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Paul Hlava Ceballos

Why I Write

There is something inscrutable about poetry for me, even though I am a poet, or maybe especially because I am a poet. Language itself is inscrutable to me. I’m fascinated by our failures within in the intimate space of communication, and even more so, by how we still manage to communicate and feel a sense of togetherness despite those failures.

I was raised in a multi-racial/multi-ethnic family. Because my father was strict about the language that my nuclear family used inside the house, I did not speak the language that the majority of my extended family spoke. The multiple roles that my extended family played for me as care-givers, nurturers, teachers, family historians, and role-models were complicated by the fact that we could barely communicate while speaking in-between two languages.

Poetry is revered outside of the US in ways that Americans cannot understand. At a family party, I watched my tíos speak briefly of Neruda in reverent, hushed tones. And then silence, and nodding. I was nine years old and stole my tío’s book to read the most creased page: Neruda’s “I’m Explaining a Few Things.” My Spanish was too poor to understand the majority of the words. I was too young to understand the politics of Chile or the US-backed dictatorship. I didn’t know why there was blood in the streets, but the significance and wrongness of it was not beyond me. I felt something profound loom at the edges of the page.

My abuelo Arturo was also a poet, and my interest in reading and eventually writing was always championed by that side of the family as a kind of noble practice. When I was a child, my mother showed me photocopies of my abuelo’s poems. Because of my gaps in the language, I did not understand them but copied her and looked at the text with the reverence that she looked at it.

Years later, in Ecuador, my tía gently placed the original typewritten pages of my abuelo’s poems, behind plastic, on my lap. Because of my gaps in the language, I understood some of them. They are occasional poems written to my family, but a few outliers help explain who he was and what his interests were, with titles such as, “Italia Campeon de Foot Ball 1982.” Now, with study, I have read and understood them, but not with the same understanding as someone fluent in the language and its rhythms.

I have lived through several political attempts to make English the official language of the country, as well as tangential political movements that target immigrants. When I was a child, California’s prop 187, which was a bill to limit immigrants’ use of schools and healthcare, dominated the media with negative stereotypes about people like my family. Though the proposition was struck down in court, subsequent bills, like Arizona’s SB 1070, and others continue to pop up. Just a few years ago, the previous president of the United States said, “This is a country where we speak English, not Spanish.” I don’t understand this mindset because in my life, I have not had the privilege of being understood, not even in my most intimate, familial spaces. Nor do I feel like I deserve to be seen and understood wherever I go.

What I love most I don’t understand. I understand that what I love most is both part of me and separate from me. Inside of the people I love the most is a private, unseeable thing. It is my tía as she is to herself. It moves on the surface of our conversation in fits and starts. For me, poetry has always been about connection. From my abuelo’s family poems to contemporary poets that write personal, intimate poems, or poems about connecting to nature, a city, or a spiritual ideal, poetry brings me into relation with that thing precisely because it does not explain itself. In poetry, I live at the border of understanding. I feel most close to something when I recognize the impossibility of knowing it, and experience it still.

Read more about Paul here.


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