Thomas Fink and Melissa Mantilla
Melissa Mantilla: You are Dominican, and Dominican culture is referenced throughout your book. However, the title, Machu Picchu Me, which is also the title of one of your poems, alludes to Peru and Pablo Neruda’s long poem. How did you decide on this title and why?
Carlos Hiraldo: Well, first, about being Dominican. I am and I am not. I am Dominican-American or rather, an American of Dominican descent. If someone asks for my ethnicity, I often answer “Dominican” as a short hand. A short hand for what? For a type of Latino, as opposed to a Latin American. A short hand for a brown-skinned multi-racial American who has direct connections through his parents to a Latin American country that shares a Caribbean Island and a turbulent history with Haiti. In fact, my connections to it come through both my parents and my oldest sister, who was born, raised, and still lives there. But having been born and raised in New York City myself, I wouldn’t say, I am Dominican like actual Dominicans raised in the Dominican Republic. There are cultural and psychological differences between Dominicans and Dominican-Americans that I learned from a young age are essential to many actual Dominicans, both those living in their country and those who have migrated to New York and other parts of the United States. I understand that because of phases of political and/or economic upheavals the country has endured since the 1950s there are pockets of Dominican immigrant in other parts of the world, like Spain, Germany, and Italy, but I don’t have firsthand experience of their internal dynamics. From my own experiences, I learned at a young age that there is no point in pretending that there aren’t important differences between actual Dominicans and Americans of Dominican descent. I just want to make that clear. It is important to my perception of who I am, to my perception of the world, and to my poetry of course.
As for the title of my book, yes, it comes from the famous ruin city of the Inca Empire in contemporary Peru. To me, it is an example of the enduring beauty of art—architecture, design, pottery etc. The art of Machu Picchu endures while the economic and military power of the Inca and their Spanish conquerors have long since vanished. I hope for endurance from my poetry. I hope the art of my poetry endures over the actual experiences and observations both painful and joyful that form the raw material of its content. That hope is the connection to Machu Picchu and the enduring poems of Pablo Neruda that informs the title of my book.
Mantilla: In “First Night” you speak about being a frustrated platanero (plantain seller) who wishes to climb orange groves. Plantains are an essential of Dominican culture and cuisine. Dominicans are even referred to as “platanos” (plantains). For you, what do the plantains and orange groves symbolize in the poem?
Hiraldo: I was making a distinction between the penury of labor that provides minimal rewards and more energetic, spontaneous action undertaken for its own sake. I remember seeing plataneros during my stays in DR throughout the 1980s pushing their wooden, metal wheel carts through the streets of Santiago, the second largest city in the country. The noise of the cart and the platanero’s callout as he passed by was sometimes a sign of street life in a city that could be too quiet and fufu, certainly compared to my experience of New York City, but it all seemed like very tough work. I guess there was a sense of reward to be derived from feeding customers and seeing the regular ones that they liked. I also guess they had to deal with regular customers that were uppity pain in the ass, like my aunts. So it’s the juxtaposition of a routine that may be necessary (for the plataneros it definitely is) but provides little reward against a longing for a more spontaneous activity portrayed in the child-like act of climbing trees and picking fruits. It’s about the two sides of that borderline where you take the activities you love and would do for free, like reading and writing and thinking, and you then do them for pay as say an academic. Not only does a certain magic fade but also the labor becomes more exhausting and the end product not as good.
