By Thais Carrion
This article was originally published in the Washington Independent Review of Books here.
In his forthcoming collection, Inquilinos Mudos/Silent Tenants, Mexican poet, multimedia artist, and professor Alberto Roblest celebrates the power of being bilingual. Divided into two sections comprising 19 poems printed in English and Spanish, the work takes readers on an exploration of the richness of language, playing with form and word choice to create vivid scenes that evoke a range of emotions. Taken as a whole, the collection is a love letter to the trials and triumphs of expressing oneself through multiple tongues.
Themes of migration, colonialism, and history are central to this collection. How did writing in both English and Spanish help you explore them more deeply?
One of the central themes of the book is language and people who learn another language. In “Silent Tenants,” language is perhaps the main protagonist of the collection; of course, it touches on themes that have to do with migration, but also with love, music, friendship, and learning. When one can carry [on] a conversation with another person for, say, 15 minutes, it’s a very big achievement. You can feel it. I can tell you from personal experience. Speaking the official language makes one feel more secure, regardless of skin color, accent, manners, clothing, etc.
“Silent Tenants” is essentially about my neighbors in Columbia Heights, from their life experiences, from their difficulties to continue working two shifts in order to pay the rent, but also from their pleasure in learning another language, having other friends, non-Latinos, talking with co-workers, etc. In general, the success of being bilingual. Some poems are based on real people, like the one titled “Clara.” This poem is about a woman I met at a language school where I worked teaching Spanish. She was learning English and worked for a cleaning company specializing in movie theaters, arenas, and other entertainment venues.
What was it like to explore these themes in two languages? And what does literature in translation mean to you?
It’s always good to have your book translated since it addresses two audiences and more readers. Maritza Rivera, the English translator, did an excellent job. She took great care to find the right words that preserve the original meaning of the poems. When a translator manages that, it is of great benefit to the book. As for the writing, sometimes I think the poems in Spanish, and other times in English. I like to go to the National Gallery of Art to have coffee, surround myself with artistic pieces, and read. Washington is a privileged place in that sense, where the museums are free and so many places exist where you can read and be inspired.
When it comes to creative expression, how does working in video or digital media compare to writing?
I started writing at a young age — I would have been about 10 years old or so — inspired by a magnificent literature teacher. My mother wanted me to be a doctor or an architect, so I wrote all my life in secret. I did not share my poetry for fear of being branded corny, cheesy, and ridiculous. Many of my early poems have been lost to time. I didn’t publish anything until I was 19, when I was about to enter university. What I want to say is that I define myself as a poet. Video semantics [are] just an additional tool. I make use of video tools. With them, I “write” poetry. I do the same with the art installations I’ve created, and many of my digital prints are conceived or designed as poetry. That is to say, I consider them poems rather than collages, digital paintings, montages, or installations.
You experiment with form throughout this collection. When writing poems, does thinking in terms of form complicate or enhance the process?
I like experimentation. It’s like playing. Particularly, I think you must have fun while performing the creative act. I experiment not only with form, but also with content. I get bored doing the same thing all the time. I [lose] interest, and after a while, I don’t like it anymore. So, I vary my approach a bit. Obviously, making a video takes more time. Sometimes, there’s a long preparation process; sometimes, it involves a team, etc. The good thing about poetry is that it remains such an intimate act that it can be written anywhere, even on the subway, on the way from home to work. While many people are immersed in their phones, I am immersed in my poems. I put them on old-fashioned paper, with an old pencil, in a small notebook that I keep in my jacket pocket. I believe that poetry itself is an act of experimentation with the word and nothing more.
Are you thinking about the visual component of a poem — and how it might impact the reader — when experimenting with form?
I like visual poetry. I am not very given to esoteric, metaphysical, or symbolic poetry. I prefer the poetry that is written about the events that happen around me — the poetry that feeds on reality to become a sign or a metaphor. I do not think that the experimental form is inconvenient for reading; if the language and the meaning of the poem serve their purpose, it can be as experimental as a Dada poem.