March 21–27, 2016
Heidi Andrea Restrepo Rhodes is a queer, mixed-race, second-generation Colombian immigrant, poet, multimedia artist, scholar and activist. She has her MA in Cultural Anthropology and Social Transformation, and is currently a doctoral fellow in Political Science at CUNY’s Graduate Center. Her poetry has been seen or is forthcoming in a number of literary journals and anthologies, including Kudzu House Review, As/Us, Feminist Studies Journal, Nepantla, Decomp, Word Riot, Adrienne, Write Bloody’s We Will Be Shelter Anthology, Writing Down the Walls Anthology by Trans-Genre Press, National Queer Arts Festival publications and others.
In 1981, my father believed
in the singularity of our child tongues
and so my mother’s language was
exiled from our mouths,
and the 500 years old memories with it.
In 1993, I had begun to bleed
and was horrified at the rivers I shed,
centuries of water cemeteries
telling their stories from inside me
like a scarlet tanager choking on secrets
and I was lost. Between worlds,
I had no words for these unmarked routes,
and the homogenizing literatures
whose pages we tore in restless exercise
gave no respite, while the only history
they needed us to know did not
comprehend how to pronounce our names,
or deem them worth even stumbling over.
Tagged by our skin, and
the peregrinations of our vocabularies, we were
showered with execration, the confetti fall
of graffiti and paper, telling us to go back,
go back where we came from, and still,
monolingualism fettered me,
as an orphan to the silence of his origins.
That was when the white girls wanted me dead,
for being smarter than some of them, and
they decorated my hair with oranges and egg yolk, and
in the wilderness of the girls’ bathroom,
in between classes, the Brown girls cornered me
in a choke-hold, cursing me for thinking I was
too deluxe to let Quetzalcoatl dream in my mouth.
Little did they know what had been stolen from me,
my tongue fighting archaic expulsions:
how much I yearned
for history to return to its home
in the spaces between my teeth,
where snake-birds and jaguars dreamed
the providence of our tomorrows
in infinite tongues,
hissing, growling, screeching
the articulations of all our names,
which have always been
of being learned.
–Originally published in Voices for Diversity and Social Justice: A Literary Education Anthology, Rowman & Littlefield, 2015.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
There are things I would definitely change about this piece now, cultural and literary clichés that at the time I wrote it felt like they facilitated the exorcisms necessary to mourn the fraught existence of unbelonging, and of systemic racism that is deployed in the guise of a liberal, multiculturalist integrationism. The experience of being mixed-race has come with a lot of struggle relating to historical memory and assimilations that historically have been both forced, as well as forms of strategic resistance (these things are never flat). Growing up, and particularly in middle-school for some reason, the racial divides of social life on the school grounds left me not knowing where I fit. There was a group of white girls that threatened to beat me up for endangering their sense of superiority over me, and I was literally a target for eggs and oranges thrown at my head. In the aftermath of a racist hate crime against Latin American immigrants in our school, a group of Latina girls let me have it because they thought I saw myself as too good to speak Spanish, when the reality was that I struggled for many years with my shame around being Latina but not being fluent in my mother’s language. I also was a total tomboy growing up and horrified at the prospect of puberty; getting my period for the first time, there was a mourning process over something I felt I had lost. This poem reaches into all of that, reaches into the pain of diasporic existence, of liminalities, of what it means to carry histories and profound differences in our bodies but find no place for them to be at home. While I’ve come to see the mixed, liminal, fluid, shape-shifting life of what Freud called the unheimlich—the uncanny, the unhomed—as one that also has potential and is a gift, it has not been without its torment.
What are you working on right now?
I am completing the editing process for my chapbook, The Inheritance of Haunting, to be published by Raspa, a Queer Latinx journal and press, in the fall of 2016. It is a collection of poems contending with historical memory and its losses and gains wrought through colonization and its generations of violence and survival carried in the body. I have a couple other manuscripts in the works (slowly, slowly). Also, a project on living with chronic illness under capitalism/capitalism as chronic illness.
I am also in the process of a collaboration with poets J Mase III, Kay Ulanday Barrett, Mónica Teresa Ortiz and Kenji Liu, doing a written roundtable on the theme of “Decolonizing the Archive: Poetry as a Practice of Historical Memory.” It was supposed to be a panel we were doing at Split This Rock in April, but various life situations have kept most of us from being able to attend this year after all, so we are trying to have the conversation in a different format that hopefully can then circulate into the literary public. We all share certain political and ethical commitments for social justice that also profoundly inform our writing. I am really excited to see what comes of it.
What’s a good day for you?
