Frank X. Gaspar a much beloved writer - Interview
Posted on 10 December 2012.
By Millicent Accardi, Contributor (*)
I met Frank X. Gaspar at a writers conference about fifteen years ago after a friend of mine said, “You’re Portuguese? You two should talk.” After that, we kept in touch and checked in from time to time. I read his wonderful books and, when I got my graduate degree, I went to teach at Long Beach City College (LBCC) as an adjunct where Gaspar was a faculty member with an incredible fan base. I know this because I substitute-taught his poetry workshop for a few sessions. He had students who had been in his class for ten years straight. They just kept signing up to hear the wisdom.
There are writers whose work is read; there are those whose work is browsed through at a bookstore, then placed back on a shelf; then, there is Gaspar’s work. Books with folded down pages. Passages underlined and highlighted. Gaspar is a writer whose work is shared with friends and complete strangers. His books are announced and posted through links on Twitter and Facebook. He is a writer for whom fans travel great distances to hear and for whom devotees stand in long lines at book fairs just for an autograph; a writer whose books readers buy for themselves, not once but twice, since the binding of the original has been read so many times it has fallen apart. A much-beloved writer, whose books are bought for your father and mother, your best friend. Books to save your own life.
Born and raised in the Portuguese West End of Provincetown, Massachusetts, Gaspar graduated from the MFA program at the University of California at Irvine. He is the author of two novels, and five volumes of poetry: Night of a Thousand Blossoms, A Field Guide to the Heavens, Mass for the Grace of a Happy Death, The Holyoke and, the most recent, Late Rapturous (2012).
His poetry has received book prizes from Anhinga, Morse, Brittingham, with multiple inclusions in the notable Best American Poetry yearly anthologies. He has received four Pushcart Prizes, grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the California Arts Council. His first novel, Leaving Pico, was a Barnes and Noble Discovery Prize winner and his second novel Stealing Fatimah won the MassBook of the Year award in fiction from the Massachusetts Foundation for the Book. Publications such as The Nation, The Harvard Review, The Hudson Review, The Kenyon Review, The Georgia Review, The Southern Review, Prairie Schooner, The Tampa Review, and other literary journals, have featured his individual poems.
He is an emeritus faculty member at LBCC in California and has also taught in the graduate writing program at Antioch University in Los Angeles. For the past two summers, he has taught a writing course specifically for students of Portuguese descent called, “Writing the Luso Experience” at the Disquiet International Literary Program, in Lisbon, Portugal.
In this recent conversation with Gaspar, he discusses happy moments in his writing, Portuguese literature and about growing up in Provincetown.
Q: How has the literary “canon” of Portuguese-American writing grown since you first started teaching and writing? I mean, now there are Tagus Press, Gávea-Brown, and Portuguese American Heritage Publications in California. The rise of 20th century PA literature started with you and Katherine Vaz in the early 1990’s. Your Leaving Pico, for example, and Vaz’s Our Lady of the Artichokes. What was it like before that?
A: Well, before that, I guess it was in the late 1980’s, I met Katherine at a lunch set up for us by a wonderful professor and writer, Don Heiney, at UCI. I had graduated the MFA program a few years before her, but Don knew we were both Azorean Portuguese (albeit from vastly different backgrounds) and wanted to get us together. She was at the time working on her wonderful novel, Saudade, and I was working on my first poetry collection, The Holyoke. Before that, I would have to go back to Alfred Lewis’s Home is an Island, which had come in 1951 and had long faded from view, and about which I knew nothing then.
I knew nothing about anything. It’s impossible to tell you how alone and benighted I was. It was a long hard journey to ever find my way into college, and when I finally did, I never saw any Portuguese writing in all my study of World Literature, and I certainly didn’t know any Portuguese-American writers. When I started The Holyoke, I thought I was the only one. I had no models. It was a very strange time. I owe a great debt to Katherine for Saudade, for it gave me the fortitude to work on Leaving Pico, which had had many false starts and incarnations. Gávea-Brown was publishing then, but I didn’t learn of it until Pico came out. I knew of George Monteiro because he had somehow seen my poems and recommended me to a magazine editor. Onésimo Almeida, when I met him at Brown, very generously gauged my ignorance and piled volumes of Gávea-Brown books into my arms before I left. It was a great kindness. Onésimo and George and Alice Clemente were doing heroic work in those days. I can’t overstate it.
