A Conversation with Rhina P. Espaillat


Brentwood, California, February 6th, 2012

Rhina P. Espaillat

Rhina P. Espaillat has published poems, essays, short stories and translations in numerous magazines and over sixty anthologies, in both English and her native Spanish, as well as three chapbooks and eight full-length books, including three in bilingual format. Her most recent are a poetry collection in English, Her Place in These Designs (Truman State University Press, Kirksville, 2008), and a bilingual collection of her short stories, El olor de la memoria/The Scent of Memory (Ediciones CEDIBIL, Santo Domingo, DR, 2007). Her honors include the Wilbur Award, the Nemerov Prize, the T. S. Eliot Prize in Poetry, the Robert Frost “Tree at My Window” Award for Translation, the May Sarton Award, a Lifetime Achievement in the Arts Award from Salem State College, and several prizes from the Dominican Republic’s Ministry of Culture. Espaillat lives in Newburyport, MA, with her sculptor husband, Alfred Moskowitz; there she is active with the Powow River Poets, a well known literary group she co-founded some twenty years ago. She also performs with a group known as Melopoeia, comprised of poet Alfred Nicol, guitarist and composer John Tavano, and vocalist Ann Tucker, which has presented numerous and varied programs that combine poetry and music, most recently at West Chester University and the House of the Seven Gables.

FOX: You wrote something that I really like: “Desire is all there is to keep us here.”

ESPAILLAT: Well, that was about a man who works around Newburyport—or did; I haven’t seen him lately—but when we first moved up to Newburyport from New York, we saw this man who was terribly disabled. And we could see that he was dragging one foot and that he had to work very hard just to walk. I used to see him taking walks every blessed day, no matter what the weather, and I thought, “How wonderful to have that kind of spirit, to have so much desire for the world and for life that you will not just settle down and let yourself die quietly.” So that’s what that came from.

FOX: Well, apparently you had a desire very early to write poetry.

ESPAILLAT: Oh, yes. I fell in love with poetry at the age of four or five in my grandmother’s house in the Dominican Republic. She was a poet. She never published anything; she used to write mostly for family events, birthdays and things like that. But she was good. She had real grace with language, and she used to have a lot of friends who would come to the house and tell stories, and play the guitar and the piano, and recite poetry. Poetry is very popular where I come from; everybody loves it. So I heard it before I understood it. I didn’t know what the grown-ups were doing, but I knew I wanted to do it, because it looked like so much fun.

FOX: Ah.

ESPAILLAT: And it was not until I came to this country at the age of seven that I realized poetry had a dark side. It wasn’t just music and play. I thought of it as a form of singing and almost dancing and it looked perfectly pure because it was a physical pleasure but when I started reading it in English at the age of seven or eight is when I realized, “This is about life. This is about grief and losses.” And I’d had several losses since then; I had lost an entire family, so I knew that it had a job in addition to the singing and the dancing, and I loved it even more.

FOX: You talk about sorrow and expressing sorrow through poetry.

ESPAILLAT: Well, I think that anytime you can thumb your nose at sorrow you’re ahead of the game. It doesn’t change anything; it doesn’t fix whatever it is that’s broken in your life, but at least you’ve done something with it. You haven’t just suffered it passively; you’ve kind of made it an artifact. And I think of poems—like statues, like songs, like dances, like every art—I think of a poem as an artifact. So if you take this terrible loss you endured, how all the people you love were left somewhere else, and you make something out of it, it’s as if you could say to life, “That’s for you, because I can do something; I can make lemonade out of this.”

FOX: Absolutely. That’s a very constructive approach.

ESPAILLAT: It helped a lot. It also helped to establish contact with other people, something I’ve always loved to do. I don’t like the solitary life. I love to communicate. My poems reveal that, I think, because they’re made to be understood.

FOX: Yes, yes.

ESPAILLAT: I don’t like mystery. [laughs]

FOX: So do you like poetry readings then?

ESPAILLAT: Oh, I love poetry readings. And much of what you hear there is not good, but I don’t care, because you pick out the grains. As with everything.

FOX: Yes. That’s true.

ESPAILLAT: So I do my poetry readings, and I like concerts and plays and art exhibits and all of that.

FOX: Why do you think people in the Dominican Republic love poetry and people in the United States don’t seem to be as enthusiastic?

