Eric Tinsay Valles: Poet, Teacher, Learner

eric64Kamusta? Ni hao?
         As a Chinese Filipino, I have had brushes with otherness in my native and adopted societies. While growing up in Manila, I was aware that I was fairer and had smaller eyes than most people around me –and for a while got teased for this. Living abroad, first in Taipei in the 1990s and now in Singapore, has made me realize that I speak and, in certain ways, think differently from many of my colleagues.
         This otherness could be frustrating, especially when I was just starting to learn Mandarin, the language of my maternal grandfather’s family. How could one make sense of noodle-like brushwork on billboards or bus guides everywhere, for instance? But might this otherness also be liberating? It gives me some objectivity in exploring ways of looking and voicing my experience of self and others in a much more integrated world. It also opens up possibilities for cobbling together words, imagery and poetic forms from more than one cultural tradition in my writing.
         Formerly a journalist and editor, I currently teach English Language and Literature at the National University of Singapore High School of Math and Science. I have been published in Routledge’s New Writing: The International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing, the Hispanic Culture Review (George Mason University), the Singapore National Arts Council-published anthology Reflecting on the Merlion, the Ethos-published & Words: Poems Singapore and Beyond, Ceriph as well as in online journals Double Dialogues (University of Melbourne) and Bukker Tillibul (Swinburne University of Technology). I have also been invited to read poetry at the University of Melbourne and in the Poetry and Voice conference of the University of Chichester. In 2011, I won the City Loves Writing competition of the British Council’s Writing the City website and was admitted to a writing residency at the Vermont Studio Centre in the US.
         I draw inspiration from all sorts of music and feed off great writers (and souls) such as St. Augustine, Geoffrey Chaucer and Flannery O’Connor.
         I am also a veritable citizen of the global economy, with some achievements in editing, journalistic writing (for the English-language Taiwan News, Asian Infrastructure Monthly and the Far Eastern Economic Review) and teaching overachieving students (e.g., in Hwa Chong Institution [College] and NUS High). Among the places I have called home are Manila, Taipei and Singapore.
        In my 20s, I became like Clark Kent—that is, a journalist. I was so for an English-language daily in Mandarin- and Hokkien-speaking Taiwan. I reinvented myself and, along the way, picked up a foreign tongue, that of my maternal grandfather.
In the prime of life, I teach English—spelled in British fashion—in a place that is uniquely Singapore. This island is both Asian in its vaunted Confucian values and Western in its occasional high-risk, high-gain investments.
       I face the future with a sunny outlook that has served me well but with slight quavering.
I am also exploring the use of St. Augustine of Hippo’s interpretive theory of reading (distinguishing between literal and figurative interpretations) in the study of cupiditas (disordered love of self that prevents communion with others and the Other) in the works of Chaucer, Jonson, Pope and Flannery O’Connor.
       St. Augustine says that the end of interpretation (principally of the bible and secondarily of other Christian-inspired texts) is charity, the ordering of values with turning to God on top and turning to the self at bottom. It follows then that any allegorical text that may seem to subvert this order should be interpreted not literally but figuratively.I am trying to see now just how each writer brings the uniqueness of his or her time and culture to the shaping of allegory in depicting evil or the lack of good in fictional characters. In so doing, I am testing just how fruitful still is the classical interpretive mode of St. Augustine in generating criticism and, in that light, will outline some fictional models for the depiction of cupiditas (which necessarily presupposes a prior and superior caritas).
       Singapore is a grab bag of things representing the full continuum of goodness (It’s clean, all right, but no Disneyland.). The heat is unbearable (worse than in Manila), but its lush gardens make it a pleasant home (Looking out the living room window, I’m treated to a soul-soothing sight of a palm-lined garden that conceals the awkward backhand of some NUS dormers at the tennis court.).The weather here sort of reminds me of Taiwan’s spring: it rains at least once a week. Because of that, Singapore’s shrubbery looks a deep shade of green all year round –unlike Japan or Texas in late winter.
       This city-state is not really as uptight as most people think. Some people jaywalk; I’ve seen a housemate without a car seatbelt on; teenagers can now stand up and dance at concerts; a pair of my slacks once got smeared with — chewing gum. Hey, they’re loosening up!
       Prior to postgraduate research, I worked in Taipei as a business reporter and columnist at the English-language daily Taiwan News. I stretched my mind by covering diverse fields from information technology to cross-strait relations. That experience gave me opportunities to grab freebies and to chat with world shakers (great salesmen too) such as Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, Intel Chairman Andrew Grove, Acer Chairman and CEO Stan Shih and Yahoo! co-founder Jerry Yang.
       A decade ago in Manila, I tried to put sense into the papers of woolly-headed economists as an editor for top think tank and academic institution University of Asia and the Pacific (formerly Center for Research and Communication). I was also privileged to have taught Composition to four batches of “creme-de-la-creme” students at UA&P.
       As there are many sources and intensities of light, so are there many shades of truth in this fractured world. Given our very limited stay here, I think it is quite good to reach for the fullness of truth that faith and reason can make us attain (As Pope said, “What nothing earthly gives, or can destroy,/ The soul’s calm sunshine, and the heart-felt joy,/ Is virtue’s prize…. [not] 394 erring Pride….”).
This is a struggle for me and most people.
     Music keeps me sane. I have a very eclectic taste, with my faves ranging from Bach’s Brandenburg concertos to the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour to Tom Odell. ‘Used to be a big film buff (“Seventh Seal,” “Rashomon,” and “ET” top my list). Film is to our generation what theater was to the Elizabethans and the novel to Victorians.
      “Do you wish to rise? Begin by descending. You plan a tower that will pierce the clouds? Lay first the foundation of humility.” — St. Augustine

Poet in Residence

In the second part of a National Day special, Life! takes a look at photographs, paintings and poetry by foreigners inspired by Singapore.


by Clarissa Oon

6 August 2011

Buy Singapore’s major daily, Straits Times, in stores or by subscription!