Summer weather, ocean, fresh fruit, a book I can’t put down and people I adore. Taking in art or music or conversation that sets me ablaze with life. Encountering what I call “unexpected tiny miracles”—like baby whales in migration, or cellos in the underground, or queer family gloriously glittering at midnight. If I have been moved or moved another, disalienation has occurred, even if momentarily, suggesting that something other is possible—that’s a good day.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
Uff. Coming here was partly about my bruja intuition, and partly about challenging myself to spend time living in a place I knew would likely be difficult, but also would be a gift. And it has certainly been both—there is a lot about living here that isn’t sustainable for sick and disabled folks. But it is also teeming with life and stories and creative forces and beautiful, brilliant people whom I love having in my life and never would have known if I hadn’t taken a chance in moving across the country. It was also about love. And 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 actually just recently moved from eastern Crown Heights and still am getting to know Bed-Stuy. I moved to Brooklyn in the spring of 2013 from San Francisco. But I loved the sense of community and neighborliness in Crown Heights, friendly people, families that have been there for generations, a lot of Caribbean cultural pride. People actually say hello to each other just walking across the street, wish you a lovely day, etc. It is a different kind of spirit than what I have encountered in a lot of other NYC neighborhoods. It is heartbreaking to watch gentrification spread across Brooklyn and dislocate communities of color. The work of organizing around those issues really needs to continue. People’s stories need to be documented, archived and shared.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad or in between.
Meeting the Camperdown Elm Tree near the Boathouse in Prospect Park was pure joy.
Also, Jean Paul Gaultier’s mermaid collection that showed at the Brooklyn Art Museum. There was one mermaid that had a gorgeous cane covered in glitter in pearls. I am part of a large community of sick and disabled queer folks, and this stunning mermaid design, with the cane, just took my breath away. It took the risk of seeing and expressing the femme, “crip” body as an ideal form for a creative and resplendent design, which intervenes on so much ableist culture that paints disability as ugly, monstrous, desexualized, etc. Even if it wasn’t a deconstructive approach to these things, a wondrous regard for difference—to see the beauty in what is not typically considered beautiful—can be an important part of healing from historical degradations. Plus: MERMAIDS!
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
It has been hard to grow community in general, while dealing with illness/disability in NYC. It is largely a question of what is most necessary and most sustainable when one has limited financial and physical resources. I feel immensely grateful to have a handful of activist-poets/poet-activists who I am in touch with—some who live in Brooklyn as well as other areas close by, and some who live in other parts of the country or world.
For me, a poetry community must necessarily also be a political community, with certain shared commitments for the practice of writing, in the words of Edwidge Danticat, “dangerously, for people who read dangerously … Writing, knowing in part that no matter how trivial your words may seem, someday, someone may risk his or her life to read them.”
Art is always political, in my opinion, always situated within a network of power with the effects of holding up, questioning and interrupting the conditions of our lived realities. And if that is the case, I feel we must constantly ask ourselves as artists, “Who does this work stand for? How do we depict and render into words unspeakable acts of violence? If we, as poets, through our commitments to justice, contend that there is no poetry in violence, how do we approach a poetics of violence? Can poetry do justice?”
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
I’d have to do more homework on this one. But—I love that Lorca was here, walked the Brooklyn Bridge, partied in Brooklyn and wrote his poem “Sleepless City (Brooklyn Bridge Nocturne)” while he was in New York. If you walk the bridge, can you feel him there searching for duende? Do you travel back in time and brush shoulders with him on his way to meet Hart Crane? If you see him, will you warn him the firing squad will soon be at his door?
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
I’ve never been able to really afford the cost of poetry workshops that would have provided sustained or intensive mentorship in poetry. I don’t have an MFA … though I’ve thought about it often. And I do crave some kind of focused guidance on the craft of poetry regarding my work.
I had the privilege of taking Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s sliding scale online poetry workshop, and one of her free workshops at NYU, which were both lovely opportunities with a kind of peer mentorship model guided by Leah’s brilliance. It was a true gift from her—to provide a space for disabled poets in the workshop at NYU, and to give really powerful examples of writers and activists who struggled with various disabilities and were brilliant, ferocious people with great impact on the worlds around them and beyond. Harriet Tubman (who few know had a traumatic brain injury), Frida Kahlo, others …
It was a third grade teacher who introduced me to the craft of poetry at age nine. I was hooked, and I am so grateful for that. My high school creative writing teacher, Amy Fisher, was an attentive ear and close writing mentor for a while in my late teens. The late Micael Merrifield, who began as a professor and became a very dear friend, was living, breathing poetry in the body of a human, like nothing I’ve ever seen. And my mamita, as a single parent raising three kids, really grew an amazing network of extended family and friends that were pivotal to my creative cultivation. She never missed a performance and always has been the first to ask to read or see what I was working on, and given that, she was the earliest of my mentors—in the sense that she insisted that my voice and my work mattered, despite the world around us that might have said otherwise to an odd, queer, brown kid growing up in a very white, homophobic, right-wing part of southern California.
