-How do you feel about winning The Paz Poetry Prize with your book “2001-2011 Colaterales”?
I find it very significant that a new literary award is given to a poetry book written by a resident, not only for citizens of the United States. I am referring to The Paz Poetry Prize. It helps me to feel as part of the current movement of literary production in Spanish within the US. It means for me that living in this country and to go about everyday speaking Spanish is growing, in part because Spanish is spreading and becoming more and more important throughout the world. I was telling a friend the other day that sending my book for a competition, not coming from the mainstream and without losing, for that matter, my optimism, was really a search for a sign that my poetry had something to say to people. I wanted to know if the work of this older person with a peripheral vision that I’ve become, involuntarily but without losing a certain bit of happiness, can still manage to have something to say. What I wanted to avert and ward off was to not see my writing as a result of a compulsive scribomania, who is unable to help herself from just keep writing for the sake of it.
-You have won many literary prizes and awards before, what is so special about this one?
I´ve never handled my writings efficiently, in the sense of sending them to be considered for publication or to competitions. In such endeavors, to pass the first round and get a judge to read your work is important. I did not win as many awards as I would have liked to but with the ones I have won they became a platform for me to touch base with reality, make new friends and enjoy the moment.
-Is this a book of poems or a narrative? What is “2001-2011 Colaterales” about?
The “texts” (as I refer to them) in 2001-2011 Colaterales are poems which were produced during the period I was involved as a doctoral student in the Hispanic Studies Program at the City University of New York since 2000. Pressured to maintain a legal status in the US, I was leading a student life. A similar thing happened while I was learning English in Texas; rather than being immersed on the subject matter of the course I was taking, a book was fashioned along the way that seemed more like a repository of ideas and impressions. Every day after class I would shut myself in a huge library in Texas which was empty because in Texas serious students owned their own books and read them where they liked. In that immense desolate place surrounded only by a wealth of resources I was fascinated to discover the latest literary trends and publications from all over the world, and read, in the beginning, almost without stopping or distraction, something I was not able to do in Venezuela in a long time. But I was also expected to do school work. So I only took marginal notes of what I was reading which in time were shaped into a book of poems; the poems in that book are really a farewell to my life in Venezuela and the beginning of a new life in Texas surrounded by solitude and silence. Once the book was completed, I was ready to move on to the next stage of my life. In a similar fashion, 2001-2011 Colaterales reflects the last ten years of my life in New York City. It is in fact a synthesis of various manuscripts, the first of the lot being La Sorda which was edited by a friend in Venezuela in 2011.
-How did the moving episode “Sargento Jossana Jeffrey” come about in this book of poems? Did it take you long to write?
Jossana Jeffrey was written in one seating as a result of an atrocious story I heard from a female soldier who had just returned from Iraq. She got wounded in the front lines. She had her kidneys severely damaged; she looked like an old lady. However, she revealed to us in class that the worst obstacle was not the battle wounds she suffered in combat but the challenges she faced in trying to prevent the numerous rape attempts and assaults that came from the members of her own unit.
-In your publication of the poem in Escritoras Unidas, you refer to it as “This text...” Why is this text and not a poem?
In the beginning I had some difficulties categorizing my writing. This is because I was always obsessed with the form, the type of supporting structure each book requires. There was an undefined element in my writing with a tendency to linger on; I usually interpret this in my literary practice as a lack of directiveness. And to some extent I agree. Due to this I needed a clear input from an outside reader but obviously that receptor wouldn’t be able to see as plainly as myself what I am looking for. I understand that now. This is the reason why among poets I am not considered a poet and among storytellers, I am not completely regarded as a storyteller. I think it is important to feel, especially in the beginning that you fit in or identify with a particular literary group. I am not looking to experiment all the time; not at all. The search in my writing is a world of voices in me that are seeking a form. In order to feel free, I try not to think about other people’s opinion. Not so much out of disrespect but because I needed to focus on my writing. Because of this ambiguity within, I started to call my writing just “texts.” Nowadays I refer to them as “texts” out of habit.
-This seems to be a good year for you, because the lesbian anthology “Voces para Lilith,” in which you appear along with Cristina Peri Rossi, was just launched in Buenos Aires and the newspaper Página 12 wrote a really nice review of your work there.
