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Manoa, Vol. 15, No. 1, Summer 2003

Defying Time and History: Interview with Ricardo Pau-Llosa,

by Alberto Milián

With The Mastery Impulse, his fifth collection of poems recently published by Carnegie Mellon University Press, Ricardo Pau-Llosa has entered a phase of his career where his ideas, background, and aspirations are of interest to a growing body of faithful readers. His previous titles are Vereda Tropical (1999) and Cuba (1993) both from Carnegie Mellon, Bread of the Imagined (Bilingual Press, 1992), and Sorting Metaphors (winner of the first Anhinga Prize in 1983). Nor are his publications limited to poetry, although the list of literary magazines and anthologies that have carried his work over the last two decades is staggering. He is one of the premier art critics on Latin American art; a guest curator at the Lima Biennial; author of major critical texts on Olga de Amaral, Rafael Soriano, Clarence Holbrook Carter, Rogelio Polesello, Fernando de Szyszlo and Cuban art in exile; and contributor to many art magazines, including a decade-long position as a senior editor for Art International magazine. Pau-Llosa's short fiction has also been well received, including a piece in Norton's acclaimed Sudden Fiction International (Continued) anthology.

Despite his presence in anthologies and special issues of magazines dedicated to Latinos, and in spite of Pau-Llosa's own passionate identification with Old Cuba (as he refers to Cuba before Castro) and his frequent presence as a curator, lecturer and critic in Latin America, there is no way of seeing him or his work as ethnic. Like all true artists, Pau-Llosa delves into the regional in order to articulate what is universal, or what is common to the human condition just about anywhere. He is a consummate poet of reflection, as much at home with German philosophy as with pre-Columbian artifacts. His poems, often replete with metaphors and other tropes, fuse ideas, passion, and the pleasures of language.

The home he shares with his wife Morella in Coral Gables, Florida is a veritable museum of modern, contemporary, folk and tribal art. Works by Victor Vasarely, Jesús Soto, Clarence Carter, Ana Albertina Delgado, Carlos Alfonzo, Cundo Bermúdez, Bárbaro Rivas, George Segal, Luisa Richter, José Bedia, Maria Brito, Olga de Amaral, Amelia Peláez, Eduardo Ramírez Villamizar, Mario Carreño, Luís Felipe Noé, Enrique Castro-Cid, Antonio Henrique Amaral, among many others, as well as ritual objects, weavings, and masks from Africa, the high Andes, and the Amazons proliferate between Persian rugs and baccarat crystal chandeliers in a restored home built in the late thirties. Pau-Llosa is particularly fond of the many folk carvings he has picked up in his Latin American travels.

Pau-Llosa's home is an environment which reflects the hedonism of his poetry, indeed the luxury of his mind and appetites, not least of which is his penchant for fine cigars, the incense of which is ubiquitous. He is a sophisticated Hispanic Caribbean man of the old school, which is to say he is a witty, self-confident Mediterranean cosmopolitan who is painfully aware of history, madly in love with beauty, and stubbornly romantic in his hope for freedom in his native Cuba and justice in his beloved Latin America.

The following interview was conducted over three sessions during the weekend of November 2-4, 2001, at the poet's home.

Q: Tell me about your childhood and what events or aspects of it do you think influenced your becoming a poet.

A: The problem with the Influence (gestures quotations with fingers) is that the last person who can truly determine it is the one suffering it. I come from a family which rose, through tremendous hard work, from poverty when I was born to middle class status by the time I was six. That was in Havana during a period which most Americans see in only the bleakest nightmare terms because it was the time of Fulgencio Batista's dictatorship [1952-58]. Despite the political crisis in which the young Cuban republic always found itself in, Batista--who was a dictator and a crook--ruled during a time of great economic and cultural expansion in Cuba. It would come to be known as Cuba's golden age, despite his dictatorship, and unfortunately I was born at that time and not twenty years earlier so I could have enjoyed it as an adult.

