Monday, October 04, 2010

An interview with Francisco Aragón on his new book of poems, Glow of Our Sweat

DANIEL OLIVAS: Glow of Our Sweat (Scapegoat Press, paperback $12.95) is a hybrid of your poetry and prose as well as poetry in translation. Why did you decide to do this? Were there challenges to this form?

FRANCISCO ARAGÓN: As I mention in my “author’s note,” this wasn’t the first time I’d explored poetry “in conversation with” prose, so to speak. In Praise of Cities, a “momotombito” chapbook in the wake of 9/11 was my first attempt back in 2002. The feedback was positive. My second attempt, which I didn’t mention, was my essay, “The Nicaraguan Novel,” which appeared in Crab Orchard Review, and which included two embedded poems. That effort garnered positive feedback, as well. So this encouragement facilitated this third attempt, Glow of Our Sweat. The novelty this time around was the inclusion of translations. But what dictated this wasn’t the desire to add a third “genre,” if you will. Rather, it was the subject matter that informed the collection, which came about in an unexpected way.

I’d already been in conversation with Ben Furnish about assembling a chapbook-length manuscript for Scapegoat Press. I’d wanted, for some time, to publish another chapbook. But then something happened, which not only altered the nature of the project, but made me think this gesture (with Scapegoat Press) was turning into something more substantial.

A few poet-friends of mine who were part of the first working group of the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet Monroe Poetry Institute recounted an anecdote to me—one which unfolded at the first meeting they had. The anecdote so disturbed me that, after a period of reflection, I decided to assemble a collection of poems that, in one way or another, suggested or insinuated gay or homoerotic themes, though understatedly so. These were poems I’d already published in journals but which weren’t part of any collection. I later decided that I would also add translations, using the same guiding principal. And, perhaps more significantly, I decided to write some prose. The result was “Flyer, Closet, Poem.” I wrote this essay with the intention of including it alongside the poems and translations. I wrote the first draft of it over a two-week period during a residency at the Ragdale Foundation. I also enlisted Maria Melendez and Fred Arroyo to serve as “editors”—above all, editors of the essay. The deeper I got into the project—writing the essay, tweaking the poems, ordering the poems—the more it began to feel like more than a chapbook. In other words, the intellectual and emotional energy I found myself investing in this material—poems, translations, essay, even the notes—began to really work on me, or rather, the process I was undergoing in pulling this project together began to weigh on me. That, coupled with the fact that the collection—with front and back matter—was going to be 72 pages allowed me to wrap my mind around the notion that Glow of Our Sweat was, simply, my next book (following Puerta del Sol). It also helped that I was able to secure permission from Miguel Angel Reyes to use his stunning print, “Glare,” as the cover.

The challenges didn’t have to do with the fact that I was mixing genres as much as the questions I had to address in doing so. Which translations was I going to include? How was I going to order the poems? What kind of essay, precisely, was I going to write? Would I include the Spanish originals of the translations and if so, how? Working through these questions was both the challenge and the pleasure. In fact, the last thing I did, was add two translations: the Lorca sonnet and a new translation of Francisco X. Alarcón’s “The Other Day I Ran Into García Lorca.” Finally, I will say that because I had secured the interest and support of Scapegoat Press, who was sympathetic with the nature of the project, I didn’t have to expend energy trying to find and persuade a more conventional publisher to take on a project of these characteristics. I was more than happy to be going with a small press.

DO: You talk about the "coming out" process and proclaim louder than ever that you are a Gay man even if, in the past, you were a bit more reticent and "covered" your identity depending on the audience and circumstances. Can you explore this a bit more with us?

FA: I’m going to try something unusual here as a way to address this question. I’m going to share with your readers an excerpt of “Flyer, Closet, Poem”—one that fleshes out the disturbing anecdote alluded to earlier, followed by a few comments:

“Imagine a young man of nineteen. He’s an articulate man who loves to read, who reads poetry and aspires to write. One of his favorite writers is an American poet born near the beginning of the 20th century, and who died when he was just over forty. In this he is not unlike the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca, who was born in 1898, and died at 38. Like Lorca our American poet cultivated the sonnet. One commentator has described our American poet’s sonnets as 'darkly complex.' One of these sonnets has snared our young man’s imagination. It’s a poem he has committed to memory, a poem whose literary allusions he has looked up, trying to better understand it. The young man, early on, admits to himself that he doesn’t necessarily know what the sonnet means. But he loves it. Over time, as he considers the circumstances of his own life—he is African American—the poem begins to speak to him more deeply. It feels like an epiphany—that moment when he finds himself fully inhabiting the poem. It isn’t anything in particular the sonnet says, but somehow he comes to feel that the author of the poem—also African American—experienced an isolation not unlike his own. Poem and reader become one. One day, the young man finds himself in a circumstance that affords him the opportunity to share this poem, and his relationship with it on camera. It is a popular national initiative that allows people of all ages, backgrounds, levels of education, etc, to recite a favorite poem and talk about it. The young man is selected to have a modest, but polished video produced, in which he shares his passion for this poem. And he does, poignantly so. In some frames, there is stained glass behind him. In another, he is seated in the pew of a church. For it happens that this young man’s faith journey has been important to him. In still another frame, he is walking among trees. He shares his story, some parts of it sad—the derogatory remarks he has endured, the epithets, the feelings of isolation (He also mentions that he is gay). But the poem has been a refuge. Naturally, this American poet’s heirs have given permission for their ancestor’s sonnet to be a part of this national project. It is a well known poem, often anthologized, easy to find on the internet with a simple Google search. For all practical purposes, it is part of the public domain. What we imagine to be a formality—a copy of the video being sent to the esteemed American poet’s heirs—turns out to be otherwise. The estate withdraws permission. The finished video cannot become part of the larger project and be disseminated. Apparently, the poet’s estate is on firm legal ground. In essence, this African American poet’s heirs are conveying to this living, articulate young African American man: We do not approve of who you are, what you are. And we do not want your likeness, your voice, your name…associated with our esteemed ancestor.”

For the record, the sonnet in question is Countee Cullen’s “Yet Do I Marvel.” I made a decision to keep this information out of the essay in the book, but I no longer feel like doing so. I’m grateful to have this forum to get this information out there and I’ll leave it at that.

As I say in the essay, this anecdote haunted me. It was the catalyst for the very book. And I’ll add this: my gesture of assembling and publishing Glow of Our Sweat was my attempt at being in solidarity with this young man. It was also, in my mind, my way of ceasing to be less reticent about who I am. I might also add that it was a response to The White House’s utter lackluster leadership, thus far, on advancing the civil rights of gay, lesbian, and transgender citizens in this country. We seem to be on the cusp where LGBT rights are concerned. I’ve never considered myself a political poet, but this was an instance where the cliché about the personal being political felt true—at least in my case. Don’t get me wrong: in the grand scheme of things, a modest collection of poetry is a blip. But I’m sensing that Glow of Our Sweat is a prelude of sorts that’s going to lead to more prose, nonfiction prose.

DO: Your book is written in memory of John K. Walsh. What was his influence on you? What did he teach you?

FA: I’ve said, both in private and in print, that I consider myself extremely lucky because of the poetry mentors I’ve had over the years, both in and out of the classroom. Glow of Our Sweat was my way of paying tribute to the mentor who, on a personal level, has meant the most to me. “Jack” was my major advisor at UC Berkeley. It was a stroke of good fortune that I chose him. The first time I met him, in his office, we somehow got to talking about Federico García Lorca, even though, officially, modern Spanish poetry wasn’t his field. But Lorca was his one of his passions, and he passed this passion on to me. I wrote a commentary last winter about the Lorca sonnet I included in Glow of Our Sweat. It was a piece for Poetry Daily in which I talk about Jack. It can be found online here.

In short, Jack was an indelible mentor on two fronts: he invited me to join him in translating Lorca’s “Sonetos del amor oscuro,” and he shared with me anecdotes about living in Spain as a student, preparing me for my own journey to Spain. He and his long-time partner, Billy Thompson, both did. I spent the 1987-88 academic year living and studying in Barcelona. I had to return to Berkeley for a fifth year to complete my degree, but I already knew I wanted to return to Spain. Jack was the person who suggested I look into “NYU in Spain” as a way to do this—to pursue a Masters in Spanish. It turned out that NYU’s program offered the option of pursuing a project in literary translation in lieu of a more conventional M.A. thesis. This was a gift since my interest in translation was blossoming at the time. Jack was my guide. My fifth year in Berkeley, on the Berkeley campus, was seminal in some ways: I served as Co-Editor-in-Chief of the Berkeley Poetry Review, and it was a year of friendship and mentorship with John K. Walsh. “The Northside Café,” the penultimate poem in Puerta del Sol (Bilingual Press, 2005) is about that, among other things—including saying goodbye to Jack one August day, the day before I flew back to Spain—not knowing for sure but sensing that I would never see him again. He died the following spring.

DO: Mil gracias for spending time with La Bloga. I note for our readers that Glow of Our Sweat was featured on October 2nd at Poetry Daily.


This weekend, on the campus of California State University, Los Angeles, come enjoy a two-day celebration of Latino and Chicano literature and culture. The Latino Book & Family Festival has become one of the Latino community’s most anticipated events of the year. It is at this festival that you can meet and interact with authors from all over the U.S. and Latin America. Please join us in recognizing and supporting the work of Latino/Chicano writers and artists who will be speaking and signing books at our event.

In addition to the author presentations, the festival also features numerous activities for the whole family to enjoy, such as arts & crafts, story-telling, music, Folklórico dancing, various exhibits, and traditional Mexican foods. This is a two-day event where we can celebrate together the richness of our culture.

For more information, visit here. For a list of panels, visit here.

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