Asleep You Become a Continent: Philip F. Clark with Francisco Aragón

Francisco Aragón
Francisco Aragón

I came upon the work of Francisco Aragón the way the best loves happen: by accident. I was searching on a friend’s Facebook page for a review of a book he had read, and instead came across the cover image of Glow of Our Sweat. Miguel Angel Reyes’ “Glare”—that ecstatic face (a male St. Theresa!) stopped me in my tracks and I was mesmerized. I got off FB and searched Amazon for Francisco’s book. It came the next day, which I spent reading its quiet but emotionally loud poems. Few works make such an impression on me, but these resonated with me like old church bells that I remember as a child.

I never know where to begin to explain what certain poems do—how can we explain a silence that is answered for us, or that a poem so bare and honest and small as “In Secret” can light up immense sensations? I also loved that he wrote about places, films, personages that I know and have connection to—I don’t think anyone has written about the Townhouse bar! Louis Malle’s Au Voir Les Enfants had a deep impression on me. Rilke, Lorca, Madrid, Rome, Jack Spicer (a great love of mine), eroticism’s mysteries and wailings. He touched on these and other subjects, but I saw them as Aragón showed them: in the distinct mirror of his eyes. His work is immediate, true, and disarmingly familiar.

The book’s essay, “Flyer, Closet, Poem,” is remarkable for its insights; especially chilling was the passage about the young African-American man whose Favorite Poem Project video was rescinded by a famous late poet’s estate. But all of the essay’s perceptions of coming to “coming out”—from passing to covering to DIScovering—I read over and over.

What follows is an extensive interview, mostly about Glow of Our Sweat, but also about earlier, and newer, work. My hope is that our conversation might bring this small press title, which I discovered less than a year ago, new readers.Philip F. Clark

Philip F. Clark: In your Author’s Note, you state: “Glow of Our Sweat, more than a collection of poems, aspires to be a community of poems—multiple voices that mingle, converse, commiserate.” Considering that Glow also inhabits a multiplicity of forms—poems, prose, translations—the idea of a community speaks deeply to the lives and voices you gather in this collection. Can you speak to your choices in deciding to do this?

Francisco Aragón: The circumstances from which Glow of Our Sweat emerged were an indelible part of this experience.  In early 2008, I was asked to write a blurb for an anthology titled, Primera Página: Poetry From the Latino Heartland. It gathered work from the Latino Writers Collective (LWC), based in Kansas City, Missouri. I was both delighted and intrigued that such a group existed. I said Yes, read the manuscript, wrote the blurb and eventually received a copy of the book. A short time after that, Virginia Brackett, who curates Park University’s Ethnic Voices Poetry Series, invited me to the Kansas City area to read. During that trip, I met Ben Furnish, the man behind Scapegoat Press, who had published the Primera Página anthology. Ben was married to Linda Rodriguez, a member of the LWC, who had picked me up at the airport. The three of us became friends, and I also got to meet and spend time with other members of the collective, including José Faus, Xánath Caraza, and Gabriela Lemmons, among others. At the next Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference, I found myself having breakfast with Ben and Linda and they showed me a chapbook that Scapegoat had published. I was impressed by what I’ll call its “book art-ness,” and mentioned that I was looking into doing a chapbook. Ben immediately expressed interest. This process, this community-building, if you will, informed the sentiment that went into the choices I made—from deciding to make this a queer book, to writing the essay that’s included in the book, to deciding to include translations. That “community of poems” I allude to in the “Author’s Note” also refers to the community I forged with the LWC during my various visits there, including an American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) conference in 2011, during which Ben organized a reading in which I was finally able to read from Glow of Our Sweat in Kansas City. This notion of the poems “commiserating” with one another was informed by the commiserating that took place during my visits there.

PFC: Glow exhumes, in a sense, the dead—Lorca, Whitman, Darío, Spicer—and you pay tribute to them as full presences who have inspired you, and thereby let them live again through your work. How have these poets fueled the making of this collection?

FA: These dead, yes. But also someone very much alive—the gay Chicano poet Francisco X. Alarcón, who is represented in Glow with two poems, the Neruda/Lorca-inspired sonnet that I title, “Asleep You Become A Continent,” and “The Other Day I Ran Into Garcia Lorca.” These come from two books by Alarcón that I translated, and which were published over twenty years ago—Body in Flames (Chronicle Books, 1990) and Of Dark Love (Moving Parts Press, 1991). The older translations reflect the tentativeness of my writing then. I took very few risks, staying close to the literal Spanish. When Glow entered into its post-production phase—when I wasn’t revising poems any longer, but trying to come up with an order for them—I decided to re-visit these old translations with new eyes, and re-translate them.

