Writers enrolled in the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts may choose to attend a winter residency on the island of Puerto Rico. This year, it began on January 2nd. Here is a day-by-day account, courtesy of Graduate Assistant Nickole Brown, MFA-W '03, pictured below right.
Monday, the second day of this new year.
Our adventure began in cities and towns across the United States—Montpelier, Little Rock, San Francisco, and Las Vegas, to name a few—and there’s even one of us all the way from Australia. Some of us were already here in Puerto Rico, but most began cozied in their own bed this morning.
We awoke early—myself at 3:00 a.m., miraculously, with the first chime of the alarm—rising with equal parts exhaustion and anticipation. We showered, we double-checked our itineraries, we scraped frost from our cars. In the dark, we made our way to the airport. We’ve been preparing for this for weeks. In our suitcases are the recommended bug spray and sunscreen and poncho for the rainforest; in our carry-ons are our notebooks and laptops and lucky writing pens. Each of us has brought our copy of Conquistadora, a novel we’ve read by Puerto Rican writer Esmeralda Santiago, and depending on our various degrees of pragmatism or fashion-consciousness, we’ve also schlepped all sorts of sundries we may (or may not) need. Either way, we prepared as best we could and have finally arrived.
So what then have we found this first afternoon? Well, San Juan, of course! After the bumpy cab ride from the airport, we landed at the top of a hill on San Justo Street, where our apartments are. From the narrow cobblestone streets to the crumbling and gorgeous buildings painted every shade of sorbet, there’s not one of us who could deny the deep history of this place. Known as “La Ciudad Amurallada” (the walled city), we’re nestled in the oldest part, the very place founded in 1521 by Juan Ponce de León. The architecture thus is Spanish Colonial (think Zorro meets the tropics), with windowshutters open wide, sans screens. The apartments also open to a courtyard garden, and the high-ceilinged rooms move with soft, humid air from the sea.
What’s more, we’ve landed smack dab in the middle of a festival week celebrating Christmas and the new year. Plena music (sounding a lot like Salsa music, but older, with more traditional African drums) played this time of year special for the holiday was piped into the Poet’s Passage this evening when we arrived for our reception, and outside, the square was lit with floral swirls of lights. We shared a light meal (including a scrumptious little slice of tarte a l’oignon) and introduced ourselves. There’s no doubt about it, we’re travel frazzled, but we’re glad to be together. Just think—each of us has flown thousands of miles above the waters of the Gulf of Mexico or the Atlantic Ocean into the Caribbean Sea to get here. . . . and we made it, all sixteen of us, safe and sound.
Hopefully, each of us has a good night’s sleep in store. For me, I’m opening my window to listen to the sweet chirping of the coquís (pronounced KO-QUEE, a tiny frog endemic to the island), and if you’re curious to hear that cuteness, check this out. Doesn’t it sound like it sings its own name? Occasionally, I also hear the low, long vowels of ship’s foghorn in the distance or the revel of laughter clattering up from the cobblestone. To me, it’s such strange, sweet music.
Our second day, a day to be settled in enough to learn that paradise, while still paradise, is imperfect. The pipes in Old San Juan, for example, are delicate, some barely fizzling out enough water to rinse our hair. The humidity is high, the cobblestones slick and uneven, and around the square is a young man cranking bass loud enough to rattle his windows. There are stray cats all along the cars parked along the narrow streets—some sleeping in the tire wells, some crouched under the shade of the bumpers, others sunning themselves on the roofs. One street corner smells faintly of urine, and on another corner a woman sitting on a black plastic garbage bag rattles her cup of change. “I’m sorry,” Ann says, handing the woman some coins. “Sometimes I can’t help it. . . . I can’t.”
