Interview with Pablo Medina
With critically acclaimed publications in fiction, poetry, and memoir, as well as several translation projects, Pablo Medina is a true cross-genre contender. A former president of AWP, Medina teaches at both Eugene Lang College at the New School and Warren Wilson. Currently, he is Visiting Professor at UNLV. He has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Oscar B. Cintas Foundation, the Lila Wallace-Readers’ Digest Fund, and the Rockefeller Foundation. In fact, Medina’s achievements would be pretty intimidating … if he wasn’t so darn nice.
Despite the fact that I missed my bus and was late to meet him, Medina graciously sat down with me in Boston’s Theatre District in February 2006 to discuss his most recent book of poems, Points of Balance/Puntos de Apoyo, a bilingual volume of six-line “fulcrums,” poems which Medina says are reflections of one another, rather than translations. (A beautiful book, inside and out, the font and cover of Points of Balance were actually designed by Medina’s son.) Two cups of tea and an hour and a half later, we had talked about his nostalgia for old typewriters, methods to keep our poet-selves alive and well, and his take on all the drama surrounding MFA programs.
MD: When did you discover yourself as a writer? Did you write in childhood or was it something that you discovered later in life?
PM: I always wrote, in the sense that you always dabble at something and write little poems in the margins of notebooks, and I kept a journal, especially in high school. But I never thought of myself as a writer—it just was not something that entered my consciousness. Nor did I ever think that that could be a possible ambition for me, even though I admired writers tremendously, simply because I was an avid reader.
MD: I sense that from a lot of the poems – there’s a lot of literary references.
PM: Oh good, I’m glad something stuck. And so it wasn’t until I was in college that I realized that possibility—that I could be a writer. And it came about in a very unusual way. In my junior year, I was actually a biology student…
MD: Oh really, that’s a very big switch! You never think about people from the sciences coming into writing.
PM: I was actually one of those and I was not enjoying my coursework very much. What I thought I would love about science, I wasn’t getting. In my junior year, I was taking Organic Chemistry. Let me backtrack a little bit and say that every elective—and I had very few, actually, because the course work in biology and pre-med was very demanding—but every elective I had, I took in literature, more specifically in Spanish literature. By the time I was in my junior year I had pretty much exhausted all of the undergraduate courses in Spanish. In the spring semester of my junior year, I convinced the head of the Spanish department to let me take a Ph.D. seminar on Cervantes and I just loved it. There were only six students and I was the only undergraduate. In fact, I was the only non-Ph.D. student. Midway through the semester, we had a departmental exam in Organic Chemistry. It was the mammoth mid-term that made you or broke you. And the night before, I had to pull an all-nighter, there was no question. The question was, what was I going to do that night? So I put my Organic Chemistry textbook on one side, and Don Quixote on the right, and I looked at both of them and I said, “I think I’ll spend the night reading Don Quixote.” I went to the Organic Chemistry test, but I got such a low grade, I’m embarrassed to admit it. That told me something about where my priorities and my interests lay. From there it was just a small step to thinking of myself as a writer, because by then I was writing a lot of poetry. The next step was to apply for a poetry workshop that was being held the following semester. I had just missed the deadline by a day, but I put together a bunch of poems and left them in the professor’s mailbox. And a couple of weeks later, I heard from the professor saying that I’d been allowed into the course, and that changed everything—all of my ambitions, all of my goals, and the way I thought of myself.
MD: This is really interesting to think about, because there are many more poets now who are coming from the sciences—like Rafael Campo.
PM: Yes, right.
MD: Do you find then that your background in science informs your poems in some way?
PM: I don’t know. You caught me off guard with that. I’d have to think about it… Theme-wise, no. I don’t write about amoebae and things like that.
MD: Where do you think your poems do come from?
