Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

P O E T   I N T E R V I E W
HAPPILY LIVING IN MYSTERY
f r a n k   x.   g a s p a r ' s   n a t u r a l   f a m i l i a r i t y
w i t h   t h e   m a g i c a l


BY TAMARA KAYE SELLMAN

I DON'T always get the chance to meet Margin's contributors live and in person, so it's no surprise that I've never met Frank X. Gaspar. But Frank X. Gaspar's poetry so well precedes him in its intimate, conversational way that I feel like I've really come to know him through his words.

Of course, we all understand (or should understand) that the writer is literally not the same thing as the writing, and what I've read into his work is but a small interior fragment of the microcosm that is Frank X. Gaspar's life. Coming away from his words, though, I feel like I've had a personal, friendly, earnest and exploratory conversation about the meaning of life.

You know, the kind that you have with a friend while sitting on the hood of your car watching the planes land, or the exchange you might encounter while fishing for dinner with a companion on a backpacking excursion. You wrestle the Big Questionsótug at them, prod them, loosen them up with humor, reflection, experience.

There's nothing mysterious about the process. It's the everyday details that lead us, like a trail of popcorn, to the answers to our most profound questions. Though whether we find our own solutions is less important than how we seek these answers together.

So it is that our mundane stories become essential, lending the structure of "that reminds me ofÖ" segues to our most candid one-on-one debates about the Great Mystery, our common raison d'Ítre.

All this by way of saying that Frank X. Gaspar's poems make for a terrific conversation. Just ask Margin reviewer Oona Patrick: "I carry [Gaspar's Mass for the Grace of a Happy Death] with me, pull it out of my backpack at the slightest opportunity and wave its little red heart like a tract, like a knife. Gaspar's poems are my lifeline." Patrick also publically "thanked" Gaspar's book, The Holyoke, for giving her "a new perspective on home." These are strong commendations.

Gaspar writes from the Portuguese-American point of view, having been born and raised in the rich Portuguese community of Provincetown, Massachusetts. Aspects of Portuguese and Azorean oral and cultural traditions are, not surprisingly, woven into his lens of reality. His poems, as a result, reflect both the magic of the everyday world as well as a natural familiarity with the magical which comes from being raised within the superstitious landscape of the Catholic immigrant experience.

One does not need to be a Portuguese-American or a P-Town native to appreciate Gaspar's observations, however. Anyone who is familiar with stars, gardens and the ocean can fit inside this conversation. Gaspar, described as a "democratic" poet, is a perpetual student of philosophy, and the nuggets he culls from his daily readings of worldly wisdom also find their way into his poems in ways that are accessible, charming and heartfelt; readers who aren't up on their literary allusions can still take part in the dialog.

I recently had an e-mail "dialog" with Gaspar after perusing his book, Night of a Thousand Blossoms, which I highly recommend. Here is the extension of that conversation.óTKS

__________________

Tamara Kaye Sellman: Please give me a sentence or two addressing the significance of these recurring themes in your work:

a. gardens
b. stars
c. angels
d. trees
e. swallows
f. death
g. the ocean
h. bitterness/sweetness

Frank X. Gaspar: Well, the gardens, stars, trees, ocean and so forth are what I see each day and night, and they are the ground of my poems; that is, any flight the poems might take, they take from the things of this world, the physical world. Bitterness and sweetness are the poles of my existential situationóand I imagine thatís true for most of us. Death is a mystery, and angels might be all around us, disguised as ourselves (even the self as angel disguised from the self of the everyday.) Be nice to strangers, as the old story goes.

TKS: I get the feeling, while reading your poems, that we are sitting on a dark porch under the stars drinking wine and sharing existential secrets in hushed voices. Your poems, to me anyway, are conversations...filled with questions which are philosophical and personal simultaneously, a kind of venturing into the larger questions we all face at some point in our lives: "Why are we here?" or "Why am I here?" From where does the impulse arise to address these abstract musings?

FXG: I suppose I could pass that off on my Catholic upbringing, but such answers always strike me as facile. The truth is, I donít see the musings as abstract at all. They seem to me to be the root of our existence. We live in mystery. Who would not walk around in constant wonder? It would be a terrible state to be in, in seems to me, not to be utterly awestruck by the miracle of existence.

TKS: In many of your poems you expand metaphor so that, in some ways, it has been literalized. I'm thinking specifically of these examples:

"I Go Out for a Smoke and Become Mistaken for the Archangel"
[The presence of a voyeur on a starless night becomes both the acknowledgment and the animation of one's dark side]

"It comes from that other life. You carry it with you,
you get used to it. You forget about it and it goes on talking and
singing and weeping all by itself. It's all right. It needs you.
You can walk me to the corner and share a coffee and tell me
your stories. It will still be there when you get back. It'll wait for you."

