Three years ago, at somebody else's poetry
reading, Guillermo Castro sold me a copy of his new chapbook,
Toy Storm, a handsome handmade
publication put out by the Brooklyn-based Big Fat Press. The
title alone was enough to make my day, and when I sat down with
the book itself, the pay-off was complete. "Balloons from
Hell," "Driving Parents," and "You and I
are Guests of Garcia Lorca" in these and other poems
in Toy Storm, Guillermo Castro's vivid, image-rich language
fearlessly guides the reader down a verbal gang-plank into the
realm of the unconscious and unrealized. Take this, from Castro's
poem "For Koka": "Amor,/you're tattooed purple/on
the thick folds of memory/the way they used to stamp beef/in
Argentine slaughterhouses." Or this: "We need the
dead quieter/and the living even more so" ["Fascist
Manifesto"]. As much a post-modern magical realist as a
magical post-realist modern, Castro's poetry is disarming in
every sense of the word, and deeply introspective without a
trace of narcissism. Funny, frightening and intensely pleasurable:
that's how I think of Guillermo Castro's work.
In this interview conducted via e-mail
during the spring and summer of 2000 we talk about two
of Castro's relatively new poems, "When
You Go Away" and "The
Year of Minimum Wage," as well as some of the larger
issues, influences, and tensions that have brought these poems
into being. GGP
Gerry Gomez Pearlberg: Guillermo, let's begin
You Go Away." This poem begins with a seemingly innocuous
and mundane observation: "There is, of course, silence,/Even
with the phone's ringer on." But right away, in the very
next stanza, there's a leap into magical realism and an increasingly
nocturnal or dreamlike atmosphere. Can you talk about the process
of writing this poem in terms of how and why that transformation
Photographed by Gerry Gomez Pearlberg
Guillermo Castro: This poem originated in a
workshop, but only the title (taken from a W.S. Merwin poem)
and the last couplet survived subsequent drafts. Like many poets,
I utilize dreams to draw images from or even "plot"
poems. In this case, what really kicked the poem into gear was
a dream I had of mice leaping into my bed, not to attack me,
but more like seeking shelter. Also, the other conscious decision
was to move into a surreal realm. During the time of revision
I was reading Jeffrey McDaniel's Alibi School; I liked
his use of playful, at times almost grotesque, hyperbole. That
gave me permission to take the poem further, to stretch its
Pearlberg: Stretching the poem's skin. That's
a great way to put it. And that's how it feels the skin
or casing of the reader's mind is stretched in a very pleasurable
way. I think the stanzas in your poem mirror the effect of passing
from room to room in a dream, with a new and entirely unexpected
strangeness to be found in each room. The inexplicable seems
perfectly normal. The presence of intuition is so pronounced
in your work.
Castro: In regard to the inexplicable seeming
normal, I'm partial to some of Julio Cortázar's early
tales, where the fantastic, the surreal and "reality"
co-habitate harmoniously. In a story in Relatos ("Tales"),
there's a scene where mourners at a wake, while gathered around
the body, switch places with the corpse every time anyone sneezes!
Pearlberg: Cortázar has another great
story called "Axolotl" where a man gazing at a salamander
in a glass aquarium suddenly finds himself inside the tank,
having become the salamander, trapped and gazing out at the
world. It's all very deadpan and normal-seeming, as well as
Castro: Same thing goes for God, so many
others perhaps more notoriously, Gabriel García
Márquez. A Hundred Years Of Solitude is the epitome
of what we've just discussed. After the patriarch of the Buendía
family whose saga the book is about dies, his
ghost tethers itself to a tree in the backyard, remaining visible
to everyone. But with the passing of time, the ghost turns paler
and paler, until he finally vanishes. It's quite poignant.
Pearlberg: As are the ghostly lines in your
poem "checking the underside of shadows/with a mirror attached
to a pole." It makes me think of the forlorn quality of
dental equipment lonely and elegant in a rather sinister
way. How did you arrive at that image?
Castro: The credit goes to the American Embassy
in Buenos Aires, the city where I was born. The Marines stationed
at the security checkpoint would search under any vehicle going
into the premises with such instruments. Since the "I"
in the poem is the paranoid kind, I thought the image was fitting.
And to the mice and embassy of the previous couplet, as well.
Maybe I should write a fable called "The Mice At The Embassy"
you know, the mice would be yelling outside the building:
"We want our visa! We want our visa!" Then the cat-marines
would come out and eat them.... As an immigrant you do feel
you could get eaten any minute.