PM: They come from a number of sources. And I’ll speak about this last book, because it’s fresh. I had reached—or I had thought I’d reached—a dead end in my poetry. I was using a rhetorically based line as the way of structuring my poetry. By rhetorically based line, I mean that there was a preconceived idea I wanted to explore, and the poem became an argument, a way of exploring that idea. But I was dissatisfied with that. And I was writing a lot of prose, which drew a lot of energy away from my poetry. I was afraid that I would never write a poem again in my life. I decided to sit down and work on poems. The poems that eventually made up this book, Points of Balance/Puntos de Apoyo, were devoid of a lot of that rhetoric. Instead, I relied on the six-line form with the three couplets.
MD: I was curious about that form—does it have a historic tradition or is it something that you created?
PM: No, it arose out of desperation, out of necessity. It developed out of that sense of “What am I going to do next?” I thought I’d better do something, because I didn’t want to abandon poetry and I didn’t want poetry to abandon me. These poems came out devoid, I think, of a lot of the rhetorical devices that I’d been using in my longer, looser lines. I liked the form so much—it was so refreshing, so exciting to me, that I kept writing them. I have to backtrack a little bit and tell you that at the time, I was casting the I Ching every day. And the I Ching, you may or may not know, is based on the casting of sticks or coins to create what is called a hexagram, which is a six-line figure. It is the interpretation of the six-line figure that then leads to sort of a guide for dealing with your everyday affairs. So I was doing that every day, as an exercise. I then decided, well, why not use the six-line structure for my poetry? That connection, or a leap, that I made from the hexagram of the I Ching led to these six-line poems. Most people don’t count them, but there are sixty-four in English and sixty-four in Spanish, and there are sixty-four hexagrams in the I Ching. The number-factor, the enumerating factor is very important.
MD: And they have a very concrete shape on the page as well. It seems to be something that you thought about, no? Was anything specific governing line length, or was this a more open form for you?
PM: I wanted to have the six-line structure and I wanted the line itself to be as devoid of rhetorical devices as I could possibly make it. I wanted it as clean as possible. And of course, reading Chinese and Japanese poetry, which I was also doing at the time, helped me in that direction. I was also focusing on the image, the transformation of the image from one thing to another, which is very much a part of most far-Eastern poetry.
MD: Some of these poems also remind me of Lorca in their strangeness. I’m wondering what other influences you would name.
PM: It’s funny you should say that. I’m just now working with a colleague of mine on translating Lorca’s Poet in New York, doing a new translation. We’re very excited about it. We believe that they are the best translations today. Of course, if we didn’t believe that, we wouldn’t be doing it. Lorca has been a very close and steady influence since I first became acquainted with his work back in college. I never stopped reading Lorca.
MD: Is there anyone else that you find yourself going back to as the years go by, or people who might be new influences that signal your shift in style?
PM: Well, I don’t know about shift in style. I’m always reading new poets and I’m always intrigued by what new poets are doing. I always go back to Williams, I’m now in the process of rereading all of Williams—for whatever reason, I don’t know why.
MD: He is also someone who is influenced by the sciences.
PM: Yes, that’s true—there is another doctor. In the last three or four years I’ve been close to Jack Gilbert’s work, although it doesn’t resemble my work at all, but I think he is an astonishing poet. Dan Tobin’s work is really amazing—I’m reading him very carefully. I’m rereading Ovid—God knows what will come out of that. I’m actually trying to read him in the original Latin, but I’m cheating a little bit because my Latin is rusty.
MD: I have a question about the way that the Spanish and the English poems in this book work together. In the beginning of the book, you have a note to the reader that they are not translations, but reflections of each other. How do you feel that these poems are working together?
PM: Well, if you think of a continuum, the work is moving from one interest or shape to another. In the ordering process, I was trying to do three things: I was trying to build a book that could be read in Spanish, I was trying to build a book that could be read in English, and I was trying to build a book that could be read bilingually. When you get to the bilingual, that’s when the greatest shifts come. It’s my hope that the images build on each other, as well as tinge and modify and inform each other. In the same way, within each poem there’s usually a shift in the middle couplet. I wanted that shift to take the poem in a different direction. And I wanted those different directions to keep happening—AC/DC, you know, alternating versus direct current.
