Today’s read: while they sleep (under the bed is another country) by Raquel Salas Rivera – Birds, LLC – 2019
Yesterday I did an hour+ of translation during a Zoom town hall for the families in my school. It has been hard to maintain focus and stay engaged during regular Zoom meetings but this one was a particular challenge as I navigated taking notes, monitoring the facials of the speakers and some of the audience while also praying hard to all the WiFi gods.
I have a clear memory of the first time I did a town hall translation at work. I only recently moved from New York to Oakland. I was getting a crash course on Bay Area Spanish and educational language (English and Spanish). I did fine for the first few rounds but then I had to translate the simplest word ever: backpack. I went with the Nuyo Spanish word I had always grown up with ‘maletin’ and the audience went dead silent. I knew I was lost and in some deep water in my first month at my job. A lady in the front row with the kindest voice whispered “mochilla” to me. I didn’t even blink and just repeated the sentence using mochilla. The town hall continued on and all was well.
I have gotten into the practice of apologizing for my Spanish at the start of almost all big translation meetings especially with families that I am just meeting. In fifteen years of doing translations I have only had one person who would consistently correct my big and small errors. The person would also come up to me after meetings and recount how many times I was wrong. This is just how life works. There is always one person like that but the reality is that I have had many more people appreciate that even my weak Spanish is a service they are grateful for.
There are times when poetry feels so much the same. The language is right there, the experience is common, but the grammar is a bit off or the diction is not quite right. There will be those who will jump and correct the misuse of a semicolon or the over eloquence of a word. This is how poetry business works. The need for precision, the reliance on ceremony, the call for the perfect translation tries to get in the way of communicating the story.
Today’s read: Puerto Rican Obituary by Pedro Pietri – Monthly Review Press – 1973
And this poem took me a place I did not expect to go. It brought me right to the heart of Trump’s America as they check for a stimulus check that is either not there or not enough. Because, in Trump’s America, that is where you live flat broke or thinking you are flat broke. And when you live between extremes you know nothing else. You may know the news or some news or the right news but even that is shaky lately. Numbers are not adding up. Trump’s America is doing fine and then it’s not. This used to be ok. Trump’s America has always been reality TV but now even that is not enough. Numbers don’t match the story of Trump’s America. Now you need to make Trump’s America true again. You hear that Clorox can fix this. Trump’s America has always wanted to be pure, clean, sterile. Now is Trump’s America’s chance to stop the spread harmful bacteria. Trump’s America’s wants to deliverance of a brighter and longer-lasting whites future. Trump’s America wants medicine and even if the numbers, the TV, the stimulus, do not add up that will not stop Trump’s America from that injection, the pure disinfectant, that can deliver the light (a powerful concept). The promise of a true cleaning.
There is at least some truth here. A limpieza is necessary. A sprinkle of Agua Florida, the deep balm of VapoRub, the fog of salvia, the divinations of Walter Mercado. A good talking from that auntie that tells all your business complete with a deep side eye when you interrupt. The waves hitting MSG when Manu Dibango taught the Fania All Stars bout the mama sa mama so mamakosa, mama say mama so mamakosa, hay soul makosa, and we all where in the throat of sax and bone of vibraphone. When you ready for that act of change then you can begin to let the medicine do the work.
Today’s read: Profeta Without Refuge by Raina León – Nomadic Press – 2016
A few years back, I began a practice of demanding. If a person was asking for something then I demanded that they acknowledge me first. It doesn’t have to be much, just a smile Hello, or How are you? will do. But if there is no acknowledgement then I began to call people out. In the time I have been doing this practice there continues to be one repeat offender: Anglos.
Anglos have a way of just demanding things from me without any kind of simple acknowledgement. So one day, I just paused and then after a long pause I looked at the Anglo in the face and told them that I don’t do anything for anyone without an acknowledgment.
This is when it gets interesting.
A few times, I have had the person recognize their error and thank me for pointing this out to them. I usually smile but do not respond to them any further.
The normal scenario is that the person is just stunned. I am not sure what they are more confused about: their lack of manners or my resolve. Either way, they usually walk away at this point which is fine by me.
The worst was the white woman at a local spice shop who was utterly fascinated by the sweatshirt I was wearing. It said “Unconditional Education” on the back and she thought it was the most amazing thing. Amazing enough to tell me to stop and model the sweatshirt for her friend. I went into my resolute stance and let her know I don’t respond to orders. She accepted this and agreed but then went on to tell me how her friend is an educator and would love to see this message. I leaned into the word No and kept up with my business. The white woman then did what white people do: use the power of whiteness.Turn it on and off as fits the situation, and when things get real tough, turn it on so bright that then you just blend into the background.
