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Poet Ricardo Pau-Llosa Reflects on Influences, Art

July 25, 2008 at 6:50 PM EST
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Ricardo Pau-Llosa, a prolific Miami-based poet and critic of Latin American art, remembers the colors, tastes and memories that shaped his youth and his writing, taking him back to his native Cuba.
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RICARDO PAU-LLOSA, Poet: My name is Ricardo Pau-Llosa. I live in Miami, Florida. And I am a poet and an art critic, primarily, and a smoker of cigars, which is not a popular thing anymore, but I love them.

I’ve surrounded myself with Latin-American art and a lot of Cuban art, but from other parts of Latin America. This is — my house is an expression of my mind. Art has helped educate my way of seeing things.

Back in early ’80s, late ’70s, there was very little knowledge about Latin American art. Even in American art circles, Latin America was, you know, just basically invisible. And so I found it very challenging and interesting to write about Latin America, going to Latin America, to discover the art and write about it in American and European art journals.

How does an artist take apart the visual world and reconfigure it and make it his own or her own in a work of art? That’s something that helped me a lot as a poet. My poetry, I think, is very visual as a result of that.

I was born in Cuba. And although I came at the age of 6, my family and I came after the communist takeover in Cuba. We arrived in December of 1960, first going to Chicago, and eventually moving to Tampa and then to Miami.

But when I arrived in Miami in the ’60s, and growing up here from that point on, Miami was a place where the artists were creating, where musicians were playing, where writers were writing. And I came into contact with those people.

And then Cuba became a living, vibrant, breathing thing. It wasn’t just a tragic, horrible history; it was now also a culture to which I could belong and from which I could derive inspiration.

Frutas. Growing up in Miami, any tropical fruit I ate could only be a bad copy of the real fruit of Cuba. Exile meant having to consume false food and knowing it in advance. With joy, my parents and grandmother would encounter Florida-grown mameyes and caimitos at the market. At home, they would take them out of the American bag and describe the taste that I and my older sister would, in a few seconds, be privileged to experience for the first time.

We all sat around the table to welcome into our lives this football-shaped, brown fruit with the salmon-colored flesh encircling an ebony seed. ‘Mamey,’ my grandmother would say with a confirming nod, as if repatriating a lost and ruined name.

Then she bent over the plate, slipped a large slice of mamey into her mouth, then straightened in her chair, and, eyes shut, lost herself in comparison and memory.

I waited for her face to return with a judgment. ‘No, not even the shadow of the ones back home.’ She kept eating, more calmly, and I began tasting the sweet and creamy pulp, trying to raise the volume of its flavor so that it might become a Cuban mamey.

‘The good Cuban mameyes didn’t have primaveras,’ she said, after a second large gulp, knocking her spoon against a lump in the fruit and winking. So at once I erased the lumps in my mental mamey.

I asked her how the word for ‘spring’ came to signify ‘lump’ in a mamey. She shrugged. ‘Next you’ll want to know how we lost a country.’

JIM LEHRER: You can hear Ricardo Pau-Llosa read more of his poetry on our Web site at PBS.org.