By Michael Bennett for The Fourth River
I had the pleasure of conversing with Adriana E. Ramirez, who visited Chatham for our event, “Dialogues: Writing in Divided Times.” Ramirez is a world-renowned performance poet, and her nonfiction novella Dead Boys won the 2015 PEN/Fusion Emerging Writers Prize. Ramirez currently resides in Pittsburgh and teaches at Carlow University. She is co-founder of the Pittsburgh Poetry Collective and ran Steel City Slam for ten years. Our conversation focused on her upcoming book, The Violence, due in 2018, but we also discussed a wide variety of topics including the current state of journalism, the poetry scene in Pittsburgh, and themes of recurrence in Battlestar Galactica.
The Fourth River: I just want to give you an opportunity, first, to talk about your upcoming book, The Violence.
Adriana E. Ramirez: I am neck deep in it right now. It’s about a civil war called The Violence in Colombia from 1948-56. This guy running for president, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, he was essentially a populist, the working people loved him. He’s assassinated, and a weeks worth of rioting ensues, kicking off a civil war. This was not the first war between liberals and conservatives in Colombia. But this one obviously went much longer than three years.
TFR: And, some would say it’s still going on?
AR: Well, it depends on how you define it. The FARC comes out of this. You have rich liberals fighting against rich conservative landowners, but the people at the bottom end up being killed. So there’s a growing resentment. You could argue that Columbia has been in conflict since it’s inception. Since the white man arrived in 1535. It’s probably had like, 30 years of peace, ever.
TFR: And the book is also part memoir?
AR: Right. My grandmother is 21 when this is happening. My mother was born in 1956, the year the National Front begins, which was when the parties decided to start alternating presidencies for a while. Can you imagine?
TFR: Well there is a pendulum in American politics, too.
AR: Oh the parallels. You have no idea. When The Violence broke out, the first thing President Ospina Perez did was outlaw assembly. He had summary executions for people who were leading protests. And you would think that’s draconian and would never happen. And not that we’re killing black people who are protesting…but…we’re killing black people who are protesting. We have problems in our country.
TFR: So with all these parallels, do you tie any of American politics in as well?
AR: I never stop and say, “Hey take a second,” but I certainly point out the way that jailing and threatening people who are protesting their conditions is convicting people for their circumstance. And I might point out that the guy was considered a despot for essentially outlawing poverty.
TFR: Do you have trouble inserting your own opinions into the work?
AR: I prefer a light touch. Even in Dead Boys, it’s hella political. I never come out and say Black Lives Matter, but it’s there. I just kind of let some things drop.
TFR: And we draw our own conclusions.
AR: And then I walk away. At the end of the day, you don’t want to beat anyone over the head. You want the work to be accessible to someone who disagrees with you.
TFR: And that’s a big part of what this event is about. How are we, as writers, addressing a community that’s essentially divide.
AR: I think part of it is looking for that which is true. You can argue a hot topic left and right, any way you see it. Art is a salve, at least, it salves when it doesn’t solve.”
TFR: I was thinking about violence, and what I got out of Dead Boys, was, this portrayal of living with violence as if you are numb to it.
AR: Numb is different, because numb implies you can’t feel it. But it’s more quotidian, normalized.
TFR: I was thinking about how the word violence sounds different in Spanish. It’s much more drawn out.
AR: Yeah, violencia. Violence is beautiful. It just is. Why do we all watch CSI? We love the crime scene. Because it’s beautiful. Because when you see a body, it’s still magical to imagine that it was once alive, and to know that it’s not anymore. And no matter how many times you encounter death, or how numb you are to it, it’s never not amazing. It’s so hard to reconcile the thing after with the thing that was alive.
TFR: And the idea of dying being an occurrence, but death being permanent.
AR: Right, totally different. Death defies memory. Violence is amazing to us, because right now sitting here we do not think of ourselves as units of violence. We have manners, we have protocol, we have civilization. And when whatever happens in our bodies that makes us violent, you both cannot possibly understand it and you understand it completely.
TFR: So would you say violence is your wheelhouse?
AR: Totally. I say that I am a Violentologist because I don’t get it. Why does rage feel so good?
TFR: Was this fascination always inspired from this civil war being called called The Violence?
AR: Well that was just perfect. It couldn’t have any other name, because that’s what it was. It was the violence of 1948.
TFR: Does this work feel like it’s pressing, for the current political climate?
AR: You know, I have a view of history that is influenced by Milan Kundera, in the sense that there is a sense of eternal recurrence. What has happened before will happen again—maybe its Battlestar Galactica? But maybe they’re the same?
