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Two nibs


José Kozer
in conversation with
Nicolás Mansito III

28 December 2007

In favor of Babel

“Orthodox thinking is evil, because it’s exclusive; it excludes human beings; it excludes forms of expression. My poetry has become extremely open — very open, to the degree that I have a freedom within me that I never suspected I could obtain, and it makes me extremely happy. I do in poetry whatever the hell I want.”

José Kozer

José Kozer

José Kozer (b. Havana, 1940) is the son of parents who migrated to Cuba from Poland and Czechoslovakia in the 1920s, and the grandson of a founder of Adath Israel, Cuba’s first Ashkenazi synagogue. He studied law at the University of Havana, left Cuba in 1960, and received a BA from NYU in 1965. He taught for many years at Queens College of the City University of New York, retiring as a full professor in 1997, after which he lived for two years in Spain before settling in South Florida. He is the author of over 15 collections of verse. His most recent, No buscan reflejarse (2002), a selection from past volumes, is the first poetry collection by a living Cuban exile to be published in Havana. Two small bilingual collections of his poems, The Ark Upon the Number (1982) and Prójimos / Intimates (Barcelona, 1990), both translated by Amiel Alcalay, have been published. Stet, a far more comprehensive selection of poems, appeared in a bilingual edition with translations by Mark Weiss from Junction Press in 2006. You can read Eugenia Demuro’s review of that book in Jacket 34, and Christopher Winks’ review also in Jacket 34. He is also coeditor, with Roberto Echavarren and Jacobo Sefamí, of Medusario Muestra De Poesia Latinoamericana/ a Sampling of Latin American Poetry (1996). “Rebirth of Kafka” appeared in Bajo este cien (1983). You can read four poems by José Kozer, translated by Mark Weiss, in Jacket 18.


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Nick: Do you think that your expansion and incorporation of all Spanish language dialects / vernaculars comes from your many travels and / or from living in a “Latino rich” U.S. society; that is, do you think you use “Spanishes” other than just Cuban because you have interacted with so many other Spanish-speaking cultures here in the U.S.? How did this come about?


José: Good question — yes, there is indeed the traveling and the connection with Latin American poets and poets from Spain that have diversified my usage of Spanish, but I think in my case, there are two factors that have to be taken into consideration: factor number one — I grew up in a house where Spanish “a la Cubana” was spoken constantly by a father who spoke a broken Spanish, by a mother who spoke a perfect Spanish, a very Cuban, Havana Spanish, so I think that created a sort of syndrome or duality within my head where there was not a given Spanish but several Spanishes — that is to say the one my father spoke with a Jewish accent, the one my mother spoke with a Havana accent, her being Jewish also, but she spoke a highly assimilated Spanish.


So that, I think, opened me up to the idea that there wasn’t an absolute language, an absolute Spanish, but a Spanish that was relative and easily “relativized” if that word exists in English. Moreover, in that house, Yiddish was spoken constantly, so that my head as a child grew listening to two forms of speaking so diametrically opposed that that must have opened me up linguistically to the idea of the diversity of languages; that is to say I was born and raised in a Babelian context where there was a pure Spanish, a more diction-wise corrupt Spanish my father spoke, the language of the street, then later on the language of the books — and all of this intermingled with the Yiddish, which is a language that is totally different from Spanish, is written, as a matter of fact, in the opposite direction.


So I always wondered, later on, how come I am not cross-tied, or my ears are not cross-tied, because my ears became accustomed to listening to a language that moves from left to right in writing and then another language that moves from right to left in writing. Also, it’s two separate alphabets, two different alphabets, so that my vocation for ideograms and Chinese and Japanese culture, I think, has to do also with the fact that, as a child, I was able to read and write Yiddish fairly well. That different form of writing made my eyes attuned to the ideogrammatic writing of the Orientals and the Oriental languages, and even the Cyrillic alphabet of the Russians. So you see, that first experience opened me up to absorbing languages as much as I could. I became fascinated by languages.


