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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
said the first contact served as a paradigm, that it would
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
you a bitter man?
A: I am not whining, if
that's what you mean. I don't whine. I denounce.
you expound on what you mean by theater, a word you have used
often in this conversation and, I feel, means various things
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.
would like you to conclude with comments on what comes after
The Mastery Impulse and on where the art criticism is taking
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.
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.
an attorney and journalist, hosts a daily news talk radio
show in Miami on WKAT-AM.