PC: What role does music play in your life?  Do you write listening to music, or do you want silence?


RPE: I need silence and solitude to write--I suspect most writers do--but love music, not as a background for writing or any other activity, but simply to listen to, a pleasure all by itself. I'm especially fond of J. S. Bach, Mozart, Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Cesar Franck--the list it too long!--as well as early music, Medieval and Renaissance music played on old instruments such as the virginal and the lute. I enjoy church music sung a cappella, such as Gregorian chants. My husband and his family taught me to appreciate opera, which I was not exposed to when I was young, but have come to like very much. My favorite instrument is the Spanish guitar, especially performing the music composed for it by composers like Rodrigo, Sors and Albeniz. I took guitar lessons many years ago, but learned very quickly that desire, alas, is no substitute for talent. I do, however, in lieu of talent, have a highly gifted grandson who plays the flute gloriously and is studying musicology.


PC: In “Workshop” you wrote, “I’ve been putting a life together, like/ supper, like a poem, with what I have.” [From Landscapes with Women: Four American Poets, Singular Speech Press, 1999.] When you wrote that, I believe you were referring to the exigencies of raising a family?


But it goes beyond that, too, doesn’t it?


RPE: Yes, bringing up children, being a member of a family and a community, and earning a living. But also dealing with inevitable losses--of family members and friends, whether through separation or death--and the necessity of accepting the limitations of one's own talents. You make poems out of what experiences life puts you through, but what you make of those experiences depends on what you have by way of innate ability, learned skill, insight, imagination, discipline, daring, and more. You do the best you can with what there is, and you try not to fool yourself into thinking it's more than it is.


PC:  In “Weighing In,” [What the scale tells you is how much the earth has missed you, body, how it wants you back/again...” [From Where Horizons Go 1998, Truman State University Press], from the title on, you transformed, for me and others, too, the act of getting weighed to a meditation on aging, the pull of more than gravity, mortality. But the poem’s wholly without morbidity.  Do you remember getting the idea for this poem?  If so, would you tell our readers a bit about it?


RPE: For a long time I used to weigh myself daily, right after my shower. One day the repeated sight of those numbers settling down to stillness in their little glass window made me laugh, and it occurred to me that I was "consulting" the scale, as if it had something important to tell me every day. The poem began with that laughter, with my awareness of the silliness and essential vanity of the ritual, but then it went on to include those other themes--the process of moving through the stages on one's life, the growing awareness of mortality, the satisfying rightness of knowing that we belong to the earth and will return to it, as if the earth wanted and needed us back. Long after the poem was written and published, it struck me that it echoes the sense of that wonderful phrase near the end of "Birches": Earth's the right place for love: I don't know where it's likely to go better. Who knows to what extent that phrase was in the back of my mind when I wrote the poem? I certainly don't. I'm sure, though, that I've amassed a great many unpaid debts, not only to Robert Frost but to many poets who are part of my life, in two languages.


PC: Do you keep a journal?  If so, how do you use it?


RPE: No, I don't keep a journal. I like letting the ideas for a poem simmer in my mind until the poem feels done, and then I write down the whole first draft. After that I revise and revise. But every time I try writing down fragments before they've jelled into a finished whole, I find that I've ruined the idea, stopped it from growing, as if I had forced it into words it wasn't ready to go into yet. I don't know why that is.


PC:  Do you have any advice for writers trying to balance career, family and writing?


RPE: Yes: for one thing, remember that the very "distractions" that keep you from writing when you're young--work, family, community obligations--are simultaneously creating the life you'll be writing about and from when you eventually do write, and also creating the person who will do the writing. All of that is the fund of experience from which the poems will draw their situations, imagery, diction, all the nuts and bolts. There are things I couldn't say without the memory of hours spent sewing with my mother, learning to cook, doing whatever has to be done for houseplants, sick people, babies, students. For another, I learned that writing is patient, generous and forgiving: it will wait for you until you finally have the time to sit down and let the words come. It doesn't care how old you are, or how many years you've spent writing very little and not doing anything with it. The important thing, even when you're not writing for lack of time, is to read, read, read; find other people who love poetry and share what you read with them. When you finally begin to write again, don't be in a rush to publish a book until you've published in magazines first: the eventual book will be all the better for it, and you'll know what to leave out and how to improve the rest. Above all, write for love, for the sheer joy of it, as if you were a child playing--even if the poem is about something that hurts--not for any other reward it's supposed to bring you or anything you hope it will do for you.


PC: “The Year of Dangerous Living” seems to have autobiographical elements.  Does it?


RPE:  "The Year of Dangerous Living" consists of an autobiographical core wearing a great deal of fictional embroidery. The secondary characters, their conversations, and subplots involving the classmates, are inventions, but based on realities I remember from the World War II years I spent living in a Manhattan apartment and attending public schools. The central events--the mother's response to her daughter's "improper question," the neighbors who were "Diana's" playmates, the little boy rejected by them, the family relationships conveyed, and above all the midwife grandmother and the lovely, ambiguous engraving in her nineteenth-century medical book, are all genuine memories.


