I’m proud to announce that Spanish poet Jacobo Llano visited Mississippi College last week and was able to speak to my Creative Writing: Poetry class. He also presented to Dr. Beth Stapleton’s Modern Languages students. In these presentations, he discussed poems from his latest book, El Silencio de los Peces — its sources, meaning, and form — and in my class read two of his poems in Spanish while I read them in English translation. He was warm, personable, approachable, and a natural in front of the classroom. I was able to record his reading and discussion of his poem “Authority.” Video and poems below.
Earlier today, Millsaps College had scheduled the Jamaican poet Claudia Rankine to visit campus and read her poetry. She’s the Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry at Yale University, and unfortunately her flight was snowed in, so she couldn’t make it. In her place, three local poets and authors — and one undergraduate sociology student — read from her poetry and discussed it. The topic of race came up quite a bit, of course, as it is a central concern of Rankine’s poetry, but one point that came out about Rankine’s poetry is that it didn’t offer any solutions to the problems of race. One of the worst of these problems is how we tend to be intractably identified with a series of racial characteristics that seem to define our behaviors for others even before we act. Her poetry seems to hope that if these problems with race are presented clearly enough that others could eventually discover solutions.
Her Jamaican origins got me thinking about Caribbean history and, by extension, postcolonial theory. One of the central problems with Caribbean identity is that it is hard to define: for the most part, any original islanders have long since been gone, so that island populations tend to be a mix of Africans, Indians (from India), Native Americans, and a variety of Europeans. Compounding the problem is the fact that few, if any, islands have a single European identity. Islands tended to change hands among the British, French, Spanish, and other European nations throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth century as treaty concessions.
So the question left with Caribbean nations — once they cut loose of the last European country to have colonized them — is, “Who are we?” They are too distanced from their African heritage to claim that as their own, and they are not just African anyhow. They seldom have a single European language or background, and if they did, it would be oppressive, so why keep that?
One solution that has come up, however, is the idea of hybridity. History has left most Caribbean nations a diverse mix of a variety of European, African, and Indian influences. They have been left by history a hybrid of many cultures and languages, and once they realized that, they realized they could form a new cultural and national identity out of that hybridity.
And then I realized the United States is a hybrid nation as well. And more personally, that I am a hybrid person. I grew up in a brand new Southern Californian subdivision alongside Scottish, Irish, Chinese, Mexican, Korean, Vietnamese, African-American, Puerto Rican, and mixed-race families. One couple was a Chinese man married to an African-American woman. Now when I say these families were Scottish, etc., I don’t mean really American with some Scottish background in the distant past. As Puerto Ricans we were all citizens of the United States from the start, but my mother grew up in Puerto Rico, as did my father’s mother, and Puerto Rico is very different culturally from the rest of the United States. Everyone else my age was first generation: first generation Scottish, Chinese, Irish, Mexican, etc. Their parents had moved to the US from those countries. My Chinese friend’s father didn’t even speak English yet.
So what is my culture? So Cal suburban? Yes, but a pretty diverse one, with many different languages, habits, and foods. But there’s more to it than that. I started thinking about Black culture and how much it made up my environment, and I realized that Black culture was a part of me. Among the hybridity that I experienced personally was a Black cultural identity. That was part of it too.
And while I realize this notion of hybridity is not an all-encompassing solution, I think it does present one possibility: every Black person in the United States can look at every white person in the United States and say, “My culture helped form who you are. It formed your history, your literature, your music, your art, your drama, your film, your sports, your science, your engineering. That means, like it or not, you’re part black. It’s not just that, as an American, I am part of your society. It’s that, as an American, you are part of mine.”
How might that change the terms of the discussion?
Liber Abaci O! Could any great stone, mountainous though it is, resist that wry, gentle, know- ing look that pierces your dark surfaces with humor like prismatic sunlight dript through summer windowpanes in early morning: you want the light, but don't want to wake up. c 2017 Jim Rovira
2017 love is stronger than death faith is stronger than sin truth is stronger than lies hope is stronger than fear life is stronger than denial love is stronger than death and every thing that lives is holy.
Silence Sestina* In what darkened, ragged, screaming fire does the kiss of silence never see? Or ever darkly, kisses raged evening fire that loves while screaming? In what screaming, never fired, dark, hot ragged tropic does your kiss descend to kiss my scream: ragged, nev’r silent, dark burning yearning fire? You rise to fire my kiss in dark screams that never suffer your ragged, silent, blunt rag- ing fire; never kiss my screaming silent darkness? In my forced silence, I can never kiss your ragged fire, your oblique passion, in the shared silence of our screaming dark. c 2016 James Rovira 16 October 2016, Brookhaven, MS IHOP
A note on form and sources: I’ve been reading Neil Gaiman’s Sandman vol. 3 lately — many thanks to @DWhiteDaniel for lending me his copies — and came across Gaiman’s creation of an author being driven mad by ideas in vol. 3 (trust me, the guy deserved it. But better than trusting me, buy a copy for yourself and see why). One of his ideas was a “sestina about silence, using the key words dark, ragged, never, screaming, fire, kiss.”
Since reading that, I wanted to try my hand at such a sestina. This is it. I also invented a consistent syllabic rotation for this one (somewhat arbitrarily 4-2-2-1-3-5), which I follow through stanzas 1-6. The envoi is written in blank verse. I got up ridiculously early this morning, couldn’t get back to sleep, and decided I’d rather do this than grading. Many thanks to IHOP in Brookhaven for its similarly ridiculous attempt at eggs benedict and for keeping the coffee coming.
I think the best tribute to any author is to say that he made you want to write.