Tuesday, October 5, 2010

"I am more a poet writing in English with a Latin American sensibility."

"And while I honor Spanish as my native tongue, it is English that I am enamored with, the one I hear (enchantingly like a Sirenian song) whenever I write, especially its liquid rhythms, the protean richness of its assonance and alliteration."

An Interview with Orlando Menes
By Annie Leister and David Moffat

Orlando Ricardo Menes’s poems have appeared in several prominent anthologies and in such magazines as Ploughshares, Antioch Review, Prairie Schooner, Shenandoah, Chelsea, and Green Mountains Review. He has also published translations of such poets as the Argentine Alfonsina Storni and the Cuban José Kozer. His third poetry collection, Furia, was published in 2005 by Milkweed Editions. Menes is also the author of Rumba atop the Stones, published in 2001 by Peepal Tree Press (Leeds, England), and has edited the anthologies Renaming Ecstasy: Latino Writings on the Sacred (Bilingual Press/Editorial Bilingüe, 2004) and the forthcoming The Open Light: Poets from Notre Dame, 1991-2008 (University of Notre Dame Press, 2010). He is an associated professor of English at Notre Dame. Poetry by Menes appeared in West Branch 66, Spring/Summer 2010.

West Branch: In your poem "Palma y Jagüey" the character Omar claims "Whether sweet or bitter, / words will not fill our bellies." How do you respond to the argument that poetry has no practical value for the average person? Do poets have a responsibility to appeal to skeptics and attract a wider audience?
Orlando Menes: Omar, my wife's uncle, represents the cynic, a man of humble origins who had supported the Revolution in his youth. A student of economics at the University of Havana, he read volumes of world literature published in inexpensive editions, even writing a few poems and short stories in the neo-baroque style favored by many of his generation. He attended as well Fidel's hours-long speeches and was mesmerized, then finally took a job as an economist at the ministerial level. During those arduous years of the Special Period in the early 1990s when Cuba had lost her Soviet subsidies, Omar proposed all sorts of reforms at the Ministry but was rebuffed at every turn, even by Fidel himself, and he was soon removed from his position. In those new economic times he could not earn a living as an economist anyway, so he began to work as a carpenter, doing odd jobs for foreigners who would pay him in dollars. (Other professionals took jobs as waiters or cab drivers.) That experience exacerbated his doubts about the system, amplified his grievances, and altered his views about art. The man who had loved literature as a university student began to doubt whether art had any viability in a totalitarian society racked by poverty and despair, a society in which, he would say, propaganda and artful lies had seeped into all areas of public discourse.
Yes, it is true that poetry cannot fill an empty belly, that words cannot be sown for harvest or caught in the fisher's net. But poetry can, and does, provide sustenance to the spirit if not the body. It is the deep song that gives us hope, that makes us resolute, that binds us in the face of hardship. Poetry, as any art, represents experience while at the same time transforming it through the imagination.
It is this power to transform the quotidian to the metaphorical, the ordinary to the orphic, that I find so entrancing about poetry, as in, for example, William Blake's vatic "London," a poem that makes me tremble every time I recite it to myself. 

Interview is from West Branch Wired, an extension of the print West Brach, which is published out of Bucknell University.

Read the entire interview HERE

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