“To continue and grow you must fall in love over and over again and find new poets to admire and serve as guides.”
Runia Montium (Broadstone Books, 2016)
What are some authors that you have taken inspiration from, or that inspired you to writing in the beginning?
The first poets that called my attention in English were Whitman, Donne, Gerard Manly Hopkins,Gwendolyn Brooks, the Imagists, William Carlos Williams, Theodore Roethke, Langston Hughes, Denise Levertov. In Spanish they were Neruda, Quevedo, Blas de Otero, Juan Ramon Jimenez, Gerardo Diego, Gabriela Mistral, and Sor Juana de la Cruz.
While the love for a poet you love early on might stay with you over your career as a writer, to continue and grow you must fall in love over and over again and find new poets to admire and serve as guides. W. S. Merwin and Mark Strand, Emily Dickinson and Carolyn Forché, Elizabeth Bishop and June Jordan, Donald Justice and Vassar Miller, George Oppen and Robert Hayden are some of these newer voices. In Spanish they are Alejandra Pizarnik, Roberto Juarroz, Silvina Ocampo, Juan Gelman, Juan Carlos Mestre, Nancy Morejón, Enrique Lhin, Pedro Mir, and Manuel Rueda. I also admire the translations of Adam Zagajewski by Clare Cavanagh and Renata Gorczinsky, the translation of Paul Celan by Jon Felsteiner, Maria Rainer Rilke (by many and various), Edmond Jabes by Rosemarie Waldrop, Yehuda Amichai (by many and various), and Mahmoud Darwish by Fady Joudah are among some non-English, non-Spanish poets I admire.
This is more than you asked for, I know. And, it’s an eclectic and contradictory grouping. Many years ago a graduate student acquaintance of mine who was pursuing a degree in Comparative Literature told me one couldn’t possibly like a poet like Robert Frost and William Carlos Williams–if I remember correctly, though, his comparison was between the Language poets and the New Formalists–still, the argument was that one should decide regarding matters of taste and let these guide one’s readings. I’m sure, also, his preference was not just taste, but also philosophical and ideological. I, however, have never thought along these lines. I think you must read and read widely and think you can admire dissimilar poets, even poets utterly unlike one’s own style and taste.
I noticed a passage from Job in the front of your book. Is there any way that your faith or worldview influenced your writing, generally or specifically?
You write from what you know. You try, I think, to feel your way through language into new insights and feelings. And, to the extent that you are always reading, you are always seeking new language, new stories… Still, you write from the language and stories that are your own. And yes, my language is the language of the Christian faith, my deep stories and narrative structures are those found in the Bible. It informs and grounds my mythical thought and my ethics. In that sense, it is only natural that this language would be the language I turn to in order to understand cataclysmic events.
But, this wasn’t just a case of superimposing my own cultural myths on an event and a group of people who would themselves not recognize or understand this language or these stories. Chile is a Catholic nation and its language is rooted in the Judeo-Christian imaginary. Thus, these stories, this language are part of Chile’s culture and worldview and many, even most, in Chile would use these stories and this language to name and understand such calamities. In this way my use of religious and biblical language and stories is not a foreign cultural imposition. This alignment is, I think, more than just a happy coincidence. I would not have felt comfortable using such explicitly religious language to bear witness to these events had there not been this shared cultural heritage. Because, while the Judeo-Christian tradition does under-gird my worldview, poetry, certainly a poetry of witness, is, I believe, an act of empathy, an act where the poet, while speaking through her own emotional response, tries, still, to get out-of-the-way in order to say: “Behold! This has happened to fellow human beings. Let us not turn away. Let us try to understand.” Which is to say, I think had these been written about a mining disaster in China, this language would be out-of-place.
If a poetry of witness is an act of empathy, hospitality and openness should be what the writer practices. I have maybe, by now, moved out from under your question. Not because it isn’t a good question, it is. But because it’s one thing for my mythos to be grounded in Judeo-Christian language, and another altogether should I write make explicit allusions to that when the subject’s mythos is centered in another tradition. For, not paying attention to the subject’s mythos is, I think, a failure to bear witness.
How did you get in contact with the miners you interviewed for some of the specific poems, such as “Matters of State” and “Collapse”?
Actually, I didn’t get in touch with them. The blessing (for the writer) and the curse (for the subject) is that we live in a world with a voracious media appetite. Instead, what I did was spend several months reading as much as possible about the accident. All the media outlets in Chile and other places (Spain, Mexico, the U.S., etc.) covered it. Also, I watched as many of the post-rescue television shows as possible and even listened to some radio broadcasts. The specific stories you mention, as were all of those that focus on individuals, were gleaned from those interviews, television shows, and stories done by Chilean, and then Latin American, US, and Spanish media outlets. So, there was all this material readily available for me to get to know them and their story.
The Los Angeles based writer (a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and novelist) Hector Tobar did get in touch with them and spent a considerable amount of time post-event with them. His account of their experience can be found in Deep Dark Down, published in 2014 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. In fact, I’m rather convinced that his book prepared the way for my book. My publisher had just recently finished reading his book when my manuscript came across his desk.
