Poet Of The Week

Camilo Roldan

     January 30–February 5, 2017

Camilo Roldán is a poet and translator living in Brooklyn. He is the translator of the chapbook Amilkar U., Nadaísta in Translation (These Signals Press, 2011), coauthor of the chapbook ∆ [delta] with Douglas Piccinnini and Cynthia Gray (TPR Press, 2013) and author of the chapbook La Torre (Well Greased Press, 2015). His translation of Amílcar Osorio’s Vana Stanza is forthcoming from Elis Press. “Verrazano Narrows” is forthcoming in the Brooklyn Poets Anthology.

Verrazano Narrows

               having been muggy day
                                                 my head wet saxophone
busking on typical
                                  promenade a spectral

        color-bridge flush
                      with surface and waves
                      at me toward the vault
               reflecting the notion

                              a conglomerate of lights
                              arrange to delineate
        prow             tower and stern
               cargo-ship steadily

               and a slip out of night
               as it enters through penumbra
                      the notion intensified
forgotten by the time

                              I get home
                              that as I approach
remembered when today
                                  the same ship left

the notion intensified with proximity
                              to the pastime
        of cataloging


        but all of these are taken
               from Ian Hamilton Finlay
        and I struggle to deny
               cars on the Bay Pkwy

        apart from fishing line zip
        whose radio plays         the notion that
                      I must leave
                      and keep going


Tell us about the making of this poem.

When I was living in Sunset Park, I would ride my bike down the Bay Parkway promenade to sit in the small park under the bridge where I could smoke and read and watch the various container ships entering and exiting the upper bay. This was a meditative place for me, and a time in my life when I got a lot out of riding my bike across the borough to different hidden and not-so-hidden little spots, sometimes riding for hours on end. I guess I had a lot of thinking to do, or I didn’t want to think and needed to focus on something else. Sitting underneath the bridge, the bowing curve of the deck feels like an optical assault, a warping of space into an impossible perspective. The modernist architectural austerity of the bridge’s vertical suspenders dwarfs the townhouses nearby, suggesting a sci-fi contrast between the impersonal monolith and the brick and mortar homes below. I almost wish that this were the poem I had written. But instead of the bridge, I kept thinking romantically about the ships, about traveling and escaping into something else. Of course, that’s a fantasy. Mariners often work long hours for comparatively low wages and spend months away from their families and friends. I suppose the poem could be about the illusory nature of that desire—the desire to drop everything and jump aboard and disappear into immense container ships and suspension bridges, to disappear into form, into movement. Cycling through Brooklyn, watching the ships, I thought about Ian Hamilton Finlay’s piece Sea Poppy I (1968). It’s a small print, about one foot by one foot, composed of fishing boat registration numbers written in concentric circles that recall a target, or a celestial map. The word “all” appears in the center.

What are you working on right now?

A couple of things: a pseudo-translation of a fifteenth-century Spanish poem, and a long poem about a Colombian poet. I’m also translating a book by a poet named Amílcar Osorio.

What’s a good day for you?

I get up at a decent hour, eat a large breakfast, leave my home, go to work or run some errands, come back to my home, drop things off, pick things up, go back out, eat something along the way, see someone I care about, engage in a pleasurable activity, return to my home, go to sleep.

What brought you to Brooklyn?

I moved to New York in 2010, shortly after finishing my undergraduate degree, because I didn’t know what else to do. It was difficult for me to find meaningful work and I didn’t know where my life was going. My father lives in Harlem, so I thought, Hell, if I’m going to be broke and directionless anywhere, I might as well do it in New York, where I have family.

Tell us about your neighborhood. How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?

I’ve been living in Flatbush for a little over a year. My neighborhood is lively but distant from the poetry institutions of NYC. There aren’t a lot of yuppies and baby strollers, which is a blessing. To be honest, I often miss Sunset Park because there was a large Latinx population there and speaking Spanish every day made me happy. I can no longer afford to live there, and now I am regretfully the change in my neighborhood.

Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.

