INTERVIEW | Third Degree: Frank Varela
On November 3rd, Frank Varela came to the NMSU campus to read as part of La Sociedad para las Artes series. He is a warm, loose, friendly poet, often drifting from the page to talk frankly with the audience. His family stories about coming of age in Brooklyn and Puerto Rico are funny and touching at the same time. The same thing can be said of his poetry. Although he has lived, worked, taught and written in many places, he is now a resident here in Las Cruces, where we caught up with him after the reading...
Nate Wilkerson: What prompted you to become a poet?
Frank Varela: It was an evolutionary process of experimentation with different genres and writing styles. In other words, I didn’t wake up, and the first thing that popped into my head was that I was going to become a writer and that I should hurry up and start writing. I first composed children’s stories, even tried my hand at writing a novel. Yet, nothing seemed to grab my attention the way poetry did.
I started when I was in the seventh grade in public school in Queens, New York. During a break in class, my English teacher, whose name I’ve forgotten, caught me writing and asked if he could read my notebook. I figured there was some arcane regulation against the writing of poetry on school grounds. Then I observed that he was actually reading different sections of my notebook. He returned my book and noted that I wrote in heroic couplets. I hadn’t a clue what a heroic couplet was, which caused me to visit the library where the librarian handed me a dictionary of literary terms.
NW: Why should anyone become a poet?
FV: Because the alternative is too horrible to contemplate. Poetry seems to draw nonconformists, even those of the conservative persuasion. One of the reasons to become a poet is to find yourself in a community of like-minded people. Isolation is a hazard for a writer. Actually, it’s not good for most people either. The community angle is an important one for me because it’s difficult to make a living as a poet.
I only know one person who makes his money from poetry, and that’s Marc Smith, founder the slam-poetry movement and host of the Green Mill in Chicago. Poetry doesn’t pay, or as my publisher says, “It doesn’t sell either.” It’s one of the sacrifices you make as a poet. I’ve worked as a middle manager for a telephone company, a library administrator, a foundation officer, and a management consultant for community-based organizations. In other words, you’ve got to have something on the side for those annoying necessities such as food, rent, utilities, etc.
What rewards are there for the poet? The compensation includes, but are not limited to, seeing your words in a book that you’ve just published. As I’ve aged, the reward aspect has changed from being fame-centered to one that now has had a spiritual side. This doesn’t mean that I wear a saffron robe and spend my day chanting prayers and writing haikus, but it has made me aware of the broader aspects of my career choice. I can see myself and work more objectively now. Although I have worked in different professions and situations, I consider myself first as a poet.
NW: How can poetry help the environment?
FV: I’ve lived in urban and suburban settings for most of my life. For me, nature was something found in a national party. It was something you paid an admission for which interaction with nature was strictly regulated. If I wanted to see strange and beautiful flora, I drove my car to Glencoe, Illinois, for a visit to the Chicago Botanic Garden. Animals? Lincoln Park was the spot. I hadn’t developed the awareness that the environment was everywhere around us, from nature parks to the concrete and clay of a city.
In Chicago, I developed a fondness for the park located in the Puerto Rican community of Humboldt Park. I thought it was beautiful, with its pond stocked with fish, baseball and soccer fields, and a horse stable—now a museum specializing in Puerto Rican art. Back then, I was an avid tennis player, and I took advantage of the public courts. The park was considered dangerous to visit. After all, Amnesty International declared it a war zone in the 1980s. There were also several gangs engaged in a turf war in the neighborhood and the park. But I discovered that if you went to the park early in the morning. You could see runners jogging through the park, families having picnics, the sounds of a softball game, etc.
The poet can help the environment by raising awareness of the beauty, as in this case, of an urban park situated in a “bad” neighborhood. I like environment poetry that gives “voice” to nature. That lets it “speak,” through feelings and images, and not through a polemical discourse. If you have something to say about the politics of environmentalism, the essay is a better vehicle than verse. Some of the contemporary nature poets that I admire include Ted Hughes, David Baker, and Wendell Berry, three authors who have made the natural world a significant theme in their poetry.
When I read Hughes’s “Hawk Roosting,” I come away with an appreciation for the writer’s gift to get inside the skin of his subject. The poem is a raw celebration of power, control, and survival. The hawk lives because it can kill without guilt:
For the one path of my flight is direct
through the bones of the living.
No arguments assert my right:
The sun is behind me.
Nothing has changed since I began.
My eye has permitted no change.
I am going to keep things like this.”
(“Hawk Roosting,” Lupercal, 1960)
David Baker is often described as a Midwestern poet of place, one influenced by the Romantic tradition of Emerson and Whitman. His poetry explores an individual’s engagement with nature and by the notions of history, home, and memory:
The first year I found it I found it by
accident, working my machine
to make out of the woods a walking path.
