Books by Louis Reyes Rivera
Sanchocho: A Book of Nuyorican Poetry /
Bum Rush the Page
* * *
with Prize-Winning Poet
Louis Reyes Rivera
Louis, I’d like to begin by thanking you for this unique
opportunity to interview you on a number of topics, including your
book of poems Scattered Scripture: Reaching, Claiming, Lunging for the Universe of
just read your "(YO!)" poem ALOUD. And its rhythms and
its tragic beauty moved me exceedingly. BRAVO!!!
Louis Rivera: Yeah, I like that one
too. It happens that I was too often getting caught having to read
poetry after the band had left the stage. And with bands and
outdoor concerts, nobody really has to listen. They smoke and
drink and laugh and dance, but now the poetry is coming on and
they hadn't left that other aura yet. So I needed something to
catch immediate attention. When I witnessed a poet actually crying
because of the way she wasn't being received, even at a poetry
only reading, I got the image I needed to start the poem off.
When I read “(one short note),” “(intervention),” and
“(blood & oil),” these three poems brought to mind that
there really is no past (no real yesterday) in your poems. There
is a long continuous now. A super-imposed presence? Cultural space
and difference also seem to have been obliterated in these poems.
But your work as a historian, I suppose, accounts for some of
this. For an elevated consciousness, it is probably indeed one
long continuous action with contiguous results that call for
similar responses by those who are oppressed. And I suppose, this
book of poems then could be looked at as a scripture of these
struggles against oppression. Have I misconstrued your intent?
reading your “(one short note),” I did not see your
“kumbayahhh” until the second reading. But the poem itself had
me singing “kum bah yah.” I found that pleasantly curious as
an old country boy from southern Virginia. For me the spirituals
were a daily part of life—sung during work in the fields or long
walks on dirt roads in the dark of night or when I was just alone
with my thoughts. The poems in Scattered
Scripture thus reveal a great familiarity with U.S. Negro
culture (north and south).
a way I am a bit embarrassed to reveal my ignorance and stupidity
about Caribbean culture and the Puerto Rican-New York nexus.
Before reading your notes I knew almost nothing about Puerto Rican
history and culture, except from the imperialist (racist)
perspective. Matter of fact, this is my first conversation with
someone who hails from Puerto Rico. In this, I suspect, I am like
many Americans. I suppose I am in need of some forgiveness for
Rivera: (1) ONE SHORT NOTE: I
grew up in the African American community of Bed-Stuy, so
culturally I come from twin backgrounds: Puerto Rican Spanish in
the home and extended family (both sides) with cultural roots in
the Black community. Both AfroChurches and Spanish speaking
churches . . . thus the music . . .
housing projects I grew up in were built specifically for
returning GIs, a la WWII. Many of the folks I grew up with were
first generation replants from the south, thus I was exposed to
all of that culture and saw how it coincided with rural PR values
and outlook . . . the
music was different, but only regarding scales—underneath it all
rang too similar to me . . . the drums and the clapping . . .
INTERVENTION is about Peru and the rest of us. Since the 1970s,
Peru has been engaged in a civil war with the U.S. sponsoring
against the rebels, who were actually on the verge of winning and
in control of much of the rural areas, outside of the two major
cities. That poem was written as a play on the definition of the
term (intervention) and how that works against legitimate
people’s movements. It’s much like the way civil war and mass
movements in favor of the humanity of citizens get waylaid in the
media by the overuse of the word, terrorists.
BLOOD & OIL: when the Gulf War was about to break out a group
of activists were preparing a UN march. I was invited to
participate as poet and wrote this poem to complement the event.
Just as the war began, CNN was interviewing an old folks home to
get reaction from WWII survivors. Many were in favor of the war.
CNN was catching it all live. Turning the camera to one old lady
(white), they asked her what she thought and she cut right into
this song before they could turn the cameras away.
opened by saying, “When
I was a little girl, we used to sing this song
. . .” and went
right into the lyrics: I
didn’t raise my child to be your soldier/but to grow to be my
pride & joy/so don’t go putting your rifle on his
shoulder/to kill some other mother’s daughter’s boy . . .”
was so impressed I decided to include and play with it into the
poem. It gave me a beginning and end metaphor through which to
explore the rest . .