I always tell the anecdote that as a child I used to play alone on the terrace of my house in the outskirts of Havana, and my favorite game to play alone was that I spoke fourteen languages. And as a child I used to imitate those fourteen languages and play alone and make speeches and create, invent stories which I told myself in all these fourteen languages. So that as a ten year-old boy I was able to speak Chinese, Russian, Yiddish, Japanese, Spanish, English, French, Italian, etc. — all invented languages of course — I only knew Spanish and Yiddish to a degree. But that experience I think crystallized the mental atmosphere, linguistically speaking, in which I was growing up.


If you add to that the fact that at age twenty I moved from Cuba, not to Miami where I would have ended up in a ghetto speaking to other Cubans or only speaking in Spanish, but to New York during a time, the 1960s, when there wasn’t a lot of Latinos in New York. There were Puerto Ricans and other Cubans coming in, but there was no mixing, there was no communication between us for many complex reasons — and which I must add was a shame that this was happening because there was a lot of bigotry on the part of Cubans towards the Puerto Rican community — not my case, but I saw it and I didn’t like it, so that my dealing with Spanish became very strange — I wasn’t speaking Spanish; I wasn’t reading Spanish, there were no books available and I began to lose my language, I began to lose my Spanish, and I wanted to write, and suddenly three or four years after, I’m only speaking English, no Spanish, and when I tried to write, which I started doing when I was fourteen or fifteen years of age, I could not write because I didn’t have the language anymore; the instrument was gone, and I begin to wonder what was going to happen if I wanted to write poetry. How was I going to write, period?


English is not my language; it’s not my native language; Spanish, which is my native language, I’m losing — what do I do?


It became like a nightmare, a nightmare where you have to add other factors; for instance, I started drinking a lot, became somewhat of an alcoholic; I had a lousy marriage; it was a disastrous marriage; I was very poor, no money — complex story, you know the story of an immigrant who’s also Bohemian, who was also trying to make a living, to adjust to a new society, a changing life, and I was also having a lot of fun — and in that situation, at one point, I realized that I was moving into a no-man’s land where I would have no language whatsoever. And if I’m a poet, what’s going to happen?


So at that point, something happened within me — I think the Spanish language was stuck in my stomach, and through alcohol, it became released; it came out; it came out and I started writing again in Spanish, poems and poems and poems and poems, and I got into my profession teaching Spanish and Spanish literature. I studied both Portuguese and Spanish; those were my two languages, and at that point, I began to recover my Spanish but in a new fashion, a new fashion that meant I wasn’t going to deal with Spanish only in terms of the Spanish I learned in Cuba, but rather my Spanish was going to be absorbent, capable of absorbing all forms of language.


In my second marriage, I met Guadalupe, which is a blessing, and not in disguise, and through her, the peninsular came into my life. I started going to Spain; we had a house in Spain; I raised my children in both languages; so I started to become very comfortable going to Spain and absorbing that way of speaking. And we always went to Andalusia, so it wasn’t only the Spanish of the center of Spain, but also the peripherical Spanish of the Andalusians, and my friends were Galician and Castilian, so I began to absorb all this, plus now New York in the 70s became a place where all the Latin Americans flocked to, so there were Peruvians and Argentineans and Chileans and this and that and I began absorbing Spanish from all over.


And I have no qualms about using all the words that come to me. I have a strong relationship with Mexico — some Mexican phrases and terminology are now more natural to me than their Cuban counterparts. The usage of these things are not forced; that is, I don’t force myself to use such variety; to me it comes very natural; they are absorbed, and by being absorbed, are utilized, I think, as properly as possible within the poems.


But I do think also, if I may say this, Nick, that this is the way of the present and the way of the future for the Spanish language; it’s a language that is permeated by all of its forms of expression. We are now a very pluralistic, mingled society — racially, sexually, language-wise — and this is wonderful. I am all in favor of Babel. I am all in favor of mestizaje and this constant, what we call in Cuba, rice with mango, where the mixture is at times even absurd and you wonder to what degree can this continue.


I think it will continue; I think it should continue; and I think it is the responsibility of the modern poet to assimilate, utilize, and manifest all this historical situation.


Nick: Do you think there is a risk maybe of losing the individual culture?


