Sunday, August 11, 2013

Interview with Carlos Parada Ayala

Against the mighty
forces of my discontent
your bird flocks amass

                                                                                       ---Carlos Parada Ayala

  Cover by: Oscar Camilo De Las Flores    

1.     The last stanza in “Seed” seems to hint at reincarnation. Is this something you explore in your poetics or an inspirational concept for you?

I wrote this poem after I had been through a difficult period in my life and dedicated it to Maria Blanca Ayala, my mother. Mom has had a life full of obstacles and has been through several near-death experiences. She's a deeply religious woman and her resilience is based on her faith. Even though she believes in the afterlife, her life here, on this earth of ours, is a prime example of constant renewal. As I was going through my own troubles, her life inspired my own spirit of survival and my own search for renewal. Even though I'm not a religious person, like her I'm deeply spiritual. She strengthens her faith by praying to God, I strengthen my faith through poetry and an appreciation for the arts. "Seed" tries to encapsulate this dynamic of the human experience.

2.     I love the personification and juxtaposition in the poem “Fall” where “a flock of razors/ sips multiplied light” and “Outside, an army of oaks,/ bald and mild/ coats itself with wrinkles.” The barbers then become “a loathsome forest” shrouding itself with roughness. In your world, I am reminded of the Maya world where plants, objects, and humans are on the same level with one another. Was the idea of unification something you had in mind in creating this world?

Absolutely. One of the running themes of The Light of the Storm is the idea that we are one with all the elements on earth in our cosmic journey through the universe. This is precisely the reason why the poems are populated with images of flora, fauna, rivers, oceans, the sky and the stars in the same plane as humans. In "Fall" I decided to incorporate objects made by humans, such as mirrors and razors, in a world that integrates the artificial space of a barber shop with nature.

One of the great flaws in our thinking as modern humans is that we have broken those links and, as a result, have turned ourselves into a major threat to our very existence. In this regard, the Mayans have essential lessons to teach. They are one of the people in our hemisphere that have withstood permanent aggression and have managed to survive despite this history. They are a prime example of resistance, and I think their ability to survive has much to do with their understanding of a deeply connected and interdependent objective and subjective world.

3.     From the ancients to Camus’ The Stranger, I had always thought of the sun as having a god-like status and, in The Stranger, being a source of punishment or delirium to humans. For this reason, one of the most surprising images in the poem “Winter” reads: “under a reluctant and imprisoned sun.” In other poems, such as in “Banalidades,” we see an inversion of this personified astral body with the image, “the sun cut the day with machete blows/ and the moon hid her coin in her cleavage,” which reflects this source of punishment. Can you tell us more about the inversion of this image and the sun as a running symbol in your book?

I see the sun as a representation of the dialectic between creation and destruction.  More often than not, the sun or stars appear in the book as a symbol of life, hope and beauty, but sometimes they appear as a symbol of death as in the poem "Whale," or as you point out, in "Banalities." The book begins with "Instructions to Save the Sixth Sun" to remind us of the beginning of a new era, according to Aztec cosmology. However, the poem also reminds us of the cruelty of war as experienced during the just passed era of the Fifth Sun, in which, among other events, imperial capitalism emerged and expanded to the detriment of Indigenous peoples around the globe. The last verse of the poem "The Light of the Storm," which is also the last poem in the book, evokes the stars in the constellation of Libra, the symbol of justice. I purposely decided to end with this cosmic image because Saúl Solórzano, who devoted his life to the struggle for peace and social justice and the person to whom the poem is dedicated, was coincidentally born under that sign. I'm not a believer in astrology, but the coincidence was so powerful that I decided to make use of it as an inspirational poetic device.

4.     In “Day of the Dead” there is a transition where the narrator says, “I carried my country on my back like a sack/ full of ill-fated chapters” to “Now I rise with my head held high,/ carrying my country in the deepest part of my chest.” Can you tell us more about this transition or metamorphosis?

"Day of the Dead" to me is like a prayer. The ending is more of a wish than a reality.  The fact is that, given the levels of impunity favoring those who committed egregious human rights violations during the civil wars in Central America, I still feel like I carry my country on my back. There have been times -- such as when peace treaties were signed, when enlightened progressive governments are elected, or when someone like dictator Ríos Montt is brought to trial -- that I have felt the deep sense of hope that I express in the poem's ending. Most of the time, however, I feel like the struggle for social justice is an uphill battle that, no matter how hard, must continue to be waged.  "Day of the Dead" is thus my prayer to keep up the hope.

5.     The title poem “The Light of the Storm,” seems to encapsulate some of the themes in your book, evincing a feeling of universal hope with the images of light, dreams, and a victorious voice confronting the storm, loss, and death. I found it a fitting way to end and begin. Can you tell us about the dedication to Saúl Solórzano? How did you come to pick this poem title as the book title?

