By Rebecca Seiferle, Drunkenboat
1. Do you write poetry in English? or is Spanish, your
first tongue, the one you still prefer for writing poetry?
I write in Spanish, that’s where the sound of the word comes to me. Spanish is my mother’s tongue, Spanish is the language that I carry within me.
2. Is there any difference between your preferences for English or Spanish in writing poetry or prose or critical studies?
When I write I prefer to write in Spanish. Since it is the language I learned in my homeland, the language in which I recall my memories. When I write prose, critical studies, I still prefer Spanish. But English is a language I am quite comfortable, so I can write in English as well. More and more most of my contexts are in English.
3. Why were you drawn to translating the poems of Gabriela Mistral? Is your in progress critical study of her work an outgrowth of the translating process?
It was more of a whim. I was with JC Todd in Philadelphia, we were talking about translation, and she said that I could do an excellent job in translating Mistral. So I gave it a try, and found out, that I can actually translate Mistral and enjoy it. I was quite pleased with the outcome of my translations. I always felt that the translations of Mistral were weak, but now there are several translations of her work, that I find excellent.
My critical study of Mistral started in Graduate School, when a Professor said that her work was mediocre. Since I wanted to focus my study in women poets, Mistral was one of them. After reading her work, I knew that she was such a giant poet, rich, deep, and with many nuances, that I just concentrated on her work. At that time,
4. Has translating Mistral had an influence upon your work?
No. I just started translating Mistral. I think our worldview and style are quite different.
5. In a more general sense, is your work particularly influenced by various writers? Does this influence reside in a number of writers who has stayed with you for a long time or are you also influenced by those you're reading at the time?
I think when you read poetry and especially if it has an impact on you, it stays with you for a long time. Then in a fleeting moment an image comes, the rhythm comes out of you, and you start to doubt. Is it mine? does it belong to someone else? I have poets that I read and reread, among them are Vallejo and Sabines.
They are the two poets I like the most. When I write I try not read other poets, because I am a sponge, and I soak their language, their anima, their internal rhythm, so I stay away from reading when I am in the frenzy of writing.
6. Have you translated other poets, and how is the influence of translating a work different than merely reading one?
I have not translated other poets, but it is something I would like to do.
7. Your books, Colibries in exilo and La Manzanilla, seem to be extended sequences. Do you think of this consciously or is it the intuitive way in which you write, writing extended sequences of shorter lyrics that are interrelated?
I am not aware that they are extended sequences. But I think books of poetry are like a family, and whenever I write, I have themes I focus, and the poems come, and I see the relationship of a poem from a previous book related to one in the next book, I call them cousins. So, yes I do think that some of my poems are linked as relatives. I have a certain intention when I do a collection of poems for a book, but some times the poems have an intention of their own.
8. Many of the poems in La Manzanilla are connected with a sense of a Jewish heritage or tradition? I noticed that it was your fellowship to Ecuador that allowed and aided in the writing of La manzanilla. Was
it a reunion with familial and cultural traditions that struck you at this particular time?
That was the intention of the book. I wanted to do research on “Converse Jews” in Ecuador, and translate that research into poetry. So all my research from Ecuador I wrote it into poems. It was quite an interesting experience. I never thought that after more than five-hundred years fear and silence would be such an important presence. When I wrote Manzanilla del insomnio a lot of people were disappointed that my research was translated to poetry. They wanted prose!!! But to me, that was the challenge. In the process of writing it, I wanted to recover my own roots, and my own relationship to the diaspora. So the book reflects that process of recovering identity through a diasporic condition.
9. Your prose piece "I Am Word" evokes that multicultural sense of being of several lineages but belonging to none.
Do you consider yourself to be a Latin American, an Ecuadorian, or an American poet, or all of the above?
Identiy is so fluid, that by just clinging to a word, to an identity it makes it stagnant. So I would respond I am all that and more. I am a product of the diaspora. I am a mixture of cultures and of identities.
10. Your work often uses images of the body. Is this perhaps reflective of that multicultural sense, placing identity in the physical body, or of gender,
the way in which many contemporary women writers use bodily imagery, or of being Latin American, since this bodily imagery is a strong current in that work as well? Or is it an intersection of all of these various realities or an intuitive sense, and just 'something you have always done"?
Some critics have remarked that about my work. I am not conscious of that imagery, imagery for me it is intuitive. I think the body is such an important presence in my life, I am very conscious of the body, in the internal and external way. I feel the body is our connection to the sensation of the universe. So my body is my identity, and through my body I connect to my cultural roots.
11. Since you are a native of Ecuador and live and teach in the United States, where do you feel most at home? or is home in several places at once? or does it result in a sense of being deracinated?
Home is my body. When I am in Ecuador I feel at home, when I am in the U.S. I feel at home, and sometimes I don’t feel at home in either place. I feel like many other immigrants, you feel the nostalgia for your home (Ecuador.) I miss my family, knowing that you have a family to support you, to be with you when you need them, I miss my friends, the familiar; and yet, I have created a new home, my own family, new friends.
12. Do you feel at home in contemporary American poetry? or do you place your work within the Latin American tradition?
I find myself more among the Latin American tradition. Yet, it is strange, because I am not there, I am here. I would like to transgress to the American tradition as well.
13. Are there any particular difficulties for you as a poet from Ecuador writing in Spanish and living and teaching in the U.S.? With publication, readings, recognition? You recently won the Andrade Award which is most prestigious in Latin America but few know of it here; has it had a positive effect on recognition in this country or elsewhere?
