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Contemporary Poetry and Poetics

Q & A with Virgil Suarez



Virgil Suarez Interviewed by Ryan G. Van Cleave

[I first met Virgil Suarez through his novel, The Cutter, which I found on a shelf at Epitome, a local coffee and hemp-product shop.  This slim book opened my eyes to world literature with a vividness I had never before experienced.  I immediately 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.
    Soon after, I 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 this knockout fiction writer remade himself into a first-rate poet. ÷Ryan G. Van Cleave]

For most writers, it's a long, arduous process to develop their own voice.  But from The Cutter, your first novel, to You Come Singing, your first poetry book, you seemed to have yours nailed right off.  How did you manage this?

Virgil Suarez:
The concern of voice should always be there, no matter what, whether you are working 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.  Most 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 individual lines.  Place helps me discover voice.  I find that by thinking 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 begins talking in my head, something I remember about, say, my childhood, something a uncle did, or once told me.  Like my uncle Jorge who every morning 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 swallowing 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.  "Bone growths," she calls these knobby protrusions.  And there's my friend's grandmother who had a pacemaker and once claimed she could pick up baseball games in English which used to torment her.  How can one not listen?
    I teach my students 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 student will begin by saying: "Listen, I tell you this is the way it is, you put 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 important, 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, as 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.

Van Cleave:
During your years at CSULB, U of Arizona, and LSU, I know you had a lot of good mentors 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?

Ilearned from all my mentors, in particular about voice.  I remember Elliot Fried, 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 teachers possessed this ability.  They also managed to talk about craft without insulting my intelligence.  They managed to talk about the nature of writing in simple terms.  They were all working writers themselves, so often they brought their work in, their problems, the stuff that drove them on to the next story, poem, novel.
    At LSU I took classes from more working writers:  Jim Bennett, Moira Crone, Rodger Kamenetz, and Andrei Codrescu ÷ all unique teachers and writers.  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 than others, but they all shone in their own way.  Andrei Codrescu is one 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 knack for making time fly.  It's the "Blitzkrieg" technique, as I've come 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 think that after I am done with my students during a class they will drive home in a cloud of images, thoughts, ideas about their own work.  I want 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.
    Good teachers are hard to come by, but I've been lucky to learn from the very best.  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, befriended me.  I still consider them good friends.  I keep in touch.  With Vance I played tennis for many years.  With Elliot Fried I went ultralight flying in the desert.  With Andrei I've gone drinking in New Orleans.  I've seen them in action not only as writers, but as people.  Sometimes the difference is thin.

Van Cleave:
Let's talk 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 sudden, here's Suarez the poet and he's going a hundred miles an hour.  Are you still doing fiction?  How do you negotiate these two seemingly different and trying paths?

Ihad always been writing both fiction and poetry, though poetry I was doing away from 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, Ferlinghetti, and to a certain extent Bukowski, not only because I like wild, loose poems 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 going right in the fiction, I turned to the poetry.  Sometimes they helped each other.  For example, writing poetry helped me experiment with angles in terms of the experience (be it a scene or a narrative passage) in my fiction.  I could write three poems about the same thing from three different angles.  I used the poetry to help me generate images.  For me the image is the single most important component of good writing, regardless of genre.
    I write essays too.  I like writing, period.  I like to sit down and look forward to a full day of it.  Writing keeps me balanced.  I also happen to like reading as much, so at times I will generate ideas, get my creative juices flowing, by reading a strong poet.  I have roomfuls of poetry at both my home and my office.  I will often send out my assistant, 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 to simply want to be called "Vorgo."  He's very organized when he wants to be.  It has taken me several years to be able to afford a part-time assistant, but Vorgo makes my life so much easier, so much better.  He's organized my life much more than I could ever do on my own.
    My goal is to 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 that 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?

Van Cleave:
Your name pops up in the journals and magazines pretty often.  In fact, I'll go so far as to say you're one of the most widely and constantly published writers working in America today.  I know you're a fan of Bukowski, who was prodigious in his output.  Is this where you learned to produce at such a manic rate?  Where do you find the energy?  The time?

