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Scattered Scripture

Reaching, Claiming, Lunging for the Universe of Things


Rudy Interviews Poet Louis Reyes Rivera



Books by Louis Reyes Rivera

Sanchocho: A Book of Nuyorican Poetry / Scattered Scripture / Bum Rush the Page

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Interview with Prize-Winning Poet

Louis Reyes Rivera



Part 1

Rudy: Louis, I’d like to begin by thanking you for this unique opportunity to interview you on a number of topics, including your book of poems Scattered Scripture: Reaching, Claiming, Lunging for the Universe of Things (1996).

I just read your "(YO!)" poem ALOUD. And its rhythms and its tragic beauty moved me exceedingly. BRAVO!!!

Louis Rivera: Yeah, I like that one too. It happens that I was too often getting caught having to read poetry after the band had left the stage. And with bands and outdoor concerts, nobody really has to listen. They smoke and drink and laugh and dance, but now the poetry is coming on and they hadn't left that other aura yet. So I needed something to catch immediate attention. When I witnessed a poet actually crying because of the way she wasn't being received, even at a poetry only reading, I got the image I needed to start the poem off.

Rudy: When I read “(one short note),” “(intervention),” and “(blood & oil),” these three poems brought to mind that there really is no past (no real yesterday) in your poems. There is a long continuous now. A super-imposed presence? Cultural space and difference also seem to have been obliterated in these poems. But your work as a historian, I suppose, accounts for some of this. For an elevated consciousness, it is probably indeed one long continuous action with contiguous results that call for similar responses by those who are oppressed. And I suppose, this book of poems then could be looked at as a scripture of these struggles against oppression. Have I misconstrued your intent?

In reading your “(one short note),” I did not see your “kumbayahhh” until the second reading. But the poem itself had me singing “kum bah yah.” I found that pleasantly curious as an old country boy from southern Virginia. For me the spirituals were a daily part of life—sung during work in the fields or long walks on dirt roads in the dark of night or when I was just alone with my thoughts. The poems in Scattered Scripture thus reveal a great familiarity with U.S. Negro culture (north and south).

In a way I am a bit embarrassed to reveal my ignorance and stupidity about Caribbean culture and the Puerto Rican-New York nexus. Before reading your notes I knew almost nothing about Puerto Rican history and culture, except from the imperialist (racist) perspective. Matter of fact, this is my first conversation with someone who hails from Puerto Rico. In this, I suspect, I am like many Americans. I suppose I am in need of some forgiveness for these shortcomings.

Louis Rivera: (1) ONE SHORT NOTE: I grew up in the African American community of Bed-Stuy, so culturally I come from twin backgrounds: Puerto Rican Spanish in the home and extended family (both sides) with cultural roots in the Black community. Both AfroChurches and Spanish speaking churches . . . thus the music . . .

The housing projects I grew up in were built specifically for returning GIs, a la WWII. Many of the folks I grew up with were first generation replants from the south, thus I was exposed to all of that culture and saw how it coincided with rural PR values and outlook  . . . the music was different, but only regarding scales—underneath it all rang too similar to me . . . the drums and the clapping . . .

(2) INTERVENTION is about Peru and the rest of us. Since the 1970s, Peru has been engaged in a civil war with the U.S. sponsoring against the rebels, who were actually on the verge of winning and in control of much of the rural areas, outside of the two major cities. That poem was written as a play on the definition of the term (intervention) and how that works against legitimate people’s movements. It’s much like the way civil war and mass movements in favor of the humanity of citizens get waylaid in the media by the overuse of the word, terrorists.

(3) BLOOD & OIL: when the Gulf War was about to break out a group of activists were preparing a UN march. I was invited to participate as poet and wrote this poem to complement the event. Just as the war began, CNN was interviewing an old folks home to get reaction from WWII survivors. Many were in favor of the war. CNN was catching it all live. Turning the camera to one old lady (white), they asked her what she thought and she cut right into this song before they could turn the cameras away.

She opened by saying, “When I was a little girl, we used to sing this song   . . .and went right into the lyrics: I didn’t raise my child to be your soldier/but to grow to be my pride & joy/so don’t go putting your rifle on his shoulder/to kill some other mother’s daughter’s boy . . .”

