Tropicalizing Anglo-American Culture
Victor Hernández Cruz has published nine books, including his most recent collection, this year’s The Mountain in the Sea (Coffee House Press), and currently divides his time between Morocco and Puerto Rico. The following interview touches on the interests most vital to the poet—the history of the Caribbean, stories of migration, and encounters between cultures.
Francisco Aragón: Can you talk about your beginnings in Aguas Buenas, Puerto Rico?
Victor Hernández Cruz: I was born in this region of the Caribbean around 1949. There was no such thing as a hospital. In many of the rural areas of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Santo Domingo, people were born inside their homes and a curandera—a midwife—would come and deliver you, and that’s how I was born.
How long were you in Aguas Buenas?
I was there about five years. My family took the road of migration, which a lot of Puerto Ricans were doing at the time because of the devastated economic situation.
I went to New York by airplane; it took eight hours in one of these propeller-planes that barely made it. We got there in the middle of winter; to go from a tropical country into this cold region of a northern city was another shock. I remember the smell of the air, this cold air that smelled like . . . cold metals, cold steel. I had been in a world that had a whole different aroma: the smell of tobacco and local vegetation.
What part of New York did you settle in?
We went to the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
Did you learn English in New York? Did you know any before you came?
I didn’t really learn English until we got a television some two years after I was in the States. I didn’t go to school till I was seven and a half or eight years old. My mother didn’t know there was such a thing as kindergarten. I lived in a Puerto Rican neighborhood; most of the people were immigrants.
Did you continue speaking Spanish after you learned English?
Oh yeah, I’ve never stopped speaking Spanish, I was able to keep both Spanish and English, whereas a lot of New York City Puerto Ricans and Hispanics who grow up in the U.S. lose their Spanish as they learn English.
What kind of books did you read during your high school years in Spanish Harlem?
You still didn’t have that big movement toward finding relevant literature in black and Puerto Rican communities. We just read the regular poetry and stuff that was offered to the generation before us. We read [Walt] Whitman, Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg. I mostly read on my own, all that I could get my hands on. I read Kafka, I read some of the Beat poets as a teenager. I read Ginsberg, Amiri Baraka—LeRoi Jones—I read Kerouac, On the Road, things of that sort.
I’d like to ask you about the title of your third book. How did you arrive at Tropicalization?
That came out of a sense of me trying to tropicalize this Anglo–North American culture, to put a little heat on it, a little spice on it, to warm it up a little bit. Of course, now the greenhouse effect is probably doing that naturally (laughter).
One of your poems is titled “Don Arturo says:”, and it’s about dance. But what I wanted to ask you is, Who is Don Arturo? He appears, if I’m not mistaken, in all of your books.
Yeah, he does. He was a real guy. Don Arturo was like my spiritual grandfather. I dedicated By Lingual Wholes to him. His name was Arturo Vincench. He was a Cuban guy who’d been in New York many years and was good friends with an aunt of mine. She was some years younger than him. I think they had a little secret thing going on for years, and he was always part of the family. He was a street musician; he’d play music at Macy’s and Gimbels. He had these puppets and a special whistle, and he put a tambourine on his foot and a harmonica attached to a thing he had like this [demonstrates an imaginary harmonica mounting for hands-free playing]. He’d sell whistles, puppets—people would give him money, and he made a living. He also played the guitar, he had his house full of mandolins, and he liked classical stuff: he would play classical music in the hallway of the tenement building I was in.
In a lot of your poems, you bring in historical events. One that comes to mind is “Borinkins in Hawaii,” the journey of those Puerto Rican people who think they’re coming to North America but end up in Hawaii. For a poem of this nature, did you do any research?
Yeah, I did both book research and I did a lot of interviews with the Puerto Rican Hawaiians when I was there. So it’s like an oral history that I put in print. I believe a poem should be half your own thoughts and half something you have historically researched.
Could the same be said of “Geography of the Trinity Corona”? I read the poem, and it seems like you’re trying to embrace various ethnicities.