Thomas Fink: I think your Dominican-American subject position is important in “Santo Domingo,” which offers a bit of a history lesson—without either hagiography or undue harshness—about the Dominican Republic and its people. You begin with the victimization of Dominicans:
If Africa begins at the Pyrenees,
then it ends here,
where waves crash on sands
like unwelcomed galleons,
where winds hit palm trees
the way wars and conquests have bent
beautiful brown people…. (4)
And then you move on to the idea that they “boast ugly about the first cathedral in the Americas,/ where a pile of dusty bones claims it is Columbus buried,” and, more significantly,
that they “complain about the need to expel Haitians” and thus “turn their backs on Enriquillo,” a great Haitian hero of resistance to Spanish domination who
warn[ed] natives in Cuba of impending Conquistadors,
and just before burning at the stake
lest his soul spend eternity in a heaven full of Spaniards
and his body back in Santo Domingo with a rotting Columbus. (4)
In what way(s) can it be said that Africa “ends” in Santo Domingo or the Dominican Republic in general? I recall that the horrible dictator Rafael Trujillo was virulently anti-Haitian, but in “Santo Domingo,” you seem to hold Dominicans (who hated and finally got rid of el jefe) directly responsible for this attitude and to challenge them with the extended allusion to Enriquillo to move past their ideological inconsistencies, and I’m wondering if there are other dimensions that I’m missing to your address of a Dominican and Dominican-American audience here. And what historical understanding do you want your non-Dominican readers to gain from their encounter with the poem?
Hiraldo: I’d like to think of the poem as holding Dominican culture, rather than Dominican individuals, accountable for an unhealthy attitude regarding racial identity. I think the poem attempts to give a historical and psychological account for the dominant racial attitudes of Dominicans. The lines “if Africa begins at the Pyrenees/then it ends here” plays with a French saying about Spaniards that claims Africa begins in Spain. This alludes to the conquest of the Iberian Peninsula for almost a thousand years by African Moors and the mixture of European and North African cultures in Spain. It is a racist saying, of course, implying a certain inferiority of Spain compared to France. But it also serves to remind Spaniards of a history they too often like to wash themselves from. A similar phenomenon takes place with Dominicans. The Island of Hispaniola received the first wave of African slaves to the Americas. We need to remember the actual history. The United States has a habit of either pretending it is some kind of continent sized island on its own, like Australia, or it is the entirety of the Americas. Unitedstadians strangely attempt to monopolize both the good and the bad that we share with the other nations of the hemisphere. When we speak of slavery in this country, for example, we talk about it almost as if it had been an exclusively U.S. phenomenon. We ignore that African slavery took place almost everywhere in the hemisphere. It began in the Spanish colonies as a “humanitarian” response to the fact that Native Americans had been worked into extinction in the Caribbean and were starting to disappear from Mexico. There is an attempt by Dominican society, as there is by many Latin American societies, to wash away that history and the African heritage that comes with it. Of course, in the Dominican case the whitewash is even more absurd than in the Spanish. Historically speaking, African slaves were being brought to the Dominican Republic yesterday.
There is a Dominican saying that pretends to be anti-racist, “todos tenemos el negro detras de la oreja.” It translates to, “we are all black behind the ears.” The saying participates in what it claims to counteract. It would be absurd to claim that all Dominicans have African ancestry. Dominicans come in all races and colors. Many are of East Asian or Middle Eastern backgrounds. Some are even of fairly recent European descent. However, the majority of Dominicans, like me, don’t just have “black behind the ears.” Instead, we have black all over us. This well-intentioned saying inadvertently participates in rejecting and hiding the African heritage that is inscribed on the bodies of the overwhelming majority of Dominicans. This desire to hide our background through hair and skin products as well as plastic surgeries, this need to “Europianize” our physical appearances, is an ugly manifestation of self-hate. “[T]he beautiful people/who think they are ugly” that I mention in another poem, “No Suicides,” alludes to that phenomenon.
