This year, Plough is launching a new poetry competition, the Rhina Espaillat Poetry Award. Plough’s poetry editor, A. M. Juster, spoke with the poet, who recently turned eighty-nine.
A. M. Juster: About ten years ago, you and your late husband Alfred came to visit Laura and me in Washington, DC. We went to the World War II memorial, which had just opened, for Alfred, because he fought in the Battle of the Bulge. We also walked up Sixteenth Street, where you lived for a while as a very small child.
Rhina P. Espaillat: It meant a lot to me, that visit. I was very grateful to you both for taking me there because I always wanted to see that house. I was only, I think, three at the time, and my only clear memory of Washington is of standing up in the back seat of my great-uncle’s car, looking out the oval window and seeing the Washington Monument retreating in the distance.
I remember little incidents – the young woman who was looking after my cousin George and me told us that we mustn’t play with the Black children. I told that to my father and he said, “Oh, did she? Well, I’ll have a talk with her.” So he did and she never did anything of that kind again. Because of course we are a mixed people – to have your children told that you mustn’t play with people who are part of your family!
Your father and your great-uncle had fled the Dominican Republic because they had stood up to Trujillo.
It was not as simple as that. They were in Washington, DC, for diplomatic dealings for the Dominican Republic, which owed money to the United States. My great-uncle was there as an emissary, not ambassador – he was a ministro, a servant of the state.
It was during autumn 1937, when the killing of the Haitians in the Dominican Republic took place – between 18,000 and 20,000 people on the border lost their lives. Trujillo sent what was really his private army. It was the police and other civil forces, but he had turned them into his private army, and they did whatever they were told, so they were killing people who had lived on the border for generations.
They were as Dominican as I was, but he had an anti-Black thing. His mother was Haitian – I think he had all kinds of complexes. He was a very complicated, very sick man. He wanted to erase the Black from us. Also, it was a handy thing, like the Jews for Hitler, handy and very convenient. He would say to the Dominicans, “Of course we’re having economic trouble because these people are coming over the border.”
But my father and my great-uncle didn’t flee the Dominican Republic – they were already in the United States at the time. When the massacre happened, my great-uncle said, “I’m finished.” When he showed my father the letter he had written to the Dominican government, my father said to him, “You know what this means, you know what is going to happen” – he would lose his government post, and not be allowed back. He said, “Yes, but sometimes you have to do what you have to do.” He was a brave man, a good man.
From there you went to New York City?
Yes, because they were in Washington with just what was in their valises. That’s all they had. They had no job. They had no place to live because the place on Sixteenth Street was not our home anymore.
My mother did a really crazy thing. She took me back to the DR because she had lost a child as a result of the stress and the misery of being exiled. She was very sick; she thought she would never see her mother again. Back in the Dominican Republic she collected her sewing machine because she knew she’d have to earn a living in New York, and then she went back to New York, leaving me with my father’s mother for close to two years.
My father and great-uncle meanwhile found an apartment and got jobs – not very glorious ones, but they paid the rent. By the time they sent for me, they had sort of a life. I came in the spring of 1939; I thought it was freezing.
You were attending high school in Manhattan when you had your first poems published, in Ladies Home Journal, then went on to study at Hunter and Queens College before becoming a teacher in New York City schools. What was it like teaching poetry in a public school classroom? Was it difficult to get your students to engage with particular poets?
No, as a matter of fact I found it easy. I had trouble with the boys sometimes; they would put their hands in front of them and say, “No, no, no, no. I don’t do poetry.” I always said, “Yes, you do. You just don’t know that you do.” I found out that the way to teach New York kids is to make them laugh.
They loved The Iliad and The Odyssey because I used to act out the parts. Once I was doing Helen visiting the walls of Troy so that the Trojans could see her. I was sitting on the edge of the desk and saying “the armies were looking up at her, and the old men of Troy were looking up at her. Then she took off the veil.” With that, I leapt off the corner of the desk and landed with both feet in the wastebasket. That went over very well.
I can imagine!
The thing is to make them feel that this is not so sacred that it can’t be touched by human hands. You have to make poetry theirs, and you make it theirs by bringing them into that life. I told it with a little trimming of gossip. “Can you imagine what the servants thought when their boss Menelaus was not there? This handsome young man from Troy comes in and stays with the queen. What do you think?”
But in addition to that, you have to do the psychology of that story, the wonderful ways in which Homer lets you know that they are soldiers but they are afraid of death. Homer wants us to feel for the soldier who was not a Greek but a Trojan, so the enemy is human, and that’s so important.
One of your most popular poems is called “Bilingual/Bilingüe.” Could you tell about its inspiration and evolution?