I didn’t set out to make this collection an homage to a specific constellation of writers. My initial aim was to identify and gather uncollected poems that were in conversation with a queer sensibility. The poetry portion of the book opens (“Love Poem”) and closes (“Arttalk”) with pieces that evoke Jack Spicer. In the case of the first poem, Spicer’s biography Poet, Be Like God was key; and in the case of the second, it was a snippet of his poetry that was the crux. When I decided that “Love Poem” would be the first poem and “Arttalk” would be the last one, it didn’t occur to me that Jack Spicer had a role in both pieces. Whatever reasons prompted me to open and close with these poems had to do with the poems themselves and not because of their connection to Spicer. It wasn’t until after the book was published that I noticed that the “Jack Spicer poems” ended up functioning like bookends, which I found gratifying since he was and is such an important poet and figure to me.

As for Darío and Whitman, I thought it apt to include my version of Darío’s sonnet on Whitman since many of us view Whitman as a queer ancestor. A happy coincidence was including my version of Darío’s “Symphony in Grey.” I was drawn by how the speaker focuses in on the masculine physique of the sailor. I didn’t consider Darío gay, but I included the poem because the poem’s “gaze” felt homoerotic. Little did I know that it would be revealed, through some of Darío’s letters, that he had a secret romance with the Mexican poet, Amado Nervo, which is the subject of a newer poem of mine.

The last poem I decided to include in the book (though I chose to position the poem near the beginning of the book), was the sonnet by Lorca, “The Poet Speaks to His Beloved On The Telephone.” The poem is part of an 11-sonnet sequence. I had co-translated these with my late mentor, Jack Walsh. Given that Glow would be dedicated to Jack, I decided to include one of these sonnets. I chose this one because I wanted it to be in conversation with one of my own poems in the book, “Your Voice,” also a sonnet. In both cases, the speaker addresses the beloved, and in both cases, the sound of the human voice is key.

PFC: The ideas of masking/unmasking, revealing/hiding are surfaces beneath some of the questions you explore in Glow—how we decide when to be open, or when we decide we must not be our true selves. Glow is also your “coming out” collection. How did your personal experiences as a gay man lead to the poems in this volume?

FA: A couple of things were on my mind. It was 2009 and the sense I had was that President Obama was slow to act on some of his campaign promises, where LGBT issues were concerned. The Justice Department was still defending the Defense of Marriage Act in the courts, and he seemed reluctant to take a leading role in repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. So there was some of that frustration. But the most consequential event, which I’ve never given a full account of, was the following. Cornelius Eady was my colleague at Notre Dame and so we’d get together whenever I was in South Bend (I was working from DC by then). He had recently been appointed to serve on the inaugural committee for the Harriet Monroe Poetry Institute, headed then by Kate Coles. At one of their initial meetings, he was made privy to a situation by a fellow committee member, Robert Pinksy. Pinsky brought to everyone’s attention a scenario that involved an already-produced video for the Favorite Poem Project. Apparently, a 19-year old African American man had recorded a very poignant video in which he comments on, and recites, Countee Cullen’s famous sonnet, “Yet Do I Marvel.” In the course of his commentary, he outs himself as a gay man, and said that he found a certain amount of solace and refuge in Cullen’s sonnet. When it came time to have the Cullen estate sign off on the video, they withdrew permission. Although nothing in the video alluded to Cullen’s sexual orientation, the estate, apparently, did not want an out gay African American man associated with Cullen’s poem. They were on, apparently, firm legal footing. Reportedly, Robert Pinsky was livid, and there was little he could do. Cornelius shared this story with me. I tried to put myself in the shoes of that 19-year-old man. I became livid. And so I realized two things—one, that the collection I was going to put together would gather my queer poems, and two, I would write an essay—the one which became “Flyer, Closet, Poem.”

PFC: In the essay “Flyer, Closet, Poem,” you speak of coming to the idea of “passing”—what author Kenji Yoshino termed “hidden self-acceptance” in his book, Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights. These ideas seem to suggest the way that we cloak ourselves in disguises in order to assimilate and be accepted. Yet it is a matter of dis-covering that helps us become true to who we are, especially as gay men and poets. Discuss how this became a fulcrum for your own experience, and also how it relates to other poetic lives you speak of in the essay who also have had to cover their lives—or indeed, as in the case of Countee Cullen.

