February 10–16, 2020
Poet, storyteller and essayist Roberto Carlos Garcia is the author of black / Maybe (Willow Books, 2019) and Melancolía (Červená Barva Press, 2016) and the founder of the cooperative press Get Fresh Books Publishing. His poems and prose have appeared or are forthcoming in Poetry, The BreakBeat Poets Vol 4: LatiNEXT, Bettering American Poetry Vol. 3, Academy of American Poets Poem-A-Day and many other publications. A self-described “sancocho […] of provisions from the Harlem Renaissance, the Spanish Poets of 1929, the Black Arts Movement, the Nuyorican School, and the Modernists,” Garcia is rigorously interrogative of himself and the world around him, conveying “nakedness of emotion, intent, and experience,” and he writes extensively about the Afro-Latinx and Afro-diasporic experience. On Thursday, February 20, Garcia will read for the Brooklyn Poets Reading Series along with Shira Erlichman and Patricia Smith at the Brooklyn Public Library.
excerpt from A Tempest
call me caliban / born carlito / kunta / ali / “boy”/
to prospero i am caliban / yoruba / azteca / arab
caribé / sioux / caliban / black soil in hand / fruit / sugar
gold / & prospero our doom / & miranda his currency /
big money miranda / sweet honey miranda / she is also a caliban
“beware rapist caliban / gimme da money / gimme miranda”
“beware lazy caliban / all play no work / gimme da money”
beware / beware / beware / beware / what prospero says about me
[enter] prospero: “we must protect our white women” / “our greatest property”
“source of wealth / my miranda for a kingdom / if you please” [exit prospero]
says he taught me speech / & i made him a fool
by wanting wealth / his bane & his tool
call me caliban / a condition / a construction
a convict in prospero’s mind / in mine / a convict
in waiting (1 in 4) / convicted as main ingredient in
prospero’s necessity & his fear / prospero
i disembark on your shores / via immigration & naturalization
via border patrol circumnavigation / en yola / via boat & over land
in a caravan /
i strut along in your city / ah, prospero, watch out!
miranda have pity / i need a few dollars to bring back with me
i’m leaving home / broken earth for hands
call me caliban / caliban / gang-gang
[caliban boards a plane with fake papers]
it was stupid to leave by plane / when the sea
my first lover / howled like a stray dog
i had to leave / big money miranda’s voice
crackled over the calling card / promising roads paved
with Benjamins & i had to leave / this clear blue sky
almond trees / sweet water rivers / brown roots
i should have left by sea / what good was it
not to suffer the sight of home / shrinking further
& further away / i should have left by sea
i should have left by sea / like a turtle or nymph
not a phantom / not like a man who believed
he wasn’t going away / to become a slave
[enter ariel & sprites: keeping prospero from the stage]
bye bye caliban / caliban li voyáge
caliban go lef today / caliban cojio camino
caliban buss it / caliban p’al carajo de america
caliban se fue / caliban fi gwan
caliban goin’ up foreign / caliban pa la Uni
[caliban walks out of i.n.s. into nyc]
prospero / i’m here / to where & to whom
do i take my revolution / whose doorstep do i piss on
you are everywhere / prospero / in the skin color we question
so black / so brown / so high yellow / not [ ] enough
too much [ ] / prospero / you make alchemy of tribalism
my brothers & sons / nothing to lose
only by destroying prospero / can caliban be free
that we believe otherwise / is prospero’s strongest magic
[enter ariel & sprites dressed as i.c.e. agents & border patrol]
build the wall. america first.
make america white again. proud to be deplorable.
the american dream is not a handout. ban muslims.
ban refugees. ban immigrants. go back where you came from.
assimilate. assimilate. assimilate. 14 words. shithole countries.
no mexicans. no jews. no irish. no negros. no indians. no chinese. no spicks. no italians. no dogs. japs keep moving. we serve white only.
get rid of all filipinos or we’ll burn this town down.
colored entrance in the back. white only. never forget.
we’re not racists.
[ariel & sprites arrest caliban & place him in la hielera]
Tell us about the making of this poem.
I’ve been working on a modern retelling of The Tempest but in the Caribbean tradition of Césaire, Brathwaite and Fernández Retamar. A version infused with lyric and narrative poetry. In my version, we shut Prospero up and give a voice, and space and time and agency, to Sycorax.
What are you working on right now?
Where to begin. Get Fresh Books has two new collections going to print soon: Kathy Engel’s The Lost Brother Alphabet and Gail Langstroth’s Fire Garden / Jardin de Fuego (a Spanish bilingual poetry collection).
