Summer 2002 vol 2.1
An Interview with Victor Hernández Cruz
VICTOR HERNANDEZ CRUZ is a poet of international renown whose work has been translated into Dutch, German, Greek, Italian, Tagala, and Czech. Included here are new poems, one inspired by travels to Morocco and two other lyrics rooted in his native Caribbean world. Throughout a long career, his poetry has displayed a rich convergence of the spirit of cultures—Moorish, Spanish, Indian, English—full of rhythm, color and local voices. In the essay “Mountains in the North: Hispanic Writing in the U.S.A.," Cruz writes that “the earth is migration, everything is moving, changing, interchanging, appearing, disappearing. National languages melt, sail into each other.” Critics speak of his work in terms of “migratory poetics” and “pluralingualism,” what he himself has called “linguistic stereo,” a style that reminds us of jazz improvisation, one whose appeal is solidly oracular and demotic.

    Born in Aguas Buenas, Puerto Rico, Mr. Cruz moved to New York City with his family at the age of six. In 1966, while living on Manhattan's Lower East Side, he published his first book of poetry, Papo Got His Gun, on an appropriated mimeograph machine under the Calle Once (Eleventh Street) imprint. Random House published Snaps, his second collection, in 1969, establishing his national reputation. In the 1970s, Cruz emerged as the leading voice of what has been called the Nuyorican School of émigré poets. Collections from that period include Mainland (Random House, 1973) and Tropicalization (Reed, Canon & Johnson, 1976). In 1971 Cruz visited his home island of Puerto Rico and in reconnecting with this aspect of his identity, wrote the book By Lingual Wholes (Mamos Press, 1982), a poetic study of bi-lingualism that demonstrated his talent as an insightful critic. In 1991, his book Red Beans (Coffee House Press) received the Winner of the Publishers Weekly "Ten Best Books of the Year" Award. A recipient of a NEA and a Latin American Guggenheim Fellowship, Cruz was also featured in an interview with Bill Moyers on the PBS series Language of Life. Coffee House Press published Panoramas, his book of poems, essays and stories, in 1997. His most recent collection Maraca, New and Selected Poems, 1966-2000, also from Coffee House Press, appeared in 2001. Now in mid-career, he continues to surprise and inspire.

A Conversation with

Victor Hernández Cruz

(April 2002)

Heightened security procedures required Victor to be at the airport an hour early, and his return flight to San Juan was at six in the morning. At closing time with only a few hours till check-in, we suggested an after-hours club in southside or coffee at Tony's, but Victor had in mind a more civilized time of departure. He retired to his room and called Delta. So he wound up staying in town from Wednesday through Sunday. On Sunday morning over home fries and omelets, we decided to do what we hadn't gotten around to in four days, talk into a recorder about his life and work since he'd left the States twelve years ago and returned to his hometown in Puerto Rico. We had covered this ground already and much more in casual conversations, and he'd talked to a few classes and had given a craft lecture, as well as a reading. He'd already spoken at length about much of what we wanted to pursue on tape. It was a tranquil spring Sunday morning awash with the feeling that the work had been done, and we didn't want to pressure him into repetition. He'd been "on” for days and now he relaxed with coffee, anticipating an unhurried southern Sunday of rest. As we sat with our food, we felt more like chatting than talking seriously about his work.

turnrow:   Does it feel good to be off the mainland and in the tropics, to be living in Puerto Rico and speaking Spanish?

VHC: It’s a state of limbo, and I find that to be very challenging, so it's good to be there and to be speaking Spanish. You know, when the Americans first came in about 1898 to 1910, there was an attempt to change the educational system to all English. Throughout the island that kind of collapsed, and there was no longer an effort to make Puerto Ricans English language speakers. A lot of people who had gone up north to the States, when they retired, or made some money, or couldn’t really figure out the United States, or they couldn’t deal with the discrimination, or the housing was bad where they lived—for one reason or the other, they returned to Puerto Rico. And those people know how to speak English. And you have people who learn English in the Puerto Rican schools. They know the grammar of English and maybe can read or even write, but they can’t speak it as such. There are different levels of bilingualism, so you couldn’t say uniformly that the country’s a bilingual country.