José: No, because now it is a new individual; a new culture is being created. On the contrary, I think there is a risk of becoming petrified as an individual that is only monolingual, that does not see the world with open eyes and in all directions, doesn’t have both a lateral and peripheral eyesight as much as a centered eyesight. The combination of the two, I think, calls for a better world, politically speaking, poetically speaking, and it breaks away from all sorts of orthodoxies that have harmed both poetry and mankind historically.


Orthodox thinking is evil, because it’s exclusive; it excludes human beings; it excludes forms of expression. My poetry has become extremely open — very open, to the degree that I have a freedom within me that I never suspected I could obtain, and it makes me extremely happy. I do in poetry whatever the hell I want. And I do it with a great sense of responsibility, with a great sense of form, with a great sense of indecision and not knowing, but I do it.


I was writing a poem this morning, which is a very complex poem — you’ve seen enough of my poetry to see how complex it can get — and in this poem, an individual has gone up a hill and he has found — discovered — on that hill, some sort of situation that needs illumination; and he sits there and he talks about a rock and a tree and he is reading a Rilke book, which at one point he puts down, and the poem is moving in a very serious, enigmatic, almost Cabalistic direction, and towards the end, it changes completely and ends up sending everything to hell; and it uses a very low-class language, and when I did this, my heart and my mind trembled, and I wondered: Am I going to an extreme? My God, should I do this? And I said to hell with it and I did it.


But I think in my case — and I hope I don’t sound too vainglorious — but I think in my case, I do it with elegance, with a sense of duty, and with a sense of I must take this risk. And if I fail, I fail, for what I’m not going to do is not take this risk.


Thus, the consequence is a type of poetry that more and more people wonder about: Where does this guy come from? What are his influences? He cannot be pinpointed. He doesn’t stop writing. He constantly writes. I have written by now, counting today, 7,025 poems. I am by writing so prolifically, which is a need in me, saying something that I think it is about time we say: A poet has the same territorial right that a painter, a musician-composer, or a novelist has, which is — if a novelist works everyday, you don’t say to the novelist: Why are you doing this? If a painter like Picasso paints everyday and ends up painting 50,000 paintings, you don’t say: Why did he paint so much? But if a poet only writes a poem a month, that’s fine; but if he writes a poem a day, then they must be shit.


This thinking comes from Romanticism — you know, the poet must sit, he contemplates his navel and waits for the inspiration to arrive. There is something inspirational in poetry, no doubt about it; there is something magic and very complex and something different in poetry that cannot be programmed — there is a lot of work involved and a lot of duty, and I have tried to balance in my life constantly, my constant discipline, my desire to work, my need to work with what we could call the received inspiration.


My masters to this day are the hard-working writers that are basically nineteenth-century writers, so that when I look back and say: who do I follow as a model, I say Mr. Dickens, Mr. Flaubert, Mr. Balzac — amazing poets. Poets, you know, are always drinking in bars; I’m not drinking in bars; I’m at home reading, working, writing — that’s a modern poet. The modern poet is the poet that is involved with health, work, discipline, and which does not deny the fun of living. We are all very complex beings, but we have to be serious about the discipline of what we do. And I defend publicly and privately poetry as health, poetry as a lucidity that also depends on sweat and hard work, and a lucidity that depends on persistence.


If you are a musician and you play the trombone, you play the trombone everyday 3—4 hours a day. If you’re a poet you write everyday too. What is important, what matters is the persistent practice of the act.


Nick: I used STET (Junction Press, 2006) in one of my literature classes, which was comprised solely of freshman; because they had never really seen anything like your poetry before, it was a lot of work. They understood much better when I told them that your poems, in a way, are like mind-trips, almost hallucinatory journeys, and that the reader just needs to follow you on that trip; you may get it, you may not, but for me, the whole purpose, the whole point is to follow the trip; the beauty of the poem is to follow the trip, to see where it goes. So I’m assuming you probably don’t know where the poem is going to go when you start. Is that the discipline of writing everyday and just seeing where you end up?


