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Arts –Gaucho Conversations

An eCoastlines Interview Series


The Poet from Puerto Rico

Benito Pastoriza Iyodo MA `81 communicates philosophy through prose and poetry

By Alex Davila '17 and Marge Perko

Benito Pastoriza Iyodo

Award-winning poet Benito Pastoriza Iyodo MA `81 grew up the son of immigrant parents, searching for his identity amidst the jagged racial divides of 1960s Florida. He spent his formative years between New York and Puerto Rico – a multicultural experience that allowed him to foster a dual passion for both Spanish and English languages from a young age.

While earning his degrees in English and Hispanic studies at the University of Puerto Rico at Cayey, Pastoriza Iyodo’s poems Canción para la existencia and Hojas received the Premio de la Universidad de Puerto Rico en Poesia. In 1977, his first book of poetry Gotas verdes para la ciudad (1977) won the Ateneo Puertorriqueño Award.

He went on to earn his master’s degree in Spanish language and literature from UC Barbara, where his work Lo coloro de lo incoloro (1980) received the University of California Chicano Latino Literary Prize. Pastoriza Iyodo went on to complete his doctoral coursework in romance languages and literatures at the University of Chicago. His book of poetry Y bien tu piel (1997) won first place in the Voces Selectas competition. He also received the Terra Austral Editores award, Puerto Rico’s Premio Manuel Joglar Cacho en cuento y en poésia, and Mexico’s Premio Carmen Báez de Narrativa Internacional.

Pastoriza Iyodo’s essays, poems and short stories have been published in anthologies, journals and literary magazines around the world. His novel The Water of Paradise -- a mystical novel about characters marked by the twists and turns of fate -- as well as his collections of poetry and short stories are available in both English and Spanish. His fourth collection of poetry Brothel of the Word (2012) explores the physical, linguistic, spiritual and philosophical debates that affect humanity.

For our first-ever installment for our eCoastlines Gaucho Conversations series, we interviewed Pastoriza Iyodo about his latest poetry collection, his literary heroes and the role of the writer in today’s hyper-connected world.

Why do you love writing?

I have always felt a great passion for literature in general. Since I was a child I was a voracious reader. I devoured every book I could get my hands on. I enjoyed reading stories about foreign, exotic lands: China, India and Russia. They literally had to drag me out of the library at closing time. Coming from a conflictive family, books were a sort of refuge for me, where I didn’t have to deal with the continuous bickering of my parents. Through that escape, little by little, I fell in love with words and the silences between the words. As a youngster, I made up verses and stories in my head, but I didn’t dare write them down. I thought that what I had read in books was supreme and that my words were not worthy of being penned. At the age of seventeen, after numerous drafts that all ended up in the waste basket, I got up the nerve to submit a poem titled Canción para la existencia (Song for existence) to a competition at the university. I received the Premio de la Universidad de Puerto Rico en Poesía (Cayey) for that poem.

This external stimulus spurred me on to create my first collection of poetry, Gotas verdes para la ciudad (Green drops for the city), which later received a prize from the Ateneo Puertorriqueño while I was still a university student. At the university I got serious about writing, taking poetry and short story workshops, where I learned to truly respect and love the genre of poetry. My love affair with poetry has been in a perpetual state of crescendo ever since. At first I loved poetry because it was an enigma, later because it was a challenge and now because it is a constant in my life.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in many places: Manhattan, Brooklyn, New Jersey, West Palm Beach, Miami, and finally in Puerto Rico. My parents, like so many immigrants to this country, had very little formal education. So at first they had to do whatever came along. They worked in factories, hotels, stores, and whatever other place that hired unskilled or semi-skilled labor. My mother was an industrious woman and she spent very little time in that first stage where so many immigrants begin. She opened her first restaurant when I was very young. Later came a series of bodegas and finally a furniture store. This was admirable for a Latina woman with little formal education, especially in the 1960s in the United State, when there was so much racism and discrimination. My parents were always working, so they had little time for us.

My sister and I basically raised ourselves with very little supervision. This allowed us to explore New York City as we pleased. From an early age we took trains, buses, and ferries to visit the five boroughs without our mother even knowing. We visited museums, libraries, zoos, parks, public pools, gigantic department stores, bridges, rivers, and beaches, all without our mother knowing. We became two cultured children because what we liked best was the library. There we found refuge from the craziness of the city. My sister and I lived among all types of people: professionals, junkies, assailants, musicians, painters, poets, the homeless, cultured people, and many children who lived lives like ours. We also lived in Florida in the 1960s during the time of segregation. This period was demoralizing for us. Since we were Latinos, they made it very difficult for my mother to find a school that would accept us. We were rejected by many schools because we were not white, but we weren’t black either. At last we were accepted by a school for white children that already had Cuban students. Later we moved to Puerto Rico where we had a normal childhood and education, although all too soon we again experienced the derisive battles between our parents where neither could really claim victory.

