An Interview with Claribel Alegría

Interview with Salvador Peralta and Gregory Fraser

BPR 44 | 2017

Excerpt (full interview available in Birmingham Poetry Review number 44 and as a downloadable pdf)

Fraser

Just to start things off, are you working on anything new?

Alegría

Well, I have to confess something, and it’s not public yet. Yes, I am writing a long poem, and I’ve been working on it for about ten months. I think—I think, but don’t know—that it is finished, but I am going to let it rest for about six or seven months, and then I will read it again and see what happens. It’s over thirty pages, and mostly I don’t believe in long poems. But I was sort of pushed to do it—I don’t know by what person or what force—but the name of it is Amor sin Fín (Love without End).

Peralta

How did the poem come about? You say it just thrust itself upon you?

Alegría

I don’t know what happened to me, but it was like a voice dictating to me. I am not involved, only an instrument. And so I am working on that. I am just giving it the last touches, and then I am going to put it to sleep for about six months. Then if I like it, I’ll give it to my translator.

Fraser

Does your daughter still translate your poetry?

Alegría

No, not anymore. Now I work with Daisy Zamora. She is a very good Nicaraguan poet—very, very good. She read the poem and loved it. She and her husband, the poet George Evans, plan to help me with publication. They are good friends of mine, and do a wonderful job, but I don’t know what will happen with the book, because probably I will be dead by then [chuckles] . . . I don’t know.

Fraser

So you imagine the poem being a book unto itself . . .

Alegría

Yes, yes. But it is going to be a very thin book. Because it’s going to be about thirty or forty pages, almost a . . . how do you call that? . . . a chapbook. And I don’t know why, but I have the feeling that this is my last work. I have that feeling. Maybe it’s because I don’t have any more to say . . . who knows? Or maybe another poem or two will come. I don’t know—nobody can tell. [chuckles]

Fraser

That’s right, and you’ve been working on it for ten months, you said?

Alegría

Yes, for ten months. And now it’s very long. I’m used to short poems, you know. But this poem is like all my work combined together.

Fraser

Are the lines characteristically short? Your poems tend to move in little clips of language.

Alegría

Yes, they are short. Also, I believe the music is very important. But we’ll see what happens. Meanwhile, as I said, in a week or two I will put the poem aside and that’s it. I feel empty, but also I feel that things are coming to me, and that I am thirsty to receive them. I’ve been open to receiving lately.

Peralta

So before this project, ten months ago, you were writing, but they were shorter poems?

Alegría

That’s right, almost all my poems are short. I have some long ones, yes, but almost all are short.

Fraser

Do you have any shorter poems that are not published?

Alegría

No, I don’t have anything.

Fraser

You have nothing that isn’t published?

Alegría:

No. The reason I don’t have any is because if I don’t like it, I destroy it. I destroy poems every year. I burn them!

Fraser

Really?

Alegría

When we were living in Mallorca, we had a house in the Deya that had a chimney. My husband would say, “Claribel, are you sure?” I would say, “Yes, I am sure.” On the last day of every year, December 31st, I would gather up the poems, and throw them in the flames [laughter].

Fraser

Oh, my gosh! Well, that’s a good way. You just clear yourself and start the new year fresh.

Alegría

That’s right. I don’t have anything. Only that one long poem.

Peralta

In another interview, you have said that you work on something until you feel that it’s complete. You keep working, and you keep working. How do you know when a poem is ready—where you feel comfortable with it, or feel willing to share it?

Alegría

It’s very difficult. With this long poem, it’s going to be very, very difficult, because I still don’t know. It’s something like an interior feeling. Don’t you agree? I was telling my son the other day, “You know, the poem probably could’ve been better, much better, but this is the most I can give.” At the moment, though, I feel satisfied. What else can I do? If this poem is mediocre, it’s because I am mediocre [chuckles].

Peralta

So are you going to put it down for six months, wait for December 31st, and if you don’t like it, are you going to burn it?

Alegría

Right! [chuckles]

Fraser

Don’t do that!

Peralta

We’ll rescue it if you do. [laughter] It’s so very interesting—this sort of cathartic process, but at the same time this cleansing ritual. I guess that you have a way of going through your poetry and saying, “This is good, and this is not.”

Alegría

But, I am so grateful for poetry (don’t you feel the same way?). Poetry sustains us. When my husband died . . . you know we were very united. When he died, I thought I would never write again. I took a trip by myself to Asia, where I didn’t want to know anyone and no one knew me. I even thought of suicide. I thought I would never write again. And then poetry came. That’s where the book Saudade came from. It’s dedicated to my husband.

Peralta

Was there a particular feeling that kept you going through the process of mourning? Or did poetry help you approach the process of mourning?

Alegría

I don’t know but, it was amazing. I was suddenly writing a lot, and that book was written in a short time. I can be very lazy, but this one came in a short time. A poem came to me, a poem that says, No puede conmigo la tristeza, la arrastro hacia la vida y se evapora. Loneliness is no match for me. I drag it into life.

Read the full introduction in Birmingham Poetry Review 44, or download the PDF.