Interview with Rhina P. Espaillat

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P2G 2018 WINTER QUARTERLY INTERVIEW FEATURE:

RHINA P. ESPAILLAT

   Interviewed by Christine Jones

Dominican-born Rhina P. Espaillat writes poems, short stories and essays in English and her native Spanish, translates from and into both languages, and has earned numerous awards both for her original work and for her translations. Her most recent book is Agua de dos ríos, a bilingual collection of poems and essays, and her fifteenth, a poetry collection in English titled And After All, is due for publication by Able Muse Press this winter. She is a founding and active member of the Powow River Poets.


INTERVIEWER

At age 16, you were the youngest poet ever inducted into the Poetry Society of America, and yet didn’t publish your first book until age 60. What did you do to sustain your love of poetry during that period? What do you still do today?


ESPAILLAT

Sustaining my love of poetry has never been a problem! I’ve read more poetry than anything else all my life, and have always written poems, sometimes many, sometimes very few per year, depending on what else has been taking place around me. Even the “slow” years, during which I’ve written relatively little, have been rich—maybe the richest of all—in the experiences that give rise to poetry. After becoming a member of the PSA at 16, finishing high school and beginning college gave me much of the reading and exploration of the classics in both poetry and prose that eventually found their way into my poems, especially mythology and legend. And after that, marriage and child-rearing provided the human background for the way I think and feel and approach living. And those were followed by years of teaching, a profession I love despite the fact that it eats up most of your time and energy, but which kept me in touch both with young lives and with the joy of passing on reading and writing, things I care about profoundly. Those years of only a dozen or two dozen poems yearly, during short hours of leisure, may have felt like fallow ground at the time, but much of what I’ve written since then grew—and continues to grow—from that soil. The fact that I not only wrote little, but also submitted little to publications during those early years, accounts for the fact that all of my books contain poems composed over decades, arranged more or less thematically, not chronologically. Almost at once after leaving the classroom, I returned to writing much more, and to submitting work to publications I had appeared in before, and also new ones, and began, finally to organize a book manuscript. Before long I began attending a workshop, the Fresh Meadows Poets, and found that as useful and satisfying as the solitary reading that had guided me before, and even more instructive.


INTERVIEWER

You’re considered one of the contemporary masters in formal verse. In a poetic era of free and experimental verse, why formal verse?


ESPAILLAT

The earliest poetry I heard and learned to love as a child was in formal Spanish, and reached me much more through the music inherent in it than through the imagery, which was often drawn from experiences I had never had, and therefore was beyond my understanding, or through the intellectual content, which was drawn from adult life—romantic love, warfare, tragedy, heroic adventures and so forth—and therefore often baffling. What beguiled me about poetry right away, whether I “understood” it or not, was the way it made me want to dance, through the rhythm of its language.  When I began reading—and then writing—in English, I discovered free verse, along with the other prosodic of poetry: the role of imagery and tools other than meter, and its capacity to express subtle, intangible meanings hard to put into prose. I do occasionally compose in free verse, but most of what I write comes to me through its formal beat, which I feel even before the first words and phrases slide into place and let me know what it is I’m hearing internally. I’m an “ear poet,” and am grateful for the “visual training” I get from fellow workshop members whose chosen tool is imagery that uses the other four senses. One of the blessings of a workshop open to both free and formal work is the way we learn from each other and expand the range of what we can do, and how well.


INTERVIEWER

You’ve translated poems from Spanish to English as well as English to Spanish. How do your translations enter your own poems? Also, what determines whether you write in Spanish or English?


ESPAILLAT

I love doing translations, but they don’t enter into my own poems, because they’re done to convey the sound, imagery, tone and sense of the poet who wrote the originals. I try hard both to keep myself out of them and to steal anything from them for work of my own. I see the role of the translator as making himself clear as clean glass, if he wants to be faithful to the original. As for being a bilingual poet, that’s easy: you simply listen internally to what you can hear if you keep very quiet. The poem tells you what language it wants to be in, the same way it tells you the form it’s taking and everything else. After the first draft is done, the poet moves over and the critic takes over, pointing out what needs changing or more work. The critic is not always likeable, but always necessary, and should be thanked, after the process is over and you, the poet, have stopped gnashing your teeth and rolling your eyes.


INTERVIEWER

I admire how your love of poetry creates communities. You founded the Fresh Meadow Poets in Queens, NY, in 1986, then the Powow River Poets in Newburyport, MA in the early 1990s.  How did these literary communities develop and how have they grown over the years?


