Editor's note: This interview is the third in a series that will focus on contemporary Puerto Rican authors. Peggy Robles-Alvarado is a tenured educator, a CantoMundo Fellow, an Academy for Teachers and Home School Fellow and a two-time International Latino Book Award winner. She’s a 2016 BCA and Spaceworks grant recipient and a 2014 BRIO award winner. She authored Conversations With My Skin, Homenaje A Las Guerreras, and created The Abuela Stories Project and Mujeres, The Magic, The Movement and The Muse. Peggy is also an MFA candidate in Performance Studies at Pratt Institute. She’ll be moderating and performing in two panels at Thinking Its Presence 2017: The Ephemeral Archive Conference in Arizona this fall. Contact her at robleswrites.com.
*To read the first interview with playwright and theatre artist Michael Mejias, click here.
Ivelisse Rodriguez: Tato Laviera and Sandra María Esteves are both inspirations to you. Both poets are from the Nuyorican school of poetry. What aspects of your work are influenced by them, and in what ways do you think your poetry has evolved past the Nuyorican poets to offer something new?
Peggy Robles-Alvarado: I was introduced to Tato Laviera and Sandra María Esteves as an undergraduate student at Hunter College. The realization that there was an entire movement, a body of work that encompassed both a style and a school of thought that questioned, challenged, and essentially juxtaposed traditional literary canonical parameters, was invigorating. It was equally as upsetting because I wondered why I had not been introduced to these authors earlier in my schooling. I questioned how impactful it could have been to have an elementary school classroom full of their books; to know that there were poems written about boliteros, Taino sky people, mujeres named María Cristina and mambo in English, Spanish, and Spanglish. I questioned how accessing these authors earlier, and placing our shared daily barrio-living norms within learning discourses could have fostered a love of reading while simultaneously giving me and my classmates permission to see ourselves and our cultural intricacies as celebratory. How would our dreams and identities have been molded if we could have found ourselves in the books we were surrounded by?
Witnessing Laviera not only read but embody the poems from his book Enclave in high speed and precise cadence laced with colloquial, barrio vernacular where traditional word endings were substituted with smooth word play, nurtured my impulse to write and perform. He signed my copy of Enclave in 1996 with “Pega con entusiasmo cariño y amor” and it has served as a mantra. In 2013, Laviera called to invite me to perform with him at a reading he was organizing. He said, “I want you to tell me only yes, I want nothing less.” This message still lingers in my voicemail.
When I met Sandra María Esteves, La Madrina of the Nuyorican movement, I was welcomed into her poetry by her calm presence and syncopated verses infused with prayer and purpose. Her writing addressed power dynamics, gender inequalities, and the unresolved tension of being straddled between two languages and conflicting identities that don’t wish to easily assimilate. I have worked with Esteves numerous times, but in 2014, I invited her to read as part of a series I curated, and she signed my copy of Bluestown Mockingbird Mambo: “Gracias por tu ser & for being a fierce madrina in creative rebellion.” Her words serve as a catalyst to continue to create.
Similar to Laviera and Esteves, my writing addresses identity, belonging, gender roles, spirituality and sensuality. I utilize English, Spanish, and Spanglish, as well as codified language related to my spiritual practice of Lukumi and Palo, but, recently, my work has expanded to conferences and panel discussions on performativity and identity construction. I am currently pursuing a fourth degree, an M.F.A. in performance and performance studies, where I am able to set my poetry within critical discourses, where it may have otherwise been discredited or ignored. I would like to distance performance poetry from the idea that it is purely the result of incoherent ranting by spotlight seekers and focus on the critical dialogue it can generate. I also seek to create a bridge to my teaching career because early childhood learning programs lack opportunities for students to perform as well as Nuyorican poets as part of their approved curriculums.
Most recently, I have curated community-based projects with the end result being an anthology and performance rather than a traditional reading. These projects are geared towards women of color and invite writers at various stages of their writing careers to participate. It is my way of making and holding space for voices that can grow beyond traditional institutions.
IR: According to Miguel Algarín, one of the aesthetics of Nuyorican literature is “the domination of either language or both languages together to a degree that makes it possible for you to be accurate about your present condition—psychic, economic, or historical….” Much Puerto Rican poetry from the continental US has used Spanglish or has added Spanish words in poetry primarily written in English. You do something distinct here in that some of your poems are wholly written in one language (Spanish or English) and then written in another language. This doesn’t seem to be mere translation. It seems like the poems are two separate entities. Can you discuss your writing choices here? You only did this with specific poems, so how did you make the choice that a poem needed to be written in one language then also in another? And what do you think each language (Spanish and English) offers a poem that solely using one language would not capture?
PRA: When I write, el sentir is my guiding force. Some poems feel differently on my tongue and on paper whether in Spanish or in English. Some can scream in one language and whisper in another. I don’t judge the feeling, I simply allow it to be released through me. Translation is a skill I respect, but, oftentimes, I don’t seek to translate but rather to interpret a message in various ways. I hear the words in one language but feel them in another or in a combination of sounds. To judge these voices is to regulate the Muse. To impose rules and structure on a feeling is an attempt to control and corrupt a gift.
