Art Works Blog

Art Talk with Patrick Rosal

"[T]he role of a community is to protect the solitude of its individuals--I emphasize solitude rather than loneliness. At the same time, one of the roles of the individual artist is to trouble the community. It’s a paradox, this mutual relationship of trouble and support." -- Patrick Rosal

Patrick Rosal's poetry is full of music--not just defined genres like hip hop and salsa, but the thump and scrape scales of the basketball court, the rhythms of young men conversing in fists and boasts, the chords of American vernacular played out in the mouths of natives and newcomers alike. Rosal grew up in a home steeped as much in popular and traditional music as in the heigthened language of Catholicism. It's no surprise that music and poetry are twinned throughout his work as in these opening lines from "Guitar:"

The bottom end’s a little shallow
and you might need to shim the bridge
to hush the fifth-fret buzz. The action’s low
and the neck, a tad warped, but I swear,
this thing sings...

The author of three collections of poetry, Rosal's most recent book Boneshepherds was named a notable book by The National Book Critics Circle and the Academy of American Poets. His poems and essays have appeared in numerous outlets including Tin House, Best American Poetry, and Harvard Review, among many others. His awards include the Association of Asian American Studies Book Award, the Asian American Writers Workshop Members' Choice Award, and a Fulbright fellowship. Rosal is a founding co-editor of the sports quarterly Some Call It Ballin', and he teaches on the faculty of Rutgers University-Camden's MFA program. We spoke with Rosal via e-mail about poetry as an act of community and history, art as work, and the tension between the traditional American dream and the life of the artist.   

NEA: What do you remember as your earliest engagement with the arts?

PATRICK ROSAL: As I was getting dressed for nursery school one morning, I told my mom I wanted to wear a tie. She asked me why, and I said just because. When a kid at school asked me why I was wearing a tie, I said, “I got a gig.” When the kid asked, “What’s that?” I said, “Like a concert… I’m playing in one.” It wasn’t so much the four-year-old fantasy of being a performing musician that was an engagement with art, but the act of lying. It’s the first mask I remember putting on. I was crafting a lie. A bad one. I had no clue about its consequences, but I was playing with language, identity, and performance (several layers, I guess). The falsehoods, fictions, music, and myths only blossomed from there.

NEA: What was your journey to becoming an artist?

ROSAL: Ha! It’s a circuitous one. Too much to recount in a small space like this. But we always had music in and around our house. We had dance parties in our basement. My dad wasn’t a professional musician but he plays piano, flute, and violin really well. My mom made her own clothes and upholstered our furniture. Art--or the act of making--was in our everyday lives. But that spirit of art also seemed to contradict the pressures of being an immigrant family. We were subjected to that old mandate to work hard all the time and you’ll be successful. But you know, art demands observation, reflection, and play. Only rich people could afford the time for those things. Poor people, immigrants, and working-class folks who took time to watch, consider, and remember were considered listless and torpid or downright irresponsible and neglectful. I still struggle with that old American injunction for hyper-discipline and a palms-bloody work ethic; I’m often questioning what that injunction includes and what it excludes.

You asked about my journey. Well, it seems all the conditions to become an artist were in place--a desire to create, questions /confusions/fascinations about the people and world around me, an abundance of models who were artists or at least engaged in some form of craft. I don’t know if that’s a journey exactly. I think, for me, it’s part circumstance and part choice.

NEA: Are there particular poems that have influenced/shaped/informed your work? Which ones and why?

ROSAL: There are so many. I was educated from birth into Catholicism. Twelve years of school is just the tip of the iceberg; my father is an ex-priest. So among the first poems I was exposed to were the voluminous verses from scripture. If I were to become a poet, however, I had to be given permission, I think, to question the Church--both as a way to trouble orthodoxy and doctrine, but also as a way simply to ask for myself and in my own way, “Where is God?” Two contemporary poems did that for me: Anne Sexton’s “With Mercy for the Greedy” and Amiri Baraka’s “When We’ll Worship Jesus.” There are so many other poems for so many other reasons that have shaped my work. Robert Hayden’s beautiful sonnet “Frederick Douglass” continues to instruct me. Jessica Hagedorn’s poems “Canto de Nada,” “Something About You.” June Jordan, Paul Genega, Audre Lorde…. The list goes on.

