Calling Home: Praise Songs and Incantations
(Bilingual Press, 2013)
A few years ago, Naomi Ayala conducted one of the best CantoMundo workshops I'd experienced as a CantoMundo fellow. Letras Latinas asked CantoMundo co-founder Pablo Miguel Martínez if he'd be willing to interview Naomi about her latest book, the latest installment in Bilingual Press' CANTO COSAS series. Here is the result. Before we get to the interview, here are three plucked gems. Naomi Ayala, in her own words:
"I think our job, as poets who identify as Other, is whatever we choose it to be."
"I try not to look at the poem as an outsider except, sometimes, with regard to sound."
"Draw closer to those who seem to have harmonized or are harmonizing the various facets of who they are—in their writing, sure, but most importantly, in their lives."
PM: Pablo Miguel Martínez
NA: Naomi Ayala
PM: Naomi, this is a beautiful, filled-with-music gathering of poems and the voices that sing them. And though these poems are contemporary, they issue from an old soul. That’s only one of the many things I love about this collection.
One of the first things developing writers of fiction are taught is the crucial, central role conflict and tension play in a short story or novel. And though we don’t deploy such conflict in poetry (well, it does come into play where some narrative poems are concerned), I am drawn to the significance of conflict in these poems. For example, there’s the conflict of jíbaros, campesinos, and guajiros who come to cities such as Washington in search of new lives; there’s also the tension that ensues when developers (oh, that word—develop—and our love-hate relationship with it!) gentrify working-class neighborhoods; finally, there’s the compelling tension that arises when love between two individuals sours and no longer sings its formerly alluring song.
Can you comment on how conflict, which usually has a negative connotation, shapes some of your poems?
NA: For me, tension does play a key role in poetry—though, certainly, not in all poems. Each poem comes to do a different job in this world. As I say this, I see a taut wire in my mind’s eye—two forces moving in opposite directions. For me, tension is conflict in poetry, and it can be present at any point along the length of the wire that the poem focuses the light of its attention upon—which need not necessarily be at each of the two (or more) end points.
In some poems, we don’t see evidence of the tension in the writing, but it is certainly palpable to us. To me, this is mastery at work—writing in the quiet, expansive spaces between the lines, where the reader comes into contact with the subconscious at work. Reading, then, becomes more of a multidimensional or expansive experience, rather than a flat, one-dimensional experience.
The poems I like writing most are like the poems I most like to read. They invite me to return to visit and tinker, release them into the world, or discover something new, something that, in their creation, not even I may have been privy to. And when these poems happen, it is incredibly humbling: they are larger than me. They are a testament to the power of poetry, the power of the written word. And I was there; I showed up and they passed through.
I usually never want to visit more than once or twice with the one-dimensional pieces. To me, they are akin to instant gratification—with which there is nothing wrong; sometimes, that is exactly what one needs. But I can experience that in my memory of them, so I move on. There is always so much more to be done.
Finally, for me, tension (or conflict) is contrast. Without it, we can’t see other things so well. That’s the nature of our collective understanding of the world. Our lens: polarities. Contrast shapes. Contrast defines. This is my great point of intersection with painters, contrast.
PM: I’m in awe of your beautifully deft weaving of personal narrative and larger histories. In fact, your book is a lovingly rendered history of brown people. It reminds us that the place(s) we call home are myriad, diverse, unstable, and filled with hope and longing. But even farther back—and more specifically—your book is a reminder of poetry’s long, rich history: it reminds us that poetry is song (in that regard, we poets are literary/spiritual descendants of priests, healers, diviners). The book’s title announces its bi-directional perspective: it foretells, as all vatic texts do, while it praises the past. And I believe there’s tension in that shifting focus. (Is it shifting? Or is it simply part of our orientation as descendants of indigenous people?) Is this part of the work of poets who identify as ‘other’?
