I want to thank my friend and excellent writer, Amir Valle, for this interview for his magazine Another Monday, and for publicizing the book that has just been published and will be presented shortly in Miami.
Amir Valle (AV): Machine for Erasing Humanities is, after Feeding the Dog-Fight, your second book since you went into exile. Although some think that poetry books are simply a collection of poems written over the passage of time, those of us who write know that between one book and another there are always secret threads, pathways that unite or split in two in order to differentiate them. What is the difference then between the two books?
Luis Felipe Rojas (LFR): I believe, without any doubt, in time. What there is between one passage and another is time, and the way in which the two poets have been changed by it: one who arrived as a frightened animal, fleeing from horror, exclusion and suffocation; and the other, who put down his head to rest for an instant and saw his children sleeping in the morning, who no longer expects a kick in the rear, and who experienced many upheavals to live in a developed country.
The poetry that was expressed in Machine…is the final distillate of almost three years of cleaning up each verse. Generally I write at one stretch but take between three or ten years to publish. I continue feeling like a circus performer before the public, and now I have to pinch myself because my mouth falls open with surprise when they stand up from their seats and ask me to do one or two pirouettes more. There’s no way to write poetry if I don’t do it the way Homer did, if I don’t believe that in every poem the villagers are waiting for me to tell them stories from the neighboring villages; or, as I told you before: like a sword swallower, leaving the spectators pale with each plunge.
AV: Whoever follows your trajectory today would believe that you write only poetry. But I, who knew you first as a story-teller and only later as a poet, ask you: Have you stopped writing stories? Will we sometime have the opportunity to remember the excellent story-teller that you were in Cuba?
LFR: My stories are in a drawer now, ready to be handled. Ten, at the most. Narrative consumes me too much; for me it’s more cerebral than poetry, and, as you know, I’m a guy who’s more unruly than centered. I have to put myself naked in this book of short stories and in the stories that I have already written, but I have to do it differently for each one. I also feel disdain for a novela that I started some years ago, and I know that when we speak it tells me something similar to what you’d say to a bad father. The book is called Black Women Write Love Letters. It’s almost ready, my dear Amir.
AV: Miami, although many continue calling it a “hotbed of Cuban identity” and a “cultural wasteland,” to cite two of the labels it’s earned, is converting itself into a cultural scene of undisputed reference for anyone who wants to establish a serious analysis about Cuban culture. Leaving aside the typical topic of politics, I would like you to say something personal about this intimate and public Miami from a cultural point of view that you, as a creative person, have found.
LFR: I have to laugh at the vulgar labels that come more from the Department of Ideology of the Communist Party of Cuba than from visitors themselves. Look, Miami is full of old-fashioned coffee houses, where they greet you, and you sit and sip slowly and you can stay there all morning. There are a dozen art galleries starting up, the most contemporary that I, myself, could ask for. I speak for the autodidact that I am, not for my academic friends, my ex-comrades from the university. I can lose myself in one of the county libraries and be there all day without it costing me a cent, and, on top of that, they even offer me coffee as a courtesy. Wynwood, the Art District, has been converted into a mecca for graffiti and spontaneous art, a place where you combine viewing with the taste of an artisanal beer, in a peace that Alaska would envy.
In the literary environment there are people who are more refined, well-dressed and educated, who disavow the others. But there are excellent poets like Ángel Cuadra and Jorge Valls, from the old guard, and you can find yourself with the best of the Spanish-speaking ones, as I did, or with one of the most interesting of the young voices, like Tinito Díaz, a guy you have to follow closely for his poetic force. There are literary events that have exhibitions that are worth attending (for Tyrians and Trojans); there’s a book fair, with surprising exclusions, and there’s a literature festival that has united this excluded remnant.
I like the tranquility of the Miami film festival, and the uproar and profusion at Art Basel. I always fall in love with the mini-theater of Miami, where works are put inside containers.
Warning: Tell those who are jealous to stay away from Miami; they might have a heart attack, ha ha ha!
