Aug '02 [Home]
'Notice, It's Lo Cubano y la Poesía, not El Cubano': Writers Living the Nuance
Terry Stokes Talks with Nancy Morejón and César Lopez in Havana.
[Nancy Morejón has published twelve collections of poetry, three monographs, a dramatic work and four critical studies of Cuban history and literature. She is best known in the United States for her bilingual anthology, The Island Sleeps like a Wing (Black Scholar Press). She has won numerous awards, including the Cuban National Award in Criticism and, in Fall '98, was inducted into the Royal Academy of Cuban Language. Ms. Morejón was awarded her country's National Literature Prize in 2001, the first time that honor has gone to a Black woman. Resources: afrocubaweb.com; Singular Like a Bird: The Art of Nancy Morejón(Howard Univ. Press)—Eds.]
Havana. Casa de las Americas. March, 1985. Nancy Morejón arrives at the conference and is introduced to the group from the podium. During the next series of questions regarding copyrights and infringements, she suddenly appears behind me and whispers into my ear, "You are Terry Stokes. We can go do an interview now if you wish." At last. We go out into the lobby with its high ceilings, large paintings hanging on the walls. People running here and there, the noise level, the echoes make it seem like a high school gym. We sit on a couch in the middle of this commotion, the speaker system paging people to come out of the marble walls and staircases. She is beautiful, 41, wearing a smartly cut yellow dress. I've received a grant to interview Cuban writers, and now, finally, I'm talking to one. —TS
Dissemination Through Translation
NM: Do you know my work? Is my work known by others in North America? Do people know me? Am I famous?
TS: Yes, you are. We know the translations from the Marquez anthology (Revolutionary Latin American Poetry) and from the Carpentier anthology (Doors And Mirrors).
Here's one of the big questions: You're translated, Retamar is translated, Pablo Armando Fernandez is translated, Fayad Jamis is translated, but then there seems to be a gap in terms of the translation that's going on. Very little has come out in the last, oh, say, five years, you know, when the Marquez anthology came out. What's going on?
NM: It's important to be translated. I'm coming to the States next month because Black Scholar Press is going to publish a collection of my poetry, [An Island Sleeps Like Wings, 1985] a bi-lingual collection translated by Kathleen Weaver.
Gender as DestinyI love my master.
I gather brushwood to start his daily fire.
I love his blue eyes.
Gentle as a lamb,
I pour drops of honey for his ears.
I love his hands
that threw me down on a bed of grasses.
My master bites and subjugates.
He tells me secret tales while
I fan all his body.
TS: A question that's very pressing in the States right now has to do with gender in terms of one's writing. Many of the professors, particularly some of the female professors, say only females can teach females, etcetera.
NM: Well, I have my point of view on that. I think that poetry or literature is written by men and women. I think through all ages, you know, the division of the world has been treated by men. I think you can discover when a female person is writing because of the gender, because of the special vision of the world. But I don't believe that there is a feminist poetry or that there is a feminist literature, or that there is a special human condition for creating. I think there are differences because men and women are different. If I say for men, that it isn't possible to cook if you are male because you are stronger, or that a woman cannot fly a plane, that's silly.
But, I think, in poetry or literature, which is a very sensitive area of expression, you know yourself there are many tales that come from that place which women are traditionally given in society, and that situation in society, and we have had a very sad and bitter history of discrimination of women. That's why if there is an exposure of women in writing, that's very good, and I think it's very important.
In my case, I have been invested with a special taste in American literature in general, written by women, Native Americans, Blacks and what are your so-called 'minorities' in the States, and I've heard that women are the first ones in these situations. I think they have a right and it's the right moment for them to just express themselves, to say what happened throughout history in that country and in humankind.
I think there is a great confusion about this condition of being a woman, but I think it's really important. You cannot be blind; you cannot deny certain differences between men and women. It's important for me to know that one of my poems makes a woman liberate herself or makes a woman think better about the relationship between society and women, and the world and women. I think it's welcome. I welcome that. But I think we cannot isolate or get a narrow vision of the realm of women and that history of discrimination.
TS: Isn't it really that one is adopting the role of being oppressed psychologically?
