We Insist on a Godliness, a Mystery, a Laughter: An Interview with Patrick Rosal

PATRICK ROSAL interviewed by WILLIE PERDOMO

Photographic portrait of Patrick Rosal, a middle-aged Filipno American man. Rosal wears a black crewneck sweater and black pants. He is sitting on a stool, looking to his left, and is captured mid-laugh.

Patrick Rosal is an interdisciplinary artist and author of five full-length collections of poetry. Former Interviews Editor Willie Perdomo connected with Patrick over email this winter, and in this lively exchange, they discuss the spirit realm and its ability to breathe life into writing. Rosal shares his perspective on music and performance in his work, as well as the importance of honoring rituals, ancestors, and legacy.

Willie Perdomo (WP): When I read your later work, I think of the word “duende.” Not as another word for inspiration, but the role of folklore and access to the spirit world. You seem to be on speaking terms with the ghosts of your family, the blood that was spilled during the American occupation of the Philippines, and how one navigates the world with force. Can you talk about the dialogue you’ve been having with history and how it has informed your recent work?

Patrick Rosal (PR): I’ve been visited. It’s almost as simple as that. When I was a kid and my cousins arrived on the East Coast from the Philippines and Hawai’i, it wasn’t at all weird to talk about the dead dwelling in this realm. There are certain poems I read aloud that invoke something I can feel, channel, and, to a certain extent, shape. That “something” is spirit or ancestor or the very specificities of history, like my grandfather washing his face after a day cutting cane on a plantation or my great grandmother gripping the neck of a violin. I think we have the capacity to dismiss that feeling, just as we have the capacity to be inside that feeling so deeply that it shakes us. It’s a practice. You can get better at it.

We might call these visits memory and imagination. But memory and imagination in the Western world are often strictly cerebral. For me, it’s more. I’m still learning how visits manifest in sound and in language. The spirits don’t simply show up when you summon them. I refuse to oversimplify the dead. Ancestors or not, they might not like me when they find me. Shit, I might not like them either. We meet so we can find out about one another. They go back and report on my foolishness and wonder, and I do my best to record theirs. In listening, I find something out that I might not have even wanted to know before. It’s a scary thing, because whole institutions have been built around this experience to manipulate people, and I want to be real mindful to not do that. But I know that when I’m deep in The Work, I’m not alone.

WP: In her New York Times review of The Last Thing, Stephanie Burt pointed out the “lively vernacular” of your new poems, calling attention to their democratic propulsions, improvisatory nature, and muscularity. I’m interested in your approach to decolonial poetics and how music and performance play a role in your poetry.

PR: One’s god self is inherently not colonized. I strive toward that spirit self. I seek to travel relentlessly toward the peculiar instances of mystery in the peculiarities of my history, and there’s not a Magellan or an army of Magellans that can follow me into that sacred space, the dream space, the remembering space. And I’ll tell you. Love is there. Love, to the extent that love itself is comprised of mystery and of the questions “Who am I” and “Who is my beloved.”

Decoloniality is just a byproduct of one’s migration toward one’s god self. If I move toward love then colonial structures are utterly obsolete. Colonialism and capitalism want certainty, the predictability of data, to demolish your god self; a god self propels us into strangeness, reveals hidden connections (as agon, eros, agape do). There’s no rubric, no metric. But when you catch the feeling, you got it, know it, recognize it, even if you don’t have a language for it, it moves you, it takes hold of you entirely, and if someone bears witness to you catching that feeling, they might catch it, too—like Ishmael Reed says in Mumbo Jumbo, “It jes grew!” True wonder is not a curated tourist experience of exoticisms and curiosities, but a precarious (and possibly deadly) path. Horror and wonder are intertwined. And they exist in me to the devastating extent that they exist in the world. Acknowledging this is knowing the difference between the prophetic and an overpriced amusement park. The most mundane figures can reveal to us utter monstrosities on one hand or exuberant visions on the other, to paraphrase Achebe.

And so, sound and movement are both phenomena and technology of my travels towards the soulful by way of listening to whoever is in the room, to myself, to those who brought us, to the tomorrow version of us… The written poem is an artifact of my attention and the performance is an elaboration of that attention. Performing a written poem is like opening all the doors and windows to a house that’s not quite finished being built. I’m unsure what might come crashing in or what might go flying out. So sound connects, through mutual presence and attention. It reveals, is apocalyptic. Music does that for me. And dancing. Always dancing.

WP: When referring to the power of his voice, the iconic singer, Hector Lavoe, said that he “respiras de bajo de agua.” You’re one of the few poets (and I’m invoking our tradition of magical realism here) in this country who I think has wings and breathes underwater. I say that because as a reader I am totally invested in “keeping up with your love songs” or the “little nations” that your poems create. Where is the line between the celestial and the terrestrial in your work?

