Thursday, June 28, 2007

A Flower in Her Heart: Jane Alberdeston Coralin

Jane Alberdeston Coralin is a Puerto Rican poet whose work has been published in literary magazines and poetry anthologies throughout the U.S. and Canada. An alumna of Cave Canem, a writers' organization for poets of African descent, Jane has performed her work in arts events and mentored writer's workshops in schools throughout the East Coast. Her poetry collections, Waters of My Thirst and The AfroTaina Dreams, are still in circulation. She is currently working on a poetry manuscript called Songs of a Daughter's Make Believe. She just completed her doctoral studies in English at Binghamton University in NY.

My blessing in knowing her is I have come in contact with poetry of heartbreaking beauty, but in addition, she is another co-author of Sister Chicas. Her Taina is self aware, whip smart and a deep dreamer, just like Jane herself.


Describe your odyssey in becoming a writer. How does Latin and female identity influence your work? What would you say are your major influences, both personally and in a literary sense?

It's wonderful how you begin with the word "odyssey"; most of the time it's felt like I've been on Discovery Channel's "Deadliest Catch" crab boat, rolling on the waves wishing for a full net. It's a type of wishing that happens with me too, a wishing for what I think is the right word, the best image, the loud line that will carry the story forward.

I am the cliche: the writer that started way-back, fourteen and pimply and unpopular. I had one friend, also a closet writer. We started writing Harlequinesque romances together. Lots of boys and horses. Only later, at eighteen, depressed and lonely in Long Island, far away from my mami and her Puerto Rico, did I learn to write truly, as in about my life, the things I understood and knew. And I could only get to that point through the vehicle of poetry. But I was a language novice; though I viscerally understood poetry's power, I hadn't yet grasped all the tools, the glorious avenues that poetry drives.

So, again, I floated on the waters, till I arrived in Washington DC and was warmly welcomed by the poetry community. I started reading at a dive called 15 Minutes on 15th Steet NW DC. A long Amtrak train ride waited me at the end of that night, but I knew it was the only way I could get to know people and kill the shy girl within. Monday nights I was there, sipping back Sprites with lime, scratching through wrinkles sheets of poem, waiting to be called on stage. Later, I found my community at It's Your Mug, a poetry cafe in Georgetown on P Street NW in the 90's. Imagine a room so filled with people it was warm in the winter, as if a hearth were burning in the corner. But there was so fire except for the flames coming out of some of the most political and dramatic poetry in the city. And the poets got me - they got my images, they got my song - they appreciated my life living on the fence, on the cusp of self: Americanness, blackness and Puerto Ricanness. I didn't see myself as a prism, but as a broken thing.

This was my new story to tell; not because it was hip or cool in 1995 to Latina in DC. This was my story to tell because I'd come to a point where my Latinaness and Blackness were speaking to each other. Narratives in my family long buried were suddenly crawling their way up and out of me. I heard my grandmother in Julia de Burgos's "Rio Grande de Loiza". Poems from Martin Espada, Marjorie Agosin, Judith Ortiz Cofer, and others were guides for me to move into the cave where the stories hide.

You were an established poet for quite a while before you stated writing fiction? Is the creative process different for you when you work in different genres? How so?

Oh, I was always a fiction writer; I think I stored the fiction away for awhile, boxed it up in cardboard boxes. I was afraid. Fear's so powerful, it struck my down for awhile. The poems were easier to admit were mine. Even that took years. It took for a very long time to say I was a writer, so your question throws me off the fence a bit. I kept poetry and fiction in very different camps: poetry to the far left, fiction over the hill and through the woods. I couldn't imagine their sharing space in my head at the same time. That would have meant I had grown as a writer! We can't have any of that.

Talking about fear, it was excruciating for me to imagine people would care about what I had to say. Shy for most of my life, I used poetry as the vehicle to talk. The poem would say everything I needed it to say and it would also silence what needed silencing. It's still very difficult for me to speak up, to say what I want, what I don't want or feel comfortable with. It's a constant battle for me: performing poetry became a stage where I could practice being heard. When I read a poem (mine or another's), I am amazed by how I feel as if the woman talking were from Mars or Pluto, blue with ice. So, if by established, you mean comfortable, I'd have to say NO. I'm never comfortable. But I'm still working - there's so much I still need to learn and try. I'm always oscillating between jumping off the cliff and never writing again or loving the process so much I'd marry it, as my 11 year old nephew would say.

