Lunch Poems – Rosa Alcalá


(ethereal music) – Welcome. That’s a nice way to
spend what started out to be a very rainy day. The sun is coming out, now the poetry’s about to happen. I’m Giovanni Singleton,
Lunch Poems Coordinator. And thank you all for being here today. First, I’d like to invite you
to sign up on our email list which is over on the librarian’s desk. We also have copies of our
schedule for the entire year. Please know that if
you’ve missed a reading, that they are on our YouTube channel. We have our very own. So please check out our past readings. Also, next month, please
come back and join us on April 5th for a reading
by Matthew Zapruder. Now please welcome Geoffrey G. O’Brien, Lunch Poem’s Director who will introduce this afternoon’s special guest. (audience applauding) – Thank you, Giovanni, and welcome, Rosa. I usually introduce with words. But I’m gonna start today
with a slight moment of show and tell, holding up the cover of Rosa Alcala’s most recent book, which is for sale over
there, courtesy of Mose after the reading. I do this because when it’s
been referred to online, it’s conveniently spelled My Other Tongue, but obviously the graphic here indicates all the other
ways that one could think, see, pronounce, read, and
encounter the language, you could make it say Mother Tongue, or Her Tongue, so that
it works both by erasure and by changing boundaries
and borders between words. And so doing, I think we could say that the title either has
no exact name or many names, rather than the convenience
of a single name. And I think that kind of
thinking about multiplicity and maybe non-singularity as
opposed to just multiplicity is crucial to Rosa Alcala’s
work, and always has been, especially in a book
that’s adamantly about the perils and pleasures of bilinguality, about the perils and pleasures
of being intergenerationally female-identified. In some ways, this book, as topic, is considering the death
of a mother and the birth of a child, and the
continuities across generations. As I was thinking about
the book and beginning to dip into it, I was thinking about the kinds of space that new wave, sorry,
(chuckles) not new wave, second wave feminist poets were clearing in the 70s and 80s, especially around questions of gendered
labor and gendered care. Motherhood, right? I was thinking particularly
about Bernadette Mayer and Alice Notley. And, lo and behold,
like I get into the book and Bernadette Mayer is being quoted. So I wasn’t the only
person thinking about this. One poem ends, “Bernadette
Mayer turns to me in the shower “and says, ‘Motherhood is now fashionable “‘among the girl poets'” But it reminded me that
that space that was cleared and then re-inhabited
with the kind of vocation that has been too invisible, in the history of poetry until recently, is a space that has to be
re-cleared again and again and again, and isn’t yet adequately represented. So this is a book that
protects against the re-erasure of the very things that
space has been made for. But it’s not just about gendered labor and the labor of
childbirth, it’s also a book that’s really angry about
this dream called money that we live in. It’s thinking about all kinds of labor, rather than only the labor
of a particular category. There’s a long poem called The 11th Day of Occupy Wall Street. And there’s a great poem called Offering, which ends, “I gave industry an organ.” I think that’s a perfect
way of moving across another barrier or border between work that happens in the home and work that happens outside the home, work that happens in
the body and on the body and between bodies. Rosa’s always thinking
about all these things in a kind of variable tone
that seems like move between lament and wit, but often
can occupy both those poles at the same time. I think you’ll hear what
I mean very shortly. Please welcome Rosa Alcala. (audience applauding) – Thank you. Hi, everybody. How are you? Thank you, Giovanni, who I met in the desert,
when she was in Las Cruces, and I’m in El Paso now. So it’s nice to see you on your turf, and Geoffrey G. O’Brien, what
a beautiful introduction. I like new wave feminism myself. – [Geoffrey] Let’s do it. – I will bring back my
asymmetrical haircut from the 80s, if I have to. But, yes, I think those two things work well together for me. Thank you, everyone, here are Berkeley, and this library, which is amazing. I was walking through and
it was still kind of rainy. And I said it feels like