But isn’t this always the way of paradise? The resorts may offer you a chlorinated version of the island scrubbed spotless by hired hands, but here is Puerto Rico as it is. As we learned this morning from Ann and Rigoberto, it is a place founded in hardship and sorrow. Columbus landed in 1493, and it only took the diseases brought over by the colonialists (not to mention their taste for gold) a hundred years to almost completely wipe out the indigenous Taínos, once a population of eight million. When there weren’t enough workers left and the sugarcane needed to be harvested, the Spaniards brought in African slaves, a practice that didn’t end until 1873. For four centuries a part of the Spanish Empire, the people defended themselves against most every possible invader—the French, the British, the Dutch—who tried their hand at claiming this fertile gateway into the Caribbean. The friendly-appearing Jones Act of 1917, which made the islanders American citizens, also made the people of the island subject to military drafts (but ironically unable to vote).
This blog is not a history lesson, don’t worry. I won’t go on except to say that our lecture this morning was followed with a walk up to El Morro Fort, and along the way, we saw a part of this legacy for ourselves, because there, to the right, in a neighborhood set low and close to the sea was a neighborhood that looked like a limping caricature of the one directly up the hill, where we are staying. It is a neighborhood of roofs crumbling and walls long gone, a neighborhood where ferns grow up from gutters and birds nest in the joists of rotting floors. “That’s the slum,” someone said, and sure enough, it was easy to see— the city is split and separated only by a busy road and a jagged stretch of the old fortress wall. There is one narrow walkway up from that neighborhood, and directly across the street was a policeman standing stoic watch.
It is not easy, these realities. We feel uncomfortable, but we are here to pay attention, to write it down. Yes, this residency may perhaps be, in part, a call to awareness. So yes, we continued to walk up to the fort, which is, more than anything else, the one undeniable artifact of Puerto Rico’s difficult past. It is gorgeous and crashing next to the sea, and our guide told us that from the air it resembles the skull of a bull. Inside, the thick stone is painted white. The walls felt cool to the touch, and the constantly moving ocean breeze makes it lovely as an old castle, so beautiful it is near impossible to comprehend death here. To me, it is impossible in the same way that it is impossible to imagine the history of the concentration camps in Slovenia. If you go there during the summer residency, you may agree with me. You see, next to the old prison is a graveyard nestled in the high green grass that bends in the valley of the Julian Alps, too beautiful for rot and for bones. I remember seeing the honey placed on the simple markers of those who died there and the amber light slanting through each jar.
But I digress. We didn’t end our day here. No, we walked away from El Morro Fort. We took a groupphoto and agreed how hungry we were for lunch and walked away. Some then stole a few moments before workshop to visit the silver shops and the spice shops, and some bought delicious coffee from a man just six doors down that grows and roasts his own beans. We perhaps caught glimpses of nervous chameleons darting behind palms, and perhaps we thought how adorable the Spanish tongue sounds in the mouths of children playing. But before all this, we walked away from the Fort. And for those of us paying attention, we saw those children flying kites across the expanse of green surrounding the fort once known as “the killing grounds.” I stopped and counted the kites. Eleven! Eleven kites, all scissoring the same air, all flying, despite everything, unabashed with joy.
A trifecta of days, the third bringing in the best yet—the privilege of spending time with two local authors.
The first, Mayra Santos-Febres, visited us this morning. A professor at the University of Puerto Rico and founder of the well-known Festival de la Palabra that brings together writers from over thirty countries each year, this novelist and poet spoke to us about the culture of the island. “If you’re confused, don’t worry,” she said. “Welcome to the club.” Puerto Rico, as she explained it, is a tangle of race and culture, nearly impossible to define, but she embraces the confusion, calling this indeterminacy an opportunity to advance other important issues. To her, the unique makeup of her homeland is an opportunity to have tough conversations about race, civil rights, and the use of democracy.
The full breadth of our discussion today is too complex to cover here, but safe to say, each of us in the circle leaned in, listening to her every word. She spoke of how race on the island is not absolutely defined by one’s skin color (as it often is in the states), but can instead be a personal choice. “Colonialism likes to force a definition on you,” she said. “But here, we want to be self-determined. . . . Labels can be very scary for people who can be trapped in them.” Similarly, dance, to her, is a way Puerto Ricans reclaim the body as their own. This is significant, especially for a people who were once not allowed to own their own body. Finally, she spoke of America as a part of “The Americas,” meaning all of us, as a continent. She sees immigration laws as impossible. “Once you went there you opened the door, and you cannot close it, period,” she said. She reaches for inclusivity and an idea of culture as wild and organic, a thing to be allowed to grow in all of its strange and exquisite ways.
