The Poet of Green Bananas and Bacalao

An interview from the Poetry Foundation Syndicate. 

How a plate of food reminds Victor Hernández Cruz of history.

by Francisco Aragón
POETRY FOUNDATION SYNDICATE

Victor Hernández Cruz was born in Puerto Rico in 1949, and his family moved to New York City when he was five. He has published nine books, including his most recent collection, The Mountain in the Sea, and currently divides his time between Morocco and Puerto Rico.  The entirety of this interview is available at poetryfoundation.org.

Franciso Aragón: What draws you to the historical, given that the lyric seems to be the dominant mode in American poetry today?
Victor Hernández Cruz: It’s a personal obsession with me to study the history of cultures, my culture, the history of the Caribbean, how the Caribbean formed. To me that’s all very exciting, and I have to find a way to make the personal historical. I have to touch history through my personal life. So if I eat a plate of food and I see green bananas, and I see some rice, and I see some bacalao [dried salted cod], then I already see an historical situation there.

FA: Right on your plate?
VCH: Right on my plate, because if I’m going to eat this food, I’d like to know how it was composed. They weren’t eating green bananas in Spain, because green bananas come from Guinea, from Africa; and bacalao is from–the Spanish and the Portuguese cultivated that way of cooking it; the ways of putting other things in it were developed in the Caribbean . . . so I see right away the Caribbean, slavery, the Taino Indians and what happened to them, the interchange of cultures, and the shifts of the whole exploration era. This happens when I look at food or when I listen to music–I see a Spanish melody going to an African rhythm with indigenous instruments.

FA: What can you tell me about the poem “Root of Three,” which begins

      I walk in New York with a mountain
      in my pocket
      I walked in Puerto Rico with a guitar
      in my belly
      I walked in Spain with Mecca
      in my sandals.

VCH: The Arabs were in Spain 800 years. They contributed greatly to the culture, and they themselves had a great civilization and culture there–Córdoba, Sevilla–you had streets, fountains, orange groves, 400 or 500 mosques; they had great scholars, it was the center of translation from Greek to Arabic, and from there to other languages. They revived the Greek classics, they had doctors writing books, they had great music.

FA: What are some of your other major concerns?
VCH: The history of immigration in a worldwide sense; the idea of civilizations coming into other civilizations; what happened when the Spaniards opened up the oceans and began to explore the Americas and thought they were in Asia, mistook Cuba for Japan, and then thought they were in India. To me all of this is very fascinating, and because I am a product of that combination of cultures and races, to me it’s an obsession to study those things–to study how the Spanish did when they first gave them pineapple. I read somewhere that when the Indians gave them this sweet delicious pineapple, the Spanish ran to the bushes to vomit. That should have been a sign of things to come, because they started sawing everybody down. So anybody who doesn’t like pineapple, you know is going to end up killing you (laughter).

FA: You don’t write what many would call autobiographical lyric poems. Was this a conscious decision?
VCH: Well, the poetry’s not really mine. The poetry’s not really about myself, it’s all about my culture. I’m not writing about my person and what I do.

FA: So you use poetry as a way to get away from your personality?
VCH: One person is not very important on the planet Earth. I mean one person in the history of time. . . . We’re alive 80 years; that could be like a second on the cosmic clock. And so my personal life could just bore somebody if I told them what I did every day. There are things I can extract from my personal life, but I use them as stepping-stones or a springboard toward other things.

Francisco Aragón is the author of Puerta del Sol and editor of The Wind Shifts: New Latino Poetry. The founding editor of Momotombo Press, he directs Letras Latinas–the literary program of the Institute for Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

© 2007 by Francisco Aragón. All rights reserved.

Distributed by the Poetry Foundation at http://www.poetryfoundation.org.

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~ by ericedits on January 24, 2008.

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