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Volume 3 | Issue 2 | January 2009 | 

poetry must reveal something that is hidden
Interview with Celia Lisset Alvarez
By : Farideh Hassanzadeh-Mostafavi


Celia Lisset Alvarez is a Cuban-American poet from Miami, Florida. Her debut collection of poetry, Shapeshifting (Spire Press, 2006), was the recipient of the 2005 Spire Press Poetry Award. A second collection, The Stones (Finishing Line Press, 2006) followed that same year. Poems from these collections are also in the anthologies White Ink: Poems on Mothers and Motherhood (Demeter Press, 2007) and Letters to the World (Red Hen Press, 2008). Other stories and poems have appeared in the Iodine Poetry Journal, the Powhatan Review, Tar Wolf Review, Alba, Poui: The Cave Hill Literary Annual, zingmagazine, and Mangrove, and in the anthology Women Moving Forward: Narratives of Identity, Migration, Resilience, and Hope, Vol. 1. (Cambridge Scholars Press, 2006). She holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Miami and teaches at St. Thomas University.

-There is a theory that says that all writers even the male, write with a feminine soul. After all, the Muses were goddesses and not gods. ".What do you think about this theory?

I am always wary of making distinctions between men and women as groups. I feel it’s safe to say, however, that many women have been socialized to think more of others than of themselves, and that this awareness breeds an empathy that leads to the creation of poetry. In many cultures, as well, women lead more isolated lives: they stay at home more than men do, they often have only the company of small children for long periods of time. They also engage in repetitive yet natural tasks like cooking or gardening that breed an interiority that also leads to poetry. I would not call empathy or interiority exclusively feminine qualities, however.

-“I feel that if real poetry were written ,the pen would break into half, for it would not possibly tolerate the madness , the originality. The genuine poem .” Do you agree?

I like the notion of the power of poetry, but I also hesitate to embrace madness as poetic. I think we often glamorize the idea of the mad artist, but I would hate to think that only those artists who have cut off an ear like Van Gogh or committed suicide like Plath have written genuine poetry. Poetry has a powerful emotional impact that defies what we normally think of as sanity, but it is also a meticulous science. One of my favorite poems is Billy Collins’s “Advice to Writers,” in which he urges the writer to “wash down the walls and scrub the floor / of your study before composing a syllable.” Poetry can be a way of establishing order where none exists, which is also powerful.

-Marilyn Krysl says:
"Globalization really means that rich countries exploit poor countries ". What is your interpretation ?

I find this statement frank and true. I hate to see what is happening in the Caribbean in particular, because that is my family’s home. There, the main exploitative industry is tourism. There are always two islands in the Caribbean: the one where the tourists play, and the one where the natives live. They are always night and day, and the dichotomy is disgusting. In Cuba, young people sell their bodies for dollars, for the opportunity to follow a European tourist out of the island. They starve for food and basic necessities while having to watch—and serve—the tourists who drink, eat, and shop gluttonously. This is the same all over the world, and not just in tourist areas, but when it comes to cheap labor and degrading working conditions that keep our first-world discount stores in business. I don’t feel there is such a thing as globalization. What we are witnessing is exploitation on a global scale.

-The noise around the lives of Sylvia Plot and Ted Hughes has resulted in them being more popular than Walt Whitman, Ann Dickenson, and Carl Sandberg. This is even more so in America, and in England. Who is stirring this fire up? I never would have thought that in a journal book of a poet you could ever find her picture in a two piece bikini suite! What is your idea?

I think that sometimes we confuse the poetry with the poet, which is not to say that Plath is undeserving of the attention she receives; I consider her work to be worthy of it and more. What I am saying is that there are certain personas that appeal to us when we think of poets: the tortured woman, the passionate rebel. Plaths and Ginsbergs. When some people say they want to be poets, I often wonder whether all they want is to wear black turtlenecks and wallow in adolescent angst. I suppose there is something romantic about that stance, but also something immature and not very realistic. In America we are also a very celebrity-oriented culture. We have an almost morbid fascination with voyeurism, and, when we fixate on someone—like Plath—no detail is too mundane or insignificant when it comes to sating our thirst. We live largely by proxy, and do our screaming and writing through others. That being said, however, there is something very powerful about Plath’s poetry, and, because it is confessional, some curiosity about where it came from is only normal. In the end, I’m glad that any poets are getting attention; it’s a welcome break from hearing about the lives of actors and politicians!