I’m in the final stages of a short story collection and an essay collection, and I started a memoir not too long ago. I work on these intermittently. And, of course, A Tempest is very present in my daily writing practice.
What’s a good day for you?
A day when I get to write, take a nap, meditate and spend good time with my wife and kids.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
I don’t live in Brooklyn anymore, but it feels like I’m always there for readings and to meet friends. I lived in Brooklyn for a while as a baby, on Franklin Ave. Then it was back to Harlem.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
Although I left Brooklyn young, I was all over “The Planet” as a teenager with my friends. One time we were trying to get out of Crown Heights after a long day of blunts and getting rejected by girls. This was before gentrification. Three of us were passed out in the backseat and the driver and another friend were in the front. I woke up to a knock at the window and the car was surrounded by cops. The car still smelled like ganja, I’m sure of it. I went right back to sleep and woke up in front of my house. The cops had let us go.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Did you find that here? Have you found it where you live now? Why or why not?
I believe that as poets we see the world differently. We’re so open empathically, emotionally, psychically, so we need to be around other people who share in that sensitivity. It’s also critically important that we laugh, love and live. Share poems, yes, but also just bullshit about our pets and drink bourbon. You know?
I found my literary tribe in graduate school. And I am grateful.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
Of course, everybody says Whitman. He’s great. His poetic ambition is inspirational. Amongst the living, Elisabet Velasquez is writing great poems. Amber Atiya is also writing necessary and vital poetry. JP Howard, Cynthia Manick, D. Nurkse, Ed Toney, and and and and and …
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
My mentors in graduate school were Aracelis Girmay, Michael Waters, Ross Gay, Alicia Ostriker, Ellen Doré Watson and, by extension, Anne Marie Macari and Gerald Stern. They are wonderful teachers, poets and human beings. They instilled in me that poetry is a way. Not a career or a job or hobby. I equate it to martial arts practice or meditation. These are ways, a path, a calling, a way to live your life. That has had a profound influence and impact on my life, and my work. I love my mentors and their work, and I consider them dear friends.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
Felon by Reginald Dwayne Betts. I’ve read the print edition and I listen to the audiobook all the time (the audiobook is a whole other experience). The multiple voices / personas, their gritty experiences, the complexity and aliveness of the language make for a great book. Also, it is familiar. I know these stories.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
Mostly Eastern philosophy books and political science / revolution texts. For example, I really want to read Eduardo Galeano’s entire works. Confucius, Rumi and a whole list of Sufi poets.
I’m still making my way through Yanagihara’s A Little Life. A book so detailed, so full of the everything of everyday life, that I can only take it in small chunks.
Way too many poetry collections to list here. There is a lot of really good poetry being published right now and somehow, we have to get the literary media talking about more than just one or two.
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 read multiple books at a time. If it’s a really good book then I’ll stay with it, otherwise, it’s hard for me to sit still.
I pick up books as I go. A recommendation here, a book review there. A lot of the time I jump from poet to poet within a literary era or circle. It is indeed random.
Listen, I’m all about the printed book!! I have books in every corner I can find at home. The books are like tribbles from Star Trek. They keep multiplying. My family has threatened to throw me and the books out!!
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
Definitely a crown of sonnets. That is so cool to me.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
Anywhere there are people and it’s quiet enough to hear myself think.
There’s a cigar bar in my town that’s nice and quiet. I’ve written many essays and made deadlines sitting there, smoking a nice Tatuaje Cojonu cigar.
There is a coffee shop also with huge bookcases full of old books. I finalized both of my first two poetry collections there.
Otherwise I’m at a little desk in my bedroom, headphones on, listening to jazz or classical music. Plugging away.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
First Saturdays at the Brooklyn Museum. They always have a tremendous crowd. I read poetry there with María Fernanda and Gabriel Ramirez and everyone in the audience was there for poetry. Everyone. Afterwards, a salsa party in full swing was in effect downstairs, DJ and everything. So many people just having a great time.
Flatbush Ave. All the way up and all the way down. Also, I know this might sound crazy, but I find driving Eastern Parkway and Ocean Parkway pretty fun. Of course, it is better to do it when you’re a passenger. I enjoy seeing the different neighborhoods and just people-watching.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate this lucky life,
And what I celebrate you celebrate,
For every day of lucky life is for me as good as every day of lucky life for you.
Why not Brooklyn? It is the planet of immigrant stories. Latinx Caribbean, Afro-Caribbean, African-American, and and and and and and …