NYP: An Interview w/ Frank Lima
Guillermo Parra Could you comment on your decision to wait twenty years between publishing Angel and Inventory: New and Selected Poems?
Frank Lima There was no choice. It was imperative that I change my lifestyle and my writing as well. Although Allen [Ginsberg] was, and will be, a great American poet and, as Helen Vendler put it, "Allen opened the way" of courage in what is Modern American expression in poetry. Nevertheless, I did not want to become an Icon of ghetto repetition. That is to say, in order to continue writing poetry about the life I was leading would have been certain death. I mean the cemetery kind, not the one that is even worse, the literary one that Allen suffered.
GP At a reading in New York in 1998 you mentioned your habit of carrying a pocket notebook everywhere. What is your preferred method of composition?
FL Allen suggested that I keep a small notebook on my person at all times for poetic ideas, in the event they occur at inopportune moments.
GP In the poem "Pisces," you write about César Vallejo. Do you see any connections between the poems Vallejo wrote in Peru and Paris and your own New York poems, in terms of both being attempts to expand the range of your versions of Spanish and English?
FL Yeah! I often translate my "Spanish" ideas into English via poetry.
GP Your poem "Voyagers" alludes to a certain intimacy that poetry can create: "When poets love each other from across the page / Occasionally they whisper in the same room / and gather their poems like unborn faces in the dark." This relationship between poets could be read as an alternative to Harold Bloom's antagonistic "anxiety of influence." Your poem suggests a form of communication between poets that is collaborative rather than hierarchical. In what sense do you conceive your work as being in conversation with that of other poets?
FL I often make feeble attempts at imitating other poets, just to get started and get away from "writer's block" or poetic shock at discovering you're not a poet after all. I am the apprentice of many great American poets, as many of us are. I'm not pompous enough to deny this wonderful fact. To name a few: O'Hara, Koch, Neruda, Lorca, D. Shapiro, Ashbery, and Vallejo. I disagree with Mr. Bloom, the emperor of poetry. I'm very proud of the many influences in my poetry. There are many a dull poet out there who would do a lot better by imitating someone like O'Hara, etc., etc. I am of the belief that poets write for each other. Who in God's name would choose such a medium of art and who else would read it anyhow? Other poets and for selfish reasons, of course.
GP Your early poem "Inventory-To 100th Street" suggests affinities with music: "Spicks with cock-comb / hair fronts / ear-gulping mambo music / eye-lapping pepperican flower / crotches." Has music been an influence on your writing?
FL Was mambo in my consciousness when I wrote "Inventory"? Who knows? I can't even dance it. Nevertheless, I suppose it's in my blood. I always listen to music when I write: Mozart, Vangelis, Scriabin, Poulenc, Prokofiev, and lots of Opera. I enjoy the beauty and dramatic atmosphere they create when I'm writing (as I write this, I'm listening to Vaughan Williams' "Lark Ascending.") Salsa is too much fun, sexy and distracting. Salsa is not contemplative and solitary. Poetry is self-starting and its nature does not need companionship.
GP Your early work, in both subject matter and style, can be read as a predecessor to developments in the poetry of certain artists associated with hip-hop culture, from the painter Jean-Michel Basquiat in the 1980s to rappers such as Mos Def and Nas in the 1990s. How much do you consider your work, like that of many hip-hop artists, as developing partly out of this mestizaje within New York City?
FL Please, don't put me on the same shelf with the deceased Mr. Basquiat. Although he may have had talent, he was naive and lacked what it takes to live without getting loaded. The real test would have been: what now, without drugs and pussy to run to? I was real dumb, without the slightest clue of what was going on in music, to say the least of hip-hop or, for that matter, any ethnic or cultural-movement taking place around me in Spanish Harlem. I just wrote because I liked it and other people liked it too.
GP The poem that opens Inventory: New and Selected Poems, entitled "Scattered Vignettes," begins as a family history ("My father's mother was a poor Indian who made / and sold confections in the streets / of Guadalajara to make ends meet.") and concludes with nightmarish images of institutionalization and psychological trauma. I find the poem to be reminiscent of Ginsberg's "Kaddish," in the sense that both of you transform tragedy into solace and clarity through a poetic method that doesn't shrink from uncomfortable details. Could you comment on how your poems often provide, or exemplify, a method of accepting and transcending adversity through language?
