A Conversation with Patrick Rosal
Patrick Rosal is the author of three full-length poetry collections, Boneshepherds, named by the National Book Critics Circle as one of the best small press books of the year, My American Kundiman, and Uprock Headspin Scramble and Dive. His poems and essays have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including Tin House, American Poetry Review, Harvard Review, Drunken Boat, and Language for a New Century. He has won, among other honors, a Fulbright Fellowship, the Association of Asian American Studies Book Award, the Global Filipino Literary Award, and the Asian American Writers’ Workshop Members’ Choice Award. He is a member of the Creative Writing faculty at Rutgers University-Camden and the core faculty of Drew University’s low-residency MFA.
LR: Let’s start with a straightforward one. Which poets have influenced you the most, both living and dead?
PR: Amiri Baraka, Anne Sexton, Robert Hayden, Gwendolyn Brooks, Philip Levine, Larry Levis, June Jordan, Yusef Komunyakaa, James Wright, Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, Paul Genega, Thomas Lux, Marie Howe, Joan Larkin, Suzanne Gardinier, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, Pablo Neruda, Federico Garcia Lorca, my Uncle Charlie. Could I say, too, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Afrika Bambaataa, Kid Capri, The Latin Rascals, Rock Steady Crew, et. al.
LR: A musical sensibility (as in the poem “A Tradition of Pianos”) features prominently in your latest collection Boneshepherds, along with trauma, despair, loss, and love. What poetic decisions did you have to make in order to successfully navigate the intersections between those topics?
PR: Reading June Jordan’s Kissing God Goodbye early in my writing life (I was in my mid- to late-twenties) was a revelation to me about the ways fury and tenderness could occupy the same poetic space. Also, reading and re-reading Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time gave me a literary/ethical/philosophical model for the conjunction of love and rage. I’m confused and compelled by the ways music, violence, terror and tenderness intersect. This means, poetically, I have to be prepared to complicate whatever comes out on the page. A love poem couldn’t simply be a love poem or at least a love poem would be more interesting to me if it were also, simultaneously, an interrogation of history and the body and the role of music.
LR: You often evoke the political in your work: in poems like “Ars Poetics: After a Dog,” you use a rhetorical tone to address the politics of violence, while in “Boneshepherds’ Lament,” the political is melded with the personal. How do you envision the politics of your work as a whole? From a craft perspective, what strategies have you found to be most helpful when engaging with politics through poetry?
PR: To be a political poet doesn’t have to mean that you are only interested in convincing or converting people to a particular viewpoint. The sensual itself is political. It is a way to interact with and interrogate one’s world.
You might ask what the sensual has to do with power (i.e. the political), but it seems to me the official history and the public record, useful as they are, often contradict sensual experiences, if not erase them all together. What political rhetoric says about being poor or black or an immigrant is often directly challenged by the smell of our own fingers after a day of work, the way we kiss, the way we hold a knife or trombone. A kind of history resides in the sensual. And poetry, in sound and sense, is a way to record that.
Poetry, at its best, is a sensual experience. It is bodily—especially in my own work, which I envision as a direct descendant of oral and musical traditions. So what I’m making in a poem isn’t so much a message or a story, but a sequence of sounds and silences which have trajectories and dynamics—like a piece of music has melodic/harmonic trajectories, cadences, tensions and resolutions. Hearing (of poetry, music, and sound in general) happens by the vibration of a drum, a hammer, a stirrup, and an anvil in the ear, which cause the cilia to vibrate too, sending them along a nerve to the brain. Music, then, literally moves us. By music, we are moved.
If, as a poet, I let the music of a line lead me during composition and revision, then the very process of making becomes political. I am being led by the unknown. I don’t mean that in a mystical sense, though the opportunity for an experience of the numinous is possible when writing poems. What I mean is, to consult the delights of the music of a poetic line is a radical response to a world which often wants us to consult strictly logic, reason, money, fear, etc., each of which has its own allegiance to certainty. Music is not loyal to certainty. When it works, it follows surprise.
LR: I love your comment that one of your biggest writing challenges is in “the truth-telling,” or “how you get the poem, the essay, the story that is complicated and true, rather than the easy language, the fashionable language, the language of effects.” How do you keep challenging yourself to write new poetry that tells the truth in new and fresh ways? And what sources of inspiration do you turn to when you’re looking to create surprise in your poetry?
PR: By following a poetic line by its music, by which I mean its percussiveness, its internal rhyme, consonance, assonance etc., I can be led to saying something I didn’t mean. Sometimes I’m led to something I didn’t even want to say. For good reason, we don’t deal with trauma or extreme exuberance in every waking hour. Our will and reason help us keep that in check. But that also means that we potentially have whole lakes of desire, joy, anger, etc. that we are out of touch with. Music disarms us from the mechanisms of safety (logic being one of those mechanisms, the will being another, among many). Music can challenge us into speech that is difficult and strange. The poetry happens in the interrogation of that music and its strangeness and the simultaneous interrogation of the world we live in, i.e. an interrogation of how a poetic line sounds and what it says. That’s how poetry becomes an argument with what we think we already know, how it gave Hikmet an opportunity to say, “I didn’t know I loved the rain…”
LR: Breakdancing has been a large part of your life, and has featured in your work, most notably in Uprock Headspin Scramble and Dive. What is it about breakdancing that inspires you as a poet, and what poetic strategies have you employed to bring its essence into your work?