-Proust says : if I did not have poetry, great literature, music to listen to, I would not have survive my sorrows. ".Let me know please what did you lose without poetry /

I love that quotation. When we lost power here in Miami after hurricane Wilma two years ago, my husband and I passed some of the time away by answering some magazine questions that were meant to be conversation starters. One of the questions asked us to list the top five things we could not live without. Beauty was in my top five. I don’t think I could live in a world without beauty, even something as small as flowers in a vase or a clean tablecloth. Poetry is innately about finding the beauty in the world. Even poems that catalogue the world’s ugliness do so in some part to bemoan the travesty of lost beauty. Without poetry, I might not ever have seen the beauty of the world.

- Poetry can do a hundred and one things ,delight ,sadden , disturb , amuse , instruct – it may express every possible shade of emotion , and describe every conceivable kind of event , but there is only one thing that all poetry must do ; it must ………………….
This is W.H. Auden’s statement in “ Making , knowing , and Judging . “ Please let me know poetry must do WHAT ?

Reveal something. I suppose that’s a pretty broad answer, but it’s the only one that makes sense to me. To reveal something that is hidden. Beauty in ugliness; depth in the mundane; sorrow within happiness; fear within faith. The poem must make me see something, some truth, I would not have been able to see on my own.

-Let’s admit that finding solitude for a man to stay home and write is as natural, as for a woman to peel onion in the kitchen. Even in societies where equality is not the slogan among men and women, she feels uneasy with the circumstances when she sits behind a desk to write, she feels unusual, as if she has betrayed others. Her conscious suffers from the guilt that she might have robbed others’ rights.
If you do not agree with this statement, then, would you please express what is the difference between Women’s Literature, and Men’s Literature?

I do agree with that statement, actually, although I would not feel comfortable attempting to describe differences between men’s and women’s literature outside of a sociohistorical context. I think that men’s literature, because most of the world has been and continues to be patriarchal, is much more extroverted: man against nature, against society, against himself or his gods. Women’s literature is often the opposite, about the writer’s or protagonist’s struggle to find a place in the world that will validate her humanity. It is an interesting dichotomy, but not a natural one, I think. I would say there are more similarities between men’s and women’s literature than there are differences.

- The Turkish poet Enis Batur writes: “If ‘Death’ didn’t exist, Mankind would never write poetry. He would never need it.” The Iranian poet Soufi writes: “Everyone fears death: Poets fear it more.” How do you interpret this? To what extent do you agree with it?

These two statements are most likely true. Even poetry that seems celebratory—I’m thinking of the Song of Solomon—has a hint in it of mourning for what has not yet been lost but inevitably will be. Maybe that’s just my own darkness, however, seeing what is not there. Certainly much poetry deals with death’s presence. That’s undeniable. For me, a poem can be a way of pinning down a moment that is evanescent. Poets are lovers of life, I think, and the more you love this world, the more you fear its end. Or maybe it’s biochemical! Maybe all poets do have a hint of madness, after all, a tiny imbalance in their serotonin levels that makes them always see the darkness, even in the middle of blazing light. If so, thank God for mild depression.

-What do you think of anthologies of love poetry? I think it takes the hearts out of great poets, as if the rest of their poems were irrelevant. May I also know your feelings about anthologies of social and political poetry?

Perhaps they are a necessary evil. I do see your point: the same poems are anthologized over and over, and seldom do most people become familiar with a poet’s body of work. However, realistically speaking, anthologies deliver a quick breadth of material with which it would otherwise be near impossible to become familiar. Ultimately, I would say there are really no bad anthologies, just bad students and bad readers. An anthology is not meant to be more than an introduction. If you do not take the time to read beyond the anthology, it’s not the anthology’s fault. As to the singleminded obsession with the love poem, that is unfortunate. Many people think all poems are love poems, or, worse yet, that all love is poetry. However, there’s room for all, I suppose. The problem with the social and political anthologies is that they often have too broad categories. I don’t particularly like the idea, for example, that, should I ever be lucky enough to be anthologized, I would probably be “classified” as Cuban or Cuban-American and also as a woman. No matter what I write about, that will be my “category.” It’s very constrictive.

- At what time of day do you usually write? What are your special habits?