an enchanted forest, right? ‘Cause I live in the desert. So it’s like this enchanted forest and then you end up in this library. And it’s sort of the
perfect sort of culmination to that walk here. It seems to have stopped raining, the sun is out, the birds are chirping, so I feel very welcome. And all of you are here, which is nice. It’s like on every side. Okay. So I think Geoffrey gave
a really nice introduction to my book. And it’s true that the title is variable. I often, just for expediency,
call it My Other Tongue. But when I was working with
the designer on the cover, I wanted to make sure
that the multiple ways to think about this title were present, because it is about this struggle that I think many children
of immigrants have between what is considered
their mother tongue, which is a problematic term because it suggests
that mother tongue means the tongue that you’re most fluent in or you dominate. But that’s not necessarily the case for the children of immigrants. Our mother tongue is necessary, the tongue that we feel most
comfortable speaking in. And then there’s the other tongue. And this is also about motherhood, so mother tongue also suggests this sort of the corporeal sort of experience of being a mother, but also being othered by having
that other come out of you. (chuckles) And so, yeah,
and it’s about language so my tongue is here. And I like the– The think pink feels like tongue to me. Looks like a little tongue
(chuckles) on the cover. Can everyone hear me okay? Yeah? Okay, so I’m gonna start with some poems from My Other Tongue, Other
Tongue, Mother Tongue, Her Tongue, Their Tongue, Your Tongue. So this poem started off a poem to my mother, Maria. And then I started thinking about how common the name Maria is
if you think of all the variations of Maria, such
as Mary and Marie, Mariah. It’s probably one of the
most common names for women around the world. So then this letter became
a letter to all Marias and variations of Maria. Dear Maria, Dear Mary, Mariah, Marie. Dear mama, mamacita and mommy. Dear fourth wheel of the trinity, dear Puerto Rican ingenue in a red sash, dear off with their heads, dear diva. Dear aria missing its M, dear storage engine. Dear ships in your name, dear astroid discovered in 1877, dear song by Cafe Tacuba,
Green Day, The Jacksons, Men at Work, Blondie, Ricky
Martin, Wu Tang Clan, et al. Dear Maria spoken in the bird’s
tail of Papua, New Guinea. ♪ How do you solve a problem like Maria? ♪ Dear pool-type reactor, dear uranium, how you enrich us. Dear Spanish biscuit. Dear sacrificial virgins
of red or blonde hair, of dark brunette, of
the slip, apron or veil, but never a hat, of the fresh
complexion turned composite, of Jack the Ripper’s complete works of fluency in Welsh, Spanish,
English, Quechua, French, of obscure and undocumented origins. And of Las Colonias, caridades,
Maria, de Los Angeles, de la luz, de Jesus, del refugio, Walking home, or waiting for (speaker speaking in a foreign language) without executive safe roots. Dear Senorita Maquiladora,
dextrous, tolerant of tedium, model workers for Lexmark,
FoxCon, CommScope, et cetera. Dear queen of the plasma
TV and print cartridge, dear Miss Stainless Steel Appliance, dear crowned with cigarettes,
soda cans, boot prints. Dear left without nipples
in the desert branded. Dear Vije Guadalupe, hand us your sanitary
napkin, blessed art thou, your blood is on everything. So, like Geoffrey said, this
book is about gendered labor, for sure. My mother worked in a textile factory, as did my dad for most of their lives. And so I often write about textile work. And so that came up, textile work and also
factory work, in general. And the poem that I just read, Dear Maria, deals with factory workers in Juarez, work in factories owned
by multinational companies and much of the electronics
that we have in our homes made there. This poem is called Voice Activation. And it starts off with an
epigraph by Wittgenstein. Do not forget that a poem, although it is composed in
the language of information is not used in the language
game of giving information. – [Electronic Voice] This
poem, on the other hand, is activated by the sound
of my voice and, luckily, I’m a native speaker. Luckily, I have no accent and
you can understand perfectly what I am saying to you via this poem. I have been working on this limpid voice from which you can read each
word as if rounded in my mouth, as if my tongue were
pushing into my teeth. My lips, medium, draws flexing, so that even if from
birth you’ve been taught to read faces before
words and words as faces. You’ll feel not at all confused
