Rhina Espaillat: "If poetry is really good, really honest, it can deal with whatever the daily crisis is"

An interview with the lauded Dominican-American poet on craft, catastrophe, and the commonplace

The following interview was originally published in the Summer 2020 print issue. To get access to future issues (and for the full FORMA experience) subscribe now.

Poet Rhina Espaillat is no stranger to crisis. A prominent political family in the Dominican Republic, the Espaillats were exiled from their homeland in the wake of national turmoil. Under duress, they emigrated to the United States in 1939 when Rhina was six-years-old. The family settled in New York City, where she eventually became a teacher and a poet. Espaillat’s eleven volumes of poetry are known for an ongoing celebration of quotidian things. In spite of—or perhaps because of—her tumultuous beginnings, Espaillat holds space for the sacred nature of the mundane. As we find ourselves dwelling in the juxtaposition of ordinary life and extraordinary circumstances, we at FORMA recognize that Espaillat has something to offer. This spring I chatted with the celebrated poet about craft, catastrophe, and the commonplace.

In reading about your work over the last few years, I have repeatedly come across the idea that you are a sort of celebrant of the quotidian. Do you think of your work in this way? Is this something you set out to do?

Yes, I guess it is quotidian, because poetry comes out of one's lived experience, and I’ve lived a relatively quiet, ordinary life as a family member, wife and mother, teacher, neighbor, and so forth. I didn't “set out” to write that way. It’s just the life I understand best from the inside, the one that allows me to be useful and fulfilled. Of course, your life is filtered through your thoughts, memories, and temperament, so someone else’s view of my life might be very different from mine.

This reminds me of the opening of your poem “Look Long Enough” where you write “look long enough at anything you know / and you will cease to know it.” When I first read that, I wondered whether it runs counter to the popular notion that one should write what one knows. How do you find a balance between these lines and the claim that “poetry comes out of one’s lived experience”?

Well, poetry comes out of the lived experience because that’s what surrounds us, but we don’t “know” what surrounds us the way a telescope knows the sky or a microscope knows what is too small to be seen by our range of vision. We know what’s apparent, within the range of our senses and our understanding, but that’s a fraction of what there is. The smart devices we sometimes envy don’t “know” what we know either, because their “senses” are different and they have other purposes; they don’t even know enough to envy us.

I think of a poem of my own as a familiar room with windows in it that look outside, but that also reflects me looking outside. If I manage to get the reader to join me in there, and if the poem works–that is, if it communicates and invites the reader to keep me company awhile–whatever we look at may look different to each of us, but also reflect us both, to ourselves and to each other.

I’m not sure it’s possible to tell the writer—or the painter or composer or any other artist—what he “should” be drawn to or limit himself to. The most I can say is that my own poems generally happen in the space I live in, but there’s no limit to the view, either through the window, or from the reflective glass, or from what the mind does with either. As it happens, my son drove me to a doctor’s appointment this morning and then stayed for lunch, and we rambled for the rest of the afternoon from medicine through current scientific events–he’s a physicist–to certain lines from “Tree at My Window” and the way living things constitute a continuum, and somehow landed with Odysseus in the underworld trading news with the dead after interviewing Tiresias. I couldn’t map that trip to save my life, but it made perfect sense in the doing.

You speak of the reader “keeping you company a while,” which is a really lovely notion. When working on a poem, then, do you think about how you might keep your reader around, so to speak? That is, do you think about it in terms of making your time together enjoyable such that your reader might want to linger with you? Or do you primarily think about working out a poem that works in a self-contained sort of way and then hope the reader enjoys it?

No, it’s not so much making our time together enjoyable as making it an occasion for communication, a sharing not of verbal cookies and coffee, but of those things that tend to be hard to put into words except with images and music, even when they’re universal, and whether or not they’re painful or comforting.

Have you read Scott Cairns’ new collection, Anaphora, by any chance?

No, I haven’t.

In that collection he has a poem called “Spare Opacities” and since I can’t find it online anywhere I will copy it down here:

I was talking with my sister about her preference for the
denotative poem, which is a preference I cannot share. She was
Staring out the window, and, far as I could tell, was studying
The neighbor’s gray cat, which—for its part—was studying our
Bird feeder, its tail twitching just enough to keep the birds from
Lighting on the feeder. “I find comfort,” she was saying, “in
Words that point directly to things, words that mean.” I looked
Into my cup where the dark sheen of the coffee offered an
Image of the skylight in miniature. “But sis, words that serve
Only to point to prior things have acquiesced to the least and
Lowest operation of meaning, as well as to the poverty of the
Nonexistant mean; they are also, I daresay, mean.” She turned
From the window to face me. “You’re always doing that,
Taking a simple, an honest statement and making it so goddam
Loaded, so goddam ambiguous that it doesn’t mean anything.
I like poems that point to real things, real events, actual
feelings.” The coffee had gone a little cold, but its bitterness
Brought a surprising freshness to the tongue. “That’s exactly
The problem,” I said to her. “The word or poem that points
Only to appearances can never get anywhere near the real,
Which is necessarily comprised of what is not apparent, even as
It offers and honors what is.” She collected her things, getting
Ready to leave, clearly paling to say nothing more. I couldn’t
Stop talking. “I like when poems help me see things differently,
Or when I register a faint shock of recognition in their terms.”
As the door closed behind her, I felt suddenly very sad, and
Drained my cold cup.