Not quite creekside, but in the shadow
of the creek, trilliaceae, or bloodroot,
wake-robin, or any kind of lily
whose petals make a robin into
wings, as this does, three-winged if not
creekside, but close, beneath a hedge apple—
itself not an apple.
(“Trillium,” Never-Ending Birds, 2009)
The poet Wendell Berry lives in Port Royal, Kentucky, near his birthplace, where he has kept a farm for over 40 years. He holds a reverence for the land and agrarian values that have influenced his life and literature:
The grower of trees, the gardener, the man born to farming,
whose hands reach into the ground and sprout,
to him the soil is a divine drug. He enters into death
yearly, and comes back rejoicing. He has seen the light lie down
in the dung heap, and rise again in the corn.
(“The Man Born to Farming, The Mad Farmer Poems, 2008)
NW: How do place and family play a role in your writing?
FV: New York, Chicago, and Old San Juan have all influenced my writing in ways both large and small. New York is the city of my birth. My immediate and extended family have called it home for over fifty years. It resonates with specific incidents and memories that I have come to associate each borough of that city. Each city is different, and yet, the same—the same passions, the same human stories, the same longings for authenticity and confirmation. Only Las Cruces has remained silent. However, I expect this will change over time.
NW: How do time and memory play out in your work?
FV: Time and memory have served to mold the history of my family in New York, Chicago, and Old San Juan. New York City is where I spent my childhood. “Manhattan 1958” and “Autobiography” are poems that take their inspiration from my time in that city. Chicago is where I became an adult. There I wrote, “The Seven African Gods” and “The Raccoons of Humboldt Park.” Old San Juan served as inspiration for “Contemplating Greek Mythology While Gazing at the Waters of San Juan Bay” and many of the poems of Caleb’s Exile. I cannot imagine my poetry existing without these three places. It would be like trying to envision Robert Lowell without his family and its place in the history of Boston.
NW: How has mythology influences your writing?
FV: I use Greek mythology to have fun with history and language in such poems as, “Contemplating Greek Mythology While Gazing at the Waters of San Juan Bay.” In the poem “Icarus,” I change the action from Crete to Manhattan to make a point about the immutable laws of karma. Icarus doesn’t die over the Aegean Sea, but his child does in Manhattan. Consequences delayed are paid when least expected. In addition to Greek mythology, I have also used the folklore of Santeria in the poems such as “The Seven African Gods,” and the even god Chango makes an appearance in the poem “Cartography.” People ask me if I practice Santeria. My answer is that I’m a mild-mannered Presbyterian.
NW: What are you currently reading?
FV: I’m reading, among other works, psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison’s biography of Robert Lowell. Her book examines how manic depression impacted Lowell’s life and art in Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire, A Study on Genius, Mania, and Character. Besides being a prominent researcher in brain disorders, Jamison is also an exceptional prose stylist in such books as Nothing Was the Same, Exuberance: The Passion for Life, and An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods. Besides being a professor of psychiatry and mood disorders at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, she is also an honorary professor of English at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. I’m also tackling Frank Bidart’s book of collected poems.
NW: What advice do you have for any young, aspiring writers?
I would give the aspiring writer with four bits of advice:
Find a community of writers for support and solace. I lived in the Bucktown community of Chicago, which is an artist’s community on the northwest side of that City. In Las Cruces, I’m a member of a writers’ group that meets the first and third Thursday of the month.
Find employment in an environment where books and literature are appreciated and treasured. I obtained a library degree to surround myself with books and knowledge.
Read widely. Enough said.
Put yourself out there by submitting poems, stories, essays, and novels for consideration. And don’t be shy about it. That is your real job.
Puerto Rican Relief Fund
For those of you who have followed Puerto Rico’s struggle with the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, you know of the dire consequences that hurricane had on the island’s people and infrastructure. If you’re interested in donating to the effort, the place to find information on reputable organizations working to alleviate the misery and help out in the reconstruction of that island, The Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College in New York has a listing on its website of trustworthy organizations working to those ends. Here’s its web address: www.centropr.hunter.cuny.edu
Frank Varela was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York City, and he was educated in Puerto Rico and the Midwest. Varela lived in Oak Park, Illinois and in Cleveland before his latest move to southern New Mexico, where he resides with his wife. He has published four volumes of poetry, including Serpent Underfoot (March Abrazo Press, 1993) Bitter Coffee (March Abrazo Press, 2001) Caleb’s Exile (ELF Creative Workshop, 2009), and Diaspora: New and Selected Poems (Arte Publico Press, 2016).