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This interview is taken from PN Review 242, Volume 44 Number 6, July - August 2018.

Interview with Loretta Collins Klobah
‘Sentient of how we are related’
Loretta Collins Klobah talks Ricantations
Vahni Capildeo
Still, we feel new incantations of something
primal in us, allied by our hurricane grief,
disordered, but sentient of how we are related, neighbours,
iguanas, honey bees, bats, birds, trees, islands.
What is possible now? Can we do some things
differently now?
                                        — Loretta Collins Klobah, ‘Ricantations’

Your first book, The Twelve-Foot Neon Woman, appeared from Peepal Tree Press (Leeds) in 2011. Can you say something about your beginnings with that book?

The poems based in Puerto Rico take their subjects and energy from Santurce and Barrio Obrero (areas of San Juan), and Old San Juan; the urban forest; bomba dancing, narcoculture, street graffiti; and our history. Other poems range several of the Caribbean islands, Peckham and Notting Hill in London, and a bus terminal in Chicago. They touch on memory, history, social issues, art and the spirit. Music and the carnivalesque, sardonic humour, love and suffering drive the collection.

The book engages with Caribbean literary traditions. Although I had lived in Jamaica, and West Indian communities of London and Toronto, before moving to Puerto Rico, I lived in Puerto Rico for nine years before I felt sufficiently translated, assimilated, conscious and grounded to write the place where I would raise my daughter as Boricua and develop a tentative sense of my own belonging.

Your poems’ multilingualism, blending Puerto Rican Spanish and various Englishes – sometimes in the same line – fascinates me. Were there models for this?

Let me answer the question about the plurilingualism in my poetry by going back to my childhood. I was born in the town of Merced, in the San Joaquin Valley of California. My mother had Spanish and Scottish heritage, my father Cherokee and Irish. My godmother, María Ochoa, and my godfather, Jesús Pérez, were from Mexico. Spanish was spoken by a substantial portion of Merced’s population, and the language was a part of my daily and cultural life. When I was a child, my godfather made an effort to teach me some Spanish every Sunday. Johnboy López, a year older than me, joined our family when I was a preteen and lived with us as my brother while his parents remained in Mexico. Later, I had classes in Spanish.

A long list of writers have blended Spanish and English in their work. I feel particular affinity for the poetry of Willie Perdomo, Martín Espada, Sandra María Esteves, Victor Hernández Cruz and Raquel Salas-Rivera for how they write the Puerto Rican diasporic experience and the island, but also how they innovate with language to write about the working classes, culture, history and social justice issues. My own style of blending languages, however, comes out of my immediate lived experiences and my ear for language as much as my long-standing engagement with Puerto Rican, Latin@ and Anglophone Caribbean literature.

I wrote poems from the first year of primary school, but when I started getting serious mentoring at eighteen, I was part of an active poetry community in Fresno, California. This included the former US Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera, Francisco X. Alarcón, Margarita Luna Robles, Leonard Adame, Ernesto Trejo, Luis Omar Salinas, Robert Vasquez, John Martínez and occasionally Gary Soto. The former US Poet Laureate Philip Levine and Charles Hanzlicek were my mentors.

Levine wrote narrative poems about Spain and frequently gave us poems by the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca, the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, Nicaraguans Rubén Darío and Ernesto Cardenal and the Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade, among others. I will never forget reading about ‘deep song’, the cante jondo, and duende in Lorca’s poems for the first time; or reading ‘Dos Muchachas’, the evocative portraits of Lola ‘bajo el naranjo’ washing ‘pañales de algodón’ and the ‘torerillos’ by the sun-filled river (‘¡Ay, amor / bajo el naranjo en flor!’) and Amparo alone in her home. These poems said so much without directly saying it, and powerfully expressed the class divisions between these two women. I could smell the air near Lola. Lorca’s poems spoke to my world, and I wanted to write what was around me with that lyrical and narrative vibrancy.

The first poem that I published in a literary journal, which was about the lumberyard where my father, my godfather, John López, and I worked, had some Spanish in it.