MD: That’s what I think is so interesting about the book—it’s enabling you to have a point of balance within the poem, but also within the book as a whole.
MD: You’ve also done some other work as a translator—you’re doing Lorca, and you’ve also done another collection…
PM: A collection of poetry of a Cuban poet—Tania Díaz Castro—I did that a number of years ago.
MD: How do you feel about the role of the translator? There are different philosophies that exist. I’ve done some translations and I feel that I’m always struggling between form and content, and doing irreparable damage to one when I try to be faithful to the other. How do you operate as a translator?
PM: Well, it’s a leap of faith that you take in that you believe that you’ll be able to do something that will be not only readable in English, but that will respect the spirit—if not the actual form—of the original. But there are a number of problems built into that, especially if you’re translating a dead poet who wrote in a different time period, in a different cultural context, and so on and so forth. How do you translate all that? Well, you can’t. You can only hope that, because of your own sensibilities, you will be able to build, to create an object that is somehow the equivalent of the original, in the new context. I don’t know if you know Borges’ story “Pierre Menard, autor del Quixote” in which Pierre Menard decides to rewrite the book word by word, and he does. It’s an exact reproduction of Don Quixote and he winds up concluding that it’s an infinitely greater book, because the original did not have the history that the new one does. I always like to think of that idea when I’m translating because it justifies what I’m doing. There’s a vanity factor about translation too, in that you feel and you believe that you can capture the spirit of this person, and bring it to the attention of people in the present, in a different language and in a different culture.
MD: How does that motivation differ when there already exists a translation of something, as opposed to when you’re the first person to translate a poet?
PM: That’s a very good question. In the end it goes back to your own individual take, your own individual vision with respect to that particular poem or poet.
MD: Have you looked at previous translations of Lorca in your work?
PM: I have, but I’m leaving that to my co-translator. We want to forge our own translations without reference to others. And so far we’re doing a pretty good job.
MD: Great. I look forward to those coming out.
PM: Two of them have already appeared in Tin House, in the Spring ’06 issue. The book is due out from Grove Press in 2008.
MD: So you obviously write both in Spanish and in English. How does writing come to you? When you think of a poetic line, or an idea, does it come in Spanish or in English, or in some sort of combination?
PM: Well… I talk a little bit about that in the introduction to the book. Usually I’m very conscious of what language I’m talking in and what language I’m thinking in and what language I’m writing in. What was refreshing about these poems was that oftentimes I didn’t know—they were just coming out. All of a sudden after the fact I said, “Oh my god, I wrote something in Spanish, or I wrote something in English, and I didn’t even know in what language…” It’s the equivalent of forgetting that you’re writing at all, and it comes very rarely. Just like sometimes when you’re reading a really good book, you forget that you’re reading. That’s an exciting feeling.
MD: What do you like the most about each particular language?
PM: Well, now that we’re talking about sound, in Spanish—assonance. Being a Romance language, Spanish is highly vocalic, so assonance is very easy to achieve, and so is rhyme. But English is not that way. However, what you build in English are those really internal sounds that can be so enriching. As I was saying in reference to Dan Tobin’s work—it’s sculptural, and what I mean by that is there’s a shape to the sound that he uses. And that’s very much a quality of English that Spanish doesn’t have.
MD: I’ve asked about when you’re inspired, whether you’re inspired in English or Spanish. And I’m wondering, too, about what decisions you make consciously about whether something would be poetry or prose. Do you know immediately, or is it something you play with in each genre before it takes a final shape?
PM: I know immediately when something is going to be a narrative, simply because I’m starting to work with the basic unit of narrative—or prose, if you will—which is the sentence. And I know immediately when I’m working on poetry, because I’m starting with the line. And since I don’t write prose poetry, or at least I haven’t yet, I don’t have to worry about that, and the issues that that brings forth. To me prose and poetry are very clearly demarcated, because of that distinction between the sentence and the line.
