We choose to light no candles: A Conversation with Juan Pablo Mobili about Contraband — curated by Tiffany Troy

Juan Pablo Mobili was born in Buenos Aires, and adopted by New York. His poems appeared, among others, in The American Journal of Poetry, Hanging Loose Press, South Florida Poetry Journal, Louisville Review, The Paterson Literary Review as well as a number of international publications: The Wild Word (Germany), Bosphorus Review of Books (Turkey), Hong Kong Review (Hong Kong), Impspired (UK), Pasaje (Argentina), and Otoliths (Australia). His work received multiple nominations for the Pushcart Prize and The Best of the Net, and an Honorable Mention from the International Rights Human Arts Festival. His chapbook,  “Contraband,” was published in 2022. He’s also a Guest Editor for the Banyan Review.

Contraband by Juan Pablo Mobili returns to the past through objects that become portals of an Argentinian-American poet who came of age during a time filled with hosts of “prohibitions.” In Contraband, Mobili looks to the future as a son, a father, and a citizen of his adopted home who “aspire to nothing less / than the courage of a hummingbird / flying in place / a hero to flowers.”

Tiffany Troy: The cover of Contraband features a man carrying a bag as he walks away from classical architecture towards more “modern” buildings. How does the cover relate to your eponymous title poem, “Contraband,” which begins the collection? The ancient Greeks in the Homeric epics introduced themselves with their lineage. You introduce yourself with where you come from, by naming what is withheld from the place. Could you speak a bit about how that idea of withholding (and in particular how that made you feel) translate in the title poem and how it connects with the poem that follows?

Juan Pablo Mobili: The cover was fortuitous, I stumbled into it and it could not have been more precise in reflecting what “Contraband” was about. The man walking with a lantern happens to be in the most famous cemetery in Buenos Aires. It is the cemetery where many famous people and the descendants of aristocratic families are laid to rest, they are all mausoleums, and quite beautiful. For instance, Evita Perón’s, the wife of the most iconic leader Argentina ever had, Juan Domingo Perón, has her remains there. The modern city landscape the man is walking toward could be Buenos Aires now, although  I’m pretty sure it’s a montage.

When I saw this image the first time, it not only represented what “Contraband” was about,  but it actually crystalized its essence: returning from the past. I went back to realize what I missed as a young man, returning to the present to tell what I saw, as the man I am today.

As far as the poem “Contraband,” it was a poem that compelled me to write, it wanted to exist. It became a portal back to where and when (when and where inextricably connected) I grew up. For instance, listing in it a host of “prohibitions” we live under. We knew that speaking openly could cost nothing less than your life... and it did to many, many people.

TT: Thank you for that historical and political context about the cover as well as the poem, “Contraband,” which extends to the collection overall.

I am interested in the idea of montage. In “Maiden Voyage,” the speaker oscillates between “writing a poem/ about the Titanic” and “a story an old friend told [him] / about driving his first new car, / out of the dealership, / only to be smashed by a truck passing by.” I also notice how objects, like the “huge dent” of the car, becomes a portal through which an older speaker enter the almost-cinematographic world of remembrance of his younger self. Could you describe the process of writing Contraband?

JM: Thank you for such careful reading of my poem! I’m convinced that often -if not always- I’m the last one to find out what my poems are about. If “Contraband” sets the context for what I write about, “Maiden Voyage” states the choice I think you face to make when you write a poem: trying to please or risking the huge dent. This poem was probably one of the few selections in this book that came out “fully baked”. Unlike most poems I revise obsessively, I knew I had to respect its original language and intent. If you don’t mind, I’d say: art is about bracing for the huge dent or condemning yourself, ultimately, to repeat yourself.

I want to invite the reader to take a similar chance: this might take you where you did not expect to go.

TT: I will be taking on this invitation to take a chance! I particularly enjoy how the collection opens with a speaker in solitude and unable to shout his secret and ends with the speaker next to the breath of his wife. How did you go about ordering the poems in this collection? What was your thought process behind making the collection one section?

JM: I found with “Contraband” —perhaps with every poem and many poets— is that decisions I made along the way, from final revisions to the order of the poems, kept revealing deeper intentions about what the book wanted to be or needed to say. I’ve said more than once that I’m, often, the last “reader” to find out what my poems are about. I know it might sound cliche, but it’s true for me. Originally, the last poem was meant to be the first one and the title of the book. You might say, that I envisioned a different movement, telling the same story but in a different way. Also, an afterthought for me, that what keeps awake now —”now,” then, meant the unthinkable years of Trump’s dark administration— was a “cinematic flashback,” but then, once “Contraband” became the title and first poem, it felt a more genuine way to invite the reader in.

I probably told you already that I think that artists, not only poets, belong to a certain place at a certain time among certain people, and beginning back in Buenos Aires as a young man living that terrible moment in history, became the truest way to organize the collection. I love that you saw it as solitude becomes an intimate moment of profound company and blessed intimacy. I thank you for having me reflect on that. I may add that the “solitude” you sensed is also another form of company: the company of dear friends who would become beloved ghosts, although I did not know that then.  Also, the book begins in a country’s beleaguered time, and ends in a different one under similarly treacherous circumstances. Another way of saying is that the poet writing these poems is a citizen as much as he is a son or a father, for instance.

Realizing that, I knew there would be no sections —”all at once” as Kenneth Patchen wrote, although he was speaking about eternity rather specific temporalities—and the order would not follow strict themes but needed to be a river of moments... what memory decides to remember next, or at least what I wanted the reader to know next.

TT: I admire how special Contraband is, written from and arising above what you call treacherous circumstances towards a kind of wonder and love as a son, a father, and citizen. Turning to Contraband at the craft level, I notice that you write mostly in free form. In what medium do you write? Do you start off with an idea or sketch? Or does poetry tumble out? Does that affect the poems’ length or form?

JM:  The first draft is always hand-written, black ink most times, most times in a large notebook (the same kind for years, thick enough it does not bleed on the other side) wide enough to make notes on the right margin, often in a different color than the one I used for the draft. I’m particular about pens, fountain or gel only.

What I put down is informed by its cadence more than its precise meaning, no limit to the number of metaphors or how long I go down a potential rabbit hole.  I dated, and I leave it alone, until that evening or as long as a week.  Then, I type it, and the pruning begins.  I’m as strict as I can about leaving only the essential (leave plenty of room for the reader to find their own experience of what it might mean).

I write first drafts early, and revise mostly at night.  There will be plenty of revisions, most times, and, generally, pages will become only so many stanzas.  What I ask of each poem:  Is the beginning worth reading the rest? Does the ending trumps an earlier, stronger final verse, is the “I” too loud? But, as systematic, obsessive or superstitious, as this may sound, I bowed to instinct and risk. I am more interested in asperity than smoothness, unease over preciousness.

TT: Do you have any thoughts you’d like to share with your readers of the world?

JM:  It’s an interesting question, I think of it two ways: those who may have read my poems in different countries or this one, facing what I face or what I may never comprehend, and those who develop a desire to read the world, make sense of it and find a way to nest in that constant storm.

To both kinds of readers, I offer my deepest gratitude for taking the time to meet my words, to look for language to unlock silence while respecting it, to not go at it alone. Since you belong to both tribes of “readers of the world”, I thank you.

Tiffany Troy is author of Dominus (BlazeVOX [books]) and co-translator of Santiago Acosta’s The Coming Desert /El próximo desierto (forthcoming, Alliteration Publishing House), in collaboration with Acosta and the 4W International Women Collective Translation Project at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is Managing Editor at Tupelo Quarterly and Book Review Co-Editor at The Los Angeles Review.