Keep a Pulsing Rhythm: An Interview with Jeremy Paden

In our brief conversation not long ago, we delved into your biography a bit, which was fascinating. Can you give a brief overview for our readers?

I was born in Italy, while my father was studying medicine at the University of Milan. He was also born in Italy. Both of his parents were from West Texas. His father had fought in WWII and returned as a protestant missionary. When I was 4 1/2 we moved from Milan, Italy to Rome, Georgia, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, where he did his residency in Family Practice. 3 1/2 years later, we moved to Managua, Nicaragua, where he wanted to set up a medical clinic in the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere at the time. (The United States had just moved from sugar to corn syrup, by the end of that decade Haiti was to become the poorest.) This was the early 80s. Shortly after moving to Nicaragua, Reagan began funding the Contras. After 1 1/2 years, the political instability was such that we moved to Costa Rica where dad worked with the refugees from the Sandinista/Contra conflict. We lived there for a year and a bit, moved back to the States for a year and a bit, and when I was 12, we moved to the Dominican Republic. So, yes, my life has been quite nomadic. Also, my mother is half-Puerto Rican, born in Puerto Rico to a Puerto Rican mother, but raised in Texas. 

How does your multinational identity play into your role as a poet, or your understanding of what a poet is or does?

I am a US citizen and was born a US citizen. Even my grandmother, born in the early 20s, would have been born with US citizenship. But, citizenship is one thing and culture and identity is another. The official, sociological name for people like me is Third Culture Kid. And there are people like me all across the world. On the one hand, we are the product of colonial histories. On the other hand, we are the product of the fact that humans have always been nomadic and have always moved. Sociologists state there are benefits and challenges to being someone like me. They say Third Culture Kids have a certain amount of cultural intelligence, an expanded worldview, heightened interpersonal intelligence, and other soft-skills. They also state that we have challenges conforming, can get trapped into observing rather than doing, and we might never be able to answer the question “where is home?” I think, though, both the supposed benefits and the purported challenges are really useful for a poet. 

How does your linguistic background play into your writing practice? And what does that practice look like both in a concrete sense and in the more internal, cerebral sense?

When I first started writing poetry, I played a lot with sound. I mixed my two primary languages, English and Spanish. Much of what those early poems did was simply play with music and rhythm by creating a Spanglish mashup. At a certain point, when it became clear that I was going to reside in the US, I switched to writing principally in English and publishing exclusively in English. At the same time, I was completing a Ph.D. in Spanish. In fact, during those first years of post-college writing, most of my reading was in Spanish. Though I mostly wrote in English, I would still dabble in Spanish and write an occasional poem here or there. It wasn’t until after the Ph.D., though, that I became serious about trying to publish poetry. For the first many years, I only published in English. More than anything that was because my writing community and the publishing opportunities of which I was aware were English language journals and publishers. However, as I published more, I got to know more and more Latin American and Spanish poets and my writing community in that language began to grow. 

In order to write, you have to learn how to read well. My training as a reader, however, is that of a critic. This is a mode of close reading, but with the advent of theory and the waning of close reading as a technique, craft is often a secondary concern to literary critics. Translation, however, translation both from English to Spanish and Spanish to English, has been a constant in my literary practice. In fact, I advocate translation as a great way to learn how to write poetry. It is a deep and intimate form of close reading. 

Your poems in Self-Portrait as an Iguana appear in both Spanish and English. World as Sacred Burning Heart is mostly in English but is also peppered with Spanish (and other languages). I’m curious about how you view these two languages both as tools for making meaning and as colonial projects. What is gained or lost or must be sacrificed in the recognition that the language we use to make sense of the world is and was used as a means of colonization? How should we view this as poets? How should we view this as residents of the Americas?

We are born into a language, some of us are born into multiple languages, but those languages are all already given to us. Some of us, the truly admirable people, go off and learn a new language, even fewer learn multiple languages. I was, for reasons having nothing to do with me, born into two colonial languages. Sometimes, given the current history and politics of the world, it’s hard to remember that Spanish was the language of colonizers. At the same time, Mandarin, Arabic, Russian, Persian, Japanese, Quechua, Nahua, and many others have been and are the languages of colonizing peoples. There is no escaping this. I don’t say this, however, to be a relativist about the matter. The Incan empire was a long, long time ago and the Andean people previously conquered by the Incas have since endured much violence and humiliation at the hands of European descendants.

