Finding the emotional and human centre of the poem: Ricantations
An Interview with Loretta Collins Klobah by Ann Margaret Lim - Part II
We continue the interview with Loretta Collins Klobah, whose second book, Ricantations (Peepal Tree Press 2018), is a British Poetry Book Society summer recommendation and a great read that endears you to the personalities, stories, creatures (including gargoyles), music, and landscapes that constitute Puerto Rico.
Ann Margaret Lim: In the elegies "Centring the Galaxy from Corozal" and "One that Got Away," you eulogise two kind-hearted people we would have never met otherwise, bringing them into our psyches, two people who would not be considered heroes because of how local their effect was, but who, within their circles, sought to enrich other people's lives. Are you drawn as a writer to writing about the average person, the uncelebrated fisherman, even the neglected "down-at-heels, derelict horse" ("Winged Horse")?
Loretta Collins Klobah: I am drawn to what is special about the person (or animal being), (their divinity?) what they give in their own way to their communities, how they relate to a place, how they build up instead of tear down, and how their stories touch on wider themes. The first poem that you mention is an elegy for an astronomer hobbyist who started our local astronomy society, affiliated it with NASA, and served as its president for decades. When she was young, my daughter and I viewed Saturn and Jupiter through his old, large telescope, which he set up on a hill in Corozal on the second Saturday of every month for thirty years. He was a good soul, with visionary dreams for developing astronomy in Puerto Rico, some of which never got realised because of local politics.
Poems of tribute
Other poems in the book similarly feature people like this who are not deceased. For instance, Joe, the ex-con butterfly farm custodian, and Chemi Rosado Seijo, whose community art project is rejuvenating the mountain pueblo of Naranjito by painting the houses back into the mountainside, in all shades of green, and organising self-help and cultural activities at the community centre. Two poems pay tribute to a calypso king in London, Lord Cloak, and carnival mas' man Michael La Rose. Another is for Elena, a friend in Mexico who teaches creative writing in a woman's prison.
AML: In "Tissue Gallery", "Blue Stone", and other such poems, it seems that you are taking on the role of public eulogist for a reading audience larger than a funeral congregation. In other poems such as "The Woman You are Looking For" and "Pulse," you highlight issues that affect societies worldwide and need addressing. Do you see your role as poet as a reminder to the public of atrocities, trying to reach the part of them that could influence them to change the narrative? Can poets achieve this 'game changer,' though?
LCK: The first two poems that you mention are "crossing over" poems, one for a 15-year-old girl killed by a stray bullet, celebratory gunfire, on New Year's Eve, one of our hard-to-die traditions. "Tissue Gallery" is based on an actual experience that I had at a medical school event. Though they speak to larger issues, they are also poems that are close to me. The other poems, in one way or the other, deal with child and young-person endangerment, sexual predation, hate crimes, and a mass shooting against LGBT-identified persons. Poet as lay preacher, shaman, warner woman? Well, poet as poet. On the other hand, was it Alice Walker who said "if books can't change the world, what on Earth are they for?" Image by image, thought by thought, word by fine-tuned word. But, poems can be about anything, too.
Excerpt from "Pulse":
No gunman brought an assault rifle into the hotel
to wound and kill all our children while they danced.
But words began to hum around the ballroom. Orlando.
Pulse. Latin music night. LGBT. While it was going down.
We knew. Without numbers. Without names. Without newsreel faces
Then, they started bringing bodies
to the island for burials in Ponce, Caguas, and Guanica
One year later, a broken mother in Rio Grande
walks around her son's room every day.
A father tattoos his son's face over his heart.
AML: You had a lot of musical references in your first book. What kind of musical influences are incorporated in your new book?
LCK: The poems refer to boleros, plena, big-band salsa, trio singers, bohemian night music, reggaeton, Eddie Palmieri, JA dancehall, calypso, and soca,
AML: Still on music, your poem "Man Haffi Try", which chronicles some experiences with Jamaican men, whereby, as we say it here, 'they are looking you', references Beenie Man with the "zaggazow" you drop in. The reference to the taxi cab called WukiDuki reminds me of a Bounty Killer song Stucky, in which he gives the same wukiduki implications the taxi man explains to you. So your Jamaican poem has strong musical references.
LCK: Ah, true. Mr Wucky and Ducky. I hadn't thought of the Bounty Killer tune when I wrote the poem. You are adding to my soundtrack. The taxi man had a windshield banner on his taxi: WukiDuki.
AML: Re "Night Watch", which speaks of gargoyle sightings, thus straddling the line between reality and the supernatural that always seems to be crossed in the Caribbean, can you tell us about the musical reference there, especially in the context of the poem's second to the last stanza below?
Excerpt from "Night Watch":
When the creature leaves our island,
flapping south to roost with Trinidad's jab-jabs,
our young men become gargolas,
night creepers with diamond earrings,
perreando to reggaeton by Arcangel,
all gangster flow, dismantling girls in the disco.
LCK: The reggaeton artist Arcangel has a song, Soy una Gargola (I am a Gargoyle), about being a night creature who dismembers women in the dance hall. The image of the gargoyle has come to symbolise a kind of hypermasculinity in popular culture and narcoculture. Writer Jacqueline Bishop has suggested that Elephant Man's Gully Creeper is also a perfect fit for my poem "Night Watch."