NA: It’s all of it, my story and our story. There is no separation. The weaving (the small of it and the great) is that lens taken form. I can’t quite take credit for it. The crafting part, yes, probably. I work obsessively at it, though not as much or as often as I would like. There is a level at which that way of seeing has been integrated and is synthesized.
I am made, first, of three distinct nations. Then, four or more. I am daughter and sister to a lot. All of these emotions you bring up, all of these facets of what we call home, we are all of that—memory and foretelling, the impoverished, the landscapes, and all the varicolored struggles for freedom; the dreams of the young and our elders.
I think our job, as poets who identify as Other, is whatever we choose it to be. It needs to be uniquely ours, even if the outside world does not see it as such. What tasks do we want to carve out for ourselves, if any? What unique contributions do we bring to the table by being more and more who we truly are and hoisting that to growing craftsmanship among like minds? I think of CantoMundo here in particular when I say this. May its tribe increase.
PM: The final poem in the collection, “Manifesto,” ends with this straightforward declaration: “My heart is good./I work my words./I pray my songs./I sing my work and work/works for me./I sleep awake./Awake, I dream./I apologize for this no more.” (By the way, it’s just one of so many wondrous examples of the gorgeous musicality in your poems. The yoking assonance of “work” and “words” is a stunning summation of what poetry is.)
Do you believe contemporary poets apologize for our ‘word-work’? Is it that type of apologetic affect that sometimes renders poetry irrelevant in our culture?
NA: No, I don’t believe that contemporary poets apologize for their work. I certainly hope that none do. If you know of any, have them write me.
“Manifesto” is a self-affirmation aloud on the page.
In my not-so-long life, I’ve had many incarnations. Along some of the roads I’ve walked, especially 30 or more years ago, poets were looked down upon and I was often belittled for being a poet. The stereotype went something like this: you were poor, lazy, wayward, dreamy, too touchy-feely, probably didn’t have any skills and, most likely, had no idea where you were headed in life.
One’s mere presence seemed to be an unspoken attack on the middle class or the American dream—getting a college education and/or a reliable job, falling in love, marrying, owning a home, having children, etc. This was especially true in the workplace. It was as if you might be less trustworthy than other people. And when it came to certain jobs, it was as if the very fact that you were a poet could discredit your “other work,” your paid work—especially if that work involved writing. At some jobs, I learned to tell no one.
It wasn’t that being a young woman who was “too smart for her own good” or that being a Puerto Rican or Latina was a piece of cake either. It was the combination of affronts that, at times, became almost unbearable. But the thing with poetry is that no one had made it not okay to be condescending to working-class poets, not okay to threaten their livelihoods. If you wanted to be a poet, the respectable thing to do, maybe, was to teach at the university level. That was a real job with a real future. And I think that, to this day, at least in part, poets are looked upon that way by others.
PM: And speaking of declarations and manifestos, I also am completely taken with your poems’ straddling what are usually deemed “feminine” and “masculine” registers. Your poems are sometimes ‘feminine’ (if by that we mean private utterance in domestic spaces) and other times masculine (public discourse). In that sense you strip gender from the speakers’ voices, making the poems universal. More to the point, if we take the speakers to be from historically marginalized segments of the population (women, Latinas, Native Americans), the poems are a form of empowerment.
At what point in the drafting/revising process are you aware that the poems may have that effect on your readers/listeners?
NA: I am not aware. I try not to look at the poem as an outsider except, sometimes, with regard to sound. If, as you say, that is the case, then I am deeply grateful. I would want that for my poetry in English, where it was possible, where it would not compromise the workings of a poem. (I say for my poetry in English because such a thing seems to be an impossible feat in Spanish or other Romance languages).
So this is not premeditated. It is not a conscious choice. In the act of writing, a lot of things hold my focused attention. There is all that my mind’s eye can see and wants to see, and all that tugs at my ear. Sometimes, they are very fine things that can quickly disappear if I try to balance too much. All of these fine things become fragile scaffolds holding up the élan vital of the poem. If something loosens, I risk losing the vital breath, the vital energy of the poem, one I may not be able to bring back or rescue later.