In “Santo Domingo,” I am not trying to blame each and every Dominican individually for this messed up relationship to race. We are victim and victimizers in this pathological attitude. Blaming individuals is harsh and inaccurate, because every cultural trend produces its counterargument as it were, embodied in persons with distinctive views that complicate the dominant perspective. Also, it might be satisfying to focus on those who embody the worst of a particularly malignant cultural perspective. Trujillo, with his pancake make-up to whiten his skin, and his similar attempts to whiten the country by giving asylum to European leftists, who the regime then had to keep tabs on, persecute, and in some cases murder, is an extreme example of Dominican racial pathology. But monsters do not arise in a vacuum. It makes no more sense, for example, to exclusively blame Trujillo for the Haitian genocide than it does to exclusively blame Hitler for the Jewish genocide. Yes, individuals should be held accountable for their orders and their actions, of course. No doubt. But when we focus too much on individual monsters, we can implicitly exculpate the thousands upon thousands that make mass murder possible, by participating directly or indirectly, or by verbally or tacitly supporting these crimes against humanity. I believe the legend that the massacre against Haitians in 1937 resulted from Trujillo’s exasperation with the numerous complaints he received about them whenever he visited the border provinces. Those stories make sense to me. They capture the racial prejudices and pathologies held by Dominicans, ones I can’t be sure I am totally free from either as an inheritor of Dominican culture. I am not saying that those who complained to Trujillo about “all these Haitians” were asking that machete wielding soldiers and vigilantes massacre tens of thousands of human beings, but they sure as hell laid the ground work that made it possible.
The idea that all Dominicans hated Trujillo is inaccurate. It’s one that has arisen to exonerate the population for allowing the man and his despicable regime to thrive for so long. Trujillo was originally supported by certain segments of the elite against others. A small, rising industrial sector resented the entitlements of the old elites. For the most part that small business sector thrived during Trujillo’s regime. The managerial class as well, those who ran the public and private enterprises controlled by the Trujillo clan, also prospered. Small farmers who had benefitted from Trujillo’s land reforms were very loyal to the regime. They made sure that armed expeditions from exiles to liberate the country repeatedly failed. Of course, even those who benefitted from the Trujillo regime had to live with a fear that the arbitrary dictates of the system and the man would one day take away everything they held dear. That happened repeatedly. Individuals who had been favored by the regime and had become bigwigs within the society would see themselves fall out of favor because they either couldn’t comply with something the dictatorship wanted or didn’t comply in a manner that pleased Trujillo and/or his henchmen. I don’t want to discredit the heroic act of those who killed Trujillo. I can only imagine what it must have felt like to be sitting in one of the cars positioned along the dark highway to San Cristobal on that night in late May, 1961. You are not only about to kill a man; you are about to end the world as you have known it. But these heroic men shouldn’t be turned into saints. They knew exactly how evil Trujillo was because they all had worked or were still working for the regime. While they wanted to liberate the country from a degenerate totalitarianism that had brought a series of international embarrassments to the nation, they weren’t all flaming democrats either. The behavior of the only two survivors from the assassination plot, Antonio Imbert Barrera and Luis Amiama TÍo, in the chaotic ten year aftermath of Trujillo’s assassination didn’t exactly distinguish them as idealists. Yes, when it comes to the criminal excesses of the regime there was a big difference between Trujillo and those who opposed him. But when it comes to more general views on race, class, gender and so on, I am not so sure how much of a distance there was between the dominant opposition and Trujillo. In fact, Trujillo might have been more progressive about class than some of his most powerful opponents.
The Dominican Republic, as a country and as a culture, has defined itself as anti-Haitian and pro-Western. Dominicans set themselves up as inheritors of Western civilization as opposed to Haitians who they define as Africans. Dominican identity has historically hinged on the denial of Africa. We can still see this today in the injustices caused by the Dominican Supreme Court’s decision to allow for the de-nationalization of thousands of Dominicans of Haitian descent. The idea has always been that the Dominican Republic has to protect itself from a Haitian, in other words African, invasion. It downplays the reality that the original invasion of the island and most of the intrusions into Dominican sovereignty thereafter have come from Europe. Of course, the accepted distinction between Dominicans and Haitians has never been so neat. Again, Dominicans are predominantly a mixed people of European and African descent. Dominican culture, like Haitian culture, synchronizes African, European, Asian, and Native American elements. The distinction so many Dominicans make between themselves and Haiti—that we are Western and they are Africans— is bogus. We share a common land, and our histories and cultures clearly intersect. The point of Enriquillo is that he was not Haitian and he was not Dominican. He was a forebear of both cultures. He was Taino. The island wasn’t divided yet. And he wanted to keep it and its sisters throughout the Caribbean free.