Frank Sousa, now that his imprints have been consolidated under Tagus Press, and have been joined with the large infrastructure of UPNE (University Presses of New England) promises to reach out farther and more plentifully with more and more titles from the Portuguese and from Portuguese-Americans. But our job as writers—the most important thing we can do – -is to strive to write better and better and claim a place in American Literature.
Q: What do you wish for the future of PA literature in the US?
A: My wise-guy answer is that I wish FOR a future for Portuguese-American Literature. And, seriously, I believe the way is long and fraught with difficulties. The first great challenge is developing an audience, and I mean an audience first among Portuguese-Americans. We are a very small club. As a demographic, we don’t seem to buy books, especially not poetry and fiction. I’m not talking about people who are in the arts or who study languages and literature at universities. I’m talking about rank and file readers. There’s a lot of work to be done in gathering and spreading our own energy.
I believe one place to start is in the schools in places like Newark, Fall River, Providence and New Bedford, just to mention some turf in that corner of the land. There are other places we know about, too. And I think there has to be a cross-over at some point, where Portuguese and Portuguese-American literature moves outward from relatively sequestered readerships—Portuguese Departments and Graduate Studies, for instance—and into the general literature classes in colleges and universities as well as in high schools. We need work in the standard teaching anthologies.
That’s a long voyage. Think of how long other, larger, hyphenated-Americans took to find their books and poems included in general English classes. We are still milling around on square one, or close to it. So I think it’s important to understand where we are and where we’d like to be. I am afraid I was a bit zealous about this in my Lisbon workshop, and I am manifestly unapologetic about it. But others caught it quickly—you did, Millicent, and Oona Patrick was always passionate in the cause. You folks and those who participated in the first national reading by Portuguese-American writers at the Associated Writers and Writing Programs conference offsite in Chicago last March: Linette Escobar, Tony Roma, Lara Gulart, Amy Sayre, Carlos Queiros, Paula Neves, carried that spirit home and grew our Presence/Presença into your own rather large, if loose, group of interested people. So something that never was now is. I think you all have made a significant start.
Q: What frustrates or challenges you?
A: I become frustrated when the details of life get in the way of concentrated writing time. Also I’m always challenged by the thing I am writing at the time. There’s always joy and despair involved in working, and one continual challenge is responding to the bad days, the bad writing. You get knocked down. The challenge is getting back up.
Q: With your writing, what are you trying to accomplish but haven’t yet?
A: Well, I have been blessed with very good responses to my work, and I’m satisfied with most of what I have published so far, but if pressed, I would say that I’d like to reach a wider audience. I don’t write easy books, and I guess that won’t change. Late Rapturous, my new poetry collection, takes a lot of risks and the new novel/memoir that I’m working on is hard to describe, which tells me a lot as I sit here, trying to say something coherent about it. One thing—an immediate and workable goal for me—is to finish a few drafts of that and see if its form will actually fly. It’s different from anything I’ve written and quite scary territory.
Q: Do you wait for a muse to inspire? Or do you sit down and “force” the work to come? Or something else?
A: I don’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t want to be a writer. I used to scribble “stories” before I knew how to write the letters of the alphabet. Long, crazy lines of nothing. I always goofed off in school, writing stories and poems, and in study halls (those were periods in junior high and high school where you were in a classroom with no subject. You were supposed to use the hour to study and do homework).
All I ever did was read and write. Of course there was no reinforcement for that. It was a bit lonely. My English teachers always gave me A’s for my writing. It was one of the few things I was good at. But I love to write. I love being a writer. So when it comes, muses and inspiration and all that, I have little to say. It’s like eating to me. Having said that, it occurs to me that I often eat while I’m writing. You know, snacks, donuts, beer, potato chips, peanut butter sandwiches. Gallons of coffee. I don’t know what all that means, but it’s what I do. Early on, I read something about “writer’s block.”
It was harsh good sense: Writer’s block is bullshit. You are just scared you aren’t going to write something good enough. Or it comes out bad, and you can’t bear it. You get scared that you can’t do it. So the solution is that you just give yourself permission to stink. Write badly. Man up. Or woman up. Once you have that permission, you are free to discover things. Your own voice, for instance.