Q: But what specific aspects of your childhood. . . . (interrupts)

A: These are the aspects. It's not just about the kind of house I lived in, or the school I went to, or the kind of parents and siblings I had, or what religion or what toys, what TV shows I watched. It has always been, for me, a question of the dense historical juncture into which I was born. That awareness shaped my life as an adult and most certainly has impacted my work and emerged many times in it as a theme. The reality of that Cuba into which I was born and would be expelled from at the age of six is made all the more dramatic by the complete distortion with which most Americans, indeed most Cubans my generation or younger, view that period of Cuban history. The facts speak for themselves: Cuba was the only nation that was modern in style, outlook, dynamism and Latin American in essence. Indeed, more than any other country in the region Cuba shaped what everyone has come to think of as ALa tin American,and it did this through its music, its attitude toward life, and its pioneering literature and visual arts. The loss of this unique homeland was at that time, when I was six, very painful for me, and has become only more so with time.

Q: You would say, then, that exile and the loss of homeland influenced you to become a writer.

A: Indirectly, perhaps, yes. Indirectly in that I was immersed in an environment, first in Chicago then Tampa, that was not only completely different from Havana but the people I encountered had no idea where I came from. Later I would come to realize this was an experience I shared with all immigrants who came to America--the Old country could just as well have been Mars, as far as most Americans were concerned. Most of them knew nothing about the rest of the world, and despite cable tv, the internet, and travel, most still don't. Later, when I was 14, we moved to Miami.

Q: Who's we?

A: My family and I, my parents, a sister four years older than I, and my maternal grandmother. My father died of a heart attack ten years ago, but my 96-year old grandmother, a tough asturiana [from a province in northern Spain], is still with us, in great health and lucid.

Q: So the culture shock of coming to America, made all the more intense because you were a six-year old, impacted your future development as an artist. But how, exactly, do you feel that influence or impact occurred?

A: The first contact, as it were, with America would, unfortunately, become a paradigm that would repeat itself countless times and still does. I found I had to explain the world I came from because others could not form a picture of me without a sense of that world, and because they had a dim or distorted sense of that world their view of me would also be dim or distorted. Had I found an environment where my Otherness (gestures the quotation marks) would have been of no consequence, where I would have been accepted or rejected for other purely personal or routine reasons, then the image the natives had of my origins, however inaccurate or simplistic, would not have been an issue in their dealings with me and, consequently, Cuba would have melted away in my child's mind. It would have probably become a place I had been born in but not one I was attached to. Ironically, many Cuban-Americans who were brought up in Miami or New Jersey--surrounded by other Cuban exiles and their descendants--have become assimilated in the classical sense; they lost all links to the old country. Although they grew up in a much more Cuban environment, say in S.W. Miami, or because they grew up in this environment, they feel Cuba as a vague, distant point of origin. They are not inspired or driven by it or its history and least of all by its culture--about which they know close to nothing. They didn't have to Cubanize their sense of themselves to stave off a hostile environment.

Q: You said the first contact served as a paradigm, that it would repeat itself.

A: Still does only the distortion is now ideologically driven. It is no secret that our cultural, academic, and media elites are overwhelmingly supportive of the Castro regime and exhibit a knee-jerk antagonism toward its exiles. This became glaringly obvious during the Elian saga. The internal pro-democratic dissident movement, operating under extreme suppression inside Cuba, is utterly ignored by these liberal or progressive folks who have championed similar dissidents struggling against right-wing governments. For these people, my position as a vocal opponent of the Castro regime is a source of mystery, dread or revulsion. Recently, in an article on Miami, Jonathan Kandell, a former New York Times correspondent writing for Cigar Aficionado, referred to me as the rarest of specimens because I was both a poet and an anti-communist. This coincidence of artist and anti-communism amazed him. Later, in correspondence, I pointed out to him that the only pro-communist or anti-anti-communist artists and intellectuals are those who have never experienced that system in any way, shape or form, but who have read its propaganda. More significantly, they endorse such tyrannical states because it enhances their radical chic image hence facilitates their professional status as artists and intellectuals here, in the US, a capitalist democracy that nurtures them. This is a source of distortion about Cuban history and culture which is not based on ignorance but on calculated maneuver, on the willingness of cognizant individuals to use the suffering of a defenseless people and don a political disguise in order to advance their own interests.

