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Becoming Guazabara: An Interview with Poet Luivette Resto

Ivelisse Rodriguez, PhD


Editor's note: This interview is the second in a series that will focus on contemporary Puerto Rican authors. To read the previous interview with Michael Mejias, click here

Author bio: Luivette Resto, a mother, teacher, poet, and Wonder Woman fanatic, was born in Aguas Buenas, Puerto Rico, but proudly raised in the Bronx. Her two books of poetry Unfinished Portrait and Ascension have been published by Tía Chucha Press. She is a CantoMundo fellow. Some of her latest work can be read in Entropy Magazine, Coiled Serpent, Pilgrimage Magazine, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, and an Afro-Latino poetry anthology titled ¡Manteca! (Arte Público Press). Currently, she lives in the Los Angeles area with her three children, who she calls her little revolutionaries. 

Ivelisse Rodriguez: “No sucios for me! / No sucios for me! / No sucios for me!” (28-30). Martha declares as she describes her ideal man in “Plátano Maduro Dreams,” a poem from your second poetry collection Ascension. Your poem “The Pendeja Syndrome” is self-explanatory—a poem about women acting like pendejas. Feminism is one of the hallmarks of your poetry, especially in regard to romantic relationships. In your poetry, what do you hope to offer women? 

Luivette Resto: I hope women find a sense of freedom to embrace all of the nuances and complexities of feminism and mujerismo. When I started writing poetry, I drew from the poems of Dorothy Parker, Sandra Cisneros, and Bernadette Mayer. Lately, I would add Lenore Kandel to that list. I still revisit the work of these women when I need a little bit of a nudge. These women wrote/write unapologetically and authentically, and their writing continues to give me strength and agency to write about sexuality, intimate experiences, motherhood, heartbreaks, and dalliances. For example, Kandel has a collection of poetry called The Love Book, where she wrote about the female and male body—beautifully and graphically. I want my poems to be that brave. If these women have been writing like this since the 1920s (Parker specifically), then I can talk about sucios and pendejas. 

IR: The famed “To Julia de Burgos” poem from Julia de Burgos is an inspiration for your poem “Guazabara” from your first poetry collection Unfinished Portrait. Your poem “Guazabara” has a similar cadence to “To Julia de Burgos” and the stanzas have a similar structure and juxtaposition between the outer self and the inner self. Your poem differs from de Burgos’ in many respects, but the main one is that de Burgos deals with a singular female identity which is split between its social face and its private and true nature. In Burgos’ poem, she strikes out at the self that is lady-like and folds under the perceptions of society. Her true self is the “essence” and the “virile starburst of the human truth” (5;8). De Burgos focuses on a double self. Your poem, however, seems to deal with multiply identities of a woman—the poet, the barren mother, someone who speaks with an accent, etc. In what ways does your woman differ from Julia de Burgos’ 1938 woman? What are the deliberate changes you aimed for between your poem and de Burgos’? 

LR: Through research, one of the changes I made was the title of my poem. I wanted my poem to be strong and fearless, two things that I sometimes feel I am not. The word “guazabara” means warrior in Taino, so the poem “Guazabara” serves as a reminder to me of the kind of woman I want to be—a warrior in life. Tackle things head on without fear. I hope to be the woman I wrote about, and in some ways, I am becoming that person, but like everyone, I have my self-doubts and self-esteem issues (insert impostor syndrome here). In my narrative, the guazabara is my alter ego like in comic books. The 1938 Julia de Burgos woman stands up to the social and cultural expectations of women in terms of beauty, for example. Both poems, I think, try to dismantle the expectations we set for ourselves or that others try to impose on us. Once again, I draw strength from the “other women” in these pages.     

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IR: “PUERTO RICO IS A BEAUTIFUL PLACE / PUERTORRIQUENOS ARE A BEAUTIFUL RACE,” Pedro Pietri emphasizes in his 1973 poem “Puerto Rican Obituary” (272-273). He shouts this as a reminder to the Puerto Ricans in his poem who are running away from Puerto Ricanness. Pietri, along with so many other Puerto Rican poets, writers, and historians, documents the negative views of Puerto Ricans that they have internalized and that also have been thrust upon them for close to a century in the continental US. Approximately 25 years later, you write about an almost welcoming of Puerto Ricans/Puerto Ricanness in “Thank You Ricky Martín.” The narrator thanks Ricky Martín for the “Latin Invasion” of the 90s and making her “…Menudo T-shirt…fashionable again /…Rolling my r’s was sexy, / my bubble butt admired by girls with ironing board for asses” (5; 8-9). In “The Return of Charo,” TIME magazine announces the return of Charo whose predecessor was Iris Chacón, and Chacón was the one “every little girl watched in amazement / as they purposely rode their underwear / up their brown asses” (20-22). Your poetry then captures a radically different perception of Puerto Ricans. How does this shift in view affect your poetry? 

