When Rafael Jesús González agreed to be riverbabble's featured writer, we gave him 28 questions to consider for this interview. After much discussion by phone and email lasting nearly a month, we narrowed the questions to the six which appear below.
------photograph by Peter St.John
LR: What is your relationship to the natural world?
RJG: As opposed to the unnatural world? The artificial world? In my thought and writing, I make the distinction between the Earth and the world. The Earth is this being, the whole of this planet that births, bears and sustains us and all our relations — the other animals, the plants, the minerals of which we are all made — of which we are all a part, inseparable from Her and from each other.
The world is what order or disorder we impose upon Earth with our beliefs, our inventions, concepts, and institutions. Though inseparable, the Earth and the world, the Earth comes first; the Earth bears the world. If the Earth goes, the world goes with Her; if the world goes, the Earth remains, albeit perhaps severely compromised by what the world imposes upon her, but She will endure. “At the beginning was the Word”, yes, and at the end also, but only of the world, not the Earth or the Cosmos.
We of the European-Mid-Eastern tradition (products of Graeco-Roman and, especially, Abrahamic thought and arrogance) are confused by the very language we use. I have no more idea of what is meant by “natural” than I have by what is meant by “God.” I suppose what you mean by the “natural world” is that part of the Earth that is free of human artifice. By “relation,” I suppose you mean my attitude toward such portions of the vast Earth.
So then, the Earth untouched by human artifice, “the natural world” to use your term, is the source of all I know and intuit of the sacred, the divine, of awe, of reverence, of wonder, of love, of exultation. She is life itself of which I am but a tiny part — far tinier even as I know the Earth Herself to be but a tiny part of the Cosmos vast beyond imagining. Being our Mother, She is the Mother of all the gods, the goddesses imagined by our myths through which we try to understand Her, use Her, go beyond Her, fool ourselves. She embodies consciousness even as she embodies us. She is the source of all metaphysics and all metaphor. In Her is our beginning and our end. Amen.
LR: Since you write in both Spanish and English, do you believe that all work can be translated effectively? Are there poems of your own/others which can't be translated?
RJG: Born of highly literate parents on the El Paso, U.S./Cd. Juárez, Mexico border, I was already reading in Spanish by the time I began first grade in El Paso where I soon learned English as well. This made me heir to two muses, one whose tongue is Spanish, the other who speaks in English. More often than not, they speak to me simultaneously such that it is difficult for me to think in terms of translation. I cannot predict which one will grant me her favor first, but almost as soon as a word or phrase comes to me in either language, I think of its equivalent in the other. Or an entire poem will come to me in either language and I will reread it in the other. The effect of this is that then I must reexamine the original line or poem for exactness, or nuance, or grace.
I must confess that this relationship I have with my muses constantly confronts me with how little I know, how ignorant I am of the phenomenon of the word. It forces me to constantly take recourse to three loyal though at times inadequate companions: an English dictionary, a Spanish dictionary, and a Spanish/English-English/Spanish dictionary.
Since every language has its own peculiar exactness, nuance, grace, this has honed my sensitivity to language and my awareness of the play between words and their referents. Tense in Spanish is more subtle and exact, more complicated, than in English. Also, Spanish is more exact in denoting states of being, making a distinction between being as essence (ser) and being as condition (estar) while English must do with only the verb “to be.” English, on the other hand, makes some distinctions that Spanish does not, as for example, between “knowledge” and “wisdom”; Spanish has only the world “sabiduría” to cover both. Having both languages allows me access to two worlds, and I have often wished I knew other languages, other worlds.
However, sometimes I will write a poem in Spanish or English that is so uniquely dependent upon that language for nuance of meaning, for sound, for form that I will not transpose it into the other. That task I leave for others to play with.
Which leads us to the second part of your question; do I believe all writing (language) can be translated effectively? Yes, language is what foremost makes us human, what allows us to know one another and the worlds we make. Were this not so, the world would be dreadfully ignorant, limited, poverty-stricken in perspective. We will never know the sound of the epics of Ur, but scholars have deciphered its cuneiform writing so that the clay tablets on which they were pressed have come alive with the loves and trials of Gilgamesh. We can only imagine the voice of blind Homer, but we thrill with the quarrels of the Greeks, the Trojans, the gods. We destroyed the world of the Nahuas, but the poems of Nezahualcoyotl move us still. Nothing that is said or written in a human tongue is beyond translation, for language is our shared humanity. Some things may not ever be translated precisely, but they can always be translated effectively from one language to another if we learn the necessary languages, if we know something of the worlds they speak.
LR: Politics have figured largely in many of your poems, what role do you think the poet should play in the political life of the country?
RJG: First of all, consider the world into which I was born. My parents came to this country as children whose families had been displaced by the Mexican Revolution, both imbued with strong democratic values. I attended public schools in the United States where those democratic values were espoused. I took those values to heart and they form an integral part of my world, of who I am. I take the role of a citizen seriously. Add to this that in the home my father and mother instilled in us a strong sense of justice and an equally strong compassion. Furthermore, I was raised a Christian in the Roman Catholic church and if I learned anything from the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, it was justice and compassion. What grievous sins I have committed in my life have all been sins against justice and compassion. (Committed in states of fear, of confusion, or tiredness.)
The role of the responsible citizen is to take part in the politics of his or her country for the good of the whole. Because the poet plays such a crucial role in the creation of his/her culture, his/her world (Shelley said that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world), it is the responsibility of the citizen poet to throw his/her full weight into the political debate to ensure that the government of the country is truthful, just and compassionate, and serves the greater good of the country — and in a globalized world, the greater good of everyone everywhere, and the well-being of the Earth.
