John Pluecker and Vincent Toro

John Pluecker and Vincent Toro
John Pluecker and Vincent Toro

We could say our conversation starts on the page: the pages of our new books Ford Over and Stereo. Island. Mosaic. We could say we started our conversation on the phone. Or we started off our conversation some years ago at Macondo where we worked together conducting a writing workshop for young people on the Westside of San Antonio at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center. Or the conversation started somewhere between South Texas and New Jersey on the phone lines, or somewhere between Puerto Rico and Coahuila y Tejas. Like true digital denizens, we continued our conversation in a shared document online.

John Pluecker: So we just got off the phone and I thought I would go ahead and write a bit into this document so that we can get things started. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about stakes. I just looked up the word “stake” or “stakes” in a dictionary and I’m struck by the double meaning of the word. On the one hand, it is a pointed stick or post embedded in the ground to mark a place or to support something. It is also what might be lost in a wager or an undertaking. You have a new book out that I’ve been reading and enjoying getting lost in: Stereo. Island. Mosaic. So I’m thinking of a double question: What is your book staking out (as in the place it might be marking or what it might be supporting)? And what is at stake in your book (as in what might be lost in that wager)? (4/4/16, 2:45pm C.T.)

Vincent Toro: I love that we’re starting with discussing an ambiguous term, as ambiguity is the modus operandi for poets. I suppose I’ll cop terminology from your book, Ford Over, to answer this one: I think I see the book as an “un-staking.” My collection is unabashedly anti-colonial in that, if anything, the work seeks to rip out and dismantle the flags and forts that have been staked by invaders for the last 500 plus years. I have what might be considered an obsession with attempting to expand the fields (of access, of territory, or thought) that I inhabit. There’s a track on one of Bill Laswell’s “Material” records that is titled, “My Style is I Ain’t Got No Style.” I think that is what the book, and my work in general, is reaching for. You know how at the bank or at the DMV or the airport, there are those poles with expandable ribbons they use to mark the path of the queue for customers? I live with a colossal urge to pull up those ribbons and undo the lines that have been predetermined by officials who won’t reveal themselves. Throughout your book, there is use of another ambiguous term: ford. You use it readily as the commonly underutilized verb form, which means to cross over a river or stream. But where rivers and streams are natural geographical dividers, colonization creates artificial ones. The book (to personify it) wants to ford the artificial dividers of the colonizers in an attempt to expand and unify until there are no more stakes plunged into the ground with flags on them.

In terms of what is at stake? It might sound histrionic, but I think personal and collective survival is what is at stake. The only way to ford this toxic river of imperial waste that has been dumped on our villages is to begin to see each other as humans, to reclaim our imaginations so we might see what is possible. I saw Stereo.Island.Mosaic. as an exercise in widening the field of possibility. The book’s ambition is expressed eloquently in yours:

We are explorers of this that this/ eyes on high/ descend to the page/ or is it the land these portions sectioned into zones/ an expanding previous to/ mapping territories with curving lines, dots, sweeps.// Denude the script

We try to denude the script. Is it safe to say that there is a parallel purpose in your book? I found in Ford Over a fervent push to reclaim previously appropriated territories (both geographical and cultural) while expanding a “previous to.” I love that phrase, as “to” implies movement toward something or a direction. So there is an earlier direction that is being “re-forded,” and in this “re-fording” the territory that was mapped prior is now simultaneously expanded and denuded. Does that makes sense? Is that even a question? I think I have a question in there somewhere… (4/5/16, 5:22 pm E.T.)

JP: A parallel purpose. Bill Laswell samples Cuban singers: “Avisale a la vecina que aquí estoy yo.” Something like that is what this conversation seems to be doing: let the neighborwoman know that I am here. Our two books are being put into a conversation. I feel the conversation in lines like

Land became merely a surface, / as their suits were merely a surface.

When the colonizers came, they purported to convert the land into a mappable surface, something without depth or life, something cleaner and clear-able. Something like the suits of the bankers and analysts and programmers who have recently re-pillaged Puerto Rico with, as you say, “derivatives / as their mode of plunder.”

