Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Love Letter to an Afterlife: An Interview with Ines P. Rivera Prosdocimi

Love Letter to an Afterlife

an interview with Ines P. Rivera Prosdocimi
conducted by Therese Marie Konopelski

Love Letter to an Afterlife resonates as a living memory of poet Ines P. Rivera Prosdocimi's first home, the Dominican Republic. In Ines's poems, the island culture, so firmly tied to place and family lore, unifies multiethnic and even transnational identities. They preserve the continuity of  tradition, with all the indigos, black pearls, shells, markets, and gods of the Dominican people across time, exile, and diaspora. The lush physical identification with the island's fauna, shores, and inhabitants, communicated with the rhythms of their language, transcends the sorrows of the island, a family spiritually unified by more than place.

As a biracial woman myself, there are many homes and cultures carried in my blood, and I strongly believe that these inherited memories affect our lives and the way we live them in the present. Love Letter to an Afterlife is a beautiful tribute to the blended cultures and families in our world, and the heritage that we strive to honor.

-Therese Konopelski, University of Notre Dame (class of 2020)

[Therese Konopelski]: Love Letter to an Afterlife is a rich, eloquent recollection of life in the Dominican Republic, with sonorous and sensual imagery from the island’s natural fauna and inhabitants. How did the colloquialisms, dichos or refranes of the island manifest themselves in the book? How did you translate the natural flow of this diction?

[Ines P. Rivera Prosdocimi]: As the child of a Dominican immigrant and an Argentine immigrant, I have always been hyperaware of the difference not only between English and Spanish, but Dominican Spanish and Argentine “Castellano.” For example, my father’s “un chin (a little or tiny bit of something)” versus my mother’s “un poco (a little of something).” Dichos, refrances, or parables are inherent in Dominican Spanish. The more you hear them, the more you absorb them. What I love about Dominican Spanish is its playfulness and inventiveness; it’s a language that has absorbed different languages and continues to evolve. As someone who spent her summers in the D.R., more so than in Argentina, it’s inevitable that Dominican Spanish will make its way into my work or coexist with the English that is also very much ‘home’ to me. 

When I write I pay a lot of attention to how words flow on the page or how they might be used to create sounds that can draw your attention to an image or a turn in a poem. I want the rhythm that I hear in my head, which might draw from both English and Spanish, to be reflected on the page. Sometimes it’s about determining the right word or sequence of words. Sometimes, it’s about where to break the line or teasing out a meter that might already be present in the poem. Perhaps there are particular sounds that I associate more with the D.R. than the U.S. and if that’s the case, I want to give those sounds priority.

[TK]: How did these memories taken from childhood, woven through common threads of family life, find their order in the book? Do you think of this book in sections or as separate poems that exist in their own right?

[IPRP]: I had a professor that once told me that ordering poems in a book should be like organizing a piece of music. I really like that idea and I tried to apply it to this book not just with movements from the present to the past, but also tonally. Yes, the poems can stand on their own, but I do think of this book in sections. For example, we begin in the present with the “Lost Santos,” which underscores what the succeeding poems respond too – loss and the need to preserve some semblance of the past. The poem that follows is “Communion,” which instigates a period of childhood (the past) and it is written in a very childlike voice. Overall, it changes the pace of the book, the energy. Notice that the poem that ensues, “Playing Rock and Apollo,” in many ways sustains this energy. As the book progresses, the past isn’t just a collision of my memories from the D.R. and the U.S., but an exploration of this hybridity. The second half of the book shifts to the present and maps how my sense of home evolves; it includes spaces beyond the D.R. and the U.S., and it’s a more reflective, a bit more political. I think in some cases, it’s not easy to draw a border between the countries that I am from, or the past versus the present, life versus death, grief versus celebration, these binaries. They can manifest in the same poem. We often think of people living “in between” worlds or sentiments, but in reality they simultaneously contend with different worlds and manage conflicting or contradictory sentiments and feelings.

[TK]: The titular poem, Love Letter to an Afterlife describes a Dominican paradise with the carnival, a field of poppies, and a slow rocking music permeating the dusk. How do you see the relationship between memory and the ability to shape your future, or afterlife? What aspects of your memory did you include and why do you think you remembered them?

[IPRP]: Memory is unreliable but it’s ours; sometimes it’s the only thing we have that can attest to an experience or the existence of an individual. With that said, I think it’s just as valuable as ‘official’ history and needs to be documented. Much of this poetry collection was written during a period where I lost a number of family members. I wasn’t only confronted by the idea of mortality or the how their deaths coincided with major changes in the D.R., but with the fact that parts of the past, of family history died with them. So, I set out to write some poems that not only preserved the people that gave me a sense of home but what I knew about my ‘home,’ a home that can’t be reduced to a single dot on a map. This is also a question of representation, right? The act of documenting my reality, which I don’t think is necessarily unique, but you don’t always see it represented in popular culture or literature. 