During my formative years, I mainly read British and US poetry as well as Spanish poetry and poetry in English by Latin@ writers. In my early twenties, I read Bajan poet Kamau Brathwaite’s The Arrivants and Trinidadian Gordon Rohlehr’s companion critical study Pathfinder. Even before Brathwaite started to write in his innovative intertextual Sycorax video style, his amazing poetry used the smallest fragments, pebbles, grass blades, chiselled syllables and musical borrowings to delve into and rewrite history, epic stories of African migration and ‘New World’ arrival. I followed Rohlehr’s guide and travelled on a shoe-string budget to talk with many Caribbean academics and writers, and haunted archives, gathering generously hand-copied audio tapes (such as recordings of the Mystic Revelations of Rastafari), photocopies and VHS videos (Mikey Smith, Linton Kwesi Johnson and C. L. R. James reciting poetry and debating in Britain; nine-hour videos of the Jamaican Kumina Queen Imogene Cunningham). I looked for the materials annotated in Rohlehr’s analysis of Brathwaite’s text, trying to understand the historical, cultural and poetic assemblage work Brathwaite was doing in order to write his first trilogy. The Arrivants was my Ur-text, one of my foundational beginnings as a contemplative adult person. Although I was still influenced by Levine’s narrative poetry, The Arrivants changed my life as an academic and writer. After that, I started reading Caribbean literature extensively. I eventually earned an MA and MFA in poetry writing and a doctoral degree in Caribbean literature from the University of Iowa. I have been avidly reading Caribbean literature for about thirty-five years. Four of the nine years of my doctoral study were spent living in Jamaica and West Indian neighbourhoods of Toronto and London. Now, I have lived in Puerto Rico for two decades.

Obviously, the Spanishes of California and Puerto Rico, of Cuba, the Dominican Republic, the South American countries, are not the same. I read, teach, and associate with the Nuyorican writers and other US-born or -based Puerto Rican writers, as well as writers on the island, and many writers from the larger English- and French-speaking Caribbean and their Diaspora(s).

I live between languages in all spheres of my life, and I love Puerto Rican Spanish and our idiomatic sayings, as well as the Englishes of the Caribbean archipelago.

When Trinidadian poet Andre Bagoo interviewed you for Caribbean Beat, you foregrounded dance and musical forms.1Do these translate into language? What of poetic ‘voice’?

Philip Levine advised his students: don’t be in a rush to find your ‘voice’. I am in my mid-fifties, and I try to not bore myself by writing poems that are always in the same voice, form and style. I want continually to be learning and surprising myself as I write. Still, something of a recognisable voice emerges in my first book, The Twelve-Foot Neon Woman. The second book, Ricantations, is different in approach: there are more marvellous and speculative elements: mythic creatures, animals and anomalous beings, such as a flying gargoyle, a man who wears a Green Lantern suit at his wake, a Spanish Baroque girl with hyperphagia and a circus family of high-wire walkers. However, in both books the voice combines the quotidian and the luminous, the beautiful and the atrocious, grim humour and what Vidyan Ravinthiran, remarking on Ricantations, has called the ‘exact, terrible word’ to portray the realities of a colonised society ransacked by debt, mass migrations, narcoculture, gender violence and hurricanes.

The various forms of dance, music, carnival and visual art in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean are inspirations. Poems refer to bomba, plena, salsa, reggae, reggaetón, dancehall, soca, calypso, boleros, trio singers, cuatro music, and dance forms that are practised in the community: bombazos, among families dancing at a lechonera, at funerals – and young people at the Pulse nightclub in Florida, where half of those who died in the 2016 mass shooting were Puerto Rican. I weave in song lyrics that evoke time periods, neighbourhoods and memories.

But other forms of sound and rhythm are important to me. In Ricantations, I have an extended metaphor poem about an athletic Paso Fino horse in competition, prancing over the sounding board in front of the judges. Puerto Rico has been a horse culture since the days of the conquistadores. The Paso Fino is the only horse with a fine isochronous gait. The poem is written in the meter of the horse’s hoofbeats.