José: I’m grateful to you for saying what you are saying, because rarely do I hear that, and I agree with you one hundred per cent when you say the only thing the reader has to do with a poem of mine is follow the trip; that is to say, have no prejudice, accept and have faith in what you are going to read and let go. If you understand, then good; if you don’t understand, just keep on reading.


You listen to a composition by Bach for the first time, and you say to yourself: This is wonderful, but I don’t get it. You then listen to the same composition ten times, twenty times, you say: This is indeed wonderful, and I’m beginning to get it. The same thing here.


The poem that I wrote today — and today is a special day because I wrote two poems, which doesn’t happen very frequently in my life, and they’re both very different and very complex — I can assure you that in both cases, I did not sit down and say to myself: Ha! Look at this, a bird flying, why don’t I write a poem about a bird flying past my window, what kind of a bird is it? Oh, it’s like the ones I used to see in Cuba. I’m going to write an elegy for it, or I’m going to recall certain days in Havana when I used to stand on my balcony and watch them go by. I’m going to do a poem like this.


None of that. Something is triggered in me — I don’t know why or how but it’s triggered — the first few words start and I don’t know at that point what is going to happen; all I know is I have faith that those words will lead me, if I simply relax and let go, to a new poem. I don’t know what it will contain, what words will be used, what will happen — that poem will flow and all I have to do is be concentrated, tranquil as much as possible writing the poem.


One thing I do see — and it is a strange situation — the only thing I do see in the beginning when a poem gets started, I see the structure of the poem; I see it from beginning to end. I can tell you exactly the size of the poem, the structure and the size — the content, the words, the story, or the lament, the happening of the poem is totally unknown to me — and what’s fun for me is discovering the story; that is to say, I am writing a poem in which I am the reader of the poem; not only that, I write a poem today and the next day I do the corrections.


Nick: I wanted to ask you about that, about your writing and editing process. How does it work for you?


José: I write everything by hand. Normally I start writing in the bathroom while I’m taking a crap by the way; I’m not ashamed to say it; it happens that way, the hell with it. You can see here in my notebook that sometimes a poem gets interrupted — Guadalupe and I went down for a swim — came back and I go back to this notebook and immediately I continue the poem and finish it without even rereading what I had written earlier. Or, I leave it, I go to my room, I correct yesterdays poems and after I did that and did all my chores — that is to say, I called about my pension and I called about my medicines, and we went t to buy food — after all these things, and I’ve forgotten the poem, I come back to it and it clicks (snaps his fingers) immediately.


It’s almost like a magical thing; I don’t understand it.


So that I have divided my relationship with poetry into two stages, two blocks: one, when I was young, when I was your age, I wanted to write poetry; I had to write poetry; it was obsessive; it was compulsive; I couldn’t live without it; if I didn’t write, I would die, and I made it a point, it was a rule, to write. My definition is I write because I am a poet, but I must write; without it, I don’t have that definition and I don’t have a life.


When I was in my forties, maybe forty-five, forty-six, something changed drastically; instead of wanting to write, I just wrote; there was no practice anymore, no objective anymore — like in Zen Buddhism when the archer shoots the arrow, he’s not aiming at the target, and he hits the bulls eye because he has the practice, the elegance, the softness of spirit, the integrity of mind and body, and he hits the target without thinking about it — the same thing began to happen to me with poetry; poetry became natural, so that instead of the will, nature took over.


And I write poetry like I breathe; I write poetry like I am talking to you now; I write poetry without being aware of what I’m doing — to the degree that to this process something else must be added — I began realizing, maybe ten years ago, that I wrote a poem, very complex, and 24 hours later, if you asked me about it, I couldn’t tell you anything; I forgot the poem completely; it becomes obliterated in my mind one hundred per cent.


So at least tell me the title, someone would say; I don’t remember. And I’m not bullshitting; I’m not making this up; I’m not pretending, or creating a legend — I assure you this is authentic, this happens to me all the time.


This is the concept of the Tabula Rasa where everything gets erased; I think there is a clear explanation: I write so much, so persistently that unless what I wrote today gets erased, I couldn’t write tomorrow, because there would be interference.


