Unrehearsed chemicals

A conversation between Joshua Marie Wilkinson and Rosa Alcalá

Joshua Marie Wilkinson: I know that there are a number of manuscripts — half-finished? completed and shelved? — which predate your first book Undocumentaries. What was the evolution of your first book? How many years went into it and how did it develop?

Rosa Alcalá: My first manuscript was my MFA thesis. When I was at Brown, my work started changing, so the thesis poems range from very traditional lyric poems to more experimental ones. Because I learned English shortly after Spanish, and because I’ve always moved between the two, I’ve always been struck by the materiality and aural qualities of language. So, my poems have this thread between them, for me anyway. I’m fond of some of the poems in that thesis (I think it was called In Translation; the title has changed many times since), but I’m just in a different place right now. Still, the concerns of those poems — identity, language, class, etc. — are clearly in Undocumentaries, which I wrote in my first four years teaching at the University of Texas-El Paso. The manuscript that followed the thesis and precedes Undocumentaries, is now titled The Lust of Unsentimental Waters and is forthcoming from Shearsman Books. I wrote it while doing my PhD in English at SUNY–Buffalo, where I was reading lots of translation theory — lots of theory in general — and as a result, the poems, very sparse and economic, are a thinking-through of some of those theories. I started translating in the mid 1990s — after a childhood of interpreting for non-English speaking parents — and as I read Barthes, Glissant, Mignolo, Anzaldúa, Benjamin, Kristeva, others, I felt a real emotional connection to some of those ideas. Sometimes I didn’t understand them very well; I’m sure I misunderstood them or battled with them or couldn’t quite make sense of what they were saying, but I felt like I “got it.” And some of the poems — not all of them — came out of that dialogue with the texts. I was also translating a book of poems (Lourdes Vazquez’s Bestiary) at the same time, so those concerns (anxieties?) are there, too. I think translation is the hardest job in the world. Certainly harder than writing poetry.

Wilkinson: For me, “Undocumentary” resonates somewhere between undocumented laborers and what cannot be documented in a “documentary” — what escapes the document, the record, or even recognition. What is the figure of the “Undocumentary” for you in these poems, and how does this word loom over the book for you?

Alcalá: I like that you use the word “loom,” with its reference to weaving, since this book is full of textile work. All my work is textile work, to some extent.

The book was originally titled Fact & Act, which gets at a similar idea, but Mónica de la Torre suggested Undocumentaries, after the first poem in the book. I love her work, and we translated a book together (Lila Zemborain’s Mauve Sea-Orchids), so I do what she tells me. I think her reasoning was that this title could be understood in many ways, including as a reference to undocumented workers. The term “undocumentary,” however, came about as I began to do research for the book. I knew I wanted to write about work/workers, particularly the type of work/workers that are often invisible, not represented in popular media. Rather than rely on my own experience — both my parents were factory workers, in textile and other industries — I felt compelled (fresh off my dissertation) to do research. I read articles, watched documentaries (like American Dream, about the Hormel Food factory strike in Minnesota, which is mentioned in the book), and took notes. But I felt that this didn’t quite get at “it” (and I didn’t know what the “it” was yet). I started weaving my own unstable file of experiences with what I was reading, and this lead to other research, which was woven in as well. I was rereading Williams’s Paterson at the time, so I took his collage technique as a guide. So, the “undocumentary,” for me, is the lyric’s “unrehearsed chemicals,” which in the archive or document becomes “a brighter or stiller image.” I say “brighter” because I think the archive has the ability to seduce with its certainty, its proof, but it’s “stiller,” less able to communicate the slipperiness of experience. The lyric, on the other hand, can continue to act out “the tensions of progress.” And, ultimately, this book — written in my first years as an assistant Professor — acts out those tensions, which felt so dizzying to me at the time, and still do to some extent.

In the end, however, this book is (in part) about the ways in which the working class — including undocumented workers — are not represented at all or are represented in clichéd or one-dimensional ways. I always felt — in very painful ways — the invisibility of my own parents’ working-class/immigrant lives in the representations of “American” identity. I remember someone asking me at Brown what my father “did.” No one had ever asked me that before. In my neighborhood, it just wasn’t a question. Maybe this book is an answer to what he — all those forgotten workers — did. But I don’t think it’s an easy answer — this question of representation — which is why many of these poems are fragmented or discursive, or in Glissant’s term, “errant,” and why the speaker of the last poem contemplates arson. It’s like Williams burning down the library in Paterson, for the possibility of new forms, new knowledge. Because he knows that presenting the “document” — even if that document is the poem — is a risky endeavor, a danger that can lead to a kind of reification of identity and experience. And also because he wants to move on from the past.

Wilkinson: You mention Williams’s Paterson a couple of times, which is where you’re from right? What are the effects of being from a hallowed American poetry city, where Ginsberg is also from. Does that influence your poetic thinking much? Is that something you try to court or escape? Do you recognize your Paterson in Williams’s work?

