Poetry then has lead me to all sorts of sublime heresies, which to me is a gift.
–Orlando Ricardo Menes
–Orlando Ricardo Menes
Two hundred or so years have passed since Haiti gave birth to the first nation to successfully win its freedom through a revolution led by black slaves. Revolution that began when Ogún—tired of seeing his children traded like bags of charcoal in the brig—picked Toussaint L’Overture to wield his fury and his iron sword:
Forgive me Ogún, loa of war, whose iron sword helped me win battles, I the infidel who prayed to saints. I beseech you now, Lord Ogún.
That plea, from the poem Toussaint L’Overture Imprisoned at Fort de Joux, is a touching re-imagining of the struggle not for material but spiritual freedom. That night, in that re-imagined icy-cell at Fort de Joux, Toussaint had finally won his freedom.
Below are a few questions with the author of that poem, about that and other poems.
Letras Latinas: Thank you for agreeing to this interview, can you share with us how you first came to be interested in poetry?
Orlando Ricardo Menes: I did not grow up with poetry in my house, apart from my father reciting verse by José Martí, which is rather common among Cubans. No wonder that famous Cuban song “Guantamera” is based on Martí’s poetry, which shows how ubiquitous he is in the national psyche. My first real exposure to poetry was in Spain when I lived there as a teenager in the 1970’s, and I had to read the poets of the Golden Age in bachillerato, or high school. I cannot say that I understood much of the language, but I certainly was impressed by the Baroque texture and difficulty, both linguistic and emotional, of Góngora’s poetry in particular. I am referring here to passages from The Fable of Polyphemus and Galatea, his most famous book. His poetry was to me enchantingly mysterious, and I was ecstatically perplexed (a strange notion, I admit) every time I sounded out those verses in my textbook (of lengua, or language arts)—sort of what I experienced listening to the solemn Latin Mass in the Church of the Nazarenes very close to my apartment building in Lima, Perú, the city where I was born and lived until the age of ten. After two years in Madrid we moved back to Miami in 1975, and I attended Coral Gables High School, taking honors English classes as an eleventh and twelfth grader. I had the same experience reading Milton’s Paradise Lost as with reading Góngora. Again, I understood very little of the poem without the aid of Mr. Black, who should have been teaching at a college since he had a Ph.D., so it was really the formal elegance, the linguistic complexity, and the power of Milton’s vision that captured my mind and, I think, paved the way for my own poetic vocation. This might some counterintuitive, but I was more drawn to poetry because it was so remote from me rather than my experiencing a personal connection to the poem or the poet or both.
LL: In Heresies, we are confronted with a world filled with the humorous and cruel in which St. Dollar, in welcoming Cuban refugees can:
swipe away your sins with scapulars of Visa, MasterCard.
But also filled with celebratory and the tender, such as when St. Dorothy, Patroness of Bartenders, offers the virgin of Guadalupe:
no vulgar bloody/ marys but tequila blanca, Jerusalem bitters, a garnish of prickly pear.
Full of the absolving and the redeeming, such as the moment the poet reimagines Toussaint L’Overture—imprisoned on that icy prison cell at Fort de Joux where wind cuts like blades of cane—seeking Ogún’s pardon and forgiveness:
Father? Am I not your rightful son, black as the tar of your holy fire? I hate myself for calling my people’s faith savage, I the greatest traitor who sold his talismans for a scrawny man nailed to sticks.
Full of the audacious and fanatical—like the moment the Catholic Missionary St. Francis Xavier orders the Hindus of 16th century Goa to exalt God and
Hew boughs from Brahma bulls & feast till you swell […] / Fry liver to break a fast, grill hearts in fellowship. Pleasing God is easy. Even gristle propitiates.
I am intrigued by the similarities in the last two poems quoted above, both characters here were real historical figures and both here are beautifully rendered by the poet’s imagination into an imagined moment that beautifully captures their spirit and life. How do the imagination and the historical work to make this possible?
ORM: I appreciate such a probing question. Thank you. I would say that the necessary catalyst for this reaction is empathy. It is, in my view, the most powerful transformational agent in poetry. I recommend that poets think of their poems more impersonally or detachedly (as you can tell, I have been influenced by T.S. Eliot), to think more about the lives and experiences of human beings who are different from themselves in just about every conceivable way. There is no empathy whatsoever if poets write poems that confirm or reinforce who or what they are; even worse would be those poems that legitimize groupthink, which is invariably tyrannical because those who disagree are usually marginalized. The comfort of the familiar is anathema to creating great poetry. Poets should write poems instead that make them feel strange or odd, poems that speak a contrary truth, poems that embody a mind or a heart that they may even threatening and disconcerting.