Part of what keeps me going is the challenge: I become so enamoured of other writers' works: Edwige Danticat, Lucille Clifton, ZZ Packer, Zora Neal Hurston, my fellow artists and friends. Right now I am reading Kiran Desai and it was enough to strike me dumb for a bit. I couldn't think of creating for a couple of weeks. And then... something, as usual, popped in my head, deep in it, like a blooming cereus in the desert night. And then all was/is well. I feel/felt right with the world. Stumbling this practiced way is the only way I have of staying in love with process, thickening with it.

What's coming down the pike? For the past three or so years, I've worked to meld poetry and fiction, to blur the lines. I believe muddling the genres can help you strengthen the muscles for both. For example, in my own work, my dialogue in fiction stopped being stale and my poem-spaces have grown. I tell my students to listen in elevators, on the street, in restaurants. People don't know they way they speak is poetry. I use this exercise myself, fixing my ears to this magic has helped me hone in on my own work and shape it. I listen more to people, especially children. Their sounds and word choices, image constructions are so musical and poem-perfect. Children carry in their little mouths the very best metaphors. They have an intricate relationship with the power of image. They aren't held back by what keeps us, even writers, from say what needs to be said. They aren't full of the flowery language, yet they are such glorious gardens.

What would you describe as your major themes?

Do you have enough room? My poems explored my race and nationality; they interrogated my father and his abandoning my family; they looked at migration and the grasp of one's culture over assimilation. In one of the poems I sent you, "Smoke", I was dealing with the idea of my father's depression, something I had never in my youth or early adulthood even thought to explore. But being able to look back with twenty-thirty sight, I can deconstruct my memories, see my father staring out a lot, having several afternoon drinks till he fell to sleep at night, bark at us though we'd done nothing to inspire ire. His beer-thick fog of unhappiness started to speak up, some fifteen years after he'd left us. It started to speak up in poems, interrupt rooms of poems, move through my writing like a bull in a porcelain shop. I could not ignore its chatter, its rumble. It's this way with most of my work, the stories too. Characters (whether in a stanza or paragraph) just won't leave me alone. The only way I have of shaking them off my back is to pay attention. Close. Jot down what the monsters say when they say it. Then I'm free. Somewhat.

Right now I'm interested in discussing womanist themes and spirituality. The women's voices tapping on my head like clockwork hammers come from the abused, stolen, disregarded. The spiritual element comes from our response, the way we use our stories to protect each other, to protect our children. I've been exploring this in my critical studies, but like everything in my life, the academic has arced into my creative work. And that has awoken memories of my Abuelita's storytelling. Or maybe the stories are the reason behind my academic studies? We all have "talking" memories; if not from an Abuela, then an Abuelo, or a Tia or Uncle or a Madrina sitting the kitchen, the porch, the stoop, or garden. Have you read Judith Ortiz Cofer's memoir Silent Dancing? When I read it, I was convinced she was talking about my Abuela Juanita. I could have leaned in and touched my own grandmother between those pages. I don't have many pictures in my head from when I was young. I wish I'd listen more, listened closer. A lot of what's inside my throbbing cerebrum is part photo-memory, adopted copies of those yellowing Kodak snapshots. One is clear: I was twelve and on my first period and it was my grandmother, sitting queen-like in the dining room, telling me how to stay away from boys. All that story wrapped up in her own carefully detailed narrative and the threads of a Bible story, full of suspense and worry, a story to scare the adventure out of a girl. I can see her now, her honey-glow skin, gold rimmed glasses, a black woman with a roman nose - the only thing she had left of her mother who died roasting coffee beans in a ramshackle house in Anasco, Puerto Rico.

Though for the past two years I fought against the confessional or personal narrative in my poems and looked at the universal, I have learned from the literary great Audre Lorde that those dichotomies come together beautifully in the end. I don't fight the onslaught anymore. And there is an onslaught: I have the good fortune to have my mother with me; she, the last repository of all the lost tales, and I are working to piece my grandparents' stories together. Why? I want my nephew to have this history, a history which has been part of my construction and is part of his.

Is there a particular spiritual practice that informs your work? If so, can your share its importance?