    I’m an English language writer basically who also writes in Spanish more and more. When I analyze my situation, I describe myself as a North American poet who lives in a United States territory, which is a Latin American country, where they speak primarily in Spanish. I speak Spanish with an accent and I speak English with an accent. It's limbo.

turnrow: In one of our recent conversations you said, "I’m writing in Spanish now," and it made me wonder about the nuance of that statement. Is it a political decision in any way, or do you feel any pressure to write in Spanish?

VHC: Well, the choice of language is a political question in Puerto Rico, a social and cultural question—what type of culture you are encouraging. Are you encouraging a North Americanization of the Island? Do you want to maintain the flavor of Spanish, Caribbean culture?

turnrow:   So have you taken a position on this issue?

VHC: I think the Puerto Ricans should reinforce their Spanish. I think they should reinforce their Latin American roots, reinforce their Caribbean-ness and understand their position among the islands around them, and not just think in terms of the States or New York City. They should think in terms of the Antilles and Latin America.

    In Puerto Rico there are these Hispanofiles who are totally against the inclusion of Puerto Rican émigré writers from the States, especially those who write in English. You’ll find those phobias among some people, among some of the intelligentsia and some of the writers. But more and more, overall, I think it's accepted that first you are a Puerto Rican person—and can produce your work in Spanish or English. I've become somewhat of an oddball, being on the island for twelve years now. The island writers want us to write in Spanish, and the Puerto Rican writers who are in the States want us to write in English, then I am a Puerto Rican writer who lives on the island and who writes in both, who is bilingual. That’s my situation—it’s like a new territory in between. As a poet in the States, English is what is available—this is your language, and so the question might never even come up. One might not think there is a choice, really—one might not think there is a decision involved, to write in one language or the other or to consider how it's perceived politically. It's a matter of communicating and surviving within the culture where you live. Exile and political upheaval have intervened with the lives of great writers and confronted them with the reality that they might have to express themselves in a language other than their mother tongue. Nabokov, Conrad, etc. The poetic voice is difficult to translate or even impossible, so your poems will be better in the language you developed poetically. Prose you could probably write at the same level in both languages. I am a writer with a Caribbean Spanish linguistic soul that uses the English language, appropriates the English and submits it to my flavors and my longings.

turnrow: Do you feel that it has been a productive place, the landscape where you were born? Has being back there had a noticeable effect on your creative process?

VHC: I think that in being a writer you’re always curious of roots and origins, and of family, of histories of people. I definitely felt I had to fill in some kind of gap, that I wanted to see the people who knew my mother and father, who knew my grandparents. I recognize the fragrance of something, but I don’t know the word. What was that fruit? What was that insect and what’s its name? I could recognize what it is to live on the island but I didn’t know its name.

    I think it’s important as a writer to be able to understand the past. To go back there was in a sense to go back to the past, looking for certain kinds of information. I’ve been both impressed and disappointed. Something I thought was there wasn’t there to the extent I claimed it to be there. So I learn things every day just by looking at people and feeling the past, which seems to linger more in the Caribbean. There are still a few little wooden houses in myneighborhood like the one where I was born. You get little patches of the thirties and forties, and horses still parade through the town. You see campesinos driving a couple of oxen with bamboo sticks and you get this flash of some kind of a straw hat, and all of a sudden a Mercedes Benz will come along the same street, and some guy is speaking on a cellular phone. I needed to see that. To understand those contrasts. I think these new poems are going back and feeling a place. Describing a place and not just the oral voice of the telling. I’m a writer of constant geographic changes, going back and forth like a pendulum between place of origin and place where I grew up and trying to make a language out of it.

turnrow: You've lived in the Lower East Side, the Bay Area, and travel repeatedly to Morocco, and now you're living in Puerto Rico. Of the places you’ve lived, where is the sense of community strongest, in terms of neighborhood and the support of the people?

