February 15–21, 2021
Ricardo Alberto Maldonado was born and raised in Puerto Rico. He is the co-editor of Puerto Rico en mi corazón (Anomalous Press) and the translator of Dinapiera Di Donato’s Collateral / Colaterales (Akashic Press / National Poetry Series). His first collection of poems is The Life Assignment (Four Way Books), one of Remezcla’s 2020’s Best Books by Latine or Latin American Authors. A recipient of fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts, Queer|Arts|Mentorship and CantoMundo, he serves as the 92Y Unterberg Poetry Center’s Managing Director. On Thursday, February 18, Maldonado will read online for the Brooklyn Poets Reading Series along with Hafizah Geter and Tarfia Faizullah.
Author photo by Eric McNatt
First, we would give in to disloyalty
with slack exchanges.
We were figuring what it might be like to live
knowing, intimately, conflicts with size.
Look, my life is not what I would like it to be.
This year, mornings imply an act of bravery.
Look, the window displays are changing.
We could prove what we have yet to dispraise.
All the males have mated and move on
in the city’s red gloss.
—“Layaway” from The Life Assignment (c) 2020 by Ricardo Alberto Maldonado. Reprinted with permission of Four Way Books. All rights reserved.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
“Layway,” one of the oldest poems in my collection, had me thinking through debt in my twenties and the persistent traffic of the city toward what, I didn’t know, not yet. Love? A life? Insolvency? New York feels immensely readable to me, the city but its inward beauty—that life we live inside ourselves. The wash of red, bright white on the architecture of New York and then our rooms. The immediate melancholy of it. And finally, this, two sources for the poem: one line misquotes my friend, the formidable poet and translator Yvette Siegert, in reference to a mutual friend (“we are, all of us, trying to make our way, some way, towards knowing”). The other, my penultimate line, from When Dinosaurs Roamed the Earth, is straight-up robbery.
Since March 2020, this poem has been singing in ways I could have never imagined.
What are you working on right now?
To make them realer in the eyes of readers and to hold myself accountable: 1. My next collection, Inglés sin barreras, borrows its working title from a series of videos that taught Spanish-speakers to read and understand English phonetically. I remember seeing infomercials when young (and a note here, given that many readers assume English is a new language for me: I learned it as a young child, for what it’s worth, thank you very much). 2. Foreign in a Domestic Sense, a memoir taking its title from the Insular Cases, a series of opinions by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1901, about the status of territories like Puerto Rico, which were acquired in the Spanish–American War. The Court argued that territories were “inhabited by alien races”; governing them “according to Anglo-Saxon principles may for a time be impossible.” 3. A long, bilingual podcast poem for my nephews in Puerto Rico. 4. An online archive of Puerto Rican poets on the archipelago and the diaspora.
What’s a good day for you?
I write this in the middle of a pandemic. A “good day” has me waking at 6:30 AM; walking for an hour to talk to my poems or listen to an audiobook; devising rituals, some of which lead to writing; sending voice-memos to those I love, the group’s Whatsapp; vanilla rooibos from my local teashop at Nostrand Ave; taking a few screengrabs of poems I want to talk to; if I’m lucky, a walk through the Botanic Garden, where I do a lot of thinking about writing; talking to myself and the cat; hand-washing face masks; finding where the thing hurts.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
Brooklyn called long before I moved. My mother, Victoria, was born at the Swedish Hospital at Sterling and Rogers. But then moved, at five, with her family to San Juan, where she met my father later on. I will write the story of my landing, after seven years in Washington Heights—by far, a treasured neighborhood in the city. But, simply: friends brought me here, as well as Brooklyn’s manageable scale and architecture. And history; I can read myself here. I find myself.
