& A with Virgil Suarez
~RYAN G. VAN CLEAVE~
LA POESIA ESTÁ
EN EL CORAZÓN:
VIRGIL SUAREZ'S TRANSFORMATION
Suarez Interviewed by Ryan G. Van Cleave
[I first met Virgil
his novel, The Cutter, which I found on a shelf at Epitome, a
coffee and hemp-product shop. This slim book opened my eyes to
literature with a vividness I had never before experienced. I
bought his other novels (Havana Thursdays, Going Under, and Latin
Jazz) and read them in short order, devouring each like a starving
man recently come upon a fully-stocked buffet table.
found Suarez's email address and began to send him fan mail, and he was
so kind and prompt and generous with his responses that our email chats
quickly turned into a serious discussion on craft and his new life as a
poet. What follows here is a recent exchange via email on how
knockout fiction writer remade himself into a first-rate poet.
it's a long, arduous process to develop their own voice. But from
Cutter, your first novel, to You Come Singing, your first
book, you seemed to have yours nailed right off. How did you
of voice should always be there, no matter what, whether you are
on your first book or your last. I've always felt voice to be the
most important part of writing a story, a novel, even a poem.
of my poems tend to be narrative in nature, but when I look at Li Po or
Tu Fu or Basho, you can still get a strong sense of voice from the
lines. Place helps me discover voice. I find that by
about some aspect of my life in the past
in Cuba, I can always tap into my normal voice, the voice I've come to
depend on over the years. In "telling" something, my voice comes
through ÷ it's a dependable voice that I hear, always. It
talking in my head, something I remember about, say, my childhood,
a uncle did, or once told me. Like my uncle Jorge who every
for the last sixty years has squirted lime or lemon juice into his eyes
because he says it makes him see better. Or the same uncle
a raw chicken egg in a shot glass of vermouth. How can one forget
these thing? There's my aunt who's had her bunions removed three
times now, each time the doctor cutting more of her feet away.
growths," she calls these knobby protrusions. And there's my
grandmother who had a pacemaker and once claimed she could pick up
games in English which used to torment her. How can one not
to listen to the voices in their lives, the present, the past, whatever
speaks to them. I often find that in defending a character, a
will begin by saying: "Listen, I tell you this is the way it is, you
the knife to the wrist, you slice, you lean back . . ." and I say wow,
listen to that voice ÷ follow it. In poetry, voice is more
it seems, because you have less time and space within which to convince
the reader. In poetry, voice is also easily mistaken for attitude
or writer's personality. My poems take wild turns, therefore I,
poet, must be wild. In my case it happens to be true, but I don't
recommend the reader or writer to make that assumption between the work
and the poet.
years at CSULB, U of Arizona, and LSU, I know you had a lot of good
along the way. Elliot Fried. Vance Bourjaily. Robert
Houston. And a few others. What, specifically, did you take
away from these teachers? What did you have to learn on your own?
all my mentors, in particular about voice. I remember Elliot
and before him Joel Goldstock in high school, going off on a tangent, a
story they wanted to share with me, with us students. I believe a
writer should be able to tell a good story orally. You should be
able to capture someone's attention immediately. All of my
possessed this ability. They also managed to talk about craft
insulting my intelligence. They managed to talk about the nature
of writing in simple terms. They were all working writers
so often they brought their work in, their problems, the stuff that
them on to the next story, poem, novel.
At LSU I
classes from more working writers: Jim Bennett, Moira Crone,
Kamenetz, and Andrei Codrescu ÷ all unique teachers and
I love Rodger Kamenetz's sense of the spiritual, the sacred. When
I took his nonfiction class I remember he was already far into his work
on Buddhism and Judaism. Very interesting stuff. I learned
not only how to write from most of these folks, but how to teach.
All my teachers were possessed of great energy. Some had more
others, but they all shone in their own way. Andrei Codrescu is
of the most energizing people I know to cover classroom space. He
sits down and he burns through a few hours of class. He has a
for making time fly. It's the "Blitzkrieg" technique, as I've
to know it. Don't wait for the student to slow down, keep hitting
him/her with possibilities, with ideas, with the kind of craziness they
are going to have a hard time unreeling from. I always like to
that after I am done with my students during a class they will drive
in a cloud of images, thoughts, ideas about their own work. I
to make sure I always inspire my students to do what I do at the end of
the day: go home and write, empty myself on the page.
