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

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