LL: This reminds be of Bob Marley asking in One Love "Is there a place for the hopeless sinner who has hurt all mankind just to save his own beliefs? This question begs for a more interesting poem, doesn't it? It is more interesting--more challenging—to imagine a poem that absolves the sinner than one that simply serves to condemn, to crucify?
ORM: I could not agree more, and I am speaking here as poet, which to me is a vocation, and not as the Orlando who has an everyday life, everyday thoughts, everyday relationships, etc. And this poet is an individual, alone and distinct, vulnerable to censure and ostracism. The poet should do the absolving without any personal gain, without any praise, with extreme humility and selflessness.
LL: Is this act of imagination an act of heresy; is the poet in imagining committing an act of heresy? What does this word “creation” evoke in your craft as a poet and in yourself as a person of faith?
ORM: I am not so sure that calling myself a person of faith is accurate because I am not religious in the conventional sense. Yes, I was born in a Catholic culture, raised with Catholic traditions, experienced most of the sacraments (my first communion still remains a vibrant memory), and pretty much was enveloped by a Catholicism that exists in a public space, a space that defines nationhood, as opposed to the more private or family space that Catholicism inhabits in the United States. And on top of that a Catholicism of a very Latin type, that is, one characterized by processions, feast days, household shrines, ex-votos, prayers as promesas, as well as a cornucopia of saints and martyrs who feed our imaginations. Though I acknowledge this upbringing and still cling to it in many ways, I would say that I have become more a person (and a poet) of the sacred, of ritual, of song. Though I still believe in Jesus Christ as my savior, and I still passionately love the Virgin Mary, I have gone on to embrace in my poetry other spiritualities, such as Santería, which have so intensely nourished my imagination in such a way that I have created another self in my poems of the sacred, a self that I still find strange but also necessary. Poetry then has lead me to all sorts of sublime heresies, which to me is a gift.
LL: Gorgeous excess, luscious, visually charge and sonically rich are all words and phrases used to describe your work. When I had the chance to hear you read some earlier versions of Heresies you had used the label of the American Baroque to describe your work. Can you tell us what that is?
ORM: The American Baroque includes such poets as Hart Crane, Derek Walcott, and even Garrett Hongo who, in my mind, are in “conversation” with the Caribbean Baroque writers (you can also call them Neo-Baroque), among them José Lezama Lima and Alejo Carpentier, who in turn were also in conversation with Góngora and even Sor Juana. What makes a work of art Baroque? Most critics would agree that it must exhibit extremeness (in extremis) and an impulse to occupy every space (horror vacui), which results in art that is impacted, congested, suffused with a beautiful materiality (objects, tropes, etc.) that overwhelms the senses. For the Baroque poet it is the conceit and its buttressing textures that are foremost in his or her craft.
LL: In a previous interview you spoke of your interest in Santeria and specifically in the role of food in ritual of:
Yoruba deities who must be fed their favorite foods, whether fresh fruits, spirits like rum and aguardiente, animal flesh and blood. Physical sustenance, apart from prayer, is a vital component of this and other ancient spiritualities.
ORM: I am not sure that a New World imagination, such as that of Walcott, Kamau Brathwaite, and Wilson Harris, can legitimately differentiate (aesthetically at least) between these so-called primitive practices and the Catholic transubstantiation. The New World imagination embraces the cross-cultural, the hybrid, the transgressive and, above all, rejects hierarchies and hegemonies.
LL: In Heresies many of the poems are dedicated to other poets, most hailing from Cuba or the greater Caribbean. Do you see in this case poetry functioning in a similar way as does food, in the sense that the poet here is paying tribute to poetic ancestors.
Yes, yes, absolutely. And what I love most about these ancestors is that they were found through the imagination, located through artistic struggle, so that my genealogy was created rather than inherited, which makes it wholly mine. I find comfort in knowing that I am not alone, that I belong to a community of the living and the dead.
Orlando Ricardo Menes is a Professor of English at the University of Notre Dame and the author of Heresies (University of New Mexico Press, 2015). His other books include Fetish (University of Nebraska Press, 2013)—for which he was awarded the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in poetry—Furia (Milkweed Editions, 2005) and Rumba Atop the Stones (Peepal Tree Press, 2001).