Open Door

Bridge of the World: An Interview With Roberto Harrison

Roberto Harrison

Some stopped writing
because they had written their dreams so well. I cannot
stop, because I am just beginning to dream, just
beginning to see
through myself in the world, not
so that I can become
invisible to you
again, but to write invisibly
through my heart, the residence of my mind,
evenly distributed
throughout endless Imagination’s
Oceans.

—Roberto Harrison, “¿Quieres Ser Amigos?” from Bridge of the World

As a poet, I’m often drawn to poetry unlike to my own, and the differences between my poems and those of Milwaukee-based Panamanian American poet Roberto Harrison are vast.  Vast is the operative word here, for where my own poems lean toward the concentrated lyric, seldom requiring more than a page and a half, Roberto’s tend to the sprawling epic; where my books are short collections of discrete works, Roberto’s are monumental undertakings built from lengthy, interrelated texts, often dense with reference to spiritual and philosophical concepts.  In its conception of poetry as a form of gnosis, a way of organizing both knowledge and experience exemplified in American poetry by the later surrealism of Philip Lamantia, Roberto’s work brings to mind the work of Will Alexander, in terms of both sustained intensity and scope.  Yet where Will manifests an impersonal, intellective distance from his poetry—that is, his own psychology can only be inferred from the passion and specificity of his testimony on behalf of historical or marginalized subject matter—Roberto displays a mysticism born of an explicitly personal anguish.  There’s a clear effort in his work to find a way to live amid a brutal, unforgiving world.

Roberto is the author of several books, including Counter Daemons (Litmus, 2006), Os (subpress, 2006), bicycle (Noemi, 2015), and culebra (Green Lantern, 2016).  He is one of the several editors of the new anti-Trump anthology Resist Much/Obey Little (Spuyten Duyvil, 2017).  He also has two new books scheduled for later this year, Bridge of the World (Litmus) and Yaviza (Atelos).  More immediately, Roberto was recently named the 2017-2019 Milwaukee poet laureate, which seems like a suitable occasion on which to inquire about his background and influences, as well as his poetics.

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Garrett Caples: Your Panamanian identity clearly marks your poetry, even as your poetics are unlike those usually associated with identity politics.  Can you tell us about your experience emigrating from Panamá to the United States and how Panamá informs your poetry?

Roberto Harrison: I was born in Corvallis, Oregon, where my father went to college. Both my parents are/were Panamanian. A few months after I was born, I was sent on a plane by myself to Panamá, where I was taken care of for an unknown but significant number of months by my grandmother. This is something I learned from my mom just a few years ago. It explains a lot. I use a phrase from Xul Solar to describe this part of my life: Mestizo de Avión. Apparently, I didn’t recognize my parents when they moved back to Panamá. We lived there until I was seven.

GC: Then you returned to the U.S.?

RH: We immigrated to Wilmington, Delaware, where there were hardly any Latinos. Now many live there. My father left us when I was eight. I rarely saw him after that, and he died when he was 51. My mom worked all the time to pay the bills, leaving me to take care of my sisters, and eventually the animals, so I rarely saw her either. I didn’t begin learning English until we moved to Delaware. We were constantly afraid of losing the house and we struggled a lot financially and in other ways. I had no community in Delaware with which to seek refuge even though we did have relatives from Panamá visit us and stay with us on occasion in later years there. Eventually, I had to find my own way of understanding what it meant to me to be from Panamá.

GC: In the “Snake Vision” section of your forthcoming Bridge of the World (Litmus, 2017), you indicate your initial professional/academic background was in mathematics and computers.  Without asking you to reiterate the content of “Snake Vision,” I’d like to ask, how did you make the transition from math to poetry?

RH: When I was in graduate school for math, I had some friends who turned me on to certain books, in particular the Beats and their forebears (especially Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and William S. Burroughs—through them I learned of Artaud and Rimbaud), also Cendrars, Huysmans, Céline, Genet, and others. I drew obsessively when I was a child and soon it became clear to me that I wanted to make a switch to writing and back to the visual arts. I took a year off from grad school and followed my new writer heroes and traveled for most of the year with little cash, living in my $500 Dodge Duster when necessary and sometimes in my tent.