Most of the poems in my two collections were written in the afternoon, with my dog, in the back yard. I was working only part-time and had the luxury of that freedom, and my beautiful, green, south Florida back yard, the steady, quiet company of my dog. I hope to be able to return to that soon, once the academic year is over. I often start to write by reading. I’m reading another poet’s work, and, when I stop to think, I start composing in my head. Often it trails off into nothing, but, if the train of thought persists, I jump up and write it down, and, sometimes, it’s good enough to actually work on. I suppose you could say I write by accident. Now that I am busier this happens less often and at more inconvenient times and places, like early in the morning (I try to keep paper and pencil by the bed). These are not good habits, however. I would like to be the kind of writer who writes for a certain time every day.

-What is your idea about the translation of poetry ?Please tell us of your own experiences as a translator .

Ironically, I don’t attempt translation, although I’m fluent in English and Spanish. What sounds good to me in one language comes out ridiculous in the other. Maybe that’s because these two languages are so diametrically opposed, because the cultures they represent to me are so diametrically opposed. I don’t believe, however, that poetry is not able to be translated simply because I lack the detachment or skill to do it myself. I think all art has the potential to exist in more than one language or culture. In many ways, translation is a higher art than creation. The creator has only one burden of signification, although you could say that certain creative goals are universal. But in the end even the expression of the universal is in only one language. The translator, on the other hand, has to bridge often distant worlds. To execute this successfully is the height of empathy.

- How do you interpret the September 11th tragedy? What do you think about a classification of American literature before and after the tragedy?

Certainly it was a turning point in American culture. In future—even now—it is a milestone. People used to ask themselves where they were when Kennedy was shot, and now everyone forever remembers where they were when they heard this news. My own relationship to American culture in general is very strange, split. Sometimes I speak of Americans as “we.” Sometimes as “they.” I don’t feel this tragedy “belongs” to me in the same way as it “belongs” to native-born Americans, especially to those whose families go back for generations on American soil. It is the type of tragedy I would feel uncomfortable writing about from an immigrant perspective. Many Americans (now “they” are not “me”), however, still don’t feel comfortable writing about it, either. There have been films about it, for example, that struck many as potentially exploitative, although they were meant to be expressions of grief and pride in those who responded to the events. It’s probably still “too soon” to make sense of what happened, especially since no one really knows yet what the long-term repercussions of this event will turn out to be.

- What is the relationship between literature and religion?

Literature is religion, religion is literature. All art is an attempt to make sense of the world and to figure out the point of living. If that’s not religion, I don’t know what is. And religion itself would not exist without its literary counterpart, the storytelling that is the vehicle, in every culture and every religion, for the transmission of beliefs, of hopes, of faith itself. It’s funny that the two are at odds so much of the time: literature with its liberal, secular tendencies, religion reserving the right to judge literature. These two are like those couples who fight constantly but love each other passionately.

--Do you like visit my country ? what do you know of Iran ?Which Iranian writers are you acquainted with?

I’d love to see Iran, I’d love to see many places. Between my indeterminate citizenship, my limited funds, and my pets (whom I hate to leave behind), however, I don’t do much traveling outside of Florida. As to what I know of Iran, I’m ashamed to say, not enough. What I know is textbook knowledge: its rich history and culture, its ever-flourishing arts. I’d love to see the old-world architecture up close. Since I met you, I’ve tried to acquaint myself with more Iranian writers. I’ve been reading Forough Farrokhzad and admiring her passionate, musical poems. I love “The Wind Will Take Us.” I love the line, “I am addicted to my despair.” It is the type of frankness that we don’t hear in American poetry right now. I thank you for introducing me to Iranian poetry.

-Dead are no longer alive. They no longer can see. They can not sense the fragrance in a flower any more either. Yet, it is customary that all over the world people visit their dead in cemeteries with flowers. As a poet, how do you interpret this common behavior?

This common strand in our diverse world makes perfect sense to me. It is proof that there is such as thing as a universal human soul, even thought that concept has largely fallen out of vogue. I think all human beings intuit the existence of something beyond what we can perceive when we are alive, and I think that this in more than just wishful thinking. It is a universal act of faith in the afterlife. Even atheists do this, although they would argue the act is merely symbolic. That’s fine. Even so, there’s something to be said here about the universal hunger for symbolism, for metadefinition.

-What would you ever do ,if there was no poetry?