ESPAILLAT: Well, all I know is that even field hands, laborers, in the Dominican Republic—people who barely read—if you start talking about poetry they’ll put down what they’re doing and they’ll start reciting from memory. They all know something by heart. It may not be the most wonderful stuff that they know, but it’s poetry and they’re passionate about it. So it’s engrained. I think it’s an inheritance from Spain, because in Spain of course poetry was always popular. And it was not a class thing. It was not just the upper crust, the academics, or the elites who knew this; it went all the way through the culture. It was supposed to belong to everybody, and that’s a feeling that I’ve kept. I do believe that poetry is innate in human beings. I think that we are wired to sing and dance—and you can see that in children; they all do it. At some point they all start doing this and they move to music. I think poetry is nothing but a kind of music made out of words. I have dragged so many poets out of the closet, because they all deny it. In this country there’s something a little bit embarrassing about it, especially with guys. If you drag them out, and you say, “Oh, come on, in elementary school at some point you wrote a poem!” “Well, yes, I did, I did, because I was in love with Sally.” So out it comes! And it’s a shame to lose that layer of your childhood, to lose that layer of your being. But somehow in Hispanic countries it’s been preserved.

FOX: Do you think the language has anything to do with it, or just the culture?

ESPAILLAT: No, I don’t think so. I really don’t know what it is. I think maybe it’s the notion that everything should be useful. There is a notion in this country that things have to be utilitarian, that they have to work, to change something, to make something happen—poetry doesn’t make something happen. Poetry just is. And I think in Hispanic countries they have more patience with useless things.

FOX: That’s interesting. I heard that Pablo Neruda was once giving a reading for ten thousand people and they asked him to recite a particular poem and he said, “Well, I don’t remember it well enough and I don’t have it with me,” and four hundred people in the audience started reciting the poem.

ESPAILLAT: [laughing] That’s right. Yes.

FOX: I don’t think that would happen in the United States.

ESPAILLAT: No, that’s true. Which is a shame, because I think once you get to people, especially when you catch them young, in school—I love to get to school kids, especially high school; I used to teach high school English—if you get them young, and if you get them past that feeling that everything has to push a button, everything has to be actively useful, and if you get them past the fear of doing something wrong, then they find invariably that they like poetry. Because it speaks for them, it speaks from them, and it speaks to them. And I’ve had this experience in classroom after classroom. And even older people, if you get them to trust you and you say, “Just go with me, bear with me, have patience and I’ll show you this,” you can pull them in and then they say, “Oh, yeah, this does belong to me.”

FOX: Many teachers of poetry in junior high and high school kind of give the message that “I’m the expert, I know how to do this, you don’t, and I have to interpret it for you,” which is—

ESPAILLAT: All wrong. It’s all wrong.

FOX: How do you do it?

ESPAILLAT: Well, I do it by attacking it the same way poetry attacked me, through the ear. I think too many times throughout the twentieth century poetry was tackled—with other people and especially with children, which was very destructive—it was tackled through the idea, through the theme: “Here’s what this poem is trying to tell you.” Wrong. What you should do is: “Here’s what this poet is doing with syllables. Here’s where he is repeating. Here’s where he is almost repeating, creating echoes that are not exactly the same but close enough so that you hear it as music.” If the teacher tackles the poem from the outside, from the sound of it, eventually she’s going to be able to say, “Why is he repeating this? Why is he rhyming this with this?” And through the “whys” you get to that in the child—or in the adult, the person—that does understand this. There is something in the human being that understands the uses of language. And then you get it from the kid. It’s much better that way. I started out the way everyone does, with a philosophy of the poem, with a Big Idea—capital B, capital I—and I came to realize very soon that that’s what kills poetry, that the Big Idea is the enemy of the music. If you get to the music first, the reader himself will get to the Big Idea. But you have to tackle first the music and then the imagery: “Why is this bird on this branch? Why does it turn this way and that way?” So you get the student to answer questions about what he can see in the poem. Don’t tell him what he can’t see in the poem yet; let him see it himself.

FOX: Do you think there’s a gender difference with high school students? Do girls like poetry better than boys?

ESPAILLAT: I think it’s easier to get to the girls, because I think women are more in touch with their feelings. They’re not ashamed of them; they’re not afraid to share them with other people or admit that they have them. The guys are defensive about feeling anything, and also the guys are active and they want the more athletic kind of thing. But no, I don’t think it’s that important; I don’t think the sex of the listener is that important. I’ve had grown men come up to me at the ending of a reading—this has happened more than once—and they say, “My wife dragged me here.” “Oh, good, I’m glad she did.” “But I didn’t think I would enjoy it.” “Oh?” “But yes, I did.” “Well, thank you for telling me that.” [laughs] Which is very gratifying.

