Read a shortened transcript of the interview:
Poets.org: How did you approach curating Poem-a-Day?
Sasha Pimentel: Because I’m from the Philippines; and because I live in this area called “border” in El Paso-Juárez that’s really an external attempt to impose a boundary on a land and peoples in order to name one part of the same land as one country, and one part of the same land as another country; and because I teach in a bilingual MFA program in Spanish and English with students from across the Américas; the poetry I know speaks to, and works from, many languages and many histories, even as a poem is unfolding in a single present. So I really wanted to bring in poets who carry inside them a sense of place, and a sense of being, that’s larger than the ways we often name belonging.
That means transnational writers. Writers who refute the boundaries that are often named upon us through geography, or through gender. Multilingual writers. That meant, for me, seeing the Academy of American Poets—the word “American”—as the Américas, and not this Estadounidensidad that’s too often assumed into the word “American.’ And that meant using this extraordinary opportunity to curate into the canon a way to be in awe of how much poets use language to imagine, and speak, an unthreatened belonging.
So I thought about the narrative arc of the month, how it might start with writers who question and refute the bounds placed upon the body, and space. And how later weeks might rise in tension with poets who are speaking their own rhythms, and their own measures, against historical violences which by force have attempted to shrink and constrain us, but against which those poets speak anyway. And in so speaking, they uncover that freedom, and that expansiveness, that’s possibility in language. Even when they’re speaking from places of painful utterance.
Poets.org’s Tara Jayakar talks of Natasha Tretheway, who invokes Rumi: “the wound is the place where the light enters you.” I was looking for poets who could speak like that, who speak light into a wound.
And I was wondering how each week might arc narratively too, and how the month could just kind of end buoyantly, and in many languages.
Poets.org: If you could direct readers to one poem in our collection at Poets.org that you haven’t curated, what would it be and why?
SP: I think Patricia Smith is our living North Star in poetry.
I’m going to talk about one poet in terms of another first, but Phillip Levine has a poem on Poets.org titled “A Story,” in which he says: “Make no mistake, a family was here. You see / the path worn into the linoleum where the wood / gray and certainly pine, shows through.” And in her poem, “Incendiary Art,” the poem I’m recommending, Patricia Smith insists on that kind of guarding, that insistence against effacement: that insistence through language that a person, and people, have lived, and are living..
I think that’s one of the most valuable things we can do as artists, to say, stop, hold on. This life that a person lives, or has lived, that matters. That matters, and we value it with language. In “Incendiary Art,” Smith writes a poem that speaks a larger and more intimate truth about community, and a city’s people—against how the violences in cities of color are often misnamed into that terrible, small word, “riot.” It’s such an awful word, “riot,” and she uses the wonder of the poetic line to speak towards what Major Jackson calls “exaltation.”.
Smith will move in one line from the words “their bodies,” to the word “art,” and she’ll end her lines, even though she’s talking about pain, with a word as big and rife with possibility as the word “air.”
And she speaks about violence without extending it; she names it, but she doesn’t extend it. To me, Patricia Smith always names that which is most important in a language that’s always true, always complex, exploratory, and swollen with kinetic energy. In the last lines of that poem, she says: “Our sons don’t burn their cities as a rule, / born, as they are, up to their necks in fuel.”
Poets.org: Who are you reading right now?
SP: Part of me is like, the news, um, all the time. But then I’m like, wait a minute, bring it back to literature, Sasha.
I spent the morning typing up the two versions of James Baldwin’s “A Letter to My Nephew,” how it first appeared in The Progressive in1962, versus the 1963 version in The Fire Next Time as “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation.” I do this a lot, transcribe a writer’s text, and I do it a lot with Baldwin because it’s a way to enter, and be inside, his sentences. To see how he’s working through his clauses, and his commas, and his punctuation. I don’t think I ever understood the power of a comma until I started studying Baldwin. How he can just distill a clarity, and weight, into a part of language with the right pauses.
I’m reading Art Spiegelman’s book, Co-Mix: A Retrospective of Comics, Graphics, and Scraps, that goes over his career, his graphics, his comics. Something fascinating to me in it is that it has all these pictures of his proposed covers for the New Yorker, including the covers that were rejected, and that were accepted. To be able, in this way, to see how an institution inside a living culture resists, or runs, with an artist.
I’m supposed to be talking about what I’m reading, but I watch a lot of television, and I was just watching this comedy special of Tig Notaro, and there’s this moment where, after a double mastectomy, she takes off her shirt, and she does the rest of her set shirtless, and it’s amazing. It’s beautiful, and amazing, and wonderful. It really makes us question what limitations in gender have been applied to our torsos that Tig’s act now refutes and stuns. And that kind of pushing and questioning of a culture’s values is what I’m thinking of when I read Art Spiegelman.
I’m also almost always just in the works, old and new, of Cathy Park Hong, Natalie Diaz, Michael Torres, Martín Espada, Gregory Pardlo, Paisley Rekdal, Monica Youn, and Tarfia Faizullah—and oh, the stories of—because I’m trying to see how these masters, these writers, are going in and out of time, and are somehow collapsing and creating time, all at once, in their writing.
Poets.org: What are you currently working on now in your writing, teaching, or publishing life?
SP: I just finished an essay about birds and fish, and how we might measure pain scientifically, but also how we might pass on harm, without meaning it, one to another.
And I’m working on a series of poems that are trying to reconcile the familial with the personal, and the postcolonial: what we name, and where we keep our silences. The poems take place in the US, the Philippines, Germany, and Latin America. I was really lucky to get to live, and teach, in Leipzig, Germany, at Universität Leipzig. In Germany, the sense of monuments, and history, is so different than in the U.S. Their Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, that agony and that history, is visible from the Reichstag, the German Parliament in Berlin. And we hear about this in the U.S. news, constantly, right now: which monuments we contest, and which monuments we stand by. So I’ve been thinking about how we make monuments in space and language, culturally, and personally. And what that might mean when we remember—and when we refuse—memory.
I’m grateful to you all for the time to read and learn by guest editing Poem-a-Day. I’ve learned so much from reading poems by these poets; I love their poems!
I’m also on a fellowship this semester, so I’m really grateful to the National Endowment of the Arts, and my university, UTEP, for the time to read and write now. I feel like a kid, I’m so excited for this rare time to get to read poetry, and to get to write it.