are hard to come by, but I've been lucky to learn from the very
The other thing I learned from my teachers is to care about my students
as people. All of my teachers took me in in one way or another,
me. I still consider them good friends. I keep in
With Vance I played tennis for many years. With Elliot Fried I
ultralight flying in the desert. With Andrei I've gone drinking
New Orleans. I've seen them in action not only as writers, but as
people. Sometimes the difference is thin.
about poetry. How did you finally come to it? It seems like
you were well on your way to a fabulous fiction career when all of a
here's Suarez the poet and he's going a hundred miles an hour.
you still doing fiction? How do you negotiate these two seemingly
different and trying paths?
been writing both fiction and poetry, though poetry I was doing away
workshops, from the public eye. I kept my journals. I read
the books that kept me inspired ÷ such an early book was Denise
Levertov's O Taste and See. Also the work of Ginsberg,
and to a certain extent Bukowski, not only because I like wild, loose
on the page, but because all of these poets have great voices. I
worked on my poetry while I worked on my fiction.
I alternated between them during my day. If something was not
right in the fiction, I turned to the poetry. Sometimes they
each other. For example, writing poetry helped me experiment with
angles in terms of the experience (be it a scene or a narrative
in my fiction. I could write three poems about the same thing
three different angles. I used the poetry to help me generate
For me the image is the single most important component of good
regardless of genre.
too. I like writing, period. I like to sit down and look
to a full day of it. Writing keeps me balanced. I also
to like reading as much, so at times I will generate ideas, get my
juices flowing, by reading a strong poet. I have roomfuls of
at both my home and my office. I will often send out my
Vorgo, to pick up new things at the local bookstores. I send him
there with a list and say "Pick four or five up for me." Vorgo is
one of these guys who has great instincts, though he has yet to tell me
his last name. I trust him though, and I can respect his wishes
simply want to be called "Vorgo." He's very organized when he
to be. It has taken me several years to be able to afford a
assistant, but Vorgo makes my life so much easier, so much
He's organized my life much more than I could ever do on my own.
continue writing all the genres, though fiction these days comes a lot
slower, takes more time I suppose because I have so many other things
I am interested in. Eventually my next novel will be done.
Hell, it's been seven years in the making, so what's the hurry?
up in the journals and magazines pretty often. In fact, I'll go
far as to say you're one of the most widely and constantly published
working in America today. I know you're a fan of Bukowski, who
prodigious in his output. Is this where you learned to produce at
such a manic rate? Where do you find the energy? The time?
most of my writing is done during the window of opportunity provided to
me as a parent by the public school. I drop off my daughters by
and then I have to go pick them up by 2:30pm. That's a nice chunk
of time. I usually sit down with my first cup of coffee, open my
study's windows and look out. Usually, too, something will
a memory. If not, I like to induce them by reading other poets,
writers. Sure, Bukowski's all right with me. He was a
influence, not necessarily because of the work, though I like his work,
but because here was this guy who went about the business of writing
with diligence, with discipline, with humility. If you could say
something about Bukowski, it's the fact that his approach to poetry was
holy. He cared and loved it because more than once it saved his
Well, I mean for poetry to save my life too. I know we're all
to die someday, and I plan to write poetry until the final hour, if I'm
able to move my fingers. There's nothing to be depressed about in
this life. There are things in the world that are totally
and hard to take as a human being, but often during the writing of a
it all comes together, it all makes sense. You can put things in
it best: "Your mind is your temple, keep it beautiful and clean."
I feel the same way about poetry. Sure, I'm prolific, but that is
only because I trust my instincts, I trust my voice. It doesn't
that any of it comes any easier. I still spend days working on a
poem. Sometimes weeks. And sometimes I throw a poem out
it doesn't go anywhere. The completely unsalvageable ones get
all the time. Believe me, I write a lot of bad poems.
except maybe Vorgo, will ever see them.
argument with Vorgo, my assistant, because I caught him snooping in the
"discard" file, and he wanted to know why I didn't think a particular
would fly. "It had," he claimed, "all of the typical Virgil
touches." I told him that a poem has to keep pleasing and
me with every reading. The particular poem
he picked out was flat. It started out okay but just didn't make
the cut. What could I do but throw it out?
I have a
of poems. I have entire file cases of them because I've been
poetry since 1978. It's a long time. I didn't start
poetry until very recently, so it's very easy for someone who doesn't
me and my work habits to assume that I don't discriminate, that I
sit down at the computer and vomit work out. It's not like that
all. Each time I sit down, my sole purpose is to craft the best
of writing I can. Nothing less than what satisfies me as a reader
is what my goal is. I'm a tough editor on other people's work,
I'm even tougher on myself.
why I'm prolific is because I have this cushy university job, teaching
only two classes every semester. Just imagine if I only had to
one! Or none! I'd be a menace. I'd have to start my
press and literary magazine. My energy as a writer is vast.
