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Literature : Interview

The Whole Island: Six Decades of Cuban Poetry

by Jose Manuel Prieto

Cuban novelist José Manuel Prieto and Mark Weiss, poet, translator, and editor of the bilingual anthology The Whole Island: Six Decades of Cuban Poetry, recently conducted an email interview on the reasons for undertaking this, or any, anthology and the issues involved in its making.

José Manuel Prieto In your introduction you say that this is the first anthology to gather Cuba’s recent poetry in one volume. The result is noteworthy, its greatest virtue perhaps that it gives the reader a picture of Cuban poetry untainted by exoticism. You represent Cuban poetry’s complexity and maturity, and avoid making a false distinction between poets who remained on the island and those who have left. Let’s start at the beginning. How did you decide to put together an anthology of Cuban poets? Was it out of an internal need, or was it in response to an assigned task? What did you know about Cuban poetry before you began to work on The Whole Island?

Mark Weiss I knew something of Cuban history (and I’d worked many years ago on an unpublished translation of Lydia Cabrera’s El Monte), but very little about Cuban poetry or the culture at large before I started, though I had been deeply involved in translating José Kozer for some years (Stet, the fruit of that involvement, appeared in 2006.) José is widely considered the most important living Cuban poet, and he seems to know every poet (and everything they’ve written) on the island or in the diaspora, so Cuban poets came up frequently in our conversations. I had to learn the field pretty much from scratch.

The story goes back to a project that I began a few years before I’d even thought of doing The Whole Island. I was living in San Diego and spending as much time as possible on the other side of the border, going to cultural events and meeting with writers. On the US side of that imaginary line the attitude towards Mexico, and specifically toward Baja California, seemed to be a rehash of old clichés about congenital laziness and newspaper stories about corruption, illegal immigrants, and drug trafficking. It was astonishing to me. Tijuana, which adjoins San Diego, is a city of two million, and while the headlines told part of the story, most Tijuanenses had nothing to do with those newspaper stories. The willed lack of awareness on my side of the border was so extreme that a ballot initiative was approved forbidding the provision of services like medicine and schools to the children of illegal immigrants. It was later struck down by the courts. The economy of California survives on the labor of illegal immigrants, but the connection is still more intimate. In San Diego almost all domestic workers are illegals. I remember asking one of my neighbors, who had voted for the prohibitions, how she felt about its impact on the young son of the woman who cleaned her house and took care of her children. She was dumbfounded—she apparently hadn’t stopped to think about the illegals who were a part of her life; they had been replaced in her mind by an abstraction.

My own experience of the other side was very different. I found myself spending almost as much time in Tijuana and Mexicali as in San Diego, among a vibrant group of poets and painters. When I discovered that ten years earlier a Spanish-language anthology of the poetry of Baja California had been published in Mexicali, I thought, This is my chance to do something about North American prejudices. I’m a poet and publisher of poetry, and poetry is how I learn about the world and act on it.

Probably every large project begins with the delusion that it won’t take much time or involve much work. Which is never how it works out. I asked Harry Polkinhorn, who’s been more involved with Baja California’s writers than any other gringo I know, to select from the Spanish-language anthology and oversee getting the selections translated. Of course it turned out to be a much bigger job—as Heriberto Yépez likes to say, five years in Baja California is a generation (how could it be otherwise, given the explosive growth in population?)—that Spanish-language anthology had never been very complete, and it was two generations old. So I came on as co-editor. Across the Line / Al otro lado: The Poetry of Baja California took us three years to finish, and in the process I learned a lot of Spanish and became a translator.

Early in 2000, a friend of mine and his wife visited from New York. I’d never met his wife before. She was a Cuban who’d been in the US since childhood but kept close ties with the island, and she taught Latin American literature. I told her about the Baja California anthology, and she suggested that I publish a Cuban anthology, which she would edit. That didn’t work out, but the seed had been planted, and I assumed sole editorship. Like the Baja California anthology, I came at the task sideways. In the end, I chose all of the poets and (except in two cases where I trusted the selection to the translators) all of the poems, and I enlisted the translators, all of whom volunteered their work. And I wound up translating half of the book myself.

Most of the poems had never been translated before, and those that had were available in translations that seemed faulty to me. So I commissioned all but a handful for the anthology, and most of the few that had been published before were revised. I was after translations that could become a part of the dialogue of English-language poetry, influencing perceptions of the possibilities of the art for both poets and readers, while remaining reasonably faithful to the originals. That’s a tall order, and I chose my translators accordingly. I think they did a magnificent job.