There’s a very beautiful sutra, which is called the sutra of the heart, which I translated into Spanish from English, and I say it to myself maybe three or four times a day; and in that sutra, the prayer says, at one point, that when you reach a level of integrity there are no mental obstructions, and when there are no mental obstructions, there is no fear, so this is how I feel, not about my life because my life is not as integrated, but yes about my poetry; I think it is an integrated, wholesome — if I may use that horrible word — poetry, where there are no mental obstructions beyond the text; the text is based on mental obstructions; the text contains all the possibilities of mental obstructions, but the poetry flows without any mental obstructions because I feel no fear.


And I’m not afraid at all about the destiny of my work — look, let me be honest, I hope that my work is important and that my work will be remembered. I hope it will be remembered because I’ve worked very hard, and because it is a poetry I think that will do good for people who read it, that it’s a healing poetry.


But if it’s not and it’s not remembered, the hell I care. I have no pretensions about my poetry; I don’t ever even use the word obra (work of art) for my work, I simply say mi trabajo (my work) — never refer to is as la obra as most third-rate poets do.


And it is a very open-ended type of work that has, to a large degree, cleansed me of a lot of garbage, a lot of crap, and it has been my psychoanalysis, my Zen Buddhism, my belief or disbelief in God or an after-life, so on and so forth. Poetry to me is my totality, is my only way within the relativity of my life to deal with the absolute, and I can deal with the absolute in terms of attempting to produce a poetry that moves towards the absolute.


Nick: You spoke a little about form, and I was wondering what you make of Gustavo’s statements regarding the way your form makes a wall of words and the two major themes he finds in your work — your isolation within your poetry and the way your poetry serves as a receptacle, a container? Gustavo claims that these themes are attributed to your struggle to maintain your Cuban-ness, or now, maybe even just your Latinidad in U.S. society, because the U.S. presence, Gustavo claims, is absent from your poetry, and so the contradiction he highlights in your poetry is that it expands to include all Spanishes, all Latinidades, yet resists any U.S. or Anglo influence. What do you make of that? [1]


José: You know, Gustavo Firmat first wrote an essay about my poetry which is in that book of his about the hyphen, which was annexed and then he changed it around; the first was very laudatory; the second was not that laudatory; he changed it around. I don’t know why, I don’t know what tickles him and I could care less. I respect him very much; I like him as an essayist; I don’t care for his poetry, and I think he knows it; it doesn’t excite me what he’s been doing, and it’s not because of the language but because of the poetry he writes. And I think he’s gotten something wrong in terms of my way of dealing with poetry.


He sees it as a struggle, and I assure you — and I can assure him — that there is no struggle — that’s the difference. I’m not struggling with anything. Like I said before, poetry happens to me, and it happens very naturally; there is tremendous amount of pain in the material I use, but I’m not in pain; there’s a tremendous amount of difficulty, inner difficulty in the material I use, but I’m all right, I’m okay, I’m not a John Berryman, suffering, being an alcoholic. I’m a middle-class poet that took a shower this morning, that is happily married, has the typical conflicts of people who live in a neo-capitalist society. My only struggle today is whether my pension is going to go up $25 or $40 a month, you know. I have no other basic conflicts.


I deal with death, I deal with religion, I deal with language, I deal with creation — in many, many forms, but not as a struggle.


I think this whole concept of the writer in struggle is something passé, something that is not here anymore. It’s like the issue of identity; Pérez-Firmat has made a big issue — and I understand it — out of identity and bilingualism and mixing the two languages and so on and so forth — that’s fine with me; it’s got to be quality. I don’t see much quality in this type of Cuban-American poetry yet. I hope there is; I want good poets all over. I’m not too impressed by what I have read so far. And I think it is because there is still a ghetto mentality operating here; there’s no real openness. Bilingualism doesn’t mean that you are a polyglot, doesn’t mean that you have an open way of dealing with language; it’s also a trap; it becomes a business, it becomes an industry, and I’m not a negotiator nor a businessman; I’m a poet.


