18: Rhina Espaillat
poet and translator
Rhina Espaillat is a Dominican poet, translator, and former high school English teacher living in Newburyport, Massachusetts. She has published 11 poetry collections, including Where Horizons Go (1998), which won the 1998 T.S. Eliot Prize and Rehearsing Absence (2001), which won the 2001 Richard Wilbur Award. Her work has been featured in publications such as Poetry and The American Scholar. In addition to her own poetry, she has translated the poetry of Robert Frost and Richard Wilbur into Spanish and has led numerous poetry workshops, including the Fresh Meadow Poets and the Powow River Poets in Newburyport. She is the recipient of awards such as the Howard Nemerov Sonnet Award, the Sparrow Sonnet Prize, the Der-Hovanessian Translation Prize, and a Lifetime Achievement Award from Salem State College, among others.
Philip Keith is an artist and editorial photographer with a focus on Portraiture working in Boston, New York, and Berlin. Philip works in both analog and digital mediums and is never without a camera. You can find him writing in the corner of a cafe when not out making images.
This interview was conducted by Nicole Blackwood on January 13, 2017, in Rhina’s Newburyport, Massachusetts home. Philip Keith photographed and witnessed the conversation.
NICOLE: Talk to me about your experience of girlhood.
RHINA: I grew up in the Dominican Republic in my father’s hometown, La Vega, in the interior, a very old city from the end of the 1400s. My models were my two grandmothers, and I spent a lot of time in their homes. One of them, my father’s mother, was a midwife, and she had wanted to be a doctor, but instead she got married and had 5 children, and stopped at delivering babies. She was a wonderful midwife. She had a reputation, but she also wrote poetry, and played the guitar, and played the piano, and had literary gatherings in her living room where her friends played and sang. So that was my first model for feminism, because I think that’s a kind of feminism. She was intent on encouraging women to be all they could be, to enter the arts and to enter professions. She didn’t make it to being a doctor, but she went pretty far in her own direction, and she had a daughter who was a dentist, and two other daughters who were teachers. So she pushed intellectually and aesthetically.
My other grandmother, who was in another town not too far away, was my mother’s mother, who was very 19th century. They were both 19th century people, so I sort of grew up in the 19th century, even though I was born in 1932. My maternal grandmother was very, very religious, and [believed] women had to be absolutely this and that and the other. She was more interested in restrictions and propriety than she was in [women’s] growth.
So I had both ends of the spectrum. They had a lot of similarities, because they were both very giving of themselves. But one was an educated woman who read everything she could get her hands on and spread the word, and the other one was very proper, you know, mustn’t this, mustn’t that, mustn’t the other. They were both models, and both valid, each in her own way. I could see their differences, and sometimes when I read things that people write that are supposed to evoke feminism now, I think, “Oh, this one’s going too far in that direction, this one too far in the other.” I’ve read some items in which women seem to be saying, “The more we can talk about sex and the franker we are about it, the better off we’ll be.” And I think, well, yes and no. I don’t think so. And there are others who say the more quickly we make it to CEO, and the more we behave just like the guys, the better off we’ll be. And again I think, no, that’s not it. I think that real feminism consists in being whatever you as an individual can be, in going as far as your own temperament, your own capacities will take you, without worrying too much about fitting any given pattern that anybody else has created for you. So that’s what I wanted to get off my chest right away, because some of your interviews [say otherwise], and I was arguing with them while reading.
RHINA: Because I argue a lot. I think maybe between my two grandmothers, there is a kind of compromise to be made. I don’t think that immodesty and grossness gets you anywhere. I don’t think that hardness and deliberate contempt for what women have been until now gets you anywhere. I think that it’s being the best you yourself can be – that gets you everywhere.
NICOLE: You said in an interview with Rattle that you developed a love for poetry through your paternal grandmother while you were in the Dominican Republic, and she transcribed the poems you wrote before you were fully literate. Can you speak about that, and how that love for poetry developed through her?
