5 QUESTIONS with rhina espaillat

by Woody Woodger | April 2018

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As a young girl you were exiled with your family from the Dominican Republic to the United States. Do you think the theme of exile has occurred throughout your work, and if so, in what ways? Not the theme of exile per se, but rather the theme of transplantation and the acquisition of additional “layers” to the identity of the exile or immigrant or other type of human transplant. That theme turns up in poems about my life and my very dear two-sided family—both those I left behind with great regret, and those I have acquired here with equally great joy through friendship, shared interests, and marriage.

You often use the sonnet form in your poetry. Is there something about the sonnet form that you’re especially drawn to as a writer? I love the sonnet’s capacity to do just about everything poetry can do: expound an idea, tell a story, confess, accuse, grieve, rejoice, persuade, argue with itself…just about anything the human mind is tempted to do with language, and do it while singing! 

You often write poems in both Spanish and English, most notably in your chapbook Mundo y Palabra/The World and the Word. Was there someone or something that inspired you to want to write bilingual poetry? My first poems were made in Spanish, which is my birth language. When I learned to write in English, it seemed natural to want some poems to exist in both languages, so I sometimes translated my own. But for the most part I translate poems that I love, by others, from either of my languages into the other, because I want both sides of my identity and my  large bilingual “ family” to share with me.   

In what ways do you think bilingual poems affect the reader that monolingual poems cannot? I don’t know if bilingual poems do that. But they do help to reveal to readers on both sides of a language barrier that people on the “other side” are much more like us than different, because they share the fundamental aspects of human beings everywhere. I think all of the arts create opportunities for us to recognize ourselves in the strangers whose lives open up for us in their writing and painting and music. Bilingual poems can be a form of conversation across barriers—links across both space and time—and I like building those.

Is there anything that you think New England, and/or the United States, could stand to learn from the Dominican Republic? I think whoever we are, we can learn something from each other, both as individuals and as societies. Sometimes some socially-bred habit of another culture seems alien and even off-putting at first, but as you become used to it you understand it better, see through its initially alienating surface, discover its virtues, and finally accept it fully. I’m thinking, for example, of the folksy Caribbean habit of patting people on the arm for emphasis during a conversation, and hugging upon meeting and parting, which, to the North American, may feel invasive. To us immigrants when we’re newly arrived here, the distance normally observed between people when they speak seems almost hostile, but we soon learn to appreciate it as a mark of respect, not coldness, and eventually recognize the very different, more subtle ways that North Americans use to convey warmth, affection and generosity, which are as genuine and abundant here as anywhere.