Perhaps I should start with the bomba. When a bomba dancer in Puerto Rico enters the dance floor, she advances to face the drummer, whom she will soon challenge to anticipate and follow with precision her every move. With one hand, she raises the right-hand tail of her long, full-circle skirt, dips her head forward, and salutes the drummer. With this act of acknowledgement of the tradition, she begins.
In the Caribbean region, we have a tremendous tradition of poetry and many internationally beloved poets. My home, Puerto Rico, es la tierra de los poetas.
Caribbean poets emerging now who are publishing their first collections are extraordinary writers, so it is exciting to have the chance to meet and read the works of such writers as Elidio La Torre Lagares, Kei Miller, Jacqueline Bishop, David Caleb Acevedo, Christian Campbell, Shara McCallum, Raquel Salas-Rivera, Ishion Hutchinson, Miguel Nater, Tanya Shirley, Marion Bethel, Margaret-Ann Lim, Millicent Graham, and Andre Bagoo, among many others. Any traveller to the Caribbean could find no better guidebook than a book of poems by any one of these writers, especially if you are interested in knowing not only the numinous beauty of our islands, our beaches and diverse ecosystems, but also the cultures, the art, the history, and the people — life as it has been and life as it is in the Caribbean and locations of Caribbean migration.
Puerto Rico is a kind of crossroads in the Caribbean, located on the map of the archipelago at the point where the Greater Antilles and the Lesser Antilles meet. Our closest sister islands include the Spanish-speaking Dominican Republic and Cuba but also Haiti, Jamaica, the US and British Virgin Islands, Anguilla, and Antigua and Barbuda.
Puerto Rico currently has the political status of a “free associated state” of the United States of America. In 1898 the US invaded and colonised Puerto Rico. Simplistically putting it, the three contemporary political parties are related to the issue of the political status of Puerto Rico, with advocates for independence and self-determination, a continued commonwealth status under US federal jurisdiction, or US statehood. For more than one hundred years, the presence of English in the island and in the educational system has been and continues to be the subject of polemical debates. From 1903 to 1949, the United States attempted to implement (or impose) English as the language of instruction for all or part of the K-12 [primary and secondary school] experience. More Puerto Ricans live in the US than on the island. Many immigrants return to Puerto Rico after years in the US. A percentage of the population is bilingual. Spanish and English are both official languages of the island.
Code-switching between Spanish and English, word and phrase-borrowing, or the spontaneous innovation of new hybrid words that blend the two languages happens naturally in daily conversations. Spanish as it is spoken in Puerto Rico is an extraordinarily beautiful, rich language, which I love. I also enjoy all of the creative possibilities that Puerto Rico’s language continuum offers to a writer, and I explore these possibilities.
I want to write poetry that is alive, fresh, vibrant, contemporary in feeling, readable, thought-provoking, playfully subversive, powerful, and yet still tender. I want it to be full of the energy, culture, history, music, natural beauty, spirituality, and social struggles of Puerto Rico, and other islands of the Caribbean where I have visited or lived. The Twelve-Foot Neon Woman pulses with salsa, Latin jazz, reggaeton, bomba, the music of the trovadores, the cuatro, bachata, Kweyol rap, R&B, mento and the quadrille, rocksteady, roots reggae, and Ricky Martin’s pop music.
I have been writing poetry since primary school, because that is my way of processing life and engaging with the world. I don’t write love poetry, and I don’t rhyme. I write because I want to communicate with readers in a way that matters, makes an impact, or makes some kind of beneficial difference in the reader’s thoughts and in the society. Can poetry do that? I still believe in the power of the word.
I don’t have a prescriptive idea of what role a poet should play. Poets celebrate and offer homage to their societies, but they also preserve cultural memory and witness societal trauma. They offer an alternative, thoughtful voice that may somehow counteract the barrage of news reporting, advertising, and legal and political rhetoric that assaults us daily. Poets speak up about injustices, sometimes even when there is a risk involved in doing so. With great economy of language, through the use of images and simple, evocative words, a poet can put you there — in just one or two pages helping you to imagine, for instance, what it is like to stay for a night in a small seaside room on one of the tiny islands of the Grenadines after a hurricane:
Surf mists through sliding glass door
Black hills of the invisible night sea
alive — colossal sound
Stunned curtains whisk up
salt atomised in air
Bare bulb on the wall
The room — the sea’s new causeway
Wavelets enter, scour floor tile — wash back
No steps to the beach, no sand — all washed away
(From “After Hurricane Lenny, Carriacou”)
The title of my first collection, The Twelve-Foot Neon Woman, comes from the poem “The Twelve-Foot Neon Woman on Top of María’s Exotik Pleasure Palace Speaks of Hurricanes, Papayas, and Wakes.” Sometimes everyone needs to be a strong twelve-foot tall woman (or man) with red neon surging through her (or his) veins in order to stand up to the experiences of life and the “wounds of history.”
Winning the 2012 OCM Bocas Prize in the category of poetry was a fabulous honour for me. The award made it possible for me to travel with my daughter to participate in the NGC Bocas Lit Fest in Trinidad and Tobago in April 2012. Ultimately, my hope is that the award will generate more readers for The Twelve-Foot Neon Woman, and in turn my book will draw attention to the festival and highlight the inestimable value of the arduous work carried out by the festival organisers and judges.
In my book, I seek the connection between the islands and the fostering of relationships across cultural and linguistic boundaries. I think we need more of that kind of literary translation and bilingualism in the region. Language diversity and multilingualism are marvellous aspects of the Caribbean.
If there is any “must” for a poet, from my perspective, it is to widely read other poets and thus develop the ability to sort out your own place as both an innovator and a member of an ongoing literary community and tradition that you will nourish and be nourished by.