Fink: Thank you for this remarkably precise, detailed, and complex contextualization of Dominican history.
In “How Fat You Are,” after a very long strophe that supports the notion that “In America,/ the rich get richer/ and the poor get fatter”—which (tantalizingly) does not specify whether “America” means North America, Central America, South America, or all of the above, and possibly including the Caribbean, or not—and before a brief concluding strophe about “the ideal of fat” being “a thing of the poor” only “in the third world,” the second strophe features allusions to a U.S. President and Dominican President who were neither poor nor fat:
kept his health
with a sparing diet
and brisk morning walks
through Washington D.C.
like Balaguer did
through Santo Domingo
after more than
of public life
in that Caribbean land.
His minimalist diet
of boiled chicken, plantains
kept him going
despite his blindness. (29)
I don’t think that the parallel between the diet and the walks through their capital city is the only thing that impelled you to put these two leaders together in a strophe. If I seem to be on a fishy fishing expedition, forgive me. But… what other connections are lurking beneath the apparent surface of the poem?
Hiraldo: I am not sure if there are many other connections between Truman and Balaguer. I guess that in addition to being ahead of their time in believing low caloric intake and low impact regular exercise were keys to longevity, they were both from their respective positions enablers of Trujillo. However, Balaguer was much more of a direct enabler, serving the regime from the 1930s until the very end when he was the puppet President the night Trujillo was shot. Balaguer also had a bigger footprint on Dominican history in the 20th century than Truman did on U.S. history. In addition to serving Trujillo, he was the actual President of the Dominican Republic from 1966 to 1978 and from 1986 to1996. The man dominated the country until he withered away in blindness and geriatric fragility before his death in 2002. Regardless of his virtues and flaws, I don’t think anyone would claim President Truman dominated the United States like that.
As for the America at the beginning of the poem, I guess I originally meant The United States of. It’s a usurped adjective, of course. But what can one do at this point? Unitedstadian—the term for American in Spanish, Estadounidense— doesn’t necessarily drip from the tongue in English. The Founding Fathers didn’t really come up with an original name there, did they? “Hey, we are a bunch of colonies, now independent states, coming together in unity, what shall we call ourselves?” Did they expect no other colonies in the hemisphere to become independent? Maybe they just didn’t give a shit. Or maybe, they didn’t expect the system and the country they had founded to last as long as it has—“the tree of liberty” and all that jazz, you know? Anyway, the name of our country is one of the more subtle signs that the Founding Fathers were not forward thinkers in many ways.
I guess the actual America, the hemisphere, like you imply, does become one by the end of the poem, unified by poverty and obesity. Obesity is often a result of the lifestyle afforded by poverty. If you have money, places to go, things and people to do, you don’t sit around as much watching TV and stuffing yourself. That’s often the safest, most affordable, most entertaining way available to while away the time for poor and working-class folks regardless of race, culture, and nationality. However, obesity in the United States hasn’t been a goal in decades. It has been a side effect. In Dominican cultural milieus, at least when I was growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, being fat or plump was an actual goal. Many of my older relatives would compliment me with “oye, pero tu si estas gordo” (“listen, you are really fat!”). And yes, it was praise. One of the very few they gave me as a kid. Actually, if you look at the few pictures of me as a kid that have survived, I was not fat. I was relatively thin. It was my older relatives’ way of telling me and others in my generation, you look healthy. This equation of health and fat must have come from the political upheavals they experienced coming of age in the Dominican Republic, especially in all the years of conflict and commotion after Trujillo’s death when the availability of food couldn’t be guaranteed for long.