Like my Baja California anthology, the Cuban anthology was partly political, in this sense: my goal was to dispel some of the dismissive North American ignorance of two of our nearest neighbors. That ignorance, it seems to me, damages the health of the polis, and it’s morally repugnant. And of course I wanted to give Anglophone readers some of the wealth of poetry that Cuban poets, on and off the island, have produced since 1944.

It’s astonishing stuff—certainly one of the period’s richest bodies of work in any language. I hadn’t expected that. It was a voyage from astonishment to astonishment.

I named the book The Whole Island, which is how I render the title of Virgilio Piñera’s long poem “La isla en peso.” I hoped that the title would suggest the “Greater Cuba” that includes the Diaspora. I also wanted the anthology, like Piñera’s poem, to be read as a discussion of cubanidad, what it means to be Cuban. My translation of the poem is available online. It predates the cut-off point for the anthology by a year, and it’s also much too long to have been included.

Mark Weiss

JMP An anthology that includes so many poets is hard work. Were you in contact with any universities? Did you consult with any US specialists in Cuban literature; did they offer suggestions or aid?

MW No institutional contacts as such, though among those with whom I was in frequent contact during the process were a few academic friends, notably Jacobo Sefamí and one of my translators, Chris Winks. At various moments I sent the list of poets to a fair number of Cuban poets and critics, both on and off the island, and I spoke with a lot of people—often with my friend José Kozer, once with Fernández Retamar, once with Miguel Barnet; and there was a steady flow of emails to Soleida Ríos, Rogelio Saunders, Ismael González Castañer, Omar Pérez, and Alessandra Molina, among others. The poets were chiefly helpful about my translations of their poems, and they also deepened my understanding of the different schools within Cuban poetry. I discuss this at length in my introduction.

I don’t think that anyone suggested additional poets, except for Chris Winks, who made a case for Álvarez Baragaño, though there were suggestions (unheeded) of whom to exclude. The same is true of the individual poems. So the table of contents, for better or worse, is my own invention.

Mostly I consulted with others, my translators and the poets among them, about the arcana of dialect that my Cuban dictionaries didn’t cover and about details of Cuban culture. I was mystified, for example, by the line in Miguel Barnet’s street-smart poem “Suite Cubana” [“Cuban Suite”]: “las mujeres urbanas se contonean untadas de salitre.” “Untadas de salitre”—spread or greased with a salty residue? So I consulted with several Cubans, who answered with one voice, “They’re walking on the Malécon,” Havana’s famous seawall and the long street that fronts it. It’s not mentioned in the poem, but the location is clearly understood. And “salitre” here means the residue of sea spray. So, “Big-city women strut down the Malécon / their faces salty with sea-spray.”

Here’s how I went about my work. My first job was to establish boundaries. All anthologies require a set of limits, or the work would be endless. I decided that The Whole Island would be limited to poems first published after 1944, when José Lezama Lima’s great journal Orígenes was founded, to my mind signaling the most important change in Cuban poetry since Martí 50 years earlier, and that I would include work written in Spanish by Cuban-born poets living off-island. I would include not just my favorite poets, but representatives of every tendency in Cuban poetry that I could identify—every way of writing. Briefly (I go into this in greater detail in my introduction), Cuban poetry since the late ’30s has largely been divided into variants of two schools, conversacionalismo and neobarroco. Conversacionalismo poetry, as the word suggests, tends to be colloquial and grammatically straight-forward. There are a fair number of epistolary poems, essay poems, and dramatic monologues, as well as straightforward lyrics. The matter of the poems is usually the everyday, and references tend to be local and current. The neobarroco, primarily the invention of Lezama and his followers, tends toward much greater linguistic, metaphoric, and imagistic density, and the resources of the language are often strained by contorted grammar and obscure vocabulary or secondary meanings. The range of reference is often vast and various, and the time frame of the poem may include large expanses of history. It’s often immensely difficult to translate. Conversacionalismo remains, as it always has been, the majority tendency, but the neobarroco enjoys enormous prestige, both in Cuba and throughout Latin America.

So, as much as possible, each poet would be represented by a selection generous enough to show his or her variety and development. This meant that fewer poets could be included, and they had to be chosen carefully.

