Thursday, July 17, 2008

Adrian Castro: As the Spirit Moves Him

Adrian Castro, his spirit, his riveting poetry and stage presence graced us in Chicago at a recent Palabra Pura. Wise Fish is a must read and we're fortunate enough to have had a conversation with Adrian, featured below. But before that, check out some background information, what other people are saying about this breathtaking book and revel in an excerpt.


Adrian Castro is a poet, performer, and interdisciplinary artist. Born in Miami, a place which has provided fertile ground for the rhythmic Afro-Latino style in which he writes and performs. Articulating the search for a cohesive Afro-Caribbean-American identity, Castro honors myth on one hand and history on the other. He addresses the migratory experience from Africa to the Caribbean to North America, and the eventual clash of cultures. Castro creates a circular motion of theme, tone, subject matter, style, and cultural history, giving rise to a fresh illuminating archetypal poetry. These themes reach their climax in their declamacion – the call-and-response rhythm of performance with a whole lot of tun-tun ka-ka pulse. He is the author of Cantos to Blood & Honey,(Coffee House Press, 1997), Wise Fish: Tales in 6/8 Time,(Coffee House Press, 2005), and has been published in many literary anthologies.

He is the recipient of a Cintas Fellowship, State of Florida Individual Artist Fellowship, NewForms Florida, the Eric Mathieu King award from the Academy of American Poets, NALAC Arts Fellowship, and several commissions from Miami Light Project and the Miami Art Museum.

He has performed with many dancers and actors including Chuck Davis and African American Dance Ensemble, Heidi Duckler and Collage Dance, and Keith Antar Mason and the Hittite Empire. The New York Times Book Review recently selected Wise Fish as an editor’s choice saying, “Sinuous, syncopated verses about the Caribbean melting pot.” And “…even a cursory glance suggests his poems—which seem to be trying to dance off the page…would truly come alive on the stage. “Wise Fish” is a serious and seriously enjoyable contribution to our flourishing Latino literature.” Adrian Castro is also a Babalawo and herbalist.



Wise Fish: Tales in 6/8 Time

Bob Holman :
"From a e to ae aeeeee is how long it takes for a word under slow waves to dissolve to pure sound. This is the domain of Adrian Castro, el poeta salsero, whose Wise Fish is composed solely in Spanglishcubanotainocreole y la lengua del orisha. Castro lays out a groove deep as an ocean trench, and you flow with the go. Use the dorsal fin of the wise fish to comb the language free of snarls, tangles and knots. Now you got it, poetry's music. Open book, hear music."

Campbell McGrath :
"Adrian Castro is fast becoming our foremost poet of the Caribbean, that crossroad of the Americas whose multiple cultures and languages he knows and speaks so fluently. His poetry is ecstatic, drum-propelled, lyrically empowered, spiritually questing, restlessly exploring the flyways of diaspora and exile from Puerto Rico to Haiti to Florida, from Cuba to Jamaica to Colombia, yet the idiom it inhabits is purely American. For all his journeying Adrian Castro is never away from home, because, like the hermit crab, he carries it on his back."

Quincy Troupe :
"The poetry of Adrian Castro fuses Spanish, Spanglish, and various dialects of the English/American language in a dazzlingly lyrical way. Influenced by the poetry of Victor Hernández Cruz, who pioneered this fascinating linguistic mix and fusion, Castro's poetry breathes life into and pulsates through the nexus of many cultural crossroads: Cuban, Haitian, Puerto Rican, Dominican as well as that of a cross-fertilized United States. Castro's new work is laced with intriguing rhythms and a robust musical language that makes Wise Fish a powerful, fresh, complex collection from an increasingly gifted poet."


Verde de ver green was her eyes
where the story began
hidden among almendras
dates, twigs of olive dripping oil

The sting of salt pooling
around ambitious brows
La misa begun by 3 boats
(rickety in their raucous bouts with breeze)


?? How to proceed
when your script has been writ by others
declared to be in your best interest
without finding your best interest
with all its difficulties
rises from incantation
like musk deep
in the earth…
There’s a bundle of bridle memories
wrapped in white, deep red, then
black cloth
strewn like an old photo
we turn away from
La liturgia can be bilingual
Latín con Yórùbá
Spanish y Spanish
English con Spanish
Spanish con Latin
Cubano con Yórùbá
has to orchestrate this—