PC: What are the advantages, for you, of fiction over creative non-fiction?


RPE:   I don't know that either has an advantage over the other, they simply work differently, even when they do similar things, such as record the past, comment on experience or express ideas and opinions.


Stories encourage more freedom than essays, and in fact insist on your being more free with the facts, more inventive, so that fictional narratives--stories, fables, narrative poems such as ballads--may end up being emotionally "truthful" but not factually accurate at all.


PC: What strengths does writing poetry bring to writing fiction?  What, if anything, does a poet turning to fiction have to work especially hard to accomplish or to avoid?


RPE:  I'm not sure that writing poetry does anything to give you an edge as a short story writer, but I do know that it entails certain risks. I find myself lapsing into meditative passages that would work in a poem, but that threaten to slow down the narrative and clutter the scenery in a story, I've had to teach myself to watch out for that "poet's habit," and keep stories moving by means of event and dialogue and just the relevant details, and keep myself and my observations out of the way. It's not easy learning to be a "literary tuba"!


PC: You’ve mentioned some of the issues in translating from one culture to another.  Are any of the same issues present when you translate your own work?  Is it easier for you to translate stories or do other issues come up? 


RPE:   I find prose easier to translate than poetry--and less fun--because there are fewer formal demands. My own writing is easier to translate than that of other people only because I'm more sure of what I meant and what is more important and less so in any given passage. Beyond that, the difficulties are the same, and so is the pleasure when it works. But it's much more fun--more of a challenge--translating someone else, especially someone whose work I absolutely love more than I love anything of my own, such as Robert Frost or St. John of the Cross or Miguel Hernandez, or--someone I've wanted to tackle for a long time!--Emily Dickinson.


PC:  You said your poems “occur to you,” that they “arrive.” Is it the same with your stories?  Does an image present itself to you?  A character?


 RPE:  Yes, essays and stories "arrive," like poems, but there's more conscious, purposeful thought involved in their making than in the making of poems, once the first spark is lit, and they can also be triggered by abstract ideas, current issues and external motives than poems. Some of my stories--"The Man Who Turned Out Not to Be Alistair Cooke," for instance, as well as "The Farewell Dinner"--were composed as responses to homework assignments I gave to creative writing classes when I was still teaching. I used to enjoy doing my own assignments, which were usually geared to the teaching of some particular narrative skill. Others are fables or allegories meant to deal with some question, whether about human foibles, the subtleties of relationships, or an item in the news. And some were inspired by a powerful image that sends out rings of associations around itself: "Composition," for example, was triggered by watching photographic images materialize in the chemical trays of an old-fashioned darkroom, and thinking about the power that passing images may acquire over us. "Escape," on the other hand, was the result of a dream whose haunting opening also gave rise to a poem titled "Discovery." The dream wouldn't leave me alone until I had put the rest of it in words too, much later, in this story.


PC: How did you come to write “The man who was not Alistair Cooke”? I love the relationship between “the story” and “the author,” who also narrates this story.


RPE:   One of my creative writing classes in 1978 engaged in a long, fruitful discussion of the difference between the author, the narrator and the protagonist. We touched upon the fact that the inventions conveyed by a story may be completely alien to the life, character and views of the author, and not just in such obvious examples as science fiction or fantasy, and that those inventions may live longer in the reader's memory than the author will live in any memory at all. Afterward, as I thought about that discussion, "the story" became its own protagonist, and the real details of my personal life--the veteran husband, the sons who go dancing, the yellow kitchen and brown woolly socks--simply fell into place around my confrontation with it--or "him." That story was the result of such discussions, and of assignments and exercises in creating a setting, suggesting character through gestures, and establishing the relative positions of characters through dialogue. One of the ideas I wanted the class to grasp is that writing is not a form of whitewashing of the self, or self-advertising. The writer, whatever her medium, has to be prepared to let characters who speak for her lose face sometimes, look bad or foolish or mistaken, if the writing is going to be truthful. In this instance, "the story," speaking for the art of writing, shows up the vanity and self-importance of the author, and ends by escaping the author's wiles, as any art in its ideal form always "slips out the back door" to some degree, from those of us who are not the Homers and Shakespeares of the world. It's a story about the need for patience and a realistic assessment of one's own limitations.


PC:  Are stories, like poems, discoveries for you, the writer?   Do you ever have the end of a story before the beginning? 


RPE:   Yes, they're discoveries, like poems, and following them where they lead is one of the great pleasures of writing. But I don't write a first draft until the whole outline of the story is complete in my mind, which is the same way I work with poems. After that first draft goes down on paper, of course, revisions begin, and there are many internal changes, but the essential outer shape of the story remains the same, even if individual incidents and conversations shift their places, are added or disappear. 





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Rhina P. Espaillat


© 2005-2008 Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas

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Rhina P. Espaillat, The Per Contra Interview with Miriam N. Kotzin