The project in your book seems deeply linked, as if the books were cuates, non-identical twins. Yours is born in a totally different geographic space—the space between New York City and Puerto Rico—and yet your book is also deeply invested in maps and in mapping. You are re-mapping an island that has been mapped thousands of times before for myriad motives (mainly deleterious to the island itself), but your map of the island constantly expands out of the space of the isla; it moves in and out, pans in and out, visiting other islands and other planets, other galaxies, re-imagining what an island might even be about. In fact, your map resists the idea of a map as purely terrestrial: it is as if you are mapping the sea separating Puerto Rico and Spanish Harlem, the Caribbean spaces between (the Caribbean being much larger than just one geographical space or at least existing in relation to many other spaces, as you say, “I can tell the Mediterranean is in love with Caribbean”), which are also the spaces of continuing colonial chaos, the currents and folds of culture and music and poetry and politics. That is to say, I liked your book. :)

I read your book with my smart phone in my hand the whole time, because I kept googling particular words and names and geographical features and historical events and dates. The poems seemed happy to distract me, happy with my detours into research. The poems seemed to be asking me to restructure my attention, to re-calibrate normal modes of thinking or of linkage. So I needed to educate myself about Taino knowledge production: about zemís particularly. What I found was that zemís are the ancestral spirits, the deities or sculptural objects housing those spirits. This got me thinking that your book is actually invested in a project of cosmogeny: a model to describe the coming-into-being of Puerto Rican-ness or your own self/family/community or reality as we know it. In that sense, the constant shout-outs of names and other proper nouns and terms feels like creating a legion of “word-objects” to house those spirits: Julia de Burgos, Mark Lyttle, Nicanor Parra, Hostos, Jorge Steven Lopez, Darwish, Pedro Pietri, Blanca Canales, Betances, Willie Benitez, Freddie Prinze Sr. I looked most of these names up. I had to go and find some of them, sometimes to jog my memory about who they were and others to find out for the first time. You are naming ancestors, some living, some gone. What are zemís doing in the book? Where do you see them arising? How does Taíno knowledge (consciously not saying religion or spirituality or mythology) play a role in the book? Especially given that dominant historical narratives say that the Taíno have been entirely eradicated. How can a supposedly extinct culture continue to have such force in the poetry of the lands of their origin and yet still be declared dead? (4/7/16, 2:33 pm C.T.)

VT: Last year I did a reading in Newark to celebrate the work of Amiri Baraka and Maya Angelou. To open the event, Baba Zayid, a local writer and community leader, kicked off the evening by having everyone in the room announce the names of elders and ancestors who have forged the way for us. People called out the names of iconic historical figures as well as the names of people only known locally, and even family members, those familiar only to those who named them. I can’t tell you how deeply moving it was to hear all these names swirling around the room. It was electrifying, and humbling, to feel, in a very real sense, that we were in the presence of these ancestors, that we were there together in the space because of those ancestors.

Stereo.Island.Mosaic. is very consciously participating in this kind of ceremony. I have many motives for this, but I’ll share two. One has to do with something Rigoberto González once told me. He said, and I’m paraphrasing, that a writer has to see themselves as servants to a legacy. We can’t regard ourselves as some elevated beings above and beyond the work that others are doing and have done before us. We have to see the legacies that have fed us, and with our own work feed that legacy so it can continue to live and provide for those that will come after us. The other reason for this act of naming is a direct response to existing in a colonial culture that works to erase the histories and legacies that people of color are born from. Growing up a Puerto Rican in New York, the mainstream media and my environment did not provide me with the names and stories of my ancestors. In fact, they were deliberately buried so I couldn’t see them. They were stripped and replaced with corporate sponsored icons, icons that were there to convince me that my loyalties should be to capitalist production and consumption, to the superiority of “those who think they are white” as Ta-Nehisi Coates calls them. Arundhati Roy said it best when she said that the smartest thing the conqueror ever did was infect us with their dreams. You cannot infect someone with your dreams if they have a legacy of their own, because they won’t have any emptiness that they feel they need to fill. I had to actively and stubbornly work to uncover and reclaim the names of my own legacy. And so it is imperative that I now etch these names into the fabric of my poems, and into the environment of the classrooms and communities I inhabit. It is my responsibility to redirect people from the corporate sponsored celebrities so they can also discover the genius of Eduardo Galeano, the power of Iris Morales and the Young Lords, the bravery of Agueybana and Anacaona, the unstoppable commitment to serving the poor that my father-in-law, Samuel Acosta, possessed. I don’t exist without these people. WE don’t exist without them.

