Part two of a two-part interview; see first part one:
This is a continuation of my conversation with Jane Alberdeston Coralin. Jane is a Puerto Rican poet whose work has been published in literary magazines and poetry anthologies throughout the U.S. and Canada. An alumna of Cave Canem, a writers' organization for poets of African descent, Jane has performed her work in arts events and mentored writer's workshops in schools throughout the East Coast. Her poetry collections, Waters of My Thirst and The AfroTaina Dreams, are still in circulation. She is currently working on a poetry manuscript called Songs of a Daughter's Make Believe. She just completed her doctoral studies in English at Binghamton University in New York.
My blessing in knowing her is that I have come in contact with poetry of heartbreaking beauty, but in addition, she is another co-author of Sister Chicas. Her Taina is self aware, whip smart and a deep dreamer, just like Jane herself.
What would you describe as your core strengths as a writer… where would you like to see yourself grow?
I enjoy the way I fall in love with the playfulness of language. My grandmother died when I was twenty-one. I had pretty much grown up with her, so when she died, I lost a limb, a living and loving part of my life. I had a hard time understanding that loss and stopped taking care of myself, grew angry with the world. But while sunk deep into depression, eating potato chips and watching soaps all day, I did write. Cringing angry poems crouching in the dark. Horror stories full of dead people. I experimented with electricity, making words into lightning rods burning up the page. It was the most creative period of my life – so far. My mother worried – I must have looked a little scary; so she enrolled me back in college. I was exceedingly proud of the first paper I wrote for my composition class. My professor was cute. People talked to me. Life was getting better. Then – my essay slipped from my teacher's hands into mine, like a grenade, a fat shame bomb. He'd written in red screaming pen, wide across the page like a banner: TOO FLOWERY. I was crushed. My writing life, my life, was over. I dragged myself to his office, blubbering, eyes swollen, embarrassed. Luckily, he wasn't there. It took two classtimes for me to summon up the courage to tell him what I felt without breaking apart at the seams. In the end, his response was that I was a good writer and just needed to practice. From there on in, that's what I've been doing: practicing.
I do my best to stretch the arms of words, to double, triple, quadruple their meanings and possibilities. I do tend to get away from myself (admittedly, even here). It takes several revision sessions to rein myself back in. This year I 'm going to work on a graphic novel project. This project will force me to control my elaborate, curlique way of expanding text. I will need, unlike my responses to your questions, to keep the **** short. And yet there's something very Juanita (and a little like my mother) that lets me ride the tangent wave that leads me to story. I'm going to go with it – it's worked for me so far.
We collaborated in writing Sister Chicas. How would you describe the impact in crafting a novel in that way?
The impact has been indescribable. I namely became friends with two talented writers. I learned from Ann Cardinal how to make a character pop through their language. Where my characters have the poet-voice in them, obscure, quiet, a little consumed, hers explode! They take on the page like war – they are full of talk and dragon. I love her gorgeous way of making her characters stand out: veined, real, blood people. From you, Lisa, I watched scenes unroll. You write like film. My eyes can follow and swallow each moment as if I were living it myself. Also, I learned to appreciate the art of editing, your precision and care. Thanks to our connecting, I finished with my adolescence! I still can't believe it was one phone call that brought Taina, Graciel and Leni out from the wood. This can only be exemplary of how the universe brings us to certain situations and places so that we'll learn. It is the Divine at work. From girl to woman, I believe I grew into a careful writer, watching around bends and corners for missteps in continuity. Like Taina, I learned to walk in heels. I couldn't have gained that experience anywhere, except through the pearl of our collaboration.
Years ago, a poet friend talked to me about credos. I didn't have one. It was the Sister Chicas project that helped me earn a credo, a belief in what I mean when I say I'm a writer. I learned more about myself in that encounter, in that sharing, than I ever had before: the dangers between what is friendship and business. I learned about responsibility to another and loyalty to one's art, to one's message.
