. As someone who would like to practice art, I think analogy comes closer to my work than quoting scriptures.

Jonathan: I agree– these rhetorical structures and techniques are prominent throughout the whole historical corpus of English literature, oratory, and disquisition.

Eric: English literature has always been Christian in its roots. It’s a sad thing, how it is in the present, how people are turning their backs on all that because of cultural studies. Many Old English poems such as “Caedmon’s Hymn” are in praise of God. Even Beowulf is an eminently Christian work- in which there is a hymn, ‘grace to the Creator’.

Jonathan: So has there been a kind of move from the past where Christianity was very much the backbone of a lot of your work, given what you mentioned about wanting to witness to Christ?

Eric: People do give witness to Christ in various ways. Doing what we do the best we can is a way of preaching. That could be a bearing witness in itself. It just so happened that some of my poems are overtly Christian in theme or imagery. But not all of them are.

Jonathan: And rightfully so, I think.

Eric: But there are people who see themselves as mainly Christian writers. D. S. Martin’s latest book is about angels. I can do that sometimes, but it’s just that my experience is more than just that. And writing my own experience in itself can give glory to God. By doing so, I can draw people to read some of my work that is explicitly Christian. Readers can also find out on their own about the sources of some of the Christian images that are mentioned in my work.

Jonathan: I’m thinking of a cultural theorist named Ted Turnau, who is a Christian. The metaphor he uses for art is that it’s like a portal that people stumble into, where they enter the world of those who follow Christ. The Christian artist’s job is not to preach because that’s the preacher’s job. I think that’s a better way of thinking about the position of an artist who is also a Christian.

Eric: Gerard Manley Hopkins was a Jesuit who wrote about the grandeur of God with his sprung rhythm. So it is with whatever we work on, as long as we do it with attention to and love of God.

Jonathan: Bearing that in mind, what would you say is the relationship that you see yourself having with the institutional church?

Eric: I’m very much part of the church because I’m a single member of Opus Dei. I’m committed to giving classes on church doctrine to other people, mostly Catholics. We also have non-Catholics who attend the activities of Opus Dei. Did you ever read The Da Vinci Code?

Jonathan: I did not.

Eric: Good for you. (laughs) We’re the villains in that novel. Anyway, we’re not all like that. We’re not out to conquer the world. We’re just ordinary people trying to get by as poets or teachers. We have a few priests and our message is that we can become saints and encounter His grace through our ordinary work. Very simple thing. But it can be quite a challenge to live out. We have a regime of sorts with prayers, reception of the sacraments and personal spiritual direction to help with that.

The church is a vital part of my life, and that has also shaped my wandering all over. That was how I ended up in Taipei and here, where I’m still helping out in Opus Dei. The church helps me to understand reality as it is and that makes me see Jesus Christ in everything, even the squalor of things, in marginalised people. So he’s very much like the migrant workers, the maids, and the nurses because Jesus Christ himself is a migrant. And when He was a toddler, His parents had to take Him to Egypt to save Him and then back to Galilee. Migrants can identify with that situation. They are Christlike in a way, maybe mainly because of their sufferings at that moment. But they also manifest His glory when they see their condition as a sharing in Christ’s passion and potentially redemptive.

The church is part of my writing too in the sense that it shapes my beliefs and ideas. And so I see my work as sacramental in that sense, making explicit something that is really mysterious: redemption. And I make use of tropes that are available to me from my own experience.

Jonathan: And now God has placed you in a position to foster more conversations on poetry as director of Poetry Festival Singapore.

Eric: I’m very grateful for that calling, which is primarily God’s initiative. I just didn’t say no. I see my work in poetry as a very minor hymn to the body and blood of Jesus Christ. It is one long act of thanksgiving for whatever ability he’s given me to write about this place, about experiences, about histories. And to be initiating dialogues among poets about writing in the island’s four official languages as well as between them and the bigger society – in the time of Covid, with a worldwide online audience. In some ways, it can be burdensome in that one has to put up with plenty of hassles. A friend calls me crazy for taking on the responsibility of overseeing the festival. But it’s been mostly a gift – a crazy, good gift.


On Peace
City of God Book 19)
Eric Tinsay Valles

When stars dance in their own orbits,
When body and soul ponder their image in the night sky,
When one makes a home with another
And both laugh, their shoulders shaking;
Not when one commands the cosmos
Or another as one orders a blister to heal
But only feels the thrumming ooze,
In a truce but with swords unsheathed;
Not as the devil passes his life for the truth
Though he be an angel of light;
Not as one who, falling ill in body or soul, sobs
For what lies outside starry fields, beyond recovery

Tears mark a trial toward peace
Like silver rain seagulls glide through homeward,
But not for ghosts who hide their gifts in shadows,
Whose thick skull sockets do not reflect
Love that sets stars spinning on their axes,
Makes the cut heal through deep,
Gilds in crystal summer daylight,
Trills like a perpetual, clear spring
As it trades jests at a floodlit banquet;
A white-capped peak above a dark grove;
An inn for pilgrims where ale flows free
And blankets are pressed warm for restless souls.

Cover image: Eric reading his poems at Lake Victoria in Kenya.