Alcalá: As I was reading your question, I had this memory of talking to Allen Ginsberg in his apartment in New York many years ago, and he was asking me if such and such place still existed in Paterson, and it felt so incredible to share this place — and to be able to give the “current” Paterson to Ginsberg, who was so well known for being from there. It felt a bit like that moment in Paterson when Ginsberg writes to Williams because he senses a kinship. Like Ginsberg, I always felt a kinship to Williams (who was actually from Rutherford, NJ), but I think it has more to do with the “Carlos” — you know that otherness book-ended by such Englishness. I mean, no matter how many Williamses you shingle onto it, “Carlos” stands out in Anglo-American modernism. He could have removed it from his name for matters of publication, I suppose, but he really would have had to put something in its place, because the measure of that name would have been fatal: William Williams. And in addition to fatal, if he had proceeded without the Carlos, he wouldn’t have been the poet he is, one who interrogates American identity, one who sees “Carlos” as part of the national fabric. And I think Williams was quite aware that this made him different, which Ezra Pound confirms when he says in a letter to him: “And America. What the hell do you a bloomin foreigner know about the place.” Although Pound acknowledges in the same letter that Williams, born in New Jersey, is an “Amerkun (same as me),” he also adds, “You thank your bloomin gawd you’ve got enough Spanish blood to muddy up your mind.”

I mean, on the one hand Pound seems to admire Williams’s work for its opacity, which he says is “not an American quality.” But there’s no getting away from the fact that he reinforces this native/foreign paradigm (alive today!) in American poetry, and Williams is most certainly, to him, not quite American enough. Pound, on the other hand, is a real American because he has had the “virus … of the land” in his blood for nearly “three bleating centuries.” Another real American, according to Pound? Harriet Monroe, who had “the swirl of the prairie wind in her underwear.” The native, as you see, are also the gatekeepers.

In short, Williams does influence me, but I’m aware that my understanding of identity, as well as Paterson (the city, as well as the book), is also tuned by growing up working class, and by having been a girl and now a woman. In Williams’s book the perspective is decidedly male and is certainly privileged and not from the city proper — someone who could walk freely, look around, accrete, ask questions, reconstruct. This “confession” makes me nervous, but I think it’s appropriate here: I was sexually assaulted near the Paterson Falls when I was in my early twenties; I’m aware of the dangers, like most women, of walking around freely, then and now. Even in my own poems.

Sometimes when I read the Cress (Marcia Nardi) letters, I think, oh, that could have been me (“I know myself to be more the woman than the poet,” or “But it’s never so simple as that to get on one’s feet even in the most ordinary practical ways for anyone on my side of the railway tracks — which isn’t your side.”) You know, I always want to identify with the authority of the book’s speaker, with Dr. Williams, but the truth is that perhaps I feel closer to the characters/people Williams puts to use, especially the female ones, even Madame Curie.

This comes up for me often in other ways. For example, the role of the bohemian woman artist in Mad Men (season 1) appeals to me, I want to be her, but I know that I would have more likely been in the secretarial pool. So, in some ways, my book gives voice to the secretarial pool, while the woman constructing the book is the artist; she really runs the show. Therein lies one of the book’s tensions: who can assemble and who is assembled — the gap and similarities between them. That is why so much of the book is informed by avant-garde art practices (land art, performance art, aleatoric practices, etc.): the speakers or characters referenced are imagined as works of art or as works in progress, as artists who work outside of the institutions of art. (As a side note, I recently learned that Williams, who as you know was a doctor, delivered Robert Smithson, the artist famously associated with land art! Which just feels perfect to me.) 

Wilkinson: And speaking of place, having met you in El Paso where you now live, what’s changed in your work since moving to the border of Texas and Mexico?

Alcalá: El Paso made the book possible for it created distance in some ways from my own perceived working class identity and from my place of origin.

I envision El Paso coming in more concretely, too in a future project, particularly its textile history. It was one of the primary finishers of jeans in the US prior to NAFTA. So, many of those stonewashed jeans you wore (yes, you) came from here. I just want to find a way to situate myself more fully in the place where I live and I seem to always do it through textile, which, as one person told me recently, is in my blood.

In the last few years here, the level of violence in Juárez, a city in Mexico that can be seen from El Paso, has risen to staggering heights. When I arrived here, there were women, many of them maquiladora workers, being raped and killed, and now the violence has spread throughout the city’s population, mostly related to drug wars. And I’m trying to get my mind around that and what my relationship to it is, how to talk about it in a way that’s meaningful and not exploitative or reductive. Meanwhile, I teach Benjamin Saenz’s The Book of What Remains, which I think takes on this issue, among others, in a complex, yet direct way.

Wilkinson: Obviously, violence and sexual violence must permeate your work — and life — in direct and indirect ways. What are your strategies? What have you learned about how you process violence? How does it shape your work?