I gave a reading at Emory University recently, and one of the students asked a question about whether or not it was appropriate for me, a US citizen with no noticeable accent, to write poems using Nahua and Quechua and to write poems in the voice of people like Malinche, Cortes’ translator. The presumption being that the telling of certain stories, the use of certain points of view are more legitimate for certain groups of people than others. While I will readily acknowledge that there are definite pitfalls, like misrepresentation or a fundamental misunderstanding or a trafficking in stereotypes, I do not think that. I think that with care, respect, and imagination, and with a lot of research, one can tell stories from points of view other than one’s own more narrowly defined socio-economic and ethno-cultural subject position. However, one should also work to amplify the voice of other groups and one should be ready to accept criticism with humility. 

The arts have always benefited from cross-cultural fertilization. I think, for example, of the great Japanese printmaker of the Edo period Hokusai (1760-1849). On the one hand, his prints were, in part, responsible for the mid to late 19th century interest in Japonism. (It should be noted that Chinoiserie, of which Japonism could be a subset, can be dated back to the 16th century, at least.) At the same time, he seems to have been influenced by Dutch Masters. 

In World as Sacred Burning Heart, you are deeply engaged in writing poetry that utilizes intertextuality in an obvious and integral way. Can you tell us what this process looked like from a craft perspective? How did the use of external texts propel the writing process for you? How did these other texts shape the act of writing poetry?

You’re right. Intertextuality is central to the book; and also to my understanding of literature itself. Cervantes’ Don Quixote, that first modern novel, is a parody of the chivalric novels and epic poems of a century before him. It’s hard to see when reading from a four-hundred-year distance and in translation, but the novel uses the archaic language and narrative conventions of those earlier texts. And, it’s not like contemporary literature has moved beyond this. For example, A. S. Byatt’s novel Possession and John Fowles’ novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman do something similar with the diction, syntax, and narrative conventions of Victorian literature.  

The early European accounts of colonization provide both the historical backbone of the book and they also inform the language and syntax of the book. They also helped determine the form of the Captain poems–that is, the prose poem. When I fell in love with poetry to the point that I wanted to start writing it, I was reading Whitman, William Carlos Williams, George Oppen, Middle and Late Denise Levertov, among others, in English. And, in Spanish it was César Vallejo, Pablo Neruda, Alejandra Pizarnik, and others. I didn’t cut my teeth on formal poetry. And while I normally do write with an idea of the line, a rough pentameter or tetrameter, I don’t typically have a strong commitment at first to the form. As the poem develops, though, I begin thinking of stanzas and other matters.  

In the case of the Captain poems, however, they began as prose poems. As I was editing them, a colleague of mine, a very good poet, recommended that I consider some sort of historical form for these poems. But I had in mind the blocky text from 16th century print codices. The Captain poems seemed more like missives or colonial dispatches than light airy poems, so after some initial playing around with the Spanish epic form of 8 line stanzas in hendecasyllabic lines, I went back to my first idea of prose poems. 

Those 16th century texts also, I think, influence the language–the purple and flowery, multisyllabic Latinate and Grecian words that pepper the poems. And its influence can be seen in the syntax. The use of the hyperbaton, or syntactical rearrangement of a sentence or a clause; the use of anaphora, and of long sentences that branch and meander into new topics are all part of these texts written by 16th century explorers. It’s a mix of wonder about the world and a lack of conscious style either due to writing out of need rather than as a vocation and/or due to uneven literacy (though in the case of some, like Cortés, that’s not the case). One of the things I tried to do with the Captain poems, especially, was use those accounts as the model for my own language. As a scholar of 16th and 17th century literature, that language was there to hand given the many years of reading and rereading those texts.