Before leaving, we had the privilege of hearing her read from her best-known novel, Sirena Selena.Here then is a brief excerpt from Chapter 3 as her protagonist, a young drag queen from the streets of Puerto Rico, sends a prayer up from an airplane. On the page, her words are lyrical, but her voice, sweetened with her accent, brought the experience of this passage to another level:
“You, María Piedra de Imán, enchantress and touchstone, who walked with the seven Samaritans and gave them beauty and recognition, bring me luck and fortune, bless your Sirena, so that I can sing, Piedra Imán. You were magnet and compass: you will be my protector, with me always. I ask of you that my voice come out filled with needles, dense, that it enter the breasts of those who listen to me and wring longing and applause from them. I ask for gold as my treasure, silver for my house, and I want you to be the sentinel of my home and my personality as you were the guiding light for the Holy Virgin Mary. You know, Santísima Piedra Imán, that drinking egg whites helps, gargling with seawater and Listerine helps, practicing the recorded exercises of maestro Charles Monigan that Martha brought me from the television and that I put on videocassette player in her apartment helps; but they don’t assure me of anything. Your protection is what I seek for my assurance. . . .”
Later in the afternoon, we walked a few blocks over to the home of Héctor Feliciano, a journalist whose book The Lost Museum: The Nazi Conspiracy to Steal the World’s Greatest Works of Art has led to the recovery of some 60,000 works of art plundered by the Germans during World War II. It was fascinating to hear about the determination that went into the seven years of research required for this book. He relentlessly went after the impossible, seeking out restricted information and archives that were completely uncataloged, and his zeal as an investigator is unparalleled. He worked (and continues to work) twelve to sixteen hour stretches. “You have to do it, you have to do it, you have to do it, and that is it,” he said.
He also said how important it was to be naive as an investigator. “Ask all the stupid questions,” he said, reminding us how to pay attention and get the real story. In addition, he spoke extensively about the importance of audience. He wrote his book for a singular reader—an imagined reader—but a reader that was absolutely demanding and insistent on only the highest quality work from him. His next project is on Puerto Rican painter Francisco Oller, and when one of the students asked him how that new topic might weigh against the tremendous success of his last book, he shrugged and said it didn’t matter because again, he’s writing for that small audience, that tough, singular critic, not the world. Regardless of genre, any writer could take this advice.
After his lecture, Héctor and his wife treated us to some local treats, including queso de país (a dry, white cheese) with slices of guava paste. This was served with bright red cans of Coca-Cola (a virtual staple around here), and later, we were led up two flights of stairs to his rooftop. With the sun going down, the coquí were in full song, and we were high enough to look down on his mango tree to see the young fruit still small and tight on the branches. We sipped wine and looked out over the water and over the city, feeling the richness of a day well spent.
Finally, the city has, for me, stopped spinning. I know where I am, where the coffee can be found, how long it really takes to fill the bathtub with these slow pipes. After yesterday’s intense conversations, I am filled with a sense of history and can begin to recognize the precise ingredients of the culture here. I can understand why the tourist shops are filled with African masks and Catholic icons; I can appreciate the percussion of music in aisle of the grocery store and the man who stopped in front of the detergent to dance. In the Linen House, a little shop on Fortaleza, I watched Ann purchase a fan, a beautiful, hand-painted fan, the real kind(“not from China but Spain”), and the woman who sold it to her demonstrated exactly how to flick it open and closed. “I danced flamenco en Sevilla,” she said, snapping the lace. “Yes, I have my story.”
