Catching Up: A Conversation With Rodrigo Toscano
Interview by Cid Galicia
April 25, 2023
I began to understand poetry as a hyper-condensed way of thinking not only philosophically, but psychologically, and of course, musically.
Cid Galicia: Good morning, Rodrigo, and thank you for taking the time to speak with me today. We are very excited to have you as a judge for this year’s Honeybee Prize in poetry and would love to share more about you with our readers and contest hopefuls. It is clear from your bio and publishing credentials that your career as a poet and dialogist is extremely impressive. We know that with the release of your most recent book, The Cut Point, you now have eleven books, your work has won awards, and your poems have been translated into many languages. Given where you are today in your journey, what I am most curious about is the beginning of it all.
I’ve personally just finished a study on Rilke, the German Poet, and came to conclude that the three factors that led him to emergence were observation, empathy, and suffering. My first question for you is about your story of becoming. Looking back over the course of your life, could you identify key moments, actions, events, and thoughts that led to your “emergence” as a poet and dialogist?
Rodrigo Toscano: Greetings, Cid. I think by “emergence,” people usually mean when a poet comes into the consciousness of other poets or a public of some kind. But before that, there is, I suppose, another kind of emergence, and that is, when a person understands themselves as being a poet in the world. To that earlier, pre-public phase of my emergence, if I recall, I was around twenty-one years old when I took up poetry. But backing up a bit, I should say, that all the way back when I was in middle school, I had the habit of reading serious books. I would gorge on books of history, philosophy, science, music, and political theory. I was a terrible classroom student, but quite an omnivorous and passionate learner on my own. And yet, poetry hadn’t appeared on the horizon until my early twenties.
I was rooming with several people in San Diego (my hometown) whose sole purpose in life was to pursue art in general, whether it was music, film, writing, or critical discourse. But I wasn’t, at that time, “the poet” among them, I was the “philosophy” guy, that is, until I began to understand poetry as a hyper-condensed way of thinking not only philosophically, but psychologically, and of course, musically.
Having come from a long martial arts background, it never occurred to me to do anything but take poetry as a technique-based art form that had to be worked on daily, and rigorously. I set off to learn everything I could about it. I started with Greek and Latin poetry, then moved my way up to medieval and renaissance poetry (in many languages), then on to other periods. And of course, I intensely studied avant-garde movements, especially as to how they related to shifting political conditions. So, you might say, I didn’t really have a singular epiphany about poetry, but rather, I experienced a series of breakthroughs that allowed me to acquire the prowess to put pen to paper. And once I started, I looked at my work in the way an experimental musician might, always on the lookout for innovation.
Alright, so, as to that other kind of emergence, the public one, I must admit that by today’s standards, things happened rather early for me. By the time I was twenty-four, I had a book contract for The Disparities with Green Integer, an international avant-garde press. And my first public reading was with Rae Armentrout, an early supporter of my work. Two years later, I had a second book lined up for publication, Partisans. Both those books took quite a while to come out, and in fact, the second book came out first. But I was pretty much on peoples’ radar already in my twenties.
The poetry world was much different than it is today. It was more of a culture of up-close belonging. You got to places and met different people based purely on your reputation as a writer and reader. Prizes didn’t count for anything, nor did degrees of any kind. The upside was you could establish yourself quickly among the best and most innovative writers of the time. The downside for many was that you were summarily discouraged to give up writing altogether if you weren’t considered to be genuinely exploring new ways of doing poetry.
In retrospect, I suppose, that was an upside, as you had to really fight at an artistic level. Those were the times before the internet. To know what was going on, you had to really do it all, in person. And so, I moved up to San Francisco to be part of the writing scene in the 90’s, and then later, I moved to New York City to be part of that whole deal, for sixteen years, no less. And honestly, the last few years there, I wasn’t feeling it anymore. So then I moved to New Orleans. And wow, has our writing community taken off here!