Since I am writing in English, this might seem especially strange. Yet, in Latin America examples of this kind of historical rewriting in fiction and poetry abound, especially over the last 50 years. 

Two of your books (Self-Portrait as an Iguana and World as Sacred Burning Heart)came out in 2021, a year muffled by the pandemic, what was that experience like? How did the isolation of the pandemic affect the releases, your plans for them, and their reception?

To be honest, 2021 was a particularly hard year for books to come out. All of the normal venues–small, independent bookstores in the region were closed to events and so were various cultural/literacy institutions. Some people seem to have excelled at the Zoom readings, but after teaching on-line, I simply did not have the energy to do Zoom readings. Plus, given that both of these books are from small, independent publishers that do not work with SPD or with Ingram Distributors, the purchasing ask has been a little harder.

How much does scansion or careful consideration of meter play into your writing process? I’m thinking here of Self-Portrait as an Iguana which, especially in the first three sections, often projects a very organized and careful rhythm. Does this show up in original drafts or as a focus of revision? How critical a role does rhythm play in your work?

Curiously, those were written originally in Spanish and translated to English. And, while not strictly formal, they are close to form, close to the 8 or the 11 syllable count of typical Spanish poetry, which without too much effort can be brought into tetrameter and pentameter. I have always enjoyed metered and rhymed poetry, though I have not written much in rhyme and I don’t tend to pay too much attention to meter. Paying attention to rhythm, though, has always been rather important. I imagine it’s because Whitman and William Carlos Williams and Denise Levertov have been poets that I have read carefully. Even in the prose poems of “world as sacred burning heart,” I tried to keep a pulsing rhythm running through them.

You often write in Spanish and translate to English, as in Self-Portrait as an Iguana where poems in both languages are present. I’m interested in what effect you think this has on the translated result? I imagine there might be times when the translated poem somehow falls short of the original. Is that the case? Most writers do not translate their own work, so your position is particularly interesting. How does this translation aspect sit with you as a writer? How does the translating of your own work look different than translating the work of others?

There are times when it is very difficult. I will say, in both Self-Portrait as an Iguana and world as sacred burning heart I used translation as a mode of polishing the poems. This meant different things with each collection. In the case of world, it meant translating into Spanish and back to English and, at times, keeping some of the stranger syntax. In the case of Iguana, it more meant editing the poem and rewriting sections as I encountered difficulties in the English version and then going back and playing a bit with the Spanish to make the versions closer to each other. I did, I must confess, have the perverse thought of simply letting the versions in each language be radically different. That is, asserting a kind of freedom as poet and translator and giving myself permission to be completely unfaithful. That might be another book, though. I should say, I wrote the poem “A Fool and His Candy” mostly as an exercise of trying to write a poem that would be difficult to translate into English if I were asked to. The poem, along with playing with a premise laid down by the Spanish poet Rafael Alberti in a slim volume he wrote in 1929 on silent film, has puns that were problematic to translate. 

When translating the work of others, I try not to take too many freedoms.

Your books seem to have a compelling propensity for difference as they shift from a personal as in Self-Portrait as an Iguana to the almost anthropological World as Sacred Burning Heart and I know your upcoming manuscript is wholly different in form as well. How do you continue to make poetry new? Both for yourself and readers. How do you strive for, find, and incorporate these creative shifts in your work?  

There are some poets, like Roberto Juarroz and Alejandra Pizarnik, to name two 20th century Argentines, whose poetic practice is one of moving along a trajectory where they develop a recognizable style that is polished and refined over the course of their career. There are others, though, César Vallejo, Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz, Amanda Berenguer for whom novelty is key. Vallejo has three major collections, The Black Heralds, Trilce, and Human Poems, each of them is radically different from the other. But all three attempt to give expression to his feelings, his experience of the world, and his understanding of self and world through poetry. His poetry moves from the more formalist approach in the first collection, to experiments with broken forms in the second book, Trilce, and finally a radical abandonment of form and an embrace of free verse and prose poetry in his last collection. 

