Compassion Is Never Clean: A Conversation with paulA neves
Kevin Catalano talks to paulA neves about her new poetry chapbook, the death of her mother, and inspiration for her lines.
Kevin Catalano: I’m sitting down today with writer and mixed-media artist, paulA neves, whose latest book, Capricornucopia (The Dream of the Goats), was recently released from Finishing Line Press. So, paulA, if I may, How long have you been writing poetry?
paulA neves: Around age three or four, I wrote my first word: pool. Either I’d been attempting to spell out my name and stumbled onto this gem, or The Hustler had been rolling on The Million Dollar Movie on my family’s Zenith, and I’d thought Paul Newman was just too cool. Or maybe I’d been trying to articulate what lay at my feet (three or four-year-olds’ bladders are peanut-sized, and I coulda been so focused on writing, that, you know, oops). Whatever its origins, writing that first coherent word was electric.
Fast forward about a decade later, and I encounter “A stagnant pleasure like a Pool / That lets its Rushes grow / Until they heedless tumble in / And make the Water slow.” It was a sign. I was gonna be Emily Dickinson 2.0. I acquired a blue ruled / smooth-finish, 60-sheet writing notebook branded “Onward” (still have it), and the first poem I cranked out was called “Hints”: “So subtle / So forceful / Can’t you feel the tide rolling in.” Genius, right? Nothing was gonna slow down my water!
Onward. Forget New Wave, ’80s hair bands, and whatever other low pop culture was occupying my peers’ attention. My attention and nose were deep in pages culled from the stacks at Daniel’s Den, our town’s little bookstore (now a nail salon on a street that has like, 12). I was especially enthralled by an anthology called The Voice That Is Great Within Us: American Poetry of the Twentieth Century, edited by Hayden Carruth. Had no idea what most of the poems really meant, but the sounds of the words in my head were as intoxicating as Billy Squier wailing, “You see ’em coming at you every night / Strung on pretension, they fall for you at first sight” was to my high-school pal Florinda, who at barely 4’11” was so short that when she drove her Trans Am past my house, it looked like KITT was going out for cigarettes and to score Def Leppard tix.
So, yeah, I’ve been writing for a while.
In your interview with Millicent Borges Accardi, you suggested that Capricornucopia was 20 years in the making. Can you say a little bit more about how it came together? What is the oldest poem in the collection?
Damn, it was in the oven a long time, wasn’t it? Ironically, the title poem is about chanfana, a Portuguese goat or mutton dish that stews in wine in the oven interminably, but tastes so freakin’ good. My maternal grandmother used to make it …
Excuse me. … Can we pause for a sec? … I have to get up and eat some vegan bologna and soy cheese. … It’s the only thing in the fridge and I’m so hungry thinking about the chanfana. …
OK … so, yeah “capricornucopia” is one of oldest poems in the collection. I wrote it pretty much as is sometime in the early 2000s. Many of the poems’ first drafts are close to the versions that appear in the book. It wasn’t the individual poems so much as the collective. I was just always stymied by how to assimilate them into their own little Borg. And “capricornucopia” was apparently leading the herd the whole time. It was the heart of the collection, and while I knew this, I didn’t know how much until the book actually appeared in my hands.
The second oldest poem in the group is “Living Dangerously” — circa early to mid 2000s. And, whaddya know, it’s also about food. I mean, neither “capricornucopia” nor “Living Dangerously” is really about food. They both use food as a major trope, though.
It’s easy to dismiss writing that focuses on food, family, and culture as too “ethnic” or esoteric — particularly if there’s code switching going on, like there is in many of my poems. But, even if you’re monolingual, or a piece is monolingual, there’s code switching going on. CantoMundo, the Latinx poetry retreat / community in which I am a fellow, has been a major influence on me in terms of letting the work speak however it wants. It’s just that who the speaker is and what they represent often still seems to matter most. As Anthony Bourdain said, “There is actually nothing more political than food. Who’s eating, who’s not eating.” That registered. But there are so many excellent writers and poets who have said, and are saying, the same thing.
The photograph of the adorable child on the cover is beautiful and ghostly. Who is this mysterious girl, and why did you choose her for the cover?
Most people assume that child is me. But I wouldn’t be caught dead with a bow on my head, even at that age. Bad enough I had to suffer with Mary Janes, knee socks, dress, and a fake straw hat with a plastic daisy on the brim one Easter, long, long ago, a stifling gendered ensemble that made me so mad that I broke away, ran to my aunt, who was taking the picture (my parents and brother were in it, too, I think), and bit her hard on the ankle, just to make it stop.
If I were really gonna work it, I’d claim that, unlike my mother, whom the cover photo is actually of, even at around the same age I had a sense of choice and a longing for freedom I’m not sure she had. Maybe that was because I was “American,” while she, a Portuguese peasant child from a rural village smack in the middle of Salazar’s authoritarian New State (Estado Novo) was doing what she was told. Jenny Zhang writes in her story “Why Were They Throwing Bricks” about an immigrant Chinese matriarch whose high self-regard and “owning” of her children and grandchildren is a cover to mask the ghosts of having been “raised in the country without education … told as a girl that women had been put on this earth to give birth and rear children and not be a burden in any way but to live as servants lived.” Wherever women in the world have been raised like this, you’re going to hear the same things.
But maybe that’s not the story. Maybe my child-mother was just happy to be dressed up, out of her usual ragamuffin farm kid clothes, and to look, as you say, adorable. Maybe it was a special occasion — a baptism, a village festa, who knows. I can’t ask her anymore — not that she’d answer directly anyway.