You can grow your mind instead of being frozen at some lower level of development. You can experiment with style. You just sit down and go to work. Or you can play around. There’s plenty to write. Also, think about how you spend your time. All the crap we have to do. Servile work for survival. Keeping a roof over our heads. Fixing the leaks. Paying bills. It’s always seemed to me that writing was this huge reward waiting at the end of the day. I couldn’t wait to get to it. I still can’t. I don’t like it when I get too busy with the world to write. It happens.
But I’m never happier then when I’m writing. I guess I’m saying it’s the pleasure principle at work for me. I don’t seem to need a whip.
Q: Can you describe your work space (if you have an office or a desk or prefer to write amid a café or a crowded party)?
A: My study (when I’m feeling grand, I call it a studio) is small room, about 10 by 10 feet, with no window but a skylight that opens through the roof. Three of the walls are lined with books from floor to ceiling. More often than not, books are stacked on the floor too. Against the third wall are a dictionary stand with a huge dictionary upon it (much superior to the anemic on-line dictionaries, which I tend to avoid) and, next to that, an old, probably antique, three-drawer dresser with mirror, which holds all the office supplies—ink cartridges, reams of various colors of paper, file folders, post-its, mailers, and so forth. My desk sits against the west wall under bracketed bookcases, and the desk is always piled and littered with papers and books. There is a great deal of fetish and memorabilia strewn about: several beautiful old typewriters, and an arrow from Chiapas, a painting of Provincetown done by my mother in a seniors’ activity class, a huge photograph of Portuguese men sailing a schooner, a lava rock from what might be the village on Pico where my family came from, Rosary beads from Fatima, and on and on. I derive great comfort from the clutter. It is womb-like in there, and when I work late at night, my wonderful cat, who has written my last five books with me so far, guards the doorway like a sphinx, facing outward toward the darkness.
Q: Do you think there is such as thing as Portuguese-American literature (as a separate canon?). Like, for example, Cuban-American literature? If so, what are the “markers” of PA writing? What elements or themes would you point out if you were classifying or teaching a course in PA lit?
A: Yes and no. Yes, there is a small body of work that is clearly Portuguese-American literature. To deny that would preposterous. There are, as you have mentioned, Tagus Press, Gávea-Brown, and the Portuguese Heritage Society. Yet, in the larger, real politic of literary studies, I would have say not yet. This would be evidence-based.
We have no shelf in the bookstores (the ones left), we are not on the shelves in University bookstores, nor in their general course catalogs, and our books are not taught in world lit classes or American lit classes, or anywhere else that I could name. We have not been written about in mainstream outlets (the New Yorker for instance, or the New York Review of books, or Atlantic, and so forth), and not even the high-end quarterlies, with the exception of the wonderful Prairie Schooner. This is where what we have to work on. But I harp back again to one of my themes. We all have to write more and write better.
Q: Who are your favorite PA writers? Can you share a significant line or passage and explain its importance to you?
A: I like Sam (Pereira) and of course Katherine (Vaz). They are first-rate writers. They illustrate the quality of work that must be done for us to emerge and claim attention in the larger world. I’m speaking here of belles-lettres. There have been many books from Tagus (before the consolidation) that were documentary of the Portuguese-American experience and will have lasting importance, if not a general audience. I think Brian Sousa might be someone to watch.
We need a big, big, important novel from your generation. He’s not afraid of the novel form. If I may say so, many seem to be. But we need bold moves. Tom Braga has written some good poems. See, here I go. I am afraid of slighting someone if I begin a list and leave someone out, so I would urge readers to seek out work by Portuguese and Portuguese-Americans.
Tagus and Gávea-Brown publish some excellent books by fine writers, and one could spend a long time among those treasures. But I’ll go back to a passage from a book I read most recently—The Marriage of the Portuguese. Here are the first two lines of the closing poem, “The Sugars of Terceira” (and doesn’t Sam have an ear there, just with that lovely title? Three beats of Iambic with the floating sibilants): “Let’s say I could understand/ Every word she said. I couldn’t.” Well, there’s the ear again. Trochaic Tetrameter when read aloud. But the lines are emblematic of third generation Portuguese-Americans, so many of us. The distance between us and the old ones, the velhos. They lived with us, we could touch them, but the communication between the old speech and the new speech has already begun to break down, and that hyphen in Portuguese-American settles in quite solidly.
