Sy Albright entrevista a Elidio La Torre

Sy Albright entrevista a 
Elidio La Torre Lagares (poet/author/professor)
Publicado el 27 de julio de 2018 en Sincerely Art: The Interviews Series.

Mr. [Mark] Rossi (editor and publisher of Ariel Chart) informed me your “Urgent Poems for a Humanitarian Crisis” was one of the most read poems he’s ever published at Ariel Chart. He also mentioned he nominated you for a Pushcart Prize for Poetry and you received a 2nd nomination for another publication. That’s a major sum of things to deal with emotionally and artistically. Did you come out of it a better artist?

I must start by acknowledging Mr. Rossi’s initiative. I was truly honored. I’m grateful because both the Ariel Chart and The American Poetry Journal nominations came at a time of emotional loss. I, by no means, intend to attribute pharmacological properties to artistic accomplishment, but I did find comfort in poetry. By the time I wrote these poems, Puerto Rico had been devastated by a major hurricane. I had lost my father, and I was taking my daughter to a coffee shop where we sheltered every day, charge our phones, drink a hot coffee, and spend the day in a city that had no power, no communications standing, and lots of people without a home. At times we dealt with the situation telling ourselves we were in a post-apocalyptic novel or movie. But in general terms, we were indeed helpless. We didn’t have a whole picture of what was going on in the country until three or four weeks after María. We knew it was bad, but didn’t have an idea of how bad the situation was. Or still is, for that matter. Hence, the urgency of these poems under a humanitarian crisis. I think that, to some extent, the nominations to the Pushcart validated the honesty of the work. These poems were crafted, yes, but they were also felt. I don’t know if I’m a better artist, but I do know that I’m trying to be a better human being.

as you look to the camera in frozen awe,
holding on to the languid limb of a tree,

and in the picture, you and I are together
again: I am the piece of dead wood

These are the lines taken from the poem “A Theory Of You In the Flood” published by Ariel Chart 11/3/17. Please expand upon the meaning of these sad ironic verses.

The lines refer specifically to an old picture of my mother. The picture was taken by her godmother, I guess- I’m not sure. But it’s a portrait of my mom, stuck in the New York snow, and holding on to the limb of a tree that seems to come out of the ground. Mom has this funny face, like, “What am I doing here? It’s cold and I’m falling.” I always wondered what was going on in the photograph. I imagined stories of what could’ve been happening there.

I lost my mother six years ago, and when I lost my father, I must admit I felt lonely. An orphan. The piece of dead wood, if you will.

During hurricane María, I had substantial amounts of water coming inside my house, and I found Mom’s picture drifting in the flood. It was sad. I cried: ergo, the flood. I saved the original picture.

The whole poem “A Theory of You in the Flood” is almost literal, but it’s not, because it’s all a metaphor, a transfer in meaning, which I needed to bespeak, to voice and shape into poetry. It’s a painful poem. But that’s how I must deal with it.

If you look back in the average literary journal in America forty years it would be very difficult to find a Hispanic writer published. Have you felt in your own life a larger movement to include different voices in literature?

Yes! Absolutely. As a Puerto Rican, I was raised with many traditions crisscrossing and nurturing my personal formation. I’ve learned to include and accept, not to exclude and reject.

You know, when we talk about literature we usually add a modifier: Hispanic literature, Caribbean literature, American literature, European literature, and so on, but I like to refer to literature as one thing. Of course, there’s Irish lit and there’s Columbian lit, but it’s still literature. I think this is one legacy of the Avant Gard movements: it was one art, one literature, one manifestation, one artistic language, but it was plural, multilingual, and it evolved. Yes. It must. Of course, it carried contradictions, absolutions, cancellations, but it still was one thing, one attitude, a unity in multiplicity. Like a musical composition. Or geometry. But the Avant Gard was something that happened simultaneously in Zurich, Berlin, Paris, New York, and then it spread over to Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico. It was happening in many languages and voices.

For example, I read Puerto Rican literature, but I also consume Nabovok, Gogol, Kafka, Joyce, Poe. I love Flaubert as much as Alejandro Tapia y Rivera. But I’m also fascinated by Mark Strand and Paul Hoover. I follow Loretta Collins and Safiya Sinclair’s work in the Caribbean. I treat myself with Vicente Aleixandre, Pessoa, Blanca Varela and Julia de Burgos; they are all in my reading list. You see, it’s the vanguard’s attitude; it’s still among us, although in a less recognizable way. It’s been normalized.

When it comes to literature, language is just the code, and the code, some might argue, is what determines the cultural context, but what remains unalterable is the literary fact. That’s my belief. While I consider the current literary landscape to be more inclusive, I also think there’s so much yet to do. Plurality in literature (and in our current society) must be granted in equal terms.