NM: Yes. There is an expulsion and a liberation that is healthy, and I think it's worthwhile. But the thing is that sometimes people are driven apart from the real sense, the real point, and they get to create many abstract behaviors, and many picturesque behaviors toward the liberation, you know. And they create a neurotic reaction. That's what I am against, because you cannot say that men are our enemies. So we have to share, to be aware that we have been discriminated against and oppressed.
In some cases, in sex relationships it has been like that, but if you are speaking in social terms, you know, men have been oppressed, too. So it gets to be a condition of a capitalist society and of our time, so you cannot say that the only problems are those of women. There are other problems, for instance, racial problems. It's sometimes very linked. So, in my case, I have been reading and writing many poems referring to my condition because I am a woman and not a man. And if these poems are useful to someone, a woman especially, or a man, I will say welcome, because it's useful to make people aware that they have to fight, they have to be equal. For me, it's an honor, a satisfaction, if one of my poems is useful to make people aware that race exists, but that all races have contributed to humankind. I say it's welcomed, but I cannot say that I write only thinking about my racial condition.
Variety in History
TS: Oh, I know. There is such variety in the work that you've done. One of the important things in your work is the exploration of myth, whether they are traditional myths, Greek or Roman, whether they are taken from popular culture, whether it's the Civil Rights struggle in the United States. In the United States writers have a tendency to put history behind them and never look at it again.
NM: I think history is our great creation for everybody. Nobody can talk against history or without regarding history. You have to. Since [the time] you're a child, the problem is that people talk about differences of history. Maybe sometimes if they talk about history, they talk about a certain history and they are referring to knowledge, a political knowledge, of actions in the old times. But history is what we are doing now, talking here about the varieties of people, talking about the relationships between the states of Cuba and America. And it means we can create an image of our country and our humanity.
It's a history for me; each day we make history. So, no one, not a painter, writer or poet can live in the past. For instance, let's say the abstract arts, things that are not figurative, the relationship between an astronaut and this man, this person, this planet, those are things that belong to history, too. Because when a man puts a foot on the moon, he is feeling more of history. And when you see an asteroid or a beautiful body, that's history.
TS: You have these movements within your poetry where the reader will feel as though he is regarding the past and you'll make a leap in the last stanza and force the reader into the present.
NM: I don't know the writer or poet who takes someone out of history. The writer is not behind, not in front of history. You are history; you do history every day, although you don't put the name, 'history,' in your poems. And I think that imagination and the freedom of thought, you know, it's who's just beginning to write, or read. Because one can create solidarity, and you must share.
Solidarity from Afar, the Embargo
I think it's very important for my poems, for me, that they are being read, but it's still difficult; we must translate the poets' work and send it very far away. You, Terry, see us, and that's the way we're going to share. You know, many people have solidarity, but they're very abstract. They make decorations and declarations. Solidarity is if you give me something to read, something that's very important to know. We are overwhelmed by those who do nothing. Why not read a poet who lives in New York or Cincinnati? Has he nothing to give because of the special system in which he lives? I can learn many things from you, and you can learn many things from me.
TS: Absolutely. And what I'm wondering is: do you as a writer or do writers feel their art has been cut off because of the embargo?
NM: Sometimes. Because it's very concrete. Also, many poets in Caracas, Venezuela, and Argentina feel cut off because they have had a very hard time there. We simply don't know each other. The people in Argentina are writing about the situation, but it is very difficult to get the information. You have to fight that situation, and overcome it because it is difficult for us to get information, even from there. Only because Julio [Cortazar] came to Cuba and gave us the information did we get it. But I think we should know each other, in Central and Latin America, in the States, in Spain and Turkey.
There is a beautiful film, a Turkish film, and you see in it the exploitation, the degradation of the Turkish culture. Under old traditional values, a woman is compared with a house. That's the way they have treated her here, so I learned so much. I didn't realize it would give me such a lesson.
Objectivity and Individual Expression
TS: You mentioned Whitman before. The use of the catalogue was a question I had, the placing of details. We could use terms like the 'objective correlative,' and well, that's Whitman too, and Eliot, and of course William Carlos Williams.
NM: I love William Carlos Williams! He's one of my favorites. He does a lot of objective things, and I love it. When you get poetry like that through a poet I am enchanted. You know, maybe I cannot write that way, because each person is gifted to do one thing or another—some expressions are good for you and others are not—but when you get a poem, something you feel, something you identity with inside, it's beautiful. And I love William Carlos Williams very much, and what a big difference between Williams and Whitman! I love both, and I think I am a mixture of the two.