PM: The epigraph that opens the third section of your book is from César Sánchez Beras’ poem “Areíto por todos.” It reminds us that though attempts to erase the aboriginal root in us have been strong and unceasing, we return, renewed and emboldened (by language).
What do you say to young and developing Latina/o poets who, through the MFA experience or larger societal pressures (mainstream media, public education), feel pulled away from their indigenous and multi-racial realities in their writing?
NA: I say to them: Do as you must. Most roads lead to the same place. But claim as much of yourself as you can every step of the way that you can. And I mean everything—not just your roots, past, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and religious or spiritual beliefs, but who you are outside all of those lines and who you want to grow into.
Some years, some things will get more attention than others and that’s alright. Just do what you can to come back to the rest of you, or to shed the light of your focus on what resonates most with your growth at that time or with your life context.
It can be daunting, yes. But you’ll breathe more easily. You’ll be happier. You may, at some point, even feel “whole,” no matter how disparate those identities.
And wherever you are, find others who are at least somewhat like you. Disregard no one. Draw closer to those who seem to have harmonized or are harmonizing the various facets of who they are—in their writing, sure, but most importantly, in their lives.
PM: Another important theme that runs through this collection is the natural world—the environment—and the need to preserve it (there’s the forward-looking perspective). And though this is not a theme widely associated with Latina/o poets, we know that the curanderas in our cultures certainly knew about plants’ healing properties and growing seasons long before holistic medicine appeared as an alternative. In this regard, your collection at times reads like a manual of sorts. It imparts a kind of traditional knowledge that the colonizers discredited, dismissed, and tried mightily to erase. Are your poems a sort of reclamation project?
NA: I believe all of us have a role as stewards of our environment, no matter where we are. Stepping up to that role is stepping up to a full citizenship of sorts. But there is also the relationship that we foster with the natural world. I believe that we must have a relationship—whatever it is and however large or small. One cannot be a steward of what one doesn’t know.
For me, my relationship with the natural world helps me mind my size. That is, it keeps the false thinking of the ego in check. But that’s just one thing. It reminds me as well of my expansiveness and potential for greater expansiveness—in the self and the actions informed by that self. This relationship with the natural world serves as my life’s harmonizing force. Just as importantly, it keeps at bay any illusions of separateness that creep up.
A worldview with the potential for evolution of the human race needs to be informed by our symbiotic relationship with the natural world. In my mind, no solution to the world’s problems can ever be viable or progressive or expansive enough when respect for that symbiotic relationship is absent.
Safeguarding the natural world today is not exactly forward-looking as it was long ago by the first peoples of the United States who, like first peoples throughout the world, understood and lived out this symbiotic relationship in endless forms. First peoples of the Americas and the world have always been the soul of right relationship with and stewardship of the natural world. And while we are fortunate to still count with their presence in some parts of the world, they are disappearing more quickly than ever. (My poetry does not want to have to ask: What is to become of us then?)
Later, in Latin America, I think of Chico Mendes, because I do. In the U.S., I think of John Muir and Lady Bird Johnson. They were poets of a different kind. They did not need verses. They wrote their forward-looking poetries with their lives and these persist. If verses are love given form—whether directly, in what they behold, or indirectly, in what is beheld outside the lines—then theirs was a poetry of sorts.
Numerous poets, though, have held this forward-looking gaze in their poetries in various ways, or held that symbiotic relationship up with honor and respect. I think of Francisco X. Alarcón, N. Scott Momaday, Joy Harjo, and—one of my favorites—poet, essayist, short-story writer, and novelist Wendell Berry.
The natural world also presents us with sacred spaces, and these need to be honored as such. More and more, we need to protect these as we might our society’s most vulnerable. Not like a church or temple. No. Those can be rebuilt.