El Proceso:
Burn a collection of twigs (Amansa
Guapo, No-me-olvides, Vencedor, Paramí, Quita Maldición, etc…)
Filter to fine dust
Add dried quimbombo
Gather witnesses
Hang the white, red, & black cloth flag-like
Prepare herbal solution for bathing afterwards
Spread ash circular on the ground
Begin writing symbols to span the column from earth to other world
Symbols born from word

There are delicate songs
that web these worlds
A gourd with salted water
is waiting their arrival
When drops pool around fingers
sliding like rain
mist of spirits
arrive in chronological death
the sting of salt pooling
inside our gaping memory
For the future—
we place a table blanketed with pools of cups
fistful of flowers
here they
los muertos
can swim
After this ash has been etched
we understand how the dead has been received


This is goodbye—
la gran despedida
circled by candles infinite
-- it can be a signature of sorts
-- una caja de muerto
the difference is we live
& we continue an odd embrace

It has been established that
life begins in the ocean
Indeed she who floats on a mantle of blue
sequined with stars & moonlight
is motherhood en persona
& the one chained at the depths who
no one has really seen
collects fragments of bone from
the sound of water choca con hueso
welds the primal bond deep
in the unconscious
Here is where life begins
Here is where
with words on sand
(close to the tide)
you accepted
I accepted—

A kissed history has dug into the sand
trying to erase the echo of what was writ
You alone gnawing at the mystery
manifested seed-like in my hands
challenging all my efforts
They now have slid off unto

I thought though in sand
impermanence would not victimize us
the crystals in your eyes
my eyes
sharp & crackling with hope
I thought my feet could shuffle scissor-like slide
side to side on sand
printing mysterious messages to you
(of love, of future, of promise)
I thought the bay pooling around our oath
the reflection of words crystalized there
delivered with 3 drums bàtá to the origins
I thought they would become sand, then bone
I thought then maybe a child
now I realize
you thought
you thought…


??How to proceed
when your home itself
simple & predictable
is an abiku—
…Born transient
with scars from previous lives not
really indefinite
but transient
clenching fists of young frustra-
tion not
yet established alive…
“comb the language”
with the dorsal from wise fish
encrusted with coral
Filter the rhythm
music of
“or else”
end up at the bottom of the sea
grinding bone con bone
busy trying to get born
in another place—

drops pool from salt
from fingers sliding like rain
unto the green
verde de ver green was her eyes
where the story begins again
hidden among almendras

un llanto gitano se oye
un llanto gitano dice
“Que no me lloren
que no me lloren
que tengan azucenas
una gitarra cajón y compás de bulerías
pañuelos verde y blanco
que me lloren así”

This is no secret:
we are children of death
Bundled bulky in history
one white
deep red
one black
textured hymns
ruffled by boats in their raucous breeze
fingering our skin
only a sense
that pools from salt
from fingers sliding like rain down skin
unto green verde de ver
green was her eyes

Misa because there’s sand
Misa because there’s memory
Misa because there’s transformation
Misa because there’s fish
because there’s ritual
because there’s tragedy
Misa because there’s music
because there’s love
because we mix we survive reborn
Misa porque tu con yo yo con tu
todos mezclados—
Misa caribeña


Shi-shi shah-shah shi she-eeh
is the music of divination powder
is the music of palm nuts conversing/(ikin)
Ikin can
speak of a certain matter burrowed in sand
Odù is the music of
Omolú is the music of
that speech

And we arrived with these pronouncements
circling a wooden tray
circling those signatures (who summon the true name of things)
like coded messages from birds soaked
with the dew of universe
archetypes & all
past present & therefore
many languages with rhythm & all
even tonal
circling a wooden tray
tray who circular implies
And it is word who causes this dance
And there are rhythmic leaps into
the sweetness of abundance into
the iron crest of creativity
And there herbs who cause the invisible to manifest
And it is word who causes this dance
is the music of palm nuts conversing/(ikin)
Yes we can initiate a dialogue between known &
between those who flow round jagged stones of ignorance
like wise fish
we can bring messages regarding history
the ineffable speech of music
the music of verse
vibration from spirits through ripples
rhythm residing deep among the lushness
An old beaded crown invokes the power of poem
-- in an incantation we can

Odù is the music of
Omolú is the music of
that speech
Shi-shi shah-shah shi she-eeh

Note on Text:
Ikin: Specialized & ritually prepared palm nuts used in Orisha/Ifa divination.
Odù: A divination verse from Ifa literary corpus.
Omolú: One of 240 odu Ifa. Literally “child of king”. Offspring of 16 major odù Ifa.