How would you situate your work? As women’s writing? In the Americas? The Antilles? Is there an archipelagic consciousness or aesthetic?

I write out of the troubled tension of my limbo subject position as a large woman, phenotypically white, California-born from the lower working classes; living in, teaching Anglophone Caribbean literature in, and feeling my profound connection to and cultural involvement in the still-colonised Spanish-speaking territory of the island of Puerto Rico, while collaborating with and forming literary friendships with writers from the larger Caribbean and its diaspora(s). My poetry, engaged with the traditions of both Latin@ and Caribbean literature, is grounded in historical readings, archival work, popular culture, Caribbean spiritualities, the natural environs and the everydaythe warmth and angst of the pueblo. The Twelve-Foot Neon Woman (Peepal Tree Press, 2011) situates poems in Carriacou in the Grenadines, Grenada, Jamaica, Guadeloupe, St Croix, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Britain and the US. Poems in the new collection, Ricantations (Peepal Tree Press, 2018), are set in Puerto Rico, Mexico, Jamaica, Britain and California. I recall once more the range of places in which I have lived: Iowa and Georgia in the US, London, Toronto and Kingston, Jamaica. Yet, from my poetic approaches and the subjects that concern me, it’s evident that my poetry, overall, has a Caribbean archipelagic aesthetic, commitment and consciousness, with poems straying into other geographical and cultural regions linked to Caribbean experience, my past and travels.

The extraordinary sequence ‘Novena a la Reina María Líonza’ (‘The Twelve-Foot Neon Woman’) haunts me, yet I can’t unriddle it. What moves you in composing longer forms? What’s the process?

I would love to know what you couldn’t unriddle about it! I can spend years on a long poem sequence, connecting the dots, little by little. This one charts its own genesis. During Hurricane Jeanne (2004), a huge boa constrictor bumped around in the attic of a wooden casita occupied by an elderly mother and her grown, mentally challenged, deaf-mute daughter. For days, the snake visited the bed of the daughter, who could not communicate that to her mother. That prompted me to think of the Taíno-Spanish-African goddess María Líonza of Venezuela, who was swallowed and rebirthed by a snake, and to go in search of her figurine and prayers at botánicas, listen to the Rubén Blades song about her, think about regional connections and write about the damage and aftermath of the storm in Haiti, Grenada, Jamaica and Puerto Rico. Cosmic woman energy was summoned to the mourning and natural restoration. Ricantations also has two long poem sequences.

Did The Twelve-Foot Neon Woman find the readership you expected? Were there surprises? What reactions did you encounter, and did these reactions provoke responses in you or in your writing?

Yes, I was surprised and pleased by the reaction of readers, reviewers and awards. The book was well­-received in the Caribbean and Britain. Because I am an immigrant, I was called out on social media by one Caribbean male writer who has lived as long outside of the region as I have lived in it. This made me think a lot about my identity, adjust my moral compass (a continual process) and write more bravely and openly about aspects of my identity and personal and familial experiences for my second collection than I had previously.

Do you disentangle ‘life’ and ‘writing’?

I don’t write daily. When I am writing, I structure my life, if possible, around spending time observing out in the world, gathering words, writing notes in an art sketchbook, taking photographs of locales, doing archival work or other strange kinds of research, dealing with insomnia, and trying to find coffee shops or places at home where I can concentrate. My writing is often not about me, per se, but my lived experiences are incorporated and the themes are central to my actual set of concerns.

You won Trinidad and Tobago’s OCM Bocas Poetry Prize in 2012 for The Twelve-Foot Neon Woman. That is how we first met, in Port of Spain. What is the regional role of gatherings like Bocas?

The regional festivals are essential to bringing writers of the archipelago and Diaspora(s) together for conversation, readings, workshops, cultural events and professional training. The awards promote exposure and readership. Trinidad and Tobago have amazing writers involved in the organisation and promotion of the festival (Nicholas Laughlin, Shivanee Ramlochan, Andre Bagoo, and many others). The award I received meant that the book got reviewed in several media outlets. But the most important thing for me has been the way that the festivals (Jamaica’s Calabash, the Bim Litfest in Barbados, the Virgin Islands Litfest, the St Martin Book Fair) have made it possible for me to make lasting and real friendships and have frequent collaborations with writers from the entire Caribbean and beyond.

