"Throughout my life, I have thought of myself as a bridge: as a bridge between Latin America and North America. As a bridge between socialism and feminism. As a bridge between generations. Sometimes even as a bridge between genres—"
Margaret Randall is the author of over 100 books of poetry, essays, oral history and photography. Her current publications include Something's Wrong With the Cornfields (Skylight Press, 2011), As If the Empty Chair/ Como si la silla vacia (Wings Press, 2011), and First Laugh: Essays from 2000-2009 (University of Nebraska Press, 2011). I spoke to Margaret several weeks ago. What follows is her story, her poetics, and life while living in Mexico, Cuba and Nicaragua.
The first part of Margaret's interview was posted here on March 15, 2011. Please leave a comment.
To contact Margaret Randall, visit her at www.margaretrandall.org.
How does geographic travel play a role in your poetic life?
Geographic travel must play a huge role in my poetic life since it plays such a huge role in my life overall. I am naturally curious about other peoples, other cultures, other landscapes. And I have sought them out, as I have already mentioned. Which has meant that I have written about many other places, hopefully not from a tourist perspective but from the perspective of up-close hands-on experience, even if it has been the experience of an outsider.
Also borders figure prominently in my work. I am fascinated by borders. Arbitrary borders, those constructed by foreign interests of different sorts, infuriate me. Natural borders are generally more malleable, and also very interesting.
Throughout my life, I have thought of myself as a bridge: as a bridge between Latin America and North America. As a bridge between socialism and feminism. As a bridge between generations. Sometimes even as a bridge between genres—I am also a photographer, and love it when my work can straddle different genres, or when I can work with others on multi-genre work. In this sense, then, travel becomes more than only geographical.
You mentioned in your biography that your parents’ support and encouragement profoundly influenced you. Can you tell us more about this?
I was fortunate to have loving parents, who did the best they could. My father, especially, was always extremely supportive of his children’s needs and desires. I grew up in a generation when being an artist wasn’t the most popular middle-class thing. Parents wanted their kids to get viable professions, be able to support themselves—although of course being a girl meant that my parents expected me to marry and that a man would support me. But despite all this, both my parents deeply respected creative expression. So when I early on said I would be a writer, they encourage me and always showed me they were proud of me in this respect.
I was also fortunate in that my parents were quite liberal and open-minded. They were not leftists, but they certainly weren’t rightists, and as they aged they were influenced by my brother’s and my left views. They were not religious, which I think was very helpful. Their veiled anti-Semitism was a problem, and something we often fought about, but in general they were quite open and it was easier for them than it would have been for many other parents of their generation to accept the fact that two of their three children were quite avant garde in their views.
During the years in which I lived in Cuba and Nicaragua, two countries completely out of favor with the U.S. administrations of the times (and still!), my parents visited me in those places. They were curious and interested. As I’ve aged, and now that they are both long gone, I realize how unusual it is to have parents like mine, especially at the time.
Let’s talk about your poetic formation and influences.
Okay. Early on, I would say that I was influenced by the Beats. We were of about the same generation, and Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” was very important to me when it was first published. It may have been the first poem that spoke powerfully to me. Like many in my generation, poetry had been taught to me by rote and without feeling or connection. My life was not exactly like Ginsberg’s, but the power of his poem resonated with me—mostly, perhaps, because the 1950s were such hypocritical years and that poem is a cry for recognition of the real.
Later I was very much influenced by William Carlos Williams. I was fortunate enough to meet him toward the end of his life, when I lived in New York City and he lived right across the river in New Jersey. I visited, shared my incipient poetry with him, and received is invaluable criticism and encouragement. You’ll notice that to this point I have only mentioned male poets. Women of my generation was often groupies, somebody’s girlfriend or lover or wife. It was a very hard time for women who were serious writers. But feminism came along, and with it many great women’s voices were heard. I am deeply indebted to Adrienne Rich, Sonia Sanchez, Joy Harjo, and many other extraordinary female poets.
In New York, in the late fifties, perhaps my greatest influence was a woman, but she wasn’t a poet. She was a painter. She was Elaine de Kooning, and we were very close friends until her death in 1989. This year I have just published a collection of poems, SOMETHING’S WRONG WITH THE CORNFIELDS, dedicated to her. She was pivotal in my early life, as an influence, as an example of a creative woman who wouldn’t let anything get in the way of her creativity.
Some Latin American writers have also been very influential. First of all, the Peruvian Cesar Vallejo, who I believe is the greatest poet the Spanish language has ever known. Then, more contemporary writers such as Roque Dalton, Juan Gelman, Elena Poniatowska, and others.
I am curious about your book SOMETHING’S WRONG WITH THE CORNFIELDS. You state these poems are the "impossible poems". Can you expand on this? You also dedicated the book to de Kooning. Is there something in your collection that refers to her work? It seems like the collection takes the reader on a journey from NYC to Peru to Mexico to Cuba, and the poetic voice is both speaking from memory and present. I love to hear a bit more about the work.
First, about Elaine de Kooning. As I mentioned, she was a close friend and tremendous influence in my life. More than in terms of "voice" (because she was a painter, not a writer, our mediums were different), in terms of how she modeled being a creative woman. Her ability to see and feel what was around her, her energy and dedication to the work, her discipline, and her absolute refusal to "disappear" into the role available to women at the time. Her life also taught me that one has to be willing to give a lot up to be a woman artist, and that one must weigh those trade-offs every step of the way. Because some of them one may not want or be willing to give up. On the other hand, the system or society, always tells us there are certain choices... but it doesn't tell the truth. The choices it offers are rarely the only or real ones.