with what I say on the page. But maybe you’ll see my name
and feel a twinge of confusion. Have no doubt, my poem is
innocent and transparent. So when I say I think I’ll
make myself a sandwich the poem does not say I
drink and I love bad trips. Or if I say my mother is
dying, where’s her phone? The poem does not say
try other, it’s spying, spare us or foam. One way to ensure the poem and its read know misunderstanding is to never modulate. I’m done with emotion. I’m done, especially with
that certain weakness called exiting ones intention. What I mean is Spanish. What a mess that is, fishing for good old American bread and ending up with a boat load of uncles and their boxes of salt cod, a round of ex poking
for fat in your middle. So you see, with Genstein,
even the sandwich isn’t always made to my specifications. It’s the poem that does what I demand. Everything else requires
a series of steps. I call the nurses station
and explained to the nurse, her accent thick as thieves, that I’d like to speak to my mother. She calls out to my mother. It’s your daughter, really. She says this in Spanish. But for the sake of voice
activation and this poem, you understand I can’t go there. And she hands the phone to my mother. And my mother, who is not the poem, has trouble understanding me. So I write this poem, which
understands me perfectly and never needs the nurses station and never worries about
unintelligible accents or speaking loudly enough
or the trouble with dying, which can be understood
as a loss of language. If so, the immigrant, my mother, has been misunderstood for so long. This stuff is from her last interpreters. – I read somewhere that those voice activation
apps have a hard time hearing not just foreign
accents, but also female voices. I’m getting over a cold, so excuse me. Just has to be done. How’s everyone doing? Could you hear that okay? I couldn’t tell from up here. Oh, I’m so glad. I couldn’t tell. I thought you were all
just politely smiling at me waiting for it to be over
if you couldn’t hear it. (audience laughing) (laughs) This is called This is Not
the End of My Film Career. And this is a persona poem. I tend not to write persona poems. Someone told me it was a
persona poem, I didn’t know. I just thought it was one of my poems. And then (laughs) Stephanie
Burt has said that all poems are persona poems. I think that’s interesting. This poem, I’ll give you a
little bit of a background. So I’ve written about this for something I did online that asked me to
talk about one of my poems. My mother had dementia
last few years of her life. And we learned that she had
dementia because she fell. And after the fireman had sort of broken into her apartment… Well, I learned all of this
from my brother over the phone. But he said that she
thought she was in a play. When she fell, she had spent
the night on the floor, several hours on the floor. And she thought she was in a play that had been written by my sister-in-law, and that she was playing the grandma. So then some way she was,
I guess, distancing herself from the trauma of what had happened. But it was really interesting
’cause this carried through for awhile. She was in the hospital for awhile. And she thought that the woman
who shared the room with her was a film director who was
gonna put her in her film. And my mother really
wanted to be an artist. I mean, she didn’t have the opportunity. Like she started working in
a factory when she was 14. But I think this was kind
of a beautiful delusion for her to imagine herself
as an actress for that time. So this is a poem, I guess,
the persona poem in her voice, which wouldn’t be in her voice, ’cause she didn’t speak English. So this is my voice in her voice. This is not the end of my film career. Look, I may be no Meryl Streep, but unlike that daughter
of the revolution, I do my own stunts. Wig or no wig, I’m gonna play
the hell out of this part. For example, in the first
scene, they wanted grandma to break a hip, so I
gave them a broken hip. I careened from kitchen
counter over stools and fell precisely on my mark. People know when they’re being fooled. They want the real thing. Do you know what I told the director when the firemen chopped down the door to save poor old granny? “I cannot work like this. “They are too pretty to put out fires. “I’ll just lie here until
you find the right type “to carry me off the screen.” The child actors, like
my very own children, grew tired of the delays
and shoved the food stylist props into their mouths. It’s the same thing for this