I am something strange, as I say in my thesis on Cuban culture. Sometimes I think I am this smell of many other races and many other histories and many other cultures, and in that sense I identify with Cuban and Persian and Turkish poets, and with Whitman because they are poets of our time. Everybody loves the sun, the sunset, and poetry, I see poetry as a liberation.What you cannot do naturally in your life, you do in poetry. It's also part of history. For me, it's very very important. I'm sometimes disappointed in the States, that people don't understand in the poetry, our poetry, that we're in history, and I appreciate very much those words that show me what history is, a very free style of history.
TS: It's that there is that fusion within one's consciousness and one is listening all the time ?
NM: Yes, I regard very much what you call 'folk lore' because what people do, what any civilization does in everyday life is very important. And what an artist should do is create a correspondent image of that and of that living.
Let's say for me it's very important to hear about the people of the South Pacific, as important as hearing a speech by Fidel, or hearing about the whole theories of pacifism of Ghandi, or the terrors of violence of other people who fight, who struggle. I think that what what a man does and what a woman does is just something that's in history. So I'm not talking about the history in books.
TS: The history of engagement?
NM: It's the history of everyday life and the history of little things, of little details, the way you cook or the way you smell the things you cook or the way you walk or the way you see the shore, the sunset, that's history. The creation of the poem is very linked to this vision.
Poetic Forms with Human Features
TS: You've written poems in many different forms, you have, say, used the ballad
NM: Yes, I'm very free. I think it's a thing I learned from Walt Whitman. And I think everything is poetry, every trend deserves poetry. So for me it's about death or it's about love or our conversation might be a poem; it's what you are telling me or I'm telling you. So I don't think there is a trend or theme that isn't poetry.
Some people say there are things that are available for poetry and there are some things which are forbidden. I think this is a mistake. In my case, I have been writing in the old styles—sonnets and ballads. I love the rhythms and the metrics. I love free verse also. Sometimes I feel songs and my expression is very soft and rhythmic and metrical. Sometimes I'm angry and I talk about things that are really not very poetical and I prefer the free verse for this, so I'm not married to a form. I'm not married to anything.
TS: Is it the old hassle between form and content? That there is after all a form for every experience, and we must find that form? You know, the stuff about Charles Olsen and projective verse
NM: Yes, Charles Olsen is a poet I know a little about because we did the translation. Sometimes we have information and sometimes not. But since I am a translator, I am a traveler, and when you are a traveler you meet other worlds. I appreciate the English tradition of poetry, but we need more information, more books.
I used to quote a very important phrase that Julio Cortazar, the Argentinian novelist, said before he died because he was devoted to the Nicaraguan struggle. He wanted to make a great movement toward solidarity in Central America, especially Nicaragua. He didn't want it to be a slogan. He wanted it to be transformed into posters, etcetera. He said, "If you love freedom and the human condition, send a pencil or a pen to someone in Central America who is just learning to read or write."
You can create solidarity, but you have to share. I think it's very important for me, for my poems, for us to share. We are still being overcome by the blockade, it's still there. So, among poets we must send each other poems, letters, so that we can know how each other thinks. You see us here, and that is the way we are going to share.
Nancy and I exchange addresses and make a date for lunch on Saturday. She must go to say goodbye to Nicolas Guillen, who is on his way to Argentina. She has been kind enough to check my list of Cuban writers. She lets me know which ones are in the country, which ones have left, and corrects several wrong phone numbers for me. (And what a boon to me, wearied after days of appealing for the information to the bureaucratic 'mañana' forces.) She signs my copy of her book, Octubre imprescindible, and since she will be coming to States for a reading tour for her new book, Where the Island Sleeps Like a Wing, I will try to get her a reading at the University of Cincinnati. I have promised to call Audre Lorde for her and also another friend in New York to alert them of her impending arrival. I'm not sure what I've learned about Cuban poetry or about Nancy's own work from the interview, but I do feel a sense of warmth, and I feel as though I've spoken to the first person in Havana who isn't trying to convince me of anything except her own humanity—and vulnerabilty. —TS