I think I might have already answered this question, but I will attempt a second answer: I’d write fiction, or paint, or play music, or dance. I don’t think I could ever be happy in a world where all I could see was its face value, where no one would attempt to define or make sense or interpret reality in some way.

Which one book is always by your bed right open, and which book is always, before any things else, in your briefcase, when traveling?

I wish I could say that I have such loyalty, but I’d be lying. I rarely read something more than once, although sometimes I long to do so. When the rare moment I can sit down to read arrives, however, I always feel compelled to reach for something new. Some poems I return to more than once. Louise Glück’s “All Hallows” and “Metamorphosis,” when I can bear it. For some reason, Houseman. I constantly feel I haven’t read enough, that there is too much I should be reading. This makes it difficult to indulge in what I’ve already read.

-I strongly agree with the Kafka’s statement that says: “war, in its first phase, emerges out of total lack of sense of imagination. How do you view the main source of war?”

Ignorance, of course. All conflicts derive from ignorance. Ignorance of another’s point of view, ignorance about how to reach compromise, ignorance about what the options are, ignorance about imagining a different solution, yes.

-The dedications in the poetry books are considered the most important poetical aspect in the book for me. This means, that when I read these sections my understanding for the poet greatly enhances me, and I can express much more feelings of affection or a deep inner sense of connection that reaches a peak of purity. However, whenever I read Roman, Critics, or Articles, I do not feel this way. As a poetr how much do you value these feelings of a reader such as me?

The reader’s feelings are the whole point of poetry, to me. I think poems are meant to be read and enjoyed and understood. I don’t particularly understand people who talk about writing for “themselves,” I can’t quite believe this is true and can only attribute such statements to lack of confidence over what one has written. Writing is communication. That requires at least two people! I don’t know that I make distinctions when it comes to that reader-writer relationship between genres, however. Poetry, as well as all writing, is for me an attempt to ellicit something from someone else, someone who might be far away and completely different from you, but that you can somehow bring to see something the same way you do: that’s the trick.

-I had a friend who was saying that she could not cry when her father died, even though she liked him. However, after she heard the news that her favorite poet had died, she intensely could not stop her tears from falling. Since, it was the poet and the impact of his poetries that helped her managing her life in times of difficulty.
Have you ever had such a connection with a particular poet?

That’s a difficult question. I’m not a highly emotive person, and less so with every passing year. I can have an emotional outbreak just like anyone else, but they are rare and usually personal, so that I probably don’t have those intense cathartic experiences people who control their emotions in their personal lives can have. Which does not mean I am not touched by particular poets. When I was an adolescent, I went through my Plath phase just like most American girls who grow up to write poetry. I still feel very strongly about her, although now I focus my feelings on her work more than her person. When I go to the beach in the summer I think of Sexton and her beach poems. When I am truly in trouble it’s not poetry I turn to, however, it’s religion. Some prayers are really poems, and these I find very cathartic. They are often not attributable to a single author, however. Music has a more cathartic effect on me than poetry. I was very moved when Kurt Cobain killed himself, although not to tears. I used to lie in the dark and listen to Tori Amos and Hole, whose lyrics are very poetic, as late as my twenties. I don’t really do this anymore. I’ll stop now—I’m not sounding very much like a true poet, I think!

-Gustave Flaubert in a letter writes : " I want no love, neither wealth, nor fame; what is bothersome for me most is not having enough “sympathy around”, sympathy,sympathy. We could never have enough of this one!"
what is bothersome for you ?

Oh, many things are bothersome for me! I suppose, if I had to pick one bothersome thing only, however, it would be a certain lack of freedom. When I first seriously thought of being a writer (when I was young enough to believe that was something you could “be”), it was a clever idea for being everything at once. I could not be a teacher and a ballerina and a piano player and a mission specialist all in one lifetime, but I could write about being one, or so I thought. I soon began to realize, however, that—at least if I consider publication a goal, and I do—I can’t just write about “anything.” There are all these rules about what sells and about consistency and what people expect a Latina to say that really cut back on one’s possibilities. I find myself negotiating between what I want to write and what I think I can publish. I suppose, in the proverbial nutshell, I find the quest for publication “bothersome.”

