Texas-born gay Latino poet Dan Vera touches all the hot-button issues
Poet T.S. Eliot told us that “April is the cruelest month,” but it’s also National Poetry Month. And ever since gay poet Richard Blanco was chosen to write President Barack Obama’s second inaugural benediction, poetry has been an unexpected topic of popular conversation within the LGBT community.
Dan Vera, a Texas-born gay poet, is happy about all of that. His second full-length collection of 45 poems, Speaking Wiri Wiri (Red Hen Press 2013), was the winner of the inaugural Letras Latinas/Red Hen Poetry Prize. Taken as a whole, there is a cohesive voice and message to this volume: Latino, queer, the son of immigrants, fascinated with language and memory (two of the five sections in the book are “The Trouble With Memory” and “The Memory Of The Tongue”), Vera’s volume couldn’t come at a better time, especially with immigration reform and LGBT issues on everyone’s mind.
Writing with authority, assurance and passion, Speaking Wiri Wiri earns Vera his rightful place alongside his poetry heroes, living and dead. We spoke shortly before publication of Vera’s book.
— Gregg Shapiro
Dallas Voice: At what age did you seriously begin to write poetry and how did you come to it? Dan Vera: I began writing poetry in college during the lead up to the first Iraq war —1989. The country was gearing up for the war and although the news was filled with reports, including talk of the possibility of a draft, there seemed to be little conversation among my circle of friends about the impact the war could have on my generation. As it turned out, the war was short, but as the subsequent years have revealed, it proved to be a skirmish in a longer war that we are still involved in almost 25 years later. That region has defined our generation in a way.
Back then, poetry allowed me a way to express my own concerns about this war. I don’t know why it was poetry, but it arose through poetry and when I shared it with friends they seemed to find a resonance with the fears and questions I was raising. I kept writing, mostly as a solitary act, and didn’t seriously begin to write poetry, to dedicate myself to it, to immerse myself in it, until many years later.
In your poem “The Interrogation of Poetry,” you write about the poet Pablo Neruda. Who do you consider your poetry heroes? Well, Neruda is certainly one of them. I used to joke that my life was like the first 19 minutes of The Wizard of Oz until the day I picked up a volume of Neruda [William O’Daly’s translations of Libro de Preguntas] and my life went Technicolor [laughs]. I’d been writing [for] a few years but that volume unlocked something inside of me somehow. My other poetry heroes would include Emily Dickinson for her persistence to write in solitude and her engagement with the world through her writing. There’s something rather heroic about that. Now there are other poets whose work has inspired or influenced me from time to time and for a variety of reasons: Nemerov, Ginsberg, Doty, Seiferle, Nye. But my reading tastes are rather broad.
Two dog poems, “Cadúco” and “My Double,” close section three. Can you say something about the role that dogs play in your life? To the extent that, aside from my husband, I spend the bulk of my time with dogs, these creatures that connect me in some way to a world outside of my human-centered experience of the world, they play a huge role in my life. We are crazy dog people [laughs] — there’s no reason to be shy about that. I didn’t grow up having dogs; I came to have dogs as an adult and as a writer. So dogs have been a source of contemplation for me about how we go about in the world. And having lost my first dog rather suddenly, the loss taught me invaluable lessons about mortality and about being present in the midst of suffering and being open about grief.
The poem “Ambrosia on Four Legs” opens with an epigraph by gay Cuban poet Richard Blanco. As a gay poet of Cuban heritage yourself, what do you see as a tradition of queer Cuban writers, which also includes Achy Obejas and the late Reinaldo Arenas. Those three poets have been sources of great pleasure and reassurance for me. Certainly as a gay Cuban kid who grew up in South Texas, their being gay and Cuban meant a lot to me. I remember finding an immediate resonance with Obejas’s We Came All the Way from Cuba So You Could Dress Like This? Here was a writer mediating these multiple identities. I came to Richard’s work much later and found a kindred writer exploring mixed identity and sifting through family memory. Our similarities may be more aptly a part of the immigrant writers’ tradition, certainly first-generation writers that are struggling to mediate these multiple identities here in the United States.
As for Arenas, his memoir Before Night Falls served as a priceless testament of the repression faced by queer people like me in Cuba. It certainly wasn’t new for those knowledgeable enough to remember Allen Ginsberg being kicked off the island for being a “perverse” influence on Cuba’s young people. But to my mind, Arenas belongs to that rich tradition of gay Cuban writers like Lezama Lima, Virgilio Piñera and Severo Sarduy. As in all cultures, gay people have been among the central pillars in Cuban culture. Unfortunately they’ve been largely sidelined or silenced in the last 50 years.
What did you think of the poem that Blanco read at President Obama’s Inauguration in January? I loved Blanco’s ability to thread the personal with the aspirational in that poem. That’s never been done in an inaugural poem and [it’s] a hell of an accomplishment. He managed to find a way to be communal and meditative at the same time. I loved what Elizabeth Alexander, the last inaugural poet, said about creating a moment of quiet in the midst of the pomp and pageantry. Richard did that but he also found a way to express the myriad and the shared. Just lovely.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 12, 2013.