Yes, there is but one continuum. Us. All of us. Certain Native
American, Asian, and African languages don’t work with Past
& Future Tenses as separate from Present. They see it all as
one continuum. Often, these languages express ideas in the ever
present tense. Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean make a notation at the
beginning or end of a text to signify past/future . . .
but the body of the text appears in the present. African
and Native American philosophies, both, insist on looking upon the
ancestors as if they were still here. Thus, in the Caribbean
Santeria, Voodoo, Espiritismo are marriages between Amerindian and
African philosophies and the idea of placing food and drink at the
gravesite is not an oddity but a requisite in honor of those who
were here before I got here.
your point about time and difference is well on the mark. Not so
much a “super-imposed presence” but an ever-active one.
About cultural space and difference being “obliterated in these
poems,” let me share this one story with you. I was invited
along with another PR poet to a classroom on Nuyorican Literature.
We came, did our thing, etc. he with his Puerto Rican accent, me
with my new York (obviously) Afro-southern accent; he with his
ultra nationalism, me with my ultra-insistence on connectives. At
the end of the class, everyone left to accompany guests and prof.
to professor’s office.
young lady sidled up next to me, and with body language active,
indicated to me that she wanted a private word. I slowed down; she
slowed down. When we were roughly more than fifty feet away from
the crowd, she leaned over and said, “It must be rough.” I
said, “What’s that?” She said, “to be both Puerto Rican
and Black. That’s what I am, from Puerto Rican and black
parents.” I said, “Ohh, well, I tell you. I’ve searched for
it, I mean, really searched for it, but I have yet to distinguish
what the difference between them really are.” She said nothing
more; I left it alone, and we continued, caught up to the rest of
the group and engaged light chatting in the professor’s office
until it was time to leave.
From 1977 thru 2000, I had a running buddy, fellow poet Zizwe
Ngafua. Good poet, undermined. We did a lot together that pushed
for the issue of love in political ideology and in bridging
communities. A more divisive, ultra-narrow nationalist poet we
hung with, a fellow who enjoyed seeing division and who pushed the
one side of Garvey that proved murky (light skin/dark skin)
attempted to create a wedge between Zizwe and me while also making
use of my contacts and skills whenever they suited his interests,
tried cracking on Zizwe one day. “It’s not the same thing!”
“What’s not the same thing?” Zizwe asked. “Blacks and
Puerto Ricans; it’s not the same struggle; it’s not the same
fight.” Zizwe looked at him, pulled on his pipe and said,
“Brother, you got a lot of maturing to do.”
you have not “misconstrued” my intent, my perspective, and my
politic. There’s no corner of this hemisphere that was not
invaded, conquered, enslaved. There is equally no corner of this
hemisphere, from the borders of Canada to the tip of Chile, where
Africans were not kidnapped to, for purposes of supplementing
and/or complementing slave labor forces.
“In this, I suspect, I am like many Americans.”
mis- and diseducated, tricked, and trained to meet the demands of
labor only. Not nurtured as a human, thinking being. That’s what
Malcolm was talking about in terms of civil vs. human rights.
forgive is necessary. It wasn’t your doing. . . . The search
goes on and the contradiction rises up each time we look at a
thing, a condition. What is “a black issue,” if not a
reflection of the root of our human condition? Who says that our
humanity is measured by WHAT? My man Zizwe, once asked me, “How
long you figure this struggle is going to take? As his way of
checking to see how wide the parameters of my perspective. I
answered immediately, so fast I surprised myself, “Until every
single child on this planet knows how to read and read between the
lines and spaces that occupy words.” He replied, “That’s a
long time, brother.” “It sure is . . .” as both grew silent
and kept walking.
You are an award-winning poet, an academic, professor of African
American, Puerto Rican and Caribbean Literature and History, an
arts and political activist, and a host of both a live and a radio
program. Where do you get the energy for so many activities? Many
would be satisfied with a career as an academic. What drives you,
if I can use that word?
Rivera: If I am an academic,
it's by default. I've been teaching since I was an undergraduate.
A little older than most (I was 23 turning 24 when I started
school), I'd been studying on my own since I was 15 (1960). I
never looked at it as teaching as much as sharing with others.
Information is supposed to be part of our natural inheritance,
just by virtue of our birth. What we call education is really more
like being tricked and trained to meet the demands of labor.
1969, I was part of the student movement that ushered in Open
Admissions and that legitimized what is referred to as
"ethnic studies." By the time the Black Studies and
Puerto Rican Studies departments were in place, I was graduating.