I keep myself fueled in part because I love to write. Some
say writing is painful, but for me, it's pure pleasure. If I had
to do it all over again as anything except a writer, I guess I'd have
come back as a porn star to achieve this kind of bliss on a daily
After a long day's work, I feel great. I feel invincible, though
I know I'm probably doing serious damage to my internal organs from all
the hours of sitting on my ass.
this energy, spills over into other outlets. It started with
and finches, then moved to dogs, and has since gone to other
How are you able to handle all those obsessions and still be a
I take it you mean that I'm a fairly passionate and serious human
Serious about my family, passionate about my love for them. I'm
to my friends. Yes, I'm obsessed with my writing, because I
walk away feeling that I haven't said what I meant to say, that I
loved enough, eaten enough, lived enough. These are serious
for me. I raised birds (about 300 canaries) at one time because I
thought I wanted to know another species as well as I think I know my
I read voraciously about these birds. I learned a great deal
them. I love birds. I think in another life I must have
a disciple of St. Francis ÷ my very favorite Saint.
only one. Well, shoot, I like St. Augustine too for all those
Because he liked spilling the beans, as I like to do.
essence, one giant ball of obsession. I obsess about my
I stay awake in the middle of the night watching them sleep. I
the patters and rhythms to their sleeping. I rummage through the
dark, silent house while everyone is asleep. I think I connect
the cosmic vibes of the dead and the living. My wife and I have
lost three parents. "Lost" is the wrong word. They are
with us. I can feel them in the night. They are downstairs
sitting and having coffee. Or they are up in the girls' room with
me. They are watching over us. How can one not
the dead stay with us in this world? They are simply not visible,
but you can feel them. The other day Gabriella, the
walked into my room and started waving. I asked her what she was
doing, and she said she was "feeling" the wind in the room. I
have the fan turned on. I think I know who she was waving
This is precisely what I like about Walt Whitman's poetry ÷ it
a definite sense of what happens to all of us. We stay in the
We stay in the earth. When we breathe, we take in enough air for
multitudes. When we speak, we speak on behalf of dozens.
day I die I want people to have a party in remembrance. I want
to get drunk and listen to loud music and eat and have a great
I think they will have a good time. I know I have.
questions you often ask your students is one I'll ask you now ÷
is your relationship to your work? You've mentioned a number of
that center us on your interests, your loves, your fears, but can you
your finger on it? It's a tough question, I realize.
to my work is clear in my mind. I aim to write about the people I
know. In this particular case my work focuses on Cubans and
I consider myself a Cuban-American because I have lived most of my life
here in the United States. I don't see myself going back to Cuba
any time soon, if ever. I have made my life here in exile.
I write about the nature of exile and the travails of my people because
that's what I feel I know best. My work
stems from my trying to understand our condition, our exiled situations
and lives. Most of my work in poetry focuses on my voice as an
someone who is not completely at ease in his new surrounding. I
America, but my love for it will always be an immigrant's love.
people say this is the only love there is.
to question my life here. Some tough questions were posed to me
the way. For example, during the Iran hostage crisis when I
the United States would go to war with Iran, I quickly enlisted because
something told me to do so. Call it patriotism, I guess.
I got there they told me to wait. What was my hurry?
I was an only child, and on top of that I wasn't fit. I have a
condition. I can't run. I can't see without glasses.
Hey, I tried. I'm trying desperately to fit in. Now in the
world of poetry, I've found acceptance. Poets like me understand
this nature of not fitting in. I love poets. They love me
I try to make new friendships all the time. Poets are like one
support group. I love being a part of a group of people who
who care. I like to thimk we are out to save the world from
a bit more about publishing in the journals. A lot of good poetry
seemingly gets lost in the small presses and little journals.
quality poets are being drowned out by the sheer magnitude of
in the world of poetry. What can they do to get their voices
What is the future of poetry?
the idea of poetry being "lost." Poetry can never be lost.