I don't generally speak about my spiritual choices, but I will say that my writing is a spiritual process. Years ago, in Mexico City, I became friends with a devotee of a Hindu guru named Satya Sai Baba. My friend made annual pilgrimages to Calcutta and then returned from her retreats full of stories. Her eyes would glass over as she talked about lingams and divine ash and the Ganges sitting behind her in the sun like a forever ribbon of silvery skin. Her breath even smelled of incense, her hands at her heart as she spoke. She was contagious. I could not go to India but I had India in her. And felt God in that exchange. This is to say that I do my best to find God in everything and that I attempt to take, not only into my work, but into my everyday.

It's not so easy; I fail often, so I meditate. I have always been struck by how the creative experience is so closely related to meditation. If I am doing it right and am immersed soulfully in the act of creating, whether it be a drawing, a poem, or a story, I lose the busy, noisy, encumbered world around me. It is as if the walls fall away. And yet, I also become full of the world: the world that suffers, that is joyous, that breathes and dies. I feel open to energies not readily available in the hustle of a normal day. I am raw and vulnerable, but not vulnerable to danger, but open to love, immeasurable. I struggle to maintain that level of "meditation" when I write, even when I am uninspired. Inspiration is everywhere. I remind my students of this, while reminding myself.

I feel most animal when I write or draw. It is not art at that moment, not full of the pretense and arrogance that divides the creation from the world. In that moment, there's something metal in my mouth and I am full of air, as if I were a helium balloon. That is the texture of the experience. It is harder to explain the emotion behind it. Can I say I feel connected to the Divine?

What would you describe as your core strengths as a writer....where would you like to see yourself grow?

I enjoy the way I fall in love with the playfulness of language. My grandmother died when I was twenty-one. I had pretty much grown up with her, so when she died, I lost a limb, a living and loving part of my life. I had a hard time understanding that loss and stopped taking care of myself, grew angry with the world. But while sunk deep into depression, eating potato chips and watching soaps all day, I did write. Cringing angry poems crouching in the dark. Horror stories full of dead people. I experimented with electricity, making words into lightning rods burning up the page. It was the most creative period of my life -- so far. My mother worried - I must have looked a little scary; so she enrolled me back in college. I was exceedingly proud of the first paper I wrote for my composition class. My professor was cute. People talked to me. Life was getting better. Then -- my essay slipped from my teacher's hands into mine, like a grenade, a fat shame bomb. He'd written in red screaming pen, wide across the page like a banner: TOO FLOWERY. I was crushed. My writing life, my life, was over. I dragged myself to his office, blubbering, eyes swollen, embarrassed. Luckily, he wasn't there. It took two classtimes for me to summon up the courage to tell him what I felt without breaking apart at the seams. In the end, his response was that I was a good writer and just needed to practice. From there on in, that's what I've been doing: practicing.

I do my best to stretch the arms of words, to double, triple, quadruple their meanings and possibilities. I do tend to get away from myself (admittedly, even here). It takes several revision sessions to rein myself back in. This year I 'm going to work on a graphic novel project. This project will force me to control my elaborate, curlique way of expanding text. I will need, unlike my responses to your questions, to keep the **** short. And yet there's something very Juanita (and a little like my mother) that lets me ride the tangent wave that leads me to story. I'm going to go with it - it's worked for me so far.

We collaborated in writing Sister Chicas... how would you describe the impact in crafting a novel in that way?

The impact has been indescribable. I namely became friends with two talented writers. I learned from Ann Cardinal how to make a character pop through their language. Where my characters have the poet-voice in them, obscure, quiet, a little consumed, hers explode! They take on the page like war - they are full of talk and dragon. I love her gorgeous way of making her characters stand out: veined, real, blood people. From you, Lisa, I watched scenes unroll. You write like film. My eyes can follow and swallow each moment as if I were living it myself. Also, I learned to appreciate the art of editing, your precision and care. Thanks to our connecting, I finished with my adolescence! I still can't believe it was one phone call that brought Taina, Graciel and Leni out from the wood. This can only be exemplary of how the universe brings us to certain situations and places so that we'll learn. It is the Divine at work. From girl to woman, I believe I grew into a careful writer, watching around bends and corners for missteps in continuity. Like Taina, I learned to walk in heels. I couldn't have gained that experience anywhere, except through the pearl of our collaboration.