Consequently, I had to revert back to self-initiated studies in
order to get what I had missed. Eventually, and by default (with
few trained professors capable of teaching the material I knew),
opportunities came to teach what I'd been researching on my own.
Because I would incorporate my studies in history and philosophy
into my poetry, by 1986, I was viewed as a type of expert. And so,
my developed expertise in African American, Puerto Rican and
Caribbean Literature and History paid off through offers to teach
in the colleges.
graduating from college, I understood that no room would be given
me for my capacity, even less for what I earned. In other
cultures, I'd be given an academic post so that I could be
"just a writer." But in this culture, if you don't
create your own sidestream, you'll disappear into the ether. So
with me, it's not so much an issue of energy, but out of necessity
that you have to be a political activist, an advocate on behalf of
artists, in addition to practicing your art and researching those
missing pages in your book. Taking on college classes or any other
type of job, you do because in addition to everything else, you
have to feed your family and pay rent.
attitude towards every job has been to see it as a part time thing
you do to keep ends connected, while the art you vocate is your
full time gig. In short, there's no real room here for us, not as
poets, not as humans, and certainly, not as full fledged citizens;
consequently, we have to create our own spaces, and work them,
even while we hold down other jobs.
I read your Scattered
Scripture and thoroughly enjoyed it. I am certain that it will
ever be in my top ten of poetry books. I recommend it highly to
anyone who is serious about the craft and art of poetry.
Technically, I think it is a workshop and that it would be a great
book to teach in English or language departments at the grade
school level or in college. The subject matter and the
perspective, however, is another matter. I am not sure that many
academics are willing to deal with your subject and perspective.
Have you gotten any responses back from teachers and professors
who have attempted to use your book in their syllabi?
Rivera: There have been
professors who cull from my work certain poems to teach through.
But no, my books have never been placed on Required Reading lists,
though here and there students come to me because of something
shared in a classroom I didn't know about. But I expected that. As
with getting published, especially after 1974, mainstream
publishers are more consciously political in their selections, and
to strip yourself of a political perspective is a plus for getting
mainstreamed. But that factor never bothered me. I have never
accepted the premise that somehow I have to prove something to The
Other in order to be accepted and acceptable. While it's harder
work, I've never really objected to being Underground (as they
say) or in the sidestream. It's more honest there. You don't
suffer from racial psychosis as much.
With your creative talent and skill, you could have written and
can write almost any kind of poetry book you desire. I mean you
could have written a book of love poems, like your love poem
"(near again)" or poems generally critical of the
foibles of humanity in general. Why Scattered
Scripture? Why such a book of poems that comes off militant
and radical in perspective, which seems to be an extended attack
on Western culture and civilization? There will be few career
rewards for such a perspective.
Rivera: What's the human
thing to do? I have the option to be slick and lie or to grapple
with the truth. If I do the former, I'm considered conservative
and part of the mediocre currents that rule over us. If I do the
latter, I'm radical and militant and therefore dangerous. And I
don't understand either one of those positions.
I was born into a generation that had come out of World War II and
into Self-Assertion. Change was everywhere, unlike any other
period in history, challenging every thing (colonialism,
dependency, sexism, racism, exploitation, large scale thievery,
corporate gangsterism, miseducation, you name it). Should I be
part of the contradiction or part of the confrontation?
was raised with Jesus, Crazy Horse and Hannibal as models to
emulate. And I could not, as a child, understand hypocrisy. I was
a straight A student until I began to consciously recognize the
lie we live. I had trained as a journalist/editor. When I decided
that pursuing the vocation of poet was the more honest thing to
do, grappling with the truth came with the territory.
began Scattered Scripture
roughly in 1974, wanting to deliberately translate history into
poetry, recovering those missing pages from our story, and
attempting to build a bridge of understanding between the people
of this hemisphere, and in my case specifically between African
Americans from the U.S. and Puerto Ricans -- the two groups that
comprise my understanding of immediate reality. Using our real
story through poetry as the material for building that bridge. If
I'm attacking anything, it's hypocrisy, the lie and the
distortion. Why? Because I'm here. I matter too. I don't use the
word "career" to describe what I do. I use the word
"vocation," as it speaks to why I am compelled to write.
the way, I've been after the love poem, too. One of my
works-in-progress is called Private
Moments, an attempt to write such a collection that any couple
can read to one another as prelude to one of those aspects of
ourselves that requires attention, our sensuality. But that's not
all we are. We are corporeal and need to eat; intellectual, and
need to think critically; sensual, and need to touch regularly;
spiritual, and need to imaginate and therein activate the
possible; psychological, and need to know our real selves.