It is common knowledge:
these waters witnessed the meet between East & West

Those sullen sailors rancid with chorizo
talcum’d with salt & sea breeze
old gunpowder
the perennial scent of Spain flapping
among the crested flags
the debauched night of laud
the Moorish cumin
the Gypsy’s dervish

But Tainos had mango o guanábana
to hoist as flag
perhaps a carey & tabaco leaf as insignia
They used planks from siguaraya
o quiebra hacha
pine or cedar
(which perfumed at the same time)
while sailing to the Areyto plaza
And the Caribs
well they used bones with hatchet scars
for mere decoration
in effect a floating coffin

The triangle that ensnared freedom
corraled continents into a trinity of suffering
the ships which chiseled these shores
in effect floating coffins

They departed from these islands
in rafts at best
hammered & fastened from rafters
from dangling colonial homes
in Regla, Cojimar, Marianao,
Jacmel, Cap Hatien
the same homes built
by survivors of floating coffins
They built them
with the same wood which bolted their ancestors’ chains
The same wood glued with sugar cane sap
They used strewn army canvases for sails
the sails that pivoted
often in the wrong direction
A rudder fashioned from shovel
stained with the earth of a dead man
They launched it to sea
to begin anew
but in effect a floating coffin

A long time ago
they didn’t bury the dead
till the eyes were pecked by a mysterious bird
delivered to the heavens
so the eyes could oversee the body’s proper burial
It was then that
they buried the body
in a hollowed trunk of siguaraya,
quiebra hacha, pine or cedar
sometimes ceiba for chiefs & priests
They launched it to sea to reach home to
reunite with the others
they lauched it to sea
to begin anew
in effect a floating coffin


1. There is a profound sense of spirituality and musicality in your work. Can you talk about the sources of that, how they're connected, and their influences on you? 2. What has been the role of Santeria/Lucumi in your life as it relates to your world view and how you work as writer.

I'll answer the first two questions simultaneously since I think they're related.
One of the central themes in my work is the relationship between poetry and sacred writing/texts. In my case, the sacred texts include the verses from the Ifa literary corpus. Briefly, Ifa has 256 Odu (perhaps best translated as chapters, but not from a physical book).

Each of these Odu have hundreds of verses associated with them. Each verse has a structure, a theme, a message, a sacrifice, a teaching. These verses are studied and memorized by traditional Babalawo, of which I am, and in turn interpreted for people who seek divination. Since I study quite ardently and live Ifa and its verses, their asthetics, rhythm, narratives, teachings, inevitably seep into my poems.
Another central theme of my work is migration, and its dynamics-- acculturations, mixes, musics, rhythms, foods, culture in general. I frequently use my Afro-Latino asthetics to interpret, think, and talk about these issues.

3. Specifically, what are the themes you feel tug at you, make you want to return for exploration more deeply? Why?

I often reinterpret myths, or attribute modern sensibilites to them. I think the story of humanity is exactly that of migration, and the inevitable mixes. To write about migration, is in a nutshell, to write about humanity and the most ancient of customs.

3. How does being a husband and father impact your writing?

Being a father has I think given me a wider perspective on what's important, on my actions of today, on the importance of cultivating for the fruits of tomorrow, to be cliche.

4. Who have been mentors/influences on you creatively?

Influences-- in poetry mostly Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz, Victor Hernandez Cruz. But of course one gets influenced even in a small way by everything you read. But these are the poets I keep going back to. Musically, I listen to a lot of drumming, Afro-Cuban music, Jazz, Latin Jazz specifically-- Irakere, Munequitos de Matanzas, Jerry Gonzalez and the Fort Apache Band, John Coltrane, Mario Bauza.

5. What's your take on slam poetry and popular schools of poetics as it relates to your own work and also as a vehicle for up and coming young poets?

I have never participated in a slam. I think they have there place. However, unfortunately many "slam" poems suffer from a lack of workmanship and editing. I think open mics and the slam scene are a pretty democratic and open environment which is fundamentally a positive thing, especially for poets in their early stages of development. The slam scene has also made poetry more accessible to audiences. However I think the downfall of that is people may get the miscontrued idea of what is poetry.

Lisa Alvarado

1 comment:

Francisco Aragón said...

Thank you for this, Lisa. I'm sorry I had to miss Adrian's PALABRA PURA appearance. See you next week, I hope.