I am finally catching up with the wonders of the digital world. Thanks to the web I was able to get in touch with Escritoras Unidas and lately my writing has been finding its way to a range of anthologies in paperback editions and in literary blogs; all thanks to the internet, including writings posted in internet sites without my knowing. In Voces para Lilith the most interesting thing was to have appeared next to women writers ranging from low to high notoriety whose literary works reflect women’s experiences that are talked about only in low voices in Latin-America. I feel fortunate to be among such female authors because they produce excellent literary work.
-From here on, how do you envisage your next literary project?
You know, just like everyone else, I try to manage my life the best way I can and make some accomplishments. However, I find, especially as an author, the only thing I can really look for is to find that focus when writing, and more than anything attempt to fulfill the various writing projects I promised myself.
-Are you writing right now?
Yes. I am always engaged in some form of writing: notes, observations, and meditations.
-What does writing mean for you?
I feel connected to myself when I write. I write for a number of reasons but mostly to organize my thoughts. Writing helps me to connect, not only with myself but, as any author, with other people. For me it bridges the gap between people of different epochs under the rubric of humanity. This is actually a hope I have, to understand life fixating on a particular version, in a concrete expository form like in a literary narration or fiction because what takes flight in imagination can end up with multiple versions which are not possible in reality.
-Why do you write?
As a spiritual reflection, for entertainment, as an escape from desperation; writing also calms me but it also shakes me; it makes me stay alert about life.
-Do you consider it worthwhile?
For me, it is worthwhile as much as being aware of life.
-If you could alter the past, would you still become a writer?
I am not so sure if I chose to be a writer. I think it just happened. It was very physical. As a child I was always listening and watching everything around me as if I was a sort of rolling camera with sound. Perhaps I would like to leave myself and live another person’s life; not as a consequence of death but really being in another person’s shoes.
-Do you consider yourself a poet, a prose writer or a story teller?
I consider myself just a writer; this can be contrasted with a professional writer, someone who makes a living out of writing. I would have also loved that though I never learned the process to become one, I would have really enjoyed writing for living, writing and reading other people’s works as part of an editorial commission. I owe everything to other people’s books.
-When did you first begin to write? and Why?
First I heard voices. I heard words that fascinated me; they captivated me. Soon I began to tell stories and to draw. I think I became more serious about writing at the age of eight. To a certain extent I owe to art the fact that I did not become completely insane.
-Are you a person who leaves places behind after a certain period open and ready for the next destination: Ciudad Bolívar, Caracas, Paris... Why did you leave each of these places? What were you doing in each place?
I always leave a place motivated by my imagination that I would find a freer and more peaceful spot somewhere else. I was born in a small town that; by the time I was growing up, it had lost interest and appreciation for art. Then art was a risky business and to be sexually open was considered an ailment. I never had enough courage to be in Bolivar and exercise myself as a female artist who is sufficiently shrewd to negotiate my way to stay and bring influence to the place I grew up. I left Paris because I fell in love with a person that did not want to settle in Paris. That person wanted to return to Venezuela to help shape culture as a form of retribution to the State. I knew well where that person was coming from, a revolutionary environment where such intellectuals were brought up. I left Caracas also because I did not know how to manage my daily life which was divided between my work and the hours stuck in traffic. On the other hand, I left the heavenly Cumaná because I got sick and I realized that I was only going to get worse. At that time the university where I worked for helped me to get away. I consider myself very fortunate to have been able to go places I wanted to go.
-The Uruguayan writer Onetti once said that writing for him was not like a wife but like a lover: he used to write only when he felt like it and never under any obligation.
I am a constant explorer: A traveler with a suitcase and a destination. But more precisely it should be defined as a space of transit.
-How long have you been in New York? What do you do there?
I’ve been living in New York since 1999. In general, I lead almost an idyllic life, too good to be true: I walk about my neighborhood near the Hudson River, I read, I write, I visit museums and I listen to music, as well as exchange correspondence with friends; I also teach Spanish and French to pay the bills. I don’t live in a house boat in Seattle or Venice, but I feel like I do; since childhood I wanted sense a calm motion over the water.
-Your poems and “texts” are bold but you say that you are shy, what does a timid female like yourself has to do in order to dare write on the subject of sex and partake in an anthology of lesbian writers?
