The Writing Life: TV interview

Screenshot_2018-01-31-17-22-38-1This week I’m excited to share an interview I did over this past summer as a guest on Stephen Long’s show The Writing Life.

In this interview, I talk a bit about my history with the Spanish language, from it being my first language as a child and the one I learned to pray in and still speak with my family in, to finding my way into written Spanish. This relationship with moving between language on the air to language in print parallels the relationship I have between my two tongues.

During the interview, I share the poems “Thank You For Not Smoking: una traducción práctica” published at Hinchas de Poesía and “Speaking Spanish in NYC” published in Glass: A Journal of Poetry. The latter poem is also part of my latest collection, Until We Are Level Again (Mongrel Empire Press).

Enjoy!

 

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* nosing with quevedo & williams

 

One of the more exciting moments in reading is coming across texts that show a writer’s own reading creeping into their writing. In my own work, I can think of an orange I inadvertantly stole from a Gary Soto poem as well as a prayer reformulated from an Ernest Hemingway short story. These are moments where an influence is unavoidable or inevitable in hindsight. Not outright theft but more moving forward with one’s influences like burrs caught on your clothing after walking through grass.

burrI found such a moment in reading William Carlos Williams recently. While I’ve long admired his poem “Smell” for its ingenuity and directness, learning that he had translated the work of the Spanish Gold Age writer Francisco de Quevedo added another layer of meaning. Quevedo has an infamous sonnet, an “ode” to a rival’s nose, that, when read with Williams in mind, can’t help but conjure up the latter’s own poem. Here are excerpts from Quevedo’s sonnet, “A Una Nariz” (To a Nose):

Érase un hombre a una nariz pegado, 
érase una nariz superlativa, 
érase una nariz sayón y escriba, 
érase un pez espada muy barbado.

Érase un naricísimo infinito 
frisón archinariz, caratulera, 
sabañón garrafal, morado y frito.

(Once there was a nose with a man attached,
a superlative nose,
a nose both criminal and scribe,
a swordfish with an overgrown beard.

It was an infinity of nostrilisticity,
a towering archnose, a mask,
a proud and painful protruding pimple.)

One can see the exaggeration and wordplay of Quevedo’s original influencing Williams’ poem below. While the speaker in the poem by Williams turns the satire on himself, there is no less enthusiasm and barb in his words. Considering the two poems together, I can’t help but view the question asked in the last line of the Williams poem (Must you have a part in everything?) as mirroring the way reading influences writing.

nose_study_by_yellowquiet-d5mgoca

Smell – William Carlos Williams

Oh strong-ridged and deeply hollowed
nose of mine! what will you not be smelling?
What tactless asses we are, you and I, boney nose,
always indiscriminate, always unashamed,
and now it is the souring flowers of the bedraggled
poplars: a festering pulp on the wet earth
beneath them. With what deep thirst
we quicken our desires
to that rank odor of a passing springtime!
Can you not be decent? Can you not reserve your ardors
for something less unlovely? What girl will care
for us, do you think, if we continue in these ways?
Must you taste everything? Must you know everything?
Must you have a part in everything?

*

Happy nosing!

José

* tejiendo roosters: a translation tale

Once upon a time, I was a young poet reading through an anthology of Latin American poetry when I came across a poem by João Cabral de Melo Neto that just blew me away. I wrote the poem down in a notebook – it was in Spanish, translated from the original Portuguese – to translate into English later, which I did, happy to be in conversation with the poem.

The thing is when I discovered this poem years ago, I had it in my head that it was made up of only one part, and so for me, the poem was only one section long. And this one section is lovely. See for yourself:

Weaving the Morning – João Cabral de Melo Neto*
translated into English by José Angel Araguz

 1
One rooster alone does not weave the morning:
he will always be working with other roosters.
One to pick up the cry that he
and throw it to another; another rooster
to pick up the cry of the previous rooster
and throw it to another; and other roosters
with many other roosters crossing
the sun-threads of their rooster cries,
so that the morning, made of a soft fabric,
goes on being woven among all roosters.

20160113_182730-1
* gallo remembered *

Later, I rediscovered the poem and learned that the poet had written it with two sections, not just one. And what’s worse, that second, new (to me) section was kinda clunky (again, to me). Again, see for yourself:

2
And taking shape in this fabric, gathered,
stored and waiting where everyone will enter,
entertaining itself in the awning
(morning) sets down its frameless plans.
Morning, a canopy woven of such airy material
it rises by itself: a globe of light.

So there I was, mistaken and shaken. Was the poem I ran into in the anthology misprinted? Or had it been printed at the bottom of a page, and had younger me – floored and amazed by that first section – not turned the page when I copied it down? What else but poetry can have us slipping past ourselves like this?

There were also the questions of translation: Was the poem in its entirety a finer product in the original Portuguese? Should I consult other Spanish translations? What is a translation but a reaching into the material of memory, other’s and one’s own?