Q: What is your heritage? Are you first generation? Did you spend time in Portugal as a child? An adult?
A: My grandfather came over from Pico, Azores. My other grandparents—let us say, estranged for many years—came from São Miguel. I have been to the Azores and to Portugal many times, through great good fortune and the kindness of friends and readers of my work: especially my gratitude to Vamberto Freitas, Teresa Alves, Teresa Cid, Miguel Vaz, Rui Zink, Margarida Vale de Gato—and so many others.
Q: Do you speak Portuguese?
A: Sim, eu falo Português muito, muito mal. I can speak very little, enough to get around, get fed—basic survival, I guess. I grew up hearing it in the house. Everyone in my mother’s generation was fluently bi-lingual. Many of the older folks, the great-aunts and grandparents and so forth, spoke English only haltingly and with heavy accents. This was in the West End of Provincetown, of course. We kids were not allowed or taught. There is this story that a particular priest, or perhaps the teachers at school, wanted us to assimilate and so told the parents, “Não permita que as crianças a falar Português. Não é bom para elas!” There’s no way to tell if that’s true or not, but the fact remains that no one I grew up with was brought along in the language.
We all heard it of course, and picked up words, but this was New England, Provincetown, Azorean, and many of the words we kids used don’t seem to be known by true speakers of the language. And the sounds are different than what I hear from educated Portuguese people.
I can read much better than I can speak. My speaking vocabulary is miniscule. I do pick up languages quickly, when I’m immersed in a country, and someday I might get an opportunity to spend a few months in Lisbon and practice. That would be wonderful, and I send out my hints to givers of grants, donors of residencies, benefactors to poets, and so forth, that I would be a grateful and assiduous student! Gostaria de uma tosta mista e uma cerveja gelada, faz favor. E algumas batatas fritas!
Q: How has being Portuguese shaped your life as a writer?
A: Being Portuguese, and growing up in the town that I did, in the West End, which was so heavily culturally Portuguese, has shaped probably every facet of my life. Certainly growing up hearing Portuguese at home and on the street and in the markets and so forth; and then hearing the Latin of the Catholic Church, allowed me to attune to the music of language irrespective of meaning.
I have always had a good ear for prose and poetry both—I mean in reading them. I get very impatient with tone-deaf writing. And so, I always try write to my ear first. Also, there was a great deal of story-telling that went on in our houses around the kitchen tables or out in the yard. I saw early that the men and women, who could tell a good story (sometimes over and over with variations), commanded a certain kind of attention. They would often break into Portuguese when the subject swerved into forbidden areas, but we kids knew what was going on even if our vocabularies left us guessing a bit. So even though literature was out of reach in the homes, a vivid and robust orality was present—voices that stayed in my head. All was not to the positive. We were raised to be insular, superstitious, reticent.
We were very proud, but we were taught that anything outside our immediate sphere was not meant for us. High culture was something to be ignored as not having any bearing on our lives. It was sometimes openly scorned. People knew almost nothing about the big outside world, and cared to know nothing. The neighborhood was enough. The East End may have been different. The explosion of the summer Bohemia was something to be barely tolerated, and to this day there are town folks who won’t go “downtown” in the summer.
This seems incongruous when you consider that so many outsiders, artists, teachers, writers, straight and gay, lived in our houses. We all took in “roomers” if there was any space. These people became part of the family for the ten weeks or so that they stayed with us. But their lives were their own business. I loved our roomers. They were different, smart, knew things, though their knowledge seemed above us, not for us, and the talk never crossed over to what they did. They were always gracious and kind and very interested in us. I learned that art was important from watching them. This pollenization fed me early. I yearned for more. I wanted more than the physical and spiritual poverty we lived in, and these people had what I wanted. They chose to come and live as we did. Some stayed the winter and lived as poorly as we did. But they had made a choice and had a purpose.
