This is the first part of my interview with poet Rich Villar. He directs Acentos, an organization dedicated to supporting latino/a writers. He also looks great in a fedora.
I often start off with a question that allows the poet to write a wild bio… so, how would you introduce yourself to Dick Cheney?
Rich Villar is the product of a joint eugenics program conducted in secret by researchers in collaboration with the paramilitary groups Alpha 66 and the Macheteros. He was created in 1977 using the spliced DNA of Hatuey, Agueybana, Anacaona, Eugenio Maria De Hostos, Ramon Emeterio Betances, Antonio Maceo, Lola Rodriguez de Tio, Julia De Burgos, Jose Marti, and Pedro Albizu Campos. On his 35th birthday, in the final year of the Mayan calendar, it is predicted by various cowrie shells that he will return to Puerto Rico in a bow tie and whittled cane, where he will raise a modernized army and navy of 10 million revolutionaries to liberate the Caribbean from the United States, the IMF, and the World Bank. He will install Sasha Obama as the first President of the Antillean Confederation, step down from his military duties, and retire to a 300-acre hacienda in the mountains of Fajardo, where he will spend the rest of his life writing love poems to his wife and periodically waterboarding Dick Cheney, who will have been captured during the aforementioned war for liberation.
I’ve read that hearing the work of Martin Espada gave you the permission to write about things you cared about and in the language(s) you grew up with. What about his work had this impact on you?
I met Martin in 2002 at a reading at Montclair State University, back when I was a lowly undergraduate poli sci major. When I heard him do a surrealist-inspired poem about a cockroach, coupled with poems like “En La Calle San Sebastian” and “Mariano Explains Yanqui Colonialism to Judge Collings,” I heard the voices of uncles, aunts, cousins, and especially my dad. In other words, I heard the true and insightful voices of some true wiseass Boricuas and Cubanos, voices through which I understand the world, even now. The idea that I could marry a multilingual, codeswitching voice (i.e. MY voice) with my poetry AND my politics, and not sound like a preachy schmuck, was a revelation. I also toyed with the idea of becoming a lawyer-poet, but I soon discovered that I value my sleep too much.
Your fiancée Tara Betts is also a poet. I was wondering if living with & loving another poet has any impact on your writing process. Are you collaborators or more independent in how you approach your work respectively?
I think we have expanded each other’s spheres of influence. I am diving into her personal canon of African-American poets and poetics (Big ups to CC!) and she is diving into the poets of the Nuyorican movement. She can sing La Lupe songs and I have cultivated an appreciation for Prince Paul. That sort of thing. As far as collaboration goes…well, we enjoy doing readings together, and we like exploring where we intersect and where we diverge creatively in that public space. We also try to navigate the mine field of the “poetry business” together, which I think would be a thoroughly maddening experience if we didn’t have each other. But we don’t exactly write exquisite corpses together. Playing Wii Sports together makes up for it, though! She thoroughly destroys me at boxing on a regular basis.
I’ve noticed that instead of rejecting formal poetry altogether, you have avidly pursued writing in forms that originated in various world cultures. How did you get started on this endeavor? And could you tell us about a few of the forms you’ve been working with lately?
I don’t think anyone can really reject formal poetry. Attempting to eschew “form” in a poem is the highest form of navel gazing…and is a poetic form in and of itself. Once I came to that realization, it really became a search to use the truest forms to express the truest emotions in the moment of the writing. I don’t always approach a given form according to its orginal purpose, at least not consciously. (For non-English forms in English, that’s not always possible anyway.) I’m after emotional truth and precision, not so much hitting a bullet-point checklist on how to use the form in question.
I gravitated very naturally to sestina because it strikes me as an effective way to express obsession and longing. (I don’t know what that says about me, but…) Plus it seems most like a puzzle to me, and I like to play. I also just like to try what my friends are trying. My friend Elana Bell was on a ghazal-writing kick at a retreat we did together in Connecticut last year, so I’ve got a few of those in the hopper too. I like the image of the ghazal as a string of pearls—the poem as one unit, each stanza with its own life. Which worked at the time for me because it’s reflective of my experience in a three-week camp with a bunch of middle schoolers. I love Larry Levis and Phil Levine and the one-sentence drift, and I love non-sequitir. Life is non-sequitir. Lately I’ve been working on the art of the concise and playing with the kwansaba, the form invented by Eugene Redmond (that’s more of Betts’ influence).