Tuesday May 21

Torres Poetry Sevé Torres is a poet, educator, and father. His work has been published in the Crab Orchard Review, Duende, Mead: A Magazine of Literature and Libations, and Dismantle: An Anthology of Writing from the VONA/Voices Workshop. He currently teaches at Rutgers University - Camden & Rowan University.

Sevé Torres Interview, with Davon Loeb

My fellow Rutgers-Camden graduate and educator, it is such a pleasure to interview you. I’ve been lucky to be your colleague, both teaching at Rutgers-Camden, over the past 5 years. I am beyond excited and thankful Connotation Press: An Online Artifact has finally gotten to publish your work.

Firstly, I love how these poems are trying to fill those empty spaces in our lives that I think we all have—like in “through the lens”, whereas there seems to be a question of how people view us and how we view ourselves, and the poem explores that space in-between. Thus, it feels like your poems address a hunger—something that strays and returns—something lost, something found, something residual. Rather than discuss what that thing is, the loss, why do you think we eventually replace that hunger? Furthermore, in what ways, do we substitute our needs for our wants? For example, in “Hunger’s Edge”, what is the glass of bourbon substituting?

Bourbon substitutes for grief. Most of my lived and written experiences are wrestling with some form of grief or loss. When I was three years old my paternal grandfather died of a brain hemorrhage, my maternal grandfather died of a heart attack, and my uncle Robert died from Lupus. I have no idea how I processed three deaths at that time, but I know that when I see bourbon leave its trace on a glass after it is swirled it reminds me of those that have gone before. When I look at the craft that goes into distilling bourbon I am struck by how much time and care has been taken with the process. Through the poet’s gaze, in bourbon I see hours of attention – all at once I see the buzz, I see the pain, I see the opportunity – this is what craft means in the true sense, that exploration of what is there, what we make of it, and how it is received. And I think we replace that hunger because we live with others – because at the end of the day we are not alone on this earth, we share space, and because we share space we must account for others. In that accounting, we substitute and shift and grow.

How does being an educator, in terms of practicality and functionality, affect your writing? Additionally, in “the stitching of a song”, your readers will experience and identify with those very real everyday gravities—bills, work, responsibilities, and grading papers. So, what challenges do you face when trying to “stitch” your songs or craft poetry while as Stevie Wonder put it, living for the city?

For me there can be a saturation point with language – trafficking in the words of my students, poetry collections, podcasts, audio books it’s sometimes hard to make space for my own words.

Being a poet has functionally become about facing the blank page, and then examining the words that I place on it, making sure that somehow I am able to tap into that space of worship – because for me it is only in the space of ritual, that I am able to engage most fully with what it means to be human. Being an educator and a being a poet is about facilitating a process of relentless questioning, inquiry, taking a position and dealing with the ethical responsibility that comes with that. It is also about knowing that writing is a process that takes effort and care. When I stitch my songs, my poetry, I draw from ancestors, from land, from movement and from the music that thrums just below the surface of all things.

If anyone studying poetry looked for an example of cadence, I am confident these poems exemplify how to create music in writing. Sevé , you have a natural ear to sound, either purposeful line breaks or subconscious off-rhyming. All your poems have these rhythmic undertones that bind each syllable to every word. In regards to cadence, how important is it for you to music-make in your writing? And where does that desire for sound come from?  

I care about the heart of my reader, about the ear of my reader, about the connection to the limbic system and the sensory details that draw a reader beyond the page into a lived poem. Without cadence and music I think it would be very hard to capture the wonder and the awe that allows me to unravel a poem from the space that exists beyond language. So the desire for sound comes from a deep and abiding love for music with or without an instrumental backdrop. I’m desperately fighting against my own intellectualism (generalizations, judgments, abstractions) in poems – so in a very real way, I make sure that my poems always tap into the physical body available to all of us through carefully crafted language – through music & and through image.

