Thursday, November 3, 2011

Rosa Alcalá: an interview, a review

As we approach the first installment of Latino/a Poetry Now, Letras Latinas Blog would like offer an exclusive interview with one of the readers slated to take the stage at Harvard next Tuesday, Rosa Alcalá. Eduardo C. Corral and Aracelis Girmay, who will be joining Rosa, were the subjects of previous recent posts by Lauro Vazquez.  We offer, as well, a review of Undocumentaries.


An interview with Rosa Alcalá

Carmen Giménez Smith: The title of your book evokes lots of different concepts: the documentary, the undocumented worker, the notion of archive. How do you see the title speaking to the greater themes of the book?

Rosa Alcalá: When I started this book, I wanted to write about factory work because suddenly, as a first-year tenure track assistant professor, I knew no one who worked in a factory, even though almost ever adult I knew growing up, including my parents, were factory workers. My father worked in a dye house, my mother in a number of small assembly-line jobs. I lived surrounded by factories.  But I wasn't sure where to begin, so I thought maybe I could widen my scope by plugging into the history of factory work through critical and historical studies and through documentaries.  It became interesting to me at some point in the process the ways in which I was trying to legitimize my experience by watching documentaries or reading scholarly articles, but when I wrote, the personal became superimposed like a double image on those archives and studies. I also started to think about the difference between documentary films/historiography and the lyric poem, how one comes to represent the archive and how the other gathers what is left on the cutting room floor. I wanted the book to in some ways bring together both of those impulses: the need to document by piecing together what is "verifiable," and the equally messy work of placing in conversation with those gaps, erasures, and fragments that accompany experience and memory. I wanted the historical and the personal to be loops of different films that run concurrently.

The book, in large part, because it proceeds from this shift in class status, attempts to explore identity as something in flux.  Identity, too, then, is the "undocumentary" of the book, the thing that isn't easily verifiable, although we always come up with neat checklists and tests of origin, authenticity. This has come up recently with the cast of the MTV reality show Jersey Shore. There seems to be controversy over the "fact" that Snookie was born in Chile, even though her adoptive parents are of Italian descent. Another cast member is supposedly half Spanish and Irish, (just like Rita Hayworth, by the way, whose given name is Margarita Cansino). The internet is blowing up over this--comments from readers defending both sides: like, so what if she's Chilean, she can choose who she wants to be; or, why can't she be proud of who she really is instead of trying to be Italian. Another person on the Internet saying, well, didn't Italians immigrate to Chile, maybe she really is Italian. The comments are fascinating in the ways they trace these complexities of identity, affiliation, migration, origin. Snookie's questioned identity seems to even have spurred some suspicion regarding the ethnic origins of other cast members: like maybe so and so's really Puerto Rican, etc. These comments--and perhaps the show itself--also reflect, for me, the ways we often demand and perform limited manifestations of identity.

CGS: Your poems often do something that we don't see in poetry very often-- they talk about labor and money. It seems subversive because culturally we don't feel very comfortable talking about money and it seems a particularly fraught subject to approach in poetry.

RA: Yes, I think class is largely not discussed in this country in relation to identity, so I thought a lot about how what we do to make money shapes our way of being in the world and how others perceive us. I also wanted to write about different jobs I've had. I think it's become a cliché for poets to put in their bios all the menial jobs they've had. I'm not sure if this is because poetry seems like non-work, or that poets want to seem relatable. Nevertheless, poetry is work, too, and that becomes one of the jobs of the book. The meta-job.

I also wanted to write from an historical moment in which  unionized factory jobs with decent hourly wages and health insurance, like the kind my dad had (but my mom didn't--there's the gender rub), are quickly disappearing. What it means to be working class has changed dramatically because of this.

CGS: Can you talk about some of the poets or works of poetry (or fiction, nonfiction, etc.) that foreground the work you do in this book?

RA: With regards to questions of identity, Undocumentaries is indebted to Edouard Glissant's Poetics of Relation; it really for me is the book to go to when diving into the murky waters of American identity. Walter Mignolo's Local Histories/Global Designs and Derrida's Archive Fever also made an impact.  It is not by accident, either, that I was re-reading and writing on Williams's Paterson when I started the book. My book, too, begins in Paterson, NJ, my hometown. There are other influences, echoes, and inspirations: Mónica de la Torre's Talk Shows, César Vallejo's Paris poems, Roberto Tejada's Mirrors for Gold. There are those who've helped me think about labor, class, and gender issues: Susan Briante, Rodrigo Toscano, you, Maria Melendez, Claudia Rankine, Brenda Coultas, Hoa Nguyen. All these poets/theorists have helped me think through issues of bilingualism and ethnicity and nationalism. All of them have taught me the possibilities of poetic form.