FOX: Absolutely.

ESPAILLAT: Because it is for everybody.

FOX: That’s what we try to do at Rattle; we try to publish poems that can engage anyone—and when someone writes to us or calls and says, “I really don’t like poetry but, you know, I like these; this is good,” that’s the best compliment for us.

ESPAILLAT: Oh, sure. When people tell me, “I don’t like poetry,” I say, “Of course you do; you just don’t know it yet.” [laughs]

FOX: Yes, yes. You talk a lot about music in poetry. Say more about their relationship.

ESPAILLAT: Oh, well, I think they’re twins. I think they’re arts that started out together, and they separated at some point, but they both kept traces of one another, because music can also suggest a story—not tell a story, but suggest it; suggest motion, suggest activity, and so on. We all know that; we sort of make our own film listening to music. But poetry also depends quite literally on music. It doesn’t have notation but it has syllables, and the syllables are nothing but notes. And this is why meter works, not because some expert a long time back said, “You have to write it this way; you have to have this foot and that foot, and so many of them per line”—the rules don’t do anything; it’s the ear that works it. Poetry works metrically because the ear likes being teased, and I think the way the poet teases the ear is by making him a promise in the first line, saying “I’m going to do this from now on,” and then in line two he does pretty much the same thing but by line three he’s taken it back and done something else, so then you’ve got your reader a little bit nervous, or your listener, and then he’s listening: “How am I going to be fooled here; what is this trickster doing?” And I think there’s an element of trickery involved that is present in music too, as in themes and variations—the variations are nothing but trickery. So the hearer is saying, “Am I going to get back to what he started with? What’s going to happen here? Or is this going to strand me in a strange place?” And then when everything comes back to some other place or maybe to the same place, then the reader goes “ah.” But you have to make him nervous before he goes “ah.”

FOX: Well, in terms of that, of trickery, it seems to me that we all like to be happily surprised and we like variety. If you think you know the end of the story you’re not too interested in reading it.

ESPAILLAT: There has to be surprise. Was it Frost who said, “No surprise for the poet, no surprise for the reader”?

FOX: Ah. And yet, you’ve said you want to have a full poem in your mind before you write it down.

ESPAILLAT: Yeah, I do.

FOX: So where does the surprise come for you?

ESPAILLAT: It comes from me in my head. I haven’t put it on paper yet, but it makes itself in my head and I am always surprised at where it takes me. The reason I don’t write it down—I write short poetry for the most part so it doesn’t matter. And I tend not to forget poems while I’m making them. But when I’ve tried writing down different pieces—the opening, for instance—I find that I become so tied to it that the poem has no freedom anymore. So I leave it in my head untouched and it makes itself and by the time I have the first draft the way I think it’s going to be, but whole, then I put it down. And after that the poet steps away and the critic steps in, and the critic is the one who revises. So the poem will stand revision but it won’t stand an early birth. If you deliver the poem in the fourth or fifth month it’s not going to live, at least not for me. And I know lots of people who do it differently because this is a very private art; everybody works his own way. But that’s how I do it. I can’t keep a notebook; I can’t have little bits of ideas because then when I go back, I say, “What was I thinking? What was this about? What on earth spurred this?” because by then the bird is gone.

FOX: When you’re revising, does the critic in you ever say, “Can’t make this one work?”

ESPAILLAT: Yeah. I throw out more than I actually type up. I throw out a lot. And sometimes I come back years later, months or years later, to what I threw out. But it has to be up here, not on the paper. I come back to it because the germ of the poem returns all on its own—I don’t know why it sometimes does that—and says, “Here’s what you were thinking”; “Oh, is that the way I was thinking it?” and then the poem is back. But that doesn’t always happen. Sometimes if it goes away too early it doesn’t come back.

FOX: You’ve said that when you were young, there was a 1942 anthology that your family gave you and you still have it?

