“Let your writing be an exploration, be a part of your process, your path to insight. This is to say, write your way into discovery.”
How did you become interested in South American politics and social justice?
I grew up in politically unstable places, grew up around refugees, and grew up in a family whose focus was helping the orphan and the exile. Specifically, I grew up in Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and the Dominican Republic in the 80s, which means I grew up speaking Spanish. My parents were medical missionaries in Central America and the Caribbean. When we moved to Nicaragua, the Sandinista Revolution had just happened. Soon after moving there, the US began to fund the Contras, a right-leaning insurgency. The collateral violence of the Contra/Sandinista conflict forced us to move to Costa Rica. While in Costa Rica, my parents worked with the Nicaraguan refugees.
When researching the unjust violence in South America, did you first have an interest in the episodes of violence themselves or the artists affected by such events?
Unfortunately, the topic of state-sponsored violence is as old as the Psalms and the Prophets, even older. Juan Gelman became a favorite poet of mine in graduate school. As a graduate student in a Spanish program, a good bit of what we read in our contemporary Latin American literature classes, whether poetry, fiction, or essay, explored political violence—contemporary or historic. Also, though Víctor Jara was killed in the early 70s, it was still common to hear Jara songs as I grew up in Latin America—something akin to hearing early Dylan or Baez. And, as a professor of Latin American literature, I routinely use Jara in classes—not just because of the political content of his songs, but because he and Violeta Parra, another Chilean singer-songwriter, were at the forefront of the Latin American folk movement. I say this to say, I have lived with this topic for a long time. I was already very familiar with what had happened in Chile and Argentina and state-sponsored violence in many other Latin American countries before the idea for the collection came to me.
I began to write the poems after an encounter with a detainee. The chair of Modern and Classical Languages at my first appointment as professor, Fernando Reati, had been a detainee. Much of his research was on this topic. During that time, he brought Margarita Drago, the other detainee to whom the collection is dedicated, to campus. She told the story of passing around recipes and making dulce de leche from the daily milk ration and hoarded sugar. When I told Fernando that I found that to be quite poetic, he told me of a number of other things that they would make: the bread pudding flavored with strawberry toothpaste, the cheese. Based on these stories, I began to write.
What was the last piece of the puzzle for prison recipes? What was the last piece to make it into the collection, or what was the last piece that you significantly revised?
The last piece of the puzzle were the two Jara poems and the two Gelman poems. Those four made it feel like a book (albeit a short one), rather than just a sequence. Once they were written and once they were placed in the book, I felt that it was complete and I could send it out.
I loved your conversation poems with Victor Jara and Juan Gelman. I feel like your experience with translation would have been helpful in forming a poem in their two unique styles. Were there other Argentine writers that shaped your collection? Where do you see their influence coming through most?
Yes. These poems are bad or unfaithful translations of theirs. They spin out and away from them and continue to play according to the logic of the original poem or lyric.
There are many Argentine and Chilean writers I love and admire: Gabriela Mistral, Enrique Lihn, Nicanor Parra, Gonzalo Rojas, to name a few more Chileans. Jorge Luis Borges, Roberto Juarroz, Alejandra Pizarnik, Olga Orozco, Angélica Gorodischer, to name a few more Argentines.
Were I to assign some sort of influence to the poem dedicated to Jara, I’d have to say it owes more Juarroz and Pizarnik than Jara himself. This influence has less to do with anything conscious or intentional on my part… and more that I deeply admire them and read them frequently.
I felt like the Argentine and Chilean writers you model in your chapbook represent two very different sides of the struggle of an average citizen in Argentina. Victor Jara’s call to tear down the fences shows the revolution, the heart of the people banding together. Juan Gelman mourns in the aftermath of the revolution, in the wake of the “disappeared.” Who are the other voices in your chapbook? We see the prisoners struggling and some failing to survive; we see their memories of home and family in pieces like “night song.” Who are they, and what makes them similar or different from the voices of Jara and Gelman?
They do represent two sides—but not two sides as they relate to ways of resisting power. Instead, more of a before and an after—as in the call to resistance and what happens when the state comes down on those who resist.
In fact, Gelman came from a family of Russian Jews who were politically active on the left. His father had been part of the 1905 revolution in Russia, immigrated to Argentina, returned after the Revolution of 1917, before returning again to Argentina for good. Indeed, a number of the pre-World War II Jewish immigrants to Argentina (of which there were many) were of the political left or anarchists. And, Gelman himself was very politically active on the left—to the point of being part of a group that were a leftist urban guerrilla. When his son Marcelo and his daughter-in-law María Claudia were taken, Juan Gelman was in exile in Europe.
In terms of the other voices, many of those taken were just young idealistic students; students who may or may not have been politically on the left, but might have had friends who were; students who found themselves at the wrong place; students from families with the wrong enemies; students who, frustrated with politics, began to be interested in the left; students whose lifestyle, for various reasons, was deemed improper.
