Archive for July 14th, 2021

“At home that was sacred – I had to speak Spanish.” Dominican/American poet Rhina Espaillat remembers a bilingual childhood

Wednesday, July 14th, 2021

Bilingual spirit

Rhina P. Espaillat was born in the Dominican Republic. Her family left the troubled Caribbean island state during the period when dictator Rafael Trujillo slaughtered thousands. Her father and uncle were already in Washington as diplomats, and could not return to the Dominican Republic. It would be years before the family was reunited in the U.S. Her first poems were published in Ladies Home Journal when she was in high school.

In this interview for Plough, she recounts her bilingual upbringing and how she taught poetry in New York City schools, She has translated Robert Frost and Richard Wilbur into Spanish – but I appreciated her discussion of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, whom she calls the first great poet of the continent.

The occasion for the interview: Plough is launching a new poetry competition, the Rhina Espaillat Poetry Award. Plough’s poetry editor, A. M. Juster, a poet who knows a thing or two about translation himself, conducted the interview with the poet, who turned 89 this year. An excerpt:

One of your most popular poems is called “Bilingual/Bilingüe.” Could you tell about its inspiration and evolution?

Poet Juster conducts the interview

That poem came out of reality in the apartment of my parents, where I was permitted to speak English outside the door, but not inside; my father wanted me to be bilingual. He said, “She’s got to be part of the world, so Spanish in here, English out there.” I used to come home from school and say, “Let me tell you what the teacher said today,” and he would say, “No, no, mi hija, dímelo en español, en castellano.” I would say, “I want to tell you exactly the way she said it,” but he was very firm. At home that was sacred – I had to speak Spanish.

So “Bilingual/Bilingüe” sort of fell together – it had to have a little Spanish in each of the couplets, but by the end the Spanish no longer has parentheses around it: by that time we’re joined in it.

Tell people about Sor Juana.

Sor Juana is one of my saints. I adore her because she was so daring, so smart. In seventeenth-century Mexico, it was not a good idea for a woman to be that smart because she was surrounded by guys who thought that women should have a place in the kitchen. She didn’t want the kitchen. She became a nun not because she had a tremendously powerful calling, but because she wanted her privacy. She wrote a great many religious pieces that are outstanding, and she did her duties as a nun, of course. But she also wrote the most passionate love poetry.

Vain? Not likely.

She wrote Latin poetry too, which is much harder to compose because the prosody is so different.

But she did it. What’s more, she even wrote poems in Nahuatl. She studied philosophy and music and science; she was far ahead of her time.

The Inquisition got so annoyed with her that it sent word through one of the archbishops that she had better be very careful because she was becoming vain – by that they meant she published her poetry. They frightened her and said, “The only way you are going to get through this safely is to get rid of your scientific instruments and all your books.”

So she got rid of everything. She got into her old clothes, took care of sick nuns, then promptly got sick herself and died in her forties.

The other Cruz is Saint John of the Cross, Juan de la Cruz, and I adore him. What he did was to write, quite literally, love letters to God because in his poems he becomes the soul, which of course has to be female. The soul in his poems is always a woman very much in love with her husband who misses him all of a sudden. It’s absolutely enchanting.

Read the whole thing here.