 (c) 2011 Singapore Press Holdings Limited, not created by the site owner

When Mas Selamat Kastari made his infamous escape from Whitley Road Detention Centre, Eric Tinsay Valles was living just down the road.

The Filipino-born teacher and poet marvels at how, in the days and months after, his neighbourhood was swarming with police officers. Extensive resources were mobilised to recapture the terrorist leader.

The contrast with the Philippines was stark. There, ‘jailbreaks happen in the south all the time and nothing is heard of the convicts afterwards’, says Valles, who has since moved fromWhitley Roadto Clementi.

The explosive impact of Mas Selamat’s 2008 escape onSingapore’s relatively placid society spawned one of his poems, Astir On Whitley Road.

It can be found in Valles’ maiden poetry collection, A World In Transit, published earlier this year bySingapore’s Ethos Books.

His 11 years living here, and his experiences growing up inManila, both ‘stimulate and create tension in my writing’, explains the gentle, soft-spoken bachelor.

A Singapore permanent resident, he has taught English language and literature at the NUS High School of Math And Science for the last five years.

‘I love my country, that’s why I haven’t applied for citizenship here. But part of my calling as a writer is to call attention to certain challenges that I observe in whichever society I am in.’

In the Philippines- a passionate and outspoken democracy ridden with corruption and violence – there is ‘a lot of anarchy and chaos’.

Examples include last year’s hostage crisis where Manila police botched the rescue of Hong Kong tourists held by a gunman, with tragic results.

Valles thinks one big challenge for regional governments in thePhilippinesis to fight corruption and beef up law enforcement.

As for Singapore, he is constantly struck not just by how ‘everything is so clean and green’, but also by the ‘uniformity and conformity’.

‘In that sense, it makes things convenient. Nothing unexpected comes up here.’ Aside from the odd national drama like Mas Selamat’s jailbreak, that is.

Born to ethnic Chinese parents in a middle-incomeManilasuburb, Valles attended some of the best schools there. These include the Jesuit-run private university Ateneo de Manila and the University of the Philippines, where he did his master’s in English studies.

After graduation, he packed his bags for Taipeito study Mandarin, and worked as a journalist with several Taiwanese English-language newspapers.

In 2000, he relocated here to work on a still-uncompleted PhD in English Literature at the National University of Singapore.

His poetry has been published in several international journals and Singaporepoetry anthologies.

In his free time, the committed Catholic gives spiritual counselling as a lay member of global Catholic organisation Opus Dei.

Highly educated Filipino professionals like Valles make up a growing contingent here, debunking the stereotype of Filipinos as domestic workers and service staff.

Despite the resentment of some Singaporeans at the swelling tide of foreigners, Valles has not experienced any tension. ‘People around me are very polite.’

However he can understand the sentiments. ‘If I were Singaporean I would probably feel under threat.’

He supports a ‘Singaporeans first’ policy in certain industries, but believes at the end of the day that ‘the pie is big enough for everyone’.

While on a two-week writing residency at theVermont Studio Centerin the United States in June, he found himself missing – of all things – the MRT.

He does not drive and has got very attached to the efficient public transport system here. The word ‘convenient’ – a favourite adjective of Singaporeans – crops up a few times in this interview.

When asked if there is an equivalent word in Tagalog, he is stumped for a while, before coming up with madali, ‘which is associated with being quick’.

Nothing in his mother tongue quite conveys the ease of getting around, he concludes, ‘but we have a lot of words for suffering and misery’.

A World In Transit is available for $17.12 at Kinokuniya, Books Actually and Select Books.

Astir on Whitley Road

 A police detail

Toting machine guns, jaws taut,

Eyes shiny like tots whose heads

Still spin after a carnival ride,

The day after Selamat shattered

The peace in our palm-lined neighborhood.

Their skin like cowhide,

Boots planted on college green,

Sometimes scuttling about like fire ants

With pincers seeking some enemy

Who drives children away

From playgrounds on the street.

Is the fugitive angry?

Does he wrestle with shadows under a flyover

As the city scurries home to dinner?

I slink to our vulnerable gate,

Look for vagrant traces on the sidewalk,

Hope not to catch the bloodshot eyes

Of that bearded man

On the poster. I have not spotted his limp

On the driveway. He has not peered

Through a fish-eye in the front door.

But robs us of rest and ravages the pastoral

Of manicured lawns and licorice sunsets

That made writing here so easy.

 Eric Tinsay Valles

Eric Tinsay Valles’ poetry has been featured in international journals and local anthologies. Mas Selamat’s escape in 2008 inspired him to pen the poem Astir On Whitley Road. — ST PHOTO: TED CHEN

Singapore Press Holdings Limited

Blog at