FA: What I’ve come to refer to as the Countee Cullen Sonnet Incident prompted me to re-visit a book of creative nonfiction I had read a few years earlier when I belonged to a long-standing gay men’s book club in South Bend, Indiana. That would be Covering by Kenji Yoshino, which is part memoir and part legal essay. It really forced me to face how I had “covered” for years—muted my sexual orientation or remained deliberately silent about being gay, even among people I knew to be gay-friendly. After learning of the Cullen incident, though, I resolved to write the essay in which I would confront and come to terms with, in print, my particular story, where this “covering” phenomena was concerned. I went on a two-week writing residency at Ragdale in Lake Forest, Illinois. Writing the essay, and finding an order for the poems, was my project. But something else happened during those two weeks. The project, with the addition of the essay, and the addition of several translations, no longer seemed like a chapbook. As I worked on “Flyer, Closet, Poem,” added translations, and found an order to the manuscript, the project took on deeper significance for me, both intellectually and emotionally, and it began to feel—at 70+ pages—like a book, my second book.

PFC: The landscapes and the geography in Glow roam among such different cities as Dublin, Madrid, New York, San Francisco, Rome. How did these landscapes determine certain poems; how have each of these cities invested your work with particular nuance and voices? For instance, the Dublin poems were inspired by someone in Dublin you were seeing at the time?

FA: Even before Glow, my work has been described as urban. That’s an accurate assessment given that I’ve spent most of my life in cities, and feel most at home in them. I find that a lot of pieces originate from and explore public spaces, whether it be public transportation or public squares. But it’s also true that Glow includes poems that involve particular people with whom I’ve been in relationships, such as the friend in Dublin. But as much as Glow has as a major strand its engagement with cities, what distinguishes it from Puerta del Sol, my first book, is that Glow has as a springboard other works of art—mostly texts (as in the translations/versions) but also film. There’s a poem (“Ars Poetica”) that’s a response to a Louie Malle movie, and a poem (“The Tailor”) that engages a film by Roberto Rossellini. It’s only occurring to me now that these are ekphrastic poems—poems responding to another work of art.

PFC: Your poems in Glow are mostly tercets, couplets, and some quatrains. These provide a formal “air,” rather than what can be in other forms, a density. How do you choose form for your poems—do they dictate the form, or does the form come first, which then dictates the poem?

FA: The first draft of a poem I’m working on is typically not divided into stanzas. I’ll write one block of text—one uninterrupted stanza. The line lengths may vary, but it’s one stanza. And then I’ll type and print out various versions of the poem—one in tercets, one in couplets, one in quatrains, etc. And then I’ll often tape the various versions up on a wall to see for myself what each version yields, as far as stanza breaks. The results will guide my hand as the revision process moves forward. What I enjoy about this, as a reader, are the potential pleasures the different versions of the poem may produce. It’s a very organic process. A particular subject or theme will not dictate anything. Instead, it’s a process where exploration and experimentation is the order of the day—from the start.

PFC: The poems, “Arttalk” and “Love Poem” are in homage to Jack Spicer, and each have such a wonderful evocation of his character and spirit—I love that “Arttalk” takes the idea of interrupted stanzas as the form of his voice in two aspects, the loved and the lover. Can you speak of Spicer’s importance to you as an inspiration in your poetry? How did these two specific poems come about?

FA: In the spring of 2000, I had the good fortune of taking a seminar on the San Francisco Renaissance taught by Gary Snyder. The poet whose work I was most familiar with from that coterie was Robert Duncan. I’d only read a handful of Spicer poems. But finding myself in Snyder’s class felt like such a lucky stroke. I remember thinking—this semester belongs to Jack. And so I set out and carefully read The Collected Books of Jack Spicer (poems); The House that Jack Built (lectures); and Poet, Be Like God (biography), which I loved for its rich portrait of literary San Francisco in the 50s and early 60s, and its portrayal of small press publishing, particularly White Rabbit Press. I was reading all three of these books simultaneously and having a blast. I was a native of San Francisco falling in love with my native city after returning from Spain, and I was relishing the Spicer biography for this reason. I was living in Davis at the time, but one weekday I organized a field trip for myself into the city—to mimic one of Spicer’s daily rituals, his long walks to Aquatic Park via North Beach. My particular walk, strolling down Stockton taking in the sights and smells of the open air markets with a view of the bay in the distance, just took hold of me and wouldn’t let go. I too was heading to Aquatic Park. When it came to writing the poem, I decided to use, as scaffolding, the poem of another San Francisco-based writer who had been a mentor over the years. In fact, his poem is also titled “Love Poem.” Though the content of my “Love Poem” is inspired by a particular snippet of Spicer’s biography, the poem’s architecture was the fruit of a self-imposed assignment—one I learned from Sandra McPherson, in which you use someone else’s poem, structurally and grammatically, as a model or blueprint.