FL I'm not one to speak of language or any kind of transcendence with regard to a therapeutic or recuperative experience by way of the arts. I do now, however. If I'm to continue writing and enjoying my lifestyle as it is, I'd better stay sober and follow the rules or die! The need to suffer to create a dramatic art is nonsense. Vignettes started out as a vita for my then publisher, Dutton. For whatever reasons, it became this mini abstraction of my life as a youth and I went with it, as I often do when I write. The first word on the screen counts the most. No, it was not painful. That is the writing. The scariest part was how to develop it into something other than a flat bio about me-me. Of course, I've read "Kaddish," a long time ago. Did it influence the writing of Vignettes? As all good poetry does, yes, at some level, yes. Good thing, too. Without "Kaddish" it might have been boring and sentimental. As a result, I took chances. This particular poem has the ability to turn people off.
GP Your poem "Homenaje" is dedicated to Ginsberg. How much of an influence did his work have on you as a young writer, and in recent years as fellow poets?
FL In the beginning there was Allen. Allen was the second poet I read. The first was Robert Lowell. Both were the ultimate influences in my early writing career. Allen gave a sense of current life and immediacy. Lowell had the elegance and education I did not have. I benefitted greatly from both at the time. My Homenaje, or tribute, to Allen is an honest and open acknowledgement of how important he was to my early writings.
GP On the subject of influence, in the early 1960s you were friends with Frank O'Hara. His work conveys a sophisticated enthusiasm and curiosity towards New York City, which can often be found in your own work. Could you talk about the class you took with him at the New School for Social Research? Would you say that your friendship with him was an important moment in your development as a poet?
FL Well, Frank was a terrible reader of his own poetry that he made up in his enthusiasm for life in New York. He would have been a great mayor of Broadway. He loved the theater, dance and all the arts. Frank was the mentor that taught me to take chances in poetry and to be free and enjoy writing it. Poetry did not have to be blood and tears, life did not have to be blood and tears, either. That art was the ultimate experience, and that it should be luxurious and fun. At the New School he was matter of fact and to the point. He did like anyone's work. He actually liked reading new things and his critique was always generous and complementary. Although in private this was not always the case. I learned from Frank that art was a wonderful responsibility and that one should respect the practitioner. Frank introduced me to the French composers, the "modernist" French poets, Greek classics and their myths. Not to mention the ballet, dancers, and to many artists, including Edwin Denby and Virgil Thomson, Leonard Bernstein, and many other notable artists. Frank, without a doubt, has been the most influential person and poet in my life, other than Kenneth Koch. I am just beginning to realize how important he was in my life.
GP During the last decade there has been a growing interest in the so-called New York School poets. Certain critics refer to a second generation New York School. Do you align yourself as a poet with any of these terms, or do you consider them as efforts by critics to classify large and varied groups of poets?
FL No, I do not align my lifestyle or work with the second generation New York School. However, I feel privileged to know them as part of that time. I have, over the years, stayed in contact with many of them and their outstanding and innovative work, that continues to be contributory to modern American poetry. Critics have little choice but to categorize things they do not understand, or perceive as art, because they are not artists but want their craft to be judged as an art form. So, they are generally bitter, and this state manifests itself in the form of fault-finding and categorizing their ignorance of unknown elements of esthetic value. Their rewards are unearned judgement and the power of ignorant judgement. Critics should deal with themselves, and not with the arts as they come to them with a handicap of unfulfilled frustration that the artist suffers as he or she continues a struggle to go on at any cost.
GP Your poem "New York" (which I quote in full below) ends with a mysterious image of a human hand:
The streets have become unrecognizable.
The entire city is in tears and surrounded by water.
In the harbor a lovely hand appears.
This image of a hand returns in several poems: "I'm a professor / of hands" ("Hands"); "I have a picture of you / tattooed on the palm of my hand." ("Tattoo"); "The warehouse of wishes where you stored / The accessories of my childhood / They are attached to me / Like a small hand following a planet" ("'94 Puerto Rican Day Parade"). Has this focus on hands been a conscious concern in your work, or is it an image that recurs subconsciously--or perhaps a little of both?
FL I would say it is an unconscious occurrence. I am very concerned with my hands, as they have delivered me from many long and boring nights in situations not of my own choosing. And I play an instrument, the Spanish guitar, with my hands. I earn my living showing students to work with their hands and very sharp knives. So you see, my dear friend, where do I begin with my hands, these hands that can create and destroy this computer and its dispassionate gray grin? Who knows? These salutary mysteries belong to poets like your self. Sorry.
GP I was hoping you could talk about the story behind the portrait of you by Elaine de Kooning (on the cover of Inventory: New and Selected Poems). How much of an influence has painting had on your poetry?