While it is true that there are ways in which my various collections are formally distinct, or some of them are–prison recipes uses the slash rather than punctuation in homage to the great Argentine poet Juan Gelman; world as sacred burning heart uses prose poems; a collection I am currently working on, how to recognize god’s chosen, uses genderless pronouns–I suppose some of the novelty to which you refer has just as much to do with topic and theme as with form. And I think that has to do with poetry, with simile and metaphor, being how I understand the world.

It is true that modern verse is mostly lyrical and that lyrical poetry is often confessional and seemingly autobiographical, but one of the great philosophical texts of the ancient world, Lucretius’ De rerum natura, was written in verse, and Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy was a mix of verse and prose. In epic poetry there is a mix of history and fiction. Poetry, I think, is large and capacious and can take everything from the tight, polished gems of the haiku, to the bawdy and funny limerick, to songs of self and others, and it can give expression even to the anthropological and the sociological.

In your introduction to a reading by Frank X. Walker and Chrystal Wilkinson at the 2021 Kentucky Book Festival, which provided an excellent snapshot of the state of poetry in Kentucky, you said: “all poetry is local.” Your own poetry feels expansive and global to me. How does this quote apply to your own work?

Well, as one who has grown up in multiple countries and languages, my own experience is rather global. I can’t deny that and given that I write about the curious things that catch my fancy, and given that my fancy is something of a will-o-the-wisp, fleeting here and there, I am afraid that it doesn’t stay rooted in one place for long… at least not in the way that the poetry of Maurice Manning or Crystal Wilkinson is rooted to place, family, and language. But I do think it’s local. At least in the sense that the writers and poets I converse with most about poetry and craft live here in Lexington or nearby. And, to be honest, I didn’t really develop my voice until I moved here and began writing with my dear friend Martha Gheringer and then with the Affrilachians.

How do you view the purpose of the Kentucky State Poetry Society? What does it do, or should it do, for poetry in Kentucky?

The purpose of these societies is to promote poetry at the state level. Especially encourage poetry in educational settings and give residents of the state a forum where they can share their love of poetry and writing with like-minded people. KSPS is a network of poets and writers who are at various stages in their writing life and from across the state. There are teachers of poetry and poets who have day jobs not related to creative writing. There are well-established poets with several books and poets who have yet to publish books, but we are all united in our love of reading and writing poetry. In some ways, these societies have a hard and long row to hoe. While poets enjoy being with other poets, they often can be solitary. Yet, I have found KSPS to be a wonderful group of volunteers. 

Finally, what’s next for Jeremy Paden the poet and person?

At the moment, much of what I have been writing has been in Spanish. In 2020, a bilingual illustrated book came out with Shadelandhouse Modern Press, Under the Ocelot Sun. I wrote it in English, it’s the story of a Honduran mother waiting with her daughter at the US border telling her daughter stories of who she is and why they’ve left Honduras. A friend of mine and I translated it to Spanish and a young artist, Annelisa Hermosilla, illustrated it. I am working again with Shadelandhouse and the same artist and we are collaborating on an abecedarian bestiary of Central American animals. I wrote the poems originally in Spanish and then translated them to English. Currently, we are waiting on the illustrations and the layout work. I took an animal from Central (or at times South America) for each letter of the alphabet and wrote a poem that focuses on its migratory patterns, its threat level, or some mythical aspect of the animal as a way of approaching the question of Central American migration from a different angle. Still: The Journal has picked up four of them for the winter edition. Also, I have just submitted a collection to an open reading call, a collection that I’ve been tinkering away at for six or seven years, but who knows if it will get picked up. 

I’m always working on something. There are a few Spanish language collections I’m tinkering with, an English collection I have just submitted to an open reading or two, and another English collection that I am slowly working on. Most of my books take time. World as sacred burning heart slowly developed over ten years. The collection I’ve just sent off has taken seven years or so. I am also toying with a collection of essays on strange ideas about the Americas… which, I think, a lot of what I write is some sort of permutation of this topic. 

What am I looking forward to? I don’t know. This year our daughter will finish high school and head off to college, leaving us only with our son. I am looking forward to, with a mix of anxiety and curiosity, watching all the changes in store for her and in store for our son.

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