MD: How does teaching either inspire or inform your work, and what have you learned from either your colleagues or your students as a writer?
PM: What’s kept me teaching—and I never intended to be a teacher, frankly—is the fact that something always comes from the classroom situation that I wasn’t expecting, and wakes me up and makes me look twice at things. And more often than not, it’s not coming from me, it’s coming from the students. In like manner, being associated with other writers in close proximity, whether they are students or teachers, makes the whole practice of writing a little less solitary, a little less daunting.
MD: What is your philosophy as a teacher of writing? There are many people who say, “Writing is something you can’t teach,” and also people who say, “Anyone can be taught to write.” What philosophy do you have about that? What can you teach students of writing?
PM: I don’t like to think of actually teaching or imparting. Anybody can teach writing, anybody can learn writing, but that’s not the point. What I like, in my classes, is for some sort of nurturing to take place, some sort of enabling to take place. When I feel good about teaching, when I feel good about being in the profession of teaching writing, is when I think of it as a practice that I’m engaged in, that students are engaged in as well. And that practice presupposes that there are going to be good poems and bad poems, and those extremes are part of something larger, and that’s the everyday engagement with the artistic process. To me, it goes beyond the classroom, the classroom empowers that attitude.
MD: And it’s also that the workshop classroom can be a very supportive place for students.
PM: That’s exactly what it should be. Even if—excuse the expression—you kick ass when you’re teaching, it still needs to be that supportive situation where everybody is engaged in supporting, not just the teacher but the students themselves.
MD: You’ve taught at both full-time and low-residency programs. How do you see that being different for the students?
PM: They are different approaches, and the low residency is not for everyone in the same way that the regular residency program is not for everyone. It would be difficult for somebody who has a fully established career or a family or does not want to move away from a community to be in a residency program, and that’s where the low residency can be very beneficial. It’s not for everyone. Some people feel that they need the ongoing support of a residency program, and that’s not something that a low residency provides. At a low residency, in essence, you’re working with a supervisor one-on-one, and you only get together once a semester for a very intense period of time. And yes, there are support groups that form between students and they’re very good, but it’s not the same as being associated with that community every week. So there are pluses and minuses to each one. I’ve liked teaching in both, I really have. My experiences with Warren Wilson are really special because of the quality of the faculty. One of the things that a low-residency program can do is draw faculty from all over the country, and draw really top people, which Warren Wilson does. And to listen to some of those people and attend their lectures and their classes is nothing short of mind-blowing sometimes.
MD: One argument I’ve heard also is that a low-residency program more closely mimics what it’s like to be a writer writing in the real world.
PM: Yes… but it’s not the real world. It mimics it. In the end, the real world is the real world, and sooner or later we all have to enter it, and everybody has to go rowing by themselves into the middle of the ocean in our own little boats.
MD: What have you thought about your term as president of AWP?
PM: Well, I thought I would dread it. I thought, “I’m not the kind of person to do this, I’m not this person.” Not only was I the person, but I really enjoyed it. I’ve learned a tremendous amount, and I’ve been associated with a lot of very good people, and some people who are enormously dedicated. AWP is a terrific organization whose primary goal is to support writers and writing programs. I can’t think of anything more honorable than that. And it has its detractors, but curiously those detractors tend to be the same people who put down writing programs.
MD: What arguments have you heard against MFA programs or against organizations like AWP?
PM: Well, you mentioned one of them—that writing cannot be taught. That we’re creating this whole generation of writers without jobs. That we’re misleading people. That we’re supporting people who don’t necessarily have the talent to make it in the world of writing. All of those are non-reasons. They are so easy to debunk that they’re not worth considering. The fact is that if you can get an MBA, if you can get an MS in Science, if you can a Ph.D. in Political Science, why not an MFA in writing? It is just as valid as any of those other fields.
MD: This was a strong answer.