I admire your ability to story tell, especially in the poem “through his hands”. You take on this narrative of a blue-collar electrician, and almost become him—exploring his joys, his regrets. If any, what freedoms do you find in writing in the third person as opposed to first-person narratives?

Third person allows me to capture a sense of wonder and mystery. As someone who observes the world around me with rapt attention, who writes from the first person so frequently, I find it’s crucial to explore all points of view.

Specifically, in reference to “through his hands”, we very often remain on the surface of our experience and forget just how many people were required to make our lives possible – I feel like writing in third person forces us to truly look at the complexity that go into lives beyond our own. I think in our current era it can be hard to remember how vitally important this is – to look at others and ask ourselves how & why, to find the beauty in what we overlook.

Sometimes after reading an article, I like to look for references to point me to the writer’s sources or inspirations, but reading poetry typically is not as direct. Regardless, for our readers to know a little more about Sevé Torres, who are your literary influences? What writers are you reading? What writers haven’t you put down? What verses have you underlined—highlighted—memorized? And how do you think those authors have shaped your work?

I owe a tremendous debt to Lis White, Arielle Diaz, Jasminne Mendez, Paula Ramirez, Tatianna Figueroa Ramirez, Tyreek Greene, Mark Anthony Vigo, Rashaad Thomas, Carlos Andrés Gomez, Quique Medina, Yein Kim, & Jani Rose. This group of poets from a VONA/Voices workshop facilitated by Willie Perdomo, that I had the good fortune to TA, reminded me that poetry at its best is a collective process. You will often hear people talk about – or present like – writing is a solitary process, but in truth it is always the writers who you see your reflection in, who allow you to see your limitations, who crack you open and pour in this unconditional love – people who really see you – who allow the poetry to enter the space that is the world.

With that in mind my literary influences can be found among: Raul Zuríta – INRI, which transcends poetry and speaks directly to the soul; Vievee Francis – Forest Primeval, poems that don’t flinch & dig all the way into your being; The Prophet by Khalil Gibran, which taps into a rich tradition of prophetic voice; all poems and teaching by June Jordan, wherein you can see my poetic lineage, my fight & my rage, my commitment to the line break; the oeuvre of Patrick Rosal especially Uprock, Headspin Scramble & Dive for the possibility it opened up inside of me and a belief in music to reveal ourselves to the world; Cynthia Dewi Oka especially her forthcoming collection Salvage, which comes for the wreck, and not the story of the wreck; Willie Perdomo – The Essential Hits of Shorty Bon Bon for the syllable music & the heart that is not afraid to look at itself; Tyehimba Jess – Leadbelly for the excavation & the vision; Junot Díaz – The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which weaves such layers of complexity & humanity that it’s existence helps expand the realm of what is possible in a given genre; Toni Morrison – who gives us all permission to write to our most sacred audience & to love the fullness of who we are as human beings- and I can go endlessly with influences...

I find myself returning to the final stanza in Vievee Francis’ poem “Altruism” from Forest Primeval:

“Give me the fruit I may leave my mark upon
or flesh (willing enough), but something, something
besides lip and the language of loss. Give me pleasure
of knowing the giving matters to more than the receiver,
and given such knowledge give me faith, or denial, or
truth enough to manage this
truth such as it is.”

I also find myself returning to Raul Zuríta when he writes in his poem “The Desert” from his collection INRI: “A country of the disappeared is shipwrecked in/ the desert. The prow of dead landscapes sinks/ wrecked like the night on the stones. The sun/ shines down on a black stain in the middle of/ the day. In the distance it seems like just a stain, / but it’s a ship in bright sunlight burying itself/ with its night in the stony fields of the desert. If/ they keep silent the stones will cry out.” The enjambment carries us along lead by this Chilean poet, survivor of the Pinochet regime, through the parts of humanity against which we ourselves break, we are reminded what it means to be called to an idea of poetry beyond awards & monetary compensation – that like the stones or the ship we eventually cry out & transform. This in the end is what I think we do as poets – we find each other in the hard work of our craft – and currently I have found No Dictionary of a Living Tongue by Duriel Harris, the Flayed City by Hari Alluri, and Tourist in Hell by Eleanor Wilner. These are keeping me good company at the moment.


