Roberto Carlos Garcia Interview, with JP Reese
Is your "Poem for Uncle Jaimé" based on a real person? The main character feels whole and of the flesh, and his surroundings are full of the color, texture, and flavor of a real place full of real people. I love the vernacular as well.
Uncle Jaimé was a real person; he was my grandmother’s brother. He was in his 50’s and 60’s when I was a kid but he had the mental capacity of a child. I’d joke around and play games with him. He’d end up getting in trouble for roughhousing with me and my cousins. My great grandmother would send him out to the yard. As I matured and he didn’t, I wondered what happened to him. One night just before bed, I asked my great grandmother to tell me what happened. I was spending the summer with her in Dominican Republic. She told me something resembling “Poem for Uncle Jaimé” and that became the bones for the poem.
Wow, Roberto. I’ll let the readers look at the poem for the rest of poor Jaimé’s tale. Some fodder for a poem! How often does lived experience inform your poems? Is it a constant companion to your writing or an occasional, happy accident?
It’s definitely an occasional, happy accident because I don't like to force my life into poems. However, I do enjoy writing those poems more. I favor storytelling in my poems. I suppose that’s why I also love writing short stories. I feel that fiction (short, flash) and poetry inform each other in many ways.
Do you come from a family of storytellers? What’s your background?
I was born in New York City but my parents were born and raised in the campos (rural towns) of Dominican Republic. It’s customary in Dominican culture to love baseball and to pass down stories (funny, sad, or mystical). At least it has been for my family. My grandmother was a good storyteller. She could recount a simple trip to the supermarket and make it an adventure.
Our mutual friend, Shara McCallum, often draws on her family’s history and her experiences as a child growing up in Jamaica to write her poems. I think for some writers, coming from a place with a different culture or history is helpful to their art once they’ve moved to the US. You were born here, but you have your relatives' stories and history to draw on. When did you first decide you needed to be a writer and what form did that decision take? Oh, and have you ever written a baseball poem?
I love Shara’s work for that reason. She shares her experiences beautifully and poignantly. I have a collection of poems about my grandmother in the spirit of her Miss Sally poems. Hopefully someday they’ll be on her level.
As a kid I would write a lot of comic book stories. I’d take my favorite characters and make up my own adventures for them. Then I’d write songs, folk, rap, and blues. My mother kept a small library of poetry, English mystery novels and a lot of classics so there was always material around to feed my imagination. No matter what I was doing; art, writing, rapping, or singing I was always using my imagination. That, more than anything, kept me writing even when I became a businessman. It wasn’t until I decided to return to college and finish my degree that I realized how deep the act of writing can go. Once that happened I was hooked, and I’ve never looked back.
Yes, I have two baseball poems and neither of them are ready to see the light of day. Something about how personal baseball is to me makes it hard for me to write objectively about it. But I keep trying to anyway.
Your poem, “Back to School” is one that has, sadly, a legacy of precursors. I thought immediately of Countee Cullin’s poem “Incident” from the Harlem Renaissance period, but after almost a century, this unpleasant epiphany Tito is forced to endure should be a thing of the past, not something still painfully present in our culture. What prompted you to write this poem?
“Incident” is an amazing poem and very subtle until it turns and even that is muted, “but he poked out/His tongue, and called me, ‘Nigger.’” That poking out of the tongue makes it seem childish but we know it’s not. I wrote “Back to School” mostly because yes, color and race are issues that are still very serious today. Even though we have an African American president racism is still a big problem. Also, I’d like to think that in today’s world any child from a group that’s habitually discriminated against; the overweight, gay/lesbian, and other ethnic groups can identify with “Tito."
I get very dark very easily. I always have. The first thing people will say to me is “Wow, you’re so dark.” It’s kind of annoying because you are left wondering what the context of the statement is and the tone and or body language is different depending on the person. It’s a complex experience for me and I hope that the complexities of the situation for “Tito” echo for many.
Where do you picture yourself as a writer a decade from now? What do you hope you will have accomplished?
I hope to have published at least one book of poetry and one of the novels I have in progress. That would be good. I’d like to be teaching writing to At-Risk Youth. I was fortunate as a young man to have that kind of support. The main thing I want to accomplish in writing is to write a book that becomes literature, to write a book that endures, that is taught in American Literature courses, and that says important and vital things about our society today that will be relevant for decades to come.
Poem for Uncle Jaimé
His big, soft hands had gripped the naked backsides
of the pueblo’s many married women.
Jaimé Garcia beguiled with blue green eyes—
he was a stone cold fucking machine
& a well mannered mama’s boy too.
The viejas called him gentleman & bandito,
he eased up & down the lane, giving kids candy money,
booze to beggars, he even drank Sambuca with the cops.
Jaimé crept on your wife as she sat in the shade
drinking limonáda, & you, away, working.
Pueblo husbands half-suspected the infidelities;
they met & played dominoes to study the facts.
It became a club of sorts, each husband pretended:
No, not my wife, passed off fake smiles like hyenas—
the doubt buoyant as a motherfucker.
Then Piel Canela came to town. Piel Canela
because she was burnt like sticky cinnamon,
hair & eyes black like shadows in midnight’s bedroom.
Her teeth flashed wicked. Jaimé passed her gate one day,
saw her bent over, gathering dry palm for a fogata—
to keep mosquitoes away. He spoke slick. She finished
his sentences. The fall was quick & the toucans stopped their songs,
the river ceased its dance, & the viejas prayed
with agua florida soaked rosary beads, & Jaimé barely made it
out of Piel Canela’s bed before her husband came home.
& imagine him, his wife naked in bed, asleep—not yet evening.
The feathery hiss of gossip carried him off to the domino club, to rum.
Hands smacked domino tables in bitterness: Kill Jaimé Garcia!
Piel Canela’s husband said no, that would be too easy,
& pulled a slight hammer from his linen blazer,
a hammer like a child’s toy made of wood & metal,
with this, he said, I’ll get that bastard. At night’s sharp edge
they found Jaimé stumbling drunk along the lane.
They beat him, took off his clothes, beat him some more,
& Piel Canela’s husband came up from behind, held the tiny hammer
high up like a testament, & brought it down hard like a judgment
behind Jaimé Garcia’s ear. The cry, my God, the cry.
After the convalescence, the wives, like roadside flowers, waited
& Piel Canela, so bold she met him at the gate as nurses walked him in.
She searched his eyes for the blue green wildness. Drool
dripped from his lips.
Back to school
His classmates gone from the playground
Tito sat barefoot on grass daydreaming
about boiled plantains sprinkled with salt
& olive oil, covered with onions & cheese,
a glass of cold tamarind juice & naps in the shade.
That’s summer vacation on Dominican Republic.
He didn’t want to go but after gulping palm soaked
air & swimming sweet river water he was baptized.
Mama Ana issued one warning—
“Stay out the sun, you are dark enough already.”
She’s waiting for him now, half the table set
up for homework, the other half for dinner.
Being back should make him happy, hop to
and hurry home right now but today at recess
Brenda Vazquez called him “Negro”,
“Tu eres un Negro” she said. All the kids froze & stared,
Tito looked in their eyes, didn’t know why that was bad,
They ran away; he sat on the grass, has been there ever since.