I began my education by reading through every anthology I could get my hands on. Twenty-four of them, published in Cuba, Spain, Mexico, France, and the United States, sit on my bookshelves now, too many to list here. The only two in English, Heberto Padilla and company’s 1967 Cuban Poetry and Nathaniel Tarn’s 1969 Con Cuba, were both long out of date. Their usefulness for me was also somewhat compromised by the circumstances of their publication. Padilla’s anthology was overtly intended as propaganda for the regime, and Tarn’s was hastily put together—ironically, as a part of the international response to the official condemnation of a book of Padilla’s poems.

For those who read Spanish, the most useful anthology, and I recommend it to anyone interested in Cuban poetry, remains Jorge Luis Arcos’ 1999 Las palabras son islas (Words are Islands), the first published in post-revolutionary Cuba to include poets living off-island. There were also several anthologies of poets who have emerged since Las palabras….

From the anthologies I gleaned a list of something like a hundred poets. Because I had used so many sources, on and off island, I was reasonably confident that I’d managed to avoid choices dictated primarily by the politics of what we oversimplify by calling the left and the right—nothing Cuban is immune to politics. I wasn’t as confident about the choice of poems, and I also didn’t like leaving the choice to others. So I spent several years buying books. Some came from the one non-Cuban bookseller then operating on the island, some from constant scouring of online resources and from bookstores in the US, Mexico, and Spain, and some from bookstores in Havana and the open-air used book market in the Plaza de Armas. There was no other way. I read those hundred-odd poets exhaustively. In the end I chose 55.

It’s somewhat easier now. While I was collecting a few American university libraries were also building Cuban collections, and in the past several years Mexican and Spanish publishers have produced editions of books that used to be extremely hard to find. And of course there’s the Internet. Much of this increased availability, however, is limited to poets who are already a part of the recognized canon.

Those were the easy choices, although even the most important poets are largely unknown to American readers, because of the embargo, but also because for a couple of decades only poets intimately involved with the Cuban regime, the oficialistas, were allowed to travel outside the country. They, and a few who like Padilla were badly treated before they managed to get out, became known here for what seems to me all the wrong reasons, despite the virtues of their poems.

Choice became more difficult as I approached the present. On a different day I might have chosen x instead of y to represent a particular kind of poetry, and I might have chosen a different set of poems. Frankly, this part of the process left me a nervous wreck. As a poet myself I felt a keen responsibility to be fair to the poets and to get it right, and there was finally no way to do so completely.

There were other constraints. I was unwilling to include fragments of poems, because they give no sense of the poet’s architecture, which meant that some of the poets who excelled at long poems, like Samuel Feijóo and Francisco de Oraá, are represented only by much shorter work. There were also poems (almost every Cuban poet has written some) that were so culturally specific that I thought there would be little left in translation.

Which brings me to the question of cultural context. As a translator, and as a reader, I’m aware that works of art are shaped as much by what’s left unmentioned as by what’s included. In poetry a great deal is usually left unmentioned—the reference system inherent in the language and the history of use behind it, and also the physical space around the poem, the space in which the poem is enacted. The poet imagines a reader who doesn’t need to be told these things. As distance increases—a distance that begins within the poet himself and increases with cultural, linguistic, and temporal distance from the poet—that assumed reader, who never fully existed even at the beginning, begins to dissolve. Which means that an actual reader, who is increasingly separated from the circumstances of the original, imagines those circumstances and the author as well, based on the scant evidence presented in the poem.

So what’s to be done? I provide footnotes to specific cultural references, but footnotes don’t make up for much of the deficit, and there’s the risk of overburdening texts that derive much of their power from their concentration and reticence. And the footnote can never make up for the intended audience’s familiarity. I dutifully, for instance, identify fruits and plants mentioned in the poems that have no common English names—__jaguar, hierbabruja, alómamba, anon, yagruma__, for example—and aren’t available in the US, but the Cuban reader knows what they look or taste like and has a lifetime of history with them.