Itell you, 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 8am 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 trigger a memory.  If not, I like to induce them by reading other poets, other writers.  Sure, Bukowski's all right with me.  He was a strong 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 poetry 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 life.  Well, I mean for poetry to save my life too.  I know we're all going 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 disturbing and hard to take as a human being, but often during the writing of a poem, it all comes together, it all makes sense.  You can put things in order.
    Bob Dylan said 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 mean that any of it comes any easier.  I still spend days working on a poem.  Sometimes weeks.  And sometimes I throw a poem out because it doesn't go anywhere.  The completely unsalvageable ones get tossed all the time.  Believe me, I write a lot of bad poems.  Nobody, except maybe Vorgo, will ever see them.
    I got into an 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 poem would fly.  "It had," he claimed, "all of the typical Virgil Suarez touches."  I told him that a poem has to keep pleasing and surprising 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 lot of poems.  I have entire file cases of them because I've been writing poetry since 1978.  It's a long time.  I didn't start publishing poetry until very recently, so it's very easy for someone who doesn't know me and my work habits to assume that I don't discriminate, that I simply sit down at the computer and vomit work out.  It's not like that at all.  Each time I sit down, my sole purpose is to craft the best piece 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, but I'm even tougher on myself.
    The other reason 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 teach one!  Or none!  I'd be a menace.  I'd have to start my own press and literary magazine.  My energy as a writer is vast.  I keep myself fueled in part because I love to write.  Some writers 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 to come back as a porn star to achieve this kind of bliss on a daily basis.  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.

Van Cleave:
This passion, this energy, spills over into other outlets.  It started with canaries and finches, then moved to dogs, and has since gone to other pursuits.  How are you able to handle all those obsessions and still be a high-intensity writer?

By "obsessive," I take it you mean that I'm a fairly passionate and serious human being.  Serious about my family, passionate about my love for them.  I'm loyal to my friends.  Yes, I'm obsessed with my writing, because I always walk away feeling that I haven't said what I meant to say, that I haven't loved enough, eaten enough, lived enough.  These are serious issues 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 own.  I read voraciously about these birds.  I learned a great deal about them.  I love birds.  I think in another life I must have been a disciple of St. Francis ÷ my very favorite Saint.  Probably the only one.  Well, shoot, I like St. Augustine too for all those confessions.  Because he liked spilling the beans, as I like to do.
    My life is, in essence, one giant ball of obsession.  I obsess about my daughters.  I stay awake in the middle of the night watching them sleep.  I love the patters and rhythms to their sleeping.  I rummage through the dark, silent house while everyone is asleep.  I think I connect with the cosmic vibes of the dead and the living.  My wife and I have now lost three parents.  "Lost" is the wrong word.  They are still 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 believe the dead stay with us in this world?  They are simply not visible, but you can feel them.  The other day Gabriella, the five-year-old, 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 didn't have the fan turned on.  I think I know who she was waving to.  This is precisely what I like about Walt Whitman's poetry ÷ it gives you a definite sense of what happens to all of us.  We stay in the world.  We stay in the earth.  When we breathe, we take in enough air for multitudes.  When we speak, we speak on behalf of dozens.  The day I die I want people to have a party in remembrance.  I want them to get drunk and listen to loud music and eat and have a great time.  I think they will have a good time.  I know I have.

Van Cleave:
One of the questions you often ask your students is one I'll ask you now ÷ what exactly is your relationship to your work?  You've mentioned a number of things that center us on your interests, your loves, your fears, but can you put your finger on it?  It's a tough question, I realize.

My relationship 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 Cuban-Americans.  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 immigrant, someone who is not completely at ease in his new surrounding.  I love America, but my love for it will always be an immigrant's love.  Some people say this is the only love there is.
    I have learned to question my life here.  Some tough questions were posed to me along the way.  For example, during the Iran hostage crisis when I thought the United States would go to war with Iran, I quickly enlisted because something told me to do so.  Call it patriotism, I guess.  When I got there they told me to wait.  What was my hurry?  Besides I was an only child, and on top of that I wasn't fit.  I have a heart 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 back.  I try to make new friendships all the time.  Poets are like one giant support group.  I love being a part of a group of people who listen, who care.  I like to thimk we are out to save the world from itself.