Q: But, getting back to the cultural as opposed to a political sense of these things, you feel Cuban and not American, although you've lived here for 41 of your 47 years?

A: It's not that simple! I am no longer Cuban, that's obvious. The Cuba I am speaking of, the one I had to reconstruct and preserve, and read up on, and experience mostly through the stories and accounts of elders, perished in the early sixties. Were I to go to Cuba today it would no doubt be a very foreign place, more so than other Latin American countries which have evolved and changed in a more normal way. Cuba, thanks to its government and system, is a totally bizarre reality, a once modern nation reduced to feudalism in the name of socialist progress. Of course I don't belong to that Cuba and may never belong in any future Cuba, either. I live a kind of dual citizenship--my lifestyle is American and my imagination is Cuban, or old Cuban.

Q: But didn't your education in America, the fact that you write in English and teach and live here, have any influence in that imagination? Didn't the writers you read and studied who were American have any impact?

A: Of course they did. What a question! You are assuming Cuba and America have impermeable boundaries. Cuba was a very Americanized place, and a very Latin place. In other words, had there been no communist takeover over four decades ago and I had grown up in the country of my birth, there might not have been such a huge difference between the man I am now, culturally speaking, and the one I would have become. The duality of which I speak would have been possible, albeit in a different form, had Cuba not plunged into totalitarianism. The old Cuba also deeply influenced America, and her absence had a negative effect on America, too. Cuba had a lunar relationship with America, tugging at the uptight, Protestant American psyche and infecting America with a sense that pleasure was not only OK but essential. Had there been a Cuba-US link during the sixties, that period might have been less convulsive in America, less drug-crazed and self-destructive, for Cuba was the role model for America's budding hedonism after WWII. Cuba functioned in some ways as America's anima. Americans today have reduced this view to a caricature--pre-communist Cuba as brothel. Ironically, it has been the communists who have turned Cuba into a premier spot for pre-teen prostitution en masse. Nonetheless, often in the sphere of cultural criticism we speak as if cultures were encased in themselves and a person in one country can only absorb the culture of another by moving to it and living in it. This is a central tenet in the American mythology of immigration, yet it is a woefully simplistic view of cultural interaction.

Q: What American writers influenced you, especially in your college years which, I would assume, is when you began to commit yourself to the writer's life?

A: The list would sound like that of many others, for one can't help but be influenced by the masters, the canon, especially the great writers in the language in which you are launching your creative efforts. In highschool I loved García Lorca. Wallace Stevens during my college days was the American writer whom I read with most interest. I wrote my master's thesis on Stevens, and for a while thought I would write my dissertation on his work as well. I admired Stevens as a poet-thinker, as someone who made no distinctions between philosophy and poetry. Later, it would be Hart Crane, James Dickey, Richard Wilbur, and Derek Walcott. All the while I was also reading Spanish and Latin American writers--Pablo Neruda, César Vallejo, and Jorge Luis Borges in particular. Borges for the same reason I admired Stevens. In fact, I had the opportunity to visit Borges at his home in Buenos Aires in August 1985, about a year before his death. And I mentioned to him that what I most admired in his poems was precisely that they seemed like thoughts caught in the mind of the thinker, and that this was a translucent quality I hoped my work would attain someday. I think it was the only thing I managed to say the whole morning which he seemed pleased with. At any rate, I was influenced by philosophers and historians as much, if not more, than by poets. And by painters and sculptors, too.

Q: Which philosophers and historians do you think influenced you?