And thus, when they say to me: Are you a Cuban-American? I say: Me? I’m Japanese. There’s no real identity that attracts me in any form or manner. I’m a human being writing poetry. I am in the peculiar situation — which all human beings are — I’m born, I live eighty, ninety years at most, and I croak. And what’s after croaking, I know nothing. And this is a mystery, perhaps a scandal that one has to deal with constantly as best one can, which is part of our not knowing.


Critics tend to over-categorize my tastes. Poets tend to be fluid and that’s what I like, so I demand fluidity from the critics, and they usually do not deliver, because they have an agenda, they have a territory. I have no territory; I move in all sorts of territories, and a territory may be satisfactory right now but may not be satisfactory in half an hour. I contradict myself all the time, and Whitman talks about this. We are now in a society where contradiction, because of the political situation or the environment in which we live, is a no-no. Contradiction and paradox is part of being a human being. So I leave a non-contradictory world to Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Giuliani — all those people who aspire to keep on destroying this nation. I don’t accept this living without contradiction for a poet, for an artist. We are artists; we are creators, and we must deal in a very serious way with reality.


So, I’m not too convinced that the things that have been written about my work so far are clarifying anything; it will take time; it takes time for this to happen, and it may never happen — I don’t know. The other day, a review came out in Mexico by a young guy who must be in his thirties, and people in their thirties today in Latin America are very well read, are very intelligent. This is a new generation that I admire tremendously, what their producing as poets, as writers — they’re open, especially in poetry; they know everything; they read Bulgarian poetry or Hindu poetry or Russian poetry; they travel; they’re devoted. It’s an amazing new phenomenon that is happening in all of Latin American — Brazil and Hispano-American countries included; that is meaning both in Spanish and in Portuguese.


And this young guy, wrote a review of both of my latest books released in Mexico — one on Zen Buddhism, the other an older book that I republished — and he said something at one point that I thought was very illuminating, and I said to myself it’s about time somebody picked it up. He said we know that Kozer writes constantly and so someone who writes constantly will repeat themselves, but take a poem Kozer wrote yesterday and one he wrote today and you will see that they are not only different but they are variations of each other; and this variation is what makes these poems fascinating.


And I said to myself, man, now I can start relaxing; people are beginning to get it. And this is a lot of fun, that instead of creating a category — Cuban-American, oh, he’s lived in New York for forty years, he never talks about New York — these categories are crap. Poetry gets filtered differently. New York is in my poetry, but it’s not in my poetry as an objectified, crystallized city even though I know the city very well and love it very much; it is there in a filtered manner.


Nick: You’re one of the few people I know — if not the only poet I know — to reuse titles...


José: Well, that’s because I work in series; I began working in series about twenty years ago, so that for instance, to give you an example, I have a series called Divertimento — there must be a thousand poems with this title. There’s a series called Práctica, a series called Anima. I may have right now maybe twenty to twenty-five series of poems which I am constantly alternating in writing.


Sometimes I feel very fragile and very lost and very sad; I don’t know where I’m at, and I lose my bearings; these series bring me back to a center, bring me back to a reality that is more restricted, more limited that I need at that moment in order to stay alive. Because I’m fragile, and I have a fragile mind and I have a fragile heart, everything affects me. You touch me and I scream; I go like this (bangs his hand on the chair) and I write. So, to a large degree, all these series form a prism, a kaleidoscope that moves around, in which things happen.


Nick: It’s interesting — the cultural tension, or lack of tension for you, because I grew up Cuban-Colombian-American, you know, my generation is completely multi-cultural. We didn’t really have segregation; we didn’t grow up in that type of environment, so for us it was just normal to have multiple cultures, multiple identities, so I didn’t really ever realize that there were these issues of cultural identity or cultural tension until I got into the academy and started reading Firmat. There’s that tendency to map that struggle onto everyone, every Cuban writer, any culturally, racially hyphenated writer. People ask me: What are you? I’m Cuban, Colombian, American — I don’t know. I’ve never felt that I was sacrificing one culture for the other, or that I had any kind of cultural struggle. It was just black beans and rice and pork with plantains on Christmas Eve, and turkey and mashed potatoes for Thanksgiving, and I never saw that tension, which I’m glad you’re bringing up, because I think there is that tendency to attribute struggle to any hyphenated writer. The more I study, the more I see most people have opened up to this larger identity that encompasses all its constituents; nothing is getting washed out; nothing is lost.