ESPAILLAT: Oh, I still have it. That’s that big fat book—you know, the Louis Untermeyer big blue cover thing. It’s wonderful. There are poems in there that are now embarrassing, because they use language that we wouldn’t use today. Some of it is not “PC.” Some of it is downright aged, and hasn’t aged well. But for the most part—with very few pages or exceptions—that anthology still holds up. It’s wonderful. And it has introductions that give you the biographies of the poets, so I learned very early as a teenager that it wasn’t gods who made up these things, it was human beings. They had bad marriages, they committed suicide, they drank, they did this, they did that. So I realized, “It’s not just for everybody, it’s from everybody.” Even very damaged people.

FOX: That’s true. I got the impression when I was young that most writers have unhappy lives. That’s probably because, you know, Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald—

ALFRED MOSKOWITZ: I do my best. [Fox and Espaillat laugh]

ESPAILLAT: I told you he was bad.

FOX: But, I mean, I would say that’s probably not true.

ESPAILLAT: I don’t think it’s true. I think what is true is that poets, like people in any one of the arts, are more attuned to the nuances of things, and more attuned to what’s behind the surface or under the floor or over the ceiling, and so they notice not just their own feelings but the feelings of others. I think that poets tend to be good face readers; they can look at faces and intuit things. And I think that poetry’s made out of those intuitions, and those … it’s a degree of sensitivity.

FOX: I agree. It seems to me that as I get older I have less and less patience for superficiality.

ESPAILLAT: Yeah, right. I agree perfectly. I really have no time for it.

FOX: Yeah. I mean, why bother?

ESPAILLAT: There is so little time in which to communicate fully; why waste a minute of it telling lies? You can’t get those moments back.

FOX: That’s why I tend to like poets, because it’s a poet’s job to observe yourself and the world and then tell it as truthfully and accurately and interestingly as you can.

ESPAILLAT: As Emily Dickinson said, “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant.”

FOX: Yes. You translated Robert Frost into Spanish. Tell me about that.

ESPAILLAT: Oh, that was a labor of love. I adore Robert Frost. Who doesn’t? And it struck me that whenever I speak to Hispanics about American literature, it’s always the same name that comes up: it’s Walt Whitman. When they think America, Hispanics tend to think Walt, because he’s so iconic; he’s like the Statue of Liberty. And I admire him greatly myself, but there are so many other faces of this complex and wonderful country: There’s Emily Dickinson, who is another face entirely; there is Robinson Jeffers; and of course there is Richard Wilbur, whom I’ve also translated; and Robert Frost. I mean, who speaks for this country the way Robert Frost does? I had a feeling that there was not enough attention being paid to a great many people who deserve at least as much as Whitman and probably more. So that’s the justification. The real reason I translated him is that I adore the work. I adore the poems and I just wanted to be able to share them with the other half of my family, with my non-English-speaking family. I started to work on it and discovered that I was not really translating from English but from “New-Hampshire-ese,” which is another language. I’ve had to call friends from the Powow River Poets—you know that group—and I had to call Bob Crawford, for instance, who is in New Hampshire, and I said, “Bob, what does this mean?”—farm implements or the processes in a field, all sorts of things—and then he would explain and I’d say, “Oh, that is such-and-such in Spanish.” But I have no idea, really; I don’t know farm life in English. So that was a challenge, and it was a challenge getting that folksy, colloquial quality into Spanish, which tends to sound very formal. It was just a delight to do. It took me maybe five or six years.

FOX: Whoa.

ESPAILLAT: I am not getting anywhere with it. I am having tremendous trouble getting Henry Holt and Company to give me permission to use the originals because I want them on facing pages, of course, and they haven’t told my publisher in Mexico yet how much they want for the rights. So I’m dying, because I really, really want to see this in print, and it is so hard to wait and wait. And I’m 80 years old already, you know; I want to see this out. So it’s just a matter of having a lot of patience. But I did do 40 poems, 40 of the best known poems, of Robert Frost, in Spanish. I’ve shown them around to a lot of people who write—many of them are bilingual—and they say, “Oh, it’s wonderful, it’s fine, it’s this, it’s that,” so I’m hoping that a fraction of what they’re saying is true. But I really think they’re good translations, because I’ve got them metrical, I’ve got them rhymed, I’ve used the same imagery wherever possible. I’ve stuck as close to the original as possible without destroying the music, because for me the most important thing is that, so I’ve kept the Frostian sound. And I’m excited about those. And then after I finished with Frost, I moved on to Richard Wilbur and did 42 of his poems, and the same Mexican publisher has that manuscript, and the rights for that are now being considered by the people in Barcelona who handle that particular publisher—so I’m a little more hopeful about that one. A little more hopeful, and very happy, because Richard Wilbur is now in his 90s. He loves my translations, absolutely loves them. I’ve sent them to him—every time I do two or three, a batch, I’ve sent them off to him. He’s never had one word of complaint, so I’m thrilled over that, and I want very much to see this come out while he can enjoy it.