RHINA: Oh, that was immediate. I could see that whatever it was the adults were doing was magical. I used to watch when they would gather. I saw what they were doing, and I didn’t quite understand it. I thought it was a form of play – which of course is part of what the arts are, they’re all a kind of play. I fell in love with poetry early, through my ears, because it was like singing. And that’s why I used to tell her, “Write this down, write this down.” And she never once said, “this is terrible stuff,” which it was, of course, it had to be, because I didn’t know anything.
RHINA: But she wanted to write everything down. She wanted to encourage me. And it was not until I got to the United States and relearned poetry, but in a different language, that I realized it was not entirely play. It had the form of play, but the inside of it is pain. I realized this because I started writing poems about nostalgia, and about missing my family, because I was here now in New York with my mother and father, but I missed my four million cousins and my aunts and uncles and all those neighbors. It was a really wrenching experience, to be taken out of a very familial place like that. So I realized that poetry is for dealing with things. It’s a form of therapy. I couldn’t figure that out at the time; I was seven. But I knew that after writing a poem, for some reason, I felt better.
NICOLE: And as far as emigrating to the United States as a child and leaving all that family behind, I was wondering how that complicated or interacted with your experience developing your own girlhood. Obviously that’s a time in your life when you’d be developing your identity as a girl, and then in addition to that you were developing your identity both as a Dominican and as an American.
RHINA: That’s a lot of homework.
RHINA: It’s a lot of psychological, personal homework. Well, I made friends quickly, because as you know by now, I’m a chatterbox. Talk, talk, talk all the time. [Laughs] And I like the company of other people. But my mother didn’t like me playing in the street with anybody. She didn’t trust the street. Eventually, once I mastered the language and she got to know some of my friends, because I brought them all home, she said, “Oh, these are very nice people,” and then I was allowed to go visit them. That was wonderful, because then I had another family. I think that as an immigrant, you create a family, and in New York, it’s interesting to do that. Everybody’s there. I was surrounded by Jewish kids in the school, and Italian kids, and Germans, and even Japanese who were having a rough time at that point, because the war was starting. So I ran into people who were, as my father said, just like us. They’re running from somebody. My father was a political exile. He explained that [Jewish people] were running from Europe because there were bad things happening. And I said, “You mean they’re like us?” He said, “Yes. The world is full of people like us, because the world is full of people just like Rafael Trujillo, who was our dictator. Lasted 30 years in power. I had a feeling for all of these other people, and I felt that I was among friends and with family eventually.
NICOLE: You had early success with publication when you were sixteen, and because you were submitting poetry and dealing with success and rejection early on, you said you developed a “tough hide.” I was wondering if this tough hide, as you put it, applied solely to your writing career, or if it extended into other aspects of your teenage life?
RHINA: I think as a teenager, you have a very tender skin. And you’re young enough to remember that. But you have the good fortune to be beautiful.
NICOLE: Thank you.
RHINA: Very, very. And those of us who are not have to develop a kind of hide, because the physical beauty is so important in this culture. You have to value other things in yourself. You just have to say, “I am not going to be a model, ever, and I don’t care. I’m going to be useful in other ways.” [laughs] That’s what I mean by a tough hide.
When it comes to teaching and poetry, I think that [a tough hide] is very, very important, and it’s why in the three workshops that I’ve started, one in Queens called Fresh Meadows Poets, another one in Wayland, Massachusetts, and this other one here [in Newburyport], the Powow River Poets, I implicated the idea that we are not talking to the people who wrote the poems. We’re not dealing with the poet; the poet is accidental. I never say, “You did this, you did that, you should have done this.” I say, “The poem has tried this, but the poem is not succeeding, because it.” In other words, you’re dealing with a thing that the person produced, but that is independent of him. It’s the poem that has to be revised – you don’t. That’s what I mean by a “tough skin.” I don’t mean tough in the negative sense, I mean strong enough to take criticism without swallowing it.
NICOLE: You said in an interview with Nancy Kang that the older you get, the more feminist you become, particularly since a lot of your life was spent grappling with issues of race and class, and you said feminism came a bit later. Can you speak about this, and about how feminism has evolved for you as you’ve aged?