FL One Sunday morning I went over to visit Elaine de Kooning for a drink, as I was very hung-over from the night before. In my efforts to recuperate, I began drinking with Elaine. She began to paint me as I recovered. David Shapiro made the brilliant suggestion to use the painting as a cover. The rest is history, as they say. I certainly would have never thought of it. David is full of brilliant ideas. There is a cartoon clock in his head that spins its hands at incredible speeds. Although I know many painters, I'm not aware of any influence in my work as a poet. On the other hand, it must have.
GP In recent years there have been flurries of "discoveries," or celebrations, of U.S. Latino cultures within the mainstream and literary media. These celebrations often mask the long-standing unwillingness of many Americans to acknowledge Latinos as producers of culture. Your work, over the last four decades, has challenged these notions of Latino literature being peripheral and easily classifiable. Would it be accurate to say that your poetry, rather than fitting into any particular category (American, Latino, Puerto Rican, etc.), creates its own sphere that draws from various cultural and aesthetic traditions--and in the process, counters stereotypes of what Latino poetry is or should be?
FL I write poetry because I have to, not because I want to. My intentions were never to be a poet. It just happened in a unique situation. It was Sherman Drexler, the painter, who suggested I write poetry. He was nuts, so I thought at the time. He said, "Write like you talk." End of story. The sources I draw from for "inspiration" are universal. I do not want to be a "Latino" poet. That tag is limiting to a particular group and style, although a necessary means as a vehicle and a point to start from, especially for those amongst our people who are not familiar with this peculiar form of writing. All well and good. But it does not end there, and that is the impression being cast that I do not want to be a part of. I do not feel I have to pontificate to any one of my origins and roots. To me, they are nonexistent in a cloudy past. We are not going to get California and Texas back, never. Puerto Rican Independence is just a charming idea at best. Art is much bigger than that. My poetry is much bigger than that. I do not want to be limited to screaming and bombast for the sake of being heard. That is esthetic colonialism and just too fuck'en easy to do. Our culture is richer and classier than glorifying El Barrio. Our humanity is more enduring than slang, although it can be cute at times. We have an enormous language. Many groups are envious of that, because we have retained it. We have endured along with our language. I advocate speaking it better and learning our history, since Caesar invaded the Iberian penninsula. The ancient politics of Spain are our politics and continue to stain our progress in other Spanish-speaking countries. They are part of us too. Why are these poetic groups so exclusive? Why not keep and translate our classical Spanish tradition of language into what we're creating today? I'm not defending the Royalist, but Franco had Lorca whacked, never for an instant taking into account that he was the greatest living poet Spain has ever given birth to. That's our history, too. We're not just "Latinos." To me, the theater is much bigger than that. It's history and heritage, and a magnificent language that is almost half Arabic. I know this of my own blood, half Mexican and half Puerto Rican that I am. This is my culture, not one or the other. To be true to myself, the price has been terribly high: I usually get excluded from New York P.R. anthologies and other events celebrating our culture. I am not one culture, but of two Latino cultures, including the one that killed thirty-eight million Native-Americans in North and South America! He was one of us too, Hernando Cortez.
GP You received an MFA degree from Columbia University in 1976. Could you talk about how your experience in graduate school shaped your poetry?
FL At Columbia, the experience was vast and rich, as Stanley Kunitz was one of my instructors. I met many young poets, including Phillip Bryant and Katha Pollitt, now with The Nation. I felt there was a place for poets after all. I think these programs are essential and wonderful. Like performance and hip-hop poetry, it makes poetry more accessible to the non-readers of poetry. The more the better. We have conservatories. Why not for poetry, too? Columbia made poetry less strange as a profession and a lifetime endeavor.
GP You're currently a Chef Instructor at the New York Restaurant School and you also conduct writing workshops for the Poetry Project at St. Mark's Church. Both poetry and the culinary arts share the same need for precision, dedication and conceptual creativity. What differences and similarities do you find between teaching these two art forms? What poets do you like to teach your students, as guides or models for young writers?
FL One is as elusive as the other. Perhaps cooking would appear the more material of the two. In the end, both require the gift of creativity and genius. There are many cooking schools, but not many gifted chefs. I would say that my experiences as a poet led me to believe that there is more to cooking than eating. Certainly a form of art in a highly developed society, according to Escoffier, the great chef of the twentieth century. Of course, I introduce O'Hara, Ashbery, Koch, Neruda, Lorca, Vallejo, Allen, Corso, David Schubert, F.T. Price, Frances Ponge, and L. Senghor, the African poet from Senegal.