Years ago, a poet friend talked to me about credos. I didn't have one. It was the Sister Chicas project that helped me earn a credo, a belief in what I mean when I say I'm a writer. I learned more about myself in that encounter, in that sharing, than I ever had before: the dangers between what is friendship and business. I learned about responsibility to another and loyalty to one's art, to one's message.

How would you describe your ties to family and place as it relates to your creative life?

My family, living and dead, is extremely important to me, first as person who needs love and validation. Secondly, as a writer, they provide for me a vast landscape of memory. You got a truck load of those earlier in this interview. Though some places of that valley that is the past are unreachable, it is my family that reminds me that I am part of that story. Even those who've gone (whether by choice or not) are a section of the weave of that fabric. There is nothing I can extract or throw away. Even the ties broken by my father are vital to who I am and what I tell. His absence, though no longer painful, is still part of my experience as a woman. I no longer live on the island I write about. Does that mean I am disassociated from the oily mangroves or the cliffsides dipping into the ocean or the lovely stuck roasting pigs lining the dusty highways? I am only slightly bereft; my heart and mind make up what is not there. Memory is such a spirit that it is voice and it is blood. I can call it Latina, like I can name it African diaspora, like I can say it's female. But truly what I am is a construction of stories: island, mainland, back street, city, country, suburb, military base, coffin, nursery. I am part of that language, that text.

Where do you see yourself in ten years, personally and creatively?

I believe that wherever I am creatively is where I'll be personally. I recently received my doctoral degree in English literature from Binghamton University. When people ask me what I took from the experience, there is only one thought bursting in my mind: I spent five years writing. I woke thinking of what I wrote before sleep. I went to sleep thinking of what I wrote during lunch. Or thinking of what my students wrote. Or what they wanted to write. I have been very fortunate to have been given the time, the funds, the fellowship and the space. Who else can say that? Whatever I do, whether it involves driving a cab (which I would be horrible at) or teaching in a classroom, I hope I continue exploring those disconsolate, buzzing, ecstatic voices within, bubbling at my seams, ready to spread their words.

What's something not in the official bio?

I got MAD Nintendo skills. Well, not really. Recently, I beat my brilliant and talented nephew at a game and not being techinically-inclined in any way or fashion, it felt pretty good. I was never really sporty either - though I had the Adidas with the side green stripe and the Members Only jacket (are there still members or have they been excommunicated?) I was so bad at sports that I became a cheerleader. Shy girl - a cheeerleader - a really bad cheerleader. After a cheer, I usually ended up facing the wrong way. I never really got the hang of the round-the-world thing, one time landing a foot in a pothole and chipping a bone in my ankle; another time, slipping into an ant hill. The ants weren't thrilled, believe me. I guess it was another reason, other than being clinically poor at Mathematics, I became a writer. I think I made the right choice.


River Silk: A Song for Maria

She was mined from the mouths of worms, centuries gathered,

then crated cross oceans to Paterson, that bustling city where she plaited

her mother's hair, and her father's skin shone between the shadows

of the Royal Machine Shop. In her bobby socks and poodle skirts,

she was just a young girl reeling in the dream of cornsilk.

All she knew breathed in Paterson's gills,

the worlds between PS 18 and the 17th Street

kitchen, Meyers Brothers and the pulp of rotting

marigolds on neighbor's stoops.

She grew to understand power plants and fish weirs,

a city's promises and the legs of a father's labor.

She read a rivertown's desire, once prehistoric and big as God,

now skeletal, its ribs surrounding a whole city of dollar stores.

Long gone are the ship odors of jasmine. Now it's the pulse of car horns

and chickenwire that greet her, the tricks of a church spires' reach,

the wintergreen songs of silk wrapped around women's throats.

But still she tells the world of Paterson's sweetwaters,

new immigrants of alcapurrias, their children that rise then fall and rise again,

and those with faces like her Papa's.

On the days she is not boro or back bay or northwest bend,

the hours she is the quiet New Jersey drought, she stays put,

near home, weaving ribbons. She is the lips of the Passaic, weaving through iron,

stone to lowland swamp, but words are not all she looms in that bustling city.

Find her in drainage ditches, in the wet tongues of Clifton's suburban curbsides,

near Spruce Street or Ward, floating down Pennington Park, a lined paper boat,

winding, climbing, navigating the dead to safety. I swear that if you lose her,

all you have to do is knock on leaning oaks, or smoke out of a cave.