If the genesis of “Love Poem” was Spicer’s biography, the genesis of “Arttalk” was a brief passage of Spicer’s poetry—the italicized lines that, as you point out, “interrupt” the space between the stanzas. What I don’t remember is how I came to the loose narrative of the non-italicized portion of the poem. It’s been many years since I read Spicer’s biography, but I suspect that visual artists were among the people he hung out with, as did William Carlos Williams in New York, and Apollinaire in Paris. I like that “Arttalk” is the poem that produced the line that led to the title of the book: “—the remains/of a moment:/glow of our sweat.”

PFC: Many of the poems in the book are love poems in some respect. Yet each one is so different in aspect—the subject and the object of love. I also find that the series of poems I call your “Dublin” poems (“Earplugs,” “Words in Space,” “Your Voice”) seem specific to a particular man they are addressed to, as well as to a specific experience and location. They are wonderful portraits of that person and that particular relationship which the poems describe. Other love poems that drew me in deeply are: “Asleep You Become A Continent”; “Midtown Tryptich”; “In Secret.” How does love reveal itself to you—in retrospect or at present—in your poems?

FA: I’m glad you’ve singled out “In Secret” which, more than a love poem, is a poem about desire, desire that can be exhilarating, baffling, and terrifying all at once—especially if experienced by a twelve-year old who can’t easily identify, understand, let alone accept what he’s feeling. The specificity of one of the images begins to hint at a particular taste, where physical attraction is concerned. It’s a modest little poem that I wasn’t sure I’d include. I’m glad I did.

The thing about the so-called “Dublin” poems is that, although the beloved in the poems is, in fact, a native Dubliner, it’s only in one of the poems (“Words In Space”) that both speaker and beloved are actually in Dublin. In “The Voice,” the speaker is in Madrid and the beloved is in Dublin. And in “Earplugs,” it just so happens that both speaker and beloved are in the United States which, now that I think about it, suggests another subtext of this mini-sequence and the relationship that’s being depicted—it’s one where distance, traversing physical distances, is one of its characteristics.  The “love poems” in Glow, in addition to being set in Dublin and Madrid, are also set in New York, San Francisco, and Rome. So I guess one way to address your question is that love reveals itself as an itinerant or nomadic phenomena, one without firm roots in one place.

PFC: In your poems which are in homage to or “after” a distinct personality—Lorca, Whitman, Rilke, Darío—what are the formal choices you explore when trying to depict the subject or to evoke the style of the subject in each? This is a kind of translation, or ventriloquism, yet the voice that comes to the reader is unique to you. Is this a semblance of how you perhaps speak in voices, when writing such poems?

FA: An instructive poem in the collection to talk about, when considering formal choices, is “Walt Whitman.” On the one hand, this Ruben Darío poem is a fairly straightforward rhymed sonnet in the original Spanish. But when it came time to re-write the poem in English, I opted for long Whitmanesque lines. The other poems range from straightforward translations, to very liberal English versions. I’ve really come to believe that literary translation is very much a creative act, particularly where poetry is concerned. Although you’re having to contend with an original text in another language, ultimately you are striving to produce a new poem in the target language. It’s also the case that two of the translations (“Asleep You Become a Continent” and “The Other Day I Ran Into Garcia Lorca”) were re-translations. I was re-visiting poems I had translated many years ago, and taking a stab at improving them.

The “Rilke” poem (“Torso”) was written in the context of one of the most fruitful and stimulating workshops I’ve ever been in—John Matthias’ workshop at Notre Dame, the one which was organized around “translation.” Our assignment was to re-imagine that Rilke poem with an ending other than its famous one (“You must change your life.”) I took it as an opportunity to try and write a very liberal English version of the poem—in tercets—and use a single line as its beginning, and a single line as its end.

PFC: You alluded earlier to a newer poem, whose subject is the secret love affair between Ruben Darío and the Mexican poet Amado Nervo, “January 21, 2013.” It’s also an imagining of Ruben Darío’s homecoming to Leon in 1907, as well as the moment of his death in 1916. It felt, reading it, and in light of what we’ve been discussing, like an important long poem for you to write. It gives back to Darío his own truth-telling, even from the grave. The last stanza’s “I am / dead, and the dead are very patient” is a powerful evocation that lives cannot, or should not, be covered up or passed over or re-written to placate history’s false images. Like many of the poems in Glow, this poem focuses on illumination from self-discovery. How did this poem begin and how did it develop?

