November 18–24, 2019
Alonso Llerena is a poet, visual artist and educator born in Lima, Peru. His current work, which merges interpretations of historical events and personal history, attempts to document and honor the victims of the Internal Armed Conflict that fractured Peru from 1980 through the year 2000. His poetry has appeared in journals including Inkwell, Anastamos, the Apeiron Review and 2 Bridges Review, and his manuscript La Casa Roja was a finalist in the YesYes Books 2019 open reading period. He is an alumnus of this year’s Tin House winter and summer workshops and has received a fellowship from the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing. This past summer, Llerena was named a Brooklyn Poets Fellow for study in Jay Deshpande’s Individual Artist Development manuscript consultation.
November 3, 1991
una pollada is very much a block party
but there is cumin in the music
papas fried with too much aceite
washed down con una Hector Lavoe salsa
raptors danced with ambulantes
painting life with claps roaring through
the quinta for Peruvian chicken is a
business model, injected beauty del pueblo into long streets that are red in their honesty.
When streets are long you need to block them off with trucks & end a party with light.
A shining path created.
Sombras bailaron impunemente.
The cocking of their uzis silenced with
the brutality of accusing innocents: putos senderistas.
The Peruvian boldness of the pollero ends with gusts of bullets
One hundred thirty casings; fifteen dead.
—Originally published in 2 Bridges Review
Tell us about the making of this poem.
This poem was very difficult for me to write. I knew I wanted to write a poem for my dear uncle Martín who passed away in 2017, and I started by drawing on the memory of a pollada in Lince, Lima, Peru in the early ’90s. This is one of the first times I saw him dance to a Hector Lavoe salsa, and it was incredible. A pollada literally means a chicken party. These parties perform a very important social function. A chicken dish is served as part of your ticket to the party to raise funds for a cause. For example, raising funds for a disease, financial support for some activity, or simply raising money for profit. The pollada allowed for a triggered subject to enter the poem. About four miles from where I saw my uncle dance, another pollada took place on November 3, 1991, in Barrios Altos, Lima. Grupo Colina, a death squad affiliated with the Peruvian National Intelligence Service, interrupted the party and killed fifteen people, including one child. The partygoers were accused of being Shining Path terrorists, but judicial authority determined this was not the case. The long break between the stanzas is a moment of profound grief I underwent during the writing process. I was overwhelmed by missing my dear uncle, whom I had not been able to see since 2003 and also by the rage of knowing innocents were dying all around me when I was a child in Peru.
What are you working on right now?
I am working on completing my manuscript La Casa Roja. The collection foregrounds difficulties in familial relationships and identity against a journey through the Peruvian Internal Armed Conflict, my immigration to the United States, and a long-sought return to my home country after fifteen years. The struggle of what it means to be a Peruvian creating memory abroad is hashed out by recounting events during the time of the conflict, the time away from my homeland, and the final return to a politically charged and divided nation. The poems explore bilingual identity on the page, exile as a gift, and the importance of public space as a battle for commemoration.
What’s a good day for you?
A day in which I am able to write, help a fellow poet friend and talk to my sister is a good day.
Where’s home for you? How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other places you’ve lived?
Home will always be a place in Peru where I can see the Pacific Ocean. I live in the Washington DC metro area. I have lived here for over twenty years. DC is a bit of a commuter city and friends often come and go. Gentrification has affected a lot of my favorite places in the city like Adams Morgan and Columbia Heights.
Spent any time in Brooklyn? If so, when and where? Share with us your experiences, impressions, etc.
My best friend has lived in Brooklyn for over ten years. I visit him often and have made very fond memories in Brooklyn. My favorite neighborhood is Bushwick. I have seen the neighborhood evolve over the last decade and it is impressive to see the current dynamics of the people that call it home. Bushwick reminds me a lot of what the DC neighborhoods of Mount Pleasant and Columbia Heights were like in the late ’90s. One of my first memories of coming to America is going to Coney Island and also visiting the aquarium with my aunt and grandmother.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that where you live? Why or why not?
A poetry community is extremely important to the development of the poet. It means I can live as an artist and share my craft. I have met like-minded people through the different workshops and residencies I have attended. I have two poet friends in DC, but my community is all around the country. I currently workshop once a month through Skype with poets I met at the Tin House winter workshops. I exchange work regularly with two poets I met through the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing. I am in constant conversation with a visual artist in Peru who has dedicated much of his work to honoring the disappeared during the Peruvian Internal Armed Conflict.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
Definitely Walt Whitman. I find it fascinating that he also has this DC connection. He lived in DC and worked as a hospital volunteer who tended thousands of wounded soldiers during the Civil War. I am very interested in how war experiences affect poets and their work. “The Wound-Dresser” immediately comes to mind. I also love the works of Cynthia Cruz and Tina Chang.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
I do not have a formal education in poetry, so I’ve made my mentors through extensive reading and workshops or residencies. Solmaz Sharif comes to mind, as I had the great opportunity of working with her earlier this year. Look absolutely changed my life, and her teachings have allowed me to bring myself closer to the page and allow wildness in. José Antonio Mazzotti is a Peruvian poet who migrated to the US in the ’80s. His works were integral in teaching me how not just to tell stories of Peru, but also to sing them. Natasha Trethewey has been a tremendous influence on my work. I think she is a true master of ekphrastic poetry.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
I recently read Be Recorder by Carmen Giménez Smith. I thoroughly enjoyed the collection because its imperative speaks of the necessity to be a witness in our present time. Giménez Smith has conjured twenty poems and the title poem (a lyric sequence which encompasses its own section of the book) to create a gift the speaker receives in the form of their race, class, gender, immigrant identity and familial history. The collection is one of profound hope for an envisioned future where alterity is paramount for survival.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
I have not read the works of Anne Carson yet. I will be spending the holiday season with Autobiography of Red.
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 tend to read one book of fiction and many poetry books at a time. I plan my readings based on the poets I hear or get a chance to meet. Recommendations by my poetry community are very important too.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
I have not tried a ghazal or erasure yet. I am hoping to do so in the near future.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
I like to read while I am in transit. On the subway/metro, the bus and in Ubers. I also enjoy reading in museums and parks. Some of my favorite parks to read books in are Washington Square Park in New York and the Sculpture Garden and the Mall in Washington DC.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
I love Maria Hernadez Park on the weekends. The smell of meat over charcoal triggers memories of being a child in Peru, which bewilders my heart.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate our exiles,
And what I abandoned, you painted red,
For every ghost alive inside me as good brush stroke by you.
Because it has made me a better poet.