If as an anthologist I want to bridge some of the distance I need to be aware that an anthology is in itself a context—poem a opens areas in poem b to the reader, and the whole assembly acts as a surrogate for the culture from which its content is drawn. That guided some of my choices. Selections from Piñera, Branly, Barnet, Padilla, and some others, are there for their quality as poems, but they also supply the materiality of the street. Here, for example, is the opening section of Todd Ramón Ochoa’s translation of Roberto Branly’s “Evening Falls on San Anastasio”:

And there, in the distance, desecrated, dust covered,

above the rusty bus stop, we’re lit

by the sky, and we close, like timid,

serious flowers, scattered

between the humming

power lines, or maybe up at the

protestant church where if you’re not careful

they’ll submerge you in the nothingness

of baptism, your papal convictions

punctured; but at the drug store,

the blue grocery, the candy store, you sip at your penny soda,

pretending to be a wren, while outside the window

lanterns are circling, the street a wave

of loose cobbles, black kids running to hide themselves

while you count to 40 thieves with Ali Baba,

the wireless telegraph guides you, and rising

around Pastrana the stench erupts

beneath Victoria Bridge,

and the park (I don’t know why–it isn’t

there yet)–but wait,

I’m playing at being a cop now, and I run

so fast I’ve passed the robbers.

Eliseo Diego’s magical lyrics and Fina García Marruz’ religious meditations and her whimsy can be understood as occurring in, cohabiting with, Branly’s noisy streets. Or so I hope. Here’s a poem of Eliseo’s:


My soul’s Red Riding Hood, the wolf

lurks in the shadows where no one expects him

and he watches you

from his miserable rock,

his solitude, his enormous hunger.

You ask him: why

are your eyes so big and round? Blind, he answers,

“for to see you better,” weeping.

You ask again: why

are your ears so big, and he, “oh music

of the world, to hear you, only

to hear you.” And then

the rest is darkness,

impossible to understand.

And some lines from Fina’s “Visitations”:

One returns to climb the stairs

of one’s lost house (that no longer

lead anywhere), someone calls us

with a familiar, beloved voice.

But there’s no need to answer now.

That one sufficient voice calls us,

as if nothing could harm us

in the enormous corridor. A rain

that can’t wet us, that never tires

of encircling a favorite day.

One knocks at the door of the house

that’s been prepared for our mortal

hands, like a shy comfort.

JMP Every anthology is inevitably composed of omissions. Have you become aware of any other interesting poets since you finished your work?

MW Actually, it didn’t take that long. In the introduction I mention one, Dulce María Loynaz, who needed to be included but wasn’t, because of her estate’s demands. That was, fortunately, unique—all of the living poets and all of the other estates were wonderfully cooperative. But there were dozens of others who would have been included if I’d had the space. Despite the size of the anthology, there wasn’t enough space for even all of the best of any one tendency.

I don’t take these omissions lightly, though I can justify them in my mind: I’m aware that inclusion or exclusion can have consequences for the poets. To the extent that the anthology is accepted, it will influence their reception in the Anglophone world. Not a power I wanted, but there it is. There are two ways in which I failed to be as representative as I’d have liked. A reader of the anthology might assume that no one in Cuba has written formal verse in the past 60-odd years. While it’s certainly true that free verse has been dominant, there’s no hostility towards formal verse, and many of the poets included have been involved with the sonnet, which remains especially popular. I could have included some of Lezama’s, or García Marruz’s, or certainly some of Hernández Novás’s Sonetos a Gelsomina, after Fellini’s film La Strada, but in each case that would have meant eliminating other of their work that I thought more important to include.

The other missing piece is any of the vast amount of what’s been called Social Realist poetry, written as if by fiat in the darkest days of the ’70s. I suppose it should have been represented, but frankly it’s pretty bad stuff, and I didn’t have the stomach for it. It’s at any rate largely unread, even in Cuba.

JMP In another part of your introduction you say that “my hope has been to display something of the complex matrix of ways of thinking about poetry and their environment that Cubans have woven to create something of a group portrait through time of an extraordinary poetic culture very different from ours.” How do you think the two poetic cultures are different?

MW That’s a huge question. A full answer would take volumes, and I’m not going to undertake it here. What you’ll get here is more of a grab bag.

For a start, most of what one finds in the one is also present to a degree in the other. Cuban poetry, for instance, is more intimately involved with European, especially French, poetry, particularly the Symbolists, but plenty of US poets also read Rimbaud and Mallarmé. But some things that we take for granted in the US are for the most part missing in Cuban poetry. What’s called confessionalism in US poetry barely exists in Cuba—there’s a tendency toward greater aesthetic distance from one’s life as subject. Identification by perceived or actual victimization (which it seems to me follows from the autobiographical thrust of confessionalism) is common in the US, and we have journals that only publish blacks, women, gays, people with disabilities, etc.