Alcalá: That’s a good question. I know that others have detected anger in my work, but violence? I don’t know. Do you see violence in Undocumentaries? I am writing some things now that look at how we are connected to violence that doesn’t affect us directly. I think that violence (in all its forms — towards others in other countries, towards the oceans, etc.), our complicity in it, is very difficult to write about when it hasn’t happened to us, partly because the lyric is often seen (and taught) as a vehicle for first-hand experience. Extending (or reimagining) the “I,” without seeming predatory, romantic, or exploitative is hard (but necessary).

Wilkinson: I think many of the poems in Undocumentaries have a way of articulating a self (or selves) through a violence implicit in other matter of fact activities. As in the lines “Remembering is a trucking / yourself in” or “A dirty song, an ethnic dance. / A disappearance.” It’s not always violence as such, but an implication of it throughout, or a sort of permeation of it through the fabric of the book’s terrain. It doesn’t take long for a poem beginning with a description of John Cage “playing a chance operation” to leap to “My mother, the girl, is bleeding from the procedure.” I think that’s what I mean. A kind of subflooring of violence permeating the poem’s shifts and turns. Does this make sense or resonate for you? Is this conscious in your writing?

Alcalá: A “subflooring of violence”! Yes, that makes perfect sense to me. A subflooring so buried beneath layers of linoleum and tile (writing) that I was hardly aware of it. That isn’t quite true; I’m aware of the violence that is part of the fabric of these lives I’ve represented in the book. After all, the book begins with the bodies of workers scattered beneath lawns. But in my own thinking, when you asked me the question, this violence had become so part of the landscape, this rumbling beneath our feet, that it seemed separate from other acts of violence we were referring to. And, yet, it isn’t.

Wilkinson: I want to ask about the officiality of many of the poem’s titles versus the intimate landscape the poems actually draw from. Titles like “Party Line,” “Economic Crisis,” “National Affair,” “What It Means to Be Civilized,” and “Governance” all hearken to a kind of whitewashed, official idiom. And this seems to allow you a lot of contextual material to pivot from — since these are often very personal, introspective poems artfully belying their very titles. What draws you to titles like these? Do they come before or after you’ve written the poems? How do they work for you?

Alcalá: The titles come mostly after I’ve written the poems. I’ve been reading Spivak’s “The Politics of Translation,” and thinking of her clever — and complex — assertion that “Language is not everything. It is only a vital clue to where the self loses its boundaries.” For me — and for others, of course — the self is defined by boundaries; we are labeled in terms of nationality, sexuality, gender, ethnicity, etc. But those boundaries are “frayed,” to use Spivak’s term, in our rhetorical use of the language. For me, poetry is meant to show the fray between the self and larger structures that aim to contain or name or stabilize the self. But also I’m not necessarily interested in telling my “story” but in using the autobiographical as a way to explore these boundaries. That moving out — and that fraying between the language of the “true events” and the rhetorical moves of the poem — disrupt any inherent veracity, but the act of translation that I see as the poem respects that original “story” in a way that mere retelling could not. Spivak urges “intimacy” with the original, a surrender to it, and I think trying to understand what these experiences or lives connected to my own are saying — and not saying — and how they have been shaped by certain things (including my own maneuvers) — is more important than literality.

Wilkinson: I’d love to hear more about the avant-garde practices that most inform the work as well. You mention land and performance art, aleatoric practices — are these approaches in line with the kinds of artistic and working class tensions you cite?

Alcalá: I think that the poems map a kind of ambivalence regarding avant-garde art — any art perhaps, even poetry. On the one hand, there’s this feeling that art and poetry allow us to understand our world and to be in it more fully. That the poems I write are necessary as part of a larger ethical engagement with the world. There’s also a bit of this feeling that maybe poetry and art are inconsequential, especially when they don’t relate to “real lives” — that it’s all about being clever, ironic, “making it new” or “experimental,” writing for each other. My work struggles with these two polarities, and you can see that in the poems. I try not to shy away from it. I vacillate between glib and downright sincere. I want to just say “it” — whatever “it” is — and then I realize I don’t, because that feels false, too.

The other way I think of the book is as a kind of land art or assemblage/performance/installation of memory, which attempts to map out and draw attention to experience or a place in a way that acknowledges my own intervention. The book isn’t about something that “happened” but something that is constructed out of things that are remembered, imagined, invented, found, present. So the artistic or literary references are partially how I make this construction apparent. I am saying, there is a hand at work here. In “Land Art in the Silk City,” there’s a boy who keeps looking for a way to draw attention to both himself, as well as the place in which he lives — he wants to restore it to its original stature, to expose its beauty. He keeps sending away for guides that will allow him to develop special powers, to bring himself and the place that defines him into evidence. I feel the work of this book as connected to that boy’s desires. For me, those special powers can be found in language and art.