Many pieces in the chapbooks are written as how-to’s or recipes. Was there a reason why you were drawn to this mode of writing for this collection? What was it about this mode that made it so effective in conveying the images you crafted?
The main and principal reason was that I heard a survivor of Argentine detention centers talk about passing around recipes as a means of remembering home. As the cook of the family, and one who learned to cook from my grandmother and mother, this made sense to me. Recipes are both rooted in the past—that which is handed down one cook to another—and are also future projections, at least when we are talking about thinking about what you might want for dinner. In prison, they are acts of the imagination that engage memory of a time when life was good and hope for a time when life will be better. That these women passed recipes around seemed like a wonderfully poetic act.
As I started writing, another reason emerged. Recipes are about steps, about focusing on the task at hand in order to make an end goal a reality. This seemed to me to be a metaphor about survival. Recipes also seem to be a way to encode messages.
How does poetry, both what you read and what you write, affect the way you teach Spanish?
This is a lovely question. Words matter. Words and their history and the tentacles they send out to other words are important. I try to get students to love words. Also, at one point, I used to teach thinking of the need to prepare students for the academic task of rhetorical or political or aesthetic analysis. But now, and I think poetry has played a big role in this, I want students to pay attention to the play of language and to the wisdom contained in literature. Among other things, this means slowing down in the reading and paying attention to the way things are expressed, rather than rushing forward and presuming we know what has been written based on one hasty reading.
Can you walk me through your research methods? Could you tell me a bit about your writing process, how you will generally begin a poem and how your ideas come together to create surprising imagery? At what point do you begin crafting your poems?
This might not be the answer you’re looking for, but it’s the one I’ll give.
A good friend of mine, who is a poet from Spain, once answered the question about process saying, I’m a magpie. I go about collecting this and that and hoarding it. Then I pull it out and marvel at it, and place it here or there in a poem. While it is true that I will sit down and read up on things (after all, one doesn’t want egregious inaccuracies to mar the experience) – the biggest part of my process is just reading and reading widely. Not just poetry or novels or non-fiction (if by non-fiction we mean the confessionalist memoir that has taken over Anglo-American prose), but also philosophy, long-form journalism, and essays in the tradition of Montaigne and Emerson and Thoreau. In order to write, we need a deep, deep well – one of information, but not just information, one of rhetorical and syntactical moves, and one of images too.
As far as crafting a sequence goes, I’ve yet to sit down and say, I’m going to write a sequence. I simply sit and begin to write. If the next day, when I sit to write another poem, I draft something along the same lines as the poem of the day before, and then the next the same thing happens, and the next, I begin to wonder about a sequence. But, as soon as I wonder I push that out of my mind. The logic of poetry is a dream-logic. As with dreams, if you try to force something it deflates.
Zapruder in his recent book Why Poetry writes that poetry’s logic is associative. Metaphor and simile are associative. Rhyme is also associative. The surprising imagery comes about through strange associations.
That’s about all I can say about that. Except to say, along with being associative, which moves into a certain kind of hazy, imprecision, poetry is also about precise, concrete language. Poetry thinks through detail, not through abstractions. To do justice to a topic and to the lived experience of others one must know things about them. One must do research. Research happens at the beginning (to give you the language), in the middle (to correct and push you forward), and at the end (to further correct and help polish). It’s important to use the right language and finding this comes through reading. In the case of the ruina montium collection, the front-end research was much heavier than prison recipes. I was more familiar with the Dirty War.
I love the premise of “songbird in a bell jar” and the idea of Víctor Jara’s courage to create music despite his stifling social surroundings. In the poem you write, “unaware you collected birds / I came to you without guile”; are you commenting, here, on Jara’s sincerity in a Chilean political climate not fully known by him?
I think, in some way, this is the case with all artists who align themselves with political movements and projects. It’s not that artists shouldn’t have political feelings or commitments or express those in their art. But, the world of politics can consume you in various ways. It cares more about the power of the artist’s sincerity than about the artist. You quickly become a lightning rod for love or hate and a symbol rather than a person wrestling with words or paint or music. And, in the case of Jara, because of the power of celebrity and his song, he became someone that needed to be silenced quickly.
The backslash, which you describe in your notes to be an homage to Juan Gelman, can be used as a replacement for punctuation, but you also seem to use it to create musical rhythm, especially in those poems that explicitly name Jara and Gelman in their titles. Did you enjoy using the backslash in different ways, and is it a technique that you’d like to continue to use in your poetry writing?
I enjoyed the backslash immensely. I haven’t used it again. But, I might. Pablo Neruda and Octavio Paz were poets who throughout their career kept experimenting with new forms—whether punctuation or otherwise. Gelman, once he came across the backslash, used it rather consistently for several years. At the moment, I’ve been experimenting with a lack of punctuation—a little like W. S. Merwin, a little like Juan Carlos Mestre—though this latter poet has no consistent punctuation, poem to poem he tries something different.
