Here are just a few excerpts of an excellent interview, in which Loretta Collins Klobah speaks to fellow poet Vahni Capildeo about Ricantations (Peepal Tree Press). This interview was published in PN Review 242, Volume 44 Number 6, July-August 2018. Read the full piece at PN Review.
[. . .] Your first book, The Twelve-Foot Neon Woman, appeared from Peepal Tree Press (Leeds) in 2011. Can you say something about your beginnings with that book?
The poems based in Puerto Rico take their subjects and energy from Santurce and Barrio Obrero (areas of San Juan), and Old San Juan; the urban forest; bomba dancing, narcoculture, street graffiti; and our history. Other poems range several of the Caribbean islands, Peckham and Notting Hill in London, and a bus terminal in Chicago. They touch on memory, history, social issues, art and the spirit. Music and the carnivalesque, sardonic humour, love and suffering drive the collection.
The book engages with Caribbean literary traditions. Although I had lived in Jamaica, and West Indian communities of London and Toronto, before moving to Puerto Rico, I lived in Puerto Rico for nine years before I felt sufficiently translated, assimilated, conscious and grounded to write the place where I would raise my daughter as Boricua and develop a tentative sense of my own belonging.
Your poems’ multilingualism, blending Puerto Rican Spanish and various Englishes – sometimes in the same line – fascinates me. Were there models for this?
Let me answer the question about the plurilingualism in my poetry by going back to my childhood. I was born in the town of Merced, in the San Joaquin Valley of California. My mother had Spanish and Scottish heritage, my father Cherokee and Irish. My godmother, María Ochoa, and my godfather, Jesús Pérez, were from Mexico. Spanish was spoken by a substantial portion of Merced’s population, and the language was a part of my daily and cultural life. When I was a child, my godfather made an effort to teach me some Spanish every Sunday. Johnboy López, a year older than me, joined our family when I was a preteen and lived with us as my brother while his parents remained in Mexico. Later, I had classes in Spanish.
A long list of writers have blended Spanish and English in their work. I feel particular affinity for the poetry of Willie Perdomo, Martín Espada, Sandra María Esteves, Victor Hernández Cruz and Raquel Salas-Rivera for how they write the Puerto Rican diasporic experience and the island, but also how they innovate with language to write about the working classes, culture, history and social justice issues. My own style of blending languages, however, comes out of my immediate lived experiences and my ear for language as much as my long-standing engagement with Puerto Rican, Latin@ and Anglophone Caribbean literature.
I wrote poems from the first year of primary school, but when I started getting serious mentoring at eighteen, I was part of an active poetry community in Fresno, California. This included the former US Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera, Francisco X. Alarcón, Margarita Luna Robles, Leonard Adame, Ernesto Trejo, Luis Omar Salinas, Robert Vasquez, John Martínez and occasionally Gary Soto. The former US Poet Laureate Philip Levine and Charles Hanzlicek were my mentors.
Levine wrote narrative poems about Spain and frequently gave us poems by the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca, the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, Nicaraguans Rubén Darío and Ernesto Cardenal and the Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade, among others. [. . .] The first poem that I published in a literary journal, which was about the lumberyard where my father, my godfather, John López, and I worked, had some Spanish in it.