That poem came out of reality in the apartment of my parents, where I was permitted to speak English outside the door, but not inside; my father wanted me to be bilingual. He said, “She’s got to be part of the world, so Spanish in here, English out there.” I used to come home from school and say, “Let me tell you what the teacher said today,” and he would say, “No, no, mi hija, dímelo en español, en castellano.” I would say, “I want to tell you exactly the way she said it,” but he was very firm. At home that was sacred – I had to speak Spanish.
So “Bilingual/Bilingüe” sort of fell together – it had to have a little Spanish in each of the couplets, but by the end the Spanish no longer has parentheses around it: by that time we’re joined in it.
Joined in it – that’s right. You’ve translated Richard Wilbur and Robert Frost into Spanish; are there other poets you’ve done or are planning on doing?
An idea cooking in my head is a book of two poets, Emily Dickinson and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, because for me they are the first two great poets of the continent. Those two women for me are the most innovative, the most daring, and maybe the most skilled of the beginning of this double continent.
I’ve also done Edward Taylor and George Herbert. It’s interesting that I gravitate toward the religious poems – the poems in which somebody extremely bright either argues with God, or pretends to argue with God, or does something unexpected rather than saying, “You’re perfect, you’re perfect, you’re perfect,” which is boring. I like the way Herbert deals with God because he said, “I slammed the table. I said, no more, that’s it. I’ve had it with you!” That’s wonderful.
Tell people about Sor Juana.
Sor Juana is one of my saints. I adore her because she was so daring, so smart. In seventeenth-century Mexico, it was not a good idea for a woman to be that smart because she was surrounded by guys who thought that women should have a place in the kitchen. She didn’t want the kitchen. She became a nun not because she had a tremendously powerful calling, but because she wanted her privacy. She wrote a great many religious pieces that are outstanding, and she did her duties as a nun, of course. But she also wrote the most passionate love poetry.
She wrote Latin poetry too, which is much harder to compose because the prosody is so different.
But she did it. What’s more, she even wrote poems in Nahuatl. She studied philosophy and music and science; she was far ahead of her time.
The Inquisition got so annoyed with her that it sent word through one of the archbishops that she had better be very careful because she was becoming vain – by that they meant she published her poetry. They frightened her and said, “The only way you are going to get through this safely is to get rid of your scientific instruments and all your books.”
So she got rid of everything. She got into her old clothes, took care of sick nuns, then promptly got sick herself and died in her forties.
The other Cruz is Saint John of the Cross, Juan de la Cruz, and I adore him. What he did was to write, quite literally, love letters to God because in his poems he becomes the soul, which of course has to be female. The soul in his poems is always a woman very much in love with her husband who misses him all of a sudden. It’s absolutely enchanting.
What else are you working on now?
I have also been working on Gerard Manley Hopkins, because I adore him.
I would think Hopkins would be very difficult to get into Spanish.
Dickinson too. Her vocabulary is so unusual, I wouldn’t know how to…
I can deal with vocabulary. The trouble with her is you have to fracture the syntax. You can’t write smoothly the way you would write a Frost translation. I have to make it slightly twisted and crooked the way she is in English.
The year 2020 was in so many ways a bizarre time. What’s given you grief and what’s given you joy this past year?
What’s given me joy is the same thing that always gives me joy: I have a wonderful family, a wonderful collection of friends, a collection of poets who are like family.
What makes me wretched is that there are 650 children or so who were separated from their parents at the US-Mexico border and may never see their parents again – that I find heartbreaking. I go to bed every night thinking about that because I lived for two years without my parents. I was in my grandmother’s house surrounded by wonderful old people who were my relatives, but I missed my parents just the same. So I can imagine what the children are going through; it breaks my heart.
Many other things trouble me also, such as the amazingly huge distance between the very rich and the very poor. In the richest, most fortunate, and best country in the world that should not be happening.
Let’s talk about the poetry award that Plough created in your honor, to recognize poems reflecting your “lyricism, empathy, and ability to find grace in everyday events of life.” The judges’ job is to select those poems that reflect the values and the work of Rhina P. Espaillat. What qualities should they look for?
What’s important for me is important to Plough. They defend everybody. They will speak for the Israelis. They speak for the Palestinians. They speak even for people who have gotten into trouble. They believe, as I do, that we are all one family. That’s Christianity for me.
Read some of Rhina P. Espaillat’s poetry here:
- La Magdalena responde a quien juzga con dureza/Mary Magdalen Responds to the Harsh Judge
- Hazme, vida, quizás tu pregonera/The Widow Offers Herself to Life
- A Backward Look
- In Retrospect
- Where Nectar Was
This interview from December 22, 2020, has been edited for clarity and concision.