INTERVIEW | The Third Degree: Rodrigo Toscano
On October 2nd, Rodrigo Toscano came to New Mexico State University to read from his forthcoming book Explosion Rocks Springfield (available from Fence Books in Spring 2016).
When I was asked to interview Rodrigo Toscano, I immediately embarked on a two-week freak out. I scoured the internet for his work and tried to quickly devour three of his books (I didn’t finish), all so I could give him the smartest interview possible. What I ended up with was an e-mail thread filled with a list of stale questions that had no heart behind them. They were fabricated, unoriginal, and for lack of a better word, boring. What we decided on instead was to record a conversation during a car ride from Las Cruces to the airport in El Paso.
I spent the night before our trip stuck in the same rut, trying to prepare myself to ask the “best questions he’s ever heard.” The next morning, Toscano got into my car and the first question that came out wasn’t even a question: “Theater. In your work. Talk about it?” Toscano looked at me and asked, “Are you recording this?” “Yes.” “Okay, why don’t we just have a conversation—” and he picked up the device and turned it off. Over the next forty-five minutes, Toscano and I did something that human beings don’t often do: we talked.
By the time the speedometer hit 75MPH, I had forgotten about all the questions I had fretted over the night before. We were talking. About who we were, where we came from, why we were doing the things we were doing. From that conversation, we arrived a completely new set of questions. Organic questions. Questions, as Toscano described it, “from the gut.” I dropped him off and returned home to put together a new interview. I have to say, it’s better than the original.
Nate Wilkerson: All the sections in the new book, Explosion Rocks Springfield, have the same first line/prompt “The Friday evening gas explosion in Springfield leveled a strip club next to a daycare,” but each time you read the phrase, there was a different rhythm to it. Why the repetition? Why the variation? How does it change from text on a page to words being read aloud?
Roberto Toscano: The text was written exactly as you cite it, a simple declarative sentence. On the page, it reads like a subhead to a news article. One can read it very plainly out loud, or add an emphasis to particular words. The speed too can be varied, as well as the intonation and pitch. Since I am riffing off of each and every word in that sentence for some 90+ pages, it’s important to make people aware of all the registers inherit in each iteration, but especially in this piece, where I am having to repeat that line over and over. It’s like when people sing the national anthem at a sporting event. Everybody knows the melody and the words, right? And everybody expects all singers to spin out something unique, not only as regards the singer’s actual vocal ability, but also people want to hear (expect!) a slight rearrangement of the tune.
NW: You mentioned seeing an article about a gas explosion in Springfield and being captivated by a particular picture of the event. How did you get from that article and picture to these poems? Why write about such a specific event that you have no personal attachment to?
RT: Every “catastrophic” event exposes aspects of human endeavors, be they institutional, “common practices”, deeply repressed masking, or simply supposedly “too simple” daily habits to be meditate upon. Such was this particular event. You see, the fact that the strip club turned to rubble (thankfully everybody inside evacuated), and it leveled a day care (on the one day that the kids were away) put me in a perplexed state of what is the any and everything of what we do, at any given time. I suppose there’s a side of me that’s an anthropologist, and thinking about the juxtaposition of “care” and “club” and so forth, I started wondering too—as a never-to-be engineer, what is Gas? And as a psychologist, what is Stripping?
You know, it really irks me, when people question whether Shakespeare was really Shakespeare, because “He couldn’t have written that!” For, “He wasn’t a globe trotting courtier!” “Only a mariner would know such things!” “Only a trained theologian, close to the Queen’s court, marks the true author!” And such dribble. In other words, these “skeptics” are really believers. They believe, or rather enforce that various disciplines are to be forever tethered to specific life experiences. But to poets, language itself counts as an experience, and when it doesn’t, then those poets, to put it mildly, suck.
NW: The poems are all in English except for one in Spanish, with a translated version. What is the piece in Spanish doing there? What about its translation into English? What do you want readers to be thinking about language?