And yes, now that I’m oriented, I can begin to see so many stories here—stories of people that have left to work or study in New York who have returned to the island, stories of people who straddle the divide between Spanish and English, Puerto Rican and American, agrarian and industrial. A sense of this history was further deepened by a visit to Museo de Arte today. From the wooden icons of saints carved by folk artists in the mountains to Carlos Irizarry’s arresting contemporary work “Transculturization of Puerto Ricans,” we saw how artists native to this island have always struggled between the rules and obligations of colonial forces and their desire to serve their own identity. José Campeche, perhaps the most well-known Puerto Rican artist, felt these pressures as far back as the 18th Century as he painted to both please the king of Spain and himself. As the guide told us, his simple decision to insert pineapples and maracas and indigenous flowers into his classical portraits was, at the time, somewhat of a revelation, and even his still-life depicting a table of avocados—and not a fruit typical to Europe—was a bold move towards claiming the home he loved best.
Also, for you guys who plan to come on this residency, if you go to this museum, please, don’t forget to explore the garden in the back! In a lily-filled reflection pool are dozens of coy fish, cat-sized and in every glimmering shade of autumn you can imagine. I saw, for the first time, an orchid growing naturally, in the crux a tree, and an entire sidewalk was bordered with thick Mother-in-Law’s Tongue (or “Snake Plant,” commonly treated as an easy-to-grow but relatively boring houseplant). I imagine all of this seemed greener still because of all the stone and stucco in Old San Juan, but who could deny the banyan trees in that garden? Even though it was raining, it was dry beneath those hanging vines and thick leaves. I suppose I’m further enchanted because of what’s ahead. . . . early tomorrow, we travel to the rainforest, and even though there’s much reveling to do tonight (our last in San Juan), I don’t think I’m speaking out of turn to say that we’re all looking forward to our adventures there. Are you packed yet? Did you put water and grass under your bed? I hope so, because tonight is the Feast of Epiphany’s Eve, and the folklore of this place says that the three kings will visit during the night. Their camels will eat the grass, and in return, the kings will leave a gift. We will wake early to see what Baltazar, Melchor, and Gaspar left us. Hopefully, it will be a safe passage to El Yunque, and perhaps a spot of sunshine so that we can go straight to the waterfall I keep hearing about and dive in.
We have played it over and over in our minds, trying to figure how it could have been different, how we could have kept it from happening. You see, this morning we left Old San Juan for El Yunque, and halfway there, things changed. We were hungry and thirsty, and not knowing where to stop, our three vans pulled into a fast food restaurant in Rio Grande. We went in, and not more than ten minutes later, we came out to find the blue van—the one I was driving—had been broken into. Bits of glass were everywhere, and in the driver’s seat was a towel flecked with the blood of whoever had the gall (or the desperation) to punch the window out with his fist. Four bags were stolen. We lost computers, passports, books, credit cards. We lost a toothbrush, a checkbook, our writing pens. We lost backpacks and computer cases; we lost our itineraries and our charger cables. We lost our sense of safety, our sense of control.
I thought about not blogging about this day at all. Who, thinking of escaping to a tropical paradise, wants to read about this? Who wants to hear about how long we were all in that parking lot, speaking to the police as best we could in our broken Spanish, how we were frantic on the phone with our banks? We sat in disbelief on the grass; the cars slowed with concern and curiosity. We sat in disbelief on the grass; we watched a white egret kite across the sky without any interest in our dilemma at all. The police came, the police went. Enterprise brought our replacement van, and eventually, we drove toward our destination with a sad, careful silence, our minds reeling.
Do you think we could have picked a better spot to park? Do you think someone should have stayed with the vans? Do you think we could have thought to take our bags into the restaurant with us? Dear reader, the answer to all of these questions is yes. But then again, perhaps it is no. Or better yet, it doesn’t matter. What does matter is this: we have—all sixteen of us—arrived in El Yunque safely. As of tonight, all sixteen of our hearts rattle out the steady beat of sixty-four chambers, and even though we’re greatly inconvenienced, that is what it is—an inconvenience.