PR: I’ve been working on an essay called “The Art of the Mistake” which is about some of the lessons I learned from breaking. Because a breaker is mostly making things up in front of an audience, often trying things with his body that he hasn’t necessarily tried before (a sequence of moves improvised on the spot), he’s prone to screwing up. Sometimes he thinks going into a particular floor move from a toprock is going to be dope, but it might be harder than he expects and he could trip or his foot could end up somewhere he didn’t intend for it to go. Thing is, there are people watching so he has to turn that accident into something—not as a way of hiding the accident, but as a way of letting the accident in. Every good breaker makes a contract with the unexpected: that it will inevitably come, and that he will do his best to say yes to it. Sometimes you invent the illest moves that way.
LR: Hip-hop has also been a big influence in your work, and you have spoken about how the best hip-hop carefully manages energy, rage, syncopation, rhythm, and unusual juxtapositions. A similar thing can be said for poetry—how do you infuse your poetry with these elements?
PR: You’ve hit it right on the nose. Aside from breaking, I also DJ’d and produced dance music. A lot of that composition was done by assembling very disparate pieces of music and sound.
I love thinking of the DJ as a metaphor for what a good poet does. First, the DJ has to practice—a lot. He also has to be familiar with a lot of different kinds of music. He spends his time digging through crates (he used to, before Spotify and Shazam, etc.). He’s always looking for new sounds.
And then when he’s actually DJing for a dance floor, he has to feel. He has to listen while he’s making and what he’s making (a groove) has to be informed by what he hears and feels from the people in front of him (a good portion of a groove is sensed beyond simply listening). The DJ has to remember what he’s played so far, has to hear what’s playing now, and has to imagine what song might make the floor jump next. He is, in that way, a conduit of time. He is looking forward and backward at once—and never leaving the present moment. He is not manipulating time: he’s trying to find the way asynchronous expressions of time might converge to make a single beat. The poet/prophet has to do the same thing, has to look forward and backward at the same time, has to listen while he’s making, has to be asking questions about what came before, what’s to come, who is dancing and who isn’t. He has to figure out how many bodies can he get out on the floor.
LR: You seem to wear several different hats between your writing and your professional life. Your poetry is fluent in the language and imagery of the street and you also maintain a prominent role in the academy as an educator and gatekeeper. Can you speak a little bit about the relationship between those two elements in your life?
PR: Sometimes it’s a troubled relationship. The language of poetry (or the language of the cee-lo game, for that matter) doesn’t often work well in faculty meetings. But principles of justice, love, play, honesty, curiosity, and interrogation inform the work I do as a member of an academic institution. It’s all a life, isn’t it? It’s the mastermix (if I ain’t killed the analogy yet) of all the things I’ve learned as an artist, musician, dance-floor participant, son, brother, knucklehead. I’ve had good teachers and I’ve had shitty teachers. The good ones gave me space to figure out how all this non-traditional living connects to ideas we often consider as erudite. Truth is, the sources of erudition are everywhere. They always have been. The greatest ideas and works of art have always been informed by something on the edge or in the hinterlands or on the margins. The academy doesn’t always want to recognize that and sometimes it’s a pain in the ass to be the one who has to do the reminding, but it’s part of the work. And I’m happy to do it.
LR: You’ve been with the Kundiman organization since its very early days. How have you seen it grow and develop through the years?
PR: I’m really proud to have been witness to this. We were at a lounge somewhere in the Lower East Side (is it 9 or 10 years ago now?) when Joseph and Sarah told me their idea and asked if I would be involved in an organization that would hold a retreat for Asian American poets. Everybody has a good idea. Few people act on it. Joseph and Sarah have busted their behinds to grow this into an amazing community of poets. They’ve done a great job to preserve an atmosphere of compassion and openness and a dedication to the work of writing poems. The notion of an Asian American poet is complicated. How do you craft a space that welcomes vastly different histories, aesthetic inclinations, wacky personalities? The bigger that Kundiman gets, the more it has to confront the challenges of these contradictions. I think they’re handling it beautifully. Not to mention, the logistics of an organization, i.e. the infrastructure to the very dream of Kundiman, are a massive undertaking. It’s a credit to Sarah, Joseph, the board and support staff that they get this together the way they do. What a gift to be part of a generation that has that kind of both vision and commitment. I imagine Kundiman will go down as a major achievement in the history of Asian American letters.
LR: You have said that as a poet, you have to be willing to make mistakes. As your career progresses, how do you maintain the willingness to keep making mistakes?
PR: I’m blessed that my audience has grown quite a bit in the decade-plus I’ve been writing poems. So I guess I could feel somewhat self-conscious and shut down. Of course, that happens from time to time. Ambition and shame in a professionalized world of writing are not uncommon. I think I’m sort of a risk taker though. I’m hungry. I want to make poems that surprise me and there’s no doing that without making mistakes. All my errors hold my work as a writer together. They are the very mortar of the good poem. It’s impossible to know which failure will lead me to the next awe, so I try to be curious about all of my fuck-ups and trust that the wonder will come, that astonishment is just another category of mistake.
LR: Can you tell us what you’re working on now?
PR: My main focus right now is a collection of essays that I’m co-editing with Ross Gay. We’re collecting work by poets of our generation on the work of Robert Hayden. Teaching, too, is a main priority. As far as writing is concerned, I’ve got a couple of projects, including a long poem about a man (named Willie), a woman (named Yolanda), and a bridge that connects the towns of Paz and Pelea. It’s hard to say what, if anything, will come out of it. It’s been both a challenge and a blessing to try and write this convergence of politics, magic realism, and love story. I’ve got a few other projects in the air that are mostly just ideas and notes right now, including some research on Philippine history, specifically on torture and combat during the Philippine-American War. Maybe Paz y Pelea and the Philippine history research are all the same thing. I’m still figuring it out. And figuring it out is a good place to be.