Pearlberg: I think that sense of de-stabilization
comes across in both of the poems we're looking at here. Would
it be fair to say that this intense awareness of precariousness
runs through much of your work?
Castro: Absolutely. It is one of my major themes.
Pearlberg: "Let me polish your furniture/With
woodlice and malice/Until I see my mother's face on every surface"
is a truly fun and disconcerting image. "Woodlice and Malice"
sounds like the name of a very scary home cleaning product available
only in a Hardware Store of Dreams. Do you recall how the two
words ended up next to each other?
Castro: I arrived at "woodlice" after
watching a documentary on how these tiny terrorists raze houses
in matter of days. I don't remember how I got "malice."
I think I liked the off-rhyme, and also because it looks like
it could fully rhyme with woodlice. Or at least to the eyes
of a foreigner like myself. To me, those words also bring to
mind a law firm, surely wearing its intentions on the sleeve!
Pearlberg: Your work makes me think about what
I love most about poets like Charles Simic and Pablo Neruda.
The sense of the dream state and the waking state as being interchangeable,
simultaneously soothing and disturbing, the way a troubling
dream can somehow feel utterly familiar and comfortable. I think
many of your poems walk that edge of mystery and periphery,
alluding to things that don't quite translate into the "directly
Castro: I love Charles Simic's work. He's so
good at juggling mysterious imagery with childhood memories.
I'm reminded of an Argentine poet, Alejandra Pizarnik, whose
work I couldn't possibly explain with "words of this world,"
as she put it. I'm thinking of Lorca, too, his "Romance
Sonámbulo." Green, I want you green. What
is that supposed to mean in a literal way? And who cares? Borges
believes in letting the reader feel that he or she is in a very
strange world, that they themselves are very strange, that the
fact of being alive is the oddest thing. I really agree with
Pearlberg: Your line "I poke at the very
thought of you" seems to be exactly what the poem itself
is doing prodding at thoughts, unsettling the dust, discovering
its own meanings as it goes along, the way a dream lands you
somewhere that's a complete surprise, filled with pictures and
images you didn't know you had in you. Does that bear any resemblance
to your creative process in general?
Castro: Yes, absolutely! You open a door
I have so many poems set "indoors" and you
don't know what you'll find. It is a surprise for me as much
as for the reader.
Pearlberg: Do you ever dream lines of poetry?
Castro: Often. To my detriment, the poem is
scrolled in front of my eyes so quickly that I can't memorize
it! And I'm never given a second chance. I'm left with two or
three words and the sensation that it was a really good poem.
Pearlberg: Jorge Luis Borges has a quote I've
kept pinned to my bulletin board for many years: "I live
in memory and I suppose an artist should live in memory, because,
after all, what is imagination? Imagination... is made of memory
and oblivion. It is a kind of blending of the two things."
I respect his evocation of oblivion as a fertile state, a primary
condition under which creativity blossoms. Your work strikes
me as very much in keeping with the memory + oblivion
Castro: Yes, and even more so since I moved
to the US. It is the sort of tension I base many poems on. As
an immigrant, I at times am overcome with memories of people
and places in Argentina. The job of the poem is to nail those
instances to the page. And I have to do it fast. Alejandra Pizarnik
says "my only country is my memory," and concludes:
"there are no flags in it," just to tell you how universal
that feeling is.
Pearlberg: I'm curious to know more about your
writing process. How often do you write? Do you have a routine
set aside or just when inspiration strikes?
Castro: [I write] when inspiration strikes (and
my supply of Prozac is almost depleted). A visit to the park
near my job on a wondrously sunny day can be very helpful. Daytime
seems essential for ideas. But I only take notes. The poem won't
become "real" until I see it on the computer screen.
Schedule-wise, the actual writing takes place at night, late,
after a swim in my neighborhood pool and dinner. Swimming, by
the way, has proven to be inspiring. Then again, I wish it were
as casual as it sounds. There's a lot of agony involved, too.
Pearlberg: Speaking of agony, let's move on
to your poem "The
Year of Minimum Wage." This is a very tough-minded
poem. Horrible as it is, I have the feeling it's all too real.
Castro: It's based on first-hand experience.
I'm not going to lie about it: the "you" in the poem
is "me." And I'm happy to report that the place went
out of business, probably to reopen in hell.
