Roberto Carlos Garcia
Roberto Carlos Garcia
A Conversation with
Roberto Carlos Garcia, Melancholia and black/Maybe
Roberto Carlos Garcia is known for his elegies, odes and essays. His work is compellingly visual and can be allegorical. A major poetic concern addresses “healing” through conversations and education, the loss of the nuances and differences in the history, culture and language of Black/Latinx Americans. He wants to combat the monolithic vision that keeps people from knowing themselves, and impedes others from seeing persons as individuals. He is considered one of the most important current Afro-Latinx poets. Born in America of Dominican heritage, Garcia was raised city-poor in New York and currently lives with his family in New Jersey. Deeply respectful of literary traditions, Garcia utilizes numerous poetic forms—his own invention is the “mix tape,” a type of cento that “mixes” or samples from a variety of writings to create new meaning. “Melancholia” is a persistent theme shared by many diasporic artists who reach for wisps of their backgrounds. He expresses his seemingly insurmountable problems alongside efforts to understand others. Acutely personal and empathetic, Garcia draws in those for whom racial difficulties are unknown territories. An urgent and needed poet, he doesn’t let people forget, no matter how painful the memories. At the same time, he gives away freely his “MAD LOVE” salve.
Nicolette Reim, NYC 2023
Roberto Carlos Garcia, What Can I Tell You Selected Poems
Nicolette Reim: What were the signposts that led the way to your becoming a poet? You have mentioned continuing on the path of The Harlem Renaissance. How did it impact you personally and how is its influence reflected in contemporary poetics?
Roberto Carlos Garcia: Early on I wrote about everything. I wrote poems, stories, songs, anything. Thankfully, there was no social media, so we had to do stuff to keep ourselves entertained (LOL). I remain inspired by the artists of that era, in particular Langston Hughes. The way he managed to communicate the everyday of Black life, in the language of Black people at that time. It served as a model for me to model the language, concerns, and minutiae of my slice of the African Diaspora, the Afro-Latinx American experience. If we look closely, we can see writers across all genres standing on the shoulders of our literary ancestors.
NR: Poetry offers community and also needs community to read, listen and spread ideas. You founded Get Fresh Books Publishing, a nonprofit cooperative press. How did Get Fresh happen and how does it interact with community, and vice versa?
RCG: A group of friends and I thought it up in graduate school. We wanted to see a publisher that reflected our different backgrounds and that functioned outside of a capitalist model. Later, I realized that what I wanted was to create a literary eco-system where submission fees and the traditional contest system didn’t exist. I’m / We’re still creating that vision. I believe GFB is giving poets from all walks of life opportunities, but also anyone who wants to learn about the publishing industry and how it can become something new.
Roberto Carlos Garcia, What Can I Tell You Selected Poems
NR: Your work points out how words contribute to racism. What do you think of the current controversy over the word “Latinx” (objections from both sides of the political spectrum)? Some say it messes with Hispanic culture—Spanish having been around for 1,500 years on its own terms and this word imposed by “outsiders”—a very white term and a white term shouldn’t represent non-white populations. The Royal Spanish Academy, that maintains the most authoritative dictionary of the language, has not approved it. Others say if it is more inclusive, it is a good thing. According to one poll, “Latinx” is a word largely unknown to those of Spanish-speaking origin, but another shows about half would have no objection to being referred to as “Latinx.”
RCG: I think that one of the most powerful things you can do is say your name, the name you give yourself. It is foolish for people to argue against people (self-determining) naming themselves, it is especially foolish for a former colonizer (The Royal Spanish Academy/Spain) to criticize the term Latinx. Like it or not, a significant portion of the community uses it, wants it, etc. I think people must deal with it.
NR: How do you see the current wrestling with racism? Has nuance/difference in Black/Latinx experiences, elucidated in your writing, reached the national stage, or do blackness and Latin identity continue to be perceived in monolithic ways? What keeps our society from being equipped to talk about these issues? I am one of so many affected by your work because it informs, as poetry can do so truthfully. It “calls out” to be read.
RCG: I think progress is being made albeit slowly. It matters most to those affected by the situation. Our education system doesn’t teach enough about colonialism and what that means for all of us today, we’re the survivors of that experience, and we continue to be impacted by it. People descended from the trans-Atlantic slave trade still experience racism, violence, poverty, and murder. Indigenous communities still have not had their sacred lands returned to them. A good number of the descendants of poor Europeans who travelled to the “new world” experience poverty and other kinds of exploitation, but they still hang on to an ideology of superiority over Blacks, Latinx, Asians, etc., there is much to be learned by studying these subjects very early on in our educational experience. That, and a host of other ideas, could make a big difference in equipping our society to have these conversations.
Roberto Carlos Garcia at Get Fresh Publishing
NR: Writers feeling the magnitude of current problems—racism, environmental destruction, threats of war—often speak of hesitating to write on these issues because they don’t know how to offer hope. You advocate diligence, political action where possible, and always communication on the human level, and even prayer. How do you find the mood among the young poets you know, mentor, and support? Is this sense of being overwhelmed an issue?
RCG: Yes and no. I think it’s important to express yourself as honestly as possible to yourself first. Interrogate yourself and your experience. You’re the most important human you’re going to meet; know you. And keep reacquainting yourself with yourself and giving yourself grace. That humanity should then come through in your art. Otherwise, you’ll just write propaganda. And there’s too much of that out here already.
NR: Thinking of internal debates within the Black diaspora, do they differ from more singular debates on the national stage? Are there other movements in the Caribbean tied to Black Lives Matter that we might not hear about from our news sources or from our poets who suffer from a lack of publicity?