A: Edmund Husserl, the father of modern Phenomenology and its subsequent off spins, Existentialism among them, has been and continues to be the greatest influence on my work as a poet and as an art critic. It took forever for me to feel like I had gotten his ideas, and I am by no means a scholar of his work. I can only nibble at his light. But I kept at it because I realized that he was the watershed, the true creator of what we think of as modernity in the world of ideas. Through Husserl I got into Heidegger for a while, and Merleau-Ponty, but Husserl is the enduring giant. I loved reading history; while in college I read for content--classical and medieval history of Europe especially. With time I came to savor the style of the historian as much if not more than the focus of his tale. Fernand Braudel's The Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II. Thucydides. Tacitus. Gibbon. I loved Frances Yates' book The Art of Memory because it gave memory a space, a history, and a shape. Memory itself may well be an art as much as a faculty of the mind. Memory theaters. . . I feel I've been building and living in one all my life. Among the modern philosophers of ethics, apart from Albert Camus, the Russian Nicholas Berdyaev is important to me. His book Slavery and Freedom is monumental. He is an ignored moral genius.

Q: Why Husserl? Can you go into more detail on his influence?

A: Husserl's focus on consciousness itself, as the act that embraces world and mind, struck me as wondrous and simple and obvious, yet, because of these qualities, ignored or overlooked for ages. He conceives of awareness as one extension, unbroken by dualism, a field or sphere with two poles which correspond to the old designations of mind and world. The break with dualism that Descartes resisted and Kant pointed to, Husserl brings home. Dualism is the fundamental crack from which many of our great evils come. Without dualism, without that severance between mind and world, the brutality of our religious authorities and ideological leaders would not have been possible. Dualism opens the door, at its very onset in Socrates, to the totalitarian prototype of his Republic. The breach between mind and world mirrors the gulf between man and God in Judaism and Christianity. It is a breach that must be filled by faith and what attends to faith--intolerance, orthodoxy, liturgy, hierarchies of authority in spiritual matters, all that arrogance of soul we call religion. Dualism is the manna of the messianic tyrant. Husserl took consciousness as the parameter of reality, the base of his epistemology. His is a philosophy that elucidates continuity, takes it as premise, because it's not about the presence of the world in the mind, but about the inextricable presence of both in consciousness. Husserl's foregrounding of consciousness would include our consciousness of the past, our memories, and the accounts of others. Intersubjectivity itself. That is why Husserl was so valuable in my approach to Cuba.

What Cuba was historically and culturally can be reconstructed from data, even from the evidence of what's left after 42 years of communist tyranny and imbecilic destruction. Havana, for example, is still a wondrous place, a city built by immigrants and by its bustling middle class from the early thirties through the fifties. That's not the only Cuba I am speaking of, however. Cuba as a context for an imagination and from which many great artists emerged simultaneously is another Cuba altogether. That Cuba isn't so easy to subject to suspensions, reconstitutions, or other self-reflective cognitive acts. That Cuba is still alive, is still feeding the imaginations of those who tap into it. When a place becomes what I call a renaissance point, it doesn't die, or doesn't have to. It becomes a nurturing confluence of creative possibilities, a way of dialoguing with identity and fate and the mysteries of life itself. It becomes a language, a logic, a set of rules for the creative imagination to come to life in and through. But that language can't be activated unless the historical Cuba is clarified, because an artist enters that language with heart and mind and imagination and not just intellectually. Perhaps the death of Cuba as a culture was the beginning of its life as timeless renaissance point. Or perhaps it was the senseless and sudden and cruel nature of that death, for had the Cuban renaissance petered out, that descent might have diluted its presence. Indeed, Cuba is Firenze-like in that way, Minoan. A burst of light, then a sudden darkness brought on by the implacable if fortuitous triumph of chaos.

Q: Is the idea of old Cuba as a renaissance point related to the often cited opening sentence of your essay on Cuban art in Outside Cuba/Fuera de Cuba, that every exile knows his place, and that place is the imagination?

