1. As a bilingual writer, when you sit down to compose a poem, do the words generally come to you in Spanish or English or both, and how do you choose when to write a poem in Spanish and when in English?
Generally in English because the world around me is in English. At times I disassociate from my everyday language and write in Spanish. This happens when I read or hear songs in Spanish. I am very happy to be a substitute DJ at KBCS 91.3 FM on the Saturday Latin Music Shows. The exposure to words, expressions, landscapes, situations is immense, thereby giving me ideas that I can use in a new poem. If the poem sounds good in Spanish, then I translate it into English. I like to treat the audience to the poem in both languages. For the most part they like to hear how the poem sounds and carries in a language they are not familiar with. The last poem I wrote is in English. Recently I translated two poems into Spanish, one each for the past and current Washington State Poet Laureate, as a gift to them.
2. What are some of the difficulties involved in translating your own work as an author, and what has the process been like in collaborating with John Burgess as a translator?
The main difficulties are word usage and meaning. If I know for sure what the poet means with certain word, I use it, but most of the time I will consult the dictionary and thesaurus or go on the web or ultimately ask the poet "what do you mean?" I had to drill John Burgess on word meaning. The word that comes to the surface is "Outriders." He sent me a whole study by Anne Waldman on that word! I asked Sam Hamill the following question: "what do you do when you don't understand what the poet is saying?" He replied: "use your best interpretation." Another interesting situation is when the poet is dead and the translator has no one to ask "what do you mean?". In my opinion, only a poet can translate another poet's work and better yet when the poet is alive! That way I can ask questions.
I have translated my book All Our Brown-Skinned Angels--Todos Nuestros Angeles Morenos--into Spanish, and right now a friend who teaches Spanish is reviewing and editing my last revision. Hopefully I can find a Press in Texas or New Mexico for either the mirror publication or just the Spanish version. Translation may seem easy, but you cannot rely on the Microsoft translator; it is not accurate. One of the poems in my book, "Lo Que Importa," came from two different translations of Jorge Luis Borges "Una Brujula" or "Compass." The translators changed the word at the end of the third line into something that doesn't make sense! I decided to write something about that and I also used an input from John Burgess Punk Poem # 49. John has invited me to read the Spanish version of the book along with him, which has been a lot of fun sharing the poems in both languages.
3. In the year since All Our Brown-Skinned Angels was first published, what responses have you received about the poems from people who have read the book as well as people who have heard you read from it?
The audience response has been phenomenal! At my last reading in Bellingham, a lady came up to me to tell me that she could relate to some of the poems because when she lived in California, she experienced some of those situations. When I read in Yakima, almost everybody in the room bought a book and they had a lot of praise for the themes I write about such as immigration, assimilation, discrimination, cultural pride, family and what we immigrants do in the USA to keep the economy's wheels going. After I read a senryu about the folks standing outside Home Depot, the room was completely silent, perhaps due to the stark reality of those men who sometimes don't get paid for a day's work. People like the interweaving of the languages. I tell them that there is a glossary in the back in case they get lost.
4. How does reading/performing your work influence your process of writing and revising?
I pay more attention to assonance and syllable count as well as metaphors that say a lot without saying much. When I read in public, I do not slam the poem. I let the words linger and fall slowly so that the audience can hear them; otherwise without cadence and rhythm the audience will not get into the poem. It all comes with the experience of watching the reaction of the audience to certain poems. I have some that are very strong and loaded. Some folks don't like to hear "heavy stuff," and others don't mind. I prefer to gauge my presentation depending on where it is I'm going to read, because that way I know that anything I bring to the mic will be "okay." Otherwise I tailor the reading for all ages which I do not have a problem with whatsoever. The revision process gets more intense after I bounce the poem off a couple of people. They tell me what I may have to change or something that doesn't make sense or typos I didn't catch or verb usage etc.
5. In reflecting on your experiences in creating altars and educational programs for Day of the Dead celebrations, I wonder if you have any thoughts to share about the intersections between art and life, or more specifically, the ways that practices like creating an altar to remember our grandparents can be activities which allow us to express some of our deepest feelings and connections through artistic means?
Well, let me tell you about my first experience building an altar and doing a participatory workshop four years ago at the Litfuse Poets' workshop in Tieton, WA. Lorna Dee Cervantes was the main featured poet at that event. In the main warehouse, the altar was set in the center of the space with a single overhead light shining on the altar. All the poets and guests sat around the space. I gave an introductory talk about the meaning of the celebration, the cultural connection and how it is celebrated in many parts of the United States where people from Mexico live. I blew the conch shell I brought with me as well as other traditional Aztec instruments. At one point I told the audience that they could write a note to the person(s) dear in their lives that are no longer with us or stand up and utter their names while the rest of us responded "Que Viva"--"May they Live."
There were people in tears, and some of the notes that were left on the altar were very deep and full of love. I told them that the celebration is not a religious celebration by any means; however, they can tie in their religion if they want to. The celebration is about Life and what happens when we are no longer here. One remarkable phrase folks kept telling me that they appreciated hearing was the following: "There are three types of death. One, when the body decays and the soul separates from the body. Two, when the body is buried or incinerated. Three, when No One Remembers You. Therefore we remember all those that have passed before us because the life they had gave us our life."
The poetry that comes from all the remembrances is full of love and appreciation. Folks that didn't know anything about the celebration walked away with immense appreciation for having learned something new.