NEA: Which of your own poems do you consider milestones of your own career (and why)?

ROSAL: That’s a hard question because they’re all part of a body of work. I could name a bunch that I enjoy still. But there are hundreds, probably thousands, of poems and fragments of poems that were failures, tossed in the trash. The failures, too, are milestones.

NEA: We're celebrating National Asian Pacific Heritage month. How does being American inform your work? How does being of Filipino descent inform your work?

ROSAL: My work as a writer has become increasingly about restoring a history that I was never taught in school. Of the three generations of Filipinos since the United States invaded the Philippines in 1898, me and my contemporaries belong to the first generation that did not have to survive a war in the land of our birth. My parents’ and grandparents’ generations had to hide in ditches; they had family members disappeared, tortured, and killed.

My guess is that people survive wars by some combination of luck and invention. I’m a (very recent) descendant from that very fact. My legacy is making something (poems) from bits of evidence and fragments of history. My conscious material is language and the body. But every Filipino intuitively (and oftentimes consciously) constructs a mode of living that is made from disparate elements. For Filipinos that’s not a trick or a slick craft technique—it’s a strategy for survival. To me, that is a remarkable feat of intelligence and love. I’m trying to produce work that lives up to that tradition.

NEA: Where did you grow up and how has that informed/influenced your work?

ROSAL: I was raised in a racially mixed, working-class, industrial neighborhood in New Jersey—a suburb, but not the kind of suburb you might think of along the rural-urban binary. On the south side of Edison, New Jersey, the U.S. Army housed old missiles and other ordinance in a lot just up my street. At the otherend of our short block was a warehouse for Revlon, the beauty product manufacturer. The Ford plant wasn’t even a mile up the road--the opposite way from the Fedders air conditioner plant and Owens Illinois plastic factory where my Uncle Eli, a beautiful guitarist, worked before he died of cancer.

I don’t know how living there has affected my work. My work is trying to figure out what these places and memories mean in the first place. I keep thinking of the official story--yeah, history books but also the ways in which Hollywood is complicit in the making of the American myth. Growing up in that mishmash of a neighborhood was difficult and rich. As a writer, I keep going back to it in memory. I think there is abundant evidence there of many alternate stories of America.

NEA: You are also a musician, an influence which is quite visible in your poems. Can you please talk about the relationship between poetry and music for you? How the work of each discipline informs the other?

ROSAL: As a very young self-taught musician, I used to rummage through music theory books. One of the first things that theory taught me was how harmony can be understood as tension and resolution. Western music has all these taxonomies for chordal formation and movement in this regard. I think poems are about tension and resolution as well. Language can move between those two states--the stability and instability of meaning, rhythm, syntax. Where a poetic line ends can determine a kind of tension. If the line ends with a period at the end of a conventional sentence, it feels resolved (a little like a V7-I cadence in music). There are all sorts of places to break a sentence into a line that can make for rhythmic and syntactical tensions.

More recently, I’ve been working on ways to incorporate my poems and musicianship--some digital sound composition and performance, some more conventional musical approaches. I’ve been experimenting with keyboard, percussion, guitar, woodwinds, samplers, loopers, and effects.

NEA: You are also a teacher: can you please talk about how teaching informs (and challenges) your creative work?

ROSAL: There’s nothing like watching a student wake up to her own gifts as a reader and writer. Sometimes it happens in front of you right in the classroom. Sometimes it’s many students at once; that is, it’s sometimes collaborative. Sometimes it happens in the nick of time at the end of the semester.

I think I must see some of myself in my students who have resisted books and poetry because they were taught that poetry is just a subject to put your scalpels to. I came to books relatively late--my mid-twenties--and so I just enjoy participating in the aspect of my students’ lives that is about awakening or renewing a relationship to language, poetry, and books. And this can happen on any level and in almost any context--from youth to MFA programs. The challenge is finding my own time to write. The academic world isn’t always hospitable to things like play. There’s pressure to assess outcomes and to have authoritative and definitive answers. It’s extra work to perform inside of that context and maintain one’s (body) memory of learning poetry. Does it help my writing? Hard to say. I used to be able to teach and write at the same time, but not so much any more. My job gives me time and resources to write, but I have less to say about the rhythm of that work.