We co-judged (with Danielle Legros Georges) the OCM Bocas Poetry Prize 2018, awarded to Shara McCallum. Now you’ve been on both sides: prize-winner and prize judge…

‘Prize culture’ can valorise a star system, in which only a few writers rocket into the awareness of readers and the book industry. However, in the Caribbean region and Diaspora(s), where the number of book publishers, literary journals, reviewers and prizes is limited, all writers benefit from competitions such as Bocas, Casa de las Américas in Cuba, the Guyana literary awards, Small Axe journal prizes, Commonwealth prizes and British awards because they create international awareness of the excellence of our writers and the importance of their themes.

The pain of Hurricane María is both recent and ongoing. Is there is anything you wish said…

After Hurricane María, the entire island looked like an atomic bomb had been dropped on it. When I first was able to get out of my house and into the streets, my thought was that this island can never recover from this destruction. The title poem of my second book, ‘Ricantations’, describes the impact to both the human-made world and the natural. There isn’t one person in Puerto Rico who isn’t still traumatised, and from what I have seen of the other islands hard hit by Hurricanes Irma and María in 2017, the same can be said. Here 30,000 people are still without electricity eight months later. Our street signs and lights blew away. Buildings were pulverised. Animal carcasses and sewage filled our water reservoirs, and we had food, water, medical supply and paper money scarcity. Families were separated because of the mass migrations out of the island. People are still living in appalling situations, without roofs, in torrential rains, all of their clothes and belongings lost. Neighbours got to know each other because we all needed mutual help. To some degree, islands helped each other out. However, the aid response of the colonial countries that gained their wealth through using our islands as slave plantations, and still benefit from captive markets and disaster capitalism, was far from adequate. This necessary aid and infrastructural strengthening should be considered an ethical imperative and a form of reparations.

Regarding your second book, Ricantations, which was also published by Peepal Tree Press and is a Poetry Book Society Summer Recommendation for 2018, I’d like to pick up two strands from our panel discussion on translation at the 2018 Bocas Litfest. One, about the selection of poems for the book, especially the Spanish/English proportions; two, about men and masculinity, which have much more evident space here than in your first book.

Both of my poetry collections are written in what the former Poet Laureate of Jamaica, Mervyn Morris, has called Spanish-sprinkled English. Both have glossaries at the back for the monolingual reader. I not only translate the Spanish phrases into English, but also explicate the names of the flora and fauna which differ from island to island. As I was drafting the poems for the second book, I was aware that I was using a lot more Spanish than I had in the first book, writing entire sections or verses of poems in Spanish.

I am always thinkinggiven what the islands are facing now and in the near future from imperialism, economic debt, austerity programs, independence struggles, educational cutbacks, natural disaster devastation, and climate changeabout what might strengthen the links between the Caribbean islands and its writers. We are not only separated by water and our particular histories and cultures, but also by language.

Festivals and the Internet have done much to bring us together, but not enough regional festivals are plurilingual. The plurilingualism is one of the most fascinating things about being a writer here. I look to the work of poet, fiction writer and editor Lasana Sekou, of the House of Nehesi Press and the St Martin Book Fair, because he constantly promotes multilingualism in his writing, his press and in the book fair activities. I wish more readers, especially those located in the Caribbean basin, had the knowledge of languages to be able to pick up a multilingual book and read it.

When I submitted my manuscript of Ricantations to Peepal Tree Press, the tremendously dedicated founding editor Jeremy Poynting assured me that they are on board with the wordplay between languages, but urged me to think about the monolingual readers. I substantially revised and shaped the manuscript, eliminating some Spanish-dominant poems, translating passages from Spanish to English and leaving in the sabor of Puerto Rican Spanish only where it would be most impacting and natural.

