Bessy Reyna is the author of two bilingual books of poetry, The Battlefield of Your Body (Hill-Stead Museum, 2005) and Memoirs of the Unfaithful Lover/ Memorias de la amante infiel (tunAstral, A.C., 2010, Toluca Mexico). Her poetry can be found in numerous anthologies, including El Coro: A Chorus of Latino and Latina Poetry, In Other Words: Literature by Latinas of the United States, The Arc of Love: Lesbian Poems and The Wild Good. Born in Cuba and raised in Panama, Bessy is a graduate of Mt. Holyoke College and earned her Masters and Law degrees from the University of Connecticut. For nine years she was a monthly opinion columnist for The Hartford Courant and was a frequent contributor to Northeast, the Sunday magazine of the Hartford Courant. Currently, she writes an arts-and-culture page for the Hispanic newspaper Identidad Latina. She is a frequent lecturer and guest artist at colleges, libraries and museums. She has performed her poetry internationally; taught writing workshops in many venues; and served as a judge for poetry competitions, including the Connecticut Book Award for Poetry.
Long River Review: Are you currently working on anything?
BESSY REYNA: Yes! Last summer I was invited by the International Festival of Arts and Ideas in New Haven, to be one of six poets working on their program entitled: The Freedom Journeys: Poetic Reflections, to be presented during the festival. Some poets were assigned a specific location from the Connecticut Freedom Trail. However, I was assigned to the Amistad Center at the Wadsworth Atheneum, which are mostly archives. Looking at all those boxes, filled with folders and photographs, I thought it was going to be very hard to find something to hang on to. Then, I pointed at one of the boxes on the table and asked Alona Wilson, the curator, to open it. Inside there was an 1855 essay titled “Is it a sin to own slaves” written by a young schoolgirl, as a school assignment. It even had the teacher’s note about it. That essay became my building block, and even though I didn’t have a specific “place” to inspire me, I was able to develop a “concept” for the poem by using her essay and three other stories I found during my research. One was from Mary Ann Cowles, a young woman in Farmington, whose family were abolitionists. The other two stories I integrated I found almost by chance, while reading the narrative written by James Mars, a former slave who lived in Hartford. Mars wrote about how helping Nancy Jackson, a young slave woman brought to Connecticut in 1835, to obtain her freedom. Mars and others filed a case on her behalf with the Supreme Court of Errors (now the Supreme Court) Due to the work and commitment of many people in Hartford, Jackson was granted her freedom in 1837 by the court becoming one of the most important legal cases in Connecticut. It is a remarkable and little known story. My poem, in four voices, interweaves the essay, testimony, and court decision. It was written to be performed by three or four readers.
The question I am now researching is: What happened to Jackson AFTER she was freed? Did she stay here? What did she do? I was invited to participate in the festival again this summer and I hope to continue my research about Jackson, with the goal of creating a long-poem about her.
The Freedom Journeys project was an extraordinary learning experience for me. We know about the horrors of slavery, but no history text can fully convey the actual pain the slaves suffered, or describe the inhuman conditions in which they were forced to live with the power, which arises from reading those experiences in narratives written by the slaves themselves.
LRR: Do you consider yourself a certain type of poet? (i.e., woman, Latin American, American, etc.)
BR: It’s hard to separate each part of me into one box for the cultures I have lived in, another for my ethnicity and race, and yet another for my sexual orientation, or my politics. Each box is part of me. My foundation. All of these elements are reflected in my work.
LRR: Have you been termed a certain type of poet by others? If so has it frustrated you or has it reinforced your own feelings on whom you are as a poet?
BR: Last October I was on a book tour in Mexico and I was so impressed with the introductions to my poems written by university professors and teachers. One in particular, an essay written by Dr. Eugenio Nuñez Ang, focused on the theme of “nostalgia” found in many of my poems. He wrote about my shifting between the past and the present, and the way I have been able to be part of two cultures. Reading his analysis of my work was both a humbling and a very rewarding experience.
LRR: Is there any difference between Bessy Reyna the performance poet and Bessy Reyna the poet of written word?
BR: When I am doing a reading of my poems, I am very conscious that I want to convey to the audience the emotion of the poem. When writing a poem, the crucial test of whether it’s done is reading it aloud for myself – actually that’s the final test in all my writing. When I was an opinion columnist for the The Hartford Courant, I always read aloud the column before submission. At a reading a few years ago the host provided sign-language interpreters and I loved watching the reactions of the audience as the interpreter’s hands re-created my work. It was a unique experience seeing my poems interpreted in this way.
LRR: Are there truths in the sound of poetry that are lost when poetry is read silently? Are there poems that are meant to be read in silence (perhaps a silent meditation on meaning) that don’t need to be read out loud?
BR: Your questions are like looking at three kaleidoscopes at the same time.