PM: I feel very strongly about it. And can I wax a little bit? One of the things that can happen is happening—we are sustaining and enriching literature, as a group. Everybody involved in MFA programs—students and faculty. We’re creating writers who publish, and we’re creating readers who read.
MD: And I think that is one of the really important things you learn at an MFA program—to be a better, a more careful, and a more appreciative reader, which is a skill that is not taught very often.
PM: So in a nation of people with reports and studies coming from everywhere that we don’t read and cannot write and so on, here is a movement—I don’t know what else to call it—that is in fact creating writers and creating readers.
MD: There is something else I’m curious about, and you’ve talked a little bit about it. At the beginning of the book you talk about your poet-self. And you said that the reason for these poems coming into being was your fear that your poet-self would perish. How do you nourish the poet-self? What do you do to take care of that aspect of your personality?
PM: You do it by reading poetry. You do it by talking about poetry. You do it by writing poetry. You do it, in a more general sense, by being aware, by being engaged. And I think the more dangerous part of it is, by being vulnerable. I think that the moment you stop being vulnerable—and I don’t mean open to being shot through with slings and arrows—but being exposed to what’s out there, so that the inside and the outside are in continuous flow. The moment you stop doing that, you’ve started the process of becoming a non-poet. It takes energy and it takes an active concern to be able to keep that vulnerability. The natural tendency is to let other things take over—from watching TV to wiping the counter every night to drinking too much—whatever. To maintain that openness and vulnerability is tough to do, yet I think is ultimately what defines us as poets.
MD: How do you know when a piece is finished? How do you know when it’s time to abandon a piece? Do you have readers to help you with that?
PM: Yes, but in the end it’s an individual thing, it’s a very personal thing, as you know. Somebody, I think it was Picasso, said, “I don’t finish paintings, I abandon them.” There comes a point where you feel that either you can’t do anything else to the poem or you can’t stand it anymore, and so you let it go. What happens to me is that some poems that I’ve let go I come back to years later, and rework them completely. Even though I thought they were finished at one point, maybe a year or two later I come back to them and rework them again. Which could be a function of the fact that the poem was not finished, period, or the fact that you learned something in that period that allows you to go back to the poem and solve the issues that remained unsolved.
MD: What type of schedule do you keep for writing?
PM: Prose I write in the morning, and I keep to a fairly regular schedule, especially on days I don’t teach. I have an office that I rent, and I go there from 9 in the morning till 4. Poetry—not so. Poetry I write just about any time: in the morning, in the afternoon, at night, as it comes. You know it’s not a matter of it coming, you have to ready yourself for it and you have to be open to it. And fiction I write—prose in general, I’m writing a lot of non-fiction now—on the computer, directly on the computer. Poetry I can’t—I have to write longhand and then I move to the computer for second and subsequent drafts. Do you write longhand?
MD: Actually I do. I write first drafts in a journal and then shape them a little bit on the page before I move them to a computer. Somebody gave me an ancient typewriter for Christmas, so I’ve been playing with that a little bit, but it takes much more effort to strike the keys.
PM: I actually bought one the other day, at a flea market, simply because I felt nostalgic, but it’s so hard! And you’re so used to just touching the keys on the computer. So far it hasn’t worked out very well. I imagine that if I went off to the mountains and hid in a cabin, I would make do. But I haven’t really been able to use it very much.
MD: I think in some way the technology is spoiling the mystique of being a writer.
PM: Lucille Clifton told me that she always works on a computer. And here’s an old poet who writes very poemy poems, and she writes on the computer—she likes to see the shape of the poem immediately. It’s a tool. I was just now thinking in the last two weeks or so that I should get one of those mini notebooks, “Gosh, wouldn’t it be nice to have one of those instead of your regular portable”—mine is a really big laptop that is about 8 pounds, but this thing you can just put in your jacket and walk around with it. And I always do carry a regular notebook with me. It’s a habit I acquired when I was 18 or 19. For example, I have it with me tonight. I’m not going to use it tonight, but just in case…