Mantilla: In your poem titled “Kate Winslet” you speak directly to the actress about “the failing American dream”:
Red head burn me
a couple of hours
like America’s failing dream
stored in your celluloid industry,
Indians at the Smithsonian. (47)
What is the “American dream” to you and why do you believe it is failing? What does Kate Winslet symbolize and why did you choose her specifically?
Fink: And while you’re talking about that poem, how do all the allusions to British and African culture preceding the final strophe that Melissa quoted connect with the ending?
Hiraldo: Well, the American dream has many ramifications. It’s most basic understanding concerns increasing economic prosperity within an individual’s lifespan and from generation to generation. In that sense I guess I am living the American dream. Though it was relatively easy to improve on the lot of my parents’ immigrant generation, it is not an improvement that every second generation Latino sees. And of course, no improvement is guaranteed. So much for the idea of progress. Still, the American dream as I started off saying has repercussions beyond the economic. It is associated with beauty and health, and of course those concepts throughout American history have been linked to whiteness.
I wrote “Kate Winslet” when I was in graduate school. I love movies. I wrote the poem shortly after I saw Titanic. I was gobsmacked by Winslet’s presence on the large screen. Yes, I was in graduate school. Yes, I was reading the same type of articles we read and write in academia about the manipulations of the capitalist media, and about class and racial imagery, and so on and so forth. And still I was gobsmacked. These manipulations take place at pre-rational levels. Critical thinking within certain constraints is a fine tool for assisting us in understanding the world, but it’s up against the reality that rationality is an instrument of animal survival, not a cure-all for what we as a species find unappealing about ourselves.
All this thinking manifests itself in some ways in the poem. The speaker is aware of how the image of the actress is manipulated to entice him. To entice him in what ways? In ways that manifest themselves economically, emotionally and financially. Yet the speaker is still enticed. Is there no liberation from this trap? Maybe, in that the American dream is failing. Not even the staunchest conservative would claim that guaranteed social-economic ascendance is the current lot of most Americans. This dream has been failing at least since the Reagan era, and its on-going decay is evident in the nightmare election of Donald Trump. The big problem is that when the country’s social-economic pretentions finally collapse beyond the shoring up provided by delusions, I am not sure that the general thinking that will replace these will necessarily be more progressive and enlightened.
Oh yeah, I almost forgot. The references to African, African-American (?), and British cultures. Well, the great majority of lynchers and slave owners in this country were of British stock. Right? And Kate is British. Don’t know if it’s up to me to forgive her culture for the legacy of U.S. racism. Not sure if it needs forgiving. Maybe the speaker of the poem is not just Black, but African-American. Anyway, a lot of our finer actors are British. She’s a great talent. There is something about Winslet’s persona that looks fierce and thoughtful in movies and in publicity appearances. She doesn’t come across as bubbly as so many of our female celebrities. But she has benefitted in part from a Hollywood movie industry that often relies on British actors for portrayals of all-American WASPness. I guess our actors can get too “ethnicky” even when they are white and not obviously ethnic. Like how did Johnny Depp get so dark? And aren’t Jennifer Lawrence’s facial features kinda interesting? Hey, if no one had wanted to mix back in the day, racists wouldn’t have needed segregation laws. I often think races and ethnicities were constructed to make sex more interesting… But I digress. This dependence on Britain for Hollywood images of all-Americanness is part of our colonial legacy. Even though most Americans have no direct British lineage, we feel a connection there, at least linguistically. I think for many white Americans, again regardless of actual heritage, the colonial legacy manifests itself in a complex of inferiority towards Britain. Like they think all Brits are so smart and sophisticated. Perhaps because I am a Latino, I do not feel that specific intimidation by all things British. Still, because I am a conscious black Latino, I also try not to fall for the sycophantic Latin American idea that Spain is the motherland. Too many Spaniards in the Dominican Republic still strut around as if they own the place, getting their asses kissed in the process. In my experience, too many Spaniards also have the nasty habit of putting down Latin Americans of all complexions. I guess because of the decidedly complicated relationship I have with my Spanish heritage I too gravitate to Britain as a European country I like. In that sense, I guess I am very American. But hey, I owe Britain my beautiful wife and half my kids. So I have a good excuse. What’s yours, people?