When I was writing and researching this poem, I saw societies in people, not as an historian, but as a poet or a painter. So I saw Puerto Ricans who looked Ethiopian, Puerto Ricans who looked German, Puerto Ricans who looked Gypsy, Puerto Ricans who looked Nigerian, and that’s what I wrote about in the poem: the suggestions that they made to me. And since I’m not an historian, I went ahead and allowed those suggestions to live.
What draws you to the historical, given that the lyric seems to be the dominant mode in American poetry today?
It’s a personal obsession with me to study the history of cultures, my culture, the history of the Caribbean, how the Caribbean formed. To me that’s all very exciting, and I have to find a way to make the personal historical. I have to touch history through my personal life. So if I eat a plate of food and I see green bananas, and I see some rice, and I see some bacalao [dried salted cod], then I already see an historical situation there.
Right on your plate?
Right on my plate, because if I’m going to eat this food, I’d like to know how it was composed. They weren’t eating green bananas in Spain, because green bananas come from Guinea, from Africa; and bacalao is from—the Spanish and the Portuguese cultivated that way of cooking it; the ways of putting other things in it were developed in the Caribbean . . . so I see right away the Caribbean, slavery, the Taino Indians and what happened to them, the interchange of cultures, and the shifts of the whole exploration era. This happens when I look at food or when I listen to music—I see a Spanish melody going to an African rhythm with indigenous instruments.
What can you tell me about the poem “Root of Three,” which begins
I walk in New York with a mountain
The Arabs were in Spain 800 years. They contributed greatly to the culture, and they themselves had a great civilization and culture there—Córdoba, Sevilla—you had streets, fountains, orange groves, 400 or 500 mosques; they had great scholars, it was the center of translation from Greek to Arabic, and from there to other languages. They revived the Greek classics, they had doctors writing books, they had great music.
in my pocket
I walked in Puerto Rico with a guitar
in my belly
I walked in Spain with Mecca
in my sandals.
Has your way of composing poems evolved over the years? Looking back at Snaps, which you wrote in your teens, was composition more spontaneous and less controlled then than it is now?
They were much more spontaneous than they are now.
Did you revise the poems in Snaps?
Most of those, I just wrote them out and rolled them out.
When did you begin to revise your poems?
I did much revising for Mainland. I wrote some of those two, three times; I was very concerned with effect, especially with the Puerto Rican pieces.
And you still revise?
Now I revise. The thing about revision, though, is that you have to watch out because you don’t want to lose that flow and spontaneity. You could do too much revision and destroy the poem. And if you don’t do any, the poem will not be as strong as it should be. You have to somehow find that balance between the immediate moment when you produced the poem, and what you can bring to it by going back and fixing it up, or adding things to it that come to mind later.
How do you know when a poem has been revised enough and should be left alone? Do you ever send your poems out to friends to ask them what they think?
No, because I can pretty much determine what I want to say, and if it’s what I want to say, it’s gotta be how I want to say it. And once I achieve those two things, then I don’t have to send it to anybody else. They know less about what it is I want to say.
But when you write your poem, you don’t have an objective perspective. You have too much invested in the poem. If you sent them to someone for some feedback, they might say something like “The first two stanzas are great, but you lose me a bit in the third; you might want to drop that line, et cetera.” You’ve never done anything like this?
I’ve never done that because this is not like eye surgery or brain surgery; you can make a few mistakes in this scene (laughter). I mean, how can you determine what’s perfect? These aren’t blueprints for a children’s hospital; this is poetry, and if it wasn’t fully the delivery that I wanted, then I’ll keep trying. There is never a perfect poem; life is never perfect—life is of constant change. A poem can always have been written differently, no matter what that poem was. You have to, at some point, just let it go and drop it.
When do you let your poem “drop”? Do you put it in a drawer and let it sit there for a few months?