CGS: In "Confessional Poem," you write, "The girl next door had something to teach me/about what to air." I am really intrigued by the way you navigate biography, how you air your business. I feel that I come to know your biography through a deep examination of your interior life.
How did you negotiate what you wanted to air?

RA: That poem was in part a response to something I read in which a clothesline is meant to reveal a lot about a woman's intimacies, whether she has an active sex life or not. You know: big bloomers=no nookie. And I thought that isn't quite right.  The clothesline--like the poetry line--isn't exactly a confession.  I mean, this is old news, I know, but what I wanted to explore are the different elements that tension the line the female speaker/poet is hanging her clothes on-- those institutional, aesthetic, and social norms/expectations/prejudices, those private and public authority figures that she pushes and pulls against.  Ultimately, she gets to control the pulley in the poem, but there's been quite a bit of intervention on the part of many different forces, including herself.  And I also just love the image of a clothesline uniting two houses, an ever-changing installation. It's really about those tensions between the public and private that interest me, as well the ways in which the clothesline speaks class.  This is probably changing because everyone's trying to be more green, but there are ordinances in certain neighborhoods that prohibit the use of clotheslines because they're considered ugly.  People want their neighbor's lawn to be without weeds, their view without underwear, etc.  What's acceptable to view or put on view, I think, is very codified by gender, class, etc., so I think my poems work within and against those codes, too.  The poem is also about the ways in which we view acceptable content in lyric poetry within the contemporary context--how much has changed and how much has not.  I mean, as far as the poem being confessional or not: it does have some elements that are autobiographical, except I'm not going to tell you in this interview which ones.


Exeter (U.K.): Shearsman, 2010. 85 pp. $15.00

The provocative title of Rosa Alcalá’s Undocumentaries presents two buoyant challenges in one. First, it rejects the category of ‘documentary poetics’ normally associated with Marxist didacticism, transparency, and solidarity with the working classes (a poem that ‘documents’ the facts of the struggle). At the same time, it suggests that the poems gathered in this volume, in rejecting such tenets, will therefore be illegal—undocumented—crossing borders and carrying all the associations of resourcefulness, invention and criminality carried in that term.

This macrocosmic rejection of genre and dedication to boundary-crossing illicitness is reflected in within the syntax and motifs of the poems themselves. Just as the volume itself rejects the ‘real thing’ documentary poetics purports to capture, so Alcalá’s opening poem, “Undocumentary”, opens up an aperture between the speaker and ‘a girl like me’, the latter being an avatar who will move through the Artificial spaces of these poems: “A girl like me falls in love/with Yeats/and never recovers/from the stretch/of recognition//more twistable now in pArts[.]” Identification with Art and Artifice opens up an alternative space in the world, but still in proximity to it, an Artifice stretching away from what is normally located in the ‘real’.  Yeats himself moved into those spaces, his gyres, his Byzantiums, his fairy Ireland. The distance (that is, the difference) between “me” and “A girl like me” also opens up alternative “twistable” conceptual space. But Alcalá’s speaker is not a disciple  of Yeats, Art, or anything else; her role is to continue Art’s twisting motion by twisting Art; thus Yeats’s circus animals are reworked as balloon animals, “animal shapes/ballooning into pity/or pride.” Art’s grandeur, that is, its possibility, is the same as its gratuitousness, its twisting, pArty-favor, shrinking and swelling, plastic animal shapes.

If Alcalá is not invested in Art’s responsibility to report the facts, she’s not interested in escaping into realms of poesie pure, however delightful. One poem asks, “Should I construct him a paper/lantern, a luminous fiction that is—if not/a recollection—at least a festive/froth?”. As the line breaks and generous motion of this quote suggests, Alcalá’s poems do not settle at one or another extreme of Art but (nomadically?) move and double back, continually twisting the skein and the plane of Art, closer and further away to what looks (duplicitously enough) like reality.  “Minnesota men slice/at the chests of pigs/making musicals/with their wrists,” her speaker reports; here, the wrists of the butchers themselves are tracked by the speaker’s eye and serve as a kind of metonym for its motion, moving between the meaty thinginess of the chests of pigs and Art, “ musicals.” Meanwhile an endnote tells us this apparently documentary image of meatpackers at work is actually referencing a (filmic) documentary, Barbara Kopple’s American Dream, while other pArts of the poem “attempt to recreate lost footage of dye house workers in New Jersey.” This poem, then, tracks the flexing fortunes of Art as it accrues and is erased from the world, while also pondering on the way Art can and cannot carry the freight of content: “who is/the scab of me/when no meatpacking walkout/can suffice?”