LR: I am consistently appalled by the “rediscovery” of Latinos. In 1999, TIME magazine had Junot Díaz, Shakira, and Oscar de la Hoya on the cover, and the majority of the magazine articles, one of them even titled “Generation Ñ,” discussed Latina/os as if we just got here, negating all of the centuries of contributions, accomplishments, and discoveries. The articles were offensive and patronizing; once again, people of color are invisible until they are discovered through a white patriarchal lens. I channel my frustration and anger in my poems (a piece of advice I received in graduate school sitting in Martín Espada’s office). For instance, “The Return of Charo” came from an article I read in the back of a magazine, and the first person I thought of was Iris Chacón, yet she was nowhere mentioned as it discussed the resurrection of the hot, sexy, Latina known as Charo. At the time, JLo was starting her ascension into stardom and becoming the main representative for anything Puerto Rican. Through my personal experiences, she still is because any time I tell people I am from the Bronx and Puerto Rican, the first thing that most people say is, “Oh just like JLo. Did you know her?” These are real statements and questions in 2017. Latinas, unfortunately, are still pushing back on the spicy, fiery Latina stereotype chronicled in Judith Ortiz-Cofer’s essay “The Myth of the Latin Woman: I Just Met a Girl Named María.” For me, it is important to document the current day struggle and perpetual effects of colonialism, and that we are more than what the media wants to project. Pietri highlighted our beauty, struggle, and the beauty within that struggle. I aspire to do the same. 

IR: In Sandra Maria Esteves’ “Puerto Rican Discovery #3: Not Here,” she captures a common theme that emerges in Puerto Rican poetry—that of not fitting into a neat binary. “…not gringa either /…ni portorra” (6-7). Aurora Levins Morales & Rosario Morales also capture this in “Ending Poem.” “I am not African…I cannot return / I am not Taina…there is no way back / I am not European…I have no home there” (23-25; 28-29). In that same tradition, you focus on the disturbance of identities. Your poems “The White Girl in Her” and “Dancing Might Make Her Go Away” delve into the interior invasion of a “white girl” in the Puerto Rican self. The breakdown of binaries that Esteves and the Morales’ explore and the white girl inside of her that you interrogate are all conundrums of identity that occur because of Puerto Ricans being in the continental US (or elsewhere). Can you discuss this “white girl in her” identity more? What other emerging identities do you forsee for Puerto Ricans or Latinos/as in the US?

LR: The poem “The White Girl in Her” stemmed from real conversations where I was told I sounded like a white girl when I spoke on the phone or in staff meetings. Because I was (sounded) educated, I was labeled white. It was interesting to me to see the connection between race and education. Because I was fortunate enough to have access to an Ivy League education and was well-spoken, that made me white. Perhaps, I was naïve when I came to this realization so late in life, but when I share my experiences with others, they attest to similar experiences and interactions, which validate my feelings. At home, my family would boast about me to neighbors and long-distance relatives in their phone calls to the island. I was a show pony at times, yet I was also told, “Don’t think you are better than us just because you go to a fancy college.” Latinidad is constantly evolving and as such the literature evolves. I look at the development of the term Latinx, for instance. Also, among the Puerto Rican community, the way we identify ourselves varies, and it depends on who is asking. For me, living in LA for the past 14 years, folks ask me where I am from because my Spanish doesn’t sound like everyone else’s, so my initial answer is, “I am from NY but I live in LA.” Through our art, we need to acknowledge and respect that we cannot be categorized into just one space. This is an important practice especially with current politics. 

Artist Statement

IR: What do you hope to contribute to the oeuvre of Puerto Rican poetry? What direction do you hope Puerto Rican poetry will go in? 

LR: I want Puerto Rican poetry to be recognized on a larger scale. I know Pietri said the masses are asses, and he was right, but a part of me wants us to be seen and heard by a larger audience. Once again, we deserve visibility. We have earned it. Our literature is filled with beauty, anger, love, rebellion, angst, sorrow, and resilience. Not enough people get to read or experience it. Not even some of our own gente. Puerto Rican poetry is not taught enough, if at all, in our school system. I did not read a Puerto Rican poet until I was in college, and I am grateful that I did but that was too late. I wonder what kind of writer and person I would be if I were exposed to it at a younger age. Today, as a mother of three, I supplement what my children do not receive in school, but it also sadly showcases whose voice schools (private and public) choose to teach. Change starts with ourselves first, and I hope that by writing and producing, I am making a positive contribution to the Puerto Rican literature landscape. I hope I make my ancestors and mentors proud with my work. That I honor them and my people. That I am able to showcase another layer to Puerto Rican identity beyond the JLo case study.

Born in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, Ivelisse Rodriguez grew up in Holyoke, Massachusetts. She earned a B.A. in English from Columbia University, an M.F.A. in creative writing from Emerson College, and a Ph.D. in English-creative writing from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her short story collection, Love War Stories, is forthcoming from The Feminist Press in summer 2018. The Belindas, a fiction chapbook, is forthcoming from Tammy in summer 2017. She is the senior fiction editor at Kweli, a Kimbilio fellow, and a VONA/Voices alum. She is currently working on the novel The Last Salsa Singer about 70s era salsa musicians in Puerto Rico. To learn more about Ivelisse visit: http://www.ivelisserodriguez.com.

© Ivelisse Rodriguez. Published by permission in Centro Voices 12 July 2017.