VHC: I would say now in Puerto Rico. Working in New York was very fleeting. People kept moving, disappearing one way or the other, because of different intensities. There I didn’t feel the kind of stability I feel now. Of course, the place I lived in New York has been changed totally, gentrified, I mean, physically changed. The place I grew up is no longer there. The people I grew up with are no longer there, whereas in the small town of Aguas Buenas people remember me as a child. It has a constant. This sense of community—it's not always made up of what I agree with, in its daily content. Some of it I can’t relate to very well, but nonetheless it’s a place where I can say, well, this is home. Even if I move from here, I can always come back and recognize it as such. I don’t think that would disappear.

turnrow: You moved to Berkeley [California] in 1968. In retrospect how do you see yourself back then? Where did you position yourself in all that political upheaval of the time, as a Latino, and as a man?

VHC: In Berkeley I met people who were important to me—Herbert Kohl, who I actually met in New York—he is an educator. He was working with a man who was famous for developing happenings—Allan Kaprow. Happenings were like outdoor art installations or events where there’s public participation. I met Ishmael Reed, the African-American novelist, who encouraged me and wrote about my early work. In California I was able to see New York from a distance, from a bird’s eye view. I usually write about places after I've left them.

    Of course, it was the epoch of the Vietnam War. I was definitely eligible for that war. I refused to go. I wrote a poem when I went to the induction center. I wrote a poem on something they gave me to fill out and I refused to sign the Loyalty Oath to the United States, because of my situation as a Puerto Rican. They sent me to see a psychiatrist right then and there. The psychiatrist asked me if I ever tried to kill myself. I said, yes, every day I go to the roof and think of jumping. I had already been part of the peace movement and had joined some of the demonstrations. I felt that that war was wrong, like many Americans at the time. In Berkeley, students were getting beat up. I remember getting chased by the Redwood City Police Gestapo. Seeing all that turmoil in the street—tear gas, heads bleeding—was an eye opening experience. The violence in Chicago, in parts of New York, the riots in the cities…. America was in turmoil. I kept studying and writing throughout that period, making contact with poets on the West Coast, making contact with the Chicano element and finding out new ways of speaking Spanish, a new kind of Latino-U.S. experience.

turnrow:   Having studied both for so long, do you think there are any fundamental aesthetic differences between Latino poetry and the poetry of the Anglo world in North America?

VHC: I would hope there is some difference. I’m pretty sure there is. If I say I’m a human being, I’m not telling you anything. I’m just saying I’m one person out of a billion. The cadences, the rhythmic expression of being alive, living in the Caribbean…. I've tried to incorporate that spirit into English language poetry as an American writer.

turnrow: I'll press you on this. What constitutes that spirit? What can you point to?

VHC: It’s the mixture; it’s the fusion of races. It’s not racially pure, my situation. It’s a combination of African, of the Indian, of the Spanish, whatever those implications might mean. It means I am a Mediterranean person living in the Caribbean, surrounded by water…. It means that I have African rhythms. It means that I have some indigenous blood. And it means that I am none of those things but I am a combination of those things, a hybrid. I felt at home in southern Spain, and I felt at home in the Mediterranean and in northern Africa…. At times I felt at home in California and in New York. But the fundamental difference lies in the fact that we are Spanish language thinkers. We’ re thinking in Spanish rather than in Anglo-Saxon language. I have felt in the Spanish language an intense relationship with texture and color, an intense sensual, sexual, double-entendre. In Spain, cultivated writers utilize the popular sayings of peoples, what might be known as proverbs or refrains, as if the culture always comes from the bottom up, rather than the top down. I think also in Latino and Mediterranean cultures there's a sense of outdoorness, that sense of Caribbean outdoorness, being in contact with people walking the streets….

turnrow: My friend, the poet Carlos Rodríguez used to say—he didn’t come to the states until he was sixteen—he grew up in Santo Domingo—he would say the hardest part of New York for him is the housing. He said in the Dominican Republic their houses were small, they didn’t have air conditioning, the yard was part of the house, and they lived more outside than they did inside. Because of that they would see everybody every day passing by and talk and walk the street. I think there have been some pretty successful efforts to replicate that in the streets of Latino New York by hanging on the stoops and making small parks and churchyards into plazas, but he was talking about the essential difference of living a good deal of your life outdoors, largely the social part of life.

