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Scattered Scripture

Reaching, Claiming, Lunging for the Universe of Things




Books by Louis Reyes Rivera

Sanchocho: A Book of Nuyorican Poetry / Scattered Scripture / Bum Rush the Page

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Interview with Prize-Winning Poet

Louis Reyes Rivera


Part 2

Rudy: I want to talk about the "earthbred" poems further. But before we do, let me ask you about "(afterword)," which is the second poem in the book. Of course, the poem stands out having such a title. For we expect an "afterword" to come at the end of a book, after everything has been said, when someone wants to make a comment about all that occurred in the text. The narrator (the voice of the poems) says he wants "to look inside these bones/of blood & muscle sores." And then in contrast, I suspect, "i speak directly to the heart/ . . . to the soul and mind." So in your "afterword" you are referring to something outside of this book, but indeed some book or something that is like a book?

Louis Rivera: As you've noted earlier, (earthbred series: entry 1) serves as a form of prologue to the poet, the poems inside this particular volume, and the recognition on the part of the narrator that the voice of the poet is a gift given by the people who raised and engaged that poet.

If you read the last poem, (foreline), along with the 'introductory' poem (afterword), you see that the central metaphor is the 'flag' (i.e., where your faith stems from, as in country, nation, patriotism).

In (afterword), the flag is seen as issues (i.e., the conditions we might rally around, such as labor, the freedom of and need for speech, drug addiction and delusion, personal lineage, the rape of the planet, etc. --bear in mind that in latin as in the spanish idiom, 'la tierra'/the land is feminine, as in mother earth, while the river --the onrush-- el rio --is masculine.).

In (foreline), the issue of hunger and labor, class/caste, is now turned into the struggle for one humanity, as distinguishable from (not "opposed to") 'national sovereignty'... the self-determination of the whole of humanity is here juxtaposed again with an imposition by the superrich into class and caste systems that have no end until we revolutionize our thoughts, our agendas (where the issue is to create a flag that belongs to all), and then the struggle to "overthrow every level of abuse" is possible...

Both poems speak to the general condition; sandwiched between the two are poems that speak to their particulars. That the 'i' (narrator) placed (afterword) before (foreline) speaks to the circle, as in 'no beginning, no end.' There's always a condition; the challenge is the degree to which we confront each condition and for what purpose. Since the circle is more elongated than perfect (like the orbit of the earth, the shapes of our galaxy, our vaginas, the ankh), the particulars and the way we resolve contradictions are also elongated, not perfect (they don't go away unless and until we deal with them for the good of all).

Each question confronting us is but another aspect of the whole. It resides at a particular point of the line of time (like the shape of vaginal walls, the orbit of the earth, etal --where are you when you are). But points in time are, like the conditions we face, not to be viewed as something that exists "in and of itself." One set of conditions grows out of another set of conditions. Without understanding the continuum of struggle, we stay issue-oriented instead of principle oriented. Like Malcolm said, of all the sciences, the study of history is the most rewarding.

Rudy: In "(afterword)" you also seemed to announce a theme or maybe it is a leitmotif that runs throughout your poems and is indeed at the center of some of your poems, like "(jorge’s journey)," namely, work, or the importance of work (for both body and soul), and the undermining of the sacredness of work by bosses and privilege, the defiance and the depression of work. Is it because of slavery and the lingering history of slavery that you have made the idea and functions of work so important in your poetic expression?

Louis Rivera: Yes to all of your questions here. When you know that you benefit from it directly, you do not object to work. When it is only to the benefit of another, you shy away from doing. No one is born or raised wanting not to do something. However, labor and laborer are imposed upon us, even to the point where having a job at all becomes a privilege granted to the poor by the rich, but only to satisfy the end of the rich--to control the rest of us. Notice the details of both “(for tom and judy)” and “(behind a restaurant's back door).” It's like education. We're not educated, but rather tricked and trained into learning to be semi-satisfied by meeting the demands of labor, and not by learning to create our own wealth by virtue of our own sweat. No self-nurturing allowed. No sovereign individual, no sovereign nation, only colonies of the owner.

Rudy: You have five "earthbred" poems. I’d like to talk about the final four, beginning with "entry 2." Here it seems to be the voice or the spirit of the poet. This poem seems to have religious, spiritual, and prophetic overtones. It is not quite gnostic, for, in contrast, the origin of this "i" (the poet/god) is not the heavens: "I am born into the world/from a speck of dust to a burning star." The heavens seem, however, to be the ultimate goal of the poet’s journey. This "i" is "the essence in between each crack of day/my soul encased in flesh/has thus arrived to walk the earth with you." These lines are beautiful and poetic. But what is going on here? I read somewhere in which you said that as a child you were forced to read the Bible. Has some of your religious training sneaked in? If so, it does not seem to be quite doctrinal? I know the gnostic conceptions were quite heretical in Christianity, especially Catholicism.

