Elaine Johanson Interviews Ricardo Alberto Maldonado About THE LIFE ASSIGNMENT

Ricardo Alberto Maldonado was born and raised in Puerto Rico. He is the author of The Life Assignment, co-editor of Puerto Rico en mi corazón and the translator of Dinapiera Di Donato’s Colaterales.


Elaine Johanson: It was such a pleasure to read the poems in The Life Assignment. Reading them, I experienced a dislocation from an ordinary sense of time and place, or maybe a better way to describe it is: a release from logic while staying in the room. At the end of each poem, I often felt I had been given a collage of images that built toward a beautiful whole. Can you talk about how you built these poems, and how they arrived on the page?

Ricardo Maldonado: Dislocation: displacement by injury is integral — and descriptive of how my poems move somewhere, elsewhere. During the decade or so it took to complete that which is in the book, or rather, to live and do with it, I gathered and listened. And by listening, I mean, words took root in the brain, scored themselves and left an imprint with real weight, there. I later felt compelled to rearrange. Generally, I feel I gather and source in and for the mind — always be reading, always interpret. From the low-brow (for example, Living with Dinosaurs, a series whose name I may be misremembering, I binged with Matthew, my former roommate and poet) to the high: a philosophical tract here, an essay there on economy and debt; songs of home and my mother, and, of course, the obvious busy body of religious texts, textured tones still holding deep resonance in me. The poem came as an act of reconciliation and weighing of comparable yet disparate impulse. Language as collage, when religious language felt like bread. The body, my home language. The poems happened because I needed them to occur. 

EJ: I feel that reconciliation so strongly in these poems, most obviously in your choice to write in both Spanish and English. That made me think about how a language expresses its culture, and how a language can be associated with certain memories and periods of our lives. Though bilingual speakers may only speak in one language at a time (unless they’re with another bilingual speaker), you need both to truly express a speaker’s experiences. Ordinarily, this is lost; many books with translated poems have complete versions of each poem in both languages, neatened onto facing pages. But here, the form of the book feels bilingual, not translated: many of the poems exist only in English, others are connected to their Spanish translation, and still others incorporate phrases from both languages throughout the poem. How did you come to this more bilingual, written experience?

RM: I got to the book, my book, as a bilingual experience because I had to. Early drafts — Goodbye, Octopus; For the Wild and Perpendicular Earth; Cesar Vallejo Has Died (working titles or titles for the work there) —barely featured Spanish. It took the destruction of the “homeland,” Puerto Rico in 2017, and a consciousness for the experience of chosen exile, the diaspora —to look more earnestly in the direction of home. I began to, murmur to myself in Spanish, in speech and in The Poem. And then to mis-speak and mistranslate into English, creating a mess of it in that other language. Because I felt that outright fidelity brought about a form of betrayal of home, the privilege outside of it. I still feel a vagueness about this, a living with the hunger and a maniacal rush to translate the poem for the market with near miss and close collision. The Spanish, of course, carries to the depths of my interiority, that formal feeling after a storm, which almost always immediately comes. 

EJ: I love thinking of a translation as a ‘near miss.’ It dislocates a mono-lingual reader, and lets them know that there is nuance, culture, and beauty beyond what they’re experiencing. In content and language, these poems challenge readers to question the dominant perspective, the dominant narrative. This also happens to be a unique time, in which the entire globe is experiencing a disaster together, yet from different vantage points. Our books of poetry are entering the world in a pandemic unprecedented in our lifetimes. What other events—personal or historical—shaped the writing of your book, and how does the current moment make you read or think about your own book differently? 

RM: There’s a felt sorrow in the term near miss; a militaristic nature to that combination of words I just used, I am thinking now: how I am, by law and decree, a citizen of this empirical force. The practice of production in the Empire, every act a taxed gesture toward the destruction of humanity and climate. I mean that hard and inescapable truth that my poems are poems from and therefore of the State; of this damaged and damaging Republic of persistent and widespread occupation (of an island archipelago like Puerto Rico, of course, as example). And also other occupations: that my father, from whom I reserve unmeasured amounts of tenderness, who died from non Hodgkin’s lymphoma decades after soldiering in Vietnam — for whose nation and Empire, whose violence did he bring and why? And what he brought back, to us, that haunted him, haunts me and will, even if I outlive him. My book is a book about labor (of and as) occupation, I want to say. We are devastated. And we devastate, we devastate, we devastate. 