AV: The proof that Miami has become a point of universal reference for Cuban Culture (with capital letters) is that the Regime, seeing a threat to its control over the essential sphere of culture, has decided to conquer it. How do you view these controversial issues of cultural exchange today, the publication on the Island of authors in exile; finally, those outside and inside who don’t stop coming together?
LFR: Your last question is interesting. I like it, and it’s that they don’t have to unite; they never have been. The controversy today is about those who enjoy the privileges of the Castro Regime and the benefits of free expression, who shut up in Cuba before the bad luck of their colleagues and feel their neighbor’s pat on the back, and drop those who are leaving. But there isn’t communion, nor has there ever been. The stabbings of UNEAC were translated into the back-stabbing between those in Barcelona and those in Paris; it’s that simple. Those on that shore, who today remain closer to me than ever, await my embrace, and I have extended it every minute of this short exile. They can attest to my activism for the ones in distress, like Jorge Olivera Castillo, sentenced to 18 years, and my brother, Ángel Santiesteban.
Furthermore, I’m a little pessimistic here, but I believe we can live separately without missing each other. I don’t at all miss the world of literary events they invited me to that were inaugurated by a Party official who hadn’t even read Granma that day. How am I going to miss officials like Alexis Triana, Alpidio Alonso or Iroel Sánchez asking me to leave out a certain verse or to stop printing a magazine or to not include one of my short stories in an anthology — supposedly in order to save the country — and later selling themselves as writers and participating in the book fairs in countries that invited writers, and they go as officials?
What comes from an enslaved culture is a symptom, not a threat. Speaking out and looking at each other directly is no longer fashionable, and you can be taken as a loud-mouth. But why should I give a damn now?
AV: When they aren’t using silence about essential questions, the discourse of hate and division is the tone of the messages that come from some of your colleagues on the Island: “Cuban Culture exists only in Cuba”; There is no genuine Cuban literature outside the Island”; “You have to be in Cuba to write about Cuba.” However, I have seen that your eyes have the look of nostalgia, of respect and affection, not only for many who think differently from you politically (or who appear to), but also for other teachers who might be marionettes, consenting to or directly executing repression. What is your relationship with these writers who you once rubbed shoulders with in Cuba, until you decided to say what you thought about the Government?
LFR: Pal, I respect the guild, if only for being one. My colleagues on the Island know how I think, and my level of tolerance has been bullet-proof. I am friends with many of them, from Oriente to Havana. They write me; I answer them; we exchange literary criticism; and with those who dare, we even discuss politics.
He who has decided to leave from that side of the barracks: Congratulations, I’m an accepting person, and I can’t throw them away as enemies; they know that I’m not one. I read enough of what is written and done in Cuba. I go to lectures and book presentations for those who also publish on the Island and receive the UNEAC officials in Miami, but I’m not one who turns a deaf ear to them.
Now, they know that I’m a mischievous critic, that I will always be blatantly against these things. What relates us is that some accept that I have the right to say what I believe to be my truth. As for the reduced way of thinking that only what is created “inside” [the Revolution] is the truth, that’s not worth keeping me up at night in order to devote even a single sentence to it.
AV: Also, the same as what is happening in Cuba, the Cuban exile in the U.S. (and essentially in Miami), without caring about the market, continues conceding to poetry the value that it always has had for Cuban writers. In your personal case there have been two publishers, NeoClub first, and then Eriginal Books, who have bet on, and I quote: “…that ruined genre that is poetry” (according to that other crazy believer in the genre, the Spaniard, Chus Visor). Poetry, exile, commercial value, along with spiritual courage….how has that milieu been for you?
LFR: There is no homeland other than poetry, to express it in the language of those of us who go with knives in our teeth defending the king of the literary genres. Why do you think that a Regime that has spilled as much blood as that of the Castros would put in prison a guy as angelic and effective — from a literary standpoint — as Jorge Valls?
