Ready to Absorb the World around Us: An interview with Bessy Reyna

photo credit: Susan Holmes

Bessy Reyna is the author of two bilingual books of poetry, The Battlefield of Your Body (Hill-Stead Museum, 2005) and Memoirs of the Unfaithful Lover/ Memorias de la amante infiel (tunAstral, A.C., 2010, Toluca Mexico). A chapbook of her poems, She Remembers, was published by Andrew Mountain Press in 1997. Her Spanish language writing, published in Latin America, includes a poetry chapbook, Terrarium (Instrucción Programada de México, 1975), and a collection of short stories, Ab Ovo (Instituto Nacional de Cultura, Panama, 1977). Her poetry can be found in numerous anthologies, including El Coro: A Chorus of Latino and Latina Poetry, In Other Words: Literature by Latinas of the United States, The Arc of Love: Lesbian Poems and The Wild Good.  She is a contributor to Gathered Light: The Poetry of Joni Mitchell’s Songs (Lisa and John Sornberger, Eds. 2013) and Penelope: Antologia de Cuentistas Centroamricanas (Consuelo Meza Vasquez, Ed.)

Born in Cuba and raised in Panama, Bessy is a graduate of Mt Holyoke College and earned her Masters and Law degrees from the University of Connecticut. For nine years she was a monthly opinion columnist for The Hartford Courant and was a frequent contributor to Northeast, the Sunday magazine of the Hartford Courant. For several years, she conducted radio interviews with poets appearing at Hill-Stead Museum’s renowned Sunken Garden Poetry Festival in Farmington, CT. Currently, she writes an arts-and-culture page for the Hispanic newspaper Identidad Latina and an opinion columnist for www.CTLatinoNews.com. A former Master Teaching Artist for the Connecticut Commission on Culture & Tourism, she is a frequent lecturer and guest artist at colleges, libraries and museums. She has performed her poetry internationally; taught writing workshops in many venues; and served as a judge for poetry competitions, including the Connecticut Book Award for Poetry.

Bessy’s awards include First Prize in the Joseph E. Brodine Poetry Competition and artist award grants from the Connecticut Commission on Culture & Tourism and the Greater Hartford Arts Council. She is the recipient of the Connecticut Center for the Book Lifetime Achievement in Service to the Literary Community Award (2009), the American Association of Hispanics in Higher Education Outstanding Latina in the Literary Arts and Publications Award, the Pioneer Award at the Inaugural Diversity Awards presented by the Vice Provost for Multicultural and International Affairs at the University of Connecticut (2006), a Living Legend Award from Saint Joseph College Department of Social Work, and the One Woman Makes A Difference Award from the Connecticut Women’s Education and Legal Fund (2007). In 2001, she was named Latina Citizen of the Year by the State of Connecticut Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission. In 2012, she was one of ten women honored by the CT Women’s Hall of Fame. Bessy was inducted into the Immigrant Heritage Hall of Fame (IHHF) in 2017. (Bio courtesy of http://www.bessyreyna.com)

This interview between Bessy Reyna and Here student intern Courtney Botteron was conducted via email in February/March, 2018. 

Courtney Botteron: You mention in an interview with the Long River Review that your love for poetry began in the fourth grade in Cuba, after a teacher selected you to recite Los Zapaticos de Rosa.” What is it about the poem that ignited your love for poetry?

http://www.josemarti.cu/titulo/los-zapaticos-de-rosa/

Bessy Reyna: That poem was written by José Martí, one of the most revered writers in Cuba who fought and died for the independence of Cuba from Spain in 1895. As a young child, it was a great honor for me to be selected to recite that poem in front of the school. The story is very compelling: Pilar, a rich girl, gets a new pair of shoes and goes to play in the sand and the mother admonishes her not to get her shoes dirty. Time goes by and the girl comes back barefoot. A very poor woman holding a sick child in her arms, tells the mother that Pilar gave her child her shoes. The mother, touched by her daughter’s gesture, asks Pilar to also give them her scarf and other belongings. In this poem, published in 1889, Marti was giving us a very important message of caring and generosity. It’s a very long poem and, even after all these years, I still remember some of the lines. But now, when I look at that poem in translation, it saddens me to see how badly translated it has been. Someone even thought they were “Rosa’s shoes” even though the girl’s name is Pilar. Others have titled it “Red” shoes. I think “Rose-colored Shoes” is the only correct title. But going back to your question for me, when I was memorizing this poem, saying those rhymes, trying to understand its meaning, it made me realize what a powerful tool poems were to tell a story. That lesson is something that has stayed with me from that moment on.

Botteron: I really enjoyed your poem “Sunday Afternoon Naps,” which appeared in the inaugural issue of Here: a poetry journal. You seem to write a lot about personal experiences. Do you ever find that difficult?

 

Sunday Afternoon Naps

Sunday afternoons while my parents slept

I waited crouching outside their bedroom door

for that moment when Mom would stop speaking softly,

the bed springs coils stopped squeaking,

and the snoring began.