And I think that is where the zemí comes into play, and the areyto. Both were Taino instruments designed to pass on legacies, honor collective history, and educate the community. The Areyto was ceremonial performance in which the stories and values of the tribe were transferred. The zemís were more personal agents for this. They were physical objects, sculptures, and they were given their own huts, as they were seen as living beings. Since I first learned about Taíno culture and history when I was an adolescent in college I have been fascinated by both. For some time I’ve had this vision that each of the poems in my book would serve as either an areyto, an oral piece composed to transmit knowledge for the benefit of the tribe, or a zemí, a physical object that (metaphorically speaking) would house the spirit of an ancestor or make a monument of important personal or historical moments.

I might be projecting here, but I see zemí sculpting in Ford Over, particularly with regard to “An Anti-Glossary,” a poem that has really tickled my imagination. This poem, which is also visual art and performance, is essentially a list of words from the Karankawa language, retrieved from a historical document, but you conduct a kind of erasure on it by using paint (and sand!) to eliminate the translations. What is most intriguing is the reason you give for eliminating the translation: that translations made by the colonizer cannot be trusted, for obvious reasons. And the Karankawa words are so beautiful visually and aurally that, as a reader, I personally didn’t care that I did not know the meaning of the words. I enjoyed just taking them in and wondering about their meanings and use. Words like “Eclenemac,” “Coochcam,” and “Sebilool,” are so phonetically sonorous. A tension arises here: the reader desires the meaning of the words on one hand, on the other it’s okay with them existing ONLY in inside the reader’s head without  a translator to tell them what they should make of the words.

I’d love to hear more about your thinking and process with “An Anti-Glossary,” but I also am hoping you’ll speak more about something else that came up in our phone conversation. In Western literature, there is an unhealthy culture of self obsession, of solipsism. The ego, the “I,” is placed on a pedestal. Conversely, this Neoliberal brand of literature frowns up writing that uses the “we” pronoun, work that shuns the idea of a self separate from a larger collective, because Western Literature is obsessed with the myth of the lone hero, the isolated genius. As I told you, I had been criticized by numerous peers and writing workshop leaders that my work wasn’t “personal enough” and that I shouldn’t use “we” in a poem because I’m not able to speak for anyone else. You said something quite funny in response to this. You said something to the effect of, “Why would I write about myself? I am so not interesting.” I staunchly disagree with you on this, by the way, but I did feel that there was something quite profound in your joke. You also said that Ford Over is a personal work even though you are not writing directly and specifically about John Pluecker’s life experiences. Would you mind elaborating on how your book, a collection that is full of erasures of and examinations of historical texts (someone else’s words), is a personal work? (4/9/2016, 10:22 a.m. E.T.)

JP: So I think I am going to go back to what you were saying before about this idea of individualism as Western, or we could say as European, as white, as capitalist, as gringo. Individualism is a disease and a dis-ease, I think (a sickness and lack of connective tissue). On the one hand, it is in opposition to indigenous American (in a continental sense) conceptions of collectivity; it is in opposition to movements for collective change or collective struggle; it is in opposition to community or historical groundedness. I’ve also been in workshops—mainly more traditional or conventional spaces—where I have been asked to insert myself, to explain myself, to make myself more visible in the text (often as way to manipulatively “hook” the reader, to get them interested in me/the writing). With Ford Over, I was very consciously fleeing this mandate to “personalize” my work or to put my self on display. I do not find my self interesting, you were correct in your paraphrasing. After more than 500 years of colonialism and conquest and exploitation by people of European descent in the New World, how could I possibly find my (white, male) self interesting and purport to be anti-colonial? That would be a sick enterprise. What I am interested in is something, somewhere else (though of course, this body is where the interest arises and sometimes the body is all too crucial – but the body is not exactly “me,” I think). I want to think about this idea of Ta-Neheisi Coates about “people who think they are white”—which is really a re-statement of James Baldwin’s idea about “those who think of themselves as white” (from his essay “On Being White…And Other Lies”). On the one hand, whiteness flees visibility, preferring to be un-marked, un-seen. On the other hand, whiteness is constantly visible, white privilege is perilously real. Whiteness is founded on a lie, and that lie is the foundation for the existence (and the continued rapaciousness) of the U.S. nation. I don’t think I will be able to untangle all of these threads in this response, but at least I can point to some of the contours of this thinking around whiteness, individualism and writing the personal that propelled the writing of Ford Over.