CG: I agree with the duality of “emergence” that you spoke of. The first where the person comes to understand themselves as being a poet in the world, and the second where the world comes to see that person as being a poet. In my study of Rilke and his path to emergence, like you did, he needed to change locations to continue to learn and grow as a person and a poet. He also came to apprentice himself with other great artists, such as the sculptor Rodin and the writer Lou Andreas-Salomé. You spoke of starting in San Diego, then going to San Francisco, and finally New York – and you also spoke of Rae Armentrout as being an early supporter of your work. Could you talk about how the act of traveling itself, or how being in those new locations themselves, led to your emergence as a poet, and if you have had any mentors that did the same.
RT: Well, first off, most of my mentors have been dead for 100 to 2,000 years. And they all speak out of turn, and most often than not, at the same time. Well, I didn’t go to college for writing, or for anything really. All my accreditations are from other kinds of institutions, like OSHA, or the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences, EPA, AFL-CIO, etc. I’ve never sat in a single poetry workshop, except for the ones I’ve been asked to teach at places like Bard, Naropa, Upenn, The Evergreen University, and many other colleges. I think for some people workshops and seminars really work, and for others, most decidedly not. I’m sure that my own poetic practice would have been “shopped” out of existence.
I’m glad you spent a lot of time with Rilke. I’d love to talk to you about it sometime in person. Though I am familiar with his writing, I was never drawn enough to make him one of my backpack poets in my formative years. You know, crinkled covers, dog-eared pages, pencil marks. From Rilke’s era, I was more drawn towards Brecht, Mayakovsky, and Pound. But as regards moving to different cities, and how that affected my writing. I’d say, what makes for “influence” on my writing is a combination — of yeah, different cities, coupled to different people (both intimate and collegiate), feeling fully ensconced in a particular political era and responding to it, and dealing with the material and psychic challenges facing me both personally and professionally.
Then there’s who I was reading at the time, and more so, what poets I was listening to, live, in the flesh. Very generally speaking, I’d say the west coast was more focused on text, and the east coast more on voice. My west coast (quiet, structurally nuanced) work didn’t quite make a splash on the east coast, and when I shifted to a chattier, more voice-warping style, the west coast folks were somewhat thrown off. The funny thing is, though, is that I believe I work well in both modalities – at the same time.
In my New Orleans work (In Range, The Charm & The Dread, The Cut Point ) I don’t concern myself with that distinction (text/voice), I’m more interested in the problem of communicability as such. Given that we’re ceaselessly distracted these days, I have to think about how I am going to poetically speak to a crowd in front of me. I don’t mean that I am shooting for “accessibility” per say, but I do think of stratagems that can address forms of attentiveness. I think attentiveness is something that is co-constructed between reader and listener, and that the poem is a sort of forcefield of meaning-making in which we both must navigate. The poetic act is always a proposition. Treating it as a given makes for boring normcore poetry.
CG: It’s interesting how different cities and regions develop their own aesthetics. You spoke of West Coast and East Coast, how they differ in their approaches to text and voice. What drew you to New Orleans? Was there some passion project or obsession? What has changed over time or what currently provokes you to action, writing, and to continue to reside there?
RT: I greatly enjoy poets who authentically and artfully write about intimate relations. From Sappho to Catullus to Donne to Neidecker, poets like these have energized me over the years. Contemporaries, Shaindel Beers, who lives in Pendleton, Oregon, and Brad Richard from New Orleans, are two poets who are highly skilled at threading intimacies by way of a public lens. With great detail, their poetry tracks minute shifts in consciousness with grace and panache. Now, as to my own personal “obsessions”, for sure, my relationships (or collisions, as it were), have driven me to great heights of poetic inspiration. Poets are dangerous folks! Equal devotees of Bacchus and Apollo, with Mercury tossed in for sheer kicks.