FOX: Well, translation is, to me, really its own art. One of my favorite Rilke—in one translation, he defines love as when “two solitudes know and touch and protect each other,” which I love. And I’ve read other translations which are pedestrian.

ESPAILLAT: Yeah. They may capture the meaning of the poem the way a dictionary does, but with about as much poetry in it as a dictionary. I don’t like those translations, and I don’t like translations that betray the form of the original. I cannot stand free verse translations of metrical poetry. [Fox laughs] Cannot stand them. However, I also prefer free verse translations of free verse poetry. I think everything has to be true to what the author wanted.

FOX: Yes. But you can’t do it all; obviously you have to change the words, because that’s the translation, but what is most important to retain from the original?

ESPAILLAT: Well, for me, it’s the relationship between the sound, the imagery, and the thought. I think that has to work the same. You can’t be seen in a translation; you have to be as transparent as possible. I think the translator should disappear. The translator should be glass. But of course it’s hard to do that, because you do have a personality and a series of habits and so on, and you just have to very carefully erase them. And when I finish a poem that is by somebody else, I say, “Now, is there any of me that has sneaked into this?” and you have to watch for that. And I know translators who get into every word they do. I’m not naming any. [all laugh]

FOX: You write mostly formally, in rhyme and meter …

ESPAILLAT: Not always. Mostly yes, because that’s the way I think; that’s what I heard early in life, so it stuck and I love it. But when a poem comes to me in syllabics, which happens very often, I’m very happy, because I love syllabics. And free verse, also, which doesn’t visit me often, but every once in a while surprises me, and then it’s nice because it tells me that the gray cells have not given up yet, that I’m still playing with language, attempting new things. But I’m not as secure with free verse as I am with formal verse, because I like dancing inside the box. If I have to build the box myself and then dance in it, I don’t feel as safe. But that’s what you do with free verse, you make the box as you go along.

FOX: Well, it seems to me, as you were alluding to, for every writer it’s personal: different habits, different experiences.

ESPAILLAT: That’s right. One of my top favorites in any language is Stanley Kunitz, who very deliberately moved from incredibly perfect and wonderful formal verse into equally excellent free verse. He made the move on purpose and it was glorious. But what he did was to retain, in his free verse, the music that had been with him all the way. Oh, it’s wonderful. It’s just wonderful when you see that happen. But when I teach classes in creative writing, I encourage the kids to learn the rules first. Learn the box, and once you have mastered it very well, then you can kick the hell out of it. And you can either write very loose formal verse the way Frost does with his loose iambics, or you can kick the box altogether and do free verse, but that’s harder. So I always make them learn the box first, and then what you do after that is up to you. And so many people tell me, “Oh, but aren’t you keeping them from being spontaneous and free?” I always tell them, “That’s like telling a carpenter, ‘Don’t bother learning how to use the hammer, or the plane, or the different kinds of screw and nail; let it just come to you.’” Well, that doesn’t work. You have to learn all these things, and then once you’re a very, very good carpenter and you know all of this by heart, then you can go construct as you like; you don’t have to think about it. That works. That works, and it doesn’t limit anybody’s freedom one iota, because if that were the case, there would have been no Stanley Kunitz. Late Kunitz is solid gold.

FOX: How much do you think it’s possible to teach poets to be better poets, how to write poetry?

ESPAILLAT: I can teach them two-thirds of it. I tell them the poem consists of three parts. One part is the music. Another part is the imagery. I tell them metaphor—that’s the second part—I tell them, “Music, metaphor, and meaning. I can teach you music. I can teach you metaphor, how to construct figures of speech. I cannot teach you meaning, but you don’t need anybody to do that, because life gives it to you free, whether you want it or not.” I tell them, “You start collecting that third ‘M’ of the circle right from the cradle, because experience gives it to you, and no teacher can give you that, but you don’t need it. What you need is the other two-thirds because they give you the materials for the box. And once you’ve built it, the other stuff comes in and fills it. It just comes, by itself.”