Could there be any bigger crime than destroying a manuscript of María Elena Cruz Varela or Reinaldo Arenas? I don’t think so. I continue betting on poetry because it always gives more than it demands and because, paradoxically, it has remained outside the failures of the present market. Miami is a paradise for poetry, because it has converted itself into a land of exiles, and the loss of the land where you walked as a child brings suffering, but it gives you refuge in something intimate like lyricism.
AV: By experience I know that journalism can enrich the writer. . . or destroy his talent. Everything depends on establishing an interrelationship that nourishes you and not an unequal dependency that annihilates the weakest part: the writer. I would like you to assess what has changed in your perspective as a creative person after having had to launch yourself into independent journalism in Cuba, first, and now in exile, into the journalist work of that recognized information conglomerate of radio, television and digital press that carries the name of our Martí.
LFR: What it has done is enrich me. I wrote that a little time ago, when Radio Martí had its 30th birthday. Writing every day, whether I’m proposing a subject for a report, fixing a cable cord in the office or editing what they send from Cuba is, for me, a school, but it has been the fulfillment of a dream. I was a clandestine listener to Radio Martí. Today I interview people as nice as you; the artist, Tania Bruguera; or the anonymous woman, the mother of a young political prisoner in Guantánamo. In the end it has given me impetus for the prose I write, and I keep the connections between prose, fiction and non-fiction clearly defined.
Now what I see with more clarity is that some problems, by being so close to me, appeared immense or out of focus; getting distance has helped me to be more reasonable in my judgments.
AV: It seems curious to me also that after active participation in the Cuban blogosphere you’ve transferred your work to the phenomenon of Facebook. How have technologies influenced you in your personal and professional life?
LFR: Facebook is more democratic. Although I continue with my blog Crossing the Barbed Wire,, my Facebook account is more active and quicker. I can get feedback and exchange with the reader in a second. I have privacy settings, and I can ethically check everything all the time, all the information coming from different sources. There is everything there, like bad literature, film or television. You can entertain yourself.
In addition, it has allowed me to share what I write every day, at the instant it’s published, without needing permission to post it to the public that I define on this social network.
AV: Our common friend, the writer Ángel Santiesteban, once told me that you are a “sentimental peasant,” and another dear friend, also a writer, Rafael Vilches, told me about everything you had to suffer in Cuba because of the colleagues who turned their backs on you, and he wrote me some time ago that it was more difficult to understand this rejection because you are “more heart than body.” All this is with the goal of asking: poetry and friends? Poetry and family: Exilda, your children? And poetry and your most intimate Cuba? In what sense do you think they’re connected?
All are connected. Sometimes I don’t know how to tell if I suffered more from the unhappiness of those who thought they could save themselves by turning their backs on me, or from those three little persons, whom I believe I saved from the horror and now have with me. I am one of these privileged beings who understands that true friends and family are the homeland. That Cuba can be a table shared among a few, because the others don’t dare to be there.
The poetry that I write is always connected with this feeling I have toward the others: my wife, my children and my friends. That’s Cuba, and I think it’s enough for me to be happy.
AV:Machine for Erasing Humanities won’t be your last book, that’s clear to me. What new literary project are you working on now?
LFR: I have compiled the texts of Crossing the Barbed Wire to give Cubans from the Island, who aren’t able to read me on the Internet, an opportunity. I chose 40 of the texts and used the translations that friends did, volunteers, in the five years I put up this blog.
You interviewed Cuban writers and human rights activists who live in that beyond where our Island remains, and another book is coming out of that also. I told you about the book of short stories, and some nights I write a book of poems that I’m doing based on questions, but I have delayed publishing it for some years. That’s the rhythm that every text takes, every document that I do.
Machine for Erasing Humanities (Eriginal Books, 2015) will be presented June 26 in the workshop “The Word Corner,” led by the poet Joaquín Gálvez, and will take place in the Café Demetrio, 300 Alhambra Cicle, Coral Gables, Miami.
Translated by Regina Anavy