Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Visiting Writers: Eduardo Corral

It embarrasses me that there are huge swaths of literature I don't get. Is it an age thing? Maybe so. That's certainly the case with some experimental fiction and with stories that are sexually explicit. Then there's poetry. I've been known to say “I don't speak poetry,” although I don't think this has anything to do with the fact that AARP has started sending me applications. My cluelessness about poetry has less to do with age and everything to do with my lack of knowledge. That's why I try to hear as many visiting poets as I can.

Eduardo Corral, the author of “Slow Lightning,” came to Butler months ago. Unfortunately, shortly after his visit, family obligations pulled me away from the world of poetry. My notes laid fallow. What I remember about Corral's Q&A is that as he addressed us, his responses were exceptionally thoughtful and measured.

Corral came to poetry by accident. He thought he was signing up for a literature class, but it turned out to have a creative-writing component. The professor, taken with his work, encouraged him. Corral began reading current poets, and then telescoped backwards, learning the work of older poets. “I read, read and read,” he said. Once certain poets influenced Corral, he latched onto the work of those who influenced them, and eventually developed many poet obsessions.

“I move through the world by listening and seeing,” he said. As the eldest child of immigrant parents, he took on the role of translator for them. The experience of growing up as an outsider led to an increased sense of observing. Labels are lenses through which he sees the world. “We’re all outsiders, to a degree,” he said. “What other people see as marginalization, I take as a strength.”

In daily interactions, the only place his parents were acknowledged by non-immigrant members of society was the library. It was a profound experience that librarians, authority figures, acknowledged his marginalized parents. Corral loved the library. In the relative quiet he learned to pay attention to and love small sounds in the background, and began to jot them down, translating white noise—like the sound of doors closing, the A/C shutting off, etc.—into words. Corral encouraged us to think back to the first time we were enveloped in a nourishing silence.

In relation to his poetry, Corral first thought of silence as a hindrance. He felt pressure that his words had to balance the silence within and between lines, but other poets taught him that the well-crafted line can balance silence. The moment of silence between words and lines is like a moment of gratitude. “Now I realize that moments of beauty exist in a well-crafted line.”

I asked Corral about his use of Spanish in his poems. He said he never wrote in Spanish in graduate school. “I was writing to please teachers and gain acceptance from peers.” In the beginning Corral felt behind his classmates, and assumed that their acquired knowledge was simply a natural brilliance. He worked to catch up by imitating poems he loved. But as he found his voice, Spanish found its way into his work. “My Spanish is not academic Spanish, but that of the working poor. A certain marker,” he said. “By making the decision to write in Spanish, I refuse to privilege the way of seeing the world one way over another.”

In speaking about the specifics of his writing, Corral said he always has a notebook with him to capture anything—a texture, a person. “If I write about it in my notebook, I know I'll probably write about it eventually.” He describes himself as a slow, deliberate writer, throwing away poems that no longer surprise him. He cautioned us against sending our work to other readers. He used to do this, but would get as many opinions as readers. He encouraged us not to be passive readers. Develop a poetic instinct, and you can hold this against other readers’ opinions. Corral encouraged us to pull all influences into our work, and to not be afraid of pulling in weird obsessions, even if they’re not literary, even if they're not language. He left us with this: Read like a writer. Read good poems. Language can't approximate experience, but is elastic. Fragile.

I can't say that after the Q&A I understood poetry, but the word “clueless” no longer seemed to apply. I felt curious. I may be on the wrong side of fifty, but I left the talk invigorated.

No comments:

Post a Comment