So here is my question: do you buy the suggestion that this poem seems to be offering, that denotative and connotative language in poetry are at odds? And in celebrating the quotidian (to continue using the word I brought up earlier), do you necessarily have to lean toward the connotative?

No, I don’t think they’re at odds, they just have different work to do. It’s like the difference between the painting on the wall and the nail it hangs on. The painting is what art—any art–makes of what it “sees” or senses behind the quotidian, but you need the nail to keep it up there. The argument between the siblings is interesting but silly because it’s trying to give more weight to one or the other, the perceived or the intuited, in a poem, which is just another version of the “form vs. content” pseudo-distinction. If the poem works, the two feel united, like the tenor and vehicle of an apt metaphor.

I like the poem very much, by the way. It’s interesting–and right–that the brother is the one telling the story, but the sister is the one who is so frustrated that she leaves. They both understand–and regret–the difference of opinion and what it suggests about human relationships, but neither one knows what to do about it, except walk out or “drain” the “cold cup” of love that balks at its inability to deal with what ought to be trivia but isn’t.

Does a good poem, then, balance the two effectively?

I would say so; wouldn’t you? In fact, I would call that a requirement. And here’s another question for you: Why has the term “quotidian” applied to my writing attracted your attention? Does it strike you as negative, or maybe inaccurate in my case? I’ve never been troubled by it: Should I be? If so, why? Someone once warned me against describing a shade of brown as reminiscent of my mother’s hair, because that isn’t “weird” enough, and she wanted my poems to be more weird. How do you feel about that degree of deliberate “anti-quotidianhood”?

I am actually quite fond of the quotidian nature of your poetry. I don’t think you should be bothered by it at all, but I’ve wondered if poets (and other artists) whose works get described with that word feel as if it simplifies their work too much. For some people, the word has a negative connotation, as if it’s a relic of an era when the scope of a woman’s life was more limited. I’ve heard that before.

You mention a reader who felt like your poetry wasn’t “weird” enough . . . That seems like an odd standard by which to judge poetry. It sounds dangerous, even. Am I wrong to think that if I am actively writing to be “weird,” then I’m probably not being very hospitable to my reader?

As for “weirdness,” if it comes naturally to the poet–that is, if it’s genuine and not “put on” for effect–I don’t have anything against it. But “weird on purpose” is a kind of “Look at me!” approach to the reader, and I don’t enjoy that when I come across it. I wouldn’t call it “dangerous,” but maybe a touch pretentious. And yes, maybe inhospitable to the reader, as you say.

As we write, we are in the midst of a global pandemic, a situation the likes of which very few of us have ever seen before. In these strange times, what poets have you found yourself turning to?

As it happens, I haven’t been reading poets from the past, but people writing now, several of them friends, or poets recently acquainted with or heard, who have asked me for blurbs for upcoming books, or comments on manuscripts they’re working on, or translations to one language of work they’ve done in the other and would like to publish in bilingual format. I’ve been doing lots of that all this year, most recently translations and a book intro for a Dominican poet and painter named Jimmy Valdez, whose book is being published by Bunker Hill Community College, where I’ve been “Distinguished Artist in Residence” (that’s more title than woman!) for almost two years now. I’ve just finished commenting on a gorgeous manuscript by one of the Powow River Poets, David Davis, among others in English, and before that helping to edit the second anthology of the Powow River Poets, which is due out this fall or winter.

It’s been a busy year: a good thing for me because it keeps me from obsessing too much about the virus, the economic situation, politics, police shootings of unarmed runners, and so forth. I enjoy keeping track of the work of poet friends, especially young ones. The PRP, which I co-founded with two or three others in 1992, is a very gifted group, and I also work with, help, and translate many members of the Dominican diaspora writers and other Latin American poets eager to publish here in our second language.

But there are poets I return to again and again, whatever the local circumstances of the moment: Frost, Wilbur, Kunitz, Hecht, Dickinson, Whitman, Herbert, and of course the classic poets in my first language: St. John of the Cross, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Neruda, Incháustegui Cabral, Borges, Pedro Mir, Manuel del Cabral . . . the list goes on and on! And I’ve translated work by a great many of them, in both directions.

I haven’t deliberately looked for poems to help me cope with this moment. If poetry is really good, really honest, it can deal with whatever the daily crisis is, social or personal, transcendent or brief, because what poetry does at its best is to say, “You’re not the first or the last to encounter this; there’s a chorus of voices behind you, and another one ahead of you, and they’re all speaking to all of us, including you.” But there are individual, isolated poems that have stayed with me from the first reading and been a source of comfort over the years, such as this one by Mark Van Doren, a quiet poet without fireworks who deserves to be remembered:

In bitterness of heart I write,
but gentleness of mind.
For thinking slow, I may remember
that the world is kind—
or was—or would be—and contains,
like dew within the rose,
some delicate, some hidden friends.
I must remember those.
And so I do: and drop by drop,
I am rewarded well,
by tincture, or as weeping gold
tempers the harsh bell.

David Kern is editor-in-chief of FORMA Journal, the director of the Close Reads Podcast Network, and VP of Integrated Resources for the CiRCE Institute.

Image from a linocut handmade by Kirstie Ruffatto