Now, my goal in sharing this story – well, not really story, more snapshots of poetic fumbling – is not to make a case against the second section, but to share the poem (it’s charm can withstand my fumbling). I also wanted to engage a bit with ideas of memory and enchantment (charmenchantmenttrès magique) and how both work in specific ways in poetry. The way the roosters build off each other’s cries is much like the way one poem is answered by another, and how one memory is blurred and built upon by another. One reads and writes, in order to read and write some more.

In a recent postcard exchange with Edward Vidaurre, I held onto my earlier enchantment as I wrote the first section of the poem out. I figured, hey, the first section’s the best part and there’s only so much room on a postcard for a poem plus my own meandering explanation at how I failed to remember the second section initially.

So, really, this is a tale of failure. Speaking of: As I prepared to write this blog post, I flipped through my sketchbook, remembering distinctly that I had sketched a rooster sometime in the past, had the image of it vividly in mind (see above).

Alas, when I found the image, it was no rooster:

20160113_182741
* mis-galloed *

 

Happy roostering!

Jose

*p.s. Here is the poem in the original Portuguese as well as the Spanish translation I worked from:

Tecendo a Manhã – João Cabral de Melo Neto (original)

Um galo sozinho não tece uma manhã:
ele precisará sempre de outros galos.
De um que apanhe esse grito que ele
e o lance a outro; de um outro galo
que apanhe o grito de um galo antes
e o lance a outro; e de outros galos
que com muitos outros galos se cruzem
os fios de sol de seus gritos de galo,
para que a manhã, desde uma teia tênue,
se vá tecendo, entre todos os galos.

E se encorpando em tela, entre todos,
se erguendo tenda, onde entrem todos,
se entretendendo para todos, no toldo
(a manhã) que plana livre de armação.
A manhã, toldo de um tecido tão aéreo
que, tecido, se eleva por si: luz balão.

*

Tejiendo la mañana – João Cabral de Melo Neto
translated into Spanish by José Antonio Montano

1
Un gallo solo no teje una mañana:
precisará siempre de otros gallos.
De uno que recoja el grito que él
y lo lance a otro; de otro gallo
que recoja el grito del gallo anterior
y lo lance a otro; y de otros gallos
que con otros muchos gallos se crucen
los hilos de sol de sus gritos de gallo,
para que la mañana, con una tela tenue,
vaya siendo tejida, entre todos los gallos.

2
Y tomando cuerpo en tela, entre todos,
erigiéndose en tienda, donde entren todos,
entretendiéndose para todos, en el toldo
(la mañana) que planea libre de armazón.
La mañana, toldo de un tejido tan aéreo
que, tejido, se eleva de por sí: luz globo.

* clepsydrally musing & borges

Found myself recently turning back to a sonnet by Jorge Luis Borges for an epigraph for a new poem. Below is the original poem in Spanish, followed by my own modest translation.

Two things stood out to me in translating. First, the word clepsydra which, after much maneuvering and reading through information, turns out to refer to a long history of water clocks. The clepsydra of the poem is both clock and music box, and so the gotas/drops work both on a physical level as well as on an aural one (music notes as water drops). So fascinating and strange a word it is, I decided to keep it in the poem, if only to have folks go and do some searching themselves. If you do, you’ll see stuff like this:

* water clock tower *
* water clock tower *

The other thing that stood out to me revisiting this sonnet is the long question in the second half of the poem. It is traditional for sonnets to have a turn, and here Borges takes up six lines for an epic, wide turn of argument, amping up the rhetoric and emotional power as he goes.

Caja de Música – Jorge Luis Borges

Música del Japón. Avaramente
De la clepsidra se desprenden gotas
De lenta miel o de invisible oro
Que en el tiempo repiten una trama
Eterna y frágil, misteriosa y clara.
Temo que cada una sea la última.
Son un ayer que vuelve. ¿De qué templo,
De qué leve jardín en la montaña,
De qué vigilias ante un mar que ignoro,
De qué pudor de la melancolía,
De qué perdida y rescatada tarde,
Llegan a mí, su porvenir remoto?
No lo sabré. No importa. En esa música
Yo soy. Yo quiero ser. Yo me desangro.

 ***

Music Box – Jorge Luis Borges

Music from Japan. Reluctantly,
the drops from the clepsydra fall
in a slow honey, made of an invisible gold
whose pattern over time repeats
eternal, fragile, mysterious and clear.
I fear that each drop will be the last.
They are a yesterday returning. From what temple,
from what meager garden on the mountain,
from what vigils before a sea I’ve never seen,
from what modest melancholy, from what lost
and recollected afternoon do they come to me,
their remote future? I do not know.
It does not matter. In that music
I am. I want to be. I bleed away.

***

Happy desangrandose!

Jose

p.s. Check out a far more competent and eloquent translation by Tony Barnstone here.

* some origins, manu chao & the friday influence

In regards to the question “When did you start writing?” I give several answers depending on context.

If it’s a professional context, I say seventeen, that being the year that I first typed up, printed, and sent off poems to a real lit mag.  I call it the year I began to take my writing seriously, the act of sending my poems out into the world for consideration an act of considering them worth, uhm, considering.  (Two got published on that first try – bless those forgiving editors!)

