By S.E.B. Detling
Maria Rouphail is the author of the chapbook, “Apertures,” a 2012 finalist in Finish Line Press’s “New Women’s Voices” competition, and published in 2013. “Second Skin,” her next collection of poems, was published in the Fall, 2015, by Main Street Rag.
S.E.B. Detling: Dr. Maria Rouphail, congratulations on being the Poet of the Month at Negative Capability, and thank you for taking time to talk with me today. Before we begin, would you mind setting the scene for our readers? Where are we and why did you choose this place for our interview?
Maria Garcia Rouphail: Please allow me to thank you for selecting my poems for publication, and for selecting me as Poet of the Month. Negative Capability is a wonderful place for poetry, so this is truly an honor. I am responding to your invitation for an interview from my home in Raleigh, North Carolina.
SEBD: Family and memory are recurring themes in your work, as is illustrated in “Flight Plan With a Breakfast Menu” and “Memory Trace” above. I am curious as to how these themes were involved, if at all, in encouraging you to become a writer of poetry?
MGR: “Flight Plan With a Breakfast Menu” emerged quickly during a morning when my younger son was en route to his fiancée. Both are currently in graduate programs in different states. It was also true that repairs were being made to our house here in Raleigh. Imagining the breakfast table in the future where I would in some way continue to “mother” an extended family was irresistible. I would say that “Memory Trace” lies closer to the obsessions that make me write. I find myself going back and farther back to primordial memory, to the earliest scenes—“traces,” really—memories not given to me by others, but direct sensations that still live in me, such as the taste of iron warmed by the sun, and my mother’s warning voice. I was also thinking about how very young children learn by putting things in their mouths! Odd, I guess, but suddenly an excursion to the Bronx Zoo became cosmic. It was like going back to a personal “Big Bang.”
SEBD: Now working on your third poetry collection, having already completed your first two books, Apertures and Second Skin, would you mind sharing some insights into how your process has changed over time and with experience, or any struggles that you have encountered in the past or present?
MGR: I certainly can’t speak for others, but for me poetry is a need, a joy, and a struggle. I love the work of it, but I do have to work at it principally because I am learning all the time. And I fear that there is not enough time! When I was young, I wrote poetry in English and sometimes in Spanish. And then, I went silent for decades. Now, I am trying to catch up. With whom? With admired poets, living and dead. I am acutely conscious of my limitations and shortcomings. I revise constantly, as I work to refine the line, the stanza, etc. I am always reading and studying the poetry of others. And I am always amazed!
SEBD: Fellow writers Tony Reevy and Marjorie Hudson mention in their reviews of your second poetry collection, Second Skin, the importance of family and heritage as themes throughout your work, respectively. I also notice a recurrent theme dealing with the sense of sight. For example, in “For Reasons You Never Gave” you mention “periphery” and “seeing me,” in “The Riddle” you have the “peripheral eye” and “the retina,” in “The Deep” you write about “in the night of your seeing,” and in “Winter Light” you write about “shy eyes” and “the almond-eyed ones.” I wonder what you as the author think about these themes and their prevalence in your work?
MGR: The idea of seeing as knowing and being known, of coming into being when one is seen, is compelling and inexhaustible. Jamaica Kincaid’s The Autobiography of My Mother (1996) comes to mind. Here is a bleak novel of negation in which the withering effects of colonialism are located within the character of Xuela, Kincaid’s protagonist. Xuela can neither give nor receive love because she has lacked a mother’s life-giving gaze. There is also the idea of seeing a thing “slant,” of catching something fleetingly, indirectly, intuitively, as in the corner of the eye. These ways of implying reality intrigue me very much.
SEBD: I would like to spend some more time on “Winter Light,” one of my favorites, if you don’t mind. For readers that may not be aware, this poem was showcased in the 2011 Nazim Hikmet Ran Festival, a celebration of the Turkish poet’s hope for social justice, love of life, and longing for his homeland—key elements also included in this poem.
The first thing that struck me, even before reading the poem, was the inclusion of “Garcia” in your name, Maria Garcia Rouphail. As I continued to read, I discovered your use of place, “Guanabacoa,” physical traits, “the almond-eyed ones,” architectural details, “gingham ghosts in a room / the color of Caribbean coral,” and language, “abuela.” Now please correct me if I am mistaken, but I believe that this poem is about the exile of Cubans in the mid-1800s to the United States during political turmoil and an outbreak of tuberculosis, or essentially an encapsulated summary of a Cuban-American heritage.
