Andrés Cerpa gives us poetry that’s filled with both struggle and hope. It’s the cry of a man longing for connection, and yearning to break free at the same time. The child of Puerto Rican American parents, Cerpa grew up in Staten Island, New York, but spent many of his childhood summers in Puerto Rico. “My poems are deeply rooted in feelings of displacement, loss, and mourning,” says Cerpa. “Writing them is a way of connecting to something ancestral.”
Cerpa’s new collection, The Vault (Alice James, June 2021) is more than the sum of its parts. It’s the culmination of a long march toward death—his father died in 2017—and the wrestling to break free and find life on the other side. Within its pages, Cerpa’s poems are image bearers, untitled pieces of life and death that endure long after they’ve been read.
Cerpa is the recipient of fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and Canto Mundo. His work has appeared in Ploughshares, Poem-A-Day, The Kenyon Review, The Bellevue Literary Review, TriQuarterly, The Rumpus, Frontier Poetry, West Branch, Foundry Journal, Wildness, and elsewhere. He holds degrees from the University of Delaware and Rutgers University, Newark, and now teaches at CUNY College of Staten Island.
I spoke with Cerpa via Zoom, where I could clearly see a typewriter on a table, just beyond his right shoulder. We talked about the significance of the typewriter—it helped him break through the maddening process of writing in the midst of grieving his father—and how we learn to live, and keep going, after tragedy.
The Rumpus: Congratulations on the book. It’s gorgeous! What’s it like to put a book of poetry together? How do you decide what goes into a collection?
Andrés Cerpa: This particular book, The Vault, happened in two extremely concentrated bursts. I don’t like to refer to it as a collection, because I really do see the book as one, a whole that can’t be torn apart. Putting it together was a wild ride of me trying to riff off of images and lines that I remember. I was attempting to riff off the other poems that I’ve written. I’ll even have repeated lines that will be working as titles for other poems, or the starting point of another poem. So, there was always the process of reaching out and then gathering back, and reaching out and gathering back, in a cycle.
As an editing tool, I recorded myself reading the entire book over and over again. I’d listen to the playback and make changes based upon the progression of poems. I could hear the echo of a line that needed to be spread out a little further, or needed to be closer together. Hearing the poems in the air, as one collective body. That became a large part of the process.
Rumpus: I read them out loud as well. I love how the copy language describing the book called it a “music box of prayer, of the decisions made and yet to be made.” Did you want to talk more about that?
Cerpa: On every page, the sequence is starting over, so you need to sort of crank it up again. It lasts for a brief moment and then fades out and disappears. When I think about how small the poems are, or how few words there are, compared to my first book—this one is about half the word count of my first book—I like the idea of letting a line hang in the air, and then disappear, and hang in the air, and disappear…
Rumpus: There is a musicality to your work, so it’s interesting that you say that about the sounds.
Cerpa: I got started in college, in a poetry workshop. A few students from the class had a house off campus, and they decided to start having poetry nights every Thursday, where people could go and recite or listen. I would go every week, not just to recite a poem, but I always wanted to hear the sounds of the poems. There were all types of poets in the room, but a lot of people were just reading poems that they’d memorized by other poets. I tried to write a new poem every week, so I could read it to my friends there. The reading became something unique and exciting. Now, I know most of my poems by heart, or by mind. Not because I try to memorize them, but because they’re already a part of me, as sound. They really do live in me.
Rumpus: The first thing I think of when I read your work is your dad. You can tell, even through the grief and tension, how strongly you respected and connected with your father.
Cerpa: Thank you. He died while I was putting this book together.
Rumpus. I’m so sorry. Did he ever get to recognize your poetry as genuinely unique and beautiful?