I was so impressed I decided to include and play with it into the poem. It gave me a beginning and end metaphor through which to explore the rest  . . .

(4) Yes, there is but one continuum. Us. All of us. Certain Native American, Asian, and African languages don’t work with Past & Future Tenses as separate from Present. They see it all as one continuum. Often, these languages express ideas in the ever present tense. Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean make a notation at the beginning or end of a text to signify past/future . . .  but the body of the text appears in the present. African and Native American philosophies, both, insist on looking upon the ancestors as if they were still here. Thus, in the Caribbean Santeria, Voodoo, Espiritismo are marriages between Amerindian and African philosophies and the idea of placing food and drink at the gravesite is not an oddity but a requisite in honor of those who were here before I got here.

So your point about time and difference is well on the mark. Not so much a “super-imposed presence” but an ever-active one.

(5a) About cultural space and difference being “obliterated in these poems,” let me share this one story with you. I was invited along with another PR poet to a classroom on Nuyorican Literature. We came, did our thing, etc. he with his Puerto Rican accent, me with my new York (obviously) Afro-southern accent; he with his ultra nationalism, me with my ultra-insistence on connectives. At the end of the class, everyone left to accompany guests and prof. to professor’s office.

A young lady sidled up next to me, and with body language active, indicated to me that she wanted a private word. I slowed down; she slowed down. When we were roughly more than fifty feet away from the crowd, she leaned over and said, “It must be rough.” I said, “What’s that?” She said, “to be both Puerto Rican and Black. That’s what I am, from Puerto Rican and black parents.” I said, “Ohh, well, I tell you. I’ve searched for it, I mean, really searched for it, but I have yet to distinguish what the difference between them really are.” She said nothing more; I left it alone, and we continued, caught up to the rest of the group and engaged light chatting in the professor’s office until it was time to leave.

(5b) From 1977 thru 2000, I had a running buddy, fellow poet Zizwe Ngafua. Good poet, undermined. We did a lot together that pushed for the issue of love in political ideology and in bridging communities. A more divisive, ultra-narrow nationalist poet we hung with, a fellow who enjoyed seeing division and who pushed the one side of Garvey that proved murky (light skin/dark skin) attempted to create a wedge between Zizwe and me while also making use of my contacts and skills whenever they suited his interests, tried cracking on Zizwe one day. “It’s not the same thing!” “What’s not the same thing?” Zizwe asked. “Blacks and Puerto Ricans; it’s not the same struggle; it’s not the same fight.” Zizwe looked at him, pulled on his pipe and said, “Brother, you got a lot of maturing to do.”

Thus, you have not “misconstrued” my intent, my perspective, and my politic. There’s no corner of this hemisphere that was not invaded, conquered, enslaved. There is equally no corner of this hemisphere, from the borders of Canada to the tip of Chile, where Africans were not kidnapped to, for purposes of supplementing and/or complementing slave labor forces.

(6) “In this, I suspect, I am like many Americans.”

Yes, mis- and diseducated, tricked, and trained to meet the demands of labor only. Not nurtured as a human, thinking being. That’s what Malcolm was talking about in terms of civil vs. human rights.

No forgive is necessary. It wasn’t your doing. . . . The search goes on and the contradiction rises up each time we look at a thing, a condition. What is “a black issue,” if not a reflection of the root of our human condition? Who says that our humanity is measured by WHAT? My man Zizwe, once asked me, “How long you figure this struggle is going to take? As his way of checking to see how wide the parameters of my perspective. I answered immediately, so fast I surprised myself, “Until every single child on this planet knows how to read and read between the lines and spaces that occupy words.” He replied, “That’s a long time, brother.” “It sure is . . .” as both grew silent and kept walking.

Rudy: You are an award-winning poet, an academic, professor of African American, Puerto Rican and Caribbean Literature and History, an arts and political activist, and a host of both a live and a radio program. Where do you get the energy for so many activities? Many would be satisfied with a career as an academic. What drives you, if I can use that word?

Louis Rivera: If I am an academic, it's by default. I've been teaching since I was an undergraduate. A little older than most (I was 23 turning 24 when I started school), I'd been studying on my own since I was 15 (1960). I never looked at it as teaching as much as sharing with others. Information is supposed to be part of our natural inheritance, just by virtue of our birth. What we call education is really more like being tricked and trained to meet the demands of labor.