RHINA: I’m mixed race, like all Latin Americans. I have African ancestors, I have Amerindian ancestors on my mother’s side, and of course Spanish and French and all the other European invaders. But I thought every family was like that. When I came to this country, I realized that the other side of my family is not fashionable here. [laughs] So it was a sad discovery, but I love this country dearly anyway despite that, despite the awful crime of slavery, and I realized that the reason I had never thought of slavery in my own country is because those people were folded into my own family. They’re not standing off somewhere outside of you, the way they are in the American South, for instance, or anywhere else. So the racism hurt first.
I didn’t zero in on feminism for a long time because I was used to [gender inequality], because there were so many things in my country that women couldn’t do. They couldn’t answer back to their fathers, they couldn’t answer back to their husbands, they had to obey, as part of the wedding ceremony. And they had to accept the mistresses, because I knew that the men in the Dominican Republic very often in that period still had mistresses and children outside of the family. But it was supposed to be normal. It was supposed to be the way guys behave. So I didn’t pick up on anything anti-female in [the United States] for many, many years. In fact, I thought, “How wonderful, the girls can go out by themselves without anybody with them, without a chaperone. Wow, this is wonderful, all this freedom.” And I thought, “Women are just lucky as can be in this country. They do everything they please.” It took awhile, but eventually I did pick up on the part about salaries, for instance, that they don’t earn the same for the same work, that they are glass ceilings, that they don’t, in fact, become CEOs quickly, or as easily, even if they deserve to and are qualified. But that all took a long time. And I was lucky also, because I went into a profession that was open to women, teaching. Half my relatives were teachers – my father’s youngest sister, Rhina, for whom I was named, was a teacher all her life. She founded the first Montessori school in the interior of the country. I was very proud of all the teachers in my family, and I found that teaching was the best profession there is. And I still think so.
NICOLE: Were there any specific moments you can remember where you started to pick up on sexism in the United States, which obviously would have been subtler than you were used to?
RHINA: Well, I never had any personal encounters with molesters, or anything of that sort. But I did begin to learn that those things happened, in fact, that they were not confined to Latin America, that even in this blessed country where so much is right, there are things wrong too, in the relationship to women. During the fifties, there were advertisements that kind of bothered me, because it was the, “Don’t bother your pretty little head with this” kind of thing. Where the woman was the Rinso woman. Rinso was a soap. And Procter and Gamble. Procter and Gamble ads were particularly obnoxious, because they showed this woman with her teeny little waist and her little apron on, and she was very proper, very sweet. When Daddy was about to come home, she had to tell the children, “Be sure that your hands are clean, that you look nice because Daddy has been working all day,” this and that. And after awhile I was old enough to read this and say eugh, this is really…crap.
NICOLE:You’ve said that there’s sometimes something embarrassing about writing poems for boys in the United States, something which isn’t as prevalent in Hispanic countries. And I was wondering if you could speak about that, and why you think that is?
RHINA: I suspect that there are different kinds of machismo. In Latin America, the machismo is very much about being brave, about facing danger bravely and not running from anything and things like that. But it’s not perceived as feminine to read things, or to love music or to love poetry or any of the arts. Guys are supposed to know how to play the guitar, for instance. Anybody worth his salt in Latin America has to know how to take a girl to serenade. I’ve had four serenades in my life.
RHINA: When I was [in the Dominican Republic] the summer of 1947, four guys showed up outside the window with their friends with the guitars and the songs and I woke up at two in the morning and said, “What on earth is going on out there?”
RHINA: And there is a cult of gentlemanly behavior, of courtly behavior. You’re supposed to kiss a lady’s hand, you’re supposed to bring flowers, that kind of thing. With Hispanic guys, there’s a good side and a bad side. The good side is that they’re very soft-spoken and they sing outside your window. The bad side is that after you get married – in those days, anyway – they would bring home children that they had with other people. Here in this country, that doesn’t seem to happen as much. They don’t sing outside your window, but they try hard to be faithful, and to treat you decently. I have no complaints at all; I married a wonderful guy. It’s different forms of what’s perceived as manliness, and I think that the American sometimes, the American man feels that there is something soft and feminine about knowing how to dance, and knowing how to play an instrument, and being gentle and soft-spoken.
