In Comprehending Forever, Rich Villar’s first poetry collection, sex and sensuality take on near-spiritual undertones. Out next month from Willow Books/Aquarius Press, Villar’s collection references both the Bible’s Lazarus and the curve of a woman’s lips, and like John Donne, the early 17th century playboy-turned-minister, Villar often makes use of sexual puns and the aubade—the morning-after poem.
Villar’s unique history as an activist and his interest in class, ethnicity, and community make it difficult to classify him entirely as a Puerto Rican Donne. Villar is the former executive director of Acentos Foundation, an organization which supports Latino/a poetry in the United States, and his essay “Leaping the Barricades,” about Spic Up/Speak Out, the El Museo del Barrio’s controversially-named spoken word series, was cited by The New York Times, among other places.
In this interview, Villar discusses his activism, his admiration for Pablo Neruda, and why love poetry may be the most political poetry of all.
The Rumpus: “Leaping the Barricades” received attention in media outlets around the country. Can you explain how you came to write this essay?
Rich Villar: Around 2009, I got an e-mail from another poet who was invited to be a part of this particular show, and she took exception to the usage of the term “spic” and wanted to engage people about their feelings about it. I’m sitting in a hotel in Philadelphia and there’s this e-mail about the show, and there’s this article written by David Gonzalez, and the organizers are saying they successfully negotiated this term—this minefield—but I was unhappy. I saw the article, I saw the show, and there were some people quoted in it, and I understood that the organizers had taken their cues from other communities that had reclaimed these epithets.
Martín Espada and Willie Perdomo had used the term before, so they [the organizers of the show] were saying it was right for us to reclaim it. In the essay, I argued that even though the term appears in the body of an Espada poem, it’s not present in the poem. It’s used as a ghost, haunting the poem. In Perdomo’s poem, it’s used as an epithet. These terms have been used to incite violence. Baraka argues that the N-word was used in the black community to inoculate black people from the damage that was done from lynching, the legacy of slavery, and that black people used it to inoculate ourselves from that poison. But this conversation never happened in the Latino community, specifically the Puerto Rican community in Harlem. So for a state agency to use that term…that was a massive injury.
I intend to speak out. That’s what I’m here to do. I’m here to remind people that words do not exist in the vacuum. Just because a term is reclaimed in one place or another, that doesn’t mean that it is meant to be used to sell ourselves to the wider community.
Rumpus: These are contemporary issues, and your poetry is also very contemporary—although this collection’s use of sensuality seems reminiscent of the early work of metaphysical poet John Donne.
Villar: It’s funny you should mention Donne. When I was in undergrad, Donne’s “Sun Rising” was the clarion call for me to be a poet. I don’t that mean that in terms of writing. I was assigned John Donne’s “Sun Rising” as an exercise in literary analysis in a class with Andrew Pawelczak, when he was a professor at Passaic County Community College. (In addition to John Donne, Pawelczak was my first exposure to James Baldwin and Allen Ginsberg.) It was the first poem I really broke down line by line as an intellectual exercise, as a literary exercise. And it really pulled me beyond poetry, beyond the intuitive and into the intellectual. There’s definite craft there…and that set me on the path to being serious about poetry.
Eventually I got into a class with another poet, a translator named Johnny Lorenz, at Montclair State University, and from then they brought in Martín Espada, where I heard Martín’s work. Martín’s “Alabanza” and “Cockroach Lover” are two poems rooted in very different experiences. One is rooted in history, and one is rooted in humor. I liked these works because I’m funny and I’m a history buff. These works showed me that where I come from has value. My culture has value. My roots can be the basis for a literary career.
From then, I went to the Nuyorican Café, the Louder Arts Collective, Acentos Collective, and started devouring every writer I could get my hands on: Martín, Willie, John Donne. Lorenz was also responsible for my first exposure to the anthologies Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness and A Map of Hope: Women’s Writing on Human Rights-An International Literary Anthology. But the poet Pablo Neruda is my overarching mentor. Cien sonetos de amor—with this collection, that was the book I was trying to be in conversation with. I structured the book a little differently. Obviously, there’s not 100 poems in there. With Comprehending Forever, there’s all this passionate lyricism, but towards the end of the book, it’s as though the passion is over with. I see the last section as wake-up calls.