FA: In the fall of 2012, a poet-friend of mine who lives in the San Francisco/Bay Area sent an e-mail to a group of poets. Each recipient didn’t know who the other recipients were. It was an intriguing invitation. In essence, he was inviting each of us to write an “epistolary poem.” It could take any form we wished: a letter in prose, in verse, a combination of the two. It could be a letter to someone real or imaginary. It could be whatever we wanted it to be, as long as it was an epistle. The commissioned poems were to be for a new literary journal with the following characteristics: it was to have one, and only one, number. There would be a small finite number of the issue produced—one for each invitee, and no more. There would be no biographical sketches of the poets, though they would be identified. The journal would simply be photocopies of the poems sent in (with typos if that were the case, or in long-hand if that were the case). The editor in question was calling it a journal by and for this closed circle of poets—poets whose work he admired. In the e-mail, he asked us to keep it to ourselves because he didn’t want word to get out to poets who he hadn’t invited, which would have made for an awkward situation. Our deadline was inauguration day: “January 21, 2013.” Even though I didn’t have a clue what I would write, I accepted the invitation, though with some trepidation.

On November 1, 2012, Arizona State University issued an interesting press release. The first sentence read: “Arizona State University Libraries has acquired a privately-held collection of manuscripts created by Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío.” Further in, mention is made that the manuscripts had already begun to alter scholarship on Darío, referencing one article in particular penned by a scholar named Alberto Acereda. “The article, ‘Nuestro más profundo y sublime secreto: Los amores transgresores entre Rubén Darío y Amado Nervo,’ reveals for the first time a secret romantic relationship between Darío and famed Mexican poet Amado Nervo (1870-1919.)” And so I immediately thought, maybe my epistle poem will somehow take this subject on—the secret love affair between these two well-known Spanish-language poets! Though I still had no clue what angle or perspective the epistle would take.

Several days later, I was browsing down Facebook’s news feed and found that someone had posted a link to an online piece penned by the Nicaraguan novelist Sergio Ramírez—a novelist whose work I adore, and first read during my residence in Spain. In fact, one of Ramírez’s novels, which won a prestigious novel competition in the late nineties—titled (in English translation) Margarita, How Beautiful the Sea—has as one of its narrative threads two of Rubén Darío’s homecomings to Nicaragua: the one in 1907, and the other in 1916, the year he died. In his article, Sergio Ramírez disputes the authenticity of the manuscripts that ASU had acquired. It wasn’t an explicitly homophobic piece, but one couldn’t help but think that there were forces at work who simply couldn’t stomach that Darío was involved in a gay relationship. But the longer I thought about it, the more I took these developments as gifts: my epistle poem would be in the voice of Rubén Darío—from the grave—addressed to the living Sergio Ramírez.

The January 21 deadline came and went (the poet-editor had given us an extension), but I decided to simply use that date—“January 21, 2013”—as the title of the poem. That was the day Richard Blanco became the first openly gay and Latino poet to read at a presidential inauguration. It seemed apt, given the subject matter of the poem. And so I turned in a first draft of the poem, and it was collected along with a number of other epistle poems and stapled together as the first and only number of this journal for a private coterie of readers. But I continued to tweak and revise the poem, and the definitive version appeared in MiPoesías—in a number guest-edited by poets Emma Trelles and Dan Vera. The poem could have easily fit into Glow. That line you quote (“I am / dead, and the dead are very patient.”) is from an imaginary epistle from Federico García Lorca—from the grave—to Jack Spicer, in Spicer’s stunning volume, After Lorca. My poem is very much inspired by other text(s), as many of the pieces in Glow are.

PFC: In a sense, all of our poems wear the coats of all the previous poems that came before them. Puerta del Sol was the coat that came before Glow of Our Sweat. A collection which recounts a specific series of years in Spain, it is the book you decided to “translate,” and publish as a bilingual edition. And you make the fascinating point that your translation is a “hybrid”—that of an American and a Spaniard. You ask readers to consider the poems in their many “geographies.” What were some of the complex issues and choices you encountered in such translation?