Her words wings in the underworld that is the gut. If you look close,

it is love's fibers she threads, wide and emergent with all her strokes,

dancing in rooms reserved for slowness.

Kneel, go ahead, just kneel

to the ground, listen close to the Passaic passing by

on the errand of her heart.



Your father turns the rib-eye on the grill. In a few days he'll leave home

for field duty. You watch him get lost in the puff of new smoke.

It is like flipping a record over after the last song:

He slips his fingers on the vinyl, scratched and worn,

skating the dark circle. He does not know

his wife will thin the night and the linoleum

in a slow dance made for two.

In a weekend ritual, he bends over those old album covers:

Cash, Waylon, Campbell, their liquor red-eye and his.

Their superstar cowboy brims, your daddy’s boonie hat,

their throats cut with gold and diamonds,

around your father’s neck a noose dragging a dog-tag.

"… cow-boy, dun-dun", your father sings,

the chorus of fallen leaves crackling in the drainage ditch.

You wave away smoke to get a good look at him.

He smiles and you worry when he does it with all his teeth exposed.

It’s the kind of grin reserved for beer and barbecue and Sundays.

You try to sing along too to something rhinestone

but you get the words wrong. Your Papi lights up,

a tobacco puff blows your way, fragrant like cinnamon.

He does not look at you; instead, he looks around

at everything he’ll never own, though he signed for it.

Daughters and scraps of credit and memory. Children,

cornhusks blocking out his sky. Five mouths and a broken dial

on the pawn shop Sanyo. All he gets now is snow

in someone’s coal miner daughter.

Give him room, a cloud of smoke whispers, tells you to go away,

let your Papi do his thing. The smoke collars him, turns his hair white.

There’s a devil in the next track. You know what comes next.

He’s listening for clues, even in the scratches.

He is far gone, already turned to a secret B side, tuned to a twang

you cannot hear, blue forest floors in his eyes,

all the backcountry of his mind. The ditches he’ll dig,

holes he’ll slip into. You’ll always wonder

if all the voices that called were in his mother’s tongue

or if they carried all the dusts of Clarksville.

Finney, Nikki, ed. The Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South, Univ. of Georgia Press, 2007


Papi and his Chrysler Cordoba

In his eyes, you could see a salesman's bounty.

Every time Papi looked at his Cordoba

you knew he knew it was not meant to be a family car

but a car for the left lane, with the window down,

with dashboard dice over the grey plush exterior winking back

at the ladies passing, peering in, as if they couldn't get enough of

My Papi, who always waited until it was the hottest hour of Saturday

to wash his Mami. He made it a holy act, a Sabbath ritual, a cup of overflowing

burgundy, felpa and Turtle wax, so shiny, it reflected back his face in the sun.

This was how he relaxed, never asking for help, all puffed up,

shirt front wet with the whipping hose, suds in his lashes,

as if a rainbow had kissed his eyes. Proud Papi

of the Chrysler Cordoba with the silver and gold siderails,

and the Chrysler insignia bent sideways on the hood from the time

he hit the bicyclist who looked the other way.

It never mattered to him that his back bent the same,

a brace to hold a slipped disc, incurred falling off an assault tank

the way Icarus thudded back to earth,

all melted wax and white feathers, body broken like a pigeon's heart.

Papi's too was like that, maroon and mystical, like the surface of

a summertime lake, sparkling with the loosed oil of drowned cars.


In ending this article, I have to say a few words about Jane's poetry. There is such longing, such braiding to familia, even if the price is heartache. There is too, a sense of heroism, of dignity in the face of loss, and a profound sense of ordinary beauty in both the construction of her work and the lyrical images that are shot through it.

Lisa Alvarado


Anonymous said...

Great article, Lisa! I actually have Sister Chicas sitting on my shopping cart right now along with Names I Call My Sister and Dhalia Season (which I read about here on La Bloga) and of course Lean Mean Thirteen.

*I'm addicted to the Janet Evanovich series of books about her character Stephanie Plum. :)

Anyways, keep up the great work!

Lisa Alvarado said...

Norma -- Thank you for being a loyal La Bloga reader annd frequent commenter. And thanks, too, for the kind words on this interview....Jane is amazing and her work derserves more attention.

Bless you, for putting SC in your shopping cart!