In each issue, we ask a contemporary poet for a poem which draws inspiration from another poet’s work. In this issue, Francisco Aragón responds to Carmen Giménez Smith.
Carmen Giménez Smith is the author of six poetry collections, including Cruel Futures, Milk and Filth and Be Recorder, shortlisted for the 2019 National Book Awards. She is also the author of the lyric memoir Bring Down the Little Birds, winner of an American Book Award. She teaches at Virginia Tech University.
Francisco Aragón is the son of Nicaraguan immigrants. In 2017, he was a finalist for Split This Rock’s Freedom Plow Award for poetry and activism. Aragón is the author of two books: Puerta del Sol and Glow of Our Sweat, as well as editor of, The Wind Shifts: New Latino Poetry. His third book, After Rubén, is slated for 2020 with Red Hen Press. A native of San Francisco, CA, he is on the faculty of the University of Notre Dame’s Institute for Latino Studies (ILS), where he teaches courses in Latinx poetry and creative writing. He also directs the ILS’ literary initiative, Letras Latinas. His Tongue a Swath of Sky, a limited edition, hand-stitched chapbook, was released 2019.
LB: What made you decide to write a poem inspired by the work of Carmen Giménez Smith?
FA: Last February I had the honor of introducing Carmen as the keynote speaker at the Desert Nights, Rising Stars Writers Conference at Arizona State University. I had wanted to do something special, something beyond the conventional introduction. This prompted me to recall an event from 2014, which took place at the Poetry Center at the University of Arizona. It was a reading that featured, alongside Carmen, the poets Roberto Tejada and J. Michael Martínez. The poet Joshua Marie Wilkinson, who was a professor at Arizona at the time, decided to read – as the bulk of his introduction – single lines of poetry by the three featured poets, weaving them together into a kind of mosaic. In short, a cento.
Taking my cue from Wilkinson’s gesture, I decided, in preparation for my introduction, to re-read Carmen’s books and, as a first step, pluck individual lines of poetry from all her books, lines whose language engaged me. I then pruned my selection further and curated a reduced number of those lines, arranging them in a specific order. The result was into a 22-line poem broken up into 11 couplets. I kept the lines intact, verbatim if you will, and titled the piece “Carmen’s Collage: a cento.”
When you extended your invitation to submit a poem “inspired” by someone else’s work, I decided to re-visit “Carmen’s Collage” and expand it. I took this an opportunity to integrate lines of poetry from Carmen’s most recent book, Be Recorder (Graywolf Press, 2019). At the time of my introduction in Arizona and that initial 22-line version, Be Recorder wasn’t yet available.
The piece morphed into a 50-line poem – still broken up into couplets. It’s a poem I consider, in fact, a collaboration. In other words, the piece couldn’t exist without Carmen’s exquisite language. My contribution is the deliberate curation of and, no less crucial, ordering of that language.
LB: How closely did you work with Giménez Smith?
FA: After I read “Carmen’s Collage” last February in Tempe, Arizona, to conclude my introduction (with Carmen sitting in the front row), I realized that I wasn’t satisfied with the title. I thought that another possible heading might be “With Carmen.” Later, during the conference, I asked her if she had any thoughts on the matter, and she suggested that “With Carmen” was the better title. Carmen is a long-time friend and collaborator on other literary projects and I trusted her judgement. That was the extent of her direct “collaboration” on this occasion.
LB: Can you talk about your writing methodology/approach?
FA: My methodology or approach for “With Carmen” is an outgrowth of this concept that a work of art can serve as the source of inspiration for another work of art. In this case, another literary text – or, more specifically, Carmen’s poetry. In recent years I’ve been interested in works of visual or plastic art as sources of inspiration. In other words, ekphrastic poetry. It’s a wide and diverse category in and of itself. My interest in the genre is directly tied to the multi-year initiative I’ve been overseeing, titled PINTURA : PALABRA, which involved 60 U.S. Latinx poets and the Smithsonian American Art Museum exhibit, “Our America: the Latino Presence in American Art”.
But getting back to my first thought – that is, one literary text serving as a springboard for another: a UC Berkeley mentor of mine, many years ago, instilled in us the notion that reading, as an activity in and of itself, is also an experience that can serve as source or subject matter for our own works of literary art. That mentor was Thom Gunn. This underlying principal is the foundation of much of my more recent work.
LB: In your recent pamphlet His Tongue a Swath of Sky you continued a conversation with the great Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío in a project that according to The Los Angeles Review ‘reimagines translation as activism’. Could you expand on this?