Then thinking back to other pieces of your work, I found it interesting that you have poems that could be read as possibly being void of Hispanic heritage, meaning that heritage does not play a factor in their storytelling, as well as others where heritage is a key element. It seems as though your mind, pen, and poems are “Shuttling back and forth / on a rusting ferry across the Florida Straits / between Key West and Guanabacoa.” Tell me, how do you identify yourself as a writer—female, Southern, Latina, Cuban-American, or something else? And as a writer as well as a professor of literature, how do you feel about these labels?
MGR: Thank you for your kinds words about “Winter Light.” You are largely correct about my paternal family of origin. My father’s people arrived from Guanabacoa, Cuba, in the late 19th century, through the 1920’s. My father was born in 1910, and he arrived in Key West, Florida, in 1925. Those generations of Cubans were in the main poor and working class, and they were very politically progressive—as my father certainly was. His was a complex story of a pregnant mother and one of her sisters ferrying back and forth between La Habana and Cayo Hueso (Key West), but one of the central pieces of the story for me was his mother’s death from tuberculosis shortly after she gave birth to him in Cuba. My father did not know her birth or death dates, or where she was buried. He had only an undated photo of his mother, my abuela. In the photo she couldn’t have been more than a teenager, and she wore a dress typical of the early 1900’s that looked like it might have been gingham. The photo haunts me to this day.
My mother‘s forebears, also mostly poor and working class, were fair skinned Quebecois, Irish, and German. I deeply loved my whole family. I inherited my father’s dark complexion, hair, and eyes, however, and I was given a fully Spanish name. By virtue of this, my schoolmates in the 1950’s and 60’s reminded me that I was “colored.” The country was overtly racist during that period, so I identified emotionally with black and brown people, as did my parents.
That said, “identity” is fluid, in my opinion. Many highly trained and gifted poets today seem to locate themselves within particular niches, and their projects often thematize the distinguishing features and experiences of identity. I have alwaysthought about the forces that have made me a woman from a marginalized cultural minority, progressive, born in New York City, raised in the Jim Crow South, and married to a man from another “non-Western” cultural minority. But given where I am in the life cycle, and given the fact that I have not been in an MFA program (I have a doctorate in American literature), I see my “identities” todaymore as functions of my relationships.
SEBD: In “Winter Light,” I love how you have broken the word “re-membering” in regards to your grandmother in your final question. Just as you have broken the word, which in itself lends to the broken history of emotional and familial ties of this time in history, but also provides a new way to view what the process of remembering is—the actual putting back together of a person, piece by piece, as best as one’s memory allows. You mention in regards to your first collection, Apertures, that you “depended on memory to open its cedar box of precious things.” Would you mind walking me through your writing process and explain how you “re-member” details while you work?
MGR: So, here is where memory becomes the imperative project for me, at least for the present. I have been obsessed with Czeslaw Milosz’s poem “Late Ripeness,” in his final collection Second Space (2004), where he says of the dead, “they dwell in us, / waiting for a fulfillment.” This statement resonates with my felt conviction that the living and the dead remain deeply interconnected, even the dead we’ve never met or known. My mother’s death when I was twenty-four was a grievous loss. My grandmother who died after birthing my father has haunted me, too, and I knew that in calling her forth in a poem I was completing the story she didn’t get to tell. I felt this as an obligation and honor. The same would be true of telling a gruesome thing about a vexatious person who has affected us. We hold them and ourselves up to scrutiny, and maybe even pardon. Somehow, these things have to be told in order to make sense of being alive here and now.
SEBD: In “Flight Plan With a Breakfast Menu,” you describe a transitioning period in your home in regards to family, shifting the focus from the past to the future. Fellow poets from North Carolina, Tony Reevy and Shelby Stephenson, also focus on the subject of “home” in their work. Born into an immigrant family, Tony moves around, constantly searching for a place to put down roots and call home. On the other hand, Shelby consistently writes about his ancestors and how he and his family have been deeply rooted in a particular house and piece of land for over 100 years. It seems as though your sense of home may include a combination of these, along with your own unique splash of Caribbean, coral-colored character. Would you mind painting a picture of what the word “home” means to you and how this is expressed in your work?