The title of The Twelve-Foot Neon Woman indicates that it is woman-centred and womanist. What surprised me while writing Ricantations was how many of the poems focused on masculinity and were tributes to men I respect because of how they ostensibly pursue their obsessions and passions without causing harm: an ex-convict custodian of a butterfly farm; an astronomer who dreams of building a solarium where school children can view the sun; a carpenter who plays baseball with a boy in a leprosy colony; a community artist who paints a pueblo built by coffee barons back into the green mountainside; a man who builds a space saucer home; and a calypso king of the Notting Hill Carnival. These poems counterbalance ones that witness the struggles of the island.

Ricantations deals with both art and atrocity. It speaks what for me, as a poet, would be unspeakable. How do you balance this? What is the ‘story’ of the book’s sections ‘Come, Shadow’, ‘Revel Rebel’, ‘Memoir of Repairs to the Colony’ and ‘Art Brut’?

Our Caribbean home-grown and colonially imposed varieties of monstrosity, the grotesque, the unexpected and marvellous, uneasy dreams, the undead, the folkloric, violence, gun shot, historical trauma, carnage and spectacles are juxtaposed with spiritual presences, Baroque and street art, music, tropical nature and hopeful beauty in these poems. The poems relate closely to the cover image: the oil painting ‘Ángel Plenero’, which symbolises ancestral legacies and resurrection through cultural arts, by the artist Samuel Lind, from Loíza Aldea of Puerto Rico. Daily life here includes space aliens, derelict horses, narcotrafficking and fishermen with María del Carmen tattooed on their backs. The peculiarities of Puerto Rico and the realities of the archipelago are combined to speak the unspeakable, as you say.

The first section of the book, ‘Come, Shadow’, calls up painful, shadowy aspects of our island and my family history, but often through play and, of course, through intensities of language. People and persona poems comprise ‘Revel Rebel’. Both this section and the next, ‘Memoir of Repairs to the Colony’, also consider forms of colony within the colony. The third section leaves the urban environs of San Juan for pueblos in the interior of the island, coastal areas and the small sister islands (including a poem about the filming of The Lord of the Flies in US-military occupied Vieques during the week of the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961). The title poem about Hurricane María and its aftermath finishes the section. Ekphrastic poems and two long poem sequences in ‘Art Brut’ muse on how self-taught and trained artists imaginatively craft the Caribbean experience, but even in this section, the focus is both on the quotidian and the mystical.

‘Ricantations’, the title poem and the close of the book’s penultimate section, ‘Memoir of Repairs to the Colony’, ends with a question. What is going on there? In twenty-first­­-century poetics, and the world?

The question in the ending is an unspecified call to action. Cat 5 hurricanes, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions are common to our area and climate change is going to worsen the damage. We don’t have the infrastructure, resources or inter-island organisation to have adequate disaster preparedness. Capitalism doesn’t help. And people also need to think about the continuing impact of Caribbean history, dependence and autonomy in Caribbean governance, identity issues, our relations to the natural world and human relations. Writers, if not politicians, need to imagine and voice the substantial changes that we urgently need to make.

You’re collaborating with María Grau of the University of Barcelona to produce an anthology of Anglophone and Hispanophone Caribbean poetry...

We are translating thirty-two emerging and recently published women and non-binary writers from the English and Spanish-speaking Caribbean to create a bilingual anthology with publishers in Britain, Spain and the Caribbean. All poems will be published in both languages. The project, another form of collaboration, is in service of giving these excellent writers, most of whom have not been translated, a broader international readership. We would like to build bridges between writerly communities. We expect to have the anthology out in 2019.

What is the one thing you have never said or put in print which you might consider saying and putting in print now?

Ricantations explores two new topics that I have never written about before: my mother’s hospitalisation throughout my childhood for paranoid schizophrenia; and, through the Spanish Baroque paintings by Carreño de Miranda, La Monstrua Desnuda and La Monstrua Vestida, my own body image and morbid obesity. Publishing these poems might open me up to writing about other deeply buried or no-go-zone topics in the future.


This interview is taken from PN Review 242, Volume 44 Number 6, July - August 2018.

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