During my formative years, I mainly read British and US poetry as well as Spanish poetry and poetry in English by Latin@ writers. In my early twenties, I read Bajan poet Kamau Brathwaite’s The Arrivants and Trinidadian Gordon Rohlehr’s companion critical study Pathfinder. Even before Brathwaite started to write in his innovative intertextual Sycorax video style, his amazing poetry used the smallest fragments, pebbles, grass blades, chiselled syllables and musical borrowings to delve into and rewrite history, epic stories of African migration and ‘New World’ arrival. I followed Rohlehr’s guide and travelled on a shoe-string budget to talk with many Caribbean academics and writers, and haunted archives, gathering generously hand-copied audio tapes (such as recordings of the Mystic Revelations of Rastafari), photocopies and VHS videos (Mikey Smith, Linton Kwesi Johnson and C. L. R. James reciting poetry and debating in Britain; nine-hour videos of the Jamaican Kumina Queen Imogene Cunningham). I looked for the materials annotated in Rohlehr’s analysis of Brathwaite’s text, trying to understand the historical, cultural and poetic assemblage work Brathwaite was doing in order to write his first trilogy. The Arrivants was my Ur-text, one of my foundational beginnings as a contemplative adult person. Although I was still influenced by Levine’s narrative poetry, The Arrivants changed my life as an academic and writer. After that, I started reading Caribbean literature extensively. I eventually earned an MA and MFA in poetry writing and a doctoral degree in Caribbean literature from the University of Iowa. I have been avidly reading Caribbean literature for about thirty-five years. Four of the nine years of my doctoral study were spent living in Jamaica and West Indian neighbourhoods of Toronto and London. Now, I have lived in Puerto Rico for two decades.
Obviously, the Spanishes of California and Puerto Rico, of Cuba, the Dominican Republic, the South American countries, are not the same. I read, teach, and associate with the Nuyorican writers and other US-born or -based Puerto Rican writers, as well as writers on the island, and many writers from the larger English- and French-speaking Caribbean and their Diaspora(s). I live between languages in all spheres of my life, and I love Puerto Rican Spanish and our idiomatic sayings, as well as the Englishes of the Caribbean archipelago.
When Trinidadian poet Andre Bagoo interviewed you for Caribbean Beat, you foregrounded dance and musical forms. Do these translate into language? What of poetic ‘voice’?
Philip Levine advised his students: don’t be in a rush to find your ‘voice’. I am in my mid-fifties, and I try to not bore myself by writing poems that are always in the same voice, form and style. I want continually to be learning and surprising myself as I write. Still, something of a recognisable voice emerges in my first book, The Twelve-Foot Neon Woman. The second book, Ricantations, is different in approach: there are more marvellous and speculative elements: mythic creatures, animals and anomalous beings, such as a flying gargoyle, a man who wears a Green Lantern suit at his wake, a Spanish Baroque girl with hyperphagia and a circus family of high-wire walkers. However, in both books the voice combines the quotidian and the luminous, the beautiful and the atrocious, grim humour and what Vidyan Ravinthiran, remarking on Ricantations, has called the ‘exact, terrible word’ to portray the realities of a colonised society ransacked by debt, mass migrations, narcoculture, gender violence and hurricanes.
The various forms of dance, music, carnival and visual art in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean are inspirations. Poems refer to bomba, plena, salsa, reggae, reggaetón, dancehall, soca, calypso, boleros, trio singers, cuatro music, and dance forms that are practised in the community: bombazos, among families dancing at a lechonera, at funerals – and young people at the Pulse nightclub in Florida, where half of those who died in the 2016 mass shooting were Puerto Rican. I weave in song lyrics that evoke time periods, neighbourhoods and memories.
But other forms of sound and rhythm are important to me. In Ricantations, I have an extended metaphor poem about an athletic Paso Fino horse in competition, prancing over the sounding board in front of the judges. Puerto Rico has been a horse culture since the days of the conquistadores. The Paso Fino is the only horse with a fine isochronous gait. The poem is written in the meter of the horse’s hoofbeats.
[. . .] What is the one thing you have never said or put in print which you might consider saying and putting in print now?
Ricantations explores two new topics that I have never written about before: my mother’s hospitalisation throughout my childhood for paranoid schizophrenia; and, through the Spanish Baroque paintings by Carreño de Miranda, La Monstrua Desnuda and La Monstrua Vestida, my own body image and morbid obesity. Publishing these poems might open me up to writing about other deeply buried or no-go-zone topics in the future.
For full interview, see https://www.pnreview.co.uk/cgi-bin/scribe?item_id=10281