AML: Although you live in Puerto Rico, I assume that you did research for some of the poems such as "Memoir of Repairs to the Colony," "Chairman of the Committee of Nomenclature," "The Flying Wallendas of Puerto Rico," and others. Do you enjoy this aspect of writing? For you, what is the importance of research in the poetic process?
LCK: Many of my poems are based on first-hand experience and observation, which give the poems credibility, unique details, and images that the imagination alone may not generate. But I like to do all sorts of research in order to write, as well. I find it necessary because of a compulsion to be not only poetic and one-drop magical, but also precise and "real".
Sometimes, the activities of my daily life are like participant-observation research. For instance, "The BBC does Bomba," a poem in my first collection, The Twelve-Foot Neon Woman, is based on an episode of a BBC show filmed at Modesto Cepeda's bomba dance school. I happened to be present when it was filmed just because at that time, my daughter was taking bomba dancing classes there weekly.
In the first book, the poem "La Madonna Urbana" was based on a graffiti mural painted in Barrio Obrero in San Juan, as well as my interactions with a young woman environmentalist and nature-tour guide of the neighbourhood and a young deambulante (homeless man). I spent time driving the streets that form the setting of the poem, taking notes in a notebook, reading the pencilled graffiti on the wall of a colmado (grocery store), noting the names of businesses and taking photographs. The poem is imaginative because it animates the woman in the graffiti mural as if she is a kind of profane goddess of the urban area, but it is also a collage of the images and testimonies that I gathered.
I did quite a lot of research for the new book of poems, Ricantations. For "Night Watch," a poem about both local "flying gargoyle sightings" in 2010 and current narcoculture, I looked at black and white photographs by well-known photographer Jack Delano in order to feel what it was like forty years ago for workers in US-owned sugar companies in Puerto Rico (the gargoyle was first sighted in the ruins of a sugar mill a haunted space, to be sure). In this case, I already had the book at home, and I based some of the images in my poem on particular Delano photos.
I made short trips, visited facilities, talked with people, and did archival research. For "La Monstrua Desnuda," I visited our Museo de Arte in Ponce to see Spanish Baroque portrait paintings of people with abnormalities that were on loan from el Museo de Prado in Spain, but I also returned twice to the museum library to read books about the Spanish Baroque aesthetic of "lo feo" (the ugly), the painters Diego Velazquez and Juan Carreno de Miranda, and the Spanish court under el Rey Carlos II. For "Song of the Harpy," over a period of years, I visited by boat a small island where a free-ranging colony of more than 1,000 Rhesus Macaque monkeys are kept for behavioural research purposes, talked to a scientist doing research on male aggression in the colony, and read articles about the history of the colony and current research. In the company of and at the request of visiting writer Jacqueline Bishop, I visited a community-run butterfly farm in San Juan. The custodian of the farm, Joe, an ex-con volunteer dedicated to the butterflies, became the subject of the poem "He Talks to a Butterfly."
I did a volume of research for the poems that you mention in the question. "Memoir of Repairs to the Colony," is about a leprosarium in ruins on a small island off the coast of San Juan, Isla de Cabras. I walked the ruins several times, talked to an archaeologist who had analysed soil samples to know the plants that had grown there over time, and communicated with an archaeologist (Schiappacasse) who had done digs and written a dissertation on the island. I also read writings by Fray Inigo Abad y Lasierra (1788), as well as a memoir by an Irish doctor who had visited Puerto Rico (and a leprosy colony) in the early 20th century while the School of Tropical Medicine was funded by Rockefeller. In our special-collections library at the University of Puerto Rico Medical School, I read several folders of letters and articles about that leprosy colony and one in Trujillo Alto, as well as current articles. A poem didn't get drafted, though, until I came across the name of a nine-year-old boy at the leprosarium, Eleutorio, and the mention of a handyman who, when he travelled to the island to make repairs, carried a baseball in his pocket to play catch with the children. I had found the emotional and human centre of the poem, what moved me the most.
Excerpt from "Memoir of Repairs to the Colony,"
Those leper paupers, sequestered here,
lived under the sun like desert saints,
in an abandoned quarantine station ...
The well lacked fresh water.
They had a coal-pot kitchen stocked
by the weekly boat that brought a priest-doctor
with salves of arsenic and creosoted cod-liver oil,
glass bottles of El Rey Dolor, thick,
yellow chaulmoogra oil distilled by steam, suspended
in an emulsion of gum and camphor.
Once a week, El Rey Dolor
was injected intramuscularly or subcutaneously,
causing panic in the patients;
lepers swelled and burned in fever
with every hypodermic.
The Protestants sent a handyman to make repairs.
He carried a baseball in his pocket,
to play toss with nine-year-old Eleutorio.
When the handyman rowed away
Eleutorio stood in the line of patients
waving goodbye to him with a hat.
When the handyman got leprosy,
he too was confined to the island....
- Ann-Margaret Lim is a poet and lover of the arts whose books 'The Festival Of Wild Orchid' (2013 Bocas Prize Honorary Mention) and 'Kingston Buttercup' (2017 Bocas Prize Poetry Short List) are available at Bookophilia on Hope Road, Bookland in New Kingston, and supermarkets and pharmacies islandwide. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org