Some of the best poetry is being published by small presses, by these
tiny journals. I remember being at Cal. State Long Beach and
the work of so many poets ÷ Bukowski included ÷ published
form. In ditto. A bunch of good poems simply printed and
Poetry belongs to the people, man. That's the way it should
This has always been its future. Some poets publish in better
than others because they want to do it. I don't think where your
work is published has anything to do with who reads it. There's a
great explosion now with poetry slams. People go out and listen
poetry, get up and read their poetry. Poetry is all about the
of human truth. I like to publish my work where it is
Where my work finds a good home with people who care about it.
never complained about who published my work. The exchange is the
gift. This is what all young poets and writers need to learn
little more humility. Publish your work where you can. I
a lot of people are desperately trying to bring to poetry the poisons
the fiction publishing world. What does it matter if Knopf
your first book of poems? Hey, if they care about it and they are
honest about it, fine. If not, I don't see the difference between
them and, say, Bilingual Review Press, which publishes my work with a
of dignity and care.
poetry as a lasting force, being around so that the readers eventually
find your work. Look at the great work LSU Press, University of
Press, University of Pittsburgh Press, and others have been doing over
the years. They've published so many wonderful poets, so many
books of poems. They take chances. They often don't make
money, but look at their respectability among poets. Black
Press and Charles Bukowski, now there's an ideal relationship. As
a poet you need somebody who simply believes in the importance of your
work. You don't ever want to get lost in the shuffle of a press
journal that doesn't much care about your work. Publish where you
can. Help out other presses and journals. Because I teach
a major university and I make good money, I buy lots of
Just last week, Vorgo told me that I'd already bought twenty-one new
to a variety of little magazines and journals this year alone, and it's
only April! I just got back from AWP and am a little afraid to
Vorgo that there's another dozen or so he doesn't know about. I
have something like eighty subscriptions going now and I love and read
all of them.
help out presses by sending them young talent, by reading for them, by
spreading the word about them. If I ever get rich, I will give
to these people who run so many small presses. They're out there.
I see publishers like H. Palmer Hall of Pecan Grove Press, John
of West End Press, Nicolas Kanellos of Arte Publico Press, and so many
others out there selling their wares, burning up a lot of shoe sole, as
I like to call it, selling books from their hands to ours. This
dignified work. Hard work that when I see a publisher doing it on
behalf of a book makes me want to sing out praises. Publish your
work where it is valued. Publish your work everywhere you can!
÷ since you're quickly becoming the chameleon of writing, moving
effortlessly from anthology editor to novelist to poet to memoirist to
short story writer to essayist, what can we expect next from Virgil
A movie? A play? Any surprises?
that you would call me a "chameleon." I like that. It
me of the time when Delia and I were putting together the best-selling
anthology Iguana Dreams. I kept getting it wrong, of
because an iguana doesn't change colors ÷ not that I know of,
knows how to camouflage ÷ but a chameleon does. I simply
thank you. I'm flattered because I know it's a compliment.
Many people have told me that I'm one of the few writers they know who
keeps changing genres and doing very well. For me it's all about
writing. I love the essay, the poem, the story. I like
too, though these days I love to read them more than I enjoy writing
Manteca's Blues, possibly my last novel, has been in the works for
the last eight years. It's going to be a little longer before I
it. I've got several poetry projects going on, three new books in
the works: a whole bunch of anthologies, a colection of short stories,
and a collection of new essays. I'm keeping busy. That's
only way to know that I'm fighting back.
eight-year-old, got hold of the Windows Screensaver ÷ you know,
called "Marquee" ÷ and she wrote on there in bold letters:
and Fightin' Machine." I loved that. It's so wonderful to
beckoned to work with a message like that. Ishmael Reed coined
expression: "Writing is Fighting!" Every day my job is to
sit here and work, produce the kind of work I can be proud of, the kind
of work that best represents this Cuban-American. The rest is
eating, loving, being good to your kids. Seeing the world as
you are seeing it for the very first time. That's the kind of
I've gotten addicted to.
collection, Palm Crows, is forthcoming from the University of
Press. It's just one good bit of luck after another for me; I
an extremely charmed life as a creative writer. Blessed is that
has carried me this far.
Bibliography of Books
Latin Jazz (1989), The
Cutter (1991), Havana Thursdays (1995), Going Under
Welcome to the Oasis
You Come Singing
Poems (1999), In the Republic of Longing (1999), Palm
(2001), Banyan: Poems (forthcoming, 2002)
Spared Angola: Memories
Cuban-American Childhood (1997)
Anthologies (as Editor):
Iguana Dreams: New Latino
(1993), Paper Dance: 55 Latino Poets (1995), Little Havana
A Cuban-American Literature Anthology (1996), American
Poetry of Exile (2001)