In the poem “Love Letter to an Afterlife,” I asked myself: If there is an afterlife, what would I want to take with me, what would I want to see, what would I want to greet me? My afterlife is not necessarily only a Dominican paradise; it is also an Argentine and American paradise, if we want to think of it in those terms. It has the little Dominican town of Bonao, the greenest-greenest place I have ever seen, and the guloyas from carnival who have always been magical to me. It has my mother’s piano music and the milongas from Argentina that I love to hear, even if they’re sometimes sad. The last stanza features a field of flowers. We could be anywhere, no? This is a poem that is also written mostly in English, an important factor in determining what the afterlife looks like, sounds like, feels like.

[TK]: How do you see the DR differently now that you no longer live there? How was the experience of being an immigrant from the DR at first?

[IPRP]: As an adult and as a scholar who specializes in Dominican and Dominican literature, I have gained a better understanding not just of literary traditions or movements, but of the making of a country like the D.R., its colonial legacies, its relationship with Haiti and the greater Caribbean, and especially, its history of trauma. I do not idealize it like before. Meaning, it’s not just dominated by my childhood memories of endless dodgeball games, going to the corner colmado and buying bubble gum and an ice cold coke, or learning how to dance with my crew of friends. My father always says that you want to return to the place of your childhood, to that golden period. The D.R. in many ways was that for me, but the country is rapidly developing, so many of my friends and family have left, so much of what I knew about the D.R. has changed or evolved because I’m more informed. I still have a longing to go back, but I don’t idealize it the way I did before; it is not all golden. It has its good and bad. It has its issues or problems just like any other place. I am also more aware of my position of privilege. I am first-generation American – the child of a Dominican immigrant and an Argentine immigrant. I had the privilege of spending many of my summers in the D.R., throughout my childhood and adolescents. I have always had the option of visiting the D.R., and I have always had the option of leaving the D.R.. As a kid, whenever I visited and left the D.R., I was reminded of this. I was reminded that in many ways I was sheltered from some harsh realities. I did not have to contend with the everyday the way that my family members or friends did. I had the option of leaving – they didn’t. 

D.R. validated for me that I was not an anomaly in the world. I am the product of a biracial, biethnic, bicultural union. This is not outside the “norm” in the D.R. but in northern Virginia, people did and will assume that I am from another country, rather than assume I am American. They will assume I am my mother’s “caretaker,” not her daughter because she is white and I am mixed. They will express surprise that my father is my father because he is black and I am mixed. I grew up in an America that in a number of ways told me I was not “normal,” I was “different,” I wasn’t “American,” I was not the right kind of “Latina” because I was mixed, because I’m Afro-Latina, because even my Spanish is mixed. D.R. countered all of that because there were families that looked like mine, because beauty standards are different, because people did not assume that I was inferior or dumb solely because of the color of my skin, and because I gained a sense of belonging that to this day, has not been emulated in the U.S.

[TK]: In your poem, Spanglish, you speak about your early difficulties with the English language. How does your Spanish as your first language influence your poetry?

[IPRP]: In my family, we had to have our feet in multiple worlds. We had to figure out how to be American but also firmly rooted in the cultures of our home. There’s no map or guide on how to do to this: How can someone manage not to be “too American” but “American?” How does someone speak Spanish well when one parent has a Dominican vocabulary and another parent has an Argentine vocabulary, and English dominates outside the home? How can someone embody multiple worlds when the society that you live in doesn’t acknowledge that you can be multiple things? My struggle with language came with having to navigate two languages simultaneously. Learning how to navigate two languages is not a linear process or an easy, painless process. 

Poems like “Learning to Speak Spanglish” underscore this conflict. Does one ever really take root in two languages? If so, what does that look like? Is one language preserved more than another over time? Your question reminds me of a question that some of my students have posed to me: Am I Latina if I don’t speak Spanish, if I’m not the best Spanish speaker, if you can’t tell where my accent is from, or I sound “gringa?” What I notice about this question is that it always stems from a place of insecurity. I can definitely relate to my students. I wrestle with English and Spanish constantly; sometimes I feel more confident with one than another, speaking or writing, and sometimes I feel like I have a balance. More poems like “Learning to Speak Spanglish” are still needed. This isn’t a “unique” experience but it’s a lived, everyday experience that needs to be voiced, that needs to be probed because of the sense of exclusion it underscores. 

In many places, it’s a luxury to study poetry, to say “I am a poet.” I grew up with parents who emphasized that a writer writes. Traveling only reaffirmed this for me. Meaning, there’s value in being flexible, in writing poems but also writing fiction, writing human interest stories for a newspaper, or writing publications for a non-profit. This flexibility has allowed me to improve my craft and actively find more confidence managing English and Spanish. But again, the struggle is constant.

[TK]: Santo from the Sun is an erotic poem that seems to be a metaphor for your relationship with the sun’s life-giving power. Is Santo a real person or a mythical figure? What is the role of metaphor and allusion in this work in relation to transparency/opacity of subject? Is transparency a goal?