"The Olive Trees"
[Trees in a campus courtyard plan for their journey into the Next World]

"And where can they think they are
going, these bent, decrepit trees? See how they cast away
their eyes and ears."

"The Old Country"
[A mother bans sweeping in the evening, to keep down the dead in a New World]

"This was a house making its own ghosts. "

"I have traveled to the far edge
of a country now, fearing the dead.
They still want to speak with my mouth."

Why have you chosen to give these metaphors a more literal function?

FXG: I guess I donít see this as a choice. A very wise poet [Ginsberg] once said, Write your mind. I think a major turnaround for me was when I was able to understand what that meant. The metaphor comes out that way because that is exactly how I think and process the world. I am simply noticing myself reacting. For me, rational thought always streams away into something like dream. Itís just how Iím wired.

TKS: If one can assume anything from the characters who crop up in your poems (Buddha, Tacitus, Ceasar, Descartes, Isaiah, the bald tattooed convert), your work is meant to represent an entire world of perspectives.

But I also find your work in Night of a Thousand Blossoms takes on an exquisitely American tone. Exquisite because, while it captures the nuances of American lifeóbuttoned up homes, Boeing, neighborhood fences, the YMCAóit also thoughtfully borrows from more worldly philosophical influences and reveals the benefit/luxury of a solid American education.

And interestingly, your work remains accessible even for those who do not understand fully the stories behind Sappho, Keats, Plato, etc. These are clearly shared personal musings.

All of this to ask a simple(?) question. Is American poetry centered too much on its own popular or expected sense of identity (as opposed to the more individualized sense of identity your poems reveal)?

FXG: Now that is a BIG question. Happily I am not a high priest of American poetry, so I can try to sidestep answering it. But of course I do have an opinion. There ARE high priests of American poetry, and there is a kind of homogenized poem that one sees again and again. It is very risky to vary from the normative look and feel of expected (Iíll use your word) fabric. My lines and line breaks, for instance, donít look like too many other peopleís. It makes some readers nervous, as though I might not be following some set of commandments. You pay a price for such things, but the currency you pay it in is not worth much.

TKS: And a second question: Do you think American poets could gain by being more well-versed in world philosophy and more fearless about introducing those ideas into their own "American" work? You certainly don't shy away from spiritual subjects, and yet yours are poems that resonate on levels which are both personal and universal.

FXG: I like your word fearless. There is a clichť about contemporary American poetry that goes something like this: 'We have freed ourselves from any taboos on form or subject matter.' What a lie. Devotional poems are mostly tabooóthey certainly are if they are, say, conservative Christian. Poems praising the government are taboo. These are hyperbolic examples. You get my drift. Itís very hard to go down an individual road. The world of art is as hermetic as NBA basketball. So when I see someone authentic and bold, and not adopting the stance handed to him or her in grad school, I rejoice.

TKS: Some people think itís a bit of a stretch to include poetry under the aegis of magical realism. Your thoughts?

FXG:What is Magical Realism, anyway? Isnít it just a term to help classify works that were so boldly different from social or historical realism that they had to be taken on their own terms? They were aesthetically too compelling to ignore, so something had to be done. They had to be named. This naming gave readers a clue as to how to approach these works.

TKS: Most of our readers battle over the most basic definitions of magical realism. We respond by offering our readers individual definitions to consider. Do you hold your own definition of magical realism? Care to share it?

FXG: Iíll borrow from what I said above. Works that are boldly different from social or historical realism, yet aesthetically too compelling to ignore. This seems capacious enough to let a lot of people in the window.

TKS: Have you ever thought of magical realism as being a part of your own writer's worldview?

FXG: Yes, but in a very North American sense. I always think of Hawthorneís tales. Was Goodman Brown dreaming? Bewitched? Tricked by the Devil? Is that a story about lack of trust? You can read it both ways: supernatural or not. The truth may be that there are no boundaries in certain kinds of writing. I mean, how does that scarlet letter get transferred to human flesh?

TKS: You weave the magic with the mundane in much of your work. I'm thinking of the following poems:

"Leaving Pico"
[In this poem, the first two lines suggest a call from across the ocean heard collectively as well as the undeniable presence of the dead among the living]

"We heard Pico from the kitchen
where the living sat rolling
cigarettes in their thick fingers,"

"I Am Not a Keeper of Sheep"
[In this poem, the narrator admits to letting in (and regretting) the insistent presence of Pessoa] ~ [FXG notes: "To my ear, the regret is ironic, humorous, resigned, as to a guest who can be annoying, but whom you love anyway!"]

