The Interview with Rhina P. Espaillat Page Two
by Vera Ignatowitsch
Vera: You’ve written about your father’s strictness regarding language, and about chafing against it as you grew up in a changing bilingual environment. Did these things inform your poems? If so, then how?
Rhina: Papa’s devotion to our native language and culture affected my attitude toward identity and how enriching it is to be “multiple.” I love translating, largely because it connects me to the rest of the world. I think it also influenced my poetry, because bilingualism teaches you that language is only an attempt at conveying reality, which can’t really be “captured” in any way, only approached tangentially with fairly unreliable tools. But they’re all we have, so it’s important to use them as well and as imaginatively as we can.
Vera: Where, do you think, does poetry come from? What purpose does it serve?
Rhina: It feels as if it comes from an outside voice, but of course that’s our own submerged mind, saying things that are more complex than the conscious thoughts we act on and live by. That’s why poetry can do things that reasonable, logical language can’t always handle, such as say and unsay at the same time. A good example of that is Catullus’s “I hate you and I love you.”. Perfectly possible in the real world of feeling, but impossible in the logical world of thought. I think its purpose—if it has one—is to tell us what we really mean under what we think we mean. And to communicate, of course, with the living and the dead, the absent, the imaginary, the not-human…
Vera: Where does your muse reside?
Rhina: Wherever I happen to be at the moment. I “hear” a lot of poems arriving when I’m cooking or cleaning or sewing. I wait until I hear the whole poem in my head before writing it down though, as, if I try to write the first draft before I’ve heard the whole thing, I usually lose it, because it stops talking.
Vera: As a teacher and mentor of poets, do you believe that everyone has the ability to connect with poetry? Perhaps even to write it?
Rhina: Oh yes: it’s universal, like dancing, or drawing on any available surface, or telling stories. The arts are part of what we’re wired to do; that’s why every society on earth has them.
Vera: You’ve written about family, love, loss, life on every level. Are there any topics you haven’t tackled but want to?
Rhina: No, I just write whatever wants to be written. But of course after the first draft I revise and correct. I don’t correct the thought, though—the “what”—only the “how” of the telling, and I don’t begin a poem by deciding what I want it to say or be about. I just listen internally.
Vera: What draws you to formal poetry vs free verse?
Rhina: Most of the time it’s the music of the poem I hear first—the beat, and whatever rhymes or repetitions or wordplay show up first—rather than any specific subject. The poem itself decides that, and also whether it’s going to be in one language or the other, or free verse, which doesn’t happen often. Formal poetry feels more natural, but I don’t argue with poems that come in free verse.
Vera: You’ve translated work by both Robert Frost and Richard Wilbur into Spanish. Have you translated free verse poems?
Rhina: Sometimes, but it’s not as much fun, and I don’t feel as secure with it.
Vera: Who are some of your favorite poets working today?
Rhina: Too many to list! This is a very rich period for poetry, especially because the “poetry wars” are pretty much over and poets are not divided into the two silly camps anymore. My favorite poets are those who want to communicate, even with absent readers, rather than those who want only to hear themselves and don’t care if they say anything comprehensible or not. I don’t care for hermetic poetry or writing that is pure language without at least one foot on the ground we all live on.
Vera: What, in your opinion, can all of us in the poetry world do to promote a wider understanding and appreciation of fine poetry?
Rhina: It helps to read it aloud, because it’s not whole on the page, any more than a musical score is whole without being performed by instruments and/or voices. I think poetry readings are important, and poetry shared between people, and combined with other arts, such as music (melopoeia) or the visual arts (ekphrasis) or the performing arts. We need it in our lives, I think, and that’s why it’s so important—and enriching—to keep it as part of every human being’s education. It speaks to something in the individual, and in the society, that nothing else speaks to in quite the same way.
Vera: Do you think that poetry access on the internet is a good thing?