FOX: Do you find that students are defensive when their work is talked about?

ESPAILLAT: It depends on the quality of the relationships that you establish in the classroom. It’s just like any workshop. Like any workshop—there are terrible workshops, workshops that feel like boxing rings, where everybody gets injured; and there are workshops that feel like coffee klatches, where you don’t do anything but say, “Oh, that’s great,” “Oh, how nice,” “Oh, how pretty”—it’s useless, absolutely. So it’s either useless or destructive. But you can have a workshop that is business-like, that is serious about improving the work, that is sensitive to people’s feelings but that does not lie. And those are wonderful; those are worth everything. And if you establish that atmosphere in the classroom, then people are not defensive. The only time the students are defensive generally is the very beginning of the poetry unit, when they whine: “I don’t do that!” [Fox laughs] I tell them, “Yes you do; sure you do.” So it’s a matter of being very receptive to whatever they give you. I tell them, “Look, when you do exercises, finger exercises on the piano, you’re not going to end up with a symphony, and that’s all right. And that’s all right, it doesn’t matter; these are finger exercises you’re going to do for homework for me, and if they’re terrible, so what? Most of what I produce is terrible, and I throw it out. So you have the right to throw it out. But if you do enough of them, you’ll get better.” So you have to tell them two things: Number one, don’t plan on keeping anything, because chances are, you’ll get rid of it, with good reason. Don’t expect anything to give you a big idea; it may not, probably won’t. And also, you’re the boss. You’re the boss; I’m not the boss. So if you empower them that way, if you give them control over what they write, they really come to love it. I have had so many students at the end of a semester say, “The whole term was fun, but the best part was the poetry.” And that feels like a Nobel Prize.

FOX: It seems to me that many children enjoy writing poetry and write it well until they’re about nine or ten years old, fourth grade, and then they just turn off. Is that …

ESPAILLAT: I think that happens because they have begun to confuse it with philosophy, which it isn’t, with sociology and politics, which it isn’t, because they’re given this—”Whole class, write a poem about freedom, write a poem about brotherhood, or the anti-war movement,” but this is not what they’re living. I tell them—what I like to do is bring in something of mine, bring in an ancient sweater with holes in it or one of my mother’s—a compact or something like that, and I say, “This is an object that means something to me, because it reminds me of XYZ. What do you have lying around the house? Pick an object that reminds you of something or that means something to you, that has connections. A pair of dirty sneakers is wonderful. Write me eight lines about those sneakers.” And that will work, because they’ll be using their five senses, they’ll be using their imaginations, they won’t be parroting back clichés that they know the teacher expects: “War is bad, peace is good”—they won’t be pleasing you; they’ll be finding themselves. And through those sneakers, who knows what they’ll get to? They’ll get to summers they spent camping with their fathers. They’ll get to the grand canyon. So you guide them toward the physical object that gives them something to hang onto, that anchors the poem in reality, in the real world, and then you let them go.

FOX: You won the T.S. Eliot award. Has that changed your life? [both laugh]

MOSKOWITZ: Changed mine!

ESPAILLAT: No, but it made me very happy.

FOX: Ah.

ESPAILLAT: That was Where Horizons Go. That was my second book. And it was wonderful because it validated the work; it said, “Ah, people may actually even get to read this stuff, and some of them may actually enjoy and think something because of it,” which is great. You know how it is; you’re a poet too, so you know that you’re never really sure whether you’re any good.

FOX: Yes.

ESPAILLAT: If you’re sure you’re good, you’re in trouble. So it was good. And I won the Richard Wilbur Award; that was another real joy and blessing.

MOSKOWITZ: And the Nemerov.

ESPAILLAT: And the Nemerov, for an individual sonnet and so on. The awards pat you on the back and that’s wonderful, but what really feels great is having live people speak to you and tell you that you’ve reached at least one person at a time. That’s the important thing.

FOX: What’s your greatest pleasure in writing poetry and being a poet?

ESPAILLAT: Sharing it with other people. What I’m going to do this evening, for example. I’m going to touch upon translation, read something from Wilbur and something from Frost, and all sorts of things. I like that, because I like looking at the human face out there. Print is great. Print is great, but then when you count on the work in print, what you’re really writing for is the future or distance, touching somebody that you can’t see, but it’s so much more fun when you see them.

FOX: It seems that you’ve been very lucky in finding something that you love very young and just doing it.