Additionally, Angana P. Chatterji and Richard Shapiro gave me the gift of intellectual and political inheritances that continue to move me through the world and in my work. While their mentorship was foundational to my becoming a scholar, the work they each do is an expression of writing as a feminist practice of witnessing, of mourning, of liberatory perseverances, the life of the mind in the service of social transformation—a practice nothing short of poetic, and for which my gratitude remains ineffable.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
I am most moved by work that is suspicious of givens; work that dreams; work that wears on its sleeve the grievances of history, that risks encountering over and over the labor of heartbreak and mourning for the world.
I recommend Danez Smith’s [insert] boy to anyone who will listen. My god, how could I not? It is queer blackboymagic at its finest. I read it with a perpetual lump in my throat, like a prayer that renders me devastated and euphoric all at once. I wonder what James Baldwin would say of it, and wish we could all have tea to talk about it, about the way of being of this world that is also the being not of it.
And Mónica Teresa Ortiz, an Austin-based poet, is working on a manuscript that I really want to see published. Her imagery haunts from the landscapes of Texas and Mexico, and somehow she manages to be fairly minimalist with her language in this collection, while her pieces brim over with memory, history, beckoning. When she commits, she is utterly formidable. I know her work will find the right home in time, and when it does, I think we will feel the ghosts of Eduardo Galeano and Roque Dalton nearby.
I also just read Bhanu Kapil’s Humanimal—beautiful heartbreak, this work. I am very interested in questions of “the human” and the workings of the colonial project (which continue into the present) and which have allocated humanity and animality to different groups of people, with an eye to “civilize” those considered not-yet-human or never-quite-human. This book pushes the format of genres of writing, as well as genres of the human, through reaching into time toward the true story of two feral children in India, forcibly removed from their wolf family and brought into an orphanage by a missionary, only to die after being subjected to what I would call torturous attempts at assimilation into human life. It is gut-wrenching to me: necessary work of discomforting the reader.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
Even though Robin Coste Lewis’s Voyage of the Sable Venus was just published last September, it feels like eons of walking by a river I need to drink from, and haven’t yet. As for older things, Gabriela Mistral’s Madwomen/Locas Mujeres and Aimé Césaire’s collected poetry are two books I have been pining after for some time, and I just ordered a copy of Dionne Brand’s Inventory. I’m also on the edge of my seat waiting for Aracelis Girmay’s Black Maria.
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’m a sensuous creature—I still write letters by hand, I still cherish the smell and feel of paper, the texture of the ink and page upon the eye. I still get goosebumps or even have to choke back tears of wonder upon entering large, seemingly endless libraries. There is so much to be enamored with in that kind of experience.
I dip in and out of anthologies, but works that have a different kind of coherence, a theme throughout, like Claudia Rankine’s Citizen for instance, I definitely read in one go—preferably curled up in bed with some coffee and rain outside the window. I rarely plan out my poetry reading—I am gifted works, or come across something in a bookstore that takes a hold and demands to come home with me. Unlike with my scholarly work, with poetry I don’t typically take notes, but I often will write for a few hours after reading a collection. It always feels like an encounter with spirits I don’t necessarily have names for. It is a channeling, a communion with forces, the sorcery of the word.
Where are some places you like to read and write in Brooklyn (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
The garden at Outpost Lounge is a favorite spot. The subway. Prospect Park really is such a gem.
What are some other Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
I love the nooks and crannies of parts of Brooklyn Bridge Park, being able to surround myself with green leaves and pretend I’m somewhere else, like maybe Narnia.
The Weeksville Heritage Center is an incredible site honoring the history of one of this country’s first free Black communities that was established in the late 19th century. I highly recommend the guided tour.
Spoonbill and Sugartown bookstore is my favorite Brooklyn bookstore—I always find books there that I never would have thought to go looking for, but seem fortuitously inserted into my life whenever I step foot past their doors.
Sahadi’s Market—the Bulgarian feta cheese, the eggplant spread (Kyopolou) and the za’atar (Lebanese is my favorite) … now my stomach is rumbling.
The cemeteries, or anywhere the ghosts run wild.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate your selcouth hands, marvelous aberrant wonder we,
And what I sculpt and fire you break again,
For every death that tastes of me as good will bring a bone to
The pulse is firm while the birds still chirp.