I wanted this book to be a tribute to hope without overlooking the fact that humans are also capable of committing acts of destruction and despair. I had decided on the title months before I wrote the poem. However, when Saúl Solórzano died tragically after an accidental fall, I decided to write the poem and dedicated it to him. Saúl was an organizer in the Christian Base Communities in El Salvador when the military government in power in the Seventies and Eighties was waging war against those who were working in the movement for peace and social justice. Fearing for his life, Saúl fled El Salvador and settled in the New Jersey area. Despite the fact that he had no documents, he began working as an organizer of the thousands of Salvadorans who like him sought refuge in the US. It was around this time, in the early Eighties, that we met and became good friends. He then moved to the Washington, DC area and became the director of the Central American Refugee Center (CARECEN) where he led a multi-pronged effort to protect the rights of the most vulnerable immigrants in his country, the undocumented ones. Saúl was one of those extraordinary community leaders who never relented and whose work had an impact nationwide. Were he still alive today, he would be where he was for over three decades: at the forefront in the struggle for the rights of Latinos in the US. He died two years ago, but his light shines like a beacon of hope in the storm of our history.    

6.     Your poetry reflects the macro and micro in both structure and content, ranging from the Astros to the lone stanzas located throughout the text. How do these mini-poems function? Do they serve as brief reflections, rhetorical pauses, or interludes? Contrast to the others? Were they written as you were working on the collection, before, or after?

The haiku in the book are intended to work as separate voices that relate thematically or emotionally to the narrative in the longer poems. The idea is for them to serve a function similar to that of counterpoint in baroque musical compositions. To a great extent, and particularly in the first section of the book, the haiku provide a contemplative rest stop after longer poems charged with complex imagery.

I wrote the haiku at the same time I was writing the other poems. Rei Berroa, a Dominican poet and friend of mine, gave me a book called Haiku a la hora en punto, by Spanish poet José M. Prieto. The book contains hundreds of haiku in Spanish. I studied and learned to write them since I realized that they were a great resource for capturing those poetic flashes or ideas that flow through your mind as you read poetry, when you are in the process of working on other poems, when you meditate or as you go through life in general.

The inclusion of the haiku as counterpoint essentially reflects the simultaneous experiences, ideas and voices that went through my mind as I worked on the book's manuscript.

7.     Speaking of mini-poems, can you tell us more about the following:

—The Donkey Hottie…
must be Platero’s brother—
was the girl’s first thought.

My wife and I raised our two daughters in a bilingual household. When Celia, my oldest daughter, was around four or so, I began to re-read the Don Quijote. I was constantly talking about the book with my wife and kids. One time when I was having a chat with Celia, I discovered that in her bilingual mind, whenever I mentioned Don Quijote, what she was hearing was the words Donkey Jote. I also realized that for her, the extraordinary detail in the image of Don Quijote and Sancho Panza, was not that of a lanky man riding a scrawny horse, but rather that of a small donkey capable of carrying Sancho Panza, a very large man. As such, I built on Celia's imagination to bring in Platero, the donkey from Platero y yo, Juan Ramón Jiménez's poignant classic lyric novel.

8.     Poems, such as “Hip-Hopera by Two Immigrants,” translated particularly well given the challenges of the rhyme scheme. Did you write the poems in English first then Spanish, or the other way around? What was the translation process like?

I wrote the "Hip-hópera" in Spanish. Translator, Andrea Johnson, whom I met in Bethesda's Writer's Center, helped me translate the "Chirilagua Blues;" and José Ballesteros, Zozobra Publishing's editor, translated "The Migrant." Both poems follow metric and rhythmic patterns found in the Blues and can be sung as such. Chilean singer Patricio Zamorano and his band sang the Spanish version of "Chirilagua Blues" in a poetry and music recital at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC in November 2011. Both pieces can also be rapped as they work flawlessly with hip-hop or reggaeton beats.

Due to the fact that they use rhyme and meter, translating the songs was a challenge and, in this sense, working with talented translators was key in achieving very good English versions of the Spanish originals.

Carlos Parada Ayala
(San Juan Opico, El Salvador, 1956)

A recipient of Washington, DC's Commission on the Arts Larry Neal Poetry Award, Carlos Parada Ayala, is the author of the poetry book La luz de la tormenta/The Light of the Storm (Zozobra Publishing, 2013) and co-editor of the anthology Al pie de la Casa Blanca: Poetas hispanos de Washington, DC, published by the North American Academy of the Spanish Language (New York, 2010.) Co-edited with Argentinean poet Luis Alberto Ambroggio, the US Library of Congress selected this anthology to celebrate 400 years of Hispanic poetry in the United States in September 2010. Parada Ayala is a member of the poetry collective Late Night Hour and is a founding member of ParaEsoLaPalabra, a collective of writers, artists and activists whose goal was to promote the arts, music and literature in the Spanish speaking communities of the Washington, DC metropolitan area. Parada Ayala has participated in El Salvador’s International Gathering of Poets, the Festival of New Poetry and the Latin American Poetry Festival in New York, and in Washington DC’s Teatro de La Luna’s Poetry Marathon. His poetry has appeared in anthologies and cultural journals and has been included in the US Library of Congress’s poetry series The Poet and the Poem. Parada Ayala graduated from Amherst College with a degree in Spanish, Latin American and Brazilian literature.

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