Tonight, Shelly Catterson bought a round of drinks for those who lost their things. And Rigoberto,despite having lost just about everything, even his glasses, got up to dance. He pulled us one by one up from the dinner table to show us some moves, and although I won’t say we forgot what happened today, we laughed. We ate fresh mofongo (a plantain dish) and flan, and as the sun went down, the coqui sang loudly. Before it got too dark, I can only hope each of us stopped to look to see where we are now. Beyond us is a wall of green, an entire sea of green, a mountain covered in giant leaves, some twice as big as any of our stolen bags.
So, I’m not a breakfast person. Safe to say, I’m nearly anti-breakfast, waking cranky and barely choking down a glass of water, but I have to admit it, Casa Cubey does have a knack for the first meal of the day. We sat together at one long table loaded with rotating trays of local fruit—banana, mango, pineapple, guava, and white grapefruit. There’s also a bowl of avena to share, which is a sweetened oatmeal dish, and coffee brewed from beans grown on the island. In the open air of morning, everyone seemed gently cheered by the start of this new day.
Afterwards, we had our third workshop, followed by Rigoberto’s lecture on Caribbean literature and politics. The rest of the day, until dinner and the first student reading, was for us to enjoy on our own. For me, this meant some much needed rest, followed by a walk down to the waterfall at the base of our lodge. The water was Vermont cold, so I spent more time lizarding myself on a flat rock, but Ann cardinal and Leah Kaminsky sure did kick up a splash. Following Ellen Lesser’s lead earlier yesterday, they swam to the perfect nook to position their bodies so that the water cascaded around their neck and shoulders. In the light, it made Leah’s arms look as if they were silvered in ice, and for a minute, she looked about six years old, her head thrown back in an expression of pure joy.
We began with a repeat of our amazing breakfast, followed by a generative writing workshop led by Ellen lesser in which she used Mark Doty’s The Art of Description to coax us deeper into the “sensorium” of this place, perceived with all of our senses, simultaneously. I asked the group to share with the blog some of what they wrote, and here are excerpts of what a few brave souls stepped up to share:
From Amanda Holland:
“The two of us sit together on the front steps of the villa. You, perched on the top two, me, draped across the bottom three. The silence is companionable as I watch the silken smoke slink from my cigarette. I don't know what you are watching or thinking and it doesn't occur to me to ask. I amtransfixed by the stillness. Afraid to breath, if that means disrupting the delicate moment.
The trees inhale and stiffen, refusing to be seduced by the whispers of the wind. I mentally sort through the symphony of a subtle song, peeling the diaphanous layers of sound away from the whole: the male coqui sing their two syllables—co...qui...co...qui—in perfect meter and time eliciting the females’ four-note chortles. Pigeons coo an uncoordinated back-up to the whistles of the doves. Toads and bullfrogs croak out a bass line, soft, yet bold in their own quilted calls. All as crickets saw out a lilting and passionate melody, skillfully intertwined within the song.
Apart, each sound is familiar, nostalgic. ‘Do you hear the crickets? Underneath all of the other creatures?’ I ask you, breaking the moment. My eyes are heavy and my cigarette is extinguished in a swirl of smoke; the lullaby kneading the tangles from my mind. I lean back, stretching across the rest of the stairs, my head resting on your step. ‘I think it’s time for bed,’ I yawn. You nod, and we go our separate ways.”
From Tonia Triebwasser: “I see the mountain as a woman reclining, magnified and lush, possibilities springing from amended loss. There in the foliage of years is a well of what needs to be written. . . .about the sky, for instance. Where does it say that the stairs to the clouds begin here in the wound of the rainbow? I will write against the advice to shun romance. Here I am being egged on, and for the sake of charity, I will call the color of the sky robin’s egg blue—the kind of blue that would turn any self-respecting honeybee into a dizzying gigster. . . . Food for the hive is everywhere here, dispensed from the ground. Its sweetness is unavoidable, sticky to the point of purple prose. A stumbling block to the harlequin junkie who so desperately wants to write an un-muddied sentence. But lest I behave like one of those William Stafford elephants that go wandering off so others won’t find their way to the park, I will admit I still resist what’s really true for me here in this place of blue canvas that like an inverted lake held back by the wind every so often pushes its fingers again it giving an exit for. . . . What am I trying to say. . . . It rains a lot! See how confusing words can be? . . .”