ESPAILLAT

A good workshop is worth its weight in the proverbial dragon’s hoard of gold. In the bad ones (there are lots of those!) the members may snipe at each other, envy each others’ successes, let criticism become personal and nasty, and divide into hostile subgroups. Or they may go to the other extreme of “total niceness,” so that everything is praised and even the efforts at honest criticism are timid and sugar-coated; those become coffee-klatches and don’t help to challenge the members or improve anybody’s work. The good ones are socially friends who may even party together, but elsewhere: the workshop remains a place for work, and it’s work done solely on the poems submitted for commentary and advice, not on their authors, the subjects they choose to engage, or the personal opinions those subjects convey. The poems under examination are treated like any other made object, such as a wood carving or a slipcover. What’s being judged is how well the maker practiced the craft involved, using the tools of that craft. The two peer workshops I co-founded with other groups, adhering to those principles, are still active, have grown, and are prized by the communities in which they work. They came to exist because some of us knew each other, or heard each other read, or came across each others’ work somehow, and decided we could learn more together than separately, and also keep the whole group informed as to new books, publication possibilities, competitions, readings taking place in the area, et cetera. They serve the community in different ways and to different degrees, but their primary function is to improve the work of each member, both those who have been writing for years and those just learning.


INTERVIEWER

Your poem “Bilingual/Bilingüe” expresses the challenges immigrants encounter when they’re in a new country but still trying to honor their native culture/language. As a role model for a new generation of Hispanic poets, what do you say to encourage them amidst such challenges?


ESPAILLAT

What I tell foreign-born poets writing in either language or both is that bilinguality is a great asset not to be wasted; that translation is worth considering because it’s useful to both cultures, fascinating as a challenge, and will improve their skill and ingenuity with syntax, grammar and language in general. I tell them that those of us with two languages, two nationalities, two cultures and two identities are not divided but multiplied, and lucky to inhabit more than one “home” to which we are loyal and attempt to be useful. And I encourage them to respect and keep whole whatever languages they’re fortunate enough to know. That is, to speak them separately, each with its own words for things, and to avoid substituting the words of one with others borrowed from the other, because when they do that, they are helping to destroy the vocabularies of both of their languages. I dislike Spanglish really intensely, and every other one of those “half-and-half” mixes, because their speakers end up becoming, not bilingual, but semi-lingual in two languages.


INTERVIEWER

I read that your grandmother was also a poet. Can you tell us about your relationship with her and did she have an influence on your own poetry?


ESPAILLAT

Yes, my paternal grandmother, who was a midwife and a marvelous gardener, never published anything, but she also wrote poetry, played the guitar, and had friends who wrote and recited and played some instrument. They sometimes gathered in her house, where I spent part of my childhood, so I heard a lot of music and spoken poetry, sometimes performed together as what’s called “melopoeia.” I loved it, and adored my grandmother, who also taught me to enjoy growing things, reading, story-telling, and reciting. I think she had a greater, more lasting influence on me than anyone else in my life.


INTERVIEWER

Your husband was an artist/sculptor. I love the figure that’s his on the cover of your collection Her Place in These Designs. My husband, too, is an artist. I feel fortunate to have our world engaged in the various arts. Leonardo da Vinci wrote a treatise titled On Painting. He believed painting was the superior art because it involves the sense of seeing. He said his paintings could make a dog bark. How would you respond to this?


ESPAILLAT

Well, maybe da Vinci was guided to his opinion partly because painting was his chosen art form. I don’t doubt that his paintings “could make a dog bark,” but then there’s music that makes me cry every time I hear it, films and plays that draw equally powerful reactions from me, and of course poems that take me out from under my own skin to some other place where nothing else can take me. My husband’s sculptures move me profoundly—understandably partly because Alfred made them with his own hands—but also because he had a feeling for the human body perceived at any age, in any condition, any pose, that conveys, in its own way, the emotional responses that the other arts are all capable of producing. They all, practiced well, transcend the specific sense that produces each. I don’t believe there is any one “superior art,” and I’m grateful for them all.


INTERVIEWER

Your poems are often funny, finding humor in the quotidian such as in your poem “Bra” or “For the Lady in the Black Raincoat Who Slept Through an Entire Poetry Reading.” How does this wit find its way into your poems?


ESPAILLAT

I grew up with funny parents. They both had a sense of humor, and especially verbal wit, so thinking that way comes naturally. And then I married a very funny man, who could make me laugh even in mid-quarrel, or at sad moments, so the tendency was strengthened.


INTERVIEWER

You’ve been living with poetry most of your life. What motivates you to write poetry? And how have you seen its landscape change over the years?


ESPAILLAT

It’s hard to say what triggers poetry, in the abstract this way. I never know in advance when a poem is creeping up on me, because my poems don’t begin with an idea or some argument or purpose, the way my essays do, or the way my short stories begin with some event or character, sometimes real but most often imagined. Poems come under almost any circumstances, while I’m thinking or doing something else, and arrive with their own baggage. I may be cooking, sewing, doing housework or nothing in particular, and then a sense—a mild distraction—taps on my shoulder, and I realize something is trying to speak to me. It’s been part of my life as far back as I can remember. As for a change in the process, not really; it still feels like music that I want to dance to, but now what’s under it is often nothing to dance about. The writing doesn’t change anything, but it helps get me through things I couldn’t handle without it, although I don’t know how it does that, or why it works.