Dispatch from Havana: Ricardo Alberto Perez
It is a Tuesday evening in January at the azotea, the home of Reina María Rodríguez, where so far two writers have stopped in for a coffee and conversation. Others might or might not come tonight; there’s another gathering in a couple of days. Reina lives a short walk away from the Capitol building in Havana, in an apartment building a few blocks from the ocean. The apartment itself comes with a literary history. Reina used to host much larger gatherings here, particularly during Cuba’s “Special Period” of economic crisis in the 1990s, when artists and writers met regularly. Nowadays she remarks that the work of hosting all those salons in her home is too much to undertake.Still, she continues to work as a literary organizer, and the azotea is still a place where smaller events happen from time to time, and where university and cultural tour groups listen to readings by local writers.
Formal or informal, an evening at the azotea generally includes established writers as well as others who are just emerging. It’s also common to find a mix of people who still live in Cuba and those who are partially or completely based abroad — a regular thing in the everyday life of the capital city in the post-Soviet era. The intensity of emigration and the growing acknowledgment of diasporic Cuban life do not erase all of the tensions around this subject in Havana, but many individual Cubans and institutions are increasingly comfortable referring to the phenomenon.
At my side today is Richard: Ricardo Alberto Pérez, whom I have met at the azotea in the past. He continues to live and work on the island.
Ricardo Alberto Pérez with Reina María Rodríguez in the living room at the azotea. Photographs by Kristin Dykstra, 10 January 2013.
While Richard has published work in other countries, relatively little has appeared in the United States or in English, despite the fact that people here refer to him using the English version of his first name. I ask him to answer some questions for me. Where were you born? In Havana. What part of Havana? Arroyo de Naranjo, which is to the southeastern side of the city (but we have to consult two other people to confirm this point: Richard explains that geography is not his strong suit). When did you begin to write poetry? At age sixteen, and those early poems were very bad. Reina refuses to make any more coffee now, having made croquetas and the first round of coffee, so Richard disappears into the kitchen for a short time. The conversation continues nonetheless, including some dark humor about whether or not it will make one a famous poet in the US if I write here that said poet’s immediate family includes several suicides, including his mother, who made eighteen attempts before the one that took her life in the Special Period. This is, in fact, all true of Richard’s life. It leads to some remarks about Angel Escobar, the poet whose suicide from the late ’90s is still a regular point of reference here. Many of the poets from the greater Havana area had known Escobar well for years. Nearly all are careful not to overstate their friendships with him, perhaps in part because his worsening illness eventually affected his personality and ability to exchange his writing with them.
Despite the significance of these digressions I return to my questions for Richard. For years he has been a regular at the azotea events and those at the Torre de Letras, which has a very small space for workshops and readings granted by the Cuban Book Institute (Instituto Cubano del Libro) on Obispo Street in Old Havana. During my very short visit I’ve heard a great deal of debate about how official the Torre has become, what degree of officialness to attribute to it. This is a debate about where the borderline of the margin begins and whether you can really locate it or hold it in one place. Reina maintains that the Torre is the most alternative of spaces that has still been able to publish some books here and there, while allowing writers themselves to make editorial decisions rather than bureaucrats. This is not the same thing as being an independent press, since the Torre group depends on assistance from institutions in the sense that it must await access and permission for printing its work. Whatever one’s exact argument about degrees and forms of marginality, it is still certain that the Torre has a different and less central status than projects run straight out of UNEAC or Casa de las Americas, or the University of Havana. (There is general interest in the future possibility that truly independent literary presses might come to exist. Perhaps it will involve new digital options, although Reina emphasizes that the majority of Cubans can’t access that type of space, let alone do so regularly: Cuba has the lowest rate of connectivity in the hemisphere, and government regulation of email and internet access remains a central, vexing issue, alongside questions of economic limitation. Print, then, continues to be important here.)
Like many established Havana writers, Richard has spent time outside the island, which not only gave him a broader perspective on literatures and cultures but also led to publishing projects like the anthology La Habana Medieval, his edited collection of contemporary Cuban poetry released by a Brazilian university press and available in some US libraries. Among his other books are Geanot (1993, poetry), Nietzsche dibuja a Cosima Wagner (1995, poetry), Turin sin pájaros sin reloj (1999, Brazil, bilingual edition of poetry), Trillos urbanos (which refers to a song by Caetano Veloso; 2003, poetry), Vibraciones del buey (2004, poetry), Catorce poetas brasileños (2006, translations of Brazilian poetry), Perhappenis (2007, anthology and translations featuring the work of Paulo Leminsky), Oral B (2007, which won the Nicolás Guillén prize for poetry), and Para qué el cine? (2010, a collaborative work with artist Ezequiel Suárez). Richard has another book in press as I write: Vengan a ver las palomas de Varsovia, a poetry collection.
In addition to composing his own writing, Richard does a radio program dedicated to international poetry. And recently, he began to publish essays about Cuban artists, pieces that are more accessible to readers of English than most of his other writing to date. The art essays are being translated into English and appear online at the British site Cuba Absolutely.
When I finish adding italics to all the book titles in my list, I look up and find that everyone has disappeared. I find them clustered by the bathroom. Richard is attempting to fix the sink. No one has been able to stop this week’s especially pernicious leak, Reina says. Watching nearby is Ramón Hondal, who has recently finished writing his third book of poetry and is next in line to fix the bathroom sink. He adjusts a large plumber’s wrench.