So the poems in this collection are not a reclamation project, per se. That, at least, was not my intention. But I am always trying to claim and reclaim my relationship with the natural world however best I can, and making room for it in my life. The most important place this happens is outside of my poetry. That must remain true. Any threat to that relationship becomes a personal threat. It becomes a threat to the physical and the spiritual and to my identity—even when it is me who might be posing the threat.
Poetry comes later. With me, it is a language of interaction for the intimate. But there are other languages and other interactions outside of poetry—like ritual, for the private self.
Growing up in Puerto Rico, my relationship with the natural world came before poetry, at the age of eight or nine. It was an important time for me and I remember it well. Some years later, about the time I began writing, my relationship with my maternal grandfather made my relationship with the natural world more expansive, and I began developing a relationship with plants. For him, that relationship was natural, vital, and it was one of the things that most informed his world. At some point, after I began to write poetry, I became aware of the need to write down his remedies, but caught in the belief that there would always be time in the future, he died before I could. This was a huge personal loss, one that doubled after being plucked and replanted in a new landscape with a different flora and fauna.
In my early 20s, I took on a peace-making project with my heart and new environment. I began growing all sorts of herbs and plants in my studio apartment on Dwight Street in New Haven. At one point, these outnumbered books and writing notebooks. And I played with their medicinal uses in teas, tinctures, and balms so that I could learn to understand them. That was a challenging time in my life; this new relationship brought happiness and calm.
Up until sometime in my early 30s I felt bitter, cynical, and angry about how I had ended up in the U.S. and about many of the things that had been giving rise to my growing social consciousness. In the end, it was my relationship with the natural world that saved me from being swallowed up whole by those emotions. I understood this, experientially and very literally: I was just now located in a different part of the big blue planet I so loved. It sounds almost insignificant, entirely geographic. It is not.
Until that point, I had felt incredibly divided and dim inside. From that point on, however, I began to feel more at home everywhere. I began to better understand acceptance, appreciation, and gratitude, and I began growing in the direction I wanted to choose for myself.
Naomi Ayala is the author of three books of poetry, Wild Animals on the Moon (Curbstone Press), This Side of Early (Curbstone Imprint: Northwestern University Press), and Calling Home: Praise Songs and Incantations (Bilingual Press). She is the translator of Argentinean poet Luis Alberto Ambroggio’s book of poetry, The Wind’s Archeology/La arqueología del viento (Vaso Roto Ediciones, Mexico), which won the 2013 International Latino Book Award for Best Nonfiction Book Translation. Some of Naomi’s work in Spanish appears in Al pie de la Casa Blanca: Poetas hispanos de Washington, DC (North American Academy of the Spanish Language). Naomi has won several awards; among these are Artists Fellowships from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, Special Recognition for Community Service from the U.S. Congress, and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Legacy of Environmental Justice Award. She lives in Washington, DC.
Pablo Miguel Martínez’s collection of poems, Brazos, Carry Me (Kórima Press, 2013), received the 2013 PEN Southwest Book Award for Poetry. Writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, Sandra Cisneros praised Brazos, Carry Me as her favorite book of 2013.
Pablo’s work has appeared in numerous publications, including Americas Review, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Harpur Palate, Gay and Lesbian Review, Inkwell, North American Review, Pilgrimage and the San Antonio Express-News, among other publications. His poetry has been anthologized in This Assignment Is So Gay, Best Gay Poetry 2008, Poetic Voices without Borders 2, and Queer Codex: Chile Love. Pablo has received the Robert L.B. Tobin Award for Artistic Excellence, the Oscar Wilde Award, and the Chicano/Latino Literary Prize. His literary work has received support from the Alfredo Cisneros Del Moral Foundation and the Artist Foundation of San Antonio.
Pablo is a Co-Founder of CantoMundo, a national retreat-workshop for Latina/o poets. He teaches English at the University of Louisville.