Did you struggle with putting their raw experiences into your own words while still feeling that you had done them justice?
I think first and foremost you try to write a good poem. I think the only way to try to do right by subjects whose experience is real and whose experience is not being transmogrified into fiction is by writing a good poem. Fiction, of course, is different from the non-fiction essay or memoir. The burden of truth and accuracy is not just a burden but a bar that must be passed in order to do right by those represented in the non-fiction account. But, these poems aren’t fiction, nor are they non-fiction, they’re lyrical poetry. And poetry, at least, as I think about it in relation to these poems is an emotional response that uses aesthetics (imagery, music, etc.) and myth to understand and process the world. These poems exist in a hybrid space between fiction and non-fiction. So, while there are poems that take the experiences of individuals as their starting point, those experiences are just the diving board into a poem that then tries to establish a relationship between that individual experience and myth. And, I should note the stories that are called up in this collection are biblical, Greco-Roman, Chilean folk-tales, and Andean.
In your previous interview with Speaking of Marvels you discussed beginning work on Runia Montium, so what’s next?
Well, I have another Latin American focused chapbook that, like ruina montium, has been making the circuit of various competitions. This one is about Argentina’s Dirty War. It’s called prison recipes. Maybe I should just go ahead and fold it into a book length manuscript. I don’t know. I never know.
I’m also working on a long manuscript, somewhat in the vein of William Carlos Williams’ In the American Grain. A difference is that my collection, at least at the moment, is less hybrid than Williams’. His book, quite ahead of the time, works in a space that blends prose poetry with the lyrical essay to revision history through a poet’s eye for language, detail, and sensation. Also, I suspect, my project is a little less celebratory and assimilatory than the good Dr. Williams’. Having grown up in Latin America, specifically in countries that have lived through/were formed in and under the Spanish colonial project and also the Anglo-American one, and being an Affrilachian poet who believes that part of what poetry should do is interrogate the silences and omissions of national history, and who thinks that these sorts of interventions only serve to strengthen the democratic project of this nation rather than tear it down, the poems I’ve been writing aren’t as pre-1929 Stock Market Crash, early 20th century optimistic as his essays.
What does Runia Montium mean, and how did your decide on it as the title for this work?
Ruina montium is the term that Pliny the Elder coined to name the hydraulic mining process the Romans used in their gold mining in what is now Bierzo, Spain. It means the wrecking, or the ruining of mountains. In fact, in a place called Las Médulas in the shire of Bierzo, province of Leon, you can still see the drastic effects of Roman mining: hills and mountains reduced to spires, tunnels and arches honeycombing through what would have been solid earth. The title poem “ruina montium” refers directly to Pliny, not just in the use of his Latin phrase, but the last two lines of the poem–‘how dangerous/we have made the earth‘–are from his summation of the effects of Roman mining on the landscape.
As I moved from writing individual poems into a series, I decided rather early on to settle into an alternating pattern of poems that take place in the mine shaft and poems that take place outside, above ground. Around that time I also decided to make a number of those poems that take place above ground to be–however tenuous a connection they might have to history–a sort of lyrical history of mining in the Hispanic world. While not all the Spanish that came over in the early colonial period were miners, many were and they came to oversee mining operations throughout the Americas. From the beginning gold was sought and desired and mined and shipped back to Spain. Those that came to oversee the mining operations brought with them a millennial old tradition and craft. The title poem speaks to this long history of mining and bears witness to the environmental effects of mining.
From the moment this poem was written I knew it would be the title of the collection. Various persons recommended that I not use it, because it was in Latin and because there were two poems in the collection titled “ruina montium.” And, though I did play around with other titles. But, even as I toyed with other titles, I knew no other title would work. Ruina montium establishes that connection to history, to tradition, to danger, to our desire for mineral wealth, and to the environmental concerns that run through book.
How did you come to the idea to write about the Copiapo mining incident?
I routinely teach Latin American Civilization, Spanish Conversation through the News, also I have frequently taught a Senior Seminar on Pablo Neruda’s epic poem Canto General–a poem that has a number of sections dedicated to mining and miners. So, when the collapse happened at the beginning of August 2010, I noted it and followed it a little at a distance. When school started in the fall of 2010 a colleague of mine–she and I share poems with each other–told me I should write about the accident. By that point they’d been trapped for about a month. But, I had very little interest in writing about it. It seemed voyeuristic and opportunistic and I no way into the subject matter.
Yet, even though I had little interest in writing a poem, I continued to follow the story. And, the night the miners were rescued I watched several hours of the coverage. As the first of several were brought up and the jubilation of the crowd was great, I turned to write.
Was it more, or less, difficult to find inspiration for and about such a specific event, or do you think having such structured subject matter was helpful in this case?
I found it helpful. Though a specific event, it was such a large one that there were many ways into it: the individual stories, the media circus, the political drama…
In your experience, what is the best atmosphere to write in?
I write in my office and my living room. I prefer to write late at night or in the early morning–when it’s quiet and dark and time feels stopped like a gift.
Did you visit Chile while you were in the process of writing Runia Montium?