Rumpus: Your work also uses everyday images in a very sensual way. For instance, the poem “Only Now” talks about wanting to “pour cherry wine over everything you ever doubted, and drink it completely.”
Villar: The images actually happened, between me and the muse of the book. I had a concern that there were things in the book that were too specific to us. Like the pouring of the “cherry wine.” You throw out a line and I can tell you exactly where it came from. It was from different aspects of our relationship—they were all pretty much written from something we talked about or something that reminded us of something in our everyday existence. Neruda’s poetry is like that, which is why I like it. And my professor brought that up… The image that sounds the most off-the-wall actually works the best. Café Bustelo coffee—one of the images that appears in the book—we were big on that. She was very particular about her coffee. Greca de cafe—a particular pot for coffee—that’s also mentioned in the book. I didn’t have to dig a lot for the metaphor. I just describe what’s there, and that’s what’s most surreal.
In “Macchu Picchu,” when Neruda would write about places that no other human being had seen, except the Incas, he would use language that was very surreal. In Neruda’s “Sonnet 17,” from Cien sonatos de amor, the line “el apretado aroma que ascendió de la tierra”—apretado doesn’t really translate. It’s not an exact translation. In Spanish, it kind of makes sense, but not really. But that’s what he had to use to describe a great love, and he’s describing something he’s never seen before, so surrealism kind of made sense. I had experienced things I hadn’t experienced before in this relationship and the only language I had to describe it was the surreal. And yet somehow, I feel it makes sense. People are taken for a ride. They realize that’s a hell of a love.
Rumpus: What would you say to someone who argues that you have a reputation as an activist, but your first collection is love poetry that isn’t political? What do you say to people who believe you should be writing about more “important” topics, like war and death?
Villar: There’s a Neruda poem, in which the opposite argument is made, in which people come and say “where are the lilacs in your poem, where is the soft stuff” and he says “come and see the blood in the street.” Yet Neruda is known as a love poet and a political poet. When you live in a world where Facebook is the primary means of connection, when you write about love in words that mean something, in a personal manner, for me it’s a reminder that that kind of personal touch is still necessary.
When you love someone—really, really love someone—it opens your mind to what humans can do. If humans are connected and are able to use each other to elevate each others’ language, how much would we stop and think before we drop bombs on people? And if we use poetry to give people flesh and blood, and use it to really connect with the idea of really connecting to another human being, how much more hesitant would they be to drop bombs on people? Love poetry shows that people are not faceless. I feel like this kind of visceral language—in an era in which we are increasingly disconnected, when everything is a friend request or a contact on Twitter—this is the stuff that makes people human. It’s not about statecraft or spycraft or blowing people to smithereens. It’s about love.
I’m known as an activist, a political poet, but my first book is about love. But that’s why. It’s about showing real human connection, whereas before there was not. I think that that’s what all good poetry does.
Rumpus: You spoke earlier about the visual images in your writing, but can you also discuss the sounds, the multiple ways you use language?
Villar: You mean, the collection’s vernacular?
Rumpus: Yes. The vernacular.
Villar: English is a bastard language. These different vernaculars are all valid forms of English.
I picked up some of my father’s vernacular. He learned English along the way. His Spanish is not the King’s Spanish, academic Spanish. So in 2014, the person sitting in front of you is a product of imperfect Spanish, imperfect English, street vernacular, and frankly, a little bit of vulgarity, and that’s that. Because that’s me. And last time I checked, I was a fairly intelligent dude.
This implication is that if you use slang, you’re not intelligent—that implication is bullshit. Whether it’s a Midwestern accent, Southern accent—we’re all part of the same melting pot. For me to be honest about an emotion or some kind of emotional territory, I have to be true to that idiom. I have to be true to me… I went to college. I took some graduate work. I’ve hung out with rich people. I’ve hung out with poor people. I’ve hung out with Puerto Rican people. I’m a linguistic sponge. Sterling Brown said the truth is in the idiom, and in the collection, I took in all those different vernaculars…I guess you could say my book is political, after all.