Former poet laureate Robert Pinsky once said that the body is the instrument of the poem. I often think of the text as being similar to a music score coming to life when it’s played. I agree with Pinsky. However, I don’t think that reading a poem silently should take away the impact of what the poet intended. Reading poetry is an emotional experience which changes with how old we are, or how we feel on any given day. If you look at two of Billy Collins’s poems: Another Reason Why I Don’t Keep A Gun In The House (“The neighbor’s dog won’t stop barking.”) and compare it to Forgetfulness (“The name of the author is the first to go.”) each deals with very different issues, yet both of them imply the frustration of living with events beyond our control: the annoying barking in the first one, and the loss of memory and aging, in the second, both affecting the reader in very different ways.
LRR: What kind of poems do you write?
BR: What I write depends on many factors. Sometimes I write angry poems about the condition of women, or love poems, or poems of longing for the tropics. Depends on how I feel at any given moment. Until last year I had never written a poem on a subject selected by someone else, and I confess I was very insecure about doing it. I spent most of the spring doing research for the “Freedom” poem I presented at the International Festival in New Haven. I was also invited to take part in a poetry program in which each poet selected one work from the collection of the New Britain Museum of Art. I chose “Blue beyond blue,” a magnificent glass sculpture by Dale Chihuly. I have always admired his work, and had lots of fun writing that poem, in which I imagine Chihuly going all over the place looking for different shades of blue to include in his work.
LRR: Did any other poets of Latin American descent inspire you? Who are your influences?
BR: When I first arrived at UConn, to do my Masters degree, I felt extremely lonely. No friends, no money, no car. At that time, the Peruvian poet Cesar Vallejo became my constant companion, because he too had been alone in a foreign country and his poems articulated so much of how I felt. Years later I met Martin Espada, who is now a friend. Martin is one of the poets I most admired. And, of course, Neruda’s Twenty Love Poems is still one of my favorites but only in Spanish. I have yet to find a satisfying English translation of that book. I don’t know to what extent Vallejo, Martin, and many others, have influenced me, but they certainly have inspired me to write, to pay attention to my emotions and to look at the world in different ways.
LRR: Did reading a poem first spark the desire to write poetry or was it an experience?
BR: Both. My love for poetry started when I was in fourth grade in Cuba, and a teacher selected me to recite “Los zapaticos de Rosa” by Jose Marti, the poet and martyr of Cuban independence. It was a long poem and, as I stood in front of the school reciting it, the beauty of the words and the meaning of the poem greatly affected me. I have forgotten the teacher’s name but I will always be grateful to her for giving me such a gift at an early age. A few years later, I began writing seriously in response to the death of a school friend.
LRR: Do you think the chiding of Latin Americans by shock jocks or comedians or by cartoons encourage or reinforce racism, or do they help to relieve the racial tensions that are ignored by the language and attitude of political correctness?
BR: My first opinion column for the The Hartford Courant was a response to hate crimes against blacks, Hispanics and gays. I believe that the language and attitudes of shock jocks and some comedians and cartoons are meant to provoke and to reinforce negative behavior and in the extreme, hate crimes. The label “politically correct” is a pejorative term used to dismiss those who would be careful, that is demonstrate care for the other.
These behaviors contribute to the atmosphere of hatred and ignorance, which we are experiencing now. It fosters distrust of peoples whose cultures and races might be different from ours. Hate crimes are still rampant in this country, and fighting against them is not just “political correctness” but extending the same dignity to all people. In his book of essays “Zapata’s Disciples” Martin Espada deals with the effect this has on a child who sees someone on TV making fun and demeaning his or her culture. How do you explain to a child that it is “just a joke” and that they should not identify with, or internalize those stereotypes?
LRR: What goal do you seek through your poetry, to discover, to influence, to re-vision history?
BR: I started writing for myself, to clarify some of my feelings about things. By now, having participated in readings in several countries, I realize how universal some of those feelings are. Years ago at the end of a reading at Trinity College in Hartford, a young man asked me if he could “hug me,” he was crying because a poem about my father had touched him deeply. I had a similar experience at a reading in Mexico City, after I read the title poem of my book. If my poems can have that effect on the reader, then there is a communion between us and to me that would be a great accomplishment.
LRR: What advice do you have for young poets/writers?
BR: The same advice I was given when I started. Read a lot! Other poets will be your best teachers.
QUICK HIT QUESTIONS:
LRR: Personal quote?
BR: After reading at the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival, Hill Stead Museum in Farmington, Connecticut. It was such a beautiful summer evening and I was so happy with how the program went that I said to my partner, “I don’t care if I do another reading ever again.” My partner still teases me about that one.
LRR: Why I’m a geek?
BR: I wish. I’m not a geek at all. If it wasn’t for my partner forcing me to get a computer, I might still be using my fountain pen and my typewriter.
LRR: My addictions?
BR: Watching movies.
LRR: My heroes?
BR: Mandela, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz.
LRR: Books I’m reading?
BR: SWAMPLANDIA! by Karen Russell and enjoying it very much.
BR: New Yorker, Vanity Fair, The New York Times, Poets & Writers and Legal Studies Forum, edited by James Elkins, law professor at West Virginia Law School. He publishes works written by lawyers who are also poets.
LRR: What I wish I invented?
BR: 3-ring binders can’t live without them.