No, not while writing these poems. I grew up in Latin America and had always wanted to visit Chile…
And now I have, but I had already written the poems by then.
But Chile has always loomed large in my imagination.
In fact, the 16th-century epic poem about the conquest of Chile, La Araucana, was
assigned to us in7th grade reading. And I have spent my professional life as a professor of Latin American literature, reading about the region, its history, and the literature of the region. But, I didn’t visit Chile until about three years after the sequence had been written.
If you had to describe Runia Montium to a friend or colleague what would you say?
It’s a poetry of witness. It’s a collection of poems that weaves together personal, individual stories based on an actual event to tell a modern and muted
a resurrection story. Muted because it does not and cannot end on the happy note of comedy. There are the after-effects, the way these disasters stay with those who survive them and become their new struggle, the fact that these disasters keep happening, that fact that our desire for mineral wealth outstrips the human and environmental consequences. These realities cannot be ignored. And, this collection, while acknowledging the tragicomic nature of this story, tries to celebrate the lives–in all their messiness–of those who put themselves at risk to extract these goods our society has determined to be needs.
What would you consider a mistake you have made as a writer?
For the longest time after my undergraduate degree, I kept my writing hidden. Rather than go on and get an MFA, I got a PhD in Spanish. This decision wasn’t a wrong one to make. My focus, and I don’t regret this, was ensuring that I would have a career that would keep me close to literature. What I didn’t know at the time was how much a traditional degree in literature would pull me away from writing. And, while I did continue writing poetry throughout my graduate work, my writing was sporadic and I didn’t really work on it. I didn’t do it as seriously as I now would’ve wanted to have done. What I mean by that is I didn’t read as much poetry in English as I think I should have. And, I certainly didn’t read English poetry with an eye toward craft. I did read a lot of poetry in Spanish and paid close attention to the writing, but I did so as a critic. Now, that wasn’t all bad. I was still reading poetry and reading it closely. But the emphasis wasn’t one of using who I was reading as a literary model. Also, and, I didn’t know this at the time, but there is a divide between the literary critic/theorist and the creative writer. Whether the difference between the two is really all that great, I honestly don’t know, but in the daily practice of living and working in a university, the writer and the critic tend to form their own and separate communities. And each can be suspicious of the other. Not only this, but pursuing a PhD in Spanish meant, almost de facto, that I was only surrounded by other literary critics/theorists. In fact, there is little, at least as a graduate student, communication that happens across departments. Thus, I knew only a few English graduate students, almost no English faculty, and no MFAers. Of course, this probably was a failure of mine to reach out… but in graduate school you are consumed by your studies. You’re happy reading and writing and lost in your studies, but course work and end of term papers and filling in holes in your reading leave little room for other endeavors. Thus, I never got connected with other poets, never formed part of a writing group until after I got my PhD and was an assistant professor. At the time this didn’t bother me, I had in my mind this idea that writers are solitary beings. But, once I began to take writing seriously, I realize that there were things I should’ve done in graduate school. So, there you go, I’ve given you probably three mistakes: not taking my writing seriously enough to read poetry early on with an eye toward craft, not taking my poetry seriously enough early on to write every day rather than when I felt moved, and not getting connected with a group of writers who would push me and help me stay focused.
Conversely, what are you most proud of in your accomplishments in writing?
The poem I’ve most recently finished. It’s always that. That trumps everything else.
How do you personally deal with/suffer through writers block?
I try to ignore it. Writing, for me is like a dream. It’s a like a dream that you know you’re dreaming. Too much control and the dream resists being led. That might seem like I’m not answering the question, but I am sidling up to it. The great challenge for me is time. It’s the discipline of sitting, the discipline of making time to write. It’s easy to let the obligations of family and professional life pile up and keep me from writing. Thus, more than writer’s block, the problem is the discipline of time and silence. Then, when writing, it’s like trying to direct a dream, too forceful an attempt to steer the dream and it might stall or go in another direction. But, when I am sitting down as I should everyday to write, I write what I write. I write what comes to me. And I don’t worry over whether it’s on target for a larger project or not. In fact, writer’s block, at least as I understand it and have experienced it, has much more to do with whether or not I know enough about the matter at hand to write about it.
I realize, again, that this is three answers to one question. That one, I don’t think writer’s block really exists, that I struggle more with resisting the discipline of sitting down to write, struggle more with letting too many things pull me away from the silence of the page. That two, writer’s block is sometimes as a metaphor to name the way a poem resists my trying to force it to go in a direction that it does not want to go in. And that three, writer’s block is sometimes a symptom of my not having studied up enough on a particular subject matter to write about it in a compelling way.
Jeremy Paden was born in Milan, Italy and raised in the southern US, Central America, and the Caribbean. He is an Associate Professor of Spanish and Latin American literature at Transylvania University and a member of the Affrilachian Poets. His poems have appeared in such journals as Beloit Poetry Journal, Cortland Review, Drunken Boat, Hampden-Sydney Review, Louisville Review and other journals and magazines. He is the author of two chapbooks of poems, Broken Tulips (Accents Press) and ruina montium (Broadstone), and one chapbook of translations, Delicate Matters (Winged City Chapbooks).