Eating good Dominican food in a dingy cafeteria. I’m never there at the same time as the morcilla.

What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?

It seems to me that poetry communities are constructed by the folks willing to do the labor of an infrastructural poetics. That is, poetry communities are built around concrete spaces, physical publications and real life interactions. The members of a community may come and go, might agree and disagree, but there is no community without readings, without publications, without seeing and hearing each other. If poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, maybe we can say editors and curators are the unacknowledged legislators of poetry. In as much as poetry can alter how we see the material world, it is also in a dialogue with the material world, and poetry in turn is altered by it. It is important for poets to shape their own spaces, to create their own readings and publications—and to make haste. Poets should be willing to trample the grass and make their own paths for their own communities. To that end, I am briefly reviving a chapbook press, Diez, that had been defunct for a couple years. I’ll be putting out two chapbooks this spring.

Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.

The poets I’ve met in New York have meant a lot to me, but I don’t know if they all live in Brooklyn these days: MacGregor Card, Ted Dodson, Diana Hamilton, Corina Copp, Judah Rubin, Dan Owen, Matvei Yankelevich, Sarah Wallen, Sara Jane Stoner, Ian Dreiblatt, Anna Gurton-Wachter, Krystal Languell, Ken Walker, Erin Morrill, Alina Gregorian, Kit Schluter … the list is long.

Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?

I think we all have a lot of different voices in our heads that help us think about how to write and what we aspire to as poets. In order of appearance, the voices in my head include Connie Voisine, Sheila Black, Carmen Gimenez-Smith, Ben Lerner, Marjorie Welish, Julie Agoos, Anselm Berrigan and Lisa Jarnot. Marjorie keeps telling me not to follow a script, even though I haven’t spoken to her in a while, and every time I run into Anselm I feel encouraged, even if he only says hello.

Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.

I picked up Alan Felsenthal’s book Lowly at the Poetry Project the other night. Alan’s work is elegantly contemplative, drawing influences from classical and postmodern sources. I contributed to the design of this book, so it was great to see the final publication.

I’ve been rereading the work of a Colombian poet named Raúl Gómez Jattin:

Ruego a una deidad

Sorprendí a la desgracia robándose mis palomas
y la espanté a latigazos
Volvió sus dientes temblorosa de rabia
y de una bofetada me robó la pasión

Perdóname señora oscura y venerable
mi atrevimiento de hijo bastardo
que no puede más con su vacío corazón

I Pray to a Deity

I caught poverty stealing my doves
and I scared her off with a whipping
Trembling with rage       she bared her teeth
and stole my passion in a single blow

Dark and venerable madame      forgive me
my impudence of a bastard son
who can’t deal anymore with his empty heart

What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?

I would like to read Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets. Not because I think it is a particularly important book, but because I like reading about poets, but I don’t actually want to read anyone’s book-length biography. Or I prefer anecdotes about poets, like the vidas and razos of the mythologized troubadours in Paul Blackburn’s Proensa.

Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?

I do all of these things. Sometimes I read a book, typically a novel, cover to cover. Sometimes I drop that novel and pick up a book of essays—where I am more likely to underline things and write notes in the margins—and one of the essays redirects me to a different essay or a poem, so I open another book to find the poem. I look up criticism on the poem, am reminded of another book I’ve been meaning to read, go to the library or a bookstore to find it, instead find a different book that piques my interest and I end up reading that book cover to cover.

What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?

I would like to write an opera.

Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?

Like many New Yorkers, I end up doing a lot of my reading in the subway. In the summer, I love to read outdoors at Prospect Park or Jacob Riis. I also enjoy reading in bars in the early evening before they fill up with revelers. I take a lot of notes for things I want to write while I’m out and about, but I do all of the real work at home, on my computer, or in multiple notebooks that I use for different projects.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

The Verrazano-Narrows is, obviously, a place I enjoy, but it would be difficult for me to pinpoint exactly why. I hope my discussion of the poem above helps to illuminate my relationship to that place.

Why Brooklyn?

There can be a brick
In a brick wall
The eye picks