FA: When I moved back to the United States in 1998 to enroll in University of California, Davis’s M.A. program in English, one of the bonuses was that I would be sharing a campus with Francisco X. Alarcón. I’d known and collaborated closely with him since the late ’80s, but now I was going to have the opportunity to spend more time with him, and one of the ways I did that was by taking his Spanish-language creative writing course. I was going to have a crack at writing—in Spanish. The net result of that experience wasn’t so much writing original poems in Spanish, although I did that to fulfill class assignments, but rather, I embarked on what became the very personal journey of translating my already-written English poems into Spanish. As someone who had grown up speaking the Spanish my mother spoke (Nicaraguan Spanish) and someone who’d lived, studied and worked in Spain for ten years and therefore knew peninsular Spanish, I realized that the Spanish I had access to, and which sounded “natural” to my ears, was more ample than someone who’d only lived in Spain, or someone who’d only lived in California. And so when it came time to decide how I would translate a word, phrase or expression, I could choose a word or phrase that my mother spoke, or a word or phrase that my friends in Spain spoke—they would both sound correct to me. But what informed my decisions wasn’t correctness, but rather, which sound better served the poem. Had I not been in Francisco X. Alarcón’s creative writing class in Spanish, Puerta del Sol would not have become a dual-language book.

PFC: Organized into three sections, Puerta del Sol is dedicated to your mother, and her presence is very evident in the book and specific poems—certainly “Tricyles,” but also “The Last Days of My Visit” and other poems in Section II. They are heartbreaking poems, but also pay tribute to a woman—all such women—who gardened creativity. How was your mother an influence on the beginnings of your poetry?

FA: I think her gifts to me were two. First, she instilled in me the importance of getting as much education as possible. And she didn’t try and steer me in one particular direction, or another. She didn’t express a strong opinion about what I should study when I enrolled in college—no privileging math and science over the humanities, for example. Her own experience with formal education was limited, not having gone to school beyond the sixth grade. When I decided to stay on in Spain after completing my New York University Masters degree in Madrid in 1990, she did begin to wonder about the long-term utility of earning a paltry wage as an English language teacher and not saving much money. And so, one of the things I lament is that her early death at age 64 in 1997—before I’d even begun graduate school in creative writing—prevented her from seeing or learning about the work I’ve done in the field, both as a writer and as a literary arts administrator. I think she would have been very pleased with my Notre Dame affiliation.

The second, possibly more germane gift she imparted, but which I neither want to over- nor understate is this—I have memories of her reciting snippets of Spanish-language poetry. Specifically, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and, as it turns out, Ruben Darío. In the case of the former, she was fond of reciting snippets of her famous “redondillas,” particularly the one that begins:

Hombres necios que acusais
A la mujer, sin razón,
Sin ver que sois la occasion
De lo mismo que culpáis

Whose English translation, roughly, is:

Foolish men, you accuse
Women without reason,
Without seeing that you occasion
That for which you blame them

And of Darío she was fond of reciting the beginning of his “Sonatina”:

La princesa está triste…¿Qué tendrá la princesa?
Los suspiros se escapan de su boca de fresa

The princess is sad…What’s with the princess?
Sighs escape her strawberry-shaped mouth.

I don’t recall feeling anything compelling about the fact that poetry, however modestly, was a part of my mother’s life. I don’t even recall asking her how or why she knew these snippets of poetry by heart. It was years later that I began to discern that the role of poetry in a country like Nicaragua, or all of Latin America for that matter, is more indelible than it is in the United States. From this perspective, I might be tempted to idealize this factoid about my mother and say that the arts were important to her when in fact that wasn’t especially the case. But it’s something I’ve always remembered—who’s to say that a seed of sorts wasn’t planted? I’d like to think that it was.

PFC: The men who populate Puerta are so remarkable to me—the bus driver who is an artist; the old man, whose voice is “a ball of twine” who speaks from his bench in Plaza Góngora; the four “fragile men managing/through an afternoon: two with/canes, though not of an age when canes/are used… “; the “firm-thighed boys from Lisbon.” These men passed through your life almost just by glances, yet struck you so deeply that these poems about them had to be written. Can you speak to some of these spirits during the time you were in Spain, who inspired you so?

FA: The odd man out on this roster of men you’ve listed is the bus driver. It’s only recently dawned on me—given the Letras Latinas project I’m currently immersed in—that “The Bus Driver” is also an ekphrastic poem, but one constructed from the memory of images I saw once, and only once, in the Sunday supplement of the Spanish newspaper, El País. All I knew about him was that he was a bus driver who also happened to be a visual artist, and who had a selection of his images featured one Sunday morning. In contrast, the other men you mention weren’t people I had substantive interaction with. They were images—ones that struck me, and resonated with me in a particular context. The “fragile men” were men living with AIDS in San Francisco in the early nineties, men who likely did not survive. They are images from a visit home. I was slated to return to Madrid at some point, and looking forward to seeing the person who’s addressed in that poem (“The Calendar”). And “the firm-thighed boys from Lisbon” were hustlers who hung out in the central public plaza in Madrid that’s the namesake of the book. When writing that poem, I was thinking of a passage in Thom Gunn’s free verse poem, “Tenderloin”:

Not poverty beaten
down, poverty rather
on the make, without being
clever enough to make it.
Smallish sums  change hands.
This poverty seeks out
stereotype: gentle
black whore, foul-mouthed
old cripple, snarling  skinhead,
tottering transvestites, etc.