When I returned, after some difficulties, I dropped out of graduate school and eventually found myself providing basic computer support for PC users in a university computer lab, which was a fairly low paying job back when that kind of thing was just getting started. But I did like Abstract Algebra and also was moved by something my Topology professor Paul Halmos told me, that being a Mathematician was akin to being an artist.

GC: How did you get from there to contemporary poetry?

RH: As a computer lab attendant, I was often stationed in the library at Indiana University. They had a great collection of poetry largely due to poet Barry Alpert. Alpert edited the great poetry magazine Vort, copies of which I found in bookstores in town. I read through much of the poetry collection at IU and found people like Clark Coolidge, Hannah Weiner, and Jackson Mac Low. I remember thinking that these writers made English sound the way I first heard it as a Spanish speaker when I first arrived to the U.S. That was important to me because up until that point, I felt largely inhibited from seriously considering becoming a writer because English wasn’t my first language and because the only English class I’d taken in college was my freshman composition class. I also remember finding writers like Peter Blue Cloud, Leslie Marmon Silko, Octavio Paz, Thomas McGrath, Amiri Baraka, Pablo Neruda, Lorenzo Thomas, Vicente Huidobro, Jayne Cortez, Lamantia, Simon Ortiz, Robert Duncan, Louis Zukofsky, Federico García Lorca, and the Surrealists in the IU library.

Somehow I eventually decided that the problems I needed to work out in my art might be best addressed in language, but I continued with my interests in visual arts following artists like Hans Hoffman and the Abstract Expressionists, Arshille Gorky, Joan Miró, Philip Guston, Frank Auerbach, Egon Schiele, Arthur Dove, Cy Twombly, Fritz Scholder, Basquiat, Paul Klee, Frida Kahlo, and others. I did, somewhere early in these years revolving around Bloomington, move to San Francisco to try to make it as a painter.

GC: How long did you live in San Francisco?

RH: I was there for about a year and a half, at first making my living making muffins in a coffee house and painting houses. I then became a frequent visitor of the Hospital House in the Tenderloin for a while, where I found support for my visual art efforts. I wasn’t able to stay in San Francisco as I wanted to and so returned to Bloomington. A friend of mine throughout much of my stay in Bloomington, Matt Pass, had an enormous collection of music. I have listened to a lot of music through Matt. And soon I got to know Yusef Komunyakaa, who turned me on to many writers and artists over a number of years, including Victor Hernández Cruz, Hart Crane, Bob Kaufman, Romare Bearden, the Harlem Renaissance, and lots of music, especially Jazz. He was my first poetry friend, and he had a huge impact on me, though we disagreed from the start on certain notions, especially my belief in the value and truth of acausality.

It was through Yusef that I met Etheridge Knight several times. I was at Etheridge’s final reading with what seemed like thousands of people. So I found myself in what now seems like this great vortex of energy that got me started, all basically by accident and luck, though I didn’t feel particularly lucky. I was just trying to make sense of my very difficult life the best I could.

GC: How did you end up in Milwaukee?

RH: After seven years around Bloomington, I moved to Milwaukee (I followed a former girlfriend who went to UW-Milwaukee to go to graduate school), where I ended up living a half a block away from Woodland Pattern. That turned out to be perfect for me. I lived less than a mile from Woodland Pattern for about 20 years. There I met the poet Jesse Glass who turned me on to Lautréamont, Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, and many others. I also came into contact with Karl Young, one of the founders of Woodland Pattern. He opened things up even further for me. I found many of the language poets’ works at Woodland Pattern too. They were also a strong influence. Eventually I came to César Vallejo and José Lezama Lima through Woodland Pattern and they became among my most important influences. With Jesse Glass’ encouragement, I started my first literary magazine, Croton Bug, where I published everyone from Juan Felipe Herrera, Kimberly Lyons, Eileen Myles, and Antler to Weiner, Coolidge, Edgar Heap of Birds, and Mac Low, to composer and writer Franz Kamin and many others.

