If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
—Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
Can you describe the mood of San Juan as you feel/see it?
I have read a lot about resilience: how Puerto Ricans fared in the post-hurricane recovery while the island’s debt was being restructured. San Juan and the debt crisis, San Juan after the storm: these two chapters serve a plot, a structure to make mainland folks—the pure products of America go crazy—more comfortable with the island’s precarity. It is chaos made rosy, feel-good, and great! San Juaneros and Puerto Ricans (as a whole) are resilient. And yet, how so? The question takes root in my mind and grows from there.
The mood, as I see it, and a barometer for it: when I fly to San Juan and drive to Guaynabo, the suburb where I was raised (or when I’m anywhere on the island for that matter) I see the friends I’ve made and my family at home, at bars, at local workshops, cafetines, restaurantes on Loíza Avenue, en Saturce, en el viejo San Juan, and I wonder how they live (would I be able to?) when they have lost almost everything. Almost. Those who from here, New York, I call my own (mi gente) draw some thing from each other: some light, some power I see but have few words for. And they build when they remember. That work finds them (and us) a future made from labor. I wish you could see it, too.
What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?
Frank Bidart’s radical given, a useful term for origin myth—that memory I discover and rediscover when I write: San Juan in July, and I, barely eighteen, at my father’s death from lymphoma (the VA, Agent Orange). I write of him, to him, that memory of him as war residue.
Which leads me to a recent memory and metaphor of erosion—his and the planet’s. When I was young, on our drives into old San Juan, I would see the figure of a dog emerge on the breakwater by the Dos Hermanos Bridge in Condado. Years and years ago, as local folklore has it, a fisherman had gone out to sea and never returned. That figure was a God: the rock the Dog in guard pose, transformed while waiting for his owner. A recent news report has it that the dog’s snout was lopped off by the waves beating, the waves beating without mercy against the coral structure. The rising seas, the rising seas and the breaking fact of erosion and climate change. The rising seas.
What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?
On a recent trip to San Juan in September: the light on every surface as I made my way up Calle del Cristo—dappled and amber on colonial architecture. It’s rare for me to feel so aware of texture and humidity through light; a living definition of synesthesia. It gave me a body, a body in motion, while the cobblestones lost every semblance of rigor and became an ocean of blue pebbles.
What writer(s) from here should we read?
Carina del Valle Schorske’s translations of Marigloria Palma—these three poems: “Night: 5,” “San Juan of the Tourists,” and “Friend, This Is What Hurts.” Nicole Cecilia Delgado’s Apenas un cántaro and Gaddiel Francisco Ruiz Rivera’s Lógica escata, both published by Cindy Jiménez Vera’s Ediciones Aguadulce. Cindy’s a librarian, a poet, and one heck of an editor. And, of course, Roque Raquel Salas Rivera and Urayoán Noel. I had the chance to hear Fabricio Estrada’s poems at this year’s Festival de la Palabra in San Juan and I was smitten.
As for prose: Luis Negrón’s Mundo cruel (translated by Suzanne Jill Levine). A few years back I snatched a copy of Mayra Santos-Febres’s Tratado de medicina natural para hombres melancólicos, which I shelved by Emily Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey and Anne Carson’s Men in the Off Hours. And I would add José Luis González’s La llegada and the plays of Alejandro Tapia y Rivera, which I’ve wanted to revisit for some time now.
Is there a place here you return to often?
Iglesia San José, one of the earliest surviving examples of sixteenth-century Spanish Gothic architecture in the Western hemisphere, which was constructed from 1532 to 1735 by members of the Dominican order. I drive or walk past it every time I visit: the very fact of its masonry, the vaulted roofs, if I remember them as they were when I was young—no other site held such profound mystery to me. The church is under restoration and is thus inaccessible. That mystery, as with many things that remain out of sight, I believe, still holds.
Is there an iconic literary place we should know?