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 landed in Bed-Stuy six years ago. Before that: Park Slope and Crown Heights. The blue light of Brooklyn keeps me here. And my neighbor Mrs. Robinson, who greets me every morning with “Hi, Mr. Maldonado.” When she sings Motown in the morning. Or at night. Her family: my landlords. Chatting in English and Spanish about TV with my neighbor La Juana. Our neighborhood pizza shop. Being greeted by my pharmacist. And bread keeps me here. The three windows my cat Marcus looks out of. All the places we feel safe at because they read us and welcomed us are a home. Sadly, I miss the Dominican and Salvadoran restaurants in Washington Heights. Rather starve than walk into Gentrifying Tacos seven blocks away! I can’t see what home will look like once the pandemic is over, though, and this weighs on my heart, heavily in my spirit: the dismantling of brownstones for the Bauhaus steel and glass that caters to young trust-funders and real estate developers.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
Running the EMPIRE reading series for four years at Art Café + Bar with Hafizah Geter. All the poems I learned to write there, where I found my own words with (and within) the words of others. Setting up the room before readings, the kindness of Jimi and Brianna (the owners). The work of bartenders among poems. And the long chats about the future we wanted to see for ourselves after our readings.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
Because I am a queer Puerto Rican poet and translator, I felt, early on, a need to live with, live by, those who made the world sensible to me, legible and kinder. I can’t think of a better working definition of community.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
Some Brooklyn poets, of many, who taught me a poem’s way of thinking goes beyond the surface: Andrés Cerpa, Timothy Donnelly, Hafizah Geter, Marwa Helal, Cyrée Jarelle Johnson, Omotara James, Gabriel Kruis, Lynn Melnick, Gala Mukomolova, Miller Oberman, Emily Skillings, Mónica de la Torre, Wendy Xu. And George Oppen. And Marianne Moore, whose Observations pleases me tremendously: 10/10.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
My mentors have taught me to read the world (of and outside the poem) and myself more sensitively. In addition to those above, I add Lucie Brock-Broido and Deborah Digges, both of whom opened the door and led me to find in poetry something worthy of investigation.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
These lines from Rilke’s Duino Elegies, as translated by Stephen Mitchell, struck a chord with me: “After that first home, / the second seems ambiguous and drafty.” Got to figure out how to let them live in a poem of mine. Make sense of how Rilke mourns. And two collections I reread as part of the Sealey Challenge: Diana Marie Delgado’s Tracing the Horse and Diana Khoi Nguyen’s Ghost Of, two extraordinary collections I would push onto others if we weren’t on lockdown.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
Over the past two months, I’ve been reading, for the first time, what many in the English-speaking world would deem classics: Jane Eyre, for example—a wild, complicated ride. And Austen. (When I share this with American readers, some question, with astonishment, why I’ve never read that. So there I find myself, a Spanish-speaking poet from Puerto Rico, calling American readers out on their imperial impulse.)
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?
If I’m working towards the completion of a book, I will read a collection from cover to cover. I did architectural studies in college; the structuring of a world is of interest to me. When I’m not, I skip around with a pencil on hand. As to finding what’s next, I simply jump around my bookshelf, where books are grouped by themes or language (Books I Want Close to the Actual Chamber of the Heart, Books that Love Me Back, Black Excellence, Syntax, Books about Fathers, White People Doing the Usual, White People Doing Crazy Shit, and Books I Abhor at the bottom). A necessary discovery: audiobooks were made for long walks during a pandemic (or long commutes back when we were in the world). Holding physical books has become difficult as I’ve been living with muscular pathologies for about two years.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
Write a love poem. Write a poem in the third person. Write a series of poems against Carolyn Forché’s “The Colonel.” Write a pornographic poem with consent in mind.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
As I said before, I read as I walk. I read in bed. And when I commuted to the Upper East Side, I would read two books a week.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
I love coming upon the bandshell at Prospect Park and that corner of Prospect Park West, where my mother grew up. I love coming upon the Brooklyn she lived then, one that I am familiar with, in pictures. Sometimes, when I miss home, I sit on the benches by Eastern Parkway—the sound of cars driving past in intervals reminds me of the seashore back home.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate ser mi extranjero,
And what I de tejer hecho you lo has tajado,
For every hebra me as good bien has tu deshilado you.
If you have time, write a nine-line poem using these end-words (in whatever order) from Jay Z’s “Brooklyn Go Hard”: father, Dodger, jack, rob, sin, pen, love, Brooklyn, Biggie.
I can’t. As you may know, I’ve been writing in Spanish first for about two years.
Brooklyn because I can hide somewhere in here to be myself.