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Manoa 15.1 (2003) 141-151
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Defying Time and History:
An Interview with Ricardo Pau-Llosa
With The Mastery Impulse, Ricardo Pau-Llosa has now published five collections of poems. His previous titles are Vereda Tropical (1999), Cuba (1993), Bread of the Imagined (1992), and Sorting Metaphors (winner of the first Anhinga Prize in 1983). In addition to his work as a poet, he is one of the premier art critics on Latin American art; a guest curator at the Lima Biennial; author of major critical texts on Olga de Amaral, Rafael Soriano, Clarence Holbrook Carter, Rogelio Polesello, Fernando de Szyszlo, and Cuban art in exile; and contributor to many art magazines, including Art International magazine, at which he held a decade-long position as a senior editor. Pau-Llosa's short fiction has also been well received and anthologized.
Despite his presence in anthologies and special issues of magazines dedicated to Latinos and his passionate identification with "old Cuba" (as he refers to Cuba before Castro), there is no way of seeing him or his work as ethnic. He is a consummate poet of reflection, as much at home with German philosophy as with pre-Columbian artifacts.
The home he shares with his wife, Morella, in Coral Gables, Florida, is a veritable museum of modern, contemporary, folk, and tribal art, and reflects the hedonism of his poetry, as well as the luxury of his mind and appetites, not least of which is his penchant for fine cigars, the incense of which is ubiquitous. He is a sophisticated Hispanic Caribbean man of the old school, which is to say he is a witty, self-confident Mediterranean cosmopolitan who is painfully aware of history, madly in love with beauty, and stubbornly romantic in his hope for freedom in his native Cuba and justice in his beloved Latin America.
The following interview was conducted over three sessions during the weekend of 2 to 4 November 2001 at the poet's home.
AM Tell me about your childhood and what events or aspects of it influenced your becoming a poet. [End Page 141]
RPLl The problem with the "influence" [gestures quotation marks with fingers] is that the last person who can truly determine it is the one suffering it. I come from a family that rose, through tremendous hard work, from poverty, when I was born, to middle-class status by the time I was six. That was in Havana during a period most Americans see in only the bleakest nightmare terms because it was the time of Fulgencio Batista's dictatorship [1952-1958]. Despite the political crisis in which the young Cuban republic always found itself in, Batista—who was a dictator and a crook—ruled during a time of great economic and cultural expansion in Cuba. It would come to be known as Cuba's golden age, despite his dictatorship, and unfortunately I was born at that time and not twenty years earlier so that I could have enjoyed it as an adult.
AM But what specific aspects of your childhood—
RPLl These are the aspects. It's not just about the kind of house I lived in, or the school I went to, or the kind of parents and siblings I had, or what religion or what toys, what tv shows I watched. It has always been, for me, a question of the dense historical juncture into which I was born. That awareness shaped my life as an adult and most certainly has impacted my work and emerged many times in it as a theme. The reality of that Cuba into which I was born and would be expelled from at the age of six is made all the more dramatic by the complete distortion with which most Americans—indeed, most Cubans my generation or younger—view that period of Cuban history. The facts speak for themselves: Cuba was the only nation that was modern in style, outlook, and dynamism, and Latin American in essence. Indeed, more than any other country in the region...