So much for my speaking to shoulds. To speak the truth, I resent having to devote so much of my writing to political issues. I would much rather spend my time exploring language and celebrating life, praising the Earth, exploring consciousness and beauty, writing love poems. I resent the distraction of having to confront scoundrels and governments run not on the principles of democracy and justice, but the insane principles of lust for power and self-gain. But as a citizen committed to democracy and the cause of justice and compassion, I must use what tools I have to influence the politics of my country toward the greater good according to my lights. It is personal; I find it hard to be fully happy when I see my brothers and sisters suffer, and when that suffering is caused by the very government that is supposed to represent me but violates the Constitution, wages unjust wars of empire, legitimizes torture, and wastes the Earth, I am enraged.
LR: What would you recommend that a poet and writer study? What did you study?
RJG: Everything. The more a poet, a writer knows about his/her world, the Earth, humanity, the Cosmos, the greater his/her perspective, the greater the range of his/her subject matter, his/her fund of metaphor (connection); the wider, deeper his/her consciousness. Especially, study the myths that are the underpinnings of all cultures; literature, poetry and the use of language; history; philosophy; ecology.
What did, do I study? As much as I could and can. I started reading at a very tender age and I read almost everything I could — especially poetry and literary works. I read a great deal on religion (having at one time considered the priesthood), history, art. My undergraduate work was in pre-med and I had to take a good many courses in the sciences, though I graduated with a double major in Spanish and English literature and a double minor in philosophy and psychology, taking time off to attend the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México to study anthropology and archaeology.
LR: Does revision play a large role in what you write, work on draft after draft, or does a poem come to you whole?
RJG: Once in a long while, a poem may come to me whole at once, impervious to change, usually in a dream, but this very, very rarely; once or twice, perhaps three times. The beginning of a poem, perhaps a line or two, a verse, may come to me, gift of my muses, but I immediately start working it in my head, revising, testing the words, the precision, the facets of a simile, a metaphor, the concepts, changing them, reversing them, first in one language then the other, going back, running them through once, twice, thrice again.
By the time I set the poem down with pencil on paper (always in pencil on paper), the poem has already been pretty well worked out. Then more revision as I see the physicality of the words upon the page, breaking a line here, spacing a phrase there, seeing a relationship I had not noticed before, catching a contradiction in a metaphor, choosing another richer in paradox.
Only then, do I type it into my computer where I find it easy to further edit the poem so that it looks fully finished upon the virtual page.
But it does not stop there; I return to it days, weeks, months later and I see new things, some quite subtle, perhaps a comma needed, a space to emphasize a word or a phrase. Often my editing goes on, to the exasperation of my editors, even as the poem is being sent to press. I tend to be a perfectionist in my writing if not in much else. (Bless my dictionaries that one thing I share with Gabi García Márquez, he has confessed it, is that I am terrible in spelling.)
I might add that most of my working of a poem involves elimination of the superfluous. Elegance is to me synonymous with simplicity. I prefer short poems; it seems to me that it is difficult to maintain in a long poem the tension that I look for in poetry, that makes for subtly of sentiment, delicacy of nuance, or that makes the small hairs at the nape of the neck stir .
LR: You have recently started writing a BLOG which features some of your work. Do you consider this publishing? Or is it sharing your journal with your friends?
RJG: Invariably, in my creative writing classes, students would ask questions about publishing. I would always answer that they should concentrate on learning to write as well, precisely, deeply, gracefully, simply as possible; publishing was not the concern of my classes, writing was. But I did say that if one shared one’s writing with one’s family, one’s friends that was publishing. Publishing is the sharing of one’s work, whether intimately or on a large scale with an unknown public. When the poets of Ur, or Homer, or the bards of the Danes, or Nezahualcoyotl sang their words in the courts, was that not publishing, making public, sharing at large? Publishing (and the concept of intellectual rights) such as we know it, did not have much currency before the 15th century and Gutenberg, what has come to be known as the “Gutenberg Revolution” of the printed word. Now we are inundated with words (many, if not most, hardly worth the ink, much less the paper that carry them.) And we have entered another phase of that revolution, the revolution of the internet through which words are transmitted even more widely and instantly, not through physical, palpable objects such as clay tablets, painted parchment, or printed paper, but, much closer to speech (sound waves), through electrical impulses visually translated onto a screen. The effect of this is that it is straining our ideas about publishing and our rather peculiar idea of “intellectual rights” (meaning private ownership of ideas, making them commodities), something that would have seemed very bizarre to Pythagoras or Euclid, Plato or Sophocles.
Apart from a slim volume of my verse El hacedor de juegos/The Maker of Games, which went through two printings but is now long out of print, I have no published book.* I just have not taken the time to put one together (mea culpa) because I have devoted my time to teaching or have been distracted by political exigencies. My work appears in anthologies and literary reviews, and even so, I have been remiss in regularly sending my work out to editors. (Perhaps in large part due to my aversion to paper-work.)
I came late to the computer, dragged to it by my friends, and where before I shared my poems and thoughts with family and friends through the mail (I was long involved creating mail-art), I began to share them through the internet where I could do it much more rapidly and with a much larger list of friends and colleagues. It was also at the insistence of and through the help of friends that I began my BLOG. Publishing? Sharing? I am unsure of the distinction.