RCG: The answer requires a lot more complexity than I have room for here, but I will say that a new pan-Africanist or negritude movement seems to be in the works. I see a spark. There are conversations happening and I’m here for it. I am proud to be part of it. I’m hopeful.
NR: Your latest book What Can I Tell you, Selected Poems, has recently been released and Traveling Freely (essays) is due to be published in 2024. What are your current plans and how is everybody doing at Get Fresh Books Publishing?
RCG: I plan to keep writing! To keep adding to this wonderful literary canon we (Black & Brown folx) are creating. GFB is going strong, but we’re always fundraising. We welcome donations year-round. There are several wonderful books in the pipeline. Visit our online store. Buy a book or two!
Roberto Carlos Garcia, [Elegies], Flowersong Press
The Cost read by Roberto Carlos Garcia
for Aracelis Girmay
My black folk believe we fell from grace,
we fell walking the path & bad
language, philosophy, or faith brought the Europeans
upon us. We paid a price we didn’t
decide. Now, we know the cost.
One night, singing in my sleep I had a dream
of a steady rocking like a metronome.
In the dream—I felt a rough brown hand
on my head & heard him sigh, I am Esteban, he said.
I opened my mouth & candies fell out.
An offering, cried Esteban, we begin!
Half-naked in a filthy loincloth I stood on a wooden
deck, moldy mast, Portuguese flag stitched in sail,
entire ship in flames & sailing along.
Esteban waved, Come, mulato, see the first shore.
Tree-dressed mountains, cotton clouds & blue skies,
this island & so many like it—clear waters, pink sands.
Our people dancing & drinking, dressed like lords,
grinding each other to calypso, bachata, soca.
Our flags: red & blue, black & red, yellow & green.
Closer, sand choking on beer & tequila bottles.
The bloody shackled feet of carnival dancers.
Resorts—shining pools of water in the hills,
a white man posed on a flat green patch, I thought
he waved at us, he was testing the wind, swung
his golf club, wind pressed tee shirt over
his belly—ALL INCLUSIVE in bold black letters.
Esteban laughed a bitter laugh.
The waters began to rise & rise.
Hurricanes spun—a seascape, the carnival
never stopped, costumes & all the storm dragged
island folk off land. The resorts & white men golfing
blew bubbles & sank to the depths without a sound.
The water so clear you’d see Middle Passage dead
at the bottom.
What are my brothers & sisters thinking
as they dance? After all the declarations
of independence, decades pretending
white government white wigs & all?
The European colonies exist
unchanged in our minds.
Esteban grabbed me by the neck & asked:
What do you see in the water?
You are sixteen & at a pool party. The girls are pretty. The party is a Latino party, but you know the drill. Your own family warns you against dating black people. Yet here you are, the only black person at the party. Latino, yes (whatever that means), but black. As the time to enter the pool approaches, gradually, less & less “friends” engage you. You feel like a guest that’s not being asked to leave, but you feel like a guest that’s no longer wanted. The other kids start getting into the pool. No one is inviting you. No one is acknowledging you. Foolishly, you start speaking to people in Spanish. You are trying to prove something. No one is listening. You are ashamed of your desperation. Deep inside you—waters are crashing loudly. You leave the party & nobody notices. A few days later, at school, nobody asks you how you liked the party. They talk about it as if you weren’t even there. As if you hadn’t been invited. Later, you’ll learn about segregation & pools. The one drop rule. The one black toe in the water rule. Across todas Las Américas. You learn that DNA is genetic memory—just like water. You learn we paid a price
we didn’t decide. Now, we know the cost.
My son asks why he’s not brown like me.
I have the other
talk with him, about passing
& not being able to pass
& don’t you even think about passing.
Memory takes the moment—I’m running
in the rain with friends
the rain stops against my hair, sits
like cold wax on a wooden table.
My afro is not grass laying under water’s weight.
Your hair’s not soft like mine. You can’t do this.
The hand a buffing pad—makes a shine,
a lacquered lawn I want to torch.
So, I slap my friend, in the name
of that narrative:
white is good, black is bad
good hair, bad hair.
You shall not pass.
& I tell my son that…
I want(ed) to wake up—
Esteban gave me a bottle of rum.
Colonizers gave us these islands,
little fiefdoms of diaspora, a trap.
Colonizers really loved the weather, but in the end
we became intolerable, now
they rule us with banks.
How long to make slaves into a kingdom again?
Little islands—diaspora of Babel,
& the more I drank the more Esteban cried
& his tongue crawled out of his mouth—a great snake.
Give me the bottle.
Donne moi la bouteille.
Dame la botella.
Geef me de fles.
We paid a price we didn’t decide.
Now, we know the cost.
From: What Can I Tell You? Selected Poems by Roberto Carlos Garcia
Roberto Carlos Garcia holds an MFA in Poetry and Poetry in Translation from Drew University, is a nominee for a Pushcart Prize, and a recipient of a 2023 New Jersey State Council of the Arts Fellowship. He is the author of four poetry collections, most recently What Can I Tell You? Selected Poems. His essay collection, Traveling Freely, is forthcoming in 2024 from Northwestern University Press. Roberto has been published widely, and is the founder of Get Fresh Books Publishing, a literary nonprofit.
Roberto Carlos Garcia
Photo: Johanna Ashley Garcia
Nicolette Reim is a visual artist, poet, and writer, who lives and works in New York and Atlanta.
Photo: Elias Maus