An Interview with Ricardo Pau-Llosa

Leah Sandler ’14, an intern in the Winter With the Writers program, talks with Pulitzer Prize-nominated poet Ricardo Pau-Llosa about Cuba, identity politics, and art.

Ricardo Pau-Llosa reads excerpts from his works during his Winter With the Writers presentation. (Photo by Amanda Miley) Ricardo Pau-Llosa reads excerpts from his works during his Winter With the Writers presentation. (Photo by Amanda Miley)

Ricardo Pau-Llosa, a Pulitzer Prize-nominated author who has published six books of poetry, leans back in his chair on the sun dappled back porch of Palmano’s and lights a Cuban cigar. “These are so expensive,” he says. “When my mother comes to visit and she asks for one, I give her one of my other cigars.”

Pau-Llosa visited Rollins as a part of the 2013 Winter With the Writers Festival of the Literary Arts.  A renowned art critic and collector, Pau-Llosa also lectured at the Cornell Fine Arts Museum on the subject of tropes, Latin American art, and living with poetry, art, and philosophy.


You were born in Cuba but grew up in the United States. What language did you speak at home growing up?

I spoke Spanish with my parents and grandparents (who also came to the United States in exile from Cuba in 1960) when I was young. However, I spoke English with my teachers and friends in the U.S., and by the time I was 14 my ability to speak Spanish was dismal. I could always understand it, though.


What language do you write in?


English. I’ve written some poetry in Spanish. I tried writing in both when I was younger, but my Spanish poems all sound like Federico Garcia-Lorca rip offs.


Do you identify with the label “Cuban-American poet”?


I hate identity politics. I carry within myself the legacies of Cuba, of the United States, of Europe. Labels put you in a box, and then you have to explain yourself when you leave that box.


You majored in English literature. Which writers and books inspire you?


I did my masters’ thesis on Wallace Stevens. He was one of the first to be overtly interested in philosophy. His poems are philosophical constructs. Richard Wilbur is also fantastic—the reader is enveloped in the reality of his poems. He has a real sense of theater.


Richard Blanco became the first Hispanic poet to recite the inaugural poem on January 21, 2012. He is also Cuban-American. What are your thoughts on his work? On the interconnectedness of the two cultures?


I’ve known Richard for many years. A wonderful poet. As to the cultures of Cuba and the U.S., they have been intertwined for years. Cuban art and poetry are an inseparable part of American culture and the American view of Latin America. Exile put that in a new context.


How has your work as an art critic influenced your writing?


All aspects of my work are interconnected. Art criticism, poetry—they are all facets of what I do. That’s the abstract answer. If you’re looking for something more concrete, art has taught me how to see things, how to interpret the world. Art informs the way I write. Associating closely with artists and musicians has taught me new ways of seeing and experiencing the world.


In Vereda Tropical, you include several poems based on paintings such as “Habana Oscura” based on the painting by Glexis Novoa, and “Dark Diver” based on the painting by Daniel Dollman. What is your process when you write poetry about art?


It just suddenly happens! I go into the process knowing what I don’t want to do more than what I want to do. I don’t want poetic exposition or to comment on it or pick over it like food I’m not going to eat. I don’t want to do something that could better be done in an essay. When you’re looking at a painting you see the end of a process—a world unto itself. I use the Husserlian process, constantly trying to get past the familiar. The painting and the poem must coexist as an accurate tangent. I’ve written poems about paintings I’m not particularly fond of, but sometimes they lend themselves to this process better somehow than some paintings I truly love.