Franz Kamin was important to me early on. He was attentive to my writing and editing and made me realize that you could have a background in Math and still be serious about trying to make art, which is something I agonized about for a long time since I never took any literature, writing, or art making classes besides my freshman composition class (much later, after 20 years of writing and study, I did take a Survey of Modernism class with Lisa Samuels when I went back to school to get my Masters in Library Science. Though I could never talk about writing or art somehow. That was impossible for me. I did ok in the class only because of Lisa’s kindness). I remember Franz’s wild Topology improvisations, which now seem to have been strongly related to, if not a precursor of, Catherine Christer Hennix’s Higher Intuitive Mathematics. I had edited a little magazine with a friend in Bloomington before with Yusef’s encouragement, but Croton Bug was broader in scope and it was my own project. In publishing Hannah Weiner she and I became friends. We used to talk on the phone. She put me in contact with Andrew Levy, who was then living in Chicago, and with his friendship I broadened my range of attention even more.

GC: Following your book bicycle (2015), you’ve embarked on an ambitious serious of projects. You’ve had a recent book from Chicago press Green Lantern called culebra and you have two upcoming volumes, Bridge of the World and Yaviza, each of which is over 200 pages. Can you tell us a little something about each of these projects?

RH: bicycle is my yogic machine book of poems. As I see it, the symbol of the bicycle joins the hemispheres through the isthmus of Panamá. It also joins the Oceans through the Sea. And it is an endlessly proliferating symbol of resistance against the extermination of harmonies and fruitful dissonances. And Panamá is shaped like a snake, a supremely yogic animal, hence culebra. And Panamá is the Bridge of the World, as I conceive of it. It is the homeland of the liminal. And Yaviza is the endpoint of empire, the last stop before the jungle and a Tropical Lung, the book of writing and drawing that I am currently working on.

GC: It’s clear that you’re a visionary poet in the way Rimbaud, Artaud, or Will Alexander might be described as such. On the one hand, you’re a spiritual-philosophical monist, positing the unity of all things, as in José Lezama Lima’s epigraph to Bridge of the World (“poetry will unify everything”). Yet you also experience the proliferation of meanings behind meanings, as you record in that book’s “Snake Vision” (“EVERYTHING was hyper-meaningful”). Is there a tension between these facets of your work?

RH: It’s humbling, but thank you for associating me with those writers. I am a spiritual/philosophical monist maybe in so far as the qubit is more monist than a bit. I also feel that the European invasion was insanely binary and conflict oriented and I try to oppose that kind of limited framework, especially in myself. I do strive for integration in some ways, but rarely make it there for more than a flash. And sometimes I need to pursue the many. For understanding? Clarification? Dissolvement? To boil everything down to the elements before proceeding to go lighter in wandering toward the wilderness, which I reconstitute in my interior of the outside?

I sometimes pursue a Saloma aesthetic moving energetically back and forth between unitary and chemically communicating faces (internal and external) engaging each other with symbolic philosophies and finally coming to rest in the most fundamental encounter. At the same time I wonder how much was, is, and will be related to the face. I listen to the red and black sound, which causes me in some remote way to rest in every Intermediate Area through the Mississippi Era and the Middle Woodland period here and now. In other words, I form from Mabila with cyber link seeds of Mobilian Jargon and sprout a vast network of isthmuses for the one and for others. I don’t think the hyper-meaningfulness that I have experienced necessarily contradicts the existence of a Higher Unity, it seems to generally but not always add dimension to it. But I have very little certainty and no one way. I do think we’re mutating around computer technology. Part of the key for me is not to see the world of outlines as the end.

Originally Published: May 30th, 2017

Garrett Caples is the author of The Garrett Caples Reader (1999), Complications (2007), Quintessence of the Minor: Symbolist Poetry in English (2010), Retrievals (2014), and Power Ballads (2016). He is an editor at City Lights Books, where he curates the Spotlight poetry series. Caples was also a contributing writer to theSan Francisco Bay Guardian and has coedited the Collected Poems of Philip...