Louis Rivera: The cosmos is not here a matter of the end of the journey, but the source of the journey. "(F)rom a speck of dirt to a burning star" is the actual process that went into forming life. And it is cosmic, for just as each human is not a self-created entity, no planet, no sun is self-created. We all carry the same ingredients in varying degrees, yes, but the elements that comprise an actual universe are also the elements that comprise our own makeup.

All of the earthbred series are part of a connective metaphor, that we are all corporeal and terrestrial, even while we profess the existence of a spirit force/soul/consciousness/extraterrestrial oneness, etc. Check out what earthbred truly means: to become or to be raised, nurtured, bred by the earth. It also means to be humble yet shameless, and to be humbled by the fact that while we do not come upon the earth selfcreated we also want to reach beyond the beyond.

Entry 2 is my genesis poem --just as all scripture (Popol Vuh, Kitabu, Torah, etc.) begin with some form of genesis. But here 'i' come out of a geologic mixture --dust, seed, lava, river; 'i' come from oceans giving rise to land; from "two hot figures rolling in the throws and throbs" of sexual intercourse; from the "spark" and "force" of life itself, as in spirit, consciousness, etc.

Rudy: In the next "earthbred" poem -- "entry 3" -- there is a bit of poetic strangeness. The earth is like a lover or like in Wallace Stevens, the poet is the voice of nature. You wrote "earth begs to be taken into bosom/comforted with whispers of caressing care/nurtured by hand/while sung to over again." What is the source of this seeming nature mysticism? I am sure man must have some kind of relationship with earth, dust.

Then you have this image, later in the poem: "the vision in the sound/blocks of stone/dragged in slave straw." Those again are beautiful lines--pure poetry. Are you drawing out the tension and conflict between man and his environment and/or man and the environment he creates for himself. This "entry 3" poem ends with the negative role played by privilege and elitism. Good poems do indeed have a density to them. Could you clarify a bit this nexus of earth (and our relationship with it), work, and privilege?

Louis Rivera: Actually, the end of the poem was supposed to signify that the earth is telling us that we belong to it or that we are telling the earth that we belong to her.

The problem here is that we created the city and the alienation that followed (blocks of stone dragged in slave straw). Caste began with priest and warrior as mercenary. The earth we are born into, the land we are raised upon, eden and olduvai gorge, offer plenty.

The Chinese have an ancient saying, to wit, that each generation is the heir of the present and the caretaker of the future. What do we do with the wealth of what we are given as gift? Do we live at one with earth or rip it off? What do we do with the inheritance? Waste it? What do we leave the future? Devastation? Famine?

The "tension and conflict" is between man and greed, between man and man, between the planet we are born into and the world that we create. I prefer to say that I have a planetary view, as opposed to and distinguishable from a worldview. The planet is where and what I was born into. The world is what I create.

So, yes, it is between humans and their environment and the way in which humans (males in particular) have created a world out of a piece of the planet, and mostly out of greed, avarice, aggrandizement, control, ambition, the compulsion to impose your will upon some "other" --but then the "other" becomes every other, all others. Thus, the conflict between human beings and their grasp of our humanity.

Whatever the mysticism I was influenced by was in all likelihood the fact that in basic African and Amerindian philosophy, we are a part of the whole: from Creator/Creation to spiritual forces (karma) of life itself, to the ancestors who were once here, to the living beings occupying space in the now, to the land we walk on and live off... All of it together (as in, cosmology). If you take one part of it away from the rest, it all falls apart. Naturalists and herbologists, environmentalists and aborigine cultures have a better understanding of this than do many of our intellectuals, too many of our urbane professionals, and certainly the capitalist owners or managers of our sweat.

The weakness in that philosophy, as with all human achievement and development, is in the rise of shaman and priest, who, within the expertise they garner, rise also to control, not just to serve, and often not likely to serve at all.

Singing to the earth is an allusion to the dance, poetry, music that are all one with human existence and which converge in ritual and habit while we work and while we harvest the benefits of our work.

When I worked in a factory, cutting pieces of metal for transmitters, I would sing while I worked to get away from the boredom of piecemeal drudgery. The bossman, white, would sneak up on me and yell, "Rivera! You don't get paid to sing!" So guarded was he against the possibility that I could appear to enjoy, when in fact I was releasing my mind from the monotony.

: In "(earthbred series: entry 4.)," the earth speaks, questions, and challenges those who are willing to listen and heed its warnings and proddings. The narrator says: "today./earth speaks to strained ears/ . . . each must bear the question/earth has longed to pose:/ ‘How?/do you come to this state’." Of course, there is the implication here that if one wants to hear the earth speak it requires an effort. In this poem there is a dialogue between the earth and such a special person, who, I assume, is the poet or one with such inclinations. This poem raises questions about the listeners' "state" of mind (attitude? intellect?), their existence, place of residence? I read somewhere that nearly half of the people (of the US?) read at about a second grade level. Are you referring to this lack of personal and intellectual development? And this business of being out of place, does it have to do with slavery and colonialism, or something more?