-Blaga Dimitrova , great Bulgarian poet in ARS POETICA says :
Write each of your poems
as if it were your last.
In this century, saturated with strontium,
charged with terrorism,
flying with supersonic speed,
death comes with terrifying suddenness.
send each of your words
like a last letter before execution,
a call carved on a prison wall.
you have no right to lie ,
no right to play pretty little games.
you simply won't have time
to correct your mistakes.
write each of your poems ,
with blood-as if it were your last .
Reading world Contemporay poetry in poetry magazines, it seems to me , the young generation have lost the TIME .They can write about very unimportant details, very relax and without a worry .And astonishingly they win important prizez !Their poems are talkative , and inspite of saying everything , say nothing . May I know your idea about today's poetry in America and other countries ? And I should be very obliged if you would please tell me the name of your favourite poets in America, England , and other countries .

I think American contemporary poetry is not as varied as it could be. You see some variety in the multicultural arena, and some journals, like Fence, continue to publish something different. Largely, however, there’s a certain genrefication of poetry that’s similar to what’s happened in the film industry. The most widely read poetry (in what is really not a very large market) seems to be of a quiet, contemplative, usually bucolic mode that is very beautiful, but, at the same time, only represents one of many possibilities when it comes to subject matter and style. Passion seems largely missing, almost frowned upon. We are afraid to rhyme outside of established forms or slightly modified forms. Sometimes I feel that everyone is afraid of appearing maudlin. We prefer the wry or cynical to the sarcastic. Outside of the multicultural scene, most poetry is personal and depoliticized. A split has occurred between the written market and the spoken word scene. Spoken word poets are the complete opposite: often only passion and politics to the exclusion of everything else. All these neat little categories are too limiting. Maybe I’m just not reading enough, or Americans are just not reading enough to support a more thriving poetry culture. I have the funny feeling Canadians are reading more, or at least supporting the arts more. Every time I hear about a grant or a prize, Canada’s involved. That’s where Anne Carson is writing, and she’s wonderful. Here in America I suppose my favorite would be Louise Glück, and Maxine Kumin, of course, although they are very different. Alice Oswald intrigues me, but her poetry is a little too subdued for my taste. I’m not sure how to classify Sandra Cisneros. She is American, Latina. I love her poems, although I think her prose is more poetic than her poems.

-Sylvia Plath says in her biography book that the world to her is consisted of only two sects: those who are loyal, and others who know nothing of loyality. What about for you ?

I think honesty for me functions as the great divider. For me, people are either honest or dishonest. America is a very dishonest culture because of the predominance of capitalism and adverstising. We do not even question the daily manipulation of the adverstising that surrounds us so completely. We take for granted the fact that it’s somehow okay to try to trick someone into buying something they don’t really want and take pride in the ability to do so. This attitude pervades our culture and has corrupted everything about it, from academia to healthcare. It has affected interpersonal relations. We pretend to like each other and see each other only in terms of the persona we advertise through our clothes or our cars or whatever. I like brutally honest people. There is nothing more refreshing than people who say exactly what they think. I find duplicitousness the most exhausting thing in the world.

-Fame ,means : condition of being well known.You are a well-known poet.Please tell me what is the good or bad points of being well known? Ann
Stevenson in her book : Bitter Fame claims that Sylvia plath 's most mental distress was Fame .She needed it . James Tate in one of his essays says : Fame for a true artist is luxuries .What is your idea?

Oh, I’m not well-known! Not at all! I don’t think we have what you could call a truly “famous” living poet, except maybe Maya Angelou or Billy Collins. I suppose fame and poetry don’t go very well together. Fame means a kind of generic appeal that is probably near impossible to achieve and still write honest poetry, which is probably why we have so few famous poets. On the other hand, it must be wonderful because one imagines it would come with the economic freedom to actually write for a living. It’s very distressing to see so many truly excellent poets write so little because they have to dwindle their time and energy away on noncreative work, or, worse yet, work that zaps the creativity out of you.

-Thet terrible irony is that it is possible to be not a very nice kind of person and at the same time to be a marvellous poet. It shouldn't be possible but, by example, I see that it is.What is your idea?

Of course. Poets are still human and subject to the same tendencies—kindness, cruelty—as others. I long for variety in poetry and that can only come from variety in poets. A good nasty poem can be very appealing. That’s why I like Cisneros’s Loose Woman—it’s full of edgy stuff, threats, anger. I’m sure she’s a fine human being, but she’s also in touch with the full spectrum of human emotion. I love Carolyn Kizer’s “Bitch” and Plath’s “Lady Lazarus.” Poems that curse and threaten. There aren’t enough of these.









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