How would you describe your ties to family and place as it relates to your creative life?
My family, living and dead, is extremely important to me, first as person who needs love and validation. Secondly, as a writer, they provide for me a vast landscape of memory. You got a truck load of those earlier in this interview. Though some places of that valley that is the past are unreachable, it is my family that reminds me that I am part of that story. Even those who've gone (whether by choice or not) are a section of the weave of that fabric. There is nothing I can extract or throw away. Even the ties broken by my father are vital to who I am and what I tell. His absence, though no longer painful, is still part of my experience as a woman. I no longer live on the island I write about. Does that mean I am disassociated from the oily mangroves or the cliffsides dipping into the ocean or the lovely stuck roasting pigs lining the dusty highways? I am only slightly bereft; my heart and mind make up what is not there. Memory is such a spirit that it is voice and it is blood. I can call it Latina, like I can name it African diaspora, like I can say it's female. But truly what I am is a construction of stories: island, mainland, back street, city, country, suburb, military base, coffin, nursery. I am part of that language, that text.
Where do you see yourself in ten years, personally and creatively?
I believe that wherever I am creatively is where I'll be personally. I recently received my doctoral degree in English literature from Binghamton University. When people ask me what I took from the experience, there is only one thought bursting in my mind: I spent five years writing. I woke thinking of what I wrote before sleep. I went to sleep thinking of what I wrote during lunch. Or thinking of what my students wrote. Or what they wanted to write. I have been very fortunate to have been given the time, the funds, the fellowship and the space. Who else can say that? Whatever I do, whether it involves driving a cab (which I would be horrible at) or teaching in a classroom, I hope I continue exploring those disconsolate, buzzing, ecstatic voices within, bubbling at my seams, ready to spread their words.
What's something not in the official bio?
I got MAD Nintendo skills. Well, not really. Recently, I beat my brilliant and talented nephew at a game and not being techinically inclined in any way or fashion, it felt pretty good. I was never really sporty either – though I had the Adidas with the side green stripe and the Members Only jacket (are there still members or have they been excommunicated?) I was so bad at sports that I became a cheerleader. Shy girl – a cheeerleader – a really bad cheerleader. After a cheer, I usually ended up facing the wrong way. I never really got the hang of the round-the-world thing, one time landing a foot in a pothole and chipping a bone in my ankle; another time, slipping into an ant hill. The ants weren't thrilled, believe me. I guess it was another reason, other than being clinically poor at Mathematics, I became a writer. I think I made the right choice.
- River Silk: A Song for Maria
She was mined from the mouths of worms, centuries gathered,
then crated cross oceans to Paterson, that bustling city where she plaited
her mother's hair, and her father's skin shone between the shadows
of the Royal Machine Shop. In her bobby socks and poodle skirts,
she was just a young girl reeling in the dream of cornsilk.
All she knew breathed in Paterson's gills,
the worlds between PS 18 and the 17th Street
kitchen, Meyers Brothers and the pulp of rotting
marigolds on neighbor's stoops.
She grew to understand power plants and fish weirs,
a city's promises and the legs of a father's labor.
She read a rivertown's desire, once prehistoric and big as God,
now skeletal, its ribs surrounding a whole city of dollar stores.
Long gone are the ship odors of jasmine. Now it's the pulse of car horns
and chickenwire that greet her, the tricks of a church spires' reach,
the wintergreen songs of silk wrapped around women's throats.
But still she tells the world of Paterson's sweetwaters,
new immigrants of alcapurrias, their children that rise then fall and rise again,
and those with faces like her Papa's.
On the days she is not boro or back bay or northwest bend,
the hours she is the quiet New Jersey drought, she stays put,
near home, weaving ribbons. She is the lips of the Passaic, weaving through iron,
stone to lowland swamp, but words are not all she looms in that bustling city.