Pearlberg: There's such a sense of claustrophobia
and trapped-ness here beginning with (and resulting from)
the want of a green card. There's the neutered cat longing to
scale the airshaft, the paranoid boss with his gun in the basement
office, the slapping of the sleeping man while in the background
"the cook keeps chopping fleshy things." Like many
of your poems, this one is quite cinematic. Are films an influence
Castro: Yes, they are. I enjoy science-fiction
movies. Perhaps my all-time favorite in that genre is Ridley Scott's
"Blade Runner" (the director's cut): a melancholy, nocturnal
world where happiness is all-too-brief. Some of my early work
would feel very at home in that futuristic Los Angeles! And the
"Alien" series, particularly the first one, directed
by Ridley Scott as well. In other genres, I love the way Martin
Scorsese tells a story. And hundreds more!
of Guillermo Castro
Assemblage of machine photos
Pearlberg: Who or what are your other major
Castro: Having said all that about films, these
days I find music more emotionally gratifying than any given
movie. I'm not sure why. I suppose, if you're listening to instrumental
music, be it classical, jazz or tango, because of its abstractness
you may run with it in any direction you want to. Obviously,
with tango I have a stronger connection. I have a piece called
Argentine Music II, written while listening to Astor
Piazzolla. With movies, so much is delivered to you already
pre-digested, formed you either accept it or not. Music
lingers longer in my tastebuds.
I always wanted to write songs, and that's what
I considered my first writings to be: songs. I wanted to be
a singer in a band. So my first initial influence were the pop
musicians Argentine and from elsewhere I was listening
to at the time. Then, for my twentieth birthday, a friend gave
me Lorca's Poet in New York, which turned my world upside
down. Then followed Kafka, the architect of labyrinths. The
aforementioned Alejandra Pizarnik, blind little princess of
Pearlberg: Why is Alejandra Pizarnik so important
Castro: Pizarnik is one of Argentina's major
poets. Her poems, particularly the early ones, are somewhat
surreal, short, and spare, colored by her obsessions: childhood,
love, and death. The presence of death increased dramatically
in her later work. And no wonder; she died by her own hand in
1972. I don't read her as much nowadays, but her importance
to me goes beyond her work or influence; she's also part of
a common history of reading and thinking about poetry that I
have with a specific group of friends from college days.
Pearlberg: Can you say a little bit about how
Lorca's Poet in New York "turned your world upside
Castro: Lorca was my primary introduction to
surrealism, though he'd probably object to my characterization,
as he never considered his New York cycle to be surrealist poetry.
Not only the sheer beauty and breath of his imagery blew me
away, but also the intense emotion that propelled many of these
poems. I discovered a language I could use in my work to express
(and codify) my own feelings of alienation in an urban landscape
Buenos Aires, in this case.
Pearlberg: That makes me wonder about the link
between alienation (or displacement) and poems which deliberately
use mistakes, mis-readings, or misunderstandings as either a
point of departure or a central theme. Your poem, "The
Year of Minimum Wage," ends with the lines, "You hide
behind the loaner register/with 'taxable items' handwritten
on one of the keys/you always misread as 'taxable dreams.'"
And in your poem "Williamsburg," you have the line,
"A misread Xmas announcement: Take A Picture With Satan!"
What part do the elements of randomness, chance, and "mis-reading"
play in your work?
Castro: I'm always misreading stuff. In some
cases, it's got something to do with my first language trying
to assert itself. When I see the word "pies," what
first comes to mind is not a picture of, say, an apple pie,
but more like "feet," which is what "pies"
reads like in Spanish. So, to me, signs (and things) are
not what they seem to be. And I like what the confusion/misreading
may bring into a poem, be it a paradox or something humorous.
Pearlberg: How have the cities of New York and
Buenos Aires influenced your writing?
Castro: Buenos Aires, naturally, has influenced
me in the sense that I grew up there. It has been the foreground
and background of some major (and minor) drama, not only in
my life, but it's certainly affected other people's. It's hard
to escape that. In tango lyrics, rock songs, the city is sung
about/cursed to death. So there's this kind of dialogue going
on. Some of those circumstances could be applied to New York:
writing about my urban environment makes me feel more anchored,
more at "home."
Pearlberg: Since your first language is Spanish,
I am curious about the part that plays in your poetry. Do you
write in both Spanish and English?