Every man and every artist, whether he is Nietzsche or Cézanne, climbs each step in the tower of his perfection by fighting his duende, not his angel, as has been said, nor his muse. This distinction is fundamental, at the very root of the work.
— from “”Play and Theory of the Duende”
Today’s read: In Search Of Duende, Federico García Lorca – New Directions Publishing – 1998
I see myself moving closer to understanding duende but I would be lying if I said that I understood it more know than before. I have read this particular book a few different times during my poetic career and it is always a welcome read. This time around it helps prove that in poetry the more you learn can be the less you know.
I would say that there have been three times that I have come into contact with duende.
1) I was seriously drunk on stage. I read a poem with a particular refrain and the line caught on. I am sure it started with another poet friend who was also drunk and soon the whole audience was joining me in refrain. This continued through the poem and even after I walked off stage. It was exhilarating and completely false. It would mark the last time I would ever go on stage drunk.
2) I was poetically very young and invited to join in a group piece with some very talented poets.I had a few lines in the poem, some in concert and some solo. I was most nervous of one line in particular. When it came time for that line I delivered it from my toes through my skull. It lit the room up and helped make the piece a success. I have no memory of the actual words I spoke.
3) I was in the semi-finals of a poetry slam competition. I had put everything into memorizing and delivering my poems. It was the last round of the competition and I was mathematically eliminated. Even a perfect score would not get me to the finals. I felt humiliated and angry. It was time to deliver my last poem for the night and I did something I did not think I would do. I came to the stage, adjusted the mic, put my hands to the side, and delivered the poem without moving my body. I had learned this technique from Patricia Smith but never had the courage to try it. With nothing to lose, I followed through and the whole poem came out through my face and mouth. The duende for sure came out. I remember the whole moment because I came to the mic with the intention to be still but at a certain point I could not move at all. My body was frozen and it was no longer my decision. This is what the poem demanded because it was all building to one line and one word in my poem. And as soon as the word left me the duende went with it. I was exhausted but had control of my body back and walked off stage proud. I had given myself up and the poem came from all the places I had written and rewritten it from to be performed one time. I still have the poem. In fact, it is actually anthologized but that version and any other version of that poem will never be the poem that came through me that night.
Today’s read: Nappy Edges* (*the roots of your hair/ what turns back when we sweat, run, make love, dance, get afraid, get happy: the tell-tale sign of living/) by Ntozake Shange – St. Martin’s Press – 1978
I was pulled over once in the Bronx in my late 20s. I had a busted taillight and knew it but it was the weekend. I figured I’d get fixed on Monday. A Latino cop pulled me over. He seemed a lot more interested that I was driving with two friends. Cop asked me to pump the brakes and the taillight worked. Cop was not happy. He asked me to do it again and the light worked again. Cop was really not happy. His partner told him to let it go but he cop was not having it. He finally let me pass. I checked a lil later and the light was definitely not working. I don’t know why I got a pass on those days. I also don’t know why those particular Latinos were determined to get me those days.
One of my best friends in the Bronx grew up and became a cop. He always wanted to be a cop. He was that guy who when he saw someone skip a line or yell at someone smaller would step up and say something. Even before he had a badge. I remember talking to him about the first pull over. The one about the brake lights. “Oh, it’s because you were in the car with someone darker. It’s one of the first things you find out about in the force. They don’t teach it to you outright. It’s something you pick up. ‘Multiple passengers, different ethnicity, probable drug dealing.'” You serious? You can’t roll with no other homies in the ride? “You can. And you’ll get pulled over. Just a question of time. Don’t worry though. Show em that mini badge I gave you and tell them you are my half-brother.” I did and cop still wanted to write me up for a stupid busted light. “I know. Cops be on some bullshit.”
We stayed friends for a long time but he let me know that over time he wasn’t feeling it. He started to realize that where once he had some cop friends, and would go to some cop events that soon all he had was cop friends and all he was going to was cop events. Same story with his wife. She found herself surrounded by cop wives while at cop parties talking about what its like being married to a cop.
He eventually left New York and made a switch in his life. We’ve connected on and off through the years. I am sure if he read the above poem, the refrain, the historical framing, and that it’s all still the same he would same the same thing to me: “I know. Cops be on some bullshit.”