Ramón’s books are not yet published, but Reina is encouraging him to move forward with them and thinks the latest one is especially good. Meanwhile, he has been amassing a collection of audio recordings of poets, including material by Escobar. I go back into the kitchen to see how the sink is coming along and find Richard with a broom: “This is going really well,” he says to me, and I realize that the sink problem has escalated and the entire floor is covered in water, which he’s sweeping out onto the roof. “We’re going to be cleaning all night!” Reina says. It will take a while for the floor to dry, so everyone goes outside as the sun sets. Richard and Ramón spar about who has done more damage to the sink. This episode might seem to be irrelevant — another digression derailing my dispatch — and yet there’s a material impact for local poetry. It is the sort of occurrence that causes Reina to reflect on why she has not returned to hosting more large-scale readings out of her home.
Problem sink at the azotea.
Life intrudes again on literature: another poet, Carlos, calls to say that his car has broken down. After literally pushing it down the street, he will have to spend the evening running around in search of parts, so he can’t make it today.
Richard’s poetry has changed in recent years. Earlier books, the ones up to Oral B, are collections of poems he conceived one at a time, individually, then organized into groups afterwards. His most recent manuscripts are evolving differently. The concept comes first, and individual texts are subsidiary to it; some have no title. These newest manuscripts can even be seen as partner projects. The content of one book engages moments of strangeness within national culture. He comments that his most recent works are most influenced by North American writing, emphasizing shorter poem lengths and a certain quality of agility he associates with English-language writing. Two of his manuscripts in progress are currently entitled Miedo a las ranas and Piñera en el balancin (he points to a rocking chair to illustrate what “Balancin” means, and emphasizes the reference to Virgilio Piñera).
We look at the title poem of the book that is just about to come out, and I write up a translation.
Come! and see the pigeons of Warsaw
Come! and see the pigeons of Warsaw.
The pigeons of Arezzo.
Their biological activity the counter-attack.
Pigeons are deceptive specimens,
an unreal music,
a piece the virtuoso refuses to play.
Once they consecrate the ruins, definitively,
pigeons will become a musical staff attracting attention.
over which the walls shed antiquity
with uric acid.
Vengan a ver las palomas de Varsovia
Vengan a ver las palomas de Varsovia.
Las palomas de Arezzo.
Su actividad biológica a contragolpe.
Las palomas son piezas engañosas,
una música falsa,
una obra que se niega a tocar el virtuoso.
Al consagrarse las ruinas definitivamente
las palomas serán un pentagrama atendible.
donde los muros desgranan antigüedad
ante el ácido úrico.
Why Warsaw? I ask Richard, taking advantage of this opportunity to ask the little questions. He smiles: he’s fascinated with post-Soviet nations, with the complexities of their relationships to the past and the present. In this respect, Eastern Europe exists in a sort of parallel space to Cuba. Why Arezzo? Personal touch. It’s where a former girlfriend lives.
When I come back to this commentary two days later, before a reading at the azotea for a literary tour group, I remember that I once translated a handful of poems from one of Richard’s earlier books, Vibraciones del buey, but never published them.
Regarding swine, the Chinese, and Catalans
Some Chinese brought a handful of
tattooed swine to Barcelona,
the Catalans didn’t understand the ideograms
and stared suspiciously at the swine.
The ART fair
placed the swine in the most seductive location.
The swine more Chinese than swine,
more white than yellow,
recognized themselves inside the web of seduction
and directed ironic gazes toward the Catalans.
The Catalans understood nothing and the swine
less swine than ideograms
returned to China,
leaving an expression on the Catalans: dumbfounded, as if suspended.
Sobre cerdos, chinos y catalanes
Unos chinos llevaron a Barcelona
un puñado de cerdos tatuados,
los catalanes no entendían los ideogramas
y miraron con malos ojos a los cerdos.
La feria de EL ARTE
puso en el lugar más seductor a los cerdos.
Los cerdos más chinos que cerdos,
más blancos que amarillos
se reconocieron en la membrana de la seducción
dedicándose a mirar con ironía a los catalanes.
Los catalanes no comprendieron nada y los cerdos
menos cerdos que ideogramas
regresaron a China,
dejando pasmada, como en vilo, la expresión de los catalanes.
Critical essay about my father’s hands
My father had hands perfect
for applauding at the circus.
The tightrope walker
gave me less pleasure than my father’s fingers, dancing
with folkloric passion.
My father’s thumb was the high ground
to which I climbed every day.
(manufacturer of perfumes)
He came back with a bandaged hand:
the circus held no more meaning for me
until the politicians’ speeches grew less consistent.
Ensayo crítico sobre las manos de mi padre
Mi padre tenía unas manos perfectas
para aplaudir en el circo.
Más que del equilibrista,
yo gustaba de sus dedos danzando
en una pasión folclórica.
El dedón de mi padre era un terreno elevado
donde escalaba cada día.
(fabricante de perfumas)
Regresó con la mano vendada:
el circo dejó de tener sentido para mí,
hasta el discurso de los políticos parecía menos consistente.
Oxen are brains of moss,
they climb another evolutionary step;
the heron who shits
on their heads
improves the texture of the breeze,
a different rain awaits her
at harvest’s close.
Los bueyes son cerebros de musgo,
en la labranza
escalan otra evolución;
la garza que caga
mejora la textura del aire,
otra lluvia esperará por ella
al fin de la cosecha.
8 and 10 January 2013, Havana