extended nursing home scene. I told the director, “Look, the lighting in here is terrible. And there are so many
characters at different hours. I’m not even sure we know
what the story is anymore. I’ll have to review my contract when my son comes in for his cameo. Did I mention my daughter-in-law
wrote the script? She keeps revising it,
but the ending’s the same. Sure, I’ve heard the gossip
that I’m being replaced by someone younger. One day, I’ll just walk out
the door and into a location with better exposure. This is the last poem I’m gonna
read from My Other Tongue. I forgot to bring my readers. I can’t read my own poems anymore. It’s so sad. Just do like this. Paramour. English is dirty. Polyamorous. English wants me. English rides with girls and with boys. English keeps an open tab and never sleeps alone. English is a smooth talker
who makes me say please. It’s a bit of role playing. And I like a good tease. We have a safe word, I keep forgetting. English likes pet names. English has a little secret,
a past, another family. English is going to leave them for me. I’ve made English a set of keys. English brings me flowers
stolen from a grave. English texts me, slips in as emoji, attaches selfies not suitable for work. English has rules but
accepts dates last minute. English makes booty calls. English makes me want it. When I was younger, my parents said, “Keep that English out of our house. “If you leave with that
miserables, don’t come back.” I said God willing in the
language of the inquisition. I climbed out my window
but always got caught. English had a hooptie that was the joint. Now my mother goes gaga
over our cute babies. Together English and I
wrote my father’s obituary. How many times have I said it’s over and English just laughs and says, “Come on, senorita, let’s go for Chinese.” We always end up in a fancy hotel where we give fake names. And as a I lay my head
to hear my lover breathe, I dream of Sam Patch plunging into water, a poem English gave me that
had been given to another. Do you know who Sam Patch is? Yeah? No? Who knows? (Audience members speaks from a distance) So Sam Patch was a 19th Century daredevil. And he met his fate in the Genesee River, in the Genesee Falls, and
he would do these jumps off of falls in upstate New York. But he also did one in the
Patterson Falls in New Jersey. And he was included in William Carlos
Williams’s book, Patterson. So that’s how I learned about Sam Patch. (audience laughing) So I have a… You know, when writers
would say things like, “I’m working on two different projects.” I just thought, wow,
two different projects. How does anybody work on
two different projects? I’m lucky if I’m working on
two different poems, right? But it happened, it happened to me. I’m working on two things
that just happened, poems that ended up going into
sort of two different areas. And one is called Fray. And this sort of takes up
the thread, pun intended, of textile work that
I’ve been writing about since I started writing, really, because it was around me. I grew up in Patterson, New Jersey, there were textile factories. My dad worked in a dye house. My mother had worked in textile factories from 14 to 38 in Spain. So it’s just… Textile’s in the blood. So this is one of the poem’s from Fray. And then I’m gonna read
from another project. This is called Fashion’s
Cycle After Rana Plaza. Do you remember Rana Plaza? This was 2013 in Bangladesh. Rana Plaza had several
different businesses in it. Among them, textile factories. And they collapsed and 1100, or more, and more, people died in that collapse. And they’ve prosecuted the owners because they knew there
were structural problems with the building. So this came out of reading
some of the accounts of the factory workers in
those clothing factories. Fashion’s Cycle After Rana Plaza. And this was in Bangladesh, by the way. Fashion Cycle. To be born is to risk the ghost of a factory collapse, to try it on in intervals
in front of the mirror. I loved the babydoll dress like no other. I can see it. I can see a hand reaching out to her brother as if to say, “We will make it out of here.” I wore it. I wore it out the door. So, of course, these clothing factories in Bangladesh were making
clothes that we’re all wearing. These are all, many of
them, American companies, who outsourced their labor. The Immigrant is Friction. The immigrant is friction,
friction is fray. She didn’t know it was
