Virgil Suárez: Reinventing a writer

The poet speaks about craft, career, and perseverance – and why politicians should be required to read poetry and bake bread at least once a year.

Poet Virgil Suárez
Poet Virgil Suárez

Virgil Suárez was born in Havana, Cuba in 1962, and he immigrated to the United States after a short period (1970-1974) in Spain. While he’s primarily known now as an accomplished, prolific poet, he actually began his career as a novelist and editor before moving fully into the world of verse. Since 1993, he’s been a creative writing professor at Florida State University.

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What’s the best writing advice you ever received? Who gave it, and what did it mean to you?

The best writing advice ever given to me was offered way back during my first semester at California State University, Long Beach, by Elliot Fried, who found me floundering in the hallway looking for a journalism class. He told me that if I wanted to be told what to write, journalism would be fine, but if I wanted to write what I wanted, then I should enroll in his novel writing workshop. And so I did, and that class changed my life forever. Of course, other teachers taught me other things, but Elliot was there at probably the most crucial moment to make an impact on the direction my writing life would take. I’ve always been very appreciative for what he did for me.

What did you specifically get out of that class?

From that class I got the basics of the craft of writing, the commitment to perseverance, and the ability to embrace my mistakes and learn from them. Writing is never a perfect art, but you can perfect the work that you put into it.

You started off as a well-received novelist – Newsday called Latin Jazz “a striking debut” and a “well-crafted and sensitive novel.” Why did you change your literary path from fiction to poetry?

All my early teachers – including Elliot Fried – practiced different genres. It was the natural path in the workshops I took. I had no problem jumping around. I started writing poetry and short stories when I was in junior high, and nobody ever said to me, “stick to one genre.”

I think if you are going to write, you need to figure out what best form and genre will suit what you need to say. It’s an organic process and one that I continue to encourage my students to participate in.

What do you do when you’re stuck with a piece, when you’re mired in the middle and you don’t know where to go next?

I put it aside for a few days, [and] then come back to it after it’s gotten cold and I’ve pretty much forgotten about it. Sometimes I’ll forget about a piece for weeks, and then I come back to it and catch up on everything I wanted to do to it to make it right, or simply – as is often more likely – I start from scratch, maybe salvaging a word or two, a good line, a good image. Sometimes the turn in the poem doesn’t make itself evident for months. Sometimes it happens in an afternoon. It’s the nature of working and revising poems every day. You have to connect to the language of your work by paying attention to what you’re trying to say. Sometimes what you want to say doesn’t come easy. That’s fine. Give yourself time to make mistakes, to start again, to scrap good pieces that are going nowhere.

How do you know when a work is “done?”

When it sounds right and feels right to my ear. English is my second language, and I’ve always had to work three times as hard at getting the vernacular and the nuances of the language just right. I have a system whereby I read the work aloud, proof, revise, and repeat until all the idioms are right. Over time, I’ve come to really appreciate and enjoy this kind of layering and adding texture to the language through words and images.

Who are you reading these days?

Lately I’ve been going back to some poets I never tire of reading: Larry Levis, Toi Derricotte, Phil Levine, and, of course, Adrian C. Louis. Because of our recent political climate, I’ve also been revisiting the work of Adrienne Rich and Wanda Coleman. I try to stay up to date as well, but there are so many worthwhile books coming out every year that it’s very hard to keep up. But eventually the good stuff rises to the top, as they say. When something good gets on my radar, I make sure to find the time to explore it thoroughly.

Do you have an ideal reader in mind when you write?

After many years of pondering this question, I’ve come to the realization that my best audience is a skeptical self. I’m my own hardest critic. I’m aloof so it’s sometimes hard to convince myself that what I’m working on at any given moment has value or truth to it. 

These days, I’m much more interested in capturing the form of what I am trying to picture in my writing. Details, of course, and images continue to be of high importance.

George Orwell once spoke about the “four great motives for writing.” Why do YOU write?