NICOLE: In speaking about some of the themes of your poems, many of them deal with desire, or hunger, as you sometimes call it. When we think of desire in a feminine context, or a sexual context, there are, of course, certain connotations. But your definition of desire seems to be a little different, so I was wondering if you could speak about your idea of hunger and how it’s different from or intersects with those connotations?
RHINA: I think that the desire I talk about in my poems and my stories, too, is for intimacy, for warmth, with the kind of thing that you can have with friends as well. I think that I come from a culture where we don’t have as much space around ourselves. The stereotype of the Hispanic is you meet him and five minutes later, the arms are around you. Which is true! That’s one stereotype that’s true. We’re very huggy and kissy and squeezy. And Americans don’t know what to do with that, because the Anglo-Saxon background is very different. They like room around themselves. [laughs] And after awhile, when you’ve lived here long enough, you begin to understand that. You feel at home with that. My aunt Rose for instance, the youngest of my mother’s sisters, used to go back to the D.R. and she would say – every year, she’d go through this, every year she would say – “I’m not going back! I’m not going next year! I wake up in the morning and my sisters are sitting on the foot of my bed, and they’ve got coffee and breakfast for me, and the minute I get up they’re all over me! They’re hugging me and squeezing and I want to get dressed!” [laughs] You begin to acquire the Yankee attitude of the need for privacy. But it’s not natural to us.
NICOLE: You talk a lot about poetry being “for everybody.” Can you talk a little about what you mean by that?
RHINA: Oh, I think it’s built in. The boys in the class will tell you this right away, “I don’t do poetry!” And I tell them, “Yes you do. You don’t know it, but you do.” Because I think we are wired to communicate, and to communicate not only in straightforward language like prose, but with body language, for instance. All human beings engage in body language. That’s part of what dancing is; it’s organized body language. And I think that that’s related to the urge to communicate with others on a subliminal level, not necessarily through what you say, but through what you almost say between the lines. And I think that all the arts come from that. It happens to be the oldest way in which human beings do it. It’s the oldest of the literary arts, long, long, before stories, before essays, before novels or epics, there was poetry, because it’s natural. And every art that comes along exhibits some of the same desire – there it is, that’s the word. Some of the same desire to reach out and say, “I’m here, and I’m very much like you. I understand what you feel.” That’s why [we] teach young people that this is a way to get their fears and their needs and their disappointments and their victories in life down on paper, that it’s a way to enclose something so that it’s like atomic material, because it can’t touch you anymore if you put it in a poem. That they’re doing something very human.
NICOLE: Still speaking about poetry, it has always seemed to me that there’s a certain challenge inherent in being a female poet in particular, because you’re existing as a very aware person, noticing subtleties of the world, which also means that you’re more cognizant of the uglier elements of womanhood – or, if not ugly, then difficult. I was wondering how you personally balance this awareness in your life?
RHINA: The truth is that if you’re a woman artist, you have to struggle a little bit harder than the guys do to make room for the art, because you have a ready-made job already, and that’s cooking and cleaning and washing and taking care of the children. Still, largely, we’re the ones who do it. It’s evening out a little bit. I’m glad to see that the young men have taken over a lot of those things. My two sons, for instance — their wives are still working, but my guys are a bit older than their wives, so they’re already retired. They have dinner on the table when the women come home, and I’m so proud of them. I’m so thrilled to see that, that they don’t see it feminine, and even if they did that would not be a bad thing to be. So it’s happening, but it’s happening slowly. And the truth is that as I was growing up, it was understood that I was going to be doing all of that. My husband never changed a diaper. He was a wonderful father. He took them places and he taught them things and so on, but no diapers. It was my job.
I should show you my husband’s work, you want to see his sculptures? A friend of mine brought her 8-year-old granddaughter here, and she said she’d never seen a studio or a sculptor’s house. She said, “May I bring her?” So she came with this little 8-year-old, very polite little girl, and she showed her everything, all these naked statues and so on, and when she took her home, she said, “So how did you like the sculptor’s house?” And the girl said, “To tell you the truth, it was inappropriate.”
