Letras Latinas Roundtable: Nayelly Barrios & Lucas de Lima
This roundtable was born from a gesture in keeping with Letras Latinas’ mission of collaborating with individuals in projects that seek to indentify and support emerging Latino/a writers, in this case we present you with a roundtable interview featuring Nayelly Barrios and Lucas de Lima, in conversation with myself as moderator.
What made this project particularly significant for me is that as opposed to the two previous roundtables (2 poets, 3 countries and 3 featuring 3) which I had moderated for Latino/a Poetry Now, in this roundtable I have contributed both as moderator and participant thus given the opportunity to express the logic behind my own craft. This opportunity has given me valuable insight on what it is like to be on the answering side and has raised my own benchmark as moderator for future roundtable interviews.
By forcing the lyric to scream, I learned to drown out the kind of skeptical thinking that posits language as a construct to be wary of, even if just in my head. So, my goal was not just to play with language as if it were a trinket but to wrestle with its potential.
--Lucas de Lima
Approaching my poetry in this manner has inspired me to move more freely within myself. Some poems just behave differently on the page than others. I have written poems that organically disperse all over the page and in other cases, poems refuse to do anything outside of a villanelle or sonnet form. It has been my experience that when I allow myself liberties on the page, my inner writing intentions demand inapprehensive presence outside of me.
As these snippets suggest both poets are critically engaged with what poetry can do both on and off the page. Lucas de Lima’s preoccupation with rescuing a “faith in language” leads him to a particular type of “typography” which can enact the necessary “movement “ to move to the “fertile soil of grief” where death can be addressed. Nayelly’s recognition of poetry’s need to move freely, to “behave differently on the page” has led her to find in her poems a place both of resistance to forces which seek cultural or linguistic containment and of celebration for our “culture’s significance” through the “chiseling of craft.”
And so without further delay I invite you to listen in on this conversation featuring Nayelly Barrios and Lucas de Lima.
In the storage closet, an accordion peeks out, stretches/ its arms in silence waiting for music to break/ through the vacant radioactive hum.—Nayelly Barrios
LIKE THE GATORS UNDERNEATH NEW YORK/WE CLOG THE SEWERS OF LITERATURE.--Lucas De Lima
What I like about these particular lines I’ve plucked from your poems is that in a way these lines manifest key features of your poetry: Nayelly’s use of sonnet-like and traditional forms to create beautifully crafted images and a language that recall the textures, colors and tastes of her childhood landscapes and which for me recreate a contained feeling of movement which is at once alluring and comforting. Or Lucas’ transfiguration of language in which historical and personal narratives bleed into one another and which for me recreates a fast-pace feeling of movement where text(s) and history(ies) are competing to write and rewrite each other. Is form movement? If so, how does the image, line-break, or the use of typography help create, capture, and release movement in your poetry?
Another topic of interest (beside movement and poetry) and which I have been thinking of for some while now is the way in which different texts and mediums have the capacity for infecting each other. I am thinking of this now because of Nayelly’s long poem “In the picture where you pose with a can of beer” and the way in which Nayelly uses Ramon Ayala’s song “Mi Golondrina.” Ramon Ayala’s haunting use of the metaphor of a swallow long-gone, accompanied by the semi-sweet sounds of the accordion create a fascinating tension which infects itself in Nayelly’s piece and recreates the emotional tension which makes this particular song memorable.
Lucas’ poems, their images, characters and texts are also constantly infecting, tearing and rewriting each other. Some images/dichotomies prevalent in those poems: Lucas/Maria, feathers/scales, sewer/genes, blood, gator/bird, bullet/armor, father/Sobek. What reflections, observations come to mind when you hear those dichotomies? How does poetry infect other mediums and how is poetry itself infected by the outside world, in particular by those forms of art which poets might be quick to exclude from the realm of poesy (popular music for example, as in the case of Nayelly or the “obscene adornment” in Lucas’ poems?
LUCAS DE LIMA:
To formally enact movement in my manuscript, I wrote in upper case. I didn’t know how else to address the death that my poems orbit--an alligator attack suffered by a dear friend. It took summoning a naïve, immature faith in language that has long been deemed unfashionable. This process was sort of like becoming a teenager again, which was the time in my life when I met Ana Maria (it was the 90’s and we both loved Tori Amos). By forcing the lyric to scream, I learned to drown out the kind of skeptical thinking that posits language as a construct to be wary of, even if just in my head. So, my goal was not just to play with language as if it were a trinket but to wrestle with its potential. Without realizing it, I tried to improvise prayer, maybe the kind you would make to a plastic Virgin Mary. Only when I let my subject transform into something both sacred and profane, bloody and kitsch, did the project become fertile soil for grief.