Cerpa: Well, that’s kind of interesting. It’s one of the sad things in my life—I never shared it with him; it had always been my secret. I mean, he knew I was a writer/poet because I was in an MFA program, but at the time, I kept my poetry to myself, in part because I was writing about our relationship. I never wanted my dad to read just one poem of mine and have him feel as though that was my complete experience, what our whole relationship was like, or how I felt about it. This informs the way I view my books; each poem needs the context of the other poems. That’s why I was always waiting for the book to happen. Then I could say, “Okay, here, you can see the whole picture.” I didn’t get that chance with him.
Rumpus: Your book begins with the lines, “I became so used to the unrequited life / the one more for the ruin / their hurricane stars / that I strain to sing love in love…” How does this speak to that pain you’re talking about?
Cerpa: I’m trying to open up this idea that there are different options in how we react to suffering. Throughout the book, I’m thinking I want to leave, and at the same moment, I want to stay. I want to be inside of this suffering because it offers me some sort of clarity, but at the same moment, I don’t want to suffer at all. But in this poem, there’s also the impulse to linger. I have to go out of my way to find a little light, and to make sure that everything that I see as suffering does not obliterate everything that I see is good, or that I love.
I mean, there’s always love, there’s always good inside of that suffering. It’s hard to see that. Sometimes I can only see it when I write it. If I’m sure of myself I’m probably not writing that well. I need to move into other realms of being, into mystery and being unsure. That’s where some of the calm and clarity of writing comes from, because I feel as though I’m more in tune with the true and mysterious experience of being alive. Instead of solidifying one story for myself and running with that, for the rest of my life, I write. The poem is definitely smarter than me [laughs], because it’s more hopeful. Writing is an act of discovery. I need to discover the thought before I can transform my real, interpersonal reactions that are outside of me and my desk.
Rumpus: Can you talk more about the idea of the “vault” in the book?
Cerpa: The vault, which is also the book’s title, functions in two very different ways in the first half and the second half of the book. I think I’ve always had something hidden, a place I can go, where I’ve built my own small world. That’s given me an incredible amount of freedom. Yet, “I’ve tamped down the earth and prayed for the vault to open,” is my tamping down the earth to bury things. Sure, I can survive there, but I can’t live there for too long. Even though it’s safe, I want to see a little bit more sky sometimes. I think that if I don’t challenge myself, I can live there, completely isolated.
Rumpus: Your first book, Bicycle in a Ransacked City, had similar themes about staying and leaving. How have you grown since Bicycle in a Ransacked City? Personally, what has changed in your life?
Cerpa: When I think about Bicycle in a Ransacked City, I think about the moments in that book where I could see how life would change in the next few years. It was written before my dad died, and I made some predictions of what would happen. Some actually happened, but some didn’t.
In The Vault, what I have is a little bit more of a double-exposure, with my imagined life, my predictions, my past, the stories I’ve been told, and everything that’s happening in front of me sort of merging into a new reality. It feels like every image is overlaid with another image. In a way, this merging makes everything fuzzy and small. I think that’s why I keep going back to that idea of the music box, because things are coming to the forefront and dissolving. I feel more transient, in a spiritual sense. Maybe that comes through in the book, or is part of the writing.
Rumpus: The eternal themes of father and son are found throughout your work. Here, there’s the togetherness, grief, and the aftermath of losing him.
Cerpa: My father was a psychologist and we had a really wonderful relationship. He used to help me analyze my dreams. I’d wake up, and say, “Dad, I had this strange dream…” My dreams were something that we could share, that he helped me move through and engage with.
When I think of my poems, I think that my subconscious is working really heavily inside of them. Sometimes I don’t know what’s happening inside the poem until after it’s written. Because of my relationship with my dad and how gentle he was and how good he was, and how much we talked about our real lives, and worked through what was happening, his voice and his presence is with me as I move through my subconscious; he’s my guide, even now.
In the last piece of the book there’s a three-line poem: “I thought that when my father died I’d get something back. / Thank you. The vague momentum / swirls in an afterlife I cannot measure.” When I wrote that last line, I was also thinking about “measure” in terms of musicality, like the measure of a song. My dad is part of the song, he’s part of the discovery of the song, for me. Which is a pretty good thing, you know?