Who were your heroes -- literary and otherwise --when you were growing up? And who are your heroes now?

The Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges once said: “I always imagined paradise as some sort of library.” Well, I would say that the majority of my heroes are either in the library or come from there. My heroes were the books, the libraries, the bookstores, the teachers, the professors, the museums, the concert halls, the universities where I studied, the cities where I lived, the countries I visited, my classmates, my closest friends and my husband, Bradley Warren Davis, who for 34 years has believed in me, who has shared my passions and who has loved me intensely. More than specific writers, my greatest source of inspiration was the books they wrote. I have read many authors in English, French, Portuguese, Italian and Spanish. Presenting a list of those who influenced me would be an injustice because there are so many and from diverse literary styles. All of them are very present in me when I write. I have them at my side as if they were whispering something very special in my ear. I never forget that I am part of a long literary heritage that dates back many centuries.

What made you decide to pursue your master's degree at UC Santa Barbara? What was your student experience at UCSB like - in and out of the classroom?

When I applied to study at UCSB I lived in Philadelphia. I was ready for something completely different in my life. In Philly I lived near the Atlantic, in a big city, and in a part of the country made up primarily of people of Anglo descent, where the winter cold was terrifying. UCSB was located on the Pacific Ocean, Santa Barbara had a historically Hispanic heritage, it was a small city and the climate was marvelous. The Spanish department had an excellent reputation, especially in the area of Latin American literature. Studying Hispanic literature in Santa Barbara was perfect because I also wanted to live in a state like California where there was a palpable Hispanic presence. I have never regretted that decision. It was one of the best decisions that I have ever made.

My experience at UCSB had two prongs. On one hand, I was a graduate student, and on the other I taught basic Spanish courses. In other words, UCSB shaped me as a professional, but also as an intellectual. Since I lived very close to the Mission District, I also led an enriching city life where I had the opportunity to give several poetry readings at cultural venues. Since my apartment was in the city, I also enjoyed the many artistic events that were held almost weekly. Perhaps one of the most enriching experiences for me at the university was collaborating with a group of graduate students to found the literary magazine Tinta. My classmates and my professors were equally passionate about literature, and this was contagious. But one of my most unforgettable experiences while I was a student at UCSB was receiving the Chicano Literary Prize for my book of poetry Lo coloro de lo incoloro (The color of the colorless). Later the collection was published by UC Irvine.

What do you believe is the essential role of artists today? And what do you think are the biggest challenges for writers today?

Artists in general (painters, musicians, writers, etc.) should be individuals who feel a great passion, a great love for their art. Their art should not be a mere hobby. Their art should be the motor of their existence. The artist should create to show the sublime, the grotesque, the real and the unreal of life, questioning everything so that later the readers or spectators can decide how all of this reflects in their own lives. Within this context, writers play many roles. On one hand they are the chroniclers of our time. But a good writer, through responsible literature, is the conscience of the people. Then there is the question of language. A writer has an intrinsic duty to update the language, to enrich it, to change it, to help it to evolve - to adapt to new times. To create neologisms. To create new syntaxes. To bring it up-to-date with other universal languages. Also, writers should be the flashing beacon of bright, red lights to warn us when we are about to fall into an abyss. And why not. At times the writer also has to denounce wrongs without falling into a literature of pamphleteering.

Literature must expose racism, homophobia, inequity, discrimination, wickedness, injustice, poverty and all of the human evil that we have collectively created. There are so many challenges that writers must face. How can one navigate among so many voices in this cybernetic world? How can one create a different, genuine voice that offers something new, distinguishable from all the other voices? How does one keep from losing the sense of civic duty that is part of all responsible literature, only to fall into the mere act of entertaining for entertainment’s sake? Don’t let yourself become bewitched by fame: fame is very fleeting. Remember above all that creating literature is a vocation, not a profession.

What inspired the seven poems that were recently published in the Exchanges Literary Journal?

The seven poems that appear in Exchanges Literary Journal are originally from the book titled Cartas a la sombra de tu piel (Letters to the shadow of your skin) that was published in Mexico by Editorial Tierra Firme. The book was awarded the Premio Voces Selectas prize. In this book I set out to narrate a love story between two men who battle all those opposed to their love. They fight so that their relationship will grow and become fruitful. The book contains three parts: Ritos, Corpóreos and Homoeros. The first part is the evocation and birth of this love. The second part is the growth and actualization of this love. The final section is the defense of this love, to integrate it into a society that continually rejects them. Many writers have produced literature with a homoerotic focus, but I am more interested in working with the homoaffective aspect of love. At the same time, I was attracted to the idea of elaborating a certain poetic activism in support of gay rights. I wanted to expose the universal reader to a love without sexual boundaries, where love was simply love. As a student I noticed that my professors always taught love poems by heterosexual poets, as if love were an exclusive experience for them. I told myself that this had to change. We must rediscover the gay poets and forge a new literary tradition. Later my husband began to translate some of the poems in this book with a great deal of enthusiasm. He submitted them to Exchanges Literary Journal and they were accepted with open arms.