TFR: Cyclical? Is that simplifying it too much?
AR: It’s recurrence. It’s not equal. It’s never the original. Because cyclical implies that we’re just coming back. Recurrence implies a linear progression. We’ve always been fighting. We’ve always had the same issues. We’re always upset about the same things. We have the same desires. Our experiments of trying to make it better for everyone have failed. Inherently people must be subjugated for someone to win.
So we will always have people at the bottom resisting the notion of what winning is to begin with. And then we will have people on the top trying to maintain their power. You will always have a struggle between who has power, control, wealth, access, resources, and who doesn’t.
TFR: So, looking at the present moment as something pressing is an error, because it’s always been this way.
AR:I think the ascension of Donald Trump makes perfect sense. I was not surprised.
TFR: And it’s interesting to see who was surprised.
AR: Yep…My favorite is people who say, “Well we survived Reagan.” No we didn’t! Let’s talk about the hundreds of thousands dead, lets talk about all the people incarcerated. Consider the motives. Don’t tell me that the war on drugs is not an extension of racist practices. Look for the money, look who gains, look who’s profiting.
TFR: And that’s a very journalistic approach. Do you consider yourself a journalist?
AR: I’m like a journalist poet. The search for truth is a combined effort. There is capital T and lowercase t and both are incredibly important. There’s so much that can be gleaned from details. Using research to say what do I make of this, and how do I understand this.
TFR: So how does the journalist in you feel about the way we’re consuming and sharing news?
AR: I worry a lot about the 24-hour news cycle, and the immediacy of things. Writing a book, you’re not thinking about the immediacy and the 24-hour reaction, you get to step back and think OK, now I’m thinking in terms of the long term. I used to joke that I was going to start a blog called the month after, where I was going to talk about the news a month later.
TFR: You should do that.
AR: Right? We have this culture of the initial reaction. We’re looking for the immediate thinkpiece. Can you imagine a culture where we have immediate thinkpieces.
TFR: But we already do. It’s a thing.
AR: How much are you thinking about it if it’s immediate? That is not how I roll. People ask me what Dead Boys is about. It’s not that long. The whole thing is trying to figure itself out.
TFR: Do you also think of different audiences for writing and reporting?
AR: It might be the same audience, but you talk to them differently. I adjust the language. I think of phrasing differently.
TFR: Do you imagine different readers when you’re writing poetry?
AR: For poetry—the same reader in a different location. Different venue. There are books that you want to have read aloud to you, there are books that you just want to sneak off and just breathe in the prose.
TFR: I guess, in terms of the message of say, Dead Boys, versus a poem on the same subject.
AR: Oh, all my creative work is in conversation. I have a poem—“How to punch someone without getting hurt.” Sometimes it’s a really sexy poem, sometimes it’s really violent. So it’s always adjusting the tone, the word choices. How I’m speaking to you. But I’m still me, and I still have the same concerns.
TFR: How about the poetry community in Pittsburgh? Everything you’ve done with Steel City Slam?
AR: Oh, it’s awesome. I mean, Pittsburgh is still segregated–mostly by class but also race–but the slam is the least segregated place. You’ll be able to hear local black poets the same you hear local white poets. But even then, I think it’s a lot more page vs. sage. One of those is more aligned with marginalized groups, and one is aligned with status quo hetero-normative white spaces. I exist in the liminal. I’m not alone, there are handfuls of us in both communities in this city, and we’re constantly trying to bridge it.
TFR: When you came here, did you feel that there was a lack of performance poetry?
AR: The first thing that I did when I moved here was find the poetry slam. I knew I wanted to be connected to poets that didn’t have the dream of being a professor of poetry. It changes things. What’s at stake for someone who’s writing poetry under X/Y conditions? Hopefully the stakes are different. And to compare them is unfair, but to see the value in both is beneficial to all.
TFR: Right, well tracing poetry back to this oral storytelling tradition.
AR: Well, yes and no. Even the most academic of poets will use rhyme, and the cheesiest of spoken word people will rhyme. Poetry can be so many things. And it is so wonderful, and full of so many opportunities. The mission of poetry is a worthwhile one.
Michael Bennett is nearing the end of his first year writing nonfiction in Chatham’s MFA program. Born and raised in Pittsburgh, he writes on the intersections of white privilege and queer identity. A Henry Mansell Fellow, Bennett teaches creative writing classes at the Allegheny County Jail through Chatham’s Words Without Walls program.