FA: In 2012, the Libraries of Arizona State University announced the acquisition of a 900-page, privately held, archive of Rubén Darío’s papers. The archive includes letters, nine of which reveal, for the first time, an intimate relationship between Darío and Mexican poet Amado Nervo. Not surprisingly, in some circles there was an immediate backlash at the suggestion that Darío may have been involved in a same-sex liaison. This additional layer to Darío’s biography prompted me to re-visit a couple of my earlier English versions of him, and adjust them accordingly. The pieces aren’t, in a conventional sense, translations, but rather versions or imitations. A couple of years ago I was invited to participate in a panel on the topic of “translation as activism”. I described my Darío project to the panel organizer as a possible contribution. The invitation was reaffirmed. What really swayed me to embrace this idea of “translation as activism” was an incident from a few years ago. I was having lunch with a Nicaraguan-born poet in Washington, D.C. We were chatting about poetry in all its facets and, inevitably – given our shared Nicaraguan heritage –the subject of Darío came up. I casually mentioned the Darío-Nervo letters. Paraphrasing, and in English translation, this individual said, in part: “Oh that Darío-Nervo business is just an attempt to soil his name”. It was that verb – ensuciar – that really struck me. At that moment, the notion of translation as activism rang true for me. Homophobia is alive and well in certain literary circles.
LB: In your forthcoming full-length collection After Rubén, a book dedicated to your recently deceased father and where you also work with and were inspired by Dario, you’ve claimed that these “idiosyncratic gestures [of] placing particular texts and genres in proximity to one another… foment conversation between the living and the dead”. Can you talk about this process?
FA: An earlier, working title of my forthcoming, full-length book was ‘Ernesto Cardenal in Berkeley,’ which was the title of one of the poems in the book manuscript. For a while (you’ve asked about “process”), I felt pretty good about that title. But one of the items of feedback that I received was that the book’s muse, more than the Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal, seemed to be the Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío. And so I was encouraged to explore a book title that evoked Darío instead of Cardenal. Concurrently, I noticed that I had designated many of my Darío versions as “after Rubén Darío.” I began to think about other books that used, in part, “translation” as a mode of composition and lightning struck –in a good way. One of my favourite books, in any genre, is Jack Spicer’s After Lorca. It was published in 1957 in San Francisco, my home town, by the small house White Rabbit Press. The cover reads, below Spicer’s name, “with an Introduction by Federico García Lorca”. Lorca’s name is printed using a reproduction of Lorca’s iconic signature. As a whimsical work of the imagination, the text that Spicer penned, channeling the dead Lorca, is a delight. The book includes some fairly straightforward translations of Lorca, but also some completely invented “translations” of Lorca. In my mind, Spicer and Lorca, throughout the pages of the book, are “having a conversation”. With Lorca dead since 1936, it is a conversation between the living Spicer and the dead Lorca. The final stage of this “process” was taking to heart that Rubén Darío, among the Spanish-language literati, was affectionately known as, simply, “Rubén”. And so I arrived at my book title: After Rubén. My father, who is another strand in the book, died in March of 2018. And given that another important poem is a piece addressed to my older sister, who died in 2004, the collection began to feel, more and more, like conversations between the living and the dead.
by Francisco Aragón
And ages away from her story, she sang it –
Splatter of phantoms against the spray
When I was a girl, I thought clouds were God
I wanted to cup the moon’s curve
I was light from the mouth from every part of me
I was of the earth or a scar in the earth pouring through
Sometimes my heart bleeds so much I am a raisin
And the starry black is like the inside of a secret
Sometimes she hollowed out a sound like trembling
Pointing to where her silvery heart smoldered
Her hair is pinned back in tufts
There’s a mystery in that smile
I had once told myself a different story about us
Layered over with more scar then more wound
We’re drunk –
The words slip in and out like
The ocean’s salt
Scraping of walls, skin on resistant skin
Until our throats are dusty with the grit
Lingering in quiet deep vowels…
We circle the wound all of us circle
The wound because imagine it’s like a rose
Trees, caverns, rocks
A gathering of cells
Bloodied mortification and witness
Metiste la pata cuando abriste la boca
Pero te lo digo with love
Real prayer woven in the threads
To spread over my whole life
Frays of thread meant to stitch shoes instead stitch
The tang of touching
– This is our intimacy now. My nails trace
The cracks we’ve made over the years: an ooze of new self
Nosotros muffled by the clang of dishes and jokes
And raw and hazy but delicious
So imagine all of your bodily urges
Bleeding breathing learning
I evoke a pink, vulnerable jelly
Still pulse with the plasma of exchange
You have to like what time does. Each day I talk to the part
Begging for wind so that my sound will echo a thousand miles away
Once there was a ship powered by bones that flew in the air
The cosmos, the twine of our breaths into wind, into carbon
Our tongues make branches move
Carmen, they call out from across the sea
Have you made anything good with our outrage
And the new city rises from the bits of what
– Mumbled indecency
of the sweetest kind
for Carmen Giménez Smith