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IR: There are a variety of mythically strong women in your writing. One of your books is even titled Homenaje a Las Guerreras/Homage to the Warrior Woman. There are also women who are victimized in your texts. “But as much as I try to spit shine my reflection / I can always see residue / small like an infection that hasn’t quite spread / yet / because trying to reject and erase the legacy of abuse you inspired / is a daily ritual.” “Victims” and warrior women are often set up like a binary. But in your titular poem for Homenaje a Las Guerreras, which is dedicated to Anacaona, a Taína cacique from what is now Hispaniola, you capture the fluidity of these perceived polarities. Anacaona holds a politically powerful position but is nonetheless assassinated. So in your work, how are these two types of women—“the victim” and the warrior woman—in conversation with each other? What can they learn from one another?
PRA: To be woman is to carry several lifetimes and dimensions within one frame and learn how to properly balance them. I am interested in the way in which women are able to carry mutable identities, particularly how they are held, released, and performed by the body. The “victim” and the “warrior woman” are closely related archetypes that impact internal and/or external change. They birth each other in cycles. Behavior typically performed or associated with the “victim” or the “warrior woman” can be idiosyncratic in that crying and silence can be deemed a weakness or a strength depending upon the situation. For my mother, crying is for the weak; for my Abuela, crying was a healing release. I am still learning how to cry because I carry them both.
IR: The Abuela Stories Project aims to move beyond the reduction of a grandmother as a woman in a rocking chair who bakes cookies. Becoming a grandmother often serves as an erasure of other parts of a woman’s life. So The Abuela Stories Project is essentially a project about visibility where the other lives of grandmothers are brought to light. You employ three modalities in your project—photography, poetry, and prose. How does each mode help offer visibility? How do these three mediums work together or separately to reach your larger artistic aims as you also use these three forms in Homenaje a Las Guerreras/Homage to the Warrior Woman?
PRA: The use of photography, poetry, and prose are very natural to my creative process. Photographs help coax a story; each image has its own feeling, creation myth, character, and language. Once I have figured out those details, the story is then framed by poetry or prose.
With The Abuela Stories Project my goal was to challenge the falsehood I was told several years ago at a writing conference—that Abuela stories are not important and they have already been written. To negate Abuela stories is to cut at the root, to sever oral history and women’s narratives. I decided to incorporate various modalities that would channel the past but also view the Abuela figure as she appears today. So rather than the traditional portrait of an Abuela in a rocking chair, I decided to capture radical Abuelas in their most comfortable states of being and use the images as a source of inspiration to generate original pieces from intergenerational women writers. The result was poetry and prose that encompasses Abuela as the victim, the warrior, the temptress, the artist, the neglected, the exemplary, the hated, and the celebrated.
IR: Some of your books are self-published which makes me think about some of the characters in your work. For example, there are some teen mom narrators in your texts who have been told that they will not accomplish something. But they overcome. In a lot of your work, there is a self-actualization ethos. Is this part of the reason why you decided to self-publish? For a writer who is looking to be published, what would you say are the benefits of self-publication?
PRA: I self-published my first book as a gift to my daughter and myself. I wanted to explain how she came to be the daughter of a teenage single mother and why we are resilient. I put together a small book of ten poems. Initially, the book was private, but it became public after I was invited to share these poems with diverse audiences and realized the book had helped to fuel my identity as a writer and performer. Even today, the book continues to be used in workshops, and I refuse to change any part of it because I honor the time, space, and energy in which it was created. The book taught me the particulars of publishing, from idea to actualization, and I do possess a heavy lo voy hacer yo ethos. I learned many lessons in creating the first book and many more with the second, third, and fourth. The greatest lesson is that I must always follow my creative thought process and that I am an artist. I don’t need permission from anyone to create. I am a writer and a performer. I learned the submission process later, and my work has been anthologized and featured in several traditional and not so traditional literary spaces. I have participated in panel discussions where I am the only self-published writer who unapologetically claims her space within literary discourse. Self-publishing can create and sustain a writing career—don’t believe otherwise. I love the sense of having permission to create lo que me da la gana. That is the greatest benefit—the freedom to envision, write, design, and birth a book como quieras.
Born in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, Ivelisse Rodriguez grew up in Holyoke, Massachusetts. She earned a B.A. in English from Columbia University, an M.F.A. in creative writing from Emerson College, and a Ph.D. in English-creative writing from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her short story collection, Love War Stories, is forthcoming from The Feminist Press in summer 2018. The Belindas, a fiction chapbook, is forthcoming from Tammy in summer 2017. She is the senior fiction editor at Kweli, a Kimbilio fellow, and a VONA/Voices alum. She is currently working on the novel The Last Salsa Singer about 70s era salsa musicians in Puerto Rico. To learn more about Ivelisse visit: http://www.ivelisserodriguez.com.