VHC: I think that’s a part of the difference. There’s definitely more outdoors in the Caribbean. Being a loner and a recluse, and being in your house, it’s not exactly something that’s very Caribbean, or very Latino, and I could say that’s an important part of the worldview of the Latino writer. I feel that I’m within the context of a public situation. I don’t feel a strong individuality. The carnal is outdoors, is participatory. It's like a Carnival. I feel that my writing is strongest when it's participatory and not the ramblings of a strong individuality. My writing is also an exploration of history and the encounters of cultures. Perhaps within that search we also arrive at strong individuality that’s separate from all that movement of people. The people are more tactile. It is like this in Morocco where even men friends walk down the street holding hands—you know, they hug, something that politicians don’t do—people touch, hug, kiss, dance... But we're talking about the difference between the Anglo writer--whatever that might be--and the Latino writer--whatever that might be. We all represent out communities but also psychological states, and in some of those instances we participate in the same difference. Or indifference. That's an interesting question. I don't thin, I've ever been asked that question. I don't think I have the capacity to answer.

turnrow: But I think you're rightly pointing to language, to the essential differences between the English and Spanish languages.

VHC: My mother would always say to me something in Spanish that translates to “Look at what I’m going to say to you.” As if something she would say to me is something I could look at. It says something about the Spanish language. I’ve felt colors and textures stronger in Spanish. And I find the Spanish-language poets that I read are more powerful—Ramón Jiménez, Lorca…. Though, I mean, Chaucer has a great sense of color, a very sensual sense of the texture of thing....

turnrow: There seems to be a different attitude toward the poet—more of a respect, I guess—in Spanish-speaking communities than there is in the North American white community. Is that true, or is this an assumption that I'm wrong about?

VHC: Well, I’d say the Irish respect the tradition of the bard. The Irish recite poetry in the pubs. There are readings constantly in every city in the States, and now there are these cowboy poets in the West who gather to recite their poetry. I think there’s stronger emphasis in the power of the word in some cultures, though I would say that in all cultures there has to be poetry at center of the world—that is, poetry had to move from singing recitation through dance to arrive at print. I would also say that in the States people don’t understand the function of the poet—that’s been lost, and it’s lost more and more in the kind of culture we’re developing here in the States. We’ve forgotten that poetry was at the center of public and religious ceremony. The fact is that poets are utilized more in countries like Spain and in Latin America. In the States we're confusing artists with entertainers.

turnrow: Is it poetry at the center of rap and hip-hop?

VHC: Rap is a form of poetry, but then it gets down to whether or not you like the content or not. You might like the rapping but not like what’s being rapped. And that happens to me much of the time. I like the form but I don’t like what’s contained within the form. I don’t think rap singers have any unique kind of skill or gift. If you can talk, you can rap. You get some guitars going to create rhythms behind it, and I’m sure the Pope could rap. I've heard Chinese and Japanese rap, copying the rap here in the black communities and possibly invoking imagery and circumstances that they haven’t lived. Rap and hip-hop cultures were African American and Puerto Rican in the beginning.

turnrow: I guess you could trace it back—in the black community, anyway—to what they called toasts, street-corner narratives in rhymed couplets.

VHC: And it seems related to the dozens [a competitive oral bragging and put-down game common in the urban northeast].

turnrow: The Delta Blues version is called cutting heads, a competitive exchange between two musicians.

VHC: In Puerto Rican society it's called la Controversia. You know, anything you sing, I will create its counter. Two singers get together with guitars and put each other down and cut each other up. It goes on till one person gives up.

turnrow: You mentioned in your lecture that everyone should read On the Road. I think you put Catcher in the Rye in that sentence as well. Why these books?

VHC: Well, because they are books that loosen up American language, create a different kind of exchange with the common reader, the person on the outside looking in. This young man in Catcher in the Rye making fun of mainstream society—you get the sense that the society is molesting him with their norms and customs of their generation—and Kerouac's great sense of language as action, language that doesn't stay in one place. Reading it is like watching a cartoon. On the Road moves electrically. America itself moves quickly and informally. If you want to understand America, you should read Catcher in the Rye and On the Road just as you would read Whitman—and Huckleberry Finn—just as you must listen to jazz. Americans improvise more than any other people in the world.

turnrow: You seemed to talk about [William Carlos] Williams with a particular affection.