Without any doubt there are difficulties. I feel isolated to say the least. If I lived in Ecuador, I would be much more recognized in Ecuador as well. But living here, I feel isolated. I know poets from other Latin American countries, and our friendship is linked by poetry, and I feel connected to them. But in the sense of having a community of poets, or relating to a community of poets here, I don’t feel connected. It is through JC Todd’s and mine translations that I am appearing in journals in the U.S.
Has winning such a prestigious award had any positive effect here?
I don’t think so. Most people are unaware of such an award. And to be honest with you, I am not a good promoter of my own poetry. I am ready to cross over.
14. What are you currently working on, in poetry? prose?
I am always working on something. I am completing a new book, entitled, Poems of salt. That one, I think it’s quite different from the other ones, but I am sure that they are some cousins there too. I am very excited about this one, I am usually quite secretive about the title of the book until its publication time, but this time I am quite open about it. Then I have two books I would like to complete, one is on Mistral’s poetry it is a critical approach to her work, and another on Chicana/Latina literature. Also, I am enjoying writing prose/poetry like the piece “I Am.”
Follow-up questions to interview Drunkenboat by Rebecca Seiferle
1. How do you find Mistral's worldview and poetic practice different than your own? would you like to elaborate?
First of all, Mistral belongs to another historical time. She wrote between the beginnings of the 20th century (1907) through the 50’s, that alone will create a different worldview. Her writing masked many of her ideas about writing as a woman, as a poet, as a teacher, as a political activist. She definitely was ahead of her time, and her worldview was masked in her writing so that she can be accepted as a writer. Masking her writing was an important poetic practice in Mistral. I have written literary critical essays on this point in particular, because she was quite avant-garde in her ideas, yet quite traditional in her form. So I argue that she should be part of the Avant-Garde movement in Latin America. No one has ever said this. Yet, it is hard to refute. The paradox lies, that Mistral was always an outsider, even after winning the Nobel Prize! She was turned into an icon in Chile and Latin America, yet very few people really read and understood her poetry. Without attempting to write a whole essay, which is tempting, I would say that the historical and personal contexts of Mistral and mine are different, and that would translate into a different worldview and poetic practice than my own. You have asked me to look at this from a perspective that never occurred to me.
I have written about Mistral as a critic, and then I write my own poetry as if the two were totally separate. Until now, with your question, I think of the important connections and disconnections between Mistral and me. Both of us write as outsiders. That’s an important aspect of my worldview as well as my poetic practice. Mistral considered herself a wanderer. Displacement and the diaspora have made an immense mark on my life, and that keeps resurfacing in all my poetry. For different historical reasons, Mistral also was displaced from Chile, and always felt like a foreigner and a wanderer. For me the sign of the wanderer is the force behind my poetic practice. Wandering and writing are ways of looking from the outside in, and having the ability to come in and out at will. It is a way of being chameleonic, of using different masks, of undressing yourself, of wearing different outfits, of crossing many borders, of using more than one language, one culture, and one religion. It is a way of being many facets, many faces all at once, and yet connecting with others as well.
2. What qualities do you find in Vallejo and Sabines that continue to intrigue and interest you?
I like poetry when is visceral. The notion of poetry for me is that words have a power beyond words. So when I read Vallejo, his images, his metaphors, stay with me forever. I feel the pain he felt, because he was able to translate that into words. Vallejo is perhaps one of the most complex contemporary poets of Latin America, yet his poetry is so rich, so powerful, and so simple. When I read Vallejo over and over, I muse at the fact that he was so human, a poet of all poets, yet his ego never interferes with his poetic practice. Vallejo’s poetry is a way of looking at life by following an open wound, a wound that has left traces of blood, of pain in the white page. Sabines also expresses pain but in a different way. As a reader you can’t see the wound, the wound is not opened like Vallejo’s. Sabines is playful, uses humor and love as a way of dealing with suffering. His language is simple yet profound, and everyday language is an important part of his poetic practice. His images stay with me forever as well. They are definitely my two most important lights in poetry. I also like Luisa Futuransky, again, she is from a different generation, but her poetry reflects the power of the word.
3. Would you like to talk a bit further about your project on Latina writers?
I have always been interested in working with Chicano/a/Latina Writers; I had the opportunity to work on a literary journal called Maize in 1979 with Alurista who was at that time an important emerging Chicano poet. My experience in that journal helped me realize that my own identity was that of a Latina Writer. So I continued to work in that area, I directed an important contest of Chicano/Latina Literature at the University of California, Irvine for almost five years. I teach several courses on the Borderlands, this is also a subject of great interest to me.
The borderlands,and the diaspora both deal with displacement of people, and that in itself creates a rich body of literature. I have published several articles on that area. So I am working on a series of essays dealing with the figure of La Llorona that appears in the writing of Chicana writers. I identify with Chicana writers, but I would not try to usurp that identity. They are my hermanas. And that’s why I like to continue working on the writing of Chicana/Latina writers.
I would like to add my experience of translating my own poetry
I worked collaboratively on the translation of my poetry book, Colibríes en el exilio/Hummingbirds in Exile with JC Todd. And that provided me with a better sense of the English language in poetry in English. Since then, I have translated Mistral, and my own poetry, and feel that I can translate my own poetry in ways that I could not before. I feel I can delve into my own poetry as if I were a translator who is trying to figure out the poetic voice of the poet. And I am able to mold my translations as if they were soft clay, and be able to maintain the authentic voice in the poem. Perhaps blindly, I feel satisfied. Or my ego is playing games with me. I have become so brazen that I am sending most of my own translations to this journal that has requested some poems. This is such a new experience for me that I wanted to share it with you in this interview.I enjoyed very much addressing your questions. In this time and space, it is so refreshing to sit down and reflect about poetry, about the practice of writing poetry as a mode of resistance, about writing poetry as a mode of survival, and as a way of connecting with the truth, even if it is for a fraction of a second.