If it’s more of the “When did you know you were a writer?” kind of question, then I go a little farther back.  I talk about how as a kid I used to rewrite lyrics to songs I heard on the radio, how I filled up notebooks with various takes on other people’s melodies.

I look back and realize that putting my words into other people’s songs probably taught me something about form, about structure and rhyme.  What exactly I learned, I don’t know.  (I’m a terrible rhymer in poems!)

The core of the experience, though, cultivated an obsession with words – sounds, meaning, phrasing – of saying something and saying it concisely, aptly.  Inevitably.

I threw away those notebooks sometime in middle school – a friend found me scribbling in one of them and asked what I wrote.  I said homework, tucked it away, and later that night tossed them all into the garbage.  Not a scrap remains.

words, yo
words, yo

What has stayed with me through the years is a distinct respect and fascination with song lyrics.

In this spirit, let me share some of the lyrics of French singer Manu Chao!

I have been listening to his first album “Clandestino” non-stop this week.  Manu Chao, after being in a few other bands, took to travelling and picking up different influences from the various street music he encountered to create a hybrid sound that is as much diverse as it is simple.  His songs remind me of Garcia Lorca being influenced by the folk culture of Andalusia.  His travelling manifests itself in his writing songs in French, Spanish,Italian Galician, Arabic, and Portuguese.

Here’s a line that I keep turning over my head:

El hambre viene, el hombre se va –

(Hunger comes, man leaves)

This is a fine line – more than that, you see in the words themselves how one letter changing (hambre = hombre) evokes so much of the meaning of the line.  Now, take the line within its context in the song “El Viento (The Wind)”:

El viento viene
El viento se va
Por la frontera

El viento viene
El viento se va

El hambre viene
El hombre se va
Sin mas razon…

(The wind comes
The wind goes
Across the frontier

The wind comes
The wind goes

Hunger comes
Man leaves
Without a reason…)
***

Suddenly the words take on a whole other meaning.  That change from ‘a’ to ‘o’ in the words (hambre/hombre) seem almost a trick of the wind itself, the same wind that is being sung about.

Part of my general fascination with song lyrics is how you can do certain things in a song that you can’t do in a poem.  I say this not to discredit one side or the other but to show them both as the formidable modes of expression that they are.

In his lyrics, the wordplay of hambre/hombre play out concisely the theme of vagabond that Manu Chao explores throughout his whole first album.  Taken solely as words, the line is simply a proverb.  But put to music, put within the larger context of musing on wind and then the even larger context of an album about transiency and the line becomes downright mythic.

Cool.  You can listen to the song here.

And a fun one can be found here.

Happy bongoing!!!

jose

* photo found here.

* re-acquaintances & memory lane

I recently reconnected with an aunt of mine.

On the surface, this is no big deal.  Except the nice lady in question is the last living blood relative I have connected with my father.  I mean, she might know his actual birthday.

The last time Pilar, my aunt, and I saw each other, my grandmother – mother to her and my father – had died.  I spent the day with her and her family going around the neighborhood collecting stories about him.

Then she handed me what photographs she had of him.  I had never seen these photos, never seen so much of my father.

We lost touch after that visit.  It’s been eight years.

Finding each other again is a big deal because my father’s side of the family is riddled with men who leave or go missing.

In honor of our re-acquaintance, I have decided to share a poem I wrote a little after my grandmother’s death.

The line about the whispers of tough gossip is Pilar wondering after her brother.

***

Two Years *

 

In a house with only a front and back door,

The rooms separated by bed sheets,

A television that only worked at night,

When it wasn’t windy,

When it didn’t rain,

And a crucifix above the kitchen sink,

My grandmother would fill bottles with water and sugar

And watch over me as I ate in my sleep,

My mouth chewing dreams that would never fill me up.

 

Eyes puddled with dark rings would look down,

Bags the color of beaten and bruised fruit;

Her hands, brown and thin with veins

Like cross hatched branches,

A tree named Augustina

Would hold me, pour water over me

In the same place she peeled potatoes.

 

I never knew her name til I was eight.

On the phone, there was more static than I knew words in Spanish.

There was a photograph, paper swollen and smooth,

Picture blurry and dull,

A smile the color of headlights at night.

 

What face did I make as she passed me around,

Miren Angel, look at my son’s boy,

My father, the fisherman

Who let his son grow up not knowing how to swim,

His footsteps on the whispers of tough gossip,

Like dust being swept across the floor,

No longer the imprint of a foot,

No longer there.

 

Tina, I have seen buildings fall and the morning grow gray with smoke,

I have seen deserts explode through the green eye of the television,

I have seen a man hit in the mouth with his own gun,

I have seen women scream because men with broken bottles in their hands

            Don’t know better or don’t care,

I have seen love in a bruised face,

A pair of heavy eyes,

Your eyes —

 

Skin crinkling like burning leaves —

 

And I wish the metaphors could stop,

I wish I was Jesus,

That when I laid my hand down

It meant more to me than words,

More to you than an unfamiliar tongue,

Sounds you can’t understand

Stretched out in scribbles, curled

Like hair on a newborn’s head.

***

Happy scribbling!

J

* an earlier version of this poem appeared in Glyph, the literary journal of the College of Santa Fe