ESPAILLAT: Oh, absolutely. I’ve been lucky all my life.

MOSKOWITZ: Especially in marriage. [all laugh]

FOX: Obviously! No, marriage is not all that easy …

MOSKOWITZ : [mutters something, all laugh]

ESPAILLAT: Behave yourself! [laughing] I’m going to read a poem tonight about Alfred interfering with me in the kitchen. He loves to cook and he’s a good cook so sometimes he throws me out of the kitchen: “I will cook tonight!” And then he calls me 92 times from the kitchen when I’m out in some other room trying to work on stanza three: “Where is the measuring cup? Where is the spoon?” [Fox laughs] So that’s what my poem is about. It’s called “The Poet’s Husband Engages in Gourmet Cooking.” [Fox laughs]

FOX: Do you ever not present something you write out of concern about hurting someone’s feelings, getting them angry with you?

ESPAILLAT: No, because if I think something is going to hurt, I keep that poem to myself. I have written things about people I love very much who are now gone, but never anything painful really, just truthful. My mother died of Alzheimer’s, and I’ve written a number of poems about her condition, yet I would never have read them while she was living, because I would not want her to see herself reflected this way. But I think it’s important to share that kind of painful experience with other people, because they’ve had it too. And I’ve had so many people say to me after readings, especially one poem called “Song,” which is about my mother’s loss of language—I think it may be the most painful poem I have ever written—and so many people say, “That’s my grandmother.” “That’s my father.”

MOSKOWITZ: Your father, too.

ESPAILLAT: Yes, poems about my father. That kind of thing, I have saved until later.

FOX: It seems to me that we all are attracted to depth and important experiences of others, but we also are fearful of expressing it or talking about it.

ESPAILLAT: Sure, because you don’t like to tread on the territory that is so private in somebody else’s life, or your own either, for that matter. But I tend to be more open about my own feelings and experiences than about those of other people, because, you know, other people have a right to their own privacy.

FOX: How does it feel being out there, and having people know more about you than you know about them, if they come up to you at a reading or whatever?

ESPAILLAT: Well, whenever I go into a literary situation that way—in fact, social situations, too—I always assume that I’m among friends. I just make that assumption arbitrarily. I came to this country at the age of seven, couldn’t speak to anybody except my parents, and was very lonesome. So I guess I just decided to jump into it with both feet and do the best I could, with broken English. And I was not afraid to be more open than other people were with me, because they couldn’t speak my language, but I was learning to speak theirs, and I just got into that habit, that way of doing things. And I think it helps to grow up in New York, too, because you’re so surrounded by “other.” Whatever “other” is, it’s there, and it’s wonderful, because you grow up feeling “we’re all in the same boat.” We had neighbors who were Hungarian, a lot of Greeks, a lot of Irish and Germans and Armenians, and the first Jews I ever met in my life, Chinese, Japanese people, and so on. And I was struck first, of course, superficially, by the differences, but then once you take a second look, it’s the similarities that strike you. It’s the fact that when you visit their houses, even though their eating is different and may look peculiar, the family dynamics are the same. The people are the same. So I got to thinking that we’re really one huge family, all over the world. And I’m at home, and if I do something really stupid at a poetry reading, I will probably be forgiven, and if I’m not, I’ll survive anyway. [laughs]

FOX: A friend of mine went to a workshop one weekend and she came back with the idea of “reverse paranoia”—assume that people are out to do you good [Espaillat laughs], which sounds like what you’re talking about.

ESPAILLAT: I guess so! I guess so, and so far so good, really. My suspicion of everybody’s good intentions has been fulfilled so far. I really haven’t encountered too many SOBs.

FOX: Do your audiences like the same poems of yours best that you like the best? Because very often writers say, “This is my favorite, but …”

ESPAILLAT: Yeah, well, that’s true, because you have different associations. What I try to do at every reading is to do a variety. I try to do as much as possible; not everything in form, not everything in syllabics, and also the themes—I like to jump from idea to idea, because it kind of expresses the breadth of what you think and feel.

FOX: As a poet, what do you look forward to? You’re 80; you’ll probably be here another twenty years—

ESPAILLAT: Oh, I’ve gotta get even with him!

FOX: Absolutely, that’s for damn sure.