Louis Rivera: Yes, it is about being "at one" with your self, your intellect, the space you occupy, your responsibility to self and life. (Go back to entry 1-- life itself is a gift-- so what do you do with the gift of breath?). But here it is also about the Americas. The fact that an entire range of various cultures were here before europeans, many of which people were attempting to be "at one" with "nature." This is juxtaposed to european invasion ("ransacked rags --i.e., flag-- torn from the corsets of alien queens" --"from a land of quaking blizzards... starving peasants from plague to plague..."), european devastation of land and people... As well, the question that earth poses is one that we each must pose in order to gain clear perspective -- how did you come to be where you are? at what price?... Not just "who am i," but "how did i get here" and "why am i what i am"? These three [questions] together define our sense of perspective....

Rudy: Unlike the previous "earthbred" poems, "entry 5" takes on cosmic proportions. The enormities of oppression that the poem delineates, I assume, requires such largeness of scope. Taking in the cosmos also directs the eyes of the reader/listener upward. Considering the early lines: "I work in plants/in factories & bench/on a corner in the middle of the day" -- the poem operates from the perspective of common workers. This poem, I suppose, is intended to speak wrath to power and privilege?

Recently, a friend returned from one of these "wellness" forums and posed to me the question "What is Life?" It rendered me silent. He told me that the leader of the forum concluded that "Life is meaningless" --- which I concluded was an absurdity and that my friend had wasted good money on such nonsense. In "entry 5," you too raise a similar kind of question. The poems end with this line: "is this what you call life." Early on in this poem you suggest that there are things that exist that are not in accord with "the essence of life." What is this "essence"? I am a bit inclined toward an ethical existentialism, which emphasizes obligations and responsibilities to make this world aright. Are these essences?

Louis Rivera: This fifth in the series speaks to the issue that as we leave this planet in order to colonize other places, what will we take with us. And we do belong to something larger than our mundane. The other four entries dealt with specific aspects of being "earthbred," while this last one speaks to possibility and condition --it should always be from the point of view of the underdog (to borrow a phrase from Charles Mingus--the title of his autobiography was supposed to be "renegade," but he ended up settling for "beneath the underdog.")

Just as DuBois predicted that the "issue of the 20th century is the issue of the colorline," so too, I offer that the issue of the 21st century is Unfinished Business! Do we straighten this out on our way outward or do we take this with us. By the way, take the line literally --"...there is no edge to the eye of horizon...." There is no horizon, since it is simply a matter of how we perceive from our own limitations. When you select the point at which a horizon stands, it is from your view. But once you get to where you thought it was, you learn that it isn't there... it's further out, beyond you...

The question: "is this what you call life" is existential. And it does speak to responsibility, onus, compulsion, "right(s)" and the fact of condition. It does not speak to meaninglessness, but to possibility and variation regarding what we are collectively capable of doing. Don't forget the footnotes, here. Women tricked into being sterilized, etc., in order to control our own possibilities, which is a racist condition standing against us.

You might be interested in knowing that the cosmic metaphors used here came directly from a confusion I suffered. Back in the 1960s, it appeared that we were all well on our way towards changing the world. Of course, far too many of us did not fully understand the war that had been declared against us here in the U.S. But, by the 1970s, it was becoming clear to me that too many of those who had previously professed engaging social struggle had turned their backs on it. I needed to understand this and felt that the only way I could was by starting at the beginning. I spent two years studying and reading up on the creation of the entire universe, of suns, planets, quasars, comets. All of what I could get into. This poem grew out of such juxtaposition as the creation of life itself and what we settle for here in the terrestrially mundane.

So, again, take the line literally: the sun is composed of hydrogen and helium, which we can't touch, even to the point where we cannot in any shape or form land on the sun and claim it as private property (like the U.S. flag on the moon); thus, through the poem I offer a definition of the basis for private property at the expense of the propertyless-- a contradiction to the reality of what is natural and naturally given to all of us. If you can't claim the sun as your private domain, and the sun gives us all life, then you certainly have no ground to stand on that you can actually claim as your private preserve.

Notice the other contradictions: what is dawn to a slave? what is dusk to that same slave? How does a human claim his/her own humanity while denying the humanity of an other? That's not what I would call "life"!

By the way, for me, the terms God, Love, Life, Hope, Struggle are all interchangeable terms. They mean the exact same thing, too synonymous for me to draw how many distinctions. So if you take that last question in the poem and replace the word "life" with either of these terms, you get the same answer. No, this is not what I call hope, or love or God. Therefore, the condition is unacceptable.

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