Mantilla: Your poem “Cosmic” is about Emma, your late mother, to whom the book is dedicated:
from its planetary orb
like a 19th century
writing snowy winters
in green January.
through empty space
like young Emma
flying up the Atlantic,
Fink: And that very same “loose debris/ arrives/ in a vacuum,” to which you compare yourself, “typing these lines/ in rented New York City” (60). I’m curious about your sense of the function and significance of that anaphora, “loose debris,” as well as your mother’s “searching” turning into a “vacuum” connected to her son.
Hiraldo: Yeah, “loose debris” connects seemingly variant historical understandings of “looseness” or lack of rootedness. The idea that immigrants, like my mother and my father, snap loose from their cultures and the idea that there is a lack of community in big cities are connected. Well, of course, big cities not just in this country but around the word are often populated by internal and external immigrants searching for something—money, freedom, opportunity, some combination thereof. A search implies a quest, a loosening from the community and from well-worn answers. So Emma’s loose debris quest arrived at the vacuum of New York City embodied by her at the time professionally ascending son living in a rented studio in Washington Heights, living a relatively vacuous life with a lot of self-inflicted pathos and bathos.
Emma’s quest also returned to the vacuum of DR. She died in August 2002. She had been retired to DR for a couple of years when she died. I remember when she left for DR in the late ‘90s I went with her on the cab ride to JFK. She was going to live with my oldest sister down there. She was crying, balling her eyes out in tears. I was shocked. I thought this would have been one of the happiest days of her life. Stupid me. I still thought of her relationship to DR and New York City being like when I was a kid. She was always dreaming of going back to the Dominican Republic. That’s all I heard when I was little. “Si solo tuviera suficiente para volver a mi patria.” (“If only I had enough money to go back to my country.”) But by the time she left, New York was home and DR was a strange, dull place. I guess, like I feel now, part of the thing is that most of the people she used to know there had passed away. They had also arrived at vacuum, but many without the roundabout journey of immigration.
So, for a couple of years before she died, Emma would come back to visit me at Christmas, which would entail staying in my little Washington Heights studio from October to February. She didn’t come to see me in 2001, because of the attacks on September 11 and the lesser known take-off accident of a flight to DR from JFK that same October. I was a bit disappointed my mother didn’t come to see me in 2001, but it was also convenient, because it was my first year at LaGuardia Community College where I have been teaching ever since, and I was busy as can be. When I went to DR to visit her in the summer of 2002, she looked a lot older and thinner than she had looked when I last saw her in 2000. I was very worried about her health. She and my sister guaranteed me she was fine because she had recently had a medical checkup. I only stayed for a week for various reasons. One of them was that I was working on my first (and only) academic book. I could have stayed longer, but I thought I would see her in October. Still, I must have felt a very strong inclination something was wrong because I wrote the poem “Higher” in between the time I got back from DR in July and the day she died in late August.
Yes, we are all “loose debris” in vacuum. Some of us are more obviously loose than others, I guess. There’s the possibility in French existentialism of creating ourselves within that vacuum. But it’s more likely that our responses to random accidents create us. Emma, unbeknownst to me, became very American in time.
Mantilla: There are different women mentioned in a few of your other poems. Are these fictional characters or real women you know? Did they inspire the poems in which their names are mentioned? How so?
Hiraldo: They are both. That’s the straight cop-out answer. Straight and cop-out in that it’s true they are both characters and real women, and isn’t that convenient for me?