What attributes do you feel students should develop (from your own experience) in order to thrive as a poet or a writer?

First of all, a writer should have plenty of grit. A lot of perseverance and discipline. He will receive many rejections, a multitude of negative criticism, and discouragement from many people about continuing the arduous career of a writer. I don’t think that the purpose of a writer is to be purely inventive and different in order to be well-known and praised. The writer’s challenge is not to show off and impress with linguistic juggling. The writer has to be authentic, to be himself. Have his own voice. Not trying to imitate others because they are popular, nor following a literary trend because it’s in vogue. It is also important to see the literary career as a vocation and not as a profession. Write out of passion, not because it will make you rich. The passion comes first, and the money (if it comes) will come later. You don’t know how much it bothers me when someone asks me if I earn money with my literary projects. If I wanted to earn money, I would mop floors, work in a bar, teach classes, or consult, but I will not prostitute my vocation as a writer - my passion for poetry - for a fast buck. Young writers, write because it impassions you, because you need to write like you need air to breathe, and later share this passion with the rest of the world.

This year has been a particularly harrowing year for the LGBTQ community. What words of support would you like to share, as an alumnus, with our young LGBTQ students at UC Santa Barbara?

I believe strongly in political activism. Historically, the LGBTQ community is a group that has been discriminated against, downtrodden and silenced. Homophobia is an evil that has been propagated by religions, the family, society, the minorities in power and governmental institutions. The only way to combat this injustice is to raise our voices in protest and reclaim our human space in the social order. The worst case of homophobia is when they teach us to hate ourselves. Living in Florida, I saw this at close range with the massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. We must fight homophobia on all fronts. We must demand our rights in all areas: in political, social and economic spheres. Political activism does not just mean participating in a march, it is also the little things. Ask your professor why he doesn’t include a gay writer, investigator, scientist or scholar in course lectures. And the discipline doesn’t matter: it could be sociology, literature, history, political science or psychology. And if the professor doesn’t want to include anything, use an LGBTQ topic for your final paper or course presentation. Actively participate so that there will be dedicated spaces in the university where the LGBTQ community can meet, a place from which they can disseminate information to the rest of the university community. And use these places for your own growth and understanding of what it is to truly be a part of the LGBTQ community. It is important to look for help and to provide help within this community. But above all, for me the most important thing is to be part of a movement of activism that can eradicate once and for all this horrible evil we call homophobia.

What makes you be proud to be a Gaucho?

I love being a Gaucho! I feel immense pride about having studied at UCSB. After receiving my master’s degree at UCSB, I later continued my studies at the University of Chicago. Both universities are always among the top institutions in the prestigious rankings published by magazines that specialize in compiling these reports. When people find out that I studied at UCSB or UC I always get positive feedback about my alma maters. I am proud to see how the professors, students and alumni have distinguished themselves in sports, science, the humanities and the social sciences. It gives me great joy to see how they have made contributions to the improvement of the world and humanity in general. And it goes without saying that the university has become even more beautiful over time, with handsome buildings and attractive landscaping. But the most important things are what the university is creating and the graduates that it produces. And what I see is positive. Furthermore, I am pleased to see the advances that the university has made in the LGBTQ arena. Go Gauchos!

What poets do on their days off?

I must confess that I have two weaknesses. I love to travel and work in the garden. On weekends my husband and I get in our car with our dachshund, Pablo, to explore our state, which is always full of surprises. We visit Miami, the Everglades, Key West, and historic cities like Saint Augustine. We enjoy exploring museums, walking desolate beaches, hiking quiet forest trails and meeting interesting people from all walks of life. Oftentimes these experiences make their way into my poems and short stories. Brad helps me tend the garden. At times I go crazy looking for new plants for the yard. I love to plant shrubs and vines, especially if they are native to our state. Watching a shrub or tree grow is a marvelous thing. I observe how it forges its life, becoming sturdy and independent, in spite of all the inclement weather. It’s admirable. With time they become strong and beautiful, bearing fruit or delicate flowers that perpetuate the next generation through the seeds spread in all directions on the wind. I believe that I also deposit these experiences in my poems and stories in the desire to forever perpetuate the sublime, to have a brief encounter with the eternal.

Learn more about Benito Pastoriza Iyodo’s work at www.benitopastorizaiyodo.com.