PR: When you and I first met at Lara Stapleton’s birthday years ago, my feeling was, “Oh, me and Willie can get down.” Bajo el agua is getting underneath the mere surface—submarine, subterranean, border crossing, transgression. The other side, the up-above, the underneath are where we go, maybe because that’s where the dead are. A lot of America would rather run from the dead, build palaces on top of them, fly drones or launch rockets as if to escape them. But not us, we get down.

Immersion? Elevation? Those are just different vectors for the same displacement. We figure it out. And I wanna remember the history of figuring it out, generations of playing, making it up so we can make it through, not by ourselves, but with each other. I want to see clearly as I can—how we live in each other’s presence, how inherently hard that is, how fucked up we can be to each other, how nonetheless we insist on a godliness, a mystery, a laughter, which is a forgiveness, no matter how many times we must renew it. We figured out how to be aquatic—or maybe we remembered how aquatic we already were. The questions have always been deep.

WP: I think the preface to The Last Thing should be used in writing programs across the country. It reads like a poet’s primer and manifesto. You highlight the “fluid boundaries between storytelling and song,” but I’m interested in the metaphor of the box and how we need to listen to its fractures; that seems to be in line with diaspora poetics. What boxes have you been living and/or creating in during the pandemic?

PR: In 2021, to commemorate the quincentenary of the defeat of Magellan by Lapu Lapu, Mary Rose Go (my Love), Cherita Harrell, Jake Camacho, and I assembled this book of images, texts, prayers, lyrics, and fragments I collected and composed over many years and which started to take clearer form when I was doing this ritual of writing to the dead, my mom especially. It’s called Atang: an altar for listening to the beginning of the world.

So, this book-object is a little traveling altar we mailed out for free to anybody who requested one. We invented this ad hoc publishing house, Quili Quili Power Press (from the Spanish spelling of kili-kili, which means armpit; kili-kili power is body odor, i.e. funk). My brother Mark helped with tech. A couple friends, Curtis Bauer and Stacey Young, helped with postage. And we customized each physical copy with an actual fragment from the scroll I wrote my prayer to the dead. The process gave me, Mary Rose, Cherita, and Jake a chance to be in the same room with one another (safely) in the middle of a pandemic.

The pdf version of Atang is available on my website—absolutely free. The market, the publishing industry, the gatekeeping, the academy are boxes. This little book knocks at the fissures where we might take care of each other. I like to think of Atang as an imperfect tribute to our people who make art all the time and will never be published by a press or end up on a year-end list, for all the people who talk true shit on the corner or in the kitchen while the rest of us are trying to sound smart or look cute, a praise song for the way my mom could provide what we needed out of the relatively little she had at hand, a deep bow for my cousins who are so goddamned angry and sad, they dance in strange places. The people we come from are so undisciplined. No box can hold what they make. And I aspire to that.

 

Patrick Rosal is an interdisciplinary artist and author of five full-length poetry collections including The Last Thing: New and Selected Poems, which was named one of the best books of 2021 by The Boston Globe. He has received fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, Fulbright Research Scholar program, and the Civitella Ranieri Residency. His writing and visual work has been published in The New York Times, The Nation, e-flux, Best American Poetry and many other journals and magazines. In 2019, on the occasion of the quincentenary of Lapu Lapu’s victory of Magellan, he gathered collaborators under the Quili Quili Press moniker to distribute the book artifact, Atang: an altar for listening to the beginning of the world. He has taught at Bloomfield College, the University of Texas at Austin, Princeton University, as well as in many community workshops around the country through Poets House, Kundiman, the Alabama Prison Arts + Education Project, and elsewhere. He is the inaugural campus Co-Director of the Mellon-funded Institute for the Study of Global Racial Justice at Rutgers-Camden, where he is a Professor of English. He heads the Quilting Water Initiative, an ongoing public art experiment at the intersections of race and ecology which gathers stories of water from around the world and which will culminate in collaborations with local Camden County artists. A winner of the Lenore Marshall Prize from the Academy of American Poets, he has performed as poet and musician in Europe, Africa, Asia, and throughout the Americas at venues that include Lincoln Center, NJPAC, the Cabrillo housing projects for agricultural workers, and Filipino Community Hall in Delano—comprising a writing and performance career spanning more than twenty years.

Willie Perdomo is the author of Smoking Lovely: The Remix, The Crazy Bunch, The Essential Hits of Shorty Bon Bon, Where a Nickel Costs of Dime. Winner of the Foundation for Contemporary Arts Cy Twombly Award for Poetry, and the PEN Open Book Award, Perdomo was also a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Poetry Society of America Norma Farber First Book Award. He is co-editor of the anthology, Latínext, and his work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Poetry, Washington Post, The Best American Poetry 2019, and African Voices. He teaches at Phillips Exeter Academy and was recently appointed New York State Poet Laureate.

We Insist on a Godliness, a Mystery, a Laughter: An Interview with Patrick Rosal

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