Rumpus: That’s amazing. The grief that you have in the aftermath informs this work.
Cerpa: The defining thing that happened during the writing of this book is that my father died. The first half of the book was written while my father was still alive, and the second half was written after he died. When he died, I thought, Well, I’m going to keep going. I need to keep going with this book. I made a draft, and it seemed pretty obvious that things were missing. There was a dramatic, unacknowledged, shift. It kind of left me in a very confusing spot. The second half of the book is called, “The Nightmare Touched Its Forehead to My Lips.” In one of the first poems, there’s a line, “Then a year where I wouldn’t let him enter — not this book or the book of the dead…” That line directly addresses the difficulty of writing through that time. I said, “I’m not gonna let you into the book.” But I needed to let him in. Once I saw that, I knew I needed a new way of writing. After I obliterated the first draft, and there were only a couple pages left, I started typing on a typewriter. I developed a process where I’d type up a bunch of short poems, and then put them in a folder. Because they weren’t on my computer, I couldn’t look at them when I was somewhere else. They were at the desk, where I left them. I did this, over and over and over, for three or four months. I had hundreds of pages of poems.
Out of that process, I was in a new place. I just needed to keep going. That’s how my process of grief worked. I was saying, I’m going to linger on this moment today, but I also need to live. I need to get to my job and not break down. I need to be strong in various ways. I think that that matched up really well with my poetry. I spent two hours or three hours writing in the morning, saw it, then stopped before I could be completely consumed and overwhelmed with despair. Now, I can think about this fondly, and not be completely devastated every single day. There are moments when I’m devastated, but, you know, it’s a different type of devastation.
Rumpus: When you say a different type of devastation, what do you mean?
Cerpa: I guess it’s the good kind.
Rumpus: The necessary kind.
Cerpa: Yeah, the necessary kind. Sometimes things need to be obliterated. Really, realizing that death is real. And also realizing that you can carry people in moments with you beyond death. Writing is my way of pausing in the world or my way of reminding myself that I need to pay attention to what’s happening because as far as I’m concerned, it’s this life and no other.
Rumpus: You have what many would call a very important voice right now. People are looking at your poetry and are talking about your poetry as a social influence, or paying attention to what you are saying. What’s that like for you?
Cerpa: Um… [Laughs] I started trying to publish poems without thinking about why I wanted to publish poems. My first book coming out was extremely exciting. I’m really thankful for all the conversations that it began, and the people that I met and got to read with. But then when I got home at the end of the whirlwind that comes with releasing a book, I thought to myself, Why am I going to do it again? I love writing so much! But I don’t love publishing so much [laughs]. But what if the authors I love decided that they were never going to publish their books; what would that world be? Maybe if someone reads one of my poems or reads my book and writes a poem, that’s a good reason to publish.
Rumpus: For kids who are learning how to write poetry, what’s the significance of having role models who look like them?
Cerpa: I think it’s immensely important. My first poetry teacher was a person who truly changed my life, Jeannie Murray Walker. What she did in her classroom was genius. She taught poetry in reverse chronological order, so she showed us really contemporary poets first, and sort of moved backward through time. For me, that was really important. I began by seeing people and stories that I could connect to. The way that she built her syllabus, the way that she talked to me, the books she bought me, I want to try and do that for students.
Rumpus: What do you love about teaching? Do you have a favorite part?
Cerpa: My favorite part is when I see a student get excited about a poem or a story or some creative work and I see the flash in their eyes. I think, This is going to matter to them. They’re going to remember this. I like being a part of that, because I remember when that happened to me. It changed the entire course of my life, and in a really positive way. Being a poet isn’t an easy life, but I’m very thankful that I have it.
Photograph of Andrés Cerpa by Alice Plati.