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My reasons for writing never change. I write to exorcize my demons. I write because I have failed at everything else. I try to give voice to those undying voices inside my head. It’s the reason why I appreciate the poetry of someone like Ai. She birthed so many amazing people, folks who are still talking to us loudly and beautifully.

How autobiographical is your work?

I would say it is highly autobiographical, perhaps overly so in part because of my background, my childhood, the places and people I’ve known. But I’ve also never been afraid to try and capture the essential, the absolute. Neither have I hesitated to look at the facts, the history. God knows I’ve spent plenty of time at the library before the internet and then post-internet. My mother has a very large and colorful family back in Cuba, which has fueled plenty of my stories and poems.

What does your writing process look like?

I work on new stuff in the mornings Monday through Friday (and sometimes Saturday), and then spend some of the hours in the afternoon revising. I also go out in the afternoons to shoot photographs. I find that the process of training the eye to compose in the viewfinder helps me hone my ability to revise poems. I’ve always loved the connections and cross-pollination between art forms. In my youth, it used to be art and mixed media, but now that I get to ride around on a motorcycle, I feel like hunting for images has become a highly entertaining adventure. I love it.

Revision is all about the arrangements of words and lines on the page so that the entire thing begins to congeal into a whole picture. Most of the time I try to rest on the weekends. The older I get, the more I enjoy the process of hunting for the right word, line, image. The image, for me, is the truest measure of where a poem decides it wants to go. I enjoy the process of discovery as much today as I did back when I was starting out. It’s like walking into an abandoned building and finding a soggy mattress riddled with rat tunnels and nests. Something tells me there is a story about how that mattress got there.

Has that writing process changed over the years?

Back when I was younger, I struggled a lot more trying to piece together those images and words I was trying to hammer into a poem. The process has become easier as I get older, and now the hammering has turned into a kind of quiet and peaceful knitting. Perhaps the voices in my head are settling down and aren’t wasting my time. When something surfaces in my mind’s eye, I see it clearly. I know why it’s there.

Why IS it there?

It’s rooted in memory, I guess. The most important aspect of remembering is being able to visualize and recreate those moments that matter most in our lives. It’s not an easy task, but it’s what makes us human. I’m in the business of keeping track of what keeps me sane AND human.

In all of your experience with writing, what has surprised you the most?

What always surprises me about writing is that element of discovery. Wondering who my characters are in the world and where they’re going. What is the story? What people are capable of doing to themselves, but also what they do to others. I like to think there’s a lot of psychology in my characters because I constantly worry about motivation. I also thrive on starting a story where I know very little about what happens or how it happens. I’m usually much more interested in how my characters begin to make their way into such worlds.

In 1991, Dana Gioia – who later went on to serve as chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts – wrote an essay entitled “Can Poetry Matter?” What do you think?

Poetry will always matter. Now more than ever. Poetry in particular and the arts in general are the reasons why we ponder about our existence. I think that without it, we’d have clearly perished long, long ago. Maybe it should be a requirement that all politicians must go into mandatory poetry retreats where they do nothing but read poetry, bake bread, and sit around campfires while discussing poetry and philosophy.

If you could go back and have an entirely different, non-writing career, what would it be?

I have plenty of hobbies. I build models (cars, mostly), and in the last decade I’ve started to build guitars. I love building things, so I figure I would’ve ended up having my own shop. What am I talking about? I have my own shop. I build things. When I’m not writing, I’m building things or making art or taking photographs. These are my passions.

What’s next for you and your writing?

I’m working on several projects, including a book of poems that has been over 10 years in the making. I’m also writing new poems all the time, and who knows where and when those will be collected into books.

I’m also working on a couple of short film projects, one of them a documentary. Part of what has slowed me down is that I’ve had to learn many software programs in order to properly shoot and edit. That takes some time and effort, for sure.

I’m done with the novel.  I’ve been done with the novel for a number of years now. Although I continue to write short fiction, nothing satisfies my soul the way poetry does. So I keep writing it.

 

Ryan G. Van Cleave is the author of 20 books, and he runs the creative writing program at the Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida. Web: ryangvancleave.com.