not okay to give someone pantyhose as a graduation gift. From behind the bathroom door, I could hear them laughing at her, rough around the edges, as they say. You have to wear yourself down by studying what makes others smooth. You study them. What makes them smooth? Their sentences, for one, how they say things like detritus even before breakfast, and agree perfectly subject
to verb for generations. I can’t face their judgment. I sweat it out, run them off the treadmill. What perfect grammar
awaits in conditioning and in felt. What’s felt? The past tense of a feeling, a textile that instead of woven is
made by wetting and rolling every curly fiber until
the bristle lies quietly beneath a thick and matted surface. So even though My Other
Tongue sounds very elegiac, my mom was actually
alive when I finished it. But there was the anticipation, right, of the inevitable, which
was she was gonna die. We knew that was going to happen, so therefore the elegiac tone. But the poems that I’m writing now in Fray have a lot to do with
actually mourning her death. Capitalism Ritual. The boutique owner pulled from racks variations on the same pricely– I’m gonna start this over, I’m sorry. Capitalism Ritual. The boutique owner pulled
from racks variations on the same pricey and shapeless dress and as I tried them on, she whispered into the fitting room, “I wanted “to burn everything I wore the next day. “And let me go into the cheap, cold night “to borrow a T-shirt and skirt “from someone’s giveaway pile.” I was rehearsing the ritual of shedding and casting
off to the underworld and to the developing. She who keeps a dress perfectly suited to the burial of the mother will never break down behind a curtain should be a proverb. Later, I walked through
any store and bought the first thing I saw. “It’ll change your life.” The sales associate said, as she rubbed the $40 cream
into the back of my hand. It just sinks into the skin. How are we doing on time? ‘Cause I could always cut
some stuff off of this pile? Are we doing okay? Okay. How much time do I left? Maybe that’s the better question. Do we know? I thought I timed well in the hotel, but you never know, ’cause I talk a lot in between my poems. ‘Kay, this I called… So these are called the You Poems. So tentatively titled the You Poems. The poems are addressed to a younger self, take place roughly in the 90s. That younger self is roughly me. (laughs) But it’s not memoir. You in Cutoffs. You were maybe at your skinniest then. You wore cutoff shorts, Pumas
and faux football jersey so tight your friends
laughed and called you Jugs when you wore it. You hated football, or didn’t care, and had yet to fall in
love with a musician, or become the crying girl who’d call in the middle of the
night looking for him. It was the summer to be cool and light, to be lifted and carried across bodies, until the bouncer had to pluck you from the lip of the stage and send you down the stairs. You’d make it back to the center again and signal skyward with your thumb and someone would let you step into their interlaced
fingers to boost you up. The bouncer looked annoyed
each time you landed at his feet, but you could tell he really wasn’t. You were small and cute and easy to pass from hand to hand. You, a hand, another. The following summer you
went to another concert and gave the thumbs up, and as you were carried, felt
a hand inside your cutoffs and another inside your shirt, then another hand, and another, as if the only thing keeping you up was also trying to crawl inside you. You started to kick back and punch down at anyone below you, even
though it meant that hands, innocent or not, could pull away from your
body, withdraw their support, let you drop. The one you loved, the one
who thought crying girl’s a continuum, begged you in a letter not to risk yourself on
a roof of strange fingers and told the cautionary tale of a friend who fell into a sea of glass, and with tweezers had to pick
each green and brown shard from his arms and legs. By then, he was no longer a lover, but something of a pen pal
and liked to sound wise somewhere out west. But you never fell. You made it out of the crowd,
and later, at the tent, listened to other women tell
stories similar to yours. (sniffles) Sniffles. (sniffles) I’m like blowing my nose on camera. (sniffles) So what time does this thing go? Just curious. Ten more minutes? Perfect, okay. You and the Pendulum. So this you didn’t have health
insurance for a long time, so that’s good to know. This you was working on
Wall Street as a temp, so that’s part of the context. You and the Pendulum. She held a chain with a