A: Somewhat, I guess. That sentence, which Gustavo Pérez Firmat has cited and commented on but has not really gotten, is a simpler statement. It plays with the cliche of knowing one's place, poignant for the exile who is not at all a native and is made to feel not as good as one. The exile is always aware of his condition as an escapee from a culture that failed terribly in some way, unless he is a refugee from an invasion or occupation--a different kind of exile. There's the guilt survivor and the heroic survivor. The place the exile makes his own is possible by activating one of the highest functions of the imagination, the act of belonging but in this case it is indistinguishable from reviving and possessing. One belongs to freedom, not to a place, but it needs place as a compass needs north. I'm not talking about a passive, feel-good, or fuzzy membership in a legacy, or the kind of strident ethno-babble that passes of multiculturalism these days. In this sense, the place of the exile is the memory theater which focuses all that is known about a condition and its history, and puts it at the service of wisdom, for lack of a less mangled word. Exilic imagining is a defiance of history, as true creative imagining is a defiance of time. More precisely, exilic imagining at the service of creativity unites both defiances.

Q: Can you explain how all this might have influenced the conception or execution of particular poems?

A: What is cause and what is effect is hard to say. I'm not sure either of these analogies is to the point. I didn't want to write riddles, nor did I want Neruda-type odes to everyday things, although both of these influenced what I was experimenting with. I wanted the poem to capture the processes of suspension and reconstitution simultaneously, or superimpose them. Now these are poems about perceptions in anyone's everyday world. The exilic dimension came through for me in the poems of my third book, Cuba (Carnegie Mellon, 1993). You asked for particular poems. From that collection, I would point to Frutas as a poem about perception and intersubjectivity, although for some it is a poem about the la tina grandmother and nostalgia. Yuck! Yes, my grandmother is the protagonist, along with the mamey (a rare tropical fruit) we are tasting after many years in exile not having had a mamey. But Frutas is my parody of Plato's Cave, and self-parody too. The poem is making fun of the very enterprise at the heart of the book, the recovery of Cuba as an act of the imagination. It ends with the boy persona failing to adjust the real mamey before him to the fabulous mameyes of old Cuba the grandmother is recalling. He is exiled, for a second time, from his grandmother's range of experiences. He is made to realize that they are not and never can be his because every act of consciousness, even a shared one like this mamey, is unique to the subject enacting it. Husserl referred to what we share in experience as the life-world or lebenswelt. At the end the boy's questioning the grandmother leads to an abrupt answer that unveils what has been going through her head, as opposed to his innocent or childish endeavor to reconstruct a real mamey from her recollection of the old days. Next you'll want to know how we lost a country, is her unveiling of how exiled she feels, again, in the face of this not quite good enough fruit. He can't get this. No going home again, not even for dessert. Of course, the grandmother is also dismissing Plato and his realm of ideas.

Q: You mention the visual artists, and you have published extensively on Latin American art. How has the art you've studied impacted your poetry, and vice versa?

A: The vice versa is everything in this matter. As I write an essay about an artist's work I will also be spinning off poems based on the images, or sometimes I start with poems and when these are more or less done, I feel the need to write an essay to clarify concepts which the poems can't accommodate. They are complementary approaches to the issue of intersubjectivity, only the other subjective realm before me is already present through images and tropes as a work of art. It is not, in other words, another person whose inner life I must intend. When dealing with paintings as a poet, I must create another work of art capable of being had, as a dream is had, as a painting is had and not just seen, independently of the painting which triggered it. That is one reason I have chosen to write poems based on works by Latin American artists who are largely unknown in the US. I am obviously very familiar with these works and the traditions that inform them, but their anonymity to the poetry reader presents a greater challenge than writing poems about famous European or North American artists. It also enables the reader to intend the poem rather than the poem-painting duality.

Q: In what way do you see the artist as being different from non-artists?

A: If we're talking here about the genuine artist, rather than the careerists who have come to dominate all aspects of cultural life in the developed world, then the artist is different in countless ways. The artist is, he doesn't do. That is, art is a complete giving over of oneself to what one creates. Yet the artist's life, whatever images it may provide, is of little consequence to the work itself. He cannot inhabit his art, for that dwelling privilege belongs to those who come to his art, who wish to have this art in their minds. It is the height of rudeness for the artist to be seen still in his art when someone else is trying to move into that house. This doesn't mean at all that the poet cannot use his own experiences and memories, only that they must be used to serve the general theater of transmission involved in someone else having the poem.