Do you have occasion to mentor younger writers? And if so, what you do instruct them to work on?

Yes, I have. Sometimes they’re not much younger than myself, but I treat them just the same. In the early 2000’s, I helped many writers of my generation to see their first book in print and succeed. It’s their success, I’m not going for bragging rights here, but I think I did what I had to do at a given moment in the history of Puerto Rican literature. That’s it. I used to work for a multinational publisher, then I worked for the University of Puerto Rico Press, then I founded my own press, and then I started a writing atelier. And teaching. Some of the young writers have confided their work to me: they want to hear what I have to say, what I think, and I’m grateful. Trust is a big word, particularly when it’s about art.

I’m only a mentor when the mentoree is ready. But what I always tell them: learn the rules, play by the rules, if only to then break them.

It’s a sort of Emersonian self-reliance, if you will. Awareness of what one does -whether it’s poetry, fiction, or criticism- is quite important. Awareness requires discipline. Awareness requires to be grounded with your immediate reality. See where you’re standing, what you’re doing, and who/what you’re doing it for.

I have spoken to numerous writers from around the world. Some allow politics to influence their writing. Others use culture or religion. Many believe their artistic philosophy is one and the same with these influences. Others believe there is a separation. Do you have a distinct artistic philosophy to share with us?

I can’t separate one from the other. I mean, I’m a political person- I breathe and live in political tensions. I teach for the University of Puerto Rico at a moment of crisis when my job (and others) is at stake because of the political situation we live in as a territory of the United States. The population of my country is diminishing. The younger generations are leaving so the future of education in Puerto Rico, registration wise, is at stake. The hurricane unveiled a lot of up-to-then-invisible situations at a societal level. Even when I’m not in Puerto Rico, I become a stranger in some other land. Yes, it’s inevitable. I’m political, which I equal to philosophical restlessness. The search. The quest. That’s the job of all writers. Art is not natural (that’s why it’s art, of course), but art is what gets us closer to understanding our humanity. It’s necessary.

It seems to be nearly an even split of families whom have supported artists and those that aggressively refuse. Were there artistic influences in your community or family that played a role in your early writing?

Actually, even though my mother was a school teacher, and my father held administrative positions within the Department of Education, they never really said anything about my art or my decision to become a writer, for that matter. They separated during some crucial time in my life and that’s when I made the decision to become a writing artist.

But books were always around me in my house, whether in my room, my father’s library, or the living room, where an open book always sat on the credenza by the main door: The Bible. You don’t have to be a believer to realize that this was a house of opened books.

I owe a lot to my godfather and uncle Wilberto Sierra, who still to this day asks me what I’m working on, when I plan to publish, or what’s going on with my writing. Wilberto was my teacher as well. I owe him a great deal. He led me into this journey. I don’t think he likes what I write (laughter), but I know he cares.

What are your thoughts about creating ways to keeping poetry relevant in the 21st century?

Poetry is more relevant than ever. The fact that poetry, more than a literary genre, is a state of mind, allows us to magnify the role of poetry in our lives. We speak in poetry, we feel in poetry. Life is a poem full of beautiful (yet sometimes incomprehensible) metaphors. We dwell in poetry; the poem is just the house. I think that as long as we let that surface in our work, poetry will always have something to offer.

I read somewhere that poetry is the only genre that remains uncorrupted by ambition since no one makes money out of it (laughter). What I mean is that poetry doesn’t have a utilitarian function beyond its mere coming into being. It can’t be monetized. And yet, poetry is what gets us together. People don’t realize how many forms of poetry they run into every day wrapped in forms of social media and through quotes, messages, proverbs, etc.

It’s part of the ritual.

On-line publications (like Ariel Chart, or the APJ, which adopted a hybrid paper & electronic format) incite new readers and promote new writers. They keep poetry accessible. That’s the task. To make poetry resound with vivid language and imagery. I’m particularly fond of poetry that works with images and defy the imagination/ intellect

Please share with us your past and present writing influences.

I’m reading a lot of poetry lately. My main influences, as I mentioned before, come from different traditions. For contemporary poets, I admit my major influences have been Mark Strand, Paul Hoover, and Frank Bidart. The best poet right now, I guess, is Ocean Vuong. I feel I’m more of a Víctor Hernández Cruz meets Frank O’Hara. Also, the poetry of Paul Auster, Julio Cortázar (both of which are rarely referred to as poets) and a Puerto Rican poet named José María Lima are always with me. But I guess it’s Eliot, Plath, Whitman, Neruda, García Lorca & William Carlos Williams the readings I go back to when I’m lost.