crystal suspended from it over different parts of your
body and asked questions. Sometimes you told her
what you needed to know. More often she dangled
the pendulum over an organ to interrogate implicitly
its proper functioning. Even as her hand remained steady, the crystal would begin to
swing from the chain in circles, clockwise or counterclockwise,
giving a yes or no answer. These readings took
place in her apartment. And although it was small and cluttered and had probably once
been a cold water flat, you wondered if it was rent controlled, because how else could she live there in that inflated market? You were having problems with digestion as you have since you were a kid. And she showed you how to
massage your intestine, advising you based on
the pendulum’s answers to stay away from most nightshades. She sought second opinion
by holding the pendulum over one of the tomatoes on her kitchen table. And this seemed more
efficient and less scary than a million needles
pushed into the skin. But the question you
waited to ask until the end was about the scientist
with the British accent. Your gut told you everything
would end with the summer. But as she held the pendulum and asked if he was your future,
the chain began to vibrate and the crystal turned in
small then increasingly wider circles, faster and
faster, in the direction of yes. You wrote her a check
and headed for a payphone to tell your scientist
about the diagnosis. You to the Future. What would you have said to the future? Future, you will have no scientist in it. Future, your scientist
was kissing a Canadian. Future, you could’ve told me, “Don’t go to his apartment
to press the doorbell “for many seconds. “Wait in his favorite
diner around the corner. “Call him from the dark
and humid underground “of you last rumbling hope.” But, future, let me tell you
something truly remarkable. There were payphones on subway platforms, which was great when you needed one. But if you needed one, things
were often not so great. You were late for an interview. Or you wanted to be told,
“Don’t get on that train. “I love you, come back to bed.” No one on a subway payphone
wanted to be told, “Hold on.” You were lost trying to buy weed, calling some guy’s beeper. The receiver and keypad were
archives of body come city. And in these moments of disorientation, of numbers black and waxy and sticky, the pointer finger brought
you closer to your desire with its impeccable memory. Future, I guess you
already know that lovers feel their feelings wherever
and whatever the mode on the body no longer at home, a screen the size of a palm. But in you, future, no one
will know what it’s like to make a collect call,
to reverse the charges, or remember the Spanish poet who once wrote an ode to his light bulb late one night in the kitchen. This is my last poem. You and the Raw Bullets. Why the image just now of a bullet entering the mouth? Why call it raw when it
isn’t sticky and pink like a turkey meatball? Just the usual gold and
shiny and cylindrical. What about this bullet is uncooked? Why does it multiply with
you in parka or short skirt versions of the you that you
were swallowing raw bullets as you walked? The images come without
assailant, without gun, just the holes, the bullets opened, the holes through which they went. And now at the age in which you ride enclosed in glass like
the pope or president. You are spitting up the bullets slow, simmered in your own juices. You are shitting them out,
feeling them drop from you in clumps of blood in the
days of bleeding left. But you cannot expel all of them. Some raw as the day they entered, have expanded their mushroom
heads into the flesh or lodged their hot tip into
the taste center of the brain. Will the tongue’s first
encounter with pomegranate seeds be forever a lost Eden? That fruit of your girlhood,
which also meaning grenade, was perhaps never innocent. Do your own raw bullets come
back to you, my friends? Let us legislate the active voice instead. Not many bodies have been used as blanks, aluminum cans, but here are
the men who pulled the trigger. Look at them. Thank you. (audience applauding)
Thank you. Thank you so much. – Thank you, Rosa, for
keeping us in the Fray. You can go consider My Other Tongue, over there courtesy of Mose and maybe Rosa will sign a copy for you. As Giovanni said, come back on April 5th for
local poet, Matthew Zapruder. Thank you very much. (audience applauding) (lively drum music)

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