I see this desire to drown whiteness, to drown patriarchy and colonial thinking in both of our books in the repeated trope of the drowning European man. I’m inspired by your “Decímarina” which draws on the historical account of four Taíno guides of the cacique Urayoán in 1511 who purposefully drowned a Spanish explorer in the Guaorabo River in order to prove the Spaniards were mortals and not gods: “doggedly holding him to the floor / of the riverbed to be sure / his spirit no longer endured.” Our poems re-create this moment of drowning, force it to repeat and and repeat. This is about me, and it is not about me at the same time.

I learn a lot from the writing of Mexican poet, Dolores Dorantes, who in a recent blog post questioned the very nature of what is personal. As she says, “Uso la escritura como una manera de hacer tangible esa estructura [de nuestro pensamiento], con su infinitud y ambigüedades de significados y la apertura de las resignificaciones.” Which in English would be something like, “I use writing as a way to make that structure [of our thinking] tangible, in its infinite breadth and its ambiguities of meanings and its openness to resignifications.” This is another way of thinking about the project of “An Anti-Glossary” or Ford Over more generally: making tangible this thinking which is “ours,” this thinking which is a legacy of colonialism. In the face of the imposition and continued domination of European languages in the hemisphere, how might we ever think our way out of the mirrored madhouse of coloniality? I’m thinking again of something M. NourbeSe Philip said on a recent visit here in Houston, that Europeans—after uprooting themselves—set out to uproot the peoples of the entire world, to impose this uprootedness globally. Re-planting, re-rooting, re-seeding, re-making, re-growing, re-conceiving: these are concerns I think we share, though of course our strategies and particular locations and geographies are quite distinct. I see this as a millenary pursuit: how do we re-root? Upon what grounds? Especially since as you write in the poem “Ricanstruction: Xenochrony,” “I am of no nationality recognized by the chancelleries, I am a liquefied mosaic, a defamed Orisha biohacked by a French baker and a Galician aristocrat. […] I am Rimbaud’s oily hair, a curmudgeonly descendant of the Gauls, a mongrel with a Pentium processor in my skull.” Or like in the poem “Sucrosanct” in which a diabetic Efrain has to grapple with his own ancestors’ role as a slave-owner on sugar plantations generations before. Your poems resist purity, incite complexity, yet still yearn to drown the colonial and to re-root contemporary young people in a pantheon of zemís and a multiplicity of areytos happening on every corner, every block. So then does your poetry yearn for a re-rooting? And if so, how do you imagine the grounds? (4/12/2016, 10:24 a.m. C.T.)

VT: My poems resist purity because purity is a lie, just as whiteness is a lie. I don’t even feel this is a political statement, but rather a scientific one. At the cellular level everything in our known world is mingling, mixing it up, molecules attaching themselves to other molecules, breaking off from others, but not before integrating pieces of what they were previously attached to. And yes, my poems yearn for re-rooting, but I think (and you’d have to ask them yourself) what they really yearn for is suffusion: to expand the field upon which one might be rooted. I am recalling now a poem by Hafiz where he writes something to the effect of, “I am so close to god I refuse to call her by a single name.” When your field is narrow and you see divisions you acquire the urge to claim a side, choose a single name. Perhaps it is because, as I address in an earlier poem not in Stereo.Island.Mosaic., I have both the blood of colonizer and colonized in me, so I see both sides. Life for me is not an either/or proposition. Or at least I don’t want it to be. I imagine that is why I am so drawn to works of art that collage things together and juxtapose: mosaics, hip hop sampling, surrealism, improv theater (and it’s rule of “yes, and …”). When things are being suffused, I feel alive. In “The Physics of Immortality,” Frank J. Tipler asserts that life has a relentless desire to continue to expand. I vibe with that, for when things are expanding, I feel alive. Which is to say that when the opposite is occurring, when things are being contracted, divided, isolated, and cordoned off, I feel stale, deadened, static. Purity, to me, seems to require far too many layers of isolation. I subscribe to the final declaration of Ford Over,  “Cover      us/ with      stain.”

So yes, my poems do hope to drown the colonial impulse to “other” things, to convert them into an enemy to conquer or a thing to possess. And you’re right that I am considering contemporary young people in my work, as my profession is teacher. Our students are growing in the midst of a corporate dictatorship that aims to breed them as beings loyal to hierarchies of status based on class, race, gender, religion, and now to a greater extent, consumer purchases. Your place in the hierarchy is dependent on what you purchase and what you click “like” on. I hope I might help them to see the colonial roots of these dissections, and to get them instead to see themselves in all things. As the Buddhists proclaim, “Zen has no enemies.” If you see nothing as an enemy, then war becomes obsolete, the hierarchies of Capitalism become obsolete, oppression becomes obsolete. In your poem “Day In You” you write, “along the ford, multitudes linger…” The multitudes are at a ford, waiting to be able to cross, to become their own bridge. At the root of poetry is the metaphor. The etymology of metaphor means to bridge. The poet, and the multitudes want to build bridges, to connect (and is not the online social network a swindle selling false connection?) with what is on the other side of the ford. Earlier in the poem you plead, “teach me to ferry well/ now,” and then you welcome everyone with “come       all, come norther…” You express the need to navigate the divisions and then to welcome “all,” this crossing culminating in a budding, “we    to     be    come cal       yx.”

And yet this process is cyclical, is it not? In this same poem of yours, what is done is undone. Yes, we aim to drown things, but then as you say, “we become the drought-/ the parting tongue-,” there is the subsequent “spread of forgetting.,” a “disremembering,” and soon after the motion to “disimagine.” All of this, perhaps, is a result of something else the poem confesses, “we are unused/ to living.” For isn’t this all new to us? Isn’t that both the scary and the exciting part.

Once again, our books are speaking to each other. Your book does a lovely job of capturing this cycle of fording and then splintering, excavating and then re-filling. As Stereo.Island.Mosaic perceives time in the vein of Antonio Benítez Rojo, as a wave that folds and then unfolds, moves forward and then backward imperfectly and incongruently, it seems Ford Over is also engaged in a nonlinear movement from constructing then dismantling then reconstructing. And each time something new emerges. Which is why the book’s final call to “cover us with stain” feels liberating.

This last poem is resplendent with these verbal challenges: “ wreck the attempt,” “oh come, drown our meanness.” These actions, too, feel liberating, and bold, particularly as you begin this poem with “… a wild animal hot on your heels, seeking to tear you apart…” The speaker sets up this situation of being hunted and cornered. Perhaps you can wrap this up for us by sharing how this poem, and the book as a whole is (or is not) a response to having “no other hiding place.” (4/12/16, 2:49 pm, E.T.)

JP: I like the way in our conversation we each have found our answers in the writing of the other. A way to see the cosmic in the face of oppression. An attachment to the molecular in the face of racial horror. Your question makes me think about the figure of the palenque that appears and re-appears in your book, the quilombo, these communities of fugitives: enslaved people running away to an other way of life in liberation. There was a wild animal hot on their heels, seeking to tear them apart. There was and is no hiding place, only a continual process of escape, of searching. As you say in your poem, “Self-Portrait as Coffee Tree,”

If the only way back to my Oromo throne is through /

Your lower intestines, I am ready

to descend, to dive…

(4/12/16, 3:17 pm, C.T.)

John Pluecker is a writer, interpreter, translator and co-founder of the language justice and literary experimentation collaborative Antena. His work is informed by experimental poetics, radical aesthetics and cross-border cultural production. His texts have appeared in journals in the U.S. and Mexico, including The Volta, Mandorla, Aufgabe, Animal Shelter, and Fence. He has translated numerous books from the Spanish, including Antígona González (Les Figues Press, Forthcoming) and Tijuana Dreaming: Life and Art at the Global Border (Duke University Press, 2012). His book of poetry and image, Ford Over, was released in 2016 from Noemi Press.

Vincent Toro has an MFA in poetry from Rutgers University. He is winner of the 2015 Sawtooth Poetry Prize and is recipient of both a Poet’s House Emerging Poets Fellowship and a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry. He is also winner of the 2014 Metlife Nuestras Voces Playwriting Award, and is a contributing editor for Kweli Literary Journal. Vincent’s poems have been published in The Buenos Aires Review, Codex, The Cortland Review, Vinyl, The Acentos Review, Duende, Rattle, The Caribbean Writer, and Best American Experimental Writing 2015. His book, Stereo.Island.Mosaic., is available through Ahsahta Press.

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