NEA: In our next issue of NEA Arts magazine, we are speaking with artists about how their work relates to the community, and I'd like to ask you the same question. How do you define community in terms of your creative practice, and how do you see your work in relation to that community?

ROSAL: I think I feel a kinship with a lot of communities--some of them more formal, or institutional, like the wider professional community of academics, Cave Canem and Kundiman, and others less formal like the spoken word community or the Jersey crews of the 80s. I can’t say anything definitive about the relationship between my work and those communities. I know that my writing doesn’t happen without being in dialogue with something or someone larger than me, and every one of those communities in one way or another has helped me find some version of that larger thing. I know I’m being evasive, but it’s hard to nail down. I’ll say this to close out: the role of a community is to protect the solitude of its individuals--I emphasize solitude rather than loneliness. At the same time, one of the roles of the individual artist is to trouble the community. It’s a paradox, this mutual relationship of trouble and support.

NEA: We recently held our Poetry Out Loud National Finals, and one of the prizes is money for for the finalists' schools to buy poetry books for the school library. What books of poetry do you think every school library should have, and why?

ROSAL: Off the top of my head: Blessing the Boats, Lucille Clifton; The Essential Etheridge Knight, Etheridge Knight; The Essential Hits of Shorty Bon Bon, Willie Perdomo. I could probably compile a list of 30 or 40 and still feel like it’s incomplete. Truth be told, a library should have an abundance of poetry books from contemporary voices--hopefully with a number of titles that represent the people who live in that library’s community.

NEA: So you can invite some artists--living or dead--to your next dinner party. Who's on the guest list and why?

ROSAL: Janelle Monae, Low Leaf, Noel Cabongan, Jessica Hagedorn, Celia Cruz, Ray Barretto, Jabbawockeez, Willie Perdomo, Roger Bonair-Agard, Bill T. Jones, Rita Dove, Ronald K. Brown, Curtis Bauer, Idoia Elola, Fred Ho, Janet Jackson, my Lola Filomena, my cousins (especially the Narcisos), Ross Gay, Rachel Eliza Griffiths, Kamilah Aisha Moon, Karissa Chen, Lynne Procope, Abena Koomson, Tyehimba Jess, Randall Horton, Sabrina Hayeem-Ladani, Elana Bell, Syreeta McFadden, Samantha Thornhill, Aracelis Girmay, Bruno Mars, Tiphanie Yanique, Ladybug (from Digable Planets), Marty Tan, Anthony Morales, Pat Nierva, John Murillo, Latasha Diggs, Ishle Park, Mo Browne, Ama Codjoe, Kazim Ali, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Joseph Legaspi, Sarah Gambito, Oliver de la Paz, Jennifer Chang, the Malamugs, Shakira, and Gabriel García Márquez--because my dinner party would only last so long before a sudden eruption of laughter ensued, followed immediately by hours and hours of music and dancing. The only person here whom I cannot testify as one who dances, plays music, or sings is Márquez, but something tells me, at this particular gathering, he would catch the spirit.

NEA: At the NEA, we use the phrase "Art works" as a sort of touchstone, to mean both the created work itself, and also to reflect how art works on us transformatively. What does that phrase "Art works" evoke for you?
ROSAL: There was a time in human history when the notion of art and work weren't so clearly separated as they are in our culture. Music and songs especially were meant perhaps to make a request from the gods. Even if you don't believe in that particular metaphysical dimension of art, songs were meant to record knowledge, questions, and names, and at the same time, they were meant to bring people together. There is no guarantee that art changes anything in us. But I like to think that I have inherited poetic traditions closely allied to a culture of work, and that culture at least partially consists of remembering, gathering, questioning, inventing, and naming.
We're featuring artists of Asian Pacific Heritage all month as part of the national celebration. Look for @NEAarts and #APAHM for more. 

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