Castro: For quite some time, I've been writing
poems in English only. In fact, I do want to start writing in
Spanish, besides translation papers, or letters and e-mails
to friends and family.
Pearlberg: Do you think the cadences, construction,
and musicality of the Spanish language infuse the way you write
when you're writing in English?
Castro: I do see that, stylistically, I tend
to write the same way in both languages how I break sentences,
my placement of commas, the use of quotation marks and parentheticals,
my love for adverbs. Maybe somewhere there's the Spanish influence
coloring my English, but I'm not aware.
Pearlberg: Why is that you've been writing poems
in English only? And what's prompted you to want to begin writing
in Spanish again?
Castro: I developed as a writer in the US. Had
I found a poetry workshop in Spanish, I think I would've continued
writing in that language. Even in Miami, where I lived for a
few years, I learned that if you wanted to be part of the larger
world in poetry, you needed to crossover to English. I did become
involved in one local poetry group that flaunted a bilingual
constituency, though at readings most of the people in the audience
was Anglo; I just hated the blank look on their faces whenever
I'd read my poems in Spanish. Recently I met two Argentine poets
who've been in New York for many years and still write in Spanish;
I'm hoping they'll serve as muses that will "nurse"
me back to my mother tongue. That doesn't mean I'll move away
from English. I'm here to stay.
BY GUILLERMO CASTRO
Castro, Guillermo, Toy Storm. Big Fat Press, P.O. Box
1168, New York, NY 10013-1168. 1997. Pb, 30 pp. Limited, hand-bound
edition with handmade linoleum block print cover of silver on
You Go Away," Frigate: The Transverse Review of
Books, Volume 1, No. 2.
Year of Minimum Wage," Frigate: The Transverse Review
of Books, Volume 1, No. 2.
OTHER WORKS DRAWN ON FOR THIS ESSAY
Cortázar, Julio, End of the Game and Other Stories.
Translated by Paul Blackburn. Harper Colophon, 1978. Out of
Cortázar, Julio, Blow-Up: And Other
Stories, New York: Random House,1985. Pb 277 pp.
Kafka, Franz, The Complete Stories. Translated
by Nahum Norbert Glatzer, foreword by John Updike. Schocken,1995.
Lorca, Federico García, Poet in New
York (Revised Edition). Editedby Christopher Maurer; Translated
by Greg Simon and Steven F. White. New York: Noonday, 1998.
Paperback, 303 pp.
Márquez, Gabriel García, One
Hundred Years of Solitude. Translated by Gregory Rabassa.
HarperPerennial, 1998. Paperback, 458 pp. $13.50.
McDaniel, Jeffrey, Alibi School. San
Francisco: Manic D Press,1995. Out of Print.
Neruda, Pablo, Selected Poems/Bilingual Edition,
Translated by Anthony Kerrigan. Houghton Mifflin, 1990. Paperback,
Piazolla, Astor, Piazzollissimo (1974-1983)
[BOX SET]. Audio CD. Just a Memory (Can); Original Release Date:
Piazolla, Astor, Tango: Zero Hour. Audio
CD. (September 15, 1998). Wea/Atlantic/Nonesuch. Original Release
Pizarnik, Alejandra, "Blood Baths,"
Secret Weavers: Stories of the Fantastic by Women of Argentina
and Chile, Ed. Marjorie Agosin, Fredonia, NY: White Pine
Press,1992. pb. 339 pp.
Pizarnik, Alejandra, "The Mirror of Melancholy,"
Secret Weavers: Stories of the Fantastic by Women of Argentina
and Chile. See above.
Pizarnik, Alejandra, A Profile. Edited,
with an introduction, by Frank Graziano. Translated by Maria
Rosa Fort and Frank Graziano, with additional translation by
Suzanne Jill Levine. Durango, Colo: Logbridge-Rhodes, 1987.
Pizarnik, Alejandra, "Severe Measures,"
Secret Weavers: Stories of the Fantastic by Women of Argentina
and Chile. See above.
Scott, Ridley (Director), Blade Runner
The Director's Cut (1982). Starring: Harrison Ford, Rutger
Hauer, et al. On video: $14.95.
Simic, Charles, Hotel Insomnia: Poems.
Harcourt Brace, 1992. pb. 66 pp., $10.95.
ALSO OF INTEREST
Hasegawa, Sam/Jorge Luis Borges, "Piazzola
and I," Frigate: The Transverse Review of Books,
Vol. 1, No. 2, November 2000 - February 2001.