Find her in drainage ditches, in the wet tongues of Clifton's suburban curbsides,
near Spruce Street or Ward, floating down Pennington Park, a lined paper boat,
winding, climbing, navigating the dead to safety. I swear that if you lose her,
all you have to do is knock on leaning oaks, or smoke out of a cave.
Her words wings in the underworld that is the gut. If you look close,
it is love's fibers she threads, wide and emergent with all her strokes,
dancing in rooms reserved for slowness.
Kneel, go ahead, just kneel
to the ground, listen close to the Passaic passing by
on the errand of her heart.
Your father turns the rib-eye on the grill. In a few days he'll leave home
for field duty. You watch him get lost in the puff of new smoke.
It is like flipping a record over after the last song:
He slips his fingers on the vinyl, scratched and worn,
skating the dark circle. He does not know
his wife will thin the night and the linoleum
in a slow dance made for two.
In a weekend ritual, he bends over those old album covers:
Cash, Waylon, Campbell, their liquor red-eye and his.
Their superstar cowboy brims, your daddy’s boonie hat,
their throats cut with gold and diamonds,
around your father’s neck a noose dragging a dog-tag.
"… cow-boy, dun-dun", your father sings,
the chorus of fallen leaves crackling in the drainage ditch.
You wave away smoke to get a good look at him.
He smiles and you worry when he does it with all his teeth exposed.
It’s the kind of grin reserved for beer and barbecue and Sundays.
You try to sing along too to something rhinestone
but you get the words wrong. Your Papi lights up,
a tobacco puff blows your way, fragrant like cinnamon.
He does not look at you; instead, he looks around
at everything he’ll never own, though he signed for it.
Daughters and scraps of credit and memory. Children,
cornhusks blocking out his sky. Five mouths and a broken dial
on the pawn shop Sanyo. All he gets now is snow
in someone’s coal miner daughter.
Give him room, a cloud of smoke whispers, tells you to go away,
let your Papi do his thing. The smoke collars him, turns his hair white.
There’s a devil in the next track. You know what comes next.
He’s listening for clues, even in the scratches.
He is far gone, already turned to a secret B side, tuned to a twang
you cannot hear, blue forest floors in his eyes,
all the backcountry of his mind. The ditches he’ll dig,
holes he’ll slip into. You’ll always wonder
if all the voices that called were in his mother’s tongue
or if they carried all the dusts of Clarksville.
Finney, Nikki, ed. The Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South, Univ. of Georgia Press, 2007
- Papi and his Chrysler Cordoba
In his eyes, you could see a salesman's bounty.
Every time Papi looked at his Cordoba
you knew he knew it was not meant to be a family car
but a car for the left lane, with the window down,
with dashboard dice over the grey plush exterior winking back
at the ladies passing, peering in, as if they couldn't get enough of
My Papi, who always waited until it was the hottest hour of Saturday
to wash his Mami. He made it a holy act, a Sabbath ritual, a cup of overflowing
burgundy, felpa and Turtle wax, so shiny, it reflected back his face in the sun.
This was how he relaxed, never asking for help, all puffed up,
shirt front wet with the whipping hose, suds in his lashes,
as if a rainbow had kissed his eyes. Proud Papi
of the Chrysler Cordoba with the silver and gold siderails,
and the Chrysler insignia bent sideways on the hood from the time
he hit the bicyclist who looked the other way.
It never mattered to him that his back bent the same,
a brace to hold a slipped disc, incurred falling off an assault tank
the way Icarus thudded back to earth,
all melted wax and white feathers, body broken like a pigeon's heart.
Papi's too was like that, maroon and mystical, like the surface of
a summertime lake, sparkling with the loosed oil of drowned cars.
In ending this article, I have to say a few words about Jane's poetry. There is such longing, such braiding to familia, even if the price is heartache. There is, too, a sense of heroism, of dignity in the face of loss, and a profound sense of ordinary beauty in both the construction of her work and the lyrical images that are shot through it.Powered by Sidelines