I chose the photo because it haunts me. It can never answer my questions. As Lydia Flem writes in The Final Reminder, “We never know our parents’ childhood and youth.” And after their deaths, we can never ask them. So, essentially, the child in the photo will remain unknown to me. There’s the hint of a shy, mischievous smile and a sweet sensitivity to the eyes, a family resemblance I see in my own childhood pictures (polyester outfits notwithstanding) and blooming now in my young niece, Olivia, my mother’s doppelgänger. Unfortunately, Olivia was so young when my mother died, she seems to have no memory of her. I hope I’m wrong.
“Math and English Word Problem (¾ quarter sleeve blouse)” breaks my heart every time I read it. I don’t know if you want to say anything about how this poem came about or how you had the strength to write it?
The last time my mother went into the hospital, she lay on a gurney waiting to be admitted to surgery. The last time my mother was admitted to the hospital, a radiologist who x-rayed her broken hip said she had only weeks left. The radiologist was not her oncologist. But he’d been the only one who’d been straight with my brother and me.
She had the surgery because that’s what she wanted. And the doctors were educated professionals who knew what they were doing. And no one had told her the truth yet. The truth that no one really knows what they’re doing. And as long as profit is in the mix, compassion is never clean.
She’d broken her hip because the chemo had so weakened her and made her unsteady, she’d finally lost her balance, and no one was around when she did. She lay on the gurney in her comfortable sneakers and a blouse she’d often worn to work — at a manufacturing job, one of the last; she’d held it for over three decades. The chemicals she’d worked with had likely contributed to her cancer.
This poem is about her, but my father appears, too. He’d died 12 years earlier in an accident at Port Newark, where he’d been a longshoreman for three decades.
Meanwhile, I’d been reading about Elon Musk’s and others’ aspirations to go to Mars. Billions of dollars and people die or are displaced here at home, or are robbed of the stability needed to follow their aspirations. A fraction of those billions could address some of our major problems here — and we could still go to Mars.
So this poem is as much about what we value as “work” and how it contributes to “progress” as it is about deeply personal histories. This is one of the few poems I’ve “performed” because there’s too much in it for just words.
Newark has a particularly unflattering reputation. You are a native of Newark, and the city plays a significant part of Capricornucopia. What does Newark mean to you?
Newark was my first meal.
In the very first poem, “Graciete,” these lines floored me:
she taught me to play
like a strop,
the peels eye-lid thin —
because why should flesh suffer
when meat matters most
Do lines like these come out spontaneously, or do you have to rework them to find their magic?
Even the ones that come out spontaneously have been brewing. My partner says I ruminate. Guilty. So a journal entry, in-person conversation, text, visual observation, eavesdropping — they can all yield lines. But they have likely been gestating.
“Graciete,” meaning Grace or Gracie, is a family name both my mother and her mother shared, and no one has since. It’s a Portuguese name, but it sounds French. So, I used it to mediate on origins. But it took me a while to fully realize how it was about origins.
The lines “she taught me to play / potato skins” came spontaneously and intact about, as did many others. I only reworked a few words and lines once I was fully sure of the poem’s purpose. And that didn’t happen for a few years — till I’d lived a little more and experienced my mother’s, my last parent’s, death.
Where and how you end your poems are remarkable. For instance, the end of the collection’s eponymous poem is,
Let them be goats.
Let them eat everything —
even the bones.
(Ugh that’s so awesome.) How do you know when the poem is over, when to stop?
Thanks. By the way, I wrote this poem long before “goats” was an acronym for “greatest of all time.” But the book’s out just as that use of it is peaking, so I’ll take it.
I don’t always know when I poem is over. But I usually know a poem is not over because the last lines don’t resonate with my purpose, and that dissoance is not strong enough to justify keeping. At that point the remedy either involves rearranging or extending lines, but more often, it means cutting, and seeing where the ending appears earlier. You know, it’s like our comp students: sometimes they write the ending first.
I want my endings to put a “bow” on the poem’s purpose. That’s an anathema, so un-PC to aspire to in high-minded literary circles. But my bows can be frayed ropes on gaunt little goats grazing in someone’s living room, and I’m fine with that.
Where is the best place to eat in Newark, and when are you taking me there?
The best place to eat was my grandmother’s (my Avó’s) kitchen. But since we’d have to travel back in time for that, we can hit one of the restaurants off Ferry Street, on the side streets, instead. Or, better yet, borrow one of my Luso-American homies’ Avós.
Because now, I am having serious “ganas” (craving) for chanfana. (Gee, thanks, Kev.) Afterward, we’ll hit Pão da Terra Bakery in Newark for some “pasteis de nata.” If this interview gets a few of my books sold, you name the date, dude (and if it doesn’t, eh, you can still name the date).
What book(s) are you reading now? What album(s) are you listening to? What show(s) are you watching?
I’m currently reading Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things, Paco Marquez’s Portraits in G Minor, rereading Lydia Flem’s The Final Reminder, and am about to start Kevin Catalano’s Where the Sun Shines Out (and not just cause you’re doing this interview). Also on deck are Alina Stefanescu’s Stories to Read Aloud to Your Fetus and Jim Warner’s Actual Miles. And so many of my peeps in the Kale Soup for the Soul and Brick City collectives have books that were just or are about to be published that I may have to capitulate and finally get reading glasses to read at night again, not just watch shows …
… like The Americans, The Terror, The Assassination of Gianni Versace, The Crown. And now I’m really into Pose. I’m in a retro mood.
For music … I’m listening to some of that pop culture stuff I (sorta) dissed in the ’80s. I’m revisiting early U2, The Clash, and more obscure bands like Talk Talk. It’s partly research for one of my next projects. Maybe this time it’ll appear in 10 years instead of 20.