That doesn’t happen in Cuba, though there are occasional anthologies devoted to one or another group. Partly this is a reflection of the sense of cubanidad inherited from Martí, that all Cubans are Cubans first, and it also may reflect the desires of the regime—it’s hard to say whether identity politics would flower in a post-Castro world the way it has here.

There’s a similar aesthetic division that’s peculiar, I think, to the Anglophone world. In Cuba, as I mentioned in answer to the last question, the same poet will write in formal or free verse. This is very rare in the US, where “neo-formalists” define themselves as such and often publish in neo-formalist journals, while most US poets write exclusively in free verse.

In one way the two poetries are very much alike: both are highly bureaucratized, though each in the manner consonant with its culture. In Cuba the state is the only patron, and those officially recognized as poets by being granted membership in UNEAC (the National Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba) receive a salary. Most editorial positions have also been a perk of membership, providing additional income. This has been at once a boon and a curse—financial support for artists allows a lot of art to happen, but it can be withdrawn for whatever is considered bad behavior.

In practice, membership in UNEAC has become less important since the collapse of the economy after the end of Soviet subsidies. Salaries earned in pesos have lost almost all of their buying power, and most poets now think that membership in UNEAC is a bad bargain. With fewer impediments to travel than in the past have come other sources of income. And poets tend to have day jobs in other fields.

In the US overwhelmingly the most important patron is the universities, increasingly the source of income for poets, whether as teachers or visiting lecturers. How much impact if any this has had on the poetry itself remains controversial.

JMP I’d like to end with a few personal questions that I think might interest readers, things you don’t talk about in your introduction. Where and how did you learn Spanish? Tell us a bit about your own work, the kind of poet you are. And finally, what have you learned, not as a translator but as a poet, from the Cuban poets you’ve translated?

MW I learned most of my Spanish, such as it is, working on my two anthologies, translating, and talking to my Mexican friends. My only formal study was a one-month conversation course in Guatemala something like 20 years ago. I had studied French and Italian, which took care of the basic grammatical structure. My spoken fluency comes and goes. I’m best in a Mexican environment—Caribbean Spanish frankly confuses me. But I read most Spanish with a degree of fluency, and I’m not afraid to ask questions or consult dictionaries. And I work very hard.

What kind of poet am I? My conviction is that poetry is not just the production of artifacts but a way of living one’s life, a tool for exploration, and that even the most conventional of lives is a series of experiments about how to live. A poem can be the record of one of those experiments, a description of what’s been learned. Or it can be what’s called “open form”—an experiment in progress—which is what I try to do. The poems more often than not are built out of fragments of awareness of both internal states and thoughts and whatever environment I happen to be in. In effect, the poem presents the world it explores. Does that help? It’s very hard to talk about one’s work in the abstract.

I can’t say that I’m aware of having learned a lot specifically as a poet from translating other poets. I’ve been writing poetry for over 50 years; after that much time my poetry is more likely to evolve in relation to its own past. I’ve certainly assimilated some of the imagery and language of Cuban poetry, some of its references. José Martí turned up unexpectedly in a poem written in Australia about discovering Australia, for instance. Spanish-language poets are more flexible about word order than is common in English, and I’ve learned from that. And I have found myself writing in Spanish once or twice.

Translating involves a profound reading of the poem. That creates change, every time it happens—Rilke’s famous “now you must change your life.” Anthologizing is the same experience, writ large—a profound reading of a culture. Its impact is not something that I’m capable of spelling out, not yet. Except that the world of which I’m aware has grown in generosity and complexity. The change isn’t so much to my poetry as to my sense of myself in relation to poetry and to the world in which it’s made.

On my first night in Cuba I walked from Vedado, where I was staying, to La Habana Vieja, the old city. It’s a 45 minute walk through barely-lit streets. I found myself in a large square in front of a posh café with a wonderful band. An old man, apparently a watchman, was standing there, his eyes glowing. I asked him where I was. “La plaza de mi alma,” my soul’s plaza, he answered, playing on La Plaza de Armas (Military or Soldier’s Square, the square’s actual name). That’s also some of what I’ve learned.

Both authors live in New York City. Weiss discusses the context of Cuban poetry and the poets in the anthology in his introduction to the anthology, available here (PDF).

For more cubanismo check out the ¡Sí Cuba! festival, ongoing through June.