"He sits
so unassumingly at the table and you give him a small
drink, and he begins to speak to you, and then you realize
your day is ruined, your plans will come to nothing, you
will end by trying every subterfuge you know to get him
to leave, but he will wait and wait. And he is so charming!"

"My Hood of Stars"
[In this poem, the narrator witnesses and recounts certain creative actions of God even while denying that they really happened in the way he describes]

"Then God
bent down and picked up a handful of desert.
Not really. It's just how we talk about such things.
He picked up a handful of desert and there came
a great tempest. Then there were worlds standing in line,
waiting on street corners and in train stations. Then
God went a great way into that wilderness, whistling
and singing in bright garments."

How conscious are you of this intertwining of the real and the imagined/impossible when you write your poems? Is this strategy something you teach to your students?

FXG: Again, Iíve never thought of this as a strategy. Itís how I think. Itís exactly as the world appears to me, at least how it reaches my mind. I would never try to teach this to someone else for fear it might not be authentically how she takes in the world. We simply have to notice what we notice, and then reflect on how we noticed it. This latter is always what I try to teach.

TKS: Are you inspired by magical realist writing in general? If so, which writers (of prose or poetry) would you credit with being the most inspiring for you?

FXG: I think I went through the Boom with the rest of my generation of readers, reading Borges and Allende and [GarcŪa] MŠrquez, and others who are not always included, such as Vargas Llosa. But itís good to remember that many of those writers credit Faulkner as a great influence!

TKS: Where does Pessoa enter the equation? Is he a special influence for you, or are there others?

FXG: Pessoa speaks to me, more in his prose than his poems, but certainly in both. The Book of Disquiet is an amazing document. His gloomy irony and simultaneous hilarity remind me of the old Portuguese storytellers who used to sit around our kitchen table and spin fabulous yarns full of hyperbole and saudades. And now that postmoderns (so called) are talking about multi-vocal texts, letís look at Pessoa and his heteronyms from seventy years ago!

TKS: Do you think the narrative focus and technical strategies of literary magical realism are important guides for the voices and/or perspectives of writers from the Iberian Peninsula?

FXG: Once again, I donít think of strategies and guides. And technique seems to me one of the less salient features of magical realism. It seems to me that scene-building, as such, remains technically pretty much the same; itís the vision of reality and consciousness that is so startling. If we count Pessoa and Saramago, de Melo, and others, then I think we see the Iberian Peninsula (and the Islands, of courseólet us not forget the islands!) as a place where magical realism is a valid literary representation of consciousness.

TKS: Looking through the lens of your own cultural background, how might you summarize your role as a Luso-American (Azorean) writer? What is it that you specifically have to say about the world, or reality, or truth?

FXG: What I have to say is only my witness of my experience. That I grew up in Provincetown, deeply rooted in Portuguese culture, is something that is indelible. Itís as much a part of me as my gene pool. And the old town, which was far more Portuguese than it is now, is the landscape of my psyche. Everything I see, I see in terms of those formative years. About reality and truth, I am unreliable. About my experience of my small, small world, I can go on for quite some time.

TKS: I know you've been an active member of The Portuguese American Leadership Council of the United States (PALCUS), and since this is our Iberian Peninsula edition, I'd like to give you a chance now to rave about your PALCUS contemporaries as well as any "Iberian" and/or "Azorean" influences you can claim in the world of poetry, prose and art.

FXG: What a joy to list some names. But Iím doing so with the trepidation that I will leave someone out. Hereís a humble thank you to the following, in whose collective shadow I scuttle around like a dazed field mouse: Katherine Vaz, Vamberto Freitas, Adelaide Batista, Urbano Bettencourt, George Monteiro, Onťsimo Almeida, Frank Souza, Diniz Borges, Elmano Costa and Alice Clemente. I rave about them all. If Iíve missed someone, I apologize for the momentary lapse.

TKS: In Reinaldo Francisco Silva's abstract for "Frank Gaspar's The Holyoke: Childhood as Catalyst for Portuguese-American Writing," Silva writes: "Fully assimilated into the mainstream, Gaspar does not claim for himself the status of a hyphenated American." Are there pitfalls to being considered an "ethnic writer?" Or do you simply wish to remain true to your upbringing in P-Town, Mass?

FXG: I donít think about ethnic/non-ethnic much. I mean, does one have a choice? Maybe. But as far as being true to my roots, thereís not much I can do about that. My beloved dead are buried in that town. Itís one of the worldís special places, and I believe itís exactly that because of the Azorean culture that once flourished there. I donít worry about burying my heart in town; itís already there.

READ several poetry selections by Frank X. Gaspar

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