MGR: I love the works of these fine poets. I’ve heard Shelby Stephenson read, and let me tell you he is a delight. After he finished one poem about the old homestead, I was prompted to write a “reply” poem that begins, “My dead, you cannot visit them.” It’s what I heard well up in my ear as he finished his lovely piece about generational history. Most of my people lie scattered in graves across international borders or in unremarkable plots across several states. Home is, for me, at once a geographical space (North Carolina, and Chicago, where my children were born and which holds particular pride of place) and a room in the heart where all are gathered.
SEBD: In your review of Helen Losse’s poetry collection Seriously Dangerous, you provide an interesting critique of her poem, “Just Saying.” The work tells about a car accident where the passengers are trapped in an upside down vehicle, and you note the change of voice from the first-person “I,” to the plural “we,” and then back to the singular subject “I.” In regards to this movement you mention that this “suggests a limit to shared experience.” I think this is an extraordinary insight into the human psyche. Because, if you think about it, there is only a minute portion of our lives that we actually share with others. The majority of our experiences happen within our individual interiors, filtered by our own perspectives. Many times we experience life alongside each other, but as so often happens, in the end each person walks away from the experience with their own version of the truth. This leads me to question, what types of shared experiences do you incorporate in your writing?
MGR: Right. And poetry works to overcome the wall that separates us, even as it affirmspersonal experience. Poetry mediates our solitude, making it shareable and bearable. Such life events as childbirth, surviving serious, even potentially fatal, accidents or illness can be shared. In my poem, “Now the Crickets Rub Their Wings” I attempted to channel a person in whose presence I sat for some hours and whose personal story had been particularly tragic, but whose oral version of it needed to be translated into English in my hearing. The poem was, in effect, an attempt to overcome a kind of double barrier.
SEBD: The deft manner in which you blend innocence with violence is impressive. For example, in “For Reasons You Never Gave” you write “An occupying army of bees swarms / down the tender throats of the black and blue sage,” and in “The Riddle” there are “Sunrays that are knives on the retina.” When you write these descriptions, where do these juxtaposed, sensory images of innocence and violence come from, and what response are you hoping to receive from the reader?
MGR: The first poem attempts to embody the slow burn of frustration with an intransigent other. The passage you quote from the second poem is in fact a physical recollection of what my eyes experienced on intensely sunny days in south Florida. That particular poem is a “seeing it slant” piece that attempts to capture the fugitive sensations of a very young person whose “identity” is in flux. I’m not sure that I succeed here, but I hope that a reader might recognize something of a younger self at that particular life stage.
SEBD: You expound upon the subject of a “catastrophe” in your review of Helen Losse’s book of poetry, Seriously Dangerous, in which you write, “Here is where art, especially poetry, is particularly necessary and curative, for in affirming life’s mysteries and its pain, art provides agency and control for both artist and for those who engage it. Art helps us to integrate the unthinkable and horrific dark night, thus helping to make tragedy endurable, if not also capable of enlarging rather than diminishing us.” Would you be willing to explain the role that poetry has played as an agent of healing in your life?
MGR: As I mentioned earlier, I went silent for decades and then began to write again during this last decade. Throughout the “great silence” I had been sporadically keeping journals in which I berated myself about not writing! Then, one day, a lyrical line sprang up in me and I wrote it down. I have kept faith with and have been grateful for that dawning.
SEBD: The two poems included here, “Flight Plan With a Breakfast Menu” and “Memory Trace” are works from your third collection. I enjoy a quote that Tony Reevy pulled from your second collection, Second Skin, and I will turn the table and ask the question to you in regards to your current work, “Where are you dreaming now?”
MGR: Well, things are gestating now. I would like to return for a while to translating poems from Spanish. It is something I did when I was young, but haven’t done it for a long while. I believe that translation provides invaluable knowledge and practice for poets. I read lots of poetry and poets in translation: Taha Muhammad Ali, Adonis, Milosz, Szymborska, Z.Herbert, Transtromer, Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva are particular favorites.
SEBD: Now your turn—you ask the question and you give the answer.
MGR:I believe Whitman when he says that “time avails not.” But I also hear Marvel warning that “time’s winged chariot [is] hurrying near.” By this I mean that I am aware of having so much yet to learn, but I don’t have the luxury of a full life span remaining to me. What to do? I try to stay focused and present each day when I sit down to write. And I am grateful for every minute.
SEBD: Maria, it has been a great pleasure spending time with you today. Thank you for taking time to answer my questions. And thank you for being part of Negative Capability.
MGR: The pleasure is entirely mine. Thank you so much!