I also wanted to cut through another disinfectant: the elegant, quietist lyric still predominant in American poetics. I guess this was an issue for me because some of those poets were an influence to my younger self who didn’t know what else to read--Frank Bidart and Louise Gluck, for example, whose confessionalism at least gestures at grandeur. But in most poetry published in major journals, only a self-determined human being gets to know or do anything, especially in the midst of critters or trees. Somehow my “I” had to explode in a melee of feathers and scales, and typography was just one leap of faith, one cheap thrill, used to generate myth that would encompass multiple embodiments, whether human, nonhuman, dead, or alive.
Bhanu Kapil once said something that has stayed with me about race, confidence, and the difficulty of being visionary. She linked these concerns to the question of power: “who has the power to imagine these transforming things, the things that will transform the circumstances or conditions of others?” We poets on the racial, sexual, and/or class margins are of course taught not to be powerful and visionary. We especially aren’t supposed to envision worlds that defy homogeneity and disorient perspectives. Such faith in our own abilities, fuel to translate and transfigure our experiences, would turn us into all-too-capable monsters. Our voices might actually get loud. It’s a symptom of this moderation, I think, that we’re often discouraged from engaging the brutality already in our mediascape, if not our lives, as per the strikethroughs in Lauro’s poetry:
“these and other executions ...other exclusives... are brought to you...endowed to you
by the tv guides... the wall st journals.... the academic journals of the ‘poetic I’”
Or the “shame” Nayelly speaks of as “a uterus cut/open and gutted/like sapote.”
In their striving against containment, perhaps your manuscripts also respond to the sort of policing I’ve experienced in life and even the most well-intentioned writing circles. Do you, like me, want your writing to become infected in the ways Lauro points out? What might your identity have to do with this?
I don’t think that in my writing I have set out to respond to any sort of “policing.” I think part of the reason for that is in that only recently have I started to find myself belonging to any of the number of constituencies that are part of contemporary American poetry and because I have also been blessed with great mentors who have encouraged my writing in diverse ways. I do think however that there exists an implicit danger and distrust of poets--as you say--that are on the “margins” of society and who attempt to be “powerful and visionary.” I think part of the reason for this has to do with what fact that there are within poetry, conservative strands that--as the poet William Archila points out, categorize socially-committed poetry as a “limited and restricted way of looking at language.” I see my poetry more as response to that than to specific instances or groups that have sought to restrict my writing.
I am a CantoMundo fellow and one of the things I took away from this year’s Master Poets workshop was what keynote speaker E. Ethelbert Miller called--and I am paraphrasing--the poet’s battle for the myth’s of society. What images or memories, for example, keep coughing up when we think of the collapse of the twin towers and more importantly who controls these images, these myths? I think this question applies to a variety of issues and movements (LGBT rights, immigration, economic inequality, environmental degradation, etc.) and the myths that saturate and dictate our ways of thinking, that form our opinions on these issues. As a poet, what I attempt to do is reclaim some of these myths. In the particular poem which you have pointed out I have set out to construct the character of a dishwasher that sets out to write against a language of power. My use of the language of news media, with its strikeouts and censorship bars is only a construct against which I juxtapose the “dishboy’s” attempts at poetry, at constructing a language and new mythology that will be in diametrical opposition to power and which might move a reader to look beyond the false myths that saturate our society.
My attempt is thus not only to engage in these battles and reclaim some of the images and the language which have been hijacked by the 1% of this word in order to exclude the great majority of people (both in the industrialized world and in the developing world--but especially in the developing world) from enjoying the wealth generated from the global economy’s exploitation of cheap but rapidly depleting fossil fuels but also to debunk those myths which keep us from tearing down those systems of economic, social and environmental degradation. This however does not mean that craft takes a backseat to the content of my poems.
If anything the poetry, the craft becomes even more important. Because of the history of politics and poetry in this country, I have to work twice as hard to make my poems “polished.”And for me the line break, image, sound (especially repetition), and narrative combined with other literary genres become the tools by which I sculpt my art.