ESPAILLAT: Yes, I’m hoping to live long, and to keep this man company and keep him straight, and we’ll see what happens. We take it one day at a time. And we have wonderful children and grandchildren, and I want to go to weddings in the worst way, so we’ve got to live long. We moved up to Newburyport, Massachusetts, from New York, and we had been told, “Oh, New Englanders; they’re very tight-lipped, closemouthed,” and so on, and I thought, “Gee, maybe they’ll be different from New Yorkers,” who are very open, and we’ve had such a pleasant surprise, because they tell you their life story whether you want to hear it or not. They’re just as open as anybody else. So we’re at home up there. Alfred has joined the art association and is now running the world up there.

FOX: Well, I suspect that’s partly because you’re interested in people and you’re not scary or threatening or judgmental …

ESPAILLAT: Well, they’re also very open. Our next door neighbors, as a matter of fact—when we moved in, they had never set eyes on us, but they knew that Alfred’s name is Moskowitz, and we moved in in November, so they knew that the Jewish holidays come at that time, and the first inkling we had of their existence was a “Happy Hanukkah” card. And that was very moving, even though we’re not religious people and don’t observe anything—we’re a mixed marriage, altogether—but I was moved by that gesture, because what it said was, “We’re your neighbors.” That’s what we’ve encountered in most places. And it’s painful now to see what’s going on in some parts of the country with immigrants, to see that in some places the attitude has changed from “welcome” to something else, because when I was a child in New York, it was immigrants all, Americans all. The whole educational system was geared to be this set of embracing arms. And I grew up that way, believing in and loving this country passionately as I do, but it’s sad, and I hope that this is temporary.

FOX: Yes.

ESPAILLAT: I hope it’s temporary, because if it’s not, it will change the nature of this country.

FOX: I think those who have that point of view have forgotten this is a nation of immigrants.

ESPAILLAT: That’s who we are, exactly.

FOX: That’s the strength of it; that’s the …

ESPAILLAT: Unless you’re a Sioux or a Cherokee.

FOX: Well, yes!

MOSKOWITZ: Many of the immigrant groups here were despised; they were on the low end of the social—

ESPAILLAT: Oh, sure, they’ve all had to go through rough patches. But that was a long time ago, and it has changed, really. So to see any vestige of that come back elsewhere, it was a shame.

FOX: It seems to me a hopeful sign is communication, because now people in Africa, Asia—we see them, we talk to them, we can email or Twitter them …

MOSKOWITZ: Globalization.

FOX: Absolutely.

ESPAILLAT: Will you run out screaming if I read you a poem?

FOX: No, not at all. We’d love it.

ESPAILLAT: Talking about immigration and assimilation … this is called


Cousins from home are practicing their English,
picking out what they can, slippery vowels
queasy in their ears, stiff consonants
bristling like Saxon spears too tightly massed
for the leisurely tongues of my home town.
They frame laborious greetings to our neighbors;
try learning names, fail, try again, give up,
hug then and laugh instead, with slow blushes.
Their gestures shed echoes of morning bells,
unfold narrow streets around them like gossip.
They watch us, gleaning with expert kindness
every crumb of good will dropped in our haste
from ritual to ritual; they like the pancakes,
smile at strangers, poke country fingers
between the toes of our city roses.
Their eyes want to know if I think in this
difficult noise, how well I remember
the quiet music our grandmother spoke
in her tin-roofed kitchen, how love can work
in a language without diminutives.
What words in any language but the wind’s
could name this land as I’ve learned it by campfire?
I want to feed them the dusty sweetness
of American roads cleaving huge spaces,
wheatfield clean and smooth as a mother’s apron.
I want to tell them the goodness of people
who seldom touch, who bring covered dishes
to the bereaved in embarrassed silence,
who teach me daily that all dialogue
is reverie, is hearsay, is translation.

—from The Shadow I Dress In
(David Robert Books, 2004)

So that’s my take on the whole assimilation thing. I think that those of us who have more than one identity, who have multiple languages and multiple loyalties, are not really divided people; they’re multiplied. I tell my Spanish language students, immigrant students from all over—because I see Asian students also—I tell them, “You’re not less, you’re more. You’re more because you have more points with which to touch other people.” So you don’t have to be divided.

FOX: Well, I love your outlook. The quotation which I live by is from Hamlet: “There is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” You have a very sunny outlook and it makes it so.

ESPAILLAT: Well, yeah, it does for me. It works, works for me.

from Rattle #38, Winter 2012

Rattle Logo