RT: In that piece, what I am trying to do is shed a bright light on the specifics of English syntax. First there’s a Spanish piece that’s very brief, a rendering of somebody at a union hall, shushing up fellow co-workers, trying to get his/her take on last night’s incident—the explosion. Later, in another instance the English “version” is a translation of the Spanish one, but without me straightening out the syntax. I keep the syntax of Spanish but use English words. The intended effect is to keep readers/listeners from internally dozing off, thinking that what they’re hearing is “meaning”, rather than a making of meaning. I do all sorts of things to keep spectators on their toes. I do this too, to keep me on my toes. If I get complacent, then it’s all over for the poem, or book, or reading, in terms of keeping it vital.
NW: You play with sound a lot, down on the level of phonemes and graphemes. Why is that such an important part of your work? What responsibility do poets have in terms of playing with sound?
RT: First off, poets don’t have a “responsibility” to do anything (at least in this epoch). Everyone has a shot at invigorating an evening of frabba jabba, or putting people into a stupor. Some people might “play” and play and play—to no avail, no effect, worth remembering. And yet, others don’t “play” and manage to splay out before us, level upon level of significance. What I choose to do, is almost always in contrast to what I’ve done before, either five pages ago, or two minutes ago, or three years ago (in terms of books). But yeah, the phonemes and graphemes, they attract me, though not necessarily entrance me. There are poets who are zombified by those elements of language; some can run with it—hard, and make something of it; others, again, put us to sleep by calculations of of the “interesting.” Poets I like translate what they’re onto, not just say it.
NW: You operate, for the most part, outside the world of academia. Do you think that benefits your work? Do you even see a distinction between academia and the world of labor?
RT: The industrialization of academia is increasingly on everyone’s mind. It now resembles the “non-academic” world. This is due to the march of neoliberal capitalism and its remorseless moniterization of every minutae of our bodily and psychic efforts as human-apes. But there it is. It’s actually increasingly easy for me to have conversations about labor & mind with my colleagues. It’s practically all we talk about sometimes. I feel for my brothers and sisters in that industry. I appreciate all of their resistance, all of their sacrifice, all of the hard won victories (of the “heart and soul”) despite the encroaching monster that is neoliberal political economy.
It both “benefits” me and “hurts” me to be outside of academia. It benefits me in the sense that I don’t get burned out with poetry and poetry talk, because I have to return to it quite thirsty. It hurts me in that sometimes it’s hard to stay in the loop of books and book-speak. Visits to schools like NMSU and others keep me primed for sure.
NW: Each of your books is drastically different than the others, both in terms of content and form. Is it a deliberate choice to do something totally radical with each new project? Do you have any future projects in mind for continuing this diversity of style?
RT: Here goes another big name drop—Beethoven. Take MR. B, for example, his pieces are not just, you know, cool figurations and hot-to-the-touch harmonies and rhythms. What are they? Entire new conceptions of soundscapes! The music resides inside those soundscapes. The margins and the core of any given “piece” (the major works at least) shift radically as his art unfolds in time. Honestly … what’s the point of picking up the pen, otherwise?
I’ve been thinking of this large work, called Flight Plan. I’ve got some 20-25 sketches for it. I haven’t as yet found the vein as to why this book has to absolutely exist for me. Also, I haven’t quite figured out what the division of writerly labor might look like, what part of me is going to work on what part of the idea. I so agree with Thomas Edison, “genius is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration.”
NW: You have a successful, demanding job outside of poetry. Why do you continue to write? Why should anyone write poetry?
RT: Right? I think … upright apes with the FOXP2 (speech) gene will always be suckers for the whap n’ slap of wordery.
NW: What advice do you have for young poets? Should they be thinking about or trying to do anything specific?
RT: I guess one thing. Keep in mind, the medium of your art is words, and there’s more to words than you or anyone can barely fathom. Keep the weirdness of it all, front and center. Don’t get carried away. And after a good bout of that sobriety (that others can sense)—get carried away!
Rodrigo Toscano’s newest book of poetry, Explosion Rocks Springfield, is due out from Fence Books in spring, 2016. Collapsible Poetics Theater was a National Poetry Series selection. His poetry has appeared in the anthologies Angels of the Americlypse, Voices Without Borders, Diasporic Avant Gardes, Imagined Theaters, In the Criminal's Cabinet, and Best American Poetry. He works for The Labor Institute based in NYC. He now lives in the Faubourg Marigny (seventh ward) of New Orleans.