In 1969, I was part of the student movement that ushered in Open Admissions and that legitimized what is referred to as "ethnic studies." By the time the Black Studies and Puerto Rican Studies departments were in place, I was graduating. Consequently, I had to revert back to self-initiated studies in order to get what I had missed. Eventually, and by default (with few trained professors capable of teaching the material I knew), opportunities came to teach what I'd been researching on my own. Because I would incorporate my studies in history and philosophy into my poetry, by 1986, I was viewed as a type of expert. And so, my developed expertise in African American, Puerto Rican and Caribbean Literature and History paid off through offers to teach in the colleges.

After graduating from college, I understood that no room would be given me for my capacity, even less for what I earned. In other cultures, I'd be given an academic post so that I could be "just a writer." But in this culture, if you don't create your own sidestream, you'll disappear into the ether. So with me, it's not so much an issue of energy, but out of necessity that you have to be a political activist, an advocate on behalf of artists, in addition to practicing your art and researching those missing pages in your book. Taking on college classes or any other type of job, you do because in addition to everything else, you have to feed your family and pay rent.

My attitude towards every job has been to see it as a part time thing you do to keep ends connected, while the art you vocate is your full time gig. In short, there's no real room here for us, not as poets, not as humans, and certainly, not as full fledged citizens; consequently, we have to create our own spaces, and work them, even while we hold down other jobs.

Rudy: I read your Scattered Scripture and thoroughly enjoyed it. I am certain that it will ever be in my top ten of poetry books. I recommend it highly to anyone who is serious about the craft and art of poetry. Technically, I think it is a workshop and that it would be a great book to teach in English or language departments at the grade school level or in college. The subject matter and the perspective, however, is another matter. I am not sure that many academics are willing to deal with your subject and perspective. Have you gotten any responses back from teachers and professors who have attempted to use your book in their syllabi?

Louis Rivera: There have been professors who cull from my work certain poems to teach through. But no, my books have never been placed on Required Reading lists, though here and there students come to me because of something shared in a classroom I didn't know about. But I expected that. As with getting published, especially after 1974, mainstream publishers are more consciously political in their selections, and to strip yourself of a political perspective is a plus for getting mainstreamed. But that factor never bothered me. I have never accepted the premise that somehow I have to prove something to The Other in order to be accepted and acceptable. While it's harder work, I've never really objected to being Underground (as they say) or in the sidestream. It's more honest there. You don't suffer from racial psychosis as much.

Rudy: With your creative talent and skill, you could have written and can write almost any kind of poetry book you desire. I mean you could have written a book of love poems, like your love poem "(near again)" or poems generally critical of the foibles of humanity in general. Why Scattered Scripture? Why such a book of poems that comes off militant and radical in perspective, which seems to be an extended attack on Western culture and civilization? There will be few career rewards for such a perspective.

Louis Rivera: What's the human thing to do? I have the option to be slick and lie or to grapple with the truth. If I do the former, I'm considered conservative and part of the mediocre currents that rule over us. If I do the latter, I'm radical and militant and therefore dangerous. And I don't understand either one of those positions.

I was born into a generation that had come out of World War II and into Self-Assertion. Change was everywhere, unlike any other period in history, challenging every thing (colonialism, dependency, sexism, racism, exploitation, large scale thievery, corporate gangsterism, miseducation, you name it). Should I be part of the contradiction or part of the confrontation?

I was raised with Jesus, Crazy Horse and Hannibal as models to emulate. And I could not, as a child, understand hypocrisy. I was a straight A student until I began to consciously recognize the lie we live. I had trained as a journalist/editor. When I decided that pursuing the vocation of poet was the more honest thing to do, grappling with the truth came with the territory.

I began Scattered Scripture roughly in 1974, wanting to deliberately translate history into poetry, recovering those missing pages from our story, and attempting to build a bridge of understanding between the people of this hemisphere, and in my case specifically between African Americans from the U.S. and Puerto Ricans -- the two groups that comprise my understanding of immediate reality. Using our real story through poetry as the material for building that bridge. If I'm attacking anything, it's hypocrisy, the lie and the distortion. Why? Because I'm here. I matter too. I don't use the word "career" to describe what I do. I use the word "vocation," as it speaks to why I am compelled to write.