Rhina: Yes, a wonderful thing, because it reaches people who wouldn’t dream of browsing in the poetry section of a bookstore, for instance, and then they discover that it belongs to them and they stop fearing it as something “elitish” and only for some people.
Vera: Do you believe in a poetic renaissance? Is it coming soon? Never? Are we already in it?
Rhina: We’re in it! Poetry is forever described as dying, but I don’t believe it will until we do, down to the last person.
Vera: Do you consider the work for which you’ve been acclaimed to be your best?
Rhina: “Best” is a slippery word. What reaches one reader profoundly may not touch another at all, and my own opinion of any poem of mine is as personal as any stranger’s. I love the ones that remind me of x place or what y said or did the day I wrote it. The poem isn’t really “finished” until the reader—whoever and wherever he is—brings himself to it and finishes it, at least for himself, with his own associations and memories. My job as the poet is to leave the door open for the reader, and hope that he joins me in it to some degree, to see and feel some of what my experience showed me.
Vera: Which poems of yours are your favorites?
Rhina: Those that remind me of the people I love and have loved most—my husband, children, parents, relatives, old friends—or places where important things happened. I’m not sure those are my “best,” though, whatever that means.
Vera: How does age and life experience affect your poetry?
Rhina: Those are what the poems work with and spring from most easily. When the poems are about something else, they speak through my own life and experiences, the way water flows through a pipe or hose or ditch to get where it’s going. In that sense the poet is a kind of living conduit for what may well be universal and timeless, even if it pours out through the personal and time-bound. The artist is that in general, in fact, whatever the art. My late husband was a sculptor, and I have musician friends. We all share something, though it’s hard to pin down exactly what it is. Maybe a love of design, of repetition and order, that is always threatening to fail, but that we enjoy rescuing. And, of course, we share the desire to communicate, tell our stories and human lives in general in any way we can, respond to joy and loss and the awareness of mortality and other inevitabilities.
Vera: Tell us about Powow River Poets: how it came about, and what the group means and accomplishes.
Rhina: I was one of the 4 or 5 founders of that group shortly after moving to Newburyport from NYC. I founded another poetry group with several other poets in Queens, NY, the Fresh Meadows Poets, still going strong, and another in Wayland , MA, where the members invited me to come and advise them on how to foster such a group. The Powows have won an inordinate number of the prizes awarded for poetry in this country; they’re very talented people from various walks of life, but in addition to the natural talent there’s another key to the group’s success: a strong commitment to craft, to the learning of formal prosody, even if what you write is largely free verse, because we believe that every workman does better if he masters the tools of his trade—all of them—whether he always uses each one, or sometimes, or never. And one more thing that contributes to our strength: we all respect and wish each other well, and criticize the work—always truthfully and fully—but not the person.
Vera: You’ve lived through much change and evolution in published poetry. Where do you think the most fertile ground for poetry lies next?
Rhina: Wherever the poet happens to focus his attention, exercise his imagination and use language with all the skill he can muster!
Vera: What are your goals as a poet at this point in your life?
Rhina: To keep writing as long as I can, trust my friends to tell me the truth about the results, and share my poems with strangers.
Vera: Thank you, Rhina!
Rhina: My green card photo. Age 7
Rhina: This is my favorite sculpture in the world. Alfred made it, from a photograph of his father—David, top center, aged about 20—between two brothers and his parents, on the day in 1919 that he became an immigrant from Romania and “left for America.” Like my father, he never saw his parents again; it’s a typical immigrant pose, solemn and composed, despite the terrible two-way pull tearing apart the people in the photo, and in the sculpture Alfred made of it.
I love it because of the volumes it speaks without language, and because it’s a testament to Alfred’s capacity to read the human body and face, and capture what he finds there. And also because it speaks for the many, many people who came here to begin a new life and devoted themselves and their future to this country in so many ways—Alfred, born in the Bronx, was a World War II veteran and a teacher—who are now being spoken of as trash that ought to “go back where it came from.”
Rhina with her husband Alfred Moskowitz