EJ: I feel acutely, in these poems, that ongoing crisis of occupation. Again and again, you bring our attention to the inescapable, as in the poem, ‘Bounty:’ “I accuse one man. Two men. Three men. Men men. State / men. I accuse whomever I find I have found.” (In fact, in that poem, you mention ‘four thousand more.’ When I looked it up, I found three devastating possibilities for that number: 4,000 deaths after Maria, 4,000 National Guard soldiers deployed to Puerto Rico after Maria, and 4,000 families brought to the US in Maria’s wake.) You circle tightly around certain repeated words, and also form larger circles, like the question of the ‘Life Assignment,’ which you return to several times throughout the book. How did you come to these repetitions? What are you able to communicate through repetition? 

RM: My life is in the language of my prayers; a record of illness, of salary, too; these are repetitions I live by, live with. Others I am compelled to avoid, the pathologies, the weight of my redundancy: yet another employee in the service of a mission statement for the State. I mean to say that we are all marked by repetition and that a book can serve as a record of those that we are cognizant of, those that are given to us, those that unspool themselves from us onto others. The violence. The act of writing can be in itself a compulsion, I think, nothing new is there: something given to replication, conscious or unconscious, my own obsessive nature making a racket, talks talks and talks. And yet, I cannot help but hope that there is somewhere in this some kind of redemption, a way out of resonances. These four thousand, those four thousand— that estimate, that bountiful vagueness the state has propagated. I guess I want to say, let every poem be an act of love. 

EJ: Yes. I also see renewal, the possibility to discover something new, and the hope of grace. Perhaps it is just that – in this moment, like so many – I’m looking everywhere for hope! It seems as if people are turning to poems more now than ever. What single poem from your book—or what theme or quality that runs through the book—would you most like to offer readers in this moment? Why? 

RM: Then, also, let every poem be an act of power and love. A rough tenderness. A pressure made to feel deeply more something beyond words. A tenderness for whom the State made uncanny to us. And in that way, make every poem indispensable for that reader. As to a single poem in my book? Possibly the first. That primary emotion for home I sensed when writing it in Spanish a few days after Maria made landfall — that home could love me, despite my exile. Still love me. I mean to say I gave myself that poem, “Os doy mi corazón / I Give You My Heart.” I was its intended audience. I, I, I,: the audience for the poem. But you can hear that, all of that. 

EJ: That is a gift for your readers, the experience of hearing the poem with its intonations, its music. You cannot truly be told what you don’t understand. You must experience it. And I think that’s a loss, that your audience will largely be reading this on the page instead of hearing you speak it aloud. What do you miss most about, or what has felt like the biggest loss of, not being able to share the book in person, through travel and doing readings, and are there ways you are finding to counteract that loss? 

RM: These past three months in quarantine and a blankness surrounds us. A hardness to think beyond the surface and the materiality of the things where the virus awaits to be taken in. What I can hold can be dangerous. What I can give, too. That vagueness, big losses. Big fears: that I may not see my family in Puerto Rico till next year, months after the publication of my book. That my body may be dangerous to my community. That I may cause harm. I spent so long seeing a future in my book. And now my book and my body feel fraught with the potential of viral load. The sorrow of a century in these past three years are worth an entire lifetime. Nothing in that is new that it feels like a national and foundational assignment. That said, the digital sphere has allowed me to be more ... profligate somehow: to read my work to friends around the world. Click on a link and there you are being with. There has been some kind of communion in and despite distance that feels, in its potentiality, redemptive. 

EJ: Yes, there’s a grace to the connections we are able to maintain and build, even across these painful separations. For me, this book has been a beautiful connection to you. There is so much still to say about your work! To that end: what’s a question you would want to be asked about your new book, and how would you answer it? 

RM: The question that keeps me up at night: the poem that remains fastidiously unwritten, what is it? and my answer: the plurality of them. I have a consciousness for my lacunae and I may have failed myself in sentiment and study. 

EJ: I understand – and feel in myself! – that constant awareness of what is unwritten, unsaid, and yet to be said. As a reader, though, the book is complete and astonishing. It has been an honor to talk with you about it!


Ricardo Alberto Maldonado’s The Life Assignment is forthcoming from Four Way Books this fall.