RHINA: And she explained that having all these naked shapes around…I think that’s a little leftover. A little leftover feeling that there is something wrong about the human body. You don’t show it, you don’t share it, which I think is entirely wrong. It’s a beautiful thing.
NICOLE: You were a high school English teacher and started writing full-time in your retirement. In between that time, you were “attending to the demands of motherhood, [your] career, and caring for elderly parents,” to quote Nancy Kang. You’ve spoken before about how poetry is, in essence, the sum total of your experiences, and how the ordinary in your life serves as a bridge between your life and others. You’ve also said that some have criticized your work for being “too domestic.” Can you speak about how focusing on, as Kang put it, “domestic duties” changed or enhanced the poetry you wrote later in your life, and how those domestic experiences, like motherhood and maintaining a family, are utilized?
RHINA: Well, that’s who I am. I’m somebody’s daughter, or somebody’s wife, somebody’s mother and grandmother, somebody’s friend and neighbor. One of the interviews on Mythos is about how we should not think of ourselves as somebody’s this and somebody’s that, but I disagree with that. I think that that’s precisely who we are. I can’t think of a human being and isolate a thing standing all by itself in creation without any ties. I think the things that make us real and that make us effective and good for something are precisely the ties, the fact that we are somebody’s this and that. I think that outside the fabric that we belong in, that we’re part of, we really don’t mean very much. As a matter of fact, now that I lost my husband last February, I’m having a hard time feeling like a whole person, because it had been sixty-three years of a really good, happy marriage, and once you’ve had that kind of thing, you feel: “Where’s the rest of me? He’s gone, suddenly there’s nobody on the other pillow.”
I don’t think that feminism consists in thinking of yourself as nobody’s anything. I think it consists in precisely being somebody’s something and counting. Whatever doors you open for yourself are fine, but I think what really matters is whatever doors you succeed in opening for other people. Whatever good you do in the world makes you a person. I don’t think that existing for yourself alone is all that valuable. So maybe I’m a backward person. I guess I’m an unfeminist in that sense, but I don’t care. [laughs]
NICOLE: In “Sixty-Five” and many of your other poems, you write about a complicated relationship with aging and with your body as you age. How has aging changed your relationship with your womanhood?
RHINA: It’s hard to get used to. You’re used to doing everything the minute you think it. “I’m going to run here, I’m going to run there, I can work all day and then come home and cook a dinner for fourteen people.” But as you get older, you can’t, and you have to become used to your own limitations. It’s another form of humility, like accepting criticism, like accepting the fact that God is not sitting up in Heaven with a magnifying glass looking at you. It’s another way of being only life-size, not any bigger than that.
NICOLE: What do you think women in the world need or can do for each other presently?
RHINA: I think they need to be sisters. There were women for Trump. I saw the signs. I couldn’t believe it. I hope I’m not stepping on anybody’s feet –
NICOLE AND PHILIP: No, not at all.
RHINA: I do not understand how any woman, how any minority, how any human being, as a matter of fact, could go along with this, because he frightens me right out of my skin. I think we’re in for four very bad years. I think that it’s good that for the most part, women have banded together and said, “No, we have to stop the genital mutilation and the disempowerment of Muslim women.” But I think that when we do that, we need to reach out beyond our own group and also link to the immigrants, to the minorities, to the Muslims, to all the people who are being marginalized now. There are a lot of rights to defend that other people have not yet been given, that are their rights by nature. And I think that if we isolate ourselves into little groups fighting for mine, and for yours, and for yours and for yours, we’re not going to make it. I think we need to become a whole tapestry of people who are fighting for all rights, including the rights for white working class people who are being underpaid and overworked and who have not been taught what they should have been taught. I don’t think we can afford to throw rocks at anybody, even the people who look like the enemy right now, because they’re not the enemy. They’re just…other people. I would like to think that my grandchildren, great-great grandchildren who are not here yet, are going to have a decent world to live in, but I’m a little afraid right now.
But the young people coming up right now – I have a grandson of thirty, and a granddaughter who’s twenty-eight, and two little grandsons, ten and twelve – are so much more worldly than I was. They are so much more aware of the world than I was at those ages, at any of those ages, and that’s a good thing. I hope they say wide awake, because they’re going to have to.
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