One of the things I love about poetry is the fact that the only subject of poetry is poetry and because that is the case it can speak about anything (it can speak about the political but it can also speak about Ramon Ayala or an imaginary concert where the instruments continue their singing long after the fallout of radioactive rain, as in Nayelly’s poems; or it can give off a “lyric scream” which restores the speaker’s faith in language as poetry does in Lucas’ poems).
So my question becomes what elements in your craft do you feel are essential in allowing you to “wrestle” with poetry and to make her/him “scream” or “sing” what you want, what do you do with those sounds?
I wouldn't say form is movement, but that is not to say I think it fits into a matter of restriction. Form is form. Form is what is outside when you wake up each morning. The movement in poetry, or a specific piece, is a combination of linguistics / form and imagery. I am drawn both to writers who fearlessly explore the field of the page and adhere to more traditional structures. Though, lately, I have been toiling mostly with sowing my work all over the landscape of my pages. Approaching my poetry in this manner has inspired me to move more freely within myself. Some poems just behave differently on the page than others. I have written poems that organically disperse all over the page and in other cases, poems refuse to do anything outside of a villanelle or sonnet form. It has been my experience that when I allow myself liberties on the page, my inner writing intentions demand inapprehensive presence outside of me.
I love having other mediums of art available to engage in conversation with my poetry. I don’t believe there is a medium of art not infected by the rest or that is lacking dialogue with another work of art. There is a sense of searching and absence in some of my work and I feel those particular poems can benefit in a dialogue with other mediums. Allowing my work to become infected/influenced by these mediums helps me further understand and expand on what I am doing in my work.
The poets I have studied with (among those, Amy Fleury and Emmy Pérez) have always encouraged me to establish and celebrate the presence of my culture’s significance on me through the chiseling of my craft. I have been very fortunate to work with poets that have never attempted to restrict my growth in any manner. For example, the “shame” Lucas refers to in my poem Acrylic on Pons is definitely a gesture against containment, containment the speaker has imposed on herself in regard to the manner in which she has reared her child. My work is definitely infected by my identity and my culture and those two are in conversation with one another in some of my work.
I like how you both speak to the tradition of the poet as herself a medium whose objective is not to purify language, but to continually electrify it. And to saturate us with the materiality of words. As Latino/a poets, are we particularly sensitive to this materialization? I’m curious about what the effect of bilinguialism is for you. What happens when you insert Spanish in a poem? Nothing? Does it feel like you are inhabiting a border?
Lauro, I wonder if the label of political poetry isn’t also normative sometimes. If one criticism of poetry from the margins is lack of innovation, the flipside seems to be the mandate by which all writing should have a clear set of ambitions, and stick to a path of emancipation worthy of good, card-carrying liberals. My favorite writers reject this goal. Clarice Lispector, Hilda Hilst, and Roberto Piva, for instance, weren’t so programmatic as to find themselves promoting the Brazilian flag’s slogan of “order and progress.” Lispector meditated on eating cockroaches, Hilst wrote a pornographic trilogy, and Piva titled one of his manifestoes “THE XXI CENTURY WILL GIVE ME REASON (if everything doesn’t blow up beforehand).” Unlike their contemporaries in Brazil, these writers weren’t trying to realize a future already imagined by Marxism, feminism, or other movements, however much those struggles inform their work. Visionary writing like theirs suggests a wayward feeling in the dark for the sublime, the unknown. Nayelly’s phrase about an “inapprehensive presence outside of [her]” reminds me of this, as does the interest Lauro and I share in myth-making.
In terms of craft, imagery is the easiest way for me to tap into unthinkable energies. I recently took a class on the baroque that clued me into how important ornateness is to my appreciation of art. I love coming up with an onslaught of images intense enough to make the poem feel like it’s lashing back at me. Plus, the baroque is very Latin American and queer. It absorbs and spills, pulling off immense tonal and syntactical variety, as in Jean Genet’s sentences.
For me the issue of bilingualism is intimately tied to identity. I see my use of Spanish and English (in my everyday conversations) as a mirror of my contradictory condition as an economic refugee of Mexican origin. I have a hard time taking ownership of either language and of feeling like I “belong” to either country.