Imbalance is predicated on paying attention only to one part of
what we are.
You say that it has taken you over 20 years to write Scattered
Scripture. What do you mean by that – that these poems were
written over a 20-year period or that it has taken that time to
formulate or to grow into such a perspective or some combination
of all of these and more?
Rivera: I was after a
translation of history into poetry, covering those missing pages
from the books I'd read and couldn't find me in. I had to search
it and live it in order to write it. I knew it would take me a
long time to do, but I was willing to learn the details I didn't
know, and work on Scattered
Scripture while pursuing other things. And yes, the first poem
I had completed for that book "(what are they doing),"
was written in 1974. The last poem, "(like toussaint, so
marti)" was written in 1995. In between came all the others
that hit me as response to my research.
Before we go forward, just let me ask a brief technical question.
Why have you enclosed all the titles of your poems in parentheses
and written them in lower case. Is this just a personal
idiosyncrasy? Or does it have some other significance?
Rivera: Scattered Scripture
is one work. The parentheses signify that each poem is not
separated from the other. Like verse 1 and verse 2, they belong to
the same chapter. Lower case, because it is not to be taken as a
proper noun, but a common thread. Similarly, the "I"
throughout the book is rendered in the lower case "i"
directly because i am not greater than either the second
("you") or third ("he/she") persons. We are
the same, and one should not have precedence over the other.
come from peasant background (i.e., Puerto Rico), from the lumpen
proletariat (i.e., urban ghetto), and from the dispossessed (i.e.,
of African and Amerindian descent), and I choose deliberately not
to forget or forsake that there is beauty and relevance in that
lineage. No shame. But no arrogance either.
Scattered Scripture has
over thirty pages of notes to the poems. How did the inclusion of
so many notes come about? In that you write in both Spanish and
English and seemingly, write well in both, I can understand that
you would want your non-Spanish reading audience to know what is
going on. But these notes do not merely serve that purpose. Do you
think the notes are needed for the poems to be properly
appreciated? Or were there things that you wanted to say that just
could not be contained in poetry?
Rivera: Footnotes for the
Spanish I use in the text is, of course, self-explanatory. But
when I finished what turned out to be 125 pages of poetry, I was
confronted by the fact that the difference between you and i is
what informs us both. The books you've read are not necessarily
the same ones that I've read. So I had to include the footnotes
section, in order to get you to understand the beauty of this one
difference between us. Not to explain the poem, never (that's up
to you to interpret), but to provide you with the historical
context for the poem or to make sure you know wherefrom my
allusions came. This made the book complete, as a poetic song, as
an historical document, and as an instructional device. Yes, we
are corporeal, and should be eating every day. But as well, we are
intellectual, and should also be reading every day. The footnotes
help to demonstrate that thesis.
In your poem "(earthbred series: entry one)," which acts
as a kind of preface for Scattered
Scripture, you say at the beginning and end of the poem that
this book is an act of returning something that has been given
"by the people," which I assume is the "you"
of the poem. The authorial you (or narrator) is a
"poet," "a child of one/come to share the gift you
gave." What indeed is this "gift," I assume, that
actually you are referring to a number of gifts – poetic,
linguistic, historical knowledge and wisdom, cultural insight and
criticism? Could you elaborate?
Louis Rivera: I was raised inside of a Puerto Rican family, but
born in Brooklyn, and inside of an African American community,
many of which members had uprooted from the rural South. I was
protected and nurtured by both. I owe all of the people who
touched me something for the touch. Not all of us can discover and
realize our capacity to do.
When I uncovered the capacity to write and that a writer I was and
would be, I also recognized that this vocation was a gift, given
to me by those who nurtured me. You'd be surprised how many winos
gave me books to read or cold blooded hustlers giving me advice
and protection and lessons on survival, how many I had to bury and
whom I carry with me right beside memories of my parents and
grandparents both. They all comprise the substance of the gift
given me. Much like Langston's "dream deferred" image
that appears in so many of his poems.
Part 4 Next-->>
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Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in
By Melissa V.
According to the
author, this society has historically exerted
considerable pressure on black females to fit into one
of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the
Matriarch or the Jezebel. The selfless
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