Last December, Roque Raquel Salas Rivera and I got to meet at La Impresora, a nonprofit art and poetry studio in Santurce run by Nicole Delgado. As a cultural project, La Impresora holds countless free workshops and activities for children, young people, and adults on the island. Nicole’s committed to the field of cultural production on the island and abroad, even after the storm—or in spite of it. I can think of no better definition of “iconic.”
Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?
One is tempted to see the capital as representative of the island, but as an alternative, I offer the following report by Primera Hora, a daily newspaper, from September 26, 2017—six days after the storm:
A group of children approached reporters in the municipality of Dorado [just 30 minutes away from San Juan]. “I would like to give you the headline for your newspaper,” said a ten-year-old. “And what would that be?” a reporter asked. “The image of our poverty,” he answered. “[The storm] knocked down trees, killed animals, flooded houses, families disappeared, there is no communication, we were separated for many days [. . .] The power went out for many days.”
Days and months (and months and months) after the storm, I would read it often and everywhere: “En San Juan tienen luz / In San Juan, they got power.” Of course, the very fact of San Juan as capital—one has to think beyond that power, that privilege by virtue of commerce. That is the source of intrigue for me insofar as it is obvious because it compels me to find for myself, as a writer, those stories of private despair, of suspicion against el nebuleo, and also the indomitable spirit of those living there and outside of it.
Where does passion live here?
In Spanish, in my Spanglish. In my nephews, Felipe and Damián, now four and two, respectively. After I read for the Festival de la Palabra, Felipe came to hand me a slip of paper; he’d been practicing writing down his name and numbers: 1 2 3 4 5, the slip read. In my mother’s prayers. In my sister, who texts when it snows in New York. In my brothers and my sisters-in-law. In my friends. In the poets I met after the storm, those in San Juan, those outside, those in the diaspora. Those who flew with me to San Juan, some of them on the island for the first time, when we drove to a bar by the Universidad de Puerto Rico and listened to Plena while drinking Medallas (the local brew) and chatted about Kafka. In the poems I saw plastered in Rio Piedras. In my present, in our present, in the San Juan we imagine in San Juan and outside San Juan—in that more equitable future I would like to build.
What is the title of one of your works about San Juan and what inspired it exactly?
“Leftovers,” an early poem that got me thinking—somewhat midway in the life of my journey, as I saw it—about San Juan and the financial district. I was twenty-eight. The poem ends with a “second waking”: “the capacity for words is debt; its history is arrogance, / a fundamental economy in dark.” It jars me still: the economic starkness that haunted me when I wrote the poem, my student debt. That I could bargain for a future, a better version of myself. And Puerto Rico’s debt crisis.
Inspired by Levi, “Outside San Juan does an outside exist?”
Often when I fly home, I remember so many versions of San Juan I have written about—some I have discovered, many I’ve revised. There is always and everywhere a San Juan beyond my lived experience, beyond my privilege, beyond my imagination. There’s a San Juan I have loved in silence. One I create with my friends of the diaspora, in our Spanglish. A San Juan I discovered at a distillery in the Bronx with Urayóan Noel, Charlie Vásquez, and Yara Liceaga. Writing Puerto Rico, writing San Juan, while we hum Noel Estrada’s “En mi viejo San Juan” as we fly away from the island.
Ricardo Alberto Maldonado was born and raised in Puerto Rico. He is the translator of Dinapiera Di Donato’s Colaterales / Collateral (National Poetry Series) and the recipient of poetry fellowships from Cantomundo, Queer|Arts|Mentorship, and the New York Foundation for the Arts. He is the executive director and presdient of the Academy of American Poets. Formerly, he was codirector at 92Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center and the coeditor—with Erica Mena, Roque Raquel Salas Rivera and Carina del Valle Schorske—of Puerto Rico en mi corazón. He cohosts Empire Reads with Hafizah Geter and lives in Bed-Stuy with his boss’s cat, Marcus.