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A Life Distilled Through Poetry

Author Amelia del Castillo explains what spurred her to release her first collection of bilingual poems.

En español | Amelia del Castillo says she considers herself ageless, because poets are timeless. Born into a military family in Matanzas, Cuba, she says she's close to 90 years old, but won't say exactly how close. She is more likely to define herself by her sign, Gemini, and its twofold nature: while she is a poet, a storyteller, and an essayist, she made a living as an accountant when she came to the United States in 1960.

But age and astrological sign aside, the world most likely knows her by her writing. She has published eight poetry collections and a short-story volume. Her poems have won four international awards, and her short stories won first prize in the Calliope and Polyhymnia contest in Biscay, Spain.

This month Castillo comes out with her tenth book, Fugacidad del asombro/Vanishing Amazement (Ediciones Baquiana), a bilingual poetry collection that explores the ability to feel awe and enjoy things as they gradually disappear.

It's her first bilingual book, spurred on, she says, by her new neighbors at the Palace Suites, a retirement community in Miami. When word got around that an international award-winning poet lived among them, she was invited to read in the community theater. There was only one hurdle: Castillo's poetry was written in Spanish, so just a handful of residents would understand. "I began translating my work just to please these friends who wanted to get acquainted with my poetry but could not read Spanish."

The title, she says, explains the theme: "the fleetingness of everything we have, and have had; the fleetingness of life. It is definitely a continuation of my work," she adds, "only more knowledgeable, deeper, and more realistic."

Q. Can you tell me about the process of translating Fugacidad del asombro into English?

A. I asked some people who I thought might do a better job than I to translate my poems into English, but the results were awful. The translation was perfect, but it was not my voice, it was not poetry. One day I said to myself, "How can I say this in English?" Then, miraculously, the answer came to me. It is not really a translation; it is my personal version of Fugacidad del asombro. Perhaps an American poet would say it differently, but I wanted to tell it in my own way. It may not be the most appropriate way of expressing it, but it's a reflection of me, it sounds like me. After reading the English translation, a friend of mine commented: "It is still not your voice." I replied: "It can't be because my voice needs to be in my native language. But this is my voice in English."

Q. Is your creative process different in English than in Spanish? Do you take into consideration the different forms you have worked in like essays or short stories?

A.  No. I just read the poem several times in Spanish, I ponder over it, feel it, say it aloud, and the result is what I call "my very personal English version." I firmly believe in the illumination that is the artistic creation. It is a talent, a gift, even though that in itself is not enough; you still have to polish your work. Poetry comes naturally to me; I put very little work into it. I put more effort into an essay or a story. I am also a composer, but I think that music and poetry are innate in me, they come to me, and I just write them down. Poetry comes to me without requesting permission—it's quite indiscreet and inopportune at times!

Q. How would you describe your poetry?

A. I have been told that there is more shadow than light in my poetry. That's possible, but I am not a gloomy person. If there is shadow, it's because happy moments don't lend themselves to writing, but are to be enjoyed thoroughly. It's different when something hurts or shakes you. Maybe that's why there is more shadow, but not because there is no light in me.

Q. What is the inspiration for your poetry?

A. Inspiration comes to me from the moment I wake up and know that I am alive. Writing is a catharsis for me, not because that is my intention, but because I have no other alternative than to express myself. A poet exposes his or her inner feelings, and there is nothing more unnerving than that exposure. It's like revealing your soul's modesty.

Q. How has maturity affected your writing?

A. It is a way of saying "this is it." It's not something in the future. It is the here and now, the accumulation of experiences that have finally awakened in you. You realize what is and what is not; but most of all it is acceptance of your circumstances. You can never go against what is, lest you become bitter. The senior years bring some bitter and compelling moments. You look at things differently, they do not affect you as much. You know who you are and understand those around you.

Q. Are there discrepancies in the way different generations respond to your poetry?

A. My generation embraced my poetry with an interest and warmth that I couldn't have imagined, since I always wrote for no one but myself. I was most surprised with the young poets, who not only attended my readings, conferences, and presentations of books, but also brought me books I thought were out of print to be autographed. I would like to encourage those poets to always be true to themselves. The poetic self is a naked self and cannot be achieved without authenticity. That exposure lets you communicate with the other person without barriers.

Q. Can you tell me about your other books?

A. My brother and sister kept my first poems, those I considered worthless because I was too young then and knew very little about poetry. Those poems were published in 1975, in my first book, Urdimbre. I never thought that book would be accepted, but it had a prologue by Agustín Acosta, Cuba's national poet, and that generated some interest in the book. Three years later, the rest of my unpublished works were collected in Voces de silencio.

I identified deeply with Cauce de tiempo (1981), with a prologue by Matías Montes Huidobro. People always tell me that my poetry belongs to the mystic school. I believe it has more to do with enlightenment, just like faith. Another interesting poetry book is Agua y espejos, which won the prize of Cátedra Poética Fray Luis de León, of the University of Salamanca. It was a diary I kept between the ages of 17 and 20, and it was left behind in Cuba. In 1966 my mother brought it to me. It was not my first published book, but it was the first I wrote.

Las aristas desnudas (1991) recounts a difficult time in my life when my husband was very ill. Géminis deshabitado (1994) totally describes me. It deals with that other self that has always haunted me. El hambre de la espiga (2000) was dedicated to my three granddaughters and to women in general. De trampas y fantasías (2001) came afterwards, a compilation of 26 short stories, several of which were granted international awards.

One of my last books, Un pedazo de azul para el naufragio (2005), contains poems on very different subjects and reflects my feelings upon leaving Cuba. It was something very personal; for the first time my poetry was harsh, disheartened. That book came about because I found a series of paintings in artist Carmen María Galigarcía's house with very powerful themes, quite uncharacteristic of her style. She told me that it was her catharsis to deal with the situation in Cuba. I told her that the same thing was happening to me with my poetry. We had a very successful joint exhibition that combined my poems and her paintings.

A poet
is a wandering traveler
going when coming back
and when back, already gone.
He embraces the sun
to love
the night and with the moon
he sleeps
to love the sunlight.
Lonely among others
and in solitude surrounded
by goblins of voices and poetry.
A poet
carries in his quiver a carrousel
of ideas
and a spring of needles
which rises, bursts,
runs, reaches
and overtakes him
until making him a wandering traveler, again.

A poet...
is somber light
and brightened cloudiness

El poeta
es viajero errante que va
si está de vuelta, y si vuelve
ya se ha ido.
Arde al sol para cantar la noche
y con la luna duerme
para cantar el día.
Solo entre muchos, y en soledad
de voces y de duendes lleno.
El poeta
lleva en su carcaj un carrusel
de ideas, y un manantial de agujas
que brota, salta, corre, lo alcanza
y lo atraviesa hasta dejarlo
otra vez cantor errante.
El poeta…
es luz ensombrecida y sombra