On my mother’s side of the family I come from the southern state of Oaxaca, a place dominated by an agricultural economy and where--according to a 2003 World Bank report--70% of the population live in extreme poverty, meaning people here live off of less than $1.25 a day. These highly precarious conditions have been the result--like the violence along the “maquiladoras” around the border--of NAFTA’s neoliberal policies and its deepenign of the wealth gap within Mexican society. It is of no consequence than that after 1994 (when NAFTA was signed)we saw a huge increase of displacement both within Mexico and across the border. Oaxaca for example saw the migration of millions of traditional corn farmers who could no longer compete with cheaper imports of U.S. subsidized-corn and were displaced to urban center across Mexico and beyond the border. (Today, Mexico--the place where corn was born--can no longer produce enough corn to feed its people and imports much of it from the U.S.). This migration from the countryside, to the urban centers, to the maquiladoras along the border, is responsible not only for producing a cheap labor pool for the massive Narco organizations to employ but for the repetitive waves of economic refugees spilling into the U.S.
I came to this country--to California--as an undocumented child in the late 1990’s at a time when the state was going through a wave nativism and anti-immigrant fervor similar to what is happening today in states like Arizona and Alabama. These were “native” Californians responding to these waves of economic refugees and to the on-going de-industrialization that had been occurring in the U.S. economy since the 70’s but which had intensified under NAFTA.
For me my bilingualism reflects a side-effect of this political and economic reality which first drove my family to abandon Mexico. And while Spanish is my first language, it is the English language I love. English for me is like a first love, as soon as I began writing in English I fell in love with what I could do with the language and have never forgotten that feeling. In a way this is one of the those strange ironies that occur with any process of colonization--because really the reality that exists between countries like the U.S. and Mexico is one of neocolonialism. Spanish does nothing for me and if I included it in my poetry it is because I want to include the vulgarities and the beauty of the songs--the music that many of these economic refugees--the now cooks and janitors and nannies in our schools and restaurant and homes--listen to.
This experience makes me wonder about Nayelly’s experience with bilingualism, is her experience similar or different from mine? I can’t make up my mind. I am thinking of Nayelly’s line siempre sere llanta in her poem “When It Rains in Dreams.” That single line for me captures the beauty, the intimacy of growing up in a Spanish-speaking household. For me this is similar to my use of the crude phrase “no mames guey” which I often heard while working with Mexicans and Central Americans in restaurants. For me this phrase captures the comradeship and the humor that exists between co-workers despite the circumstances that brought them together in the first place.
Lucas’ preoccupation with the normative aspects of political poetry is also something I’ve been thinking and struggling with. I think that there are certain tendencies, perhaps not from the world of “political poetry” or the author's writing it, but rather from those that consume that poetry--the “card-carrying liberals” as Lucas says, that expect us to write a certain way. But perhaps this too is symptomatic of a bigger problem with in “Latino/a Poetry” and that being that we must only write about certain things, and in certain ways. Those certain things can vary, from injustices in the “barrio” to your abuelitas “salsa...”
When I first started writing poems I found myself self-restricting my poems to “factual” injustices that happened to people that I actually knew, such as friends getting deported for simple lack of a driver’s license, friends being victims of gang-violence, etc. I would find myself building narratives around these events and as a result these poems were not particularly successful. (I also refuse to write for example, of my own border crossing, or of my mother’s, of my mother’s work cleaning toilets, these are not poems that move me to write and which when I’ve tried turn out horribly.) Back then I think I wanted to write a certain kind of poem, a poem that had moved me and had galvanized me to do something about the political and economic realities that had driven my family out of Mexico and into the grills and toilets of American restaurants. But no matter how hard I tried I could not write like that, that was not what I know, academically speaking, that is not how my mind works.
I am a very interdisciplinary thinker, I am good at building myths and constructing characters. And when I gave myself the freedom to write beyond the factual injustices happening around me, beyond the milpas of Oaxaca and the border crossings that first brought me here, I was better able to build a poetry that is better suited for what I am trying to do: Deconstruct the myth that the West’s model for economic development is sustainable and that it leads to prosperity . It does not, it leads to prosperity for the few and to renewed and ever more clever systems of colonialism and to environmental and human atrocities.
In terms of craft, I think my poetry is informed by the mixing of genres, by narrative, repetition, imagery and the dramatic monologue or at least these are the tools I try to use in order to sculpt new myths and bring a dialogue that moves not through “speech and rhetoric” but through an imaginative process.