VHC: I’m trying to get off of that affection for Williams. My affection for him has diminished somewhat. I mention him because a lot of Americans don’t know that Williams was part Puerto Rican. But I don’t want to make Williams into a Puerto Rican, and Williams of course never declared himself such, but there’s a struggle with that issue in many of his poems. He did go to Mexico. He describes it in an interesting Latino undertone. He goes to a cantina, hearing music and dealing with how he sees himself, a persona with the name Carlos who has a Latina mother.

turnrow: Do you like the poetry of Derek Walcott [of St. Lucia, a Caribbean island]?

VHC: I do like Walcott but I like Kamau Brathwaite [Ancestors, New Directions] more, the poet from Barbados. I think he is the great Caribbean poet of the English language. It is Brathwaite who should have gotten the Nobel.

turnrow: Your work, for all its seriousness and occasional mournfulness and willingness to take on issues of racism and cultural identity, strikes me as being positive and affirmative. You make the best of situations with your poems. I remember an interview with Márquez years ago. The interviewer asked him about his friendship with Fidel Castro. I think part of the strategy of his answer was a slip away and play the trickster and avoid any direct response about his political discussions with Castro, but Márquez said that when he got together with Fidel, they talked only about fish recipes. Neruda, too, was an epicure. In his interviews he talked about food. When people came to his house on Isla Negra, he would cook sumptuous meals for them, lots of fresh seafood and wine. Especially because of the way you were talking about the resonance of color and texture in the Spanish language, I was thinking that in Márquez's work, and certainly in Neruda's work, and in your own work, there's what could be understood as a kind of sensualist position. I wonder how much that position fights or ameliorates the dark side of your creative imagination. One can think of it almost as a replacement for religion in some ways. This sensualist attitude toward the world is life affirming. If you’re a soul taken with music and beauty and textures and colors and good food and wine, and if you're in a kind of sensual love with the world, you might be less likely to commit suicide, to use an extreme example for the sake of illustrating my point. Whereas maybe the rigorous ascetic position that accompanies certain fundamentalist religions could be understood in this context as the repudiation of life, not at all a celebratory attitude.

VHC: Jorge Luis Borges’s writing comes to mind, and his position on Lorca, his assertion that Lorca was a folklorist. Borges thought Lorca’s concentration on flamenco and the Gypsy lore and Arabic elements was a cliché, something too folkloric-y, even silly. Something colorful and thus not profound. But for me it was his way to express the sensual roots of Spanish reality. I disagree with Borges on Lorca. I need Lorca—just the great sense of eye, you know, that great sense of penetration that Picasso used to talk about, seeing with things and through things and appreciating their form and color. That’s very Andalusian, and maybe very Gypsy and Arabic too. That whole confluence comes to a point there in that culture that he writes about. Lorca captured the profundity of the Spanish condition, its sexuality, its mixture of peoples.

turnrow:   I wonder how much the practice through writing of a sensual involvement with the world functions as a kind of worshipful creative process that works light into the dark and comes up with a fundamentally affirmative position.

VHC: I don't know. Maybe more so in my own work lately. I know something is going on in Seeds [biographical poems of a kind], the poems of the last section of Maraca [Cruz's latest book] that was not happening in my work before. They are different. A certain amount of research goes into writing them. I have to look up data, historical information. They are inspired by particular people. That form of writing is becoming more important to me. I seem to experience the poems through the emotion of things in the Caribbean culture, one of many rhythms, one of many flavors, one of many vistas, one of many manifestations of beauty, the fusion—I feel overwhelmed by it all and I feel that I must write about it. The dance, music, and the cuisine constantly show up in these poems. I react to the world from this Caribbean posture. My life is also a life of contemplation, a life of study, and some of those poems in Seeds are based on this manner of contemplation. The poems are not jolts but require planning.