This, I think, was what taught me how to live like an artist, how to understand that someday, someplace, I would be able to honor these things that I felt inside myself. So there were the wonderful roots of my Azorean culture and the wonderful tug away from them, complicated by the fact the lifestyles of each were not so dissimilar. That town of Portuguese working class people and Bohemian artists and writers no longer exists, though vestiges of it can still be found there. But Provincetown is vastly, irreversibly different now. No one can rent a room or fish shack to paint or write in. Houses on the water are for millionaires. Fishing is moribund and tourism has replaced it as the center of the town’s economy. I was not always happy growing up, but that time and place was an extraordinary, if mixed, blessing for me.
Q: In the Americas, there is much talk about labels: Luso, Hispanic, Portuguese-North American, Anglo-Portuguese, Azorean-American, etc., and problems with classification. If pressed, how would you label yourself?
A: In town, growing up, we always called ourselves simply “Portuguese.” (Actually, we, and the old ones too, always used “Portagee.” Everyone was proud of it. It did not hold the connotations for us that it has for others in other areas.)
When I’m home in Provincetown with my Townie friends, we use “Portagee” all the time, lovingly, happily, heartily.
We were the Portuguese. We made up probably 80 to 90 percent of the town’s population, so it was a vaunt to say so! The majority, at any rate. The town is no longer like that, but there are stalwart Portuguese who hold a three-day festival each summer to commemorate the glory days when fishing was king, and the Portuguese language was on many, many lips.
Nowadays, out in the big world, I answer Portuguese-American when asked. The only problems with such a classification come with being a writer who grew up completely immersed in that culture. It says, as far as I can tell, “I am invisible except for a little bit.”
Q: Do you have a particular lesson you have taught in creative writing which went over very well in the classroom that you would like to share?
A: Well, that opens up big discussions on lessons and teaching, and I think what I’ll do here in this limited space is simply offer one of my slogans. “Touch it every night!” Well, we get some snickers at this, but it is something that works over the long haul–A book of poems or a novel. In some workshops we would begin by going around the table and telling the others whether we had touched it every night that week. This means you must live in and for your work.
Of course you are working five days a week if you are serious, but sometimes you go through patches where you can’t get to it. You have the flu or anxiety attacks or taxes to do, or something for your servile work that must be done. Or maybe you have fallen from grace and gone out with the fellas or the girls, and you come home a little under the weather. It doesn’t matter. You don’t go to bed without touching the manuscript. I don’t mean in a fetishistic way, like tap-tap, I touched it. You open a file on your screen and you find one thing you can do. That adjective that is just in the wrong register of diction for that sentence. Or you open a folder on your desk and take out a poem and change a line break. One thing. Every night. You’d be surprised how that one touch can turn into an hour that you didn’t think you had in you. But even if it doesn’t, it keeps the work active and alive in your mind, and you are heartened each time you push yourself to do it. You get stronger. So, it’s quite simple. Just touch it every night. It feels good. Really.
Q: What was or is your happiest moment writing?
A: Well, when I am writing and it’s going well, and I know I have just done something splendid. This is before the next day when I look at it again and I see that not only is it not splendid, it’s ridiculous. But I love even that. I have written enough, in two genres, to know that that’s how it goes. Up and down. I have learned to roll with it and to stick with it. This is happiness for me. Dare I say that it grows my mind and my soul? I feel as though that’s the principal reason I’m here, and when I’m engaged in it—the writing process, I mean—I am truly a happy man.
Q: As writer, what is your first priority?
A: Working. Getting the work down. I try to get everything in my life to lift me to the top of a pyramid where the writing gets done. So servile work for pay, taking care of daily obligations, creating time and space, all that I see as pushing me up to the things I feel I was created to do—write poems and stories, read, take part in the life of art and the mind, the aesthetic senses.
(*) Millicent Borges Accardi is a contributor to the Portuguese American Journal. She is a Portuguese-American poet, the author of three books: Injuring Eternity (World Nouveau), Woman on a Shaky Bridge (Finishing Line Press chapbook), and Only More So (forthcoming from Salmon Press, Ireland). She has received literary fellowships from Canto Mundo, the National Endowment for the Arts, and California Arts Council. Last fall, she was a visiting poet at The Muse Writers Center in Norfolk, VA. Millicent lives in Topanga, CA. Follow her on Twitter @TopangaHippie