Well, I am not so sure if the majority of the writers in the anthology would accept the nowadays label “lesbian writers.” In a way we generally agree that such an attachment says little about the individual writer; rather it reveals more about the period that perceives and defines us as such. As for me, I never impose in my writings any boundaries on lesbian themes; indeed, my obstacle was always to surpass my limitations as a writer. When I had to identify myself as a lesbian, as part of a political classification, I did it without hesitation. But that was easier than to overcome all the internalized homophobia inculcated through tradition. When I had to declare myself as a lesbian I had done so. My shyness is part of my intimate personality. I consider myself fortunate that I am not a public figure with an interest in portraying a favorable self image. I agreed to be part of this and other anthologies with lesbian themes because most of my writings revolve and evolve on the subject matter of love and loathing among women but most of all because I realized that literary works should circulate in good company.
-What project do you have next? Do you have any immediate future projects?
I have some unfinished research, another book of poems and short stories. I also need to take care of finding a way to publish some scattered texts and to publish new editions of all those that have disappeared for lack of proper distribution.
-What would you like happen to you as a writer?
To be able to write books that I have been thinking a lot about lately.
-Do you miss Venezuela? Are you going to return some day?
I long for Venezuela with the same enthusiasm as the books that are published over there from new and already known Venezuelan authors. But I would not be able to manage to live in Venezuela, primarily due to health issues. I miss my family and friends. It has become already customary to quote the nostalgic foliage and the Guyanese evenings.
November 3rd 2012
City Bell, Argentina
Translated by© Hyon K. Kim
Hyon K. Kim was born in South Korea, raised in Paraguay and resided in England before coming to New York in 1989. He holds a Ph.D. in Hispanic and Luso-Brazilian Literatures and Languages from the Graduate Center, City University of New York. He currently teaches Spanish at John Jay College.
SERGEANT JOSANNA JEFFREY by Dinapiera Di Donato
(as told to meby a student in my college Spanish class
who came back from the front)
Howls in the furnace
is it not Janis Joplin?
these are not concerts for suicidal dolls
A year in Iraq is not a long time
myJosanna, my breath, its fragrance of bamboo
I would seize Josanna Jeffrey
for more time in your arms
the narrow wetlands of Mesopotamia
Josanna Jeffrey with her silken legs
luxurious black mittens
a sacred Ibis, she remains
in my sight
My fear of a tattoo’s venom
in the mind of the Stormfront cavalry
lying in wait
Josanna Jeffrey my keeper with glittering braids
more beautiful than Central Park in winter
tattooed with saffron
Nineveh’s night under her helmet
you’ll need the nail clippings
you leave on my bed
may the sky of Iraq protect you
the sky of Iraq to spring from your branch
just in time
in friendly fire
an armed Klansman on the Internet
cares for the chamomile of his Aryan scalp
the gutted dead with dark hair
flee from his account
I sense the venom of her rite burn by low flame
You are dark you are a heaven for kings
queen of Baghdad my lover from the Bronx
rustling of reeds eyes flaring as light breaks
Josanna Jeffrey fires first
I love her priceless kidneys
to the Basra experiment
hot days my tongue thrashing between your legs
by a screen saver
like Mosul’s burn
Bamboo cracked open on the air
your breath of violets of menstruation
lost interest in pharmaceuticals
Your kidneys for thirty thousand dollars
bound to the screen saver
as in a womb
rests in me
I lick the inked arrow at my heart
I let you suck
all the pornography we have made
to bring all the fragile heavens
loved flesh now decaying
scattered over the dust of 10,000 archeological sites
used just once
three drops of oil
set loose in the novice’s book
one of my toes
in your slit of bamboo
how you liked it
she said she’d come back and give birth to a daughter
the birds never flew back either
to keep you I play
my hand Josanna Jeffrey:
once upon a time the lovers
to friendly fire in
each other’s war
the survivors the blissful wretched girls
devastated sent back by kings dead a year later
howls in the furnace
you withdraw your head
like a golden turkey
that has yet to be
with neither shame nor glory
you do not come
the last match
is saved for the darkness
© Dinapiera Di Donato
COLATERALES/COLLATERAL. Akashic Books, New York, 2013. (pp: 45-51)
Translation from Spanish by Ricardo Alberto Maldonado