All the poems about women were inspired by real women who were in my life in one way or another during different time periods. These relationships were purely platonic, romantic, or enforced platonic. A lot of the poems, like “On the Court,” had dedications. I am glad I took it away from that poem because the speaker is very distinct from me. I don’t think I have ever spoken with the rhythmic urban bravado of that dude. Certainly, not now I don’t. I went through a period when I would smoke weed and write very rhythmic poetry which I very much enjoy reading, like “On the Court,” “Flash Gordon Poet,” “Despertar,” “Barry Bonds” and others that didn’t make the cut to this collection. After a while, though, when I got high I would just sit there and be high without writing anything worth sharing, so I stopped it. And just to make the quick point, the overwhelming majority of poems I have written have been without the aid of any substance. You mention that you used to like to smoke this or you used to like to drink, or you occasionally do, and some people make it like that’s all you ever do. I am just talking about a discreet number of poems that were written in an altered state and the thing I claim to be most different about them is the rhythm.
Maybe, I should have taken the dedication away from every poem in this collection. I worry that dedications ground poems too much in the moment. I think there’s already a temptation both because of the pseudo-confessional nature of my poetry and because of the times we live in to personalize my speakers as me. And that’s so tedious. Keeping the dedications there, I think now, just exacerbates that temptation. So the poems were originally inspired by real women. But, of course, after the poems were completed and with the passage of time, the women, like the speakers, became characters, certain types. What’s important in those poems is the ideas and feelings that are being worked out through the structure of these relationships. That’s why the names in the poems are irrelevant outside the poems. That is, they are only relevant for sound and rhythm and the like. And some of the names have been changed to protect the not-so-innocent and hopefully create better rhythm.
Fink: In Machu Picchu Me, you use a variety of poetic effects. In terms of free-verse modes, “Papi” has a dramatic alternation of line lengths and powerful onomatopoeia, as indicated by the last strophe:
Dark brown hands that delivered the chocolate Mr. Softee cone
to my toddler mouth, that delivered the whiskey
through your numbed old lips, down to your bloated liver.
Everything going down with the favorite poison;
Blowing up Pplloooowww!
into nada. (60)
Many of the poems have a jagged strophe structure, while “Santo Domingo,” the title-poem, “Latino Be-Gunned,” “The Abortions,” “Rachel Weisz,” “Despertar,” ”Discovery,” “No Suicides,” and “Barry Bonds” have no stanza- or strophe-breaks, even as some poems have relatively short lines and others relatively long ones. “First Night” and “Partition” are in tercets, and “Coco” and “From My Ghetto” are in quatrains. Anaphora is a central feature of the title-poem, “Latino Be-gunned,” “From the Bushdoctor Café,” “No Suicides” and “Cosmic.”
What accounts for this diversity of poetic strategies and for particular decisions about strophe and stanza structure, line-breaks, anaphora, and various sonic effects?
Hiraldo: I wish I could say there was some grand, overarching reason for this diversity of poetic strategies. But I don’t think of poems as series, and I tend to avoid longer poems. Yes, “Higher” is seven pages. But normally I tend not to write poems that are that long. The point of bringing up length and the idea of poetic series is that I have had a tendency to think of each poem as very much an individual entity. In that sense, every line break, every stanza break or lack thereof, every word choice, and every single creative decision arises from the mood of each poem, how I am thinking and feeling about the themes of a given poem at a specific time in my life. To illustrate how little I think about poems in terms of sets or series, I didn’t put the original manuscript of Machu Picchu Me together. I wasn’t even thinking about putting a manuscript together for the longest time. My good friend, fellow writer and poet, with a specialty in Haikus, James Roderick Burns had been asking me for some time to send him about 50 of my poems. He thought I should have a manuscript together to send out there. Around 2008, I finally got around to sending him a whole bunch of poems, and after a while he sent me back more or less these poems in more or less this order. A couple of poems have been dropped-added and some have been shifted in order, but in general the published book bares a strong resemblance to the original manuscript he sent back. I thank him for helping me find a subtle and appealing development in what could otherwise have appeared as a collection of unconnected works.