From Karen Jahn: “Doty uses the word ‘sensorium’ for our faculties. This evokes for me a globe,Coleridge’s ‘pleasure dome’ in ‘Kubla Khan’ where Alph the sacred river ran. The boulder-lined pool held rock the color of old Thai elephant hides with the shadowy swirls of petroglyphs dark like thumb prints in clay. Profiles of the boulders, gigantic cakes, African animals, and blocks shadowed the perimeter. A river ran through it white at each falls, the tiny one upstream and the downstream one that splashed a man’s height to end the pool. Water was humous colored, grey shading toward brown, the surface of the pool reflecting the river in ripples. Like its color, the pool gave off the rusty smell of decaying leaves. The surge of the waterfalls was answered by lively Puerto Rican music drifting from the cabanas on the hill.”
From Ann Huang:
Jan 7th, 2012 - breakfast at Casa Cubuy
"The mountains are lush and there
are clouds on top of the tips of these green
People are small, nature is omnipotent.
Thoughts are random as much as the
Creatures surrounding us. Things are simple
Infinitely. Like the light droplets,
The solar power, the lens of rainbows that
Keep us grounded. You have nothing
And everything. The insurmountable truth
Behind our backs doesn’t matter, what
Faces us is what that counts. We
Mutter in coqui’s languages, surrender
Ourselves in the vast of spaces and become
New to ourselves, the mountains,
The kokees, the night birds, the shadows
But not illusions, the wind that doesn’t
Connect to the pollution, the singularity
Of world that belongs and that
Always has belonged to our breath.”
From Shelly Catterson:
"That distant waterfall flashes back at me like lightning. Water pummels rocks into smoothness, into art. Even from here, the exploding rain is still intense, still falling, and more than scenery. More than I will find at home, and less. How do I fall and still create art? How do I toss myself in the ocean and float without filling my lungs?
From a distance, I doubt I flash that gorgeous explosion. But I try. Flawed and aching for a home I carry with me as I travel. For serenity that tells me I will live from my heart and my hips, and that hanging gardens are miracles in gravity. Flowers grow in the desert, in my high mountains too, and they don't always struggle.
I am beaten down and woken up by waterfalls. They could take my life or give me enough to drink. I no longer want to clamp down, to bite into my own skin, and deny the blood. I want to find the groove of my own broken spine on the rocks and be a lizard in the sun. Here in this distance, I am perdido, I am loca, and I want to remember how to be intense and keep falling."
After that workshop, we went on our much-anticipated hike into the rainforest. We were met by aguide named robin and his two sons, Jim and Daniel. Robin, who had moved to Puerto Rico in the early 1980’s from the northeast, had an invaluable knowledge of El Yunque and its history. He told us of the locals’ use of medicinal plants for everything from kidney stones and skin cancer to diabetes, and as we walked, he slowed to show us things that could be eaten for food and others for poison. We tasted blueberries and loquats warmed from the sun, as well as the slimy, okra-like flesh of fiddlehead cut from a tree fern. We learned to identify the flowers of the rainforest—the dinosaur blooms of heliconia, the hallucinogenic morning glories, wild orchids, impatiens with seed pods that burst open with the slightest touch. We saw palm seeds that looked like deer scat on the ground; we saw what was left of the home of hermit who lived in the forest. The locals say this man died at eighty-eight, in his living room chair, an old recliner that was set on a floor made of glass in which he could see the river flowing below.
What I will remember best though, I think, are the sounds. The tap of my bamboo walking stick on mud-slick stones. Overhead, birds, or rather an unidentified ticking, and the tiny frogs lower in the trees when the sun was high. Then rain through the canopy, the waterfall in the distance, or maybe simply wind through the fronds. A haunting place, a land so alive it speaks.
--Nickole Brown, MFA-W '03