Alcalá’s verse-shaped poems have a lovely, lively motion, exploiting the line break to flex a pun or move backwards and forwards in syntax in order to bring a truism up short or smuggle in a surprise exit line that shocks the poem like a depth charge: “You want tradition? Here’s the mortar & pestle./Believe me, the point’s just to pulverize.” Other times she strings an agile image from line to line. In “Confessional Poem,”

The girl next door had something to teach me
about what to air:  On the line
somebody’s business gets told
then recounted; it’s best to thread a tale
for the neighbors, an orchestration
of sorts.  […]

Here, Alcalá’s habitual avatar, “the girl”, is shown as separated from the “me” that she is elsewhere “like”; here, she’s there, “next door”, just a breath away, but far enough to be scrutinized by the “me” and everyone else.  The successive lines inscribe and reinscribe the primary image of laundry stretched on a line, while that image goes beguilingly literal and figurative, 3-D and flat, concrete to airy, the tale that can be ‘threaded’ and that elapses into air, a reality that’s twice told, first “told/then recounted”, first a “tale” then an “orchestration.” As the poem concludes: “Of course, all of this is scanty truth. Who hangs anything out to dry/when invention has halved the work?” Moments like these, plentiful across Alcalá’s lyrics, are brainy and punning, looming large (that is, pertaining to genre and content) and small (that is, site-specific to the apArtment courtyard discussed in the poem) at once. They recall Harryette Mullen’s fine, ensnaring work with both idiom and truism and with the rhetorical question as a cantilevered way to change the dimension of the poem, break its textual plane and poke the reader in the chest.

But Alcalá’s best moments, I think, are in her prose work, which shed the visual rhetoric of the verse and (also like Mullen) drop the reader into a slippery space in which words, by simply succeeding each other, create a surreal terrain in which one word, phrase, clause, or sentence can upend the last, rendering figurative what had been literal, altering the scale or otherwise switching registers between one footfall and the next.  In “Allegory of a Girl with Aspirations,”

I feel the fossil of some baron’s mutton haunches in the claw-foot tub, and think of my cook. I want to carry myself across the threshold, to kiss him, to be him, to sharpen his knives, to wear his jacket, to button it up the left side, then the right, masking and unmasking a spill, a breast, a blunder, a chest. Feigning a work of Art I enter, camera attached to an eye. Everything is perfectly framed in the viewfinder as it spans the room. I take note: from the outside, the inside becomes another angle; from the inside, the picture changes with each step.

In this passage, the short successive phrases in the second sentence tackles the figure of the cook one short tactile unit at a time, so that the reader cannot get a sightline on the whole beyond the speaker’s breathless fantasy, which dissects or literally slices up its knife-bearing object. The instrument of fantasy is Art; “Feigning a work of Art I enter,” but it is not just the subject of Art that is altered by Art’s presence but the “I” as well, appositively rendered “camera attached to an eye.” Made Artificial, the speaker can move inside the Artificial space of fantasy, but no overview or map is available; “from the inside, the picture changes with each step.” Phrase by phrase the reader is as disoriented and enthralled as the speaker. “There is no way to piece it together. He shows me all the surfaces, but I can’t locate a burner, an oven.” Finally, and completely unexpectedly, the poem converts in a stutter and an error (“I sink. I sing:”) to the piercing sweetness and the throw-away perspicacity of a fool’s song or ditty, centered on the page (thematically and visually recalling Bishop’s italicized conclusion to “The Armadillo”: too pretty, dreamlike mimicry, etc):

The compote or the composed.
The cook or the dandy.
Who will glaze my ham?
Who will I marry?

The quandrying of this verse suspends the speaker in the shocked, voltaic space between would-be separate poles—life and Art, “The cook or the dandy”. And yet it is a suspended space that can only be entered by the commitment to the dandy, to Art itself. Indeed, Alcalá’s speaker becomes a dandy, slicing up the cook’s exterior and donning it like an outfit. It is only by approaching or moving into Art that she can confect this ultravivid, intensified version of “the cook”, reality.  Perhaps in her next book she will marry it, marry it, marry it.

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