Interview with Dan Vera
by Lori Desrosiers
LD: Speaking Wiri Wiri (winner of the Letras Latinas/Red Hen poetry prize) is one of my favorite books of poetry. It makes me think of the poetry of Victor Hernandez Cruz, where he observes Morocco and sees the similarities there to his native Puerto Rico. Your book examines growing up as a Cuban-American youth, not in Florida but in Texas, where the Spanish language and culture were quite different, and yet you found ways to connect them, crafting a unique definition of self in relation to family and culture. Your poems seem to speak to the need to define and discover our own places. This resonates with those of us whose families immigrated to America, as we try to figure out both who we are and where we belong.
DV: Well, my life is whole in the sense that it is my own. One lives it and knows it and doesn’t immediately realize the distinctions, the sense that this comes from here and this comes from there. It’s all one part. It’s very similar to my response when people ask about being bilingual. My mind doesn’t translate from one language to another, it is swimming in an ocean of both languages at the very same time. But looking back at these stories, my parents’ stories, my own reflections of what it meant to grow up where I did, you start to see the borders of language and identity. I’ve been delighted to hear from people who find the poems remind them of their German grandmother or Korean father, or the way they grew up speaking an earlier language at home. I believe we’d all be in a better place if we realized that our lives are but one installment in a grander and older story of those who came before us; we’re incomplete without that realization.
LD: The book is about language, but it is also about gay identity and history. Can you speak to this?
DV: The book is rooted in my experience growing up in multiple cultures and identities and languages. When you’re a kid you’re not as aware of the differences but just know them as the reality you live in. It isn’t until later that you start to realize the many ways you had to interpret your existence as an “outsider” in a majority culture. You find yourself living at the borders of identities, to borrow the beautiful framework Gloria Anzaldúa wrote about — the borders of ethnic, cultural and sexual identity. You learn the many ways of “passing” in and out of identity and you become an observer of the many dominant cultures around you. As a writer I’m really fascinated by the way in which we’re expected to take on identities that don’t fit us completely, that don’t cover the full range of our experience. Identities can help us survive for awhile, can be transformative even. But trying to take one aspect of ourselves as our whole identity is a pitfall, because somewhere we leave something underexposed, unacknowledged, unsaid. The more honest understanding is one of tenuous humility. We’ve found something, some part of us that helps us make sense of the world. It is not everything or the whole world and it is not ours alone. We share it with others. That’s the discovery I wanted to note in the opening poem “Kvetch” in which the speaker begins with a sense of righteousness and ownership of his own language and then suddenly falls through a trap door of truth to a revelation that everything has a longer history than we knew or could have expected.
LD: Who do you consider your “poetry parents”, that is, whose work inspires you?
DV: Well, the poet whose work is probably closest to me, the poet whose work still speaks to me, is Pablo Neruda. I first came across his work right out of college and his work has remained a guide of what’s possible for a poet to do, on the page and in life. Other poets, other cherished antepasados include Gloria Anzaldúa, Audre Lorde, Paul Monette, Adrienne Rich, Galway Kinnell. There are others I could name but I gravitate toward those poets who wrestled with how to be fully present to their world and how to be honest about the challenges they faced in life.
LD: What are you working on now? Do you have any news to share?
DV: I’ve been working on a new collection of poems. My father, who was a recurring figure in Speaking Wiri Wiri, died last year. So I’ve entered into that space of without, a conversation I have with my own shifting memory of who he was and how and why he came to this country. It all comes into my work and gets very political because the personal is political and poetry is so much biography. I feel myself stretching the line longer and wanting to explore more about the way a sense of physical place creeps into our sense of belonging. It’s funny because it feels very related to my previous work but from a different angle. Then again I believe that there are always shoots that come out of the work you’ve written, new growth as it were, branches that take you in new directions even if it came from the same trunk.
LD: You are on the board of Split this Rock, a political poetry conference. Can you tell our readers about this?
DV: Split This Rock is this marvelous festival that celebrates politically engaged poetry. It’s held every other year and the next one is April 14-17, 2016. It grew out of a community of local poets in DC that came together in 2003 to protest the Iraq War. But having discovered each other and built community through political action, they wanted to organize a national festival that would bring people together to hear and explore poetry of provocation and witness; not only on issues of war and peace, but race, class, environmental and gender issues. We recognize that poetry has been a vital force in both testifying to what is really going on, and finding new directions in response to these issues of justice. The festival has grown over the years and now includes workshops and panels during the day with evening readings of featured poets mostly from across the country but also international. It’s been an honor to serve on the board and help the organization grow and be responsive to the shifting political and social climate we live in. The organization also sponsors an astounding array of youth programming and it’s been moving to see young poets find a way to speak and respond to their challenges through poetry. You can check out www.splitthisrock.org for more information. His book is available at Amazon and other bookstores. Read more about Dan at http://www.danvera.com.
Poems by Dan Vera from Speaking Wiri Wiri: The Cuban Friendship Urn The memory of the “Maine” will last forever through the centuries as will the bonds of friendship between Cuba and the United States of North America. - Inscription on the Cuban Friendship Urn, Washington, DC Graceful lines in relief portray a goddess of liberty beside the mast of the majestic ship lying battered in the waters of Havana harbor. This is the Cuban Friendship Urn gift from the Machado government to commemorate the ties that bound and bind the memory of the sinking that led to the war that led to the liberation that led to the occupation that led to the revolution that led to where we are. Faraway from the prying eyes of tourists to the capital city or anyone who might discover how friendship even etched in stone can leave awkward silences in history. This is why the urn now stands majestically beneath an overpass beside a parking lot behind Jefferson's enormous shoulder. This is how we commemorate the history of a friendship between two nations bound together irreperably in the wreckage of history. From Speaking Wiri Wiri. Copyright © 2013 by Dan Vera. Reprinted by permission of Red Hen Press. The Constant Agitation Over What Belongs The honorable senator from Texas demands to see the papers from the exotic invaders who have been allowed for years to swarm freely across the Gulf of Mexico. He warns of invasion and the spoiling of order. He begins gesticulating his outrage at the intrusion of the foreign-born menace. The artilleries of defense are mustered fortifications of stone and chain are built yet in the end the monarch butterflies defeated the insistent borders of men. The honest answer is always yes to what came hidden in the hold of the ship what was carried illicitly by the wind what moved by its own motion as any organism goes about free. From Speaking Wiri Wiri. Copyright © 2013 by Dan Vera. Reprinted by permission of Red Hen Press.