    Neruda, of course, a sensualist, sure, but I sometimes have my doubts about my relationship to Neruda's work. He’s one of the first poets I read in English translation. Over the years I have changed my position on him. I find him to be a weaker poet than, say, César Vallejo. Now Vallejo is more necessary to me. If you read, for example, Cien Sonetos De Amor, Neruda's beautiful love song poems. But sometimes they’re too beautiful. Whereas if you read the love poems of Vallejo, Guillén, Salinas, it’s a different, sensual, inventive…. Neruda's love poems are Romantic and airy, even though they are beautiful poems, and, you would have to say, affirmative. Vallejo is not so affirmative—it is rather like a presentation of a world and what it is doing to us—it has pain and doubt and yet remarkable beauty about the position of our mestizo soul with the complexity of reality.

turnrow:   I always thought I was missing something in [Rubén] Darío, who wrote poetry full of sensual detail. I read him because I knew I was supposed to read him, a primary figure of Modernismo, but his work seems so ornate, full of a fabricated preciousness that, for me, never seemed authentic. Maybe it was the translation, but I just never got Darío. I moved right to [Vicente] Huidobro instead, and he took me right in.

VHC: Darío was an immensely talented man, but his writing did some kind of pretending that you mention, or wanting to achieve the ideal poem, trying to fit his great energy into some preconceived idea of the ideal poem. So I sometimes wish there were more Nicaraguan stuff in there. Yet it's quiet interesting work, dense. He imagined himself out of the cacao huts and into a Europe that really didn’t exist. But he really wasn’t the first figure of Modernismo. It comes up from Jose Martí, the great turn-of-the-century Cuban poet and journalist, and others, from the 1860s.

turnrow:   Is there any one poet you can point to who taught you the most about composition?

VHC: I’d say, maybe, Salinas, Juan Ramón Jiménez, especially his essays. Jiménez has a great sense of image and he is very clean and even relaxed. Lorca wrote in traditional Spanish meters, except, interestingly, when he took that trip to New York and his poetry opened up. In America I see that clean relaxed tone in Robert Creeley, so he has been of great use and also his critical commentary. I read a lot of LeRoi Jones before he changed his name and still consider The Dead Lecturer to be one of the great books of American poetry. From the fifties poets I was first impressed by the beats but now I tend to appreciate the Black Mountain poets. Ed Dorn was one of those poets and he was an influence and a good friend till the end of his life.

turnrow: What do you think of the scholarship written on your work?

VHC: There’s a Brazilian guy in Italy who wrote a thesis based on my work and sent it to me. He’s fascinated with Ginsberg and all the Beat stuff. I told him thank you, you know. But I didn’t like it much because it’s full of cliché. And there’s another guy, Francisco Cabanillas, who has done critical stuff about my work, a professor who’s writing some kind of book. Cabanillas comes closer to understanding what I'm doing, puts me in perspective with the literature of the island of Puerto Rico. But there are some things that I am about that critics tend to ignore.

turnrow:   What are they missing?

VHC: For one example, no one has asked me about my influences from Islamic culture. I read the Islamic-Arabic philosophers, thinkers, poets.... About the fact that I lived in Morocco for a period of time and the effect that would have on my writing, the connections with Islam that I’ve seen in Spain. No critic has ever written about that.

turnrow:   What are the main points that Cabanillas is making?

VHC: Well Cabanillas understands Puerto Rico—he is from Puerto Rico. He understands the literature, the society, the political mood. Cabanillas understands my relationship to music, to Caribbean rhythms, to jazz, to Latin Jazz. My grandfather was a Socialist, not because he read Marx but because it was a popular thing to do at the time. The tobacconist workers were rebellious and Socialists and made fun of the aristocracy, and they made fun of the priests and the Church. It was part of their nature to be anarchistic. Cabanillas mentions that connection to that kind of social phenomena, and the pendulum of migration, so maybe he is beginning to understand my sense, my aesthetic experience, my experience of reality—it's a sort of a Cubist experience, a fragmentation putting things out of context—our Caribbean reality is all out of context—it's all there—but the thing is, portions of it are in New York, or in New Orleans. Culture and geography and language become a Cubist painting.