I like what Lucas has to say about tapping into “unthinkable energies,” my poetry I feel like is also an attempt at that. I do think ornateness has a violent aspect to it, we are repulsed by that which is over the top. I think of the Spanish word “empalagoso” which my mother use to say to me when something--usually ice cream--became sickly sweet and she could no longer bear to eat, passing it along to me. And violence to of course spills and amplifies, as Lucas says. I think that is one of the things that keeps the force of this poems lashing out for me. The alligator attack spills and self-amplifies into for example the “Marias” in these poems. What does this form of violence do to our narratives and to our intentions for poetry? What does it do to ourselves?
In re: Bilingualism, plays an important role in my craft. My family and I moved to the U.S. (to Michigan) in 1990 when I was four years old. Spanish was my first language and, being the talker that I have always been, I quickly began devouring the English language in order to be able to communicate in the playground. Learning English was an enjoyable experience for me. As I grew up, using it in a regular basis was troublesome. I spoke Spanish to my parents and grandparents and my attempts to speak English to aunts, uncle, and cousins (who also spoke English) were met with disapproval. I was criticized for speaking “too much English,” while my school teachers expected me to speak English at all times. Family was convinced I would forget my heritage. I was even called gringa and pocha. These words were hurtful to me. When I moved to El Valle (Texas), the teachers at the elementary school I attended prohibited the students from speaking Spanish. They made me feel ashamed of Spanish. That they actually accomplished that baffles me now, but I was only a child following rules then.
Eventually, I learned/was forced to compartmentalize when and where I used English and Spanish (and Tex-Mex, which I was also criticized for using). In middle and high school, I excelled in my English classes over other courses and visits to Mexico (my birth country) left me feeling like my Spanish wasn’t Mexican enough and ashamed about that. I felt like La India María. No me sentía ni de aquí, ni de allá. This all went on from age four until about…now. Around some Spanish speakers, I feel like my Spanish isn’t good enough and some native English speakers make it a point to discuss my accent (for better or worse). Perhaps the former is insecurity and the latter simply a lack of tact, regardless, I can’t deny it is bothersome to have to deal with.
Spanish is my intimate language, the language that is most closely and strongly tied to my emotions and personal experiences. As I learned English and insisted in keeping my Spanish, I found myself forced to segregate the public and private spheres. I never enjoyed doing that. In my poetry, I take the liberty to use Spanish freely as the poem calls for it. If I want to use Tex-Mex I will. If I want to pepper English and Spanish, I do so happily. Meh, I don’t care who likes it or not.
When using Spanish in a poem, I am no longer allowing my language critics to dictate how I choose to use my languages. Growing up bilingual, I felt like I was constantly skipping from one side of my language to the other. Now, I choose to allow them to coexist in my poetry and everyday life... hasta en mis Facebook posts. I want my poetry to be a bridge between both languages for me. A bridge they can both be merry on.
I think all three of us are talking about recognizability and the ways we are each perceived as Latino/as, whether in poems or in everyday life. It’s traumatic to grow up as an immigrant. The experience withered my relationship to language altogether. I was a painfully shy, anxious, and self-conscious kid in middle and high school, to the point that for years anything I said in English or Portuguese first had to be scripted in my head. The excess of my writing is probably compensation for those exhausting, lonely years. Even now that I’m in my late 20’s, it takes enormous effort for me to feel a certain degree of freedom in my poetry. That’s where the embrace of failure, a concept many poets are thinking about nowadays, has helped me. Even with the gator manuscript, I told myself I was just writing flaccid poems. I faked my way through elegies until I eventually started to trust the results and could see beauty in my deficiency. I think I was learning to let my grief turn against itself, if that makes any sense, so that my project could actually de-elegize itself and refuse to lay the dead to rest. I wonder if this is how I’ll always start manuscripts--mired in doubt and utter bleakness!
I much prefer being in the zone of violence Lauro associates with ornateness, where words seem to realize a potential so artful it can feel destructive. It contaminates the poet and/or the reader. But of course, even ornateness can feel prescriptive as a goal that sets the boundaries of your writing. Maybe that’s where being an immigrant is an advantage. We’re used to being on the move, to destabilizing speech in response to the ways it, too, has marked, scarred, and changed us.
Nayelly Barrios is a Rio Grande Valley native. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Beloit Poetry Journal, Puerto del Sol, and DIAGRAM. She is Co-Editor-in-chief of Ostrich Review.
Lucas de Lima has published poems and reviews in Action Yes, CultureStr/ke, and Rain Taxi, and is a contributor to the multi-author blog Montevidayo. His chapbook Ghostlines is out from Radioactive Moat Press. He currently lives in São Paulo.