I have notebooks. And I fill them up, and then, at a certain point, I go back and say, “What can I use from these notebooks?” Because not everything that I write gets published, just like everything you think shouldn’t be said (laughter), or you’d be in a lot of trouble. So you have to edit your stuff, and you have to write the stuff out, too: you have to write a lot of junk. I’ve written a lot of junk; I’ve got my notebooks full of stuff: things I’ve written on the streets, nightclubs, cars, trips I’ve taken. . . . Out of ten pages, for example, I might extract five lines that I can use or invest in another poem that could come later.
Do you carry a notebook with you wherever you go?
Just about. Or I make it a point to write things out at night about different things that happened; so I keep somewhat of a diary, and also some poems that I write all the time. But I don’t use those poems at that point. I just save them; then I can go back to them, hook them up with some thoughts I’m having now, or find some other notes that I have taken—poem notes—and hook them up. . . . And then that can become one poem.
So you don’t know whether something you’ve written is valuable or not unless you let it sit?
It has to hook up with one of my concerns; that’s how I know if it’s valuable. There are certain concerns that I have; I’m obsessed with the history of the Caribbean because I come from the Caribbean.
What are some of your other major concerns?
The history of immigration in a worldwide sense; the idea of civilizations coming into other civilizations; what happened when the Spaniards opened up the oceans and began to explore the Americas and thought they were in Asia, mistook Cuba for Japan, and then thought they were in India. To me all of this is very fascinating, and because I am a product of that combination of cultures and races, to me it’s an obsession to study those things—to study how the Spanish did when they first gave them pineapple. I read somewhere that when the Indians gave them this sweet delicious pineapple, the Spanish ran to the bushes to vomit. That should have been a sign of things to come, because they started sawing everybody down. So anybody who doesn’t like pineapple, you know is going to end up killing you (laughter).
You don’t write what many would call autobiographical lyric poems. Was this a conscious decision?
Well, the poetry’s not really mine. The poetry’s not really about myself, it’s all about my culture. I’m not writing about my person and what I do.
So you use poetry as a way to get away from your personality?
One person is not very important on the planet Earth. I mean one person in the history of time. . . . We’re alive 80 years; that could be like a second on the cosmic clock. And so my personal life could just bore somebody if I told them what I did every day. There are things I can extract from my personal life, but I use them as stepping-stones or a springboard toward other things.
Do you think it’s possible to write a good poem about anything? A doorknob . . . a sewer system . . . anything?
Yeah, but I kind of stop writing about things that just kind of pop out at random. The mind has to be edited—as we said before—so that you don’t just blab everything you’re thinking about.
Yeah, I understand, but what I mean is, Is there any subject that should be taboo from poetry, that should not be touched? For example, some would place politics in this category, or even some forms of violence.
Literature has everything in it because literature is about life; it’s got to be about everything that’s within life, and nothing can be edited out of it. You can have a poem about shoestrings, or you can have a poem about Venus. Something very small and something very big, and in between, everything. Now, it’s up to the individual poet to use some discernment, some judgment, to be selective; and you begin to see how each poet and each writer has an area of concern. Another poet that I like, Ed Dorn, has an obsession with the West and the settlement of America, or a pioneer sense that comes out in his poetry. Or let’s say Gary Snyder: his concern with Buddhism, Zen, meditation.
I’d like to talk about your punctuation, or rather, your lack of it. Are you ever concerned that your lack of punctuation will confuse your reader?
Well, if they read English, they can read one English word and the next one that follows. They’re going to set their own rhythms to it. So it’s best that they see the poem in print, because if they see me read it, I’m going to force my rhythms on them. But if they can just see the poem disassociated from me, they don’t have to give it a gender, a time, or a rhythm. They can just add that as they wish, because the poem is an idea that came through me and that’s independent of me. There’s no one right way to read the poem. Everybody can make use of the poem as they wish.
Poet, translator, essayist, editor, and San Francisco native Francisco Aragón studied Spanish at the University of California at Berkeley and New York University. He earned an MA from the University of California at Davis and an MFA from the University of Notre Dame. Exploring how language and genre both connect and...