Van Cleave:
Let's talk a bit more about publishing in the journals.  A lot of good poetry seemingly gets lost in the small presses and little journals.  Many quality poets are being drowned out by the sheer magnitude of opposition in the world of poetry.  What can they do to get their voices heard?  What is the future of poetry?

Idon't like the idea of poetry being "lost."  Poetry can never be lost.  Some of the best poetry is being published by small presses, by these little, tiny journals.  I remember being at Cal. State Long Beach and reading the work of so many poets ÷ Bukowski included ÷ published in mimeographed form.  In ditto.  A bunch of good poems simply printed and staple-bound.  Poetry belongs to the people, man.  That's the way it should be.  This has always been its future.  Some poets publish in better places 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 to poetry, get up and read their poetry.  Poetry is all about the exchange of human truth.  I like to publish my work where it is well-received.  Where my work finds a good home with people who care about it.  I've never complained about who published my work.  The exchange is the gift.  This is what all young poets and writers need to learn ÷ a little more humility.  Publish your work where you can.  I know a lot of people are desperately trying to bring to poetry the poisons of the fiction publishing world.  What does it matter if Knopf publishes 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 lot of dignity and care.
    I believe in poetry as a lasting force, being around so that the readers eventually find your work.  Look at the great work LSU Press, University of Iowa Press, University of Pittsburgh Press, and others have been doing over the years.  They've published so many wonderful poets, so many great books of poems.  They take chances.  They often don't make any money, but look at their respectability among poets.  Black Sparrow 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 or journal that doesn't much care about your work.  Publish where you can.  Help out other presses and journals.  Because I teach at a major university and I make good money, I buy lots of subscriptions.  Just last week, Vorgo told me that I'd already bought twenty-one new subscriptions 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 tell Vorgo that there's another dozen or so he doesn't know about.  I must have something like eighty subscriptions going now and I love and read all of them.
    I also like to 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 money 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 Crawford 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 is 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!

Van Cleave:
One last question ÷ since you're quickly becoming the chameleon of writing, moving almost effortlessly from anthology editor to novelist to poet to memoirist to short story writer to essayist, what can we expect next from Virgil Suarez?  A movie?  A play?  Any surprises?

I'm flattered that you would call me a "chameleon."  I like that.  It reminds me of the time when Delia and I were putting together the best-selling anthology Iguana Dreams.  I kept getting it wrong, of course, because an iguana doesn't change colors ÷ not that I know of, though it knows how to camouflage ÷ but a chameleon does.  I simply love it, 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 novels, too, though these days I love to read them more than I enjoy writing them. Sonny 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 finish 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 the only way to know that I'm fighting back.
    Alexandria, my eight-year-old, got hold of the Windows Screensaver ÷ you know, the one called "Marquee" ÷ and she wrote on there in bold letters: "Virgil's Writin' and Fightin' Machine."  I loved that.  It's so wonderful to be beckoned to work with a message like that.  Ishmael Reed coined the 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 living: eating, loving, being good to your kids.  Seeing the world as though you are seeing it for the very first time.  That's the kind of excitement I've gotten addicted to.
    My new poetry collection, Palm Crows, is forthcoming from the University of Arizona Press.  It's just one good bit of luck after another for me; I lead an extremely charmed life as a creative writer.  Blessed is that which has carried me this far.

Bibliography of Books by Virgil Suarez ÷

Latin Jazz (1989), The Cutter (1991), Havana Thursdays (1995), Going Under (1997)

Welcome to the Oasis (1992)

You Come Singing (1998), Garabato Poems (1999), In the Republic of Longing (1999), Palm Crows (2001), Banyan: Poems (forthcoming, 2002)

Spared Angola: Memories of a Cuban-American Childhood (1997)

Anthologies (as Editor):
Iguana Dreams: New Latino Fiction (1993), Paper Dance: 55 Latino Poets (1995), Little Havana Blues: A Cuban-American Literature Anthology (1996), American Diaspora: Poetry of Exile (2001)


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