The guard in “blessing for the sugar” is characterized as a threat and an opportunist, someone the subject must “pay / to fatten up the guard’s eye/blind him for a bit/”; however, “hot plate prayer” instructs the reader to thank the guard as well as “the relative who paid the guard,” demanding the guard get respect if for nothing more than his common humanity. Does the “guard” in these poems represent the State, and if so, what are you saying about the humanity of those who seek political reform through violence?
Guards in prison systems are curious persons—emphasis on personhood, or humanity, as you’ve noted. Like all of us, they will at times be lenient, and at times not. Like all of us, they can and sometimes do show mercy—the accounts of Auschwitz survivors, like Primo Levi, show fleeting glimpses of the kindnesses shown. At the same time, often within systems like concentration camps, military detention centers, gulags, the guards themselves are poor, hungry, and susceptible to bribes. Always, though, there is a difference of power. The need for a prisoner to thank a guard for the kindness of taking a bribe and letting the prison keep something that they might shouldn’t, or not taking away something that they can have because the guard wants to show their power, is just part of that relationship. The subordinate person in the arrangement, as a tool of survival, must find ways to placate those in power. Gratitude is one of the tricks of the weak. That’s where I was going with that.
As to the last part of the question, I am a pacifist. I think nonviolence is the way. I also think there are times when acts of civil disobedience can be nonviolent but be taken as violent by those in power. But, that’s not what you’re asking about. You’re asking about those who do take up arms… this world is complicated. They are no less human. I will still sit and have tea with them.
Two poems that face each other, “smooth pour” and “how to multiply bread crumbs,” have certain religious allusions that made me rethink the entire chapbook. Do you believe there is a spiritual undercurrent in your poetry and in this chapbook?
It’s hard for there not to be. The Psalms and the Prophets were my first introduction to poetry. Songs and poems are spiritual hymns—even ones that aren’t focused on some other world or aren’t overtly religious in any way; even ones, especially ones, that simply marvel at the goodness of cold plums, or fog creeping about on cat feet. This world is suffused with spirit, as are each of us. Poems that speak to how we relate to each other are spiritual. I don’t want to slide into a facile mode of speaking about spirituality or religion. These are, I think, weighty matters. But it is true, my deep language is the language of the Prophets and the Parables. There’s no way around that. That is the case even if I don’t set out to write about specifically religious topics.
Why did you choose to focus on food as a mediator for your themes of imprisonment, art, and injustice? And, what is your reasoning for opening your chapbook with “ingredients”?
On the one hand, it was given to me by Margarita Drago. That little moment, that brief description of her making the dulce de leche roll-ups, spoke to me because of its clarity in her memory and because of how important food is. I grew up in a family that cooks. My mother is an amazing cook, as was her mother before her. I learned how to cook with them and I am the cook in our family. Cooking is my love-language. The family table is the center of the home. The ways in which families eat speak to hyper-local culture. So, when this image of eating and food preparation, of remembering family and freedom in prison was given to me, I immediately saw in it an image that was also one of communion as a form of resistance to the inhumanity of state oppression, and communion also as a form of extending forgiveness – at least among those oppressed.
What advice would you give to writers pursuing hard topics involving violence and unrest? I’ve found that it’s difficult to write on these topics without becoming overly sentimental, or heavy. How do you balance the gravity of your topic?
Frankly, this is something that I wonder and worry about all the time. Poems are not sermons. In fact, poems, at least in the way I think of poems, work very differently than sermons and arguments. This is not to say they can’t persuade people to change their lives; even, at times, command people to change their lives. This is also not to say that poems can’t be arguments or deploy the kind of rhetoric that debate or academic papers muster. But, the logic of poems is different… they move through the world by association. Of course, the minute I say something like poems aren’t sermons, poem after poem comes to mind where a poem that sidles up to sermon proves such a categorical statement wrong… (Pedro Mir’s Contracanto a Walt Whitman, Ginsberg’s Howl, Audre Lord’s Power), but that’s because poetry resists definition or limitation.
The one piece of advice, though, would be to find the small moments, to find the tender, and the humanizing moments. Resist the urge to go big and dramatic. Resist, also, the urge to tell everything. Resist, also, the urge to write out of certainty. Let your writing be an exploration, be a part of your process, your path to insight. This is to say, write your way into discovery.
Jeremy Paden is Professor of Spanish at Transylvania University. He is a recipient of a 2019 Al Smith Individual Artist Fellowship given out by the Kentucky Arts Council. He is the author of three chapbooks of poems Broken Tulips (Accents, 2013), ruina montium (Broadstone Books, 2016), and prison recipes (Broadstone Books, 2018). He has published one chapbook of translated poems Delicate Matters/Asuntos Delicados (Winged City Press, 2016). His collection ruina montium has also been published in Spanish (Valparaíso Ediciones, 2018). His poems and translations have appeared in various journals and anthologies.
Find more at https://jpaden4.wixsite.com/jeremypadenpoet