The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Andrés Cerpa about his new collection The Vault (Alice James Books, June 2021), writing grief while keeping some information private, how writing a book can protect you, and more.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month the Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts an online discussion with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To join the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, click here. Upcoming poets include Kevin Simmonds, Kaveh Akbar, Carly Ingram, Derrick Austin, Amanda Moore, Cynthia Dewi Oka, Matthew Olzmann, and more!
This Rumpus Poetry Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian S: I’d like to start with a question about the how of your book—as in how you approached the writing of it, especially the decision to format it as two long poems.
Andrés Cerpa: Great. I approached the two sections very differently, though they are both longer sequences. The first sequence, “Join Me,” was composed in spare moments, many of the poems beginning on my phone or in a small notebook.
As I lived, I began to piece these fragments together and felt as though there was an unending happening. I couldn’t close one poem without thinking of another. This process extended until I began composing the whole of the sequence or thinking about it as a sequence. Each day is different. The process of the poem is often a reflection of the day and the days that happen in the after of it.
Brian S: What do you mean by an “unending”? That’s an interesting word choice.
Andrés Cerpa: It seemed like I couldn’t pause one poem and begin another. As if I was in something, and was continually inside of it. In “The Nightmare Touched Its Forehead to My Lips,” I wrote all the poems on a typewriter over the course of three or four months. I just couldn’t stop. The poems weren’t final.
Brian S: What time frame did these poems cover?
Andrés Cerpa: All of the poems were written between summer 2016 and summer 2018. Each sequence took about a year to form. My days vary, and sometimes it’s hard to trust one moment but if I put them all together… at least in this book… it felt more real.
Brian S: It feels odd to say this, given the past year and a half, but that time period was a hell of a thing.
I mentioned in my piece about selecting this collection for Poetry Book Club that the last five years or so has really affected the way I perceive time, and that this book really spoke to me because it seemed to replicate that sensation.
Andrés Cerpa: A lot can happen in that timeframe. A lot has. But those years I was in grief, a very specific kind, in a way that I’d never been before.
There is so much simultaneity. Everything all at once that we carry, and the form of the sequence, or these little pieces of music, move toward the days—in a way that is manageable, but still requires distillation, and attention.
Rebecca Sanders: I’m fascinated that these poems are at least three years old. They feel so raw and fresh, which I guess makes them eternal. We enter into the sense of grief along with the writer. What was the timeframe from finishing them to seeking a platform for them? What is it like to go from such intimacy where they are for your eyes to moving to publication. Can you speak about that?
Andrés Cerpa: Thank you for feeling with the poems. The Vault really was locked away. I showed the first section, in its early drafts, to three friends. But after that no one saw the book until I sent it to Carey at Alice James Books.
“The Nightmare…” was written in complete isolation, with no publications until it was finished and the book was accepted. I needed to understand the whole, to say this is the whole thing—this is what grief made me, when showing it to someone for the first time.
Rebecca Sanders: Wow… how did you know you wanted to share them? I mean, you go from keeping them close to sharing them with the world. Were you ever afraid?
Andrés Cerpa: Absolutely. I think I’m more afraid now than ever. I submitted The Vault before my first book was published because I was so afraid that I would be changed by publishing a book.
Scott: Andrés, thank you for writing this book. I know it wasn’t easy, the marination in grief. Do you think this was cathartic for you? Do you have any hopes for it to be that way for readers, too? I confess I wasn’t able to get very far before I had to protect myself and pause.
Andrés Cerpa: It was a difficult book to write and I appreciate that pause with you. The living is hard but for me but—and I may be alone in this—the writing comes easy. It is more difficult to make the room for writing—the time. But when I am in the act, the poems protect me. They protect me when I write them, and when I read them later on, and when I have to face the world beyond the desk.
Scott: Oh, that’s great in the act they protect you! I’m really interested in this.
Brian S: No, I think that makes sense.
Andrés Cerpa: I’m glad that it does. Franz Wright, and I’m paraphrasing heavily, said something akin to—they are sad poems to other people but I was happy when writing them.
Rebecca Sanders: Well, poems are an extension of us that we put out in the world. I like that idea of our work shielding us in the world. But it helps when they are finished and ready to be served up. That’s the difficult bit, knowing when they are baked and ready. I’m mixing metaphors here… but do you just know it’s good, or how do you match your gut reactions to others’ reactions? Is there ever a tussle between your vision and other’s interpretation prior to publishing? Obviously, you choose your advisors well.
Andrés Cerpa: When to know when a poem is ready is different for every poem and certainly for every book.
Brian S: One of the big choices in the poems was the decision to not give the reader a lot of direct information about the other people in the book. They were mostly names, and then the reader was left to try to figure out your relationships to them. Can you talk some about that decision to leave so much unsaid in these pieces?