Paradoxically, only the artist can sustain his identity as public force, for his public may not be his contemporaries. There is a great deal to be said for the old system in which artists very consciously worked to change the way the future saw its present and its past, and not working so much to obtain prestige and accolades in the artist's lifetime. Ironically, artists have continued to pursue the old dependencies on patrons, although these come in the form of academic positions or other forms of support from politically defined groups, invariably of the Left. This has produced a monstrous careerist artist type in our time--the opportunist who pretends to be an independently minded professional but who will do whatever, say whatever to secure the support of his patrons. The result is a careerist who justifies his utter lack of political ethics, who disdains the masses he often pretends to speak up for, and who will quickly align himself with fashionable tyrannies while denouncing only what his faction decides is worthy of denunciation. It is precisely in the realm of civic behavior and ethics where the artist is no different from anyone else, yet it is in this realm where it has become acceptable for artists in our time to differ most radically from other people.

Q: Are you a bitter man?

A: I am not whining, if that's what you mean. I don't whine. I denounce.

Q: Can you expound on what you mean by theater, a word you have used often in this conversation and, I feel, means various things to you?

A: I have used that word to describe Latin American visual thinking, particularly the refusal of this tradition to look at representation in negative terms, as occurred in the North, for example, and in many different schools and movements in European modernism. Modernism, or as it is called in Latin America la vanguardia, sought to broaden the power of representation in painting, not bracket it. The result is a modernism whose paintings are theatrical in that they consciously put images in play, in action among themselves, borrowing from plot and narrative a reverberative sense of meaning, but not really telling a story as it were--something pretty hard to with painting, as Diego Rivera's obtuse murals evidence. Theater, then, denotes a cognizant ambition of the work of art to dramatize ideas. It is most salient in painting, that of Latin America especially, because of how different this makes it from parallel movements elsewhere in the West. But it is a reality also in all poetry where the break with representation did not occur except in the curiously named LANGUAGE experimenters whom I don't think of as poets. They're retro-Dada and remind me of many so-called conceptual visual artists who have no concepts. Still, North American poets are not great at embracing the theater of the poem, the sense that you can inhabit the poem, that it gives you a habitat for mind, senses, imagination, and memory. Latin American art gave me that sense, that need in the poem. That, and not the triggering or inspiration a painting might provide as a launching pad for a poem, is the most important lesson I have taken from the world of the visual arts, as a poet.

Q: I would like you to conclude with comments on what comes after The Mastery Impulse and on where the art criticism is taking you.

A: The art writing is always going on. I've just finished a long essay that will be coming out in a book on Nicolás Leiva, and have several articles coming out in art magazines. I am nearing completion of a collection of poems, written in both Spanish and English, which I've begun to publish pieces of in magazines. It is titled Crab and it consists of short poems set on a beach whose protagonist--there's the theater metaphor again--is a crab. These poems began in Spanish, which is the first time since I was a teenager that I've written poems in my native language, although I have written many articles in Spanish, lectured, etc. Then I translated some of them into English, then wrote others in English and translated those into Spanish. At some point, and this happens when you are translating your own work, you really are writing in both language at once, or with awareness of both simultaneously as you are making corrections that reverberate from one tongue to the other. I am also working on a collection of poems which I am dedicating to my wife, Morella, a wonderful venezolana who has connected me to nature and living in all sorts of new ways. Left to my own impulses, I'd never leave the city. She's taken me into the high Andes, the Amazons, virgin beaches in the Caribbean, into deserts and jungles. I who dread heights, who cannot climb past the second rung on a ladder, have walked cheerfully through waterfalls behind her in Canaima in the Amazons. As an art collector of many years, she's also taught me a thing or two about appreciating art, and of course everything about love, kindness, and patience. I follow her studiously in all the things that matter about living, and I've come to see that attitude as the only certain sign of love.

Q: What does your wife Morella make of your work, especially the new poems in which she figures?

A: She puts up with my cigars, and smokes one herself every now and then.

Alberto Milián, an attorney and journalist, hosts a daily news talk radio show in Miami on WKAT-AM.


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