As to what drove me to NOLA, I should say, straight up, a lady did, my partner, Stanlyn Brevé. She’s the national programs director for the National Performance Network, which is based here in New Orleans. We were long distance dating while in the throes of our divorces, and since I can work from anywhere (I’m a national projects director for the Labor Institute based in NYC), I committed to moving. I haven’t looked back since. It’s been transformative, really. The culture of Laissez les Bontemps Rouler (“let the good times roll”), is serious stuff. It’s not just about partying, it’s about flourishing interpersonally with oodles of people. It demands spontaneity. It festoons the city with runaway amiability from dawn to dusk.
Meanwhile, the poetry scene in New Orleans keeps peaking. Just when we think we’ve reached an apex, we push past it. There’s a palpable hunger for aesthetic expression that’s fueling this town. People strut their best, we celebrate it, then break it down, that night, and check in again the very next day, comparing feelings and thoughts. Those cycles of energy, propel me.
But what rockets me into the stratosphere of poetic readiness are my 6 a.m. baths in utter quiet and darkness, except for a soft lamp overhead. Pencil in hand. What is – all this – all about, is usually my first visitant, and when that meditation peters out, then, the the what’s-to-do-when-and-how, arises. I don’t know if all that can properly be called a passion, but at least, it’s a devotion, to say something, anything, but always through an attention to form.
CG: Intimacy is certainly a fire we as humans are drawn towards, crossing time and space to connect with each other, like how it drew you to New Orleans and its amazing growth and evolution as a poetry scene. I also find fascinating the healing and creative processes artists develop to keep their creative energy fresh and awake. Your 6am baths sound like a great daily ritual.
Before we close out, I want to thank you so much on behalf of The Good Life Review Team for being our poetry judge and want to ask you about your newest poetry collection The Cut Point (Counterpath, 2023) and what brought you to its creation.
RT: Thank you, Cid. I’m happy to be working with The Good Life Review. I’m looking forward to carefully reading the manuscripts that land on my desk.
Alright, so, The Cut Point, is a book that was written just under a year after The Charm & The Dread (Fence, 2022). You might think of the two as companion books in that they’re both buzzing off the zeitgeist of 2020-2023. Look, there’s tectonic, epic changes happening to this country’s position not only in the world (i.e., the devolution of empire) but also internal political division and strife, and it’s all resonating down to the most seemingly personal “crises” and its poetics. I strive to maintain a posture of public address, even though it’s hard to see even an inch ahead of us, historically speaking, and there’s dread too, yeah, but also, we’re charmed by strange energies we don’t yet comprehend. And so, The Cut Point, is a second shot at striving to maintain my (and by suggestion, “our”) critical faculties, temperance, humor, conviction, and most of all curiosity for what’s just around the corner.
I really do hope people scoop up both books, as they’re written not to impart wisdom (let alone redemption), but rather to be in dialogue with my contemporaries. Surely, y’all have pieces of the puzzle too. Let’s see them!
Rodrigo Toscano is a poet and dialogist based in New Orleans. He is the author of eleven books of poetry. His most recent books are The Cut Point (Counterpath, 2023), and The Charm & The Dread (Fence Books, 2022). His previous books include In Range,Explosion Rocks Springfield, Deck of Deeds, Collapsible Poetics Theater (a National Poetry Series selection), To Leveling Swerve, Platform, Partisans, and The Disparities. His poetry has appeared in over 20 anthologies, including Best American Poetry, Best American Experimental Poetry (BAX), Voices Without Borders, Diasporic Avant Gardes, Imagined Theatres, In the Criminal’s Cabinet, Earth Bound. Toscano has received a New York State Fellowship in Poetry. He won the Edwin Markham 2019 prize for poetry. His works have been translated into French, Dutch, Italian, German, Portuguese, Norwegian and Catalan. He works for the Labor Institute in conjunction with the United Steelworkers, the National Institute for Environmental Health Science, Communication Workers of America, National Day Laborers Organizing Network, and northwest tribes (Umatilla, Cayuse, Yakima, Nez Perce) working on educational training projects that involve environmental and labor justice, health & safety culture transformation. rodrigotoscano.com @Toscano200
Info about the 2023 Honeybee Literature Prize and all of this year’s judges can be found here.