José: Boy am I glad you are saying this, because your generation is not marketing culture anymore. The other generation prior to yours turned academia into a market; it’s a business, and the business is you teach certain courses with certain materials that are not in general of great quality as a sociological phenomenon, as a political, structured phenomenon. Now are we teaching literature or are we teaching sociology? When I taught literature, I looked at the text; I didn’t look only at the biography or the historical information, which I believe is important, but my interest, if I teach literature is the text itself.


So I got to the point where if I’m teaching Lorca, who is a poet I respect to this day very much, I have to include his homosexuality because of the times in which he lived; given that fact, I now don’t turn the text into a homoerotic or homophobic or whatever text; it is a text, and his ode to Whitman, which is a highly homosexual poem, is important not because it is homosexual, but because it is an extraordinary and beautifully constructed poem, and I must understand, by deconstructing it, how it functions, why it is important.


That’s what I mean when I say I’m not teaching sociology; I’m not teaching the history of literature, which is a German nineteenth-century invention; I’m teaching texts; I’m teaching literature. The whole issue of ethnicity — Mr. Bloom on one side, the others on the other side, accusing each other of mercantilism and opportunism and all that. Well, there’s truth in both sides, but in the long run, I only demand one thing from a poet, and we’re talking poetry, we’re not talking about any other type of writing, I demand quality.


Who defines quality? Let’s stop the bullshit — when you read something, if there is quality, it permeates you completely. When you read Proust, Vallejo, Lezama Lima, there is quality there, and it is a quality that pours through tremendously. It’s that quality in the ethnically oriented writers of today I find lacking. I, along with your generation, Nick, are not fooled by these things. Your generation is not so easily taken by this type of writing. It has become so abused that no one believes in it anymore. My oldest daughter, who writes here and there, writes in her language, in your language, Nick, which is English. She was born in this country; she’s American, period; it just so happens that her crazy father is Cuban and so what?


I think that is the issue that is becoming clearer and clearer — to the degree that I see more and more — that a lot of this literature that has been politically correct for the last ten to fifteen years is beginning to die. It’s disappearing; no one is paying attention to all of this stuff, not even housewives — forgive me for saying it — but not even housewives are reading this stuff anymore. We’ll see what happens.


Nick: The only other question I have for you deals with Cuban-American stuff and issues of identity. I know you wouldn’t define yourself in any way really, much more define yourself as a Cuban-American...


José: Forgive me for interrupting you, but I wouldn’t define myself period. Oscar Wilde said that to define is to limit. I don’t want to limit myself; I want to move as widely as I can; I want my scope to be as wide as possible, and definitions bind reality, and I don’t want to live in an imprisoned reality. Let’s not turn this into a business.


Nick: So for you there is no tension between being a self-proclaimed Cubanazo (Super Cuban) and living in the U.S.?


José: Not at all.


Nick: You’ve lived here so long, and your English is great, so — I know you write in Spanish because it is your native language — have you ever considered writing in English or translating your work into English?


José: Rarely has a poet written in a language other than his native language. Rarely. I can’t do it. I don’t think my English is natural enough, real enough to translate my own work into English, much more write in English. I don’t do that. I attempted it once as an experiment just for fun to see what would happen, and yuck, never again (Kozer laughs).

[1] Gustavo Pérez-Firmat’s Life on the Hyphen, University of Texas Press, 1994, pgs. 156–180.

Nicolás Mansito III

Nicolás Mansito III

Nicolás Mansito III is a writer and scholar who works across multiple genres — essay, poetry, short-fiction, interview, and translation — and between two languages, English and Spanish. His work has appeared in Nebula, Rio Grande Review, 21 Stars Review, Words Without Borders, Rhino, Sojourn, Babel Fruit, and The Arabesques Review. Publications are forthcoming in The Human Tentacle, Center, an anthology of poetry entitled The Poetry of Relationships, and a collection of scholarly essays, Proceedings of the International Conference on Caribbean Studies.

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