 

I spent hours studying Dad’s habits:

I knew I was in real trouble

when he took his glasses off and placed them

on the dining room table before he scolded me.

 

I also knew that on Sundays before their nap,

he hung his pants by the belt loop

on the left ear of the chair closest to bedroom’s door.

 

I would open that door just enough for my hand

to reach into the pants’ pocket

and gently, quietly remove the car keys.

 

Outside the building the red and white Chevy Bel-Air convertible

was like a magical vision among other cars parked on the

street.

It was my chariot,

My Pegasus.

It was freedom,

It was rock and roll blasting from the speakers.

It was daring life to meet death at the Boulevard Balboa.

It was what I waited for all week.

 

Reyna: Not really. That poem reflects, in particular, how I used to take my Dad’s car (without his knowledge) and drive around with my friends always on the verge of getting in real trouble if he found out. I also think it is important for women who loved cars the way I did as a teen (and even now) to write about it. Cars should not be, and are not, something that interests only men. There are others of my poems in which a car is an important element or frames the narrative.

photo credit: Susan Holmes

Botteron: At what standard did you hold yourself to when you realized you were going to be studying at Mount Holyoke College? Were you nervous or did you know in your heart that you were up to the challenge?

Reyna: I was a university student living in Panama City, Panama, when I applied for a scholarship to the USA. I went to lots of interviews with the selection committee there and wasn’t sure I would get it because being very opinionated. I started arguing with some of the members. Turns out that really impressed them and I was chosen as a candidate. Their recommendation was circulated among several colleges in the USA and I was very lucky that Mt. Holyoke selected me. I had NO IDEA where Holyoke was or that MHC was such a prestigious and academically rigorous school. I was accepted as a junior in their International Student Program. Much to my surprise, I was the only one from my group invited back by the college for my senior year. I was also selected for the Honors program and, even though I had never studied in English before, I graduated Magna Cum Laude. MHC in so many ways gave me permission to be an articulate, intelligent, and educated woman––traits not always supported in the Latino environment I grew up in. I had never experienced such intense friendship and generosity from people like my classmates, college administrators, and even Bertha, the lady in charge of the kitchen who was worried I wasn’t eating enough. My dissertation was based on research and a project involving children with dyslexia, which in 1970 was a new field of study. I carry MHC in my heart. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for that scholarship which opened so many doors towards my future.

Botteron: Do you believe in inspiration? If so, where does that information come from?

Reyna: I believe in being ready to absorb the world around us, instances, like an image, a photograph, stay in your mind. My poem “Lunch Walk” was inspired by walking by a man “who sounded like maracas.” I could almost feel the poem developing as I watched him. On the other hand, my poem about high school classmates is fictional, imagining what they might be like so many years after. We didn’t have “reunions” in Panama, so I have lost track of them by now. I was at the El Tercer Ojo, a really cool restaurant in Granada, Nicaragua. There was so much going on that I started keeping notes. I still have to write that poem.

Botteron: I also admired your other poem published in Here, “Route 99, Fresno, CA, December 27, 2015.” I found the story within the poem very powerful and disturbing. I think it also makes an important political statement. What do you see as the relationship between politics and art?

 

Route 99, Fresno, CA, December 27, 2015

He was alone at 6:30 that morning, when the cold

forced him to keep one hand inside his pocket,

the other tightly holding his lunch bag.

He was alone while waiting for his ride to work.

He was alone hours later when he woke up

at the hospital, not knowing how he got there.

Not knowing why that car with white men inside

slowed down when they saw him.

Not knowing why they started shouting obscenities

and yelling “Why are you here?”

Not knowing why, as he tried to cross the street,

the car accelerated towards him,

the front bumper hitting him, making him fall on the pavement.

Not knowing why those men rushed out to punch him,

Not knowing why those men rushed out to kick him,

Not knowing why those men rushed out to spit on him.

Earlier that morning, before he left his house,

he had kissed his children and his wife,

combed and rolled his beard, carefully coiled his hair,

then, reverently, tied his turban on his head.

 

Reyna: I grew up in a tradition of “political poetry.” Many of the best-known poets in Latin America: Pablo Neruda, César Vallejo, even Sor Juana Ínes de la Cruz, with her defense of women’s rights in colonial Mexico, are poets we read, who said important things. Since Trump’s “election,” the level of hate crimes has increased tremendously. I support organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center and the ACLU. Reading about cases they brought to court, I decided to try to write poems in the voices of the victims. “Route 99” is based on a horrible incident in which the victim was represented by the SPLC. I have drafts of other poems like this one. I think it is my responsibility as a writer to present these stories. I have a poem dedicated to Spec. Armando G. Aguilar, Jr. He was a young Latino veteran who committed suicide, one of the thousands who have done so since returning from the wars. I was reading an article in the New York Times and found his name. I started looking for articles or mentions of him in other media. Sometimes, that’s how my mind works, connecting dots.