By the way, I've been after the love poem, too. One of my works-in-progress is called Private Moments, an attempt to write such a collection that any couple can read to one another as prelude to one of those aspects of ourselves that requires attention, our sensuality. But that's not all we are. We are corporeal and need to eat; intellectual, and need to think critically; sensual, and need to touch regularly; spiritual, and need to imaginate and therein activate the possible; psychological, and need to know our real selves. Imbalance is predicated on paying attention only to one part of what we are.

Rudy: You say that it has taken you over 20 years to write Scattered Scripture. What do you mean by that – that these poems were written over a 20-year period or that it has taken that time to formulate or to grow into such a perspective or some combination of all of these and more?

Louis Rivera: I was after a translation of history into poetry, covering those missing pages from the books I'd read and couldn't find me in. I had to search it and live it in order to write it. I knew it would take me a long time to do, but I was willing to learn the details I didn't know, and work on Scattered Scripture while pursuing other things. And yes, the first poem I had completed for that book "(what are they doing)," was written in 1974. The last poem, "(like toussaint, so marti)" was written in 1995. In between came all the others that hit me as response to my research.

Rudy: Before we go forward, just let me ask a brief technical question. Why have you enclosed all the titles of your poems in parentheses and written them in lower case. Is this just a personal idiosyncrasy? Or does it have some other significance?

Louis Rivera: Scattered Scripture is one work. The parentheses signify that each poem is not separated from the other. Like verse 1 and verse 2, they belong to the same chapter. Lower case, because it is not to be taken as a proper noun, but a common thread. Similarly, the "I" throughout the book is rendered in the lower case "i" directly because i am not greater than either the second ("you") or third ("he/she") persons. We are the same, and one should not have precedence over the other.

I come from peasant background (i.e., Puerto Rico), from the lumpen proletariat (i.e., urban ghetto), and from the dispossessed (i.e., of African and Amerindian descent), and I choose deliberately not to forget or forsake that there is beauty and relevance in that lineage. No shame. But no arrogance either.

Rudy: Scattered Scripture has over thirty pages of notes to the poems. How did the inclusion of so many notes come about? In that you write in both Spanish and English and seemingly, write well in both, I can understand that you would want your non-Spanish reading audience to know what is going on. But these notes do not merely serve that purpose. Do you think the notes are needed for the poems to be properly appreciated? Or were there things that you wanted to say that just could not be contained in poetry?

Louis Rivera: Footnotes for the Spanish I use in the text is, of course, self-explanatory. But when I finished what turned out to be 125 pages of poetry, I was confronted by the fact that the difference between you and i is what informs us both. The books you've read are not necessarily the same ones that I've read. So I had to include the footnotes section, in order to get you to understand the beauty of this one difference between us. Not to explain the poem, never (that's up to you to interpret), but to provide you with the historical context for the poem or to make sure you know wherefrom my allusions came. This made the book complete, as a poetic song, as an historical document, and as an instructional device. Yes, we are corporeal, and should be eating every day. But as well, we are intellectual, and should also be reading every day. The footnotes help to demonstrate that thesis.

Rudy: In your poem "(earthbred series: entry one)," which acts as a kind of preface for Scattered Scripture, you say at the beginning and end of the poem that this book is an act of returning something that has been given "by the people," which I assume is the "you" of the poem. The authorial you (or narrator) is a "poet," "a child of one/come to share the gift you gave." What indeed is this "gift," I assume, that actually you are referring to a number of gifts – poetic, linguistic, historical knowledge and wisdom, cultural insight and criticism? Could you elaborate?

Louis Rivera: I was raised inside of a Puerto Rican family, but born in Brooklyn, and inside of an African American community, many of which members had uprooted from the rural South. I was protected and nurtured by both. I owe all of the people who touched me something for the touch. Not all of us can discover and realize our capacity to do.

When I uncovered the capacity to write and that a writer I was and would be, I also recognized that this vocation was a gift, given to me by those who nurtured me. You'd be surprised how many winos gave me books to read or cold blooded hustlers giving me advice and protection and lessons on survival, how many I had to bury and whom I carry with me right beside memories of my parents and grandparents both. They all comprise the substance of the gift given me. Much like Langston's "dream deferred" image that appears in so many of his poems.  

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