I was thinking of this poem because of the subject of my poem (rent boys and their customers engaging in this subtle courtship, a circling, on foot, around the square and its illuminated fountains), but I wasn’t especially interested in spelling this out.

The man whose voice is “a ball of twine” is someone I actually sat down with and engaged in conversation. He was very generous with all that he shared. It was my very first day in Spain—in the summer of 1987. But I took liberties with the name of the plaza. The conversation took place in Plaza España, but I wanted to name the plaza after the Golden Age baroque poet, Luis de Góngora, who was the poet that Lorca’s generation rehabilitated in 1927. The final line of my poem ends with a catalogue of sorts (“his hands, his tongues, unexplored land”). It’s a subtle nod to a Góngora sonnet whose last line also uses a catalogue of sorts as a device (“to earth, smoke, dust, shadow, nothing”).

PFC: Your previous collections, Light, Yogurt, Strawberry Milk; In Praise of Cities; and Tertulia were obviously the seeds of your beginning voice and character as a poet. How did each of them come to fruition? What were some of those early journeys of writing?

FA: I appreciate this question. It touches upon something I wasn’t fully conscious of when these chapbooks came about. Unbeknownst to me at the time they were being published, they modeled what I came to value, still value, about small press publishing. I especially value when publication is the result, over time, of a relationship. It’s the publishing-as-community-building model, in contrast, say, to the contest model. A recent example I’m extremely proud to have had a hand in is the publication of the second volume of Noemi Press’ AKRILICA series, TITULADA by Los Angeles-based Chicana writer elena minor. The AKRILICA series is a partnership between Letras Latinas and Noemi Press, which is another way of saying it’s a partnership between the poet/publisher Carmen Giménez Smith and myself.  I’m not making a value judgement, though. I’m stating how these experiences in publishing have been meaningful to me.

Light, Yogurt, Strawberry Milk was #26 of Gary Soto’s Chicano Chapbook Series. I’d had Gary as an instructor at University of California, Berkeley in the mid ’80s and then I worked as his reader for an undergraduate prose class he taught. His work made a huge impact on me when I first encountered it. So to be invited to form a part of the Chicano Chapbook Series was a generous inclusive gesture on his part since I’m not Chicano. And that experience—having a chapbook to wield as a calling card of sorts—was one of the first and most important lessons I learned, and retained, about publishing.

In Praise of Cities was a response to 9/11. It was a self-published chapbook that included an essay, which served as a model for Glow, two poems that went on to appear in Puerta del Sol, both of which include a reference to terrorism in Spain (these were pre 9/11), and a third longer poem (“To a New Friend”) addressed to a friend from New York just after 9/11, and which went on to get published in the anthology, Under the Fifth Sun: Latino Literature from California (Heyday Books, 2002). And it closes with a modest essay about my long-standing visits to New York, over the years. It broke the usual rules—it was self-published, was multi-genre, had a tiny print run, and was mostly given away.  Though—to my amazement—it has ended up in some university library collections, including at Yale, Brown, and the University of Chicago. The title of the chapbook is borrowed from the Thom Gunn poem of the same name from his 1957 book, The Sense of Movement.

Tertulia was a collaboration with a book arts entity in New York called BOOKlyn, as part of a chapbook series there called “A Poet’s Quickie,” which was curated by the poet Peter Spagnuolo, who I went to school with at UC Berkeley. That collaboration involved helping design the cover and title page, which was silk-screened with the image of a map of Madrid’s subway system (Metro), and included on the title page a piece of realia—a piece of the Madrid Metro’s brochure on all 200 chapbooks. I helped Peter print the cardstock cover at a Lower East Side print stop in the summer of 2002. That chapbook is a collector’s item. All three of them are, I think. But Tertulia is probably the jewel in the crown. Like Puerta del Sol, it includes Spanish versions of every poem and was published while I was an MFA student at Notre Dame.

PFC: The term “tertulia,” you say, has no direct translation into English; it is a kind of informal gathering, typically in a café, to visit and talk, usually about art and politics. In the name of this collection of poems, the chapbook you discuss above, as well as the poem here in Puerta, I find this idea so in keeping with how all of your poems seem to gather and lead up to Glow—small connections, made deeply if momentarily and swiftly gone; and larger connections, also deeply made but lasting. It is reflective of the way the characters in Puerta relate—in community often of just two, but happily of more. And in Glow, these “tertulias” become relationships that are integral to where you found yourself. Your current coat. How did the poem “Tertulia” come about? What tertulias are ahead for you now?

