melanie: first off, I know that you recently took a trip to Cuba where did you go; what did you do; what was it like? I want all the details! ( =
gloria: My first journey to Cuba was in 1999. I wanted to visit the last socialist country in the world before Castro died. Through long time editor Bob Sharrard at City Lights (one of my publishers), I made several writer friends in Havana. Last spring break, I snuck off again, delivered some cash and medical supplies to friends I met through the Cuban-American writer Achy Obejas, and traveled a bit to the colonial city Trinidad. I have a writing project which is partly set in Havana, so I’ll return again during my spring 2011 sabbatical. Life is very difficult for most Cubans, and yet they exude joy and graciousness, always have time to talk with you, help you, invite you to someplace. Cuban music and dance are legendary and the streets are literally singing. Because of political relations with the U.S., many great contemporary Cuban writers have never been translated into English. This is a country that loves poetry, is poetry, practices poetic justice in everyday life. The mix of European and African cultures has created a deeply beautiful and imaginative people, ingeniously inventive in the face of material adversity and remarkably open to embracing the new and the newcomer. No money for pesticides? Initiate organic farming. No steady supply of pharmaceuticals? Grow and export the herbs from which most major medicines are made. There is a district of Havana, Regla, to which one must take a ferry across the bay. Regla is a Leninist/Santeria stronghold. What could be more syncretic! My friends there see no conflict in this combo.
melanie: you are a woman of many talents. you write fiction, poetry and you do scholarly work. what is that like? do you find that they feed into each other in some ways?
gloria: Yes, all language feeds into what are sometimes arbitrary divisions of genre. Genre helps libraries and bookstores and professional critics organize texts. But literature doesn’t care about that. Again, writing is syncretic, drawing upon any and all resources available. In most Latin American countries, a writer writes and isn’t necessarily categorized as a poet or a fiction writer or a journalist, etc. Poetry, the lyric, is our first language, so to speak. Emerson insists that “every word was once a poem.” Prose enables greater length and certain narrative flexibilities. As Poe says, once a poem gets longer than three pages, it turns into fiction. The poets I most respect are poet scholars—by that I don’t mean academic scholars, but keepers and critics of literature from the perspective of practicing writers. Robert Duncan, for whom the Poetics Program at (the now defunct) New College of California was founded, advocated, even demanded it of serious students. I taught in that program for fifteen years before coming to CCA. Writing and reading are inseparable for me. That said, think of the great visual artists who worked in many media, such as Picasso—he’s best known for painting, but he made wonderful sculpture, prints, drawings, ceramics, etc.
melanie: i know you have done extensive research on both Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman. what attracted you to these writers in particular and to 19th century literature in general?
gloria: ED and WW are our first “American” poets. They wrote in the American language. They were in conversation with the great writers of Europe and Asia, leaving little trace of their reading. They wrote at the dawn of American literature as though no one ever wrote before them. What freedom! One loves them each differently as one loves variously. The 19th century and early modernism of the United States and Europe produced immense aesthetic and technological breakthroughs, and literature offers us some delicious evidence.
And reading those big baggy novels reminds me of the sweetest times in my childhood—I was the oldest and expected to babysit. I would sit by the crib and polish off a few chapters while the baby slept. The house was quiet and the world was calm . .
melanie: you are a really wonderful teacher and as an aspiring teacher myself I would like to know how you do it. I mean, can you tell me a little about your teaching philosophy, how you prepare to teach a class, etc?
gloria: My 7th grade social studies “career” project was on teaching. I grew up in a chaotic household, with a mentally ill mother, so school served as refuge, the place where I could be better than myself. For me, study is anchor. One can take it anywhere! My father, who escaped from the Holocaust in 1938, came from a long line of Torah scholars.
Teaching involves constant learning and enables a means of organizing and making form from ideas. It’s not just a performative/ intellectual vocation—yes, you have to be on, and yes, the collage of personalities in a room is demanding, even exhausting. But like making art, one’s “self” is marvelously lost in the doing. Teaching keeps me playing with the latest ideas and theories. Believe me, there’s a lot happening in the 19th century!
As for prep, I tend to read any text I assign two or three times before I present it. Then I do critical research. I like to put literature in historical and political context, and while I don’t teach “theory” per se, I’m not afraid it using it as a lens. Then I write out a lecture. Which is somewhat laughable, because the best stuff gets said in dialogue with the class. I re-read assigned material as students are reading it to keep it fresh in my mind. Close reading in class always opens up any piece of literature while retaining its inherent mystery.
melanie: tell me a little about the piece i just read “Nominative Destiny.” I liked how playful it was and how the characters became more and more confused as the story went on. I kept thinking about a theory of language that questions the value of a name’s ability to truly “reference” anything “real” in the world. But, tell me, what inspired the piece? how were you thinking about it?
gloria: Names are representations, in as much as they are not the thing but a rendition. A powerful and often dangerous rendition, possibly an attenuation of complexities. The piece derives from two experiences. A friend showed up at her daughter’s school for parent night and there was no name tag for her. Soon after, I attended the wedding of a young graphic artist who was born and raised in Berkeley, whose parents are prominent writers, and who was a highly unconventional kid. She decided to take her husband’s last name. The writing got goofy at the table and spiraled out. I’m fond of digression, I guess. And there’s a lot of space in social satire.
melanie: do you have any advice for young/aspiring writers/artists/thinkers?
gloria: Read beyond your means. Write every day, even if it’s one word. Watch something grow and observe it closely. Live in the world. Walk. Engage deeply in something other than literature. Protect your need to make art. Before making a major decision, ask yourself, Is it good for the work? Find an anchor, so you can fling yourself into numerous voids and spring back.
melanie: finally, can you think of a daydream that you’ve had recently that made you laugh out loud?
gloria: Obama is giving a state of the union address on TV. Suddenly he rips off his tie, looks straight into our eyes, and says, Now let’s get real. I know many of you have been disappointed with me. And I’ll tell you why. He launches a full out excoriation of corporations, monopolies, war, injustice, his sucky advisors, etc. He officially pronounces the end of all wars the U.S. is engaged in, closes Guantanamo with a pen stroke, and restores habeas corpus. Suddenly a bunch of Bollywood singers and dancers rush up to the dais and break into song. He’s orchestrated the whole thing behind the backs of his press agents and bodyguards and cabinet. It’s a moment akin to the death of Franco. People take to the streets and reclaim the country.