SOMETHING'S WRONG WITH THE CORNFIELDS is dedicated to Elaine, but there is no particular poem in that collection for or about her. Those poems are mostly about the great changes to our earth, air, water, food, etc., in other words the changed ecology we must deal with these days. And when I say they are the "impossible" poems, it is because I use a language taken from the distorted language the system has put upon us, a language in which words that once meant one thing now mean something entirely different, sometimes diametrically opposed to their original meanings. I explain this in the introduction to the book. As for taking the reader on a journey, I can see why you got that impression because there is a small section in the book called "My Cities" in which I wrote a series of poems about some of the major cities in which I have lived. But even the city poems are really about larger climactic issues and issues of human violence and destruction as these affect those cities.
As far as Elaine is concerned, I have a very long prose piece about her in a previous book, MY TOWN. This book is about growing up here in Albuquerque, during the 1940s and 1950s, a time in which McCarthyism was suffocating the nation and places like New Mexico (home to the A-bomb, etc.) were particularly vulnerable. The piece in that book about Elaine is simply called "Elaine," and speaks of her life, how we met, our relationship, and her influence. It ended up in that book because there are several "portraits" in that book, pieces about people who were important to me here at that time. Elaine and I actually met here in New Mexico, when she was invited to be a visiting professor of art at the University of New Mexico.
Oral history has been prominent in my work. For many years I did oral history, especially with women. It all started because of two things. On the one hand, my discovery of feminism in 1969, which I think I've already alluded to. I was in Mexico then, and feminist documents and articles began coming from the north (the U.S.) and east (western Europe). To be able to look at patriarchy as a political category, to be able to look at how it shapes power, was very important in my persona life as well as in my work. Almost immediately, at the end of that same year as a matter of fact, I ended up going to live in Cuba. And my big question, quite naturally, was: "Does socialism liberate women?" I wasn't an ethnologist or anthropologist; in fact I had no formal education at all. So my way of finding out things I wanted to know was to ask. I decided to research Cuban women, interview as many as I could, and put together a book with their stories. I mentioned there being two things. One was feminism and the other was the revolution: the Cuban revolution and the liberation struggles that were seething throughout the continent at the time.
One of the results of revolution was that people began wanting to listen to history's real protagonists, not take their history from the books written by those of the owner class, the victors, the conquerors. So Cuba was a very propitious place for me to do this first oral history project. I went to work for a publishing house, presented my idea, and my boss encouraged me. Of course, as I say, I knew nothing about the mechanics of interviewing, or about the ethical questions implicit in this sort of work. I learned as I went along. This turned out to be a two-year project and ended up with the publication of CUBAN WOMEN NOW, my first book about Cuba and my first book of oral history.
In those days people in the U.S. referred to oral history and in Latin America the term "testimonio" was more often used. A number of important books emerged, and people began meeting to discuss the problems and solutions in this new genre. In 1970 I was invited to be a juror at the Casa de las Americas literary contest in Cuba, in the poetry genre. But that same year, my friend Rodolfo Walsh, an Argentinian who had written an important oral history work called Operacion Masacre, suggested that Casa add a new genre to the contest, a genre called testimonio. From then on, prizes for the best testimonio were given almost every year. Walsh was one of the disappeared, murdered by his country's paramilitary forces. I speak about him in TO CHANGE THE WORLD: MY YEARS IN CUBA. And this year, I was invited back to once again be a juror at the Casa contest, but this time in testimonial literature (which is what they are now calling it).
I think my interest in oral history, or testimonio, comes from my poet's attention to voice in general: how people speak, how words are put together, the poetry of language. As I wrote more books of oral history (over the years I have written 25 or 30 I think), I found that people's voices also found their way into my own poetry and prose as well. Perhaps the genres became more fluid in my work, which is something I believe has happened in literature in general as well... today it is often difficult to categorize a piece of writing as only a poem or only an essay or only a novel.
I would like to explore with you my poetics as they have developed from when I was in my very early twenties to now: more than half a century! To begin with I would say that my earliest work was derivative and somewhat romantic. I was mostly reading Whitman and Williams, and then some of the Black Mountain poets (of the generation just ahead of my own) and of course the Beats. Gradually I began to honor myself more and little by little develop my own voice--which of course has also changed as I have grown older and according to my particular experiences and poetic interests. I would say that I strive for a certain seamlessness between form and content. Sound is important to me, and rhythm. I work for weeks and sometimes months on a single poem, often have several poems going at the same time.
Passion is important to me as well. I remember years ago I would write poems and at a certain point realize I had, say, 60 or 80 of them and figure it was time to see how they might fit together to make a book. I haven't done that for a long, long time. Today what is more likely to happen is that I begin writing about a certain subject or in a certain voice, and then become deeply involved, writing only those poems until I am "done," done meaning there is nothing else for me to say. Examples of this are all my more recent books. THEIR BACKS TO THE SEA was a poetic exploration of Easter Island, where I think I mentioned we traveled several years ago. MY TOWN is a collection of poems and prose pieces about growing up here in Albuquerque during the 1940s and '50s. With SOMETHING'S WRONG WITH THE CORNFIELDS I wanted to go as deep as I could with my feelings about how our world has been turned on end, "patas arriba" as Eduardo Galeano has said, by systems that are devoted to violence, greed, and the distortion of everything we hold dear. And RUINS, the book that will appear in the fall from The University of New Mexico Press, is a series of poems rooted in ancient ruins. Of course these categories are not cleanly separated. If I am concerned about one or another of these subjects or issues, that concern is likely to show up in all my work. But the books do tend to form themselves somehow in a way they didn't used to.