Andrés Cerpa: I wholeheartedly believed that I was being quite secretive in these poems. Not giving the “reader” much. I appreciate you saying this. The names are there but the situations, the clarity, wasn’t the point. The words are music to the experience. Jack Gilbert said, “Poems commit magic.” For me, part of the magic is how much cannot be said. The poetry is my best attempt and distillation.
Brian S: Distillation is such a good word to use here. Reducing everything down to only the necessities.
Andrés Cerpa: What I chose to keep, the images, the music, the details that are mine, hopefully make something that signals that there is more. In part, this is why there is the lack of punctuation in the first sequence. I want them to be in the air even if they are on the page as delivered. In the second sequence, the :: is a way of also signaling how much has been razored away.
Brian S: Do you mean razored away as in cut from what you’d originally written, or did you do that cutting before anything made it onto the page?
Andrés Cerpa: In “The Nightmare…” I wrote so many pages. My process was to write, put the work in a drawer, write more, and not look back until that process couldn’t take me any longer.
I told myself not to look at the poems but at the same time I remembered poems, lines, I’d written, so what I remembered remained (in some cases) or what I remembered became a motif(s).
Brian S: Did you already tell us which one you wrote first? Or am I misremembering?
Andrés Cerpa: “Join Me” was written first.
Elizabeth Shack: Did you always consider them part of the same book?
Andrés Cerpa: “Join Me,” in its previous form, was a book-length sequence. It was titled From 800 Victory Blvd. But I kept feeling that something was being withheld in that version. Not from the reader as much as I was withholding things from myself.
A little time and a new process revealed what I felt was essential and sparked a second sequence. So, “The Nightmare…” was always meant to be with “Join Me,” but “Join Me” didn’t expect the “The Nightmare…” It is as if “Join Me” dreamed it.
Brian S: What’s it been like seeing this collection in the world now, live and in color? (Wow, I really dated myself with that reference…)
Andrés Cerpa: Hahaha.
I’m cautious about the book. I love it and it helped (protected me) with its words and revelations. So much so that I’m surprised that anyone has read it. The object makes it very real, and in a beautiful way. I’m excited for it to be shared. Thank you everyone here for reading!
Brian S: And now I suppose there’s the expectation that you’ll be promoting it? Are there any plans for readings?
Andrés Cerpa: I will be doing a Zoom launch reading with Books Are Magic on July 15 at 7 p.m. EDT. Reading with me will be Carey Salerno, whose book Tributary came out in May. I’m so excited to read with her. The best part about publishing a book is the connection. Here is a great example. Readings have sustained me.
Brian S: I’m really wondering what kind of long-term effects this pandemic will have on the ways we connect around books
Andrés Cerpa: I am, too. Online readings have opened up all sorts of possibilities that excite me, but I desperately miss reading in a room. I’ve had the privilege to read with and be with so many poets in different time zones, that a sense of expanse has come with the online readings.
Brian S: It feels like every month there’s another set of wonderful books out there and no physical place to go to share them.
I really hope that when we do eventually move back to in person readings that accessibility for the audience who can’t get out to them will remain an imperative.
Andrés Cerpa: Yes!
Scott: I live in a rural town and I totally support that, Brian! I’ll eavesdrop on every reading in NYC.
Andrés Cerpa: I love that.
Brian S: I live in Des Moines, which isn’t exactly rural but it might as well be in terms of poetry. Iowa City sucks up a lot of the oxygen in this state, and two hours is a long drive.
Andrés, have you had the chance to read anything new while your own book has been coming out? Any forthcoming books we should be on the lookout for? You mentioned Casey Salerno’s new one.
Andrés Cerpa: Lately, I’ve been reading literary journals quite a bit. The latest American Poetry Review was stunning. The work by G. C. Waldrep (both poetry and prose), Gabrielle Bates, the talk with Jack Gilbert.
G. C. Waldrep’s latest book came out recently, The Earliest Witness.
Scott: That Gilbert interview was great! I recognized the magic quote. So many good excerpts! Linda Gregg cameo, too!
Brian S: You know, I get so many review copies of books via The Rumpus that I don’t get to read as many journals as I should. I think I’ll have to make some changes.
Have you started working on anything new yet?
Andrés Cerpa: Journals have been important when I’m distracted. I subscribe and sometimes keep a backlog of them for when I need them most.
I have a manuscript on the floor next to me! Who knows what it will become but I’ve been working on it for a few years now. The work is slow but in a way, that is nurturing.
Brian S: We can’t wait to see what they become. Thank you, Andrés, for joining us tonight, and for this really excellent book.
Scott: Thank you Andrés! Appreciate you taking time with us today!
Rebecca Sanders: Thank you! Take care everyone.
Andrés Cerpa: Thank you. Truly, this is such a wonderful way to connect. Many thanks and happy days to everyone.
Brian S: Thanks also to the members for your wonderful comments and questions, and for being a part of the Poetry Book Club. Have a great rest of your night.
Photograph of Andrés Cerpa by Alice Plati.