Spring 2020, Volume 28

Interview with Frank X. Gaspar

       Interviewed by Rochelle Cocco

Q 1. Your new book, The Poems of Renata Ferreira, is more than the exquisite poetry.  There are also elements of an autobiographical coming of age story, political and social commentary, and of a memoir; and all are contained in what appears to be a standard book of poetry. But then you open the book and find an expanded foreword and notes at the end. How did this structure come to be? And what is there about the structure that contributes to the reader’s impression that there is more going on here than mere fiction?

A. Your subsequent questions summon answers that will contribute to my answer of this first inquiry.  But let me say that once I found that I had a manuscript of some fifty-odd poems, that were not my poems, but Renata’s, I had to make some decisions about what to do.  I was not comfortable, during the two or so years that the poems accrued, in sending them out in small batches to magazines.  They were not my own poems, and it seemed they needed some sort of apparatus to introduce them.  So I was left with this manuscript. At some point I remember scanning my bookshelves, and for no reason except perhaps the reach of my arm, I pulled out a collected poems of Baudelaire. There it was: foreword, poems, notes.  I pulled a few more such collections out and it was obvious then that this was the way to organize the book. I sent the manuscript to Christopher Larkosh at Tagus Press (he had asked for my next book, and it seemed like an excellent match for Tagus). He saw immediately what I was up to, and he understood, of course, the idea of the heteronym and the territory of Pessoa. But he pointed out that I was not really using the form to its best advantage.  I needed more foreword and notes. He mentioned Nabokov’s Pale Fire, which I had not read in many years, and I got out a copy and re-read it. Nabokov’s book is, to my mind, comedic and fantastical, as mine is not but I saw right away that I was using what was essentially the same form and that Renata could profit from more context.

      In speaking of Renata and her poems, I found myself engaging in memoir, fiction, history, criticism, and perhaps a bit of lunacy.  And I found that notes can be a genre of their own, and can just keep going back and forth and weaving more narrative, memoir, history, speculation, etc. in a personal voice (Frankie G’s) as well as in the standard officious and knowing tone of the literary note.  The structure allows a number of things to happen at once. More than a novel, containing as it does a collection of poems, but more than a collection of poems, for its narrative extensions in the foreword (which Chris Busa, of Provincetown Arts recognized as a novella) and the notes, which are often notes  but also often anecdotes, discourses on events, personal recollections, and small tales.  My sense in putting the book together was that it is a hybrid novel, or blend of genres describing the arc of particular lives and times. A friend has called it a “fusion,” and that describes it as well, but the truth is that the book is not any hifalutin literary experiment—it’s an easy read, it tells a story, and it divulges a human heart alive to the struggles of a singular place and time.


Q 2. The manuscript of Renata’s poems was sent to Frankie years after the events in the story. Up to then he didn’t know that Renata had gone on to live a whole other life. Now he (and we) get to know more of her story in a very personal way because the poems seem to function as journal entries that speak of the world happening around her and also of her inner thoughts.  What inspired you to use a “found” manuscript as the basis of the book?

A. Well, I might say who inspired me.  The actual story of the poems seemed a bit too much of a stretch on the one hand, and too thin a fabric on the other.  It was fall of 2015, and I was sitting on the back-porch writing, working on a novel, when rather suddenly a page of poetry ran through my neurons and emerged on the page in front of me. It came as whole piece, all at once, in a voice that was not mine. Well, strange things happen when you are writing a novel, and read over the piece and went inside for the night.  But then it happened again later—how many days later, I don’t know; I didn’t think much about this at the time.  As I said (and told myself), stuff happens.  To make a long story short, this phenomenon repeated through 2017, with the frequency increasing.  During part of this time I had received an invitation to serve as the Ferrol Sams Chair, Writer in Residence at Mercer University, In Macon Georgia (with my thanks to Gordon Johnston and Judson Mitcham). I was housed in a rambling, somewhat-run down yet beautifully elegant old ante-bellum mansion, where I was the sole tenant. It is a marvelous place, lush, spooky, showing its age with a kind of brave splendor.  I taught one workshop/seminar on Thursday afternoons, among my many commitments the only one that required clock or calendar. I fell into the vast freedom of my own rhythms: awake when I was awake and asleep when i was asleep.  So writing could take place in any of the wonderful rooms at any time of day and night. Great for working on a novel.  But there was one element not accounted for: Renata.  It was during this time that she took over my writing entirely.  I might wake up at three in the morning with her dictating a poem and would have to rush to my desk or table to take it down.  They always came as wholes, all at once, but now more frequently, and it was clear that she was in charge.  I would continue with my own writing and reading, but really, I could see that Renata was giving me work that was completely beyond me, and the work came at times of her choosing.  I lost a number of poems simply because I would be in a situation where I could not take them down—in a meeting, or driving on the highway, for instance. I am not organized enough to know accurately how many poems I missed, and I confess part of this lack of accounting can be attributed to the fact that I really didn’t know where all this was going or how important these “visitations” were at the time.

      But to get the inspiration for the foreword/novella, I could think of a few sources, but I think Fernando Pessoa would be one of the most important influences.  He is under-read in America, for reasons that are not oblique to me, but that is for another discussion. Those who know Pessoa know of his heteronyms. Some commentators differentiate “heteronym” from “literary heteronym,” the former a name of a figure of speech and the latter, an alternate personality that writes through the mind and body of its “host.”  Pessoa, famously, had a number of these.  In my case I did not invent Renata as a character. Rather, she seemed to take me over, a kind of possession.  Her voice and poems, I could tell, were real and were not mine.  When it came time to put the book together, it seemed that Renata should own the book, that it be about her, and so as I began the foreword I started in Provincetown where Renata indeed lived in spirit, and I let myself recede as far as I could in HER story (not mine).  So elements of the foreword and notes are there to serve her and give her world to her. Admittedly, there are strong hints of heteronym and Pessoa in places (The box or “trunk” with all of the found papers, the old typewriter, her natal chart and so forth). It did not seem appropriate to me to have the book talk about the possession and the voice.  She inhabits the book as herself.  By the same token (or a token like it) I would be remiss in not speaking about the inner voice, but my intent is to do so as I do now, speaking about the book but not from it.


Q 3. Upon reading Renata’s poems, it is easy to mistake Renata for a real woman. How did you manage to write so effectively in a female voice?

A. The truest answer I can give here is that she is a real woman and she wrote the poems in her own voice.  By real, of course, I mean a genuine presence, not consciously authored by me and not subject to my modifications. So, Renata “wrote” these poems through me is another way of saying this.


Q 4. To what extent were Renata and Nina based on women you knew in Provincetown in the 50’s and 60’s or later?

A. It’s difficult to say. In some ways there were always women like Renata and Nina around in the summer, and we did have a young woman who lived with us sometimes who certainly resembled Renata in many ways.  And I never had a father or knew the identity of my natural father. There were men around of course—old Portuguese men, whom I loved for their lore. But as we go deeper into the psyche—I mean really deep, doesn’t gender become blurred or non-essential?


Q 5. In the foreword you also write in the voice of Frankie, a Portuguese-American man, who reminisces about his life growing up in Provincetown and his fascination with Renata, her quirky independent life, and the way she opened up his world. He was so fascinated that he followed her and her friend Nina de Beers to New York City where he worked for them and was immersed in their talk of global events including the realities of Salazar’s fascist regime in Portugal--the country of