[IPRP]: El Indio Solarei, Santo from the Sun, is a saint or spirit who mounts his followers. When one is mounted, your body in a way is used as conduit to transmit messages. In the poem, I’m imagining this process through his eyes. I’ve always found this spirit to be really beautiful. In the stories that my mother has told me, el Indio Solarei has a way of even changing your physical appearance so that it better reflects him. Religion is a theme that I explore in this book. I’m fascinated not just with rituals or how different religions coexist within a family, but people’s faith, their need to believe in something and how this is actively pursued. I’m also fascinated with how one’s relationship with religion can be both transformative and fragile, every changing, depending on certain life experiences.

[TK]: The pagan myths of the Dominican Republic have an unusual relationship with the equally deep-seated Catholic faith on the island. How do santos and brujas interact in this Dominican world that you experienced? Who is the Bird Doctor?

[IPRP]: The santos - whether they are Catholic, African, Indigenous, or mixed - are very much rooted in a Dominican, and more broadly, a Caribbean world. I would argue that the coexistence of what might be perceived as “pagan myths,” creole religion(s) and Catholicism isn’t unusual. Rather, they infuse the everyday in a place like the D.R. Additionally, they aren’t unique to the D.R. – you find them throughout the Caribbean, Latin American, and the U.S. 

With respect to “The Bird Doctor,” the “terrible bird-witches,” allude to the superstition in Argentina that owls can be callers of death, a sign that someone is going to die. The Bird Doctor is my maternal grandfather. He was a lung surgeon and an avid bird collector in Buenos Aires, which is referenced in the poem. I feel a strong kinship with him, perhaps because of our shared love of animals, and the fact that he represents a part of my past that I only have access to through my mother’s stories, and bits and pieces of heirlooms floating about in my den or somewhere in Buenos Aires. In the poem, I set out to testify to his existence since we’ve never been able to find his grave. I did this primarily through the birds he loved. It’s not a poem with a resolution. I never find his grave – I never have found his grave – and the poem underscores this lack of closure and mystery surrounding his death.

[TK]: How do the customs of the island contrast with the social norms you encountered in the US? How are issues of race perceived in the DR and the US? You speak about your biracial experience in South Carolina in Elementary Education; how did Afro-Latino poetry influence your writing?

[IPRP]: In terms of Afro-Latino poetry, I’ve been very drawn to the early work of the Dominican poet Norberto P. James Rawlings and the Dominican-Haitian poet Jacque Viau Renard. These are poets writing from within the island and writing about experiences that I can identify with. For example, in James’s “The Immigrants,” the voice emphasizes the profound exclusion that the immigrants from the English colonized islands faced, despite being absorbed into Dominican society for generations. What I think is very different about James’ and Viau’s work is the sense of nationalism or national identity that their poems underscore; they might navigate more than one culture but they are firmly Dominican. In many ways, their poetry stresses that there’s more than one way to be Dominican. When I think of these writers, as well as writers like Aida Cartagena Portalatin or Blas Jimenez, they all redefine Dominican national identity which many writers have defined on the basis of the negation of blackness. The poets that I’ve mentioned showed me that you can be white, black, indigenous, Dominican and Haitian, Jamaican and Dominican, on and off the island – that there’s more than one way to be Dominican, and (I’ll venture) American. Notably, if I return to James’ and Viau’s work, their poems also highlights the issue of white supremacy that hasn’t only been sustained by colonial legacies but by the relationship between the U.S. and Hispaniola. I’m thinking, for example, of Viau’s poem “A un líder negro asesinado (To an Assassinated Black Leader),” which actually laments the assassination of Medgar Evers.

[TK]: We feel rhythmic beats from the island in Slapping Bones and other poems. How do rhythms or melodies inspire you? (I especially enjoyed hearing about the bachata that livened the Modelo markets and the cafés)

[IPRP]: When we first learn language, we learn through sound. Sound draws our attention to an image, to a turn or progression in the poem, or a feeling in a poem. So, I find a lot of inspiration in music because it shares a kinship with poetry. I keep this in mind when I write; poems don’t have to “rhyme” but I want my poems to strike the ear because most of the time readers will listen to them before reading them. Sometimes I’ll use music to generate or enter a poem. Sometimes I’ll reference a specific song or incorporate a musical rhythm in my poems. In these cases, music becomes an invitation to listen, but also to consider the ideas presented in a poem.


Ines P. Rivera Prosdocimi is the author of the poetry collection, Love Letter to an Afterlife (Black Lawrence Press, 2018), which was a finalist for the 2019 International Latino Book Awards (Best Poetry Book) and the 2019 Binghamton University Milt Kessler Poetry Book Award. Recently, her poem “Surrogate Twin” was selected by Pulitzer-Prize winning poet, Rita Dove, and featured in The New York Times Magazine. Rivera Prosdocimi’s work has also appeared in the Bellevue Literary Review, Cold Mountain Review, Kweli, Nimrod, Poet Lore, Puerto de Sol, The Caribbean Writer, Wasafiri, and Witness. She holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of Maryland and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from American University. Currently, she teaches literature at the University of Hartford.  

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