I am a bit schizophrenic about my writing methodology. I hear Marlow’s voice as I answer this question, “no method at all.” Unlike other authors who I respect and admire, Rod, Erik Pihel, you, I don’t write every day. Part of me wishes I could be a bit more “serious” about my approach to poetry and writing in general. I am afraid I may come across as a dilettante as I work this all out. But maybe this goes back to what I said about “First Night.” While part of me wants to be more methodical, and I think I have become more so, a very large part of my identity as a writer is tied to inspiration. I don’t see the point of sitting down to write if I am not already inspired to say something. A poem comes to me in a line or two –a line I enjoy, a line I smile at, and/or a line that makes me shudder for its harshness. I go on from there. Can I write another line that merits that first one or two? That’s what gets me going. If I can come up with more lines, then there’s an attempt at drafting. I try to complete a poem, or at least get the impression it is complete in rough form, in the first sitting. Then I keep working on it for days, weeks, months or years before I think I am done. But even my revising can be construed as lacking in methodology. I almost have to be inspired to revise. The only time I revise strategically is, following your advice, when I haven’t written anything new for a long period. You and I were talking about this a few years back, and you very patiently and kindly suggested that these periods of writer’s block could be necessary and very productive if I dedicated them to revising. I do that now when I find myself not writing anything new for a few months. And as you suggested then, part of the benefit of revising is being inspired. Working on old poems leads to composing new ones. I learn, and I evolve as a poet, I hope.
But still I feel divided as I answer this question. My answer in part shows me that I may still be too wedded to romantic notions of the inspired poet, harnessing certain truths through very precise, magnified language that owes its origins to how the poet sees the world at that moment. I see the contradiction inherent in that circular kind of logic. The truth of the world comes out through internal inspiration? But I still don’t want poetry to be work. And right now, I feel that if I attempted a book-length poem or a book of poems with a set thematic unity, poetry would feel like work. So my poems remain very individualistic, diligently crafted and seriously thought through, but united only through the tendencies of my persona.
Fink: Your “Acknowledgments” page begins with the information that all the poems in the book “were written from 1993 to 2007”? How can we expect your second collection, involving poems written after 2007, to differ thematically and stylistically from the first?
Well, I have another collection of poems from that era. Its working title is I Would Like to Be a Man. The poems in that collection go from 1995 to 2009. I got that one together with Rod’s help as well around 2009. But I don’t think that manuscript, certainly not as is, would be the second collection. The real split in my poetry style begins in 2009 when I met my wife. Things happened quickly within a year and a half. We met in February of 2009 and got married in February of 2010, with our first son coming in May of that year. It was a very productive sabbatical I took from work in the academic year 2009-2010. I believe it was the NewYorker critic James Wood who said that all works of art are ultimately about death. I am more conscious about death as I get older, but my boys don’t give a shit about my existential angst, they just want to wrestle me.
Most of my poetry before 2009 came from difficult places and experiences. Not all, but in general that was the case. The dark places are not as many and not as dark when you are taking your kids to school, picking them up, and chatting with other parents. Well, don’t get me wrong, those experiences can have their dark moments, of course. The middle-age blues. I write about that sometimes. So proper and middle-aged, afraid I may offend someone, I try to keep the content as symbolic as possible. I also write about the fact that after more than seven years of marriage I still find my wife totally hot, and how that kinda annoys me because no one wants to write poetry where people can go, “isn’t that sweet?” No, fuck you. So I hope that tension is built into those odes to Annabel. I recently wrote a couple of good poems about how thanks to her I don’t write as much as I used to. Annabel Elise Short: Life muse; poetry killer. I write about approaching oblivion. That’s always good for a laugh. There’s a darkness that’s impossible to escape for any homo sapiens, no matter how middle class our lives. Still, what I am grappling with right now is a move towards a brighter poetry that maintains the tensions I appreciate in poetry, literature, and art in general. I hope I get there.