the stitching of a song

as I hum debt into golden strands that shine
been trying to figure out who I owe these days
the sound of syllables ringing in the ear
a story, the care of revision, to whittle lines fine

but I can’t seem to bring myself to quiet
to look at signs written through my eyelids
I can’t seem to find the song’s threads
You know – the stitching of a song

see I use to throw long hard language
together in rhyme over drums & rhythm
syncopation & sweet libation clenching fear
my words were therapy & anger spinning wild

but it seems like bills came due & all that time
I spent unraveling tongues spun me into reality
Now I spend most of my time guilting in grades
working in new ways to distract myself

in my off time – I’ve come to that edge
seen my life catch the rhythm of quick heartbeat
thumping out of my chest in open jaw awe
when I look at myself in the mirror these days

I wonder about how beautiful, how selfish I was
back when California sun grazed me daily
before I left to become a man, before the debt
I owed myself became a ten ton steel beam

crushing a dream in half splitting me
in so many pieces you would swear I was dust
I’m old enough to know why men tell stories
old enough to watch as sparks smolder into silence

to have seen what happens when a dream dies
to pick up that language & get back to work

Hunger’s Edge

when the bourbon swills round the glass

the tongue dryly salivates like it is preparing
for burn & all the sweet notes ever sung

spirits can whisk us away into fog
but these eyebrows were meant for sun

casting shadow over pupils on hot days
whispering sweetness into habit

there are so many hungers all at once
they grow like wildflowers in the slightest rain

these purples and blues and orangish reds
exploding into song along hunger’s edge

through his hands

this wall is wired with every strand of cable
left in an electrician’s truck after a long day

there is a kind of peace in my knowledge
that lights will pop into gray black abstract art

when the aged wires catch stray power
like the burst of a potato chip bag in Summer

I wonder what the electrician is doing now
if he has reached the end of his life

or if he is holding grandchildren on a Sunday
hair gray and eyes worn down from years

of squinting past the darkness of drywall
I wonder at the electricity that has coursed

through his hands & how they have changed
how his nights have grown longer

his mornings brighter in the waking
I wonder where he keeps his tools

the ones that brought light and joy
to people without a thought for his wellbeing

I wonder if he has a room wired above
all others – his masterpiece hard fought

through impossible conditions & heat
so staggering it would melt plastic

& if he does have such a room or a house
or a whole floor of an office building

does he remember the first hour when
he was learning how to separate the wire

or does he think about the way she touched him
that first night after they left the bar

one cold day in December when the whole world
was blanketed snow & fog breath swirling electric

through the lens

there is a lightness in his face
a way the cheekbones rise in smile
dimples dip slowly as teeth dance free

a kempt goatee trimmed of stray hairs
the long sharp bridge of his nose
an eyebrow standing flush with cheekbone

bathing shadow around eyes
with upturned eyelashes long
& wet-earth-brown pupils

sometimes I wonder how the earth sculpts
people – how does it know what shape
each detail should be –

how does the person
come to look at themselves & choose
the way the hair will sit or what will remain smooth -

it’s almost like his spirit knew how much it would see
& grabbed each element from a long family line
straddling two continents & an isla of green

his skin is only gently kissed by the sun
like his work keeps him inside
but there is a fierce joy in his smile

the kind that has to fight to the surface
through years of quietude & fear
almost like he was never told that he is beautiful

that the contrast between lines & shadow
cast a net bigger than the rage he harbors
somewhere in the bone structure

of his grandfather or ribs of his abuela
the concrete underfoot looks hard
the sky above pure Boricua blue