FA: I love how you’ve given “tertulia” another layer of meaning, such as when you suggest that the “relationships” in Glow are versions of “tertulias.” “Tertulia,” the poem which ends section I of Puerta del Sol, is the last piece I wrote for that book. It’s a poem that relies heavily on discursive language (this is Pinksy’s influence, I think) but I’m trying things with line and stanza breaks, rhyme, and the deployment of one long, run-on sentence in the first eight tercets, to make it rhythmically interesting. It’s a piece I have fun reading aloud. It’s also a love poem to these men I met with every Saturday after lunch, for many years, at a café. It’s a poem about missing them, and Madrid, after I ended my long-time residence there in 1998.

In terms of what “tertulias” are ahead for me now, this past May, I was in Miami—for the second installment of the PINTURA : PALABRA ekphrastic writing workshops—in tandem with the exhibit, “Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art.” It was a very “tertulia”-like experience. A group of people came together, and over the course of two and a half days, formed what felt like a soulful community—with the common denominator being the creation of new works of literary art inspired by works of visual and plastic art. The discussion and sharing that took place around this subject seemed to embody the ethos of the best tertulias. We were an intimate group of about ten people in total. The exhibit will next travel to Sacramento, and if all goes as planned, Letras Latinas will have a hand in organizing a workshop there. We’re partnering with a different literary journal for each workshop and striving to publish a portfolio of ekphrastic writing in each participating journal. Letras Latinas has never done anything like this before—partnering with journals in this fashion.

In terms of my own art-making practice, I’ll say this—I felt lucky to finally meet, in Miami, the poet Adrian Castro. He had a very level-headed thing to say about his practice. He said that after completing his last book of poems, he wasn’t convinced that he had anything more to do in poetry. And he said that was not a source of anxiety for him. He became interested in writing essays instead, and began to do so. But then, in an unexpected way, the poems—short poems—started coming to him again, and he cranked out the first draft of another collection in less than a year. I listened to him and identified with that sentiment. On the one hand, I’m working to assemble a manuscript for a third book of poems, poems that are mostly already written. But I’m not entirely convinced that poetry will continue to form a substantive part of my writing practice. For some time now, I’ve been getting more interested in various forms of nonfiction.

But then, on this trip to Miami, I took a moment to spend time with the exhibit for myself (I was there to oversee the workshop, not participate in it), and I managed to complete what feels like the first draft of my own ekphrastic poem based on a particular piece in this exhibit—suddenly, it felt like the poetry bug was still inhabiting me.  We shall see. There’s a painting in the Prado Museum in Madrid that I’ve been thinking about for years, ever since first seeing it in 1987, that seems to be calling out to me, “El Cristo de Velázquez.”

Postscript to the Countee Cullen Sonnet Incident

FA: After completing this interview, I decided to e-mail Robert Pinsky to let him know about Glow of Our Sweat, especially the essay. I had assumed there was still an embargo on the video alluded to earlier. Pinsky responded with a generous note. He was able to report, owing to some “excellent, idealistic, pro bono legal help,” that the video featuring Todd Hellems reciting and talking about “Yet Do I Marvel” was finally posted on the Favorite Poem Project website. He referred to the “Hellems/Cullen story” as “an epic with many chapters.” Thankfully, it ended well.

Francisco Aragón is the  author of two books, Glow of Our Sweat and Puerta del Sol, as well as the editor of The Wind Shifts: New Latino Poetry. His work has appeared in various anthologies, including Inventions of Farewell: A Book of Elegies, American Diaspora: Poetry of Displacement, Evensong: Contemporary American Poetry on Spirituality and Deep Travel: Contemporary American Poets Abroad. His poems and translations have appeared in various literary journals, most recently, Great River Review, Mandorla: New Writing from the Americas, MiPoesías, PALABRA, and Pilgrimage. Online publications include Jacket and Poetry Daily. Aragón is a faculty member at the University of Notre Dame’s Institute for Latino Studies (ILS), where he directs Letras Latinas, the ILS’s literary initiative, from where he’s currently overseeing “PINTURA : PALABRA, a project in ekphrasis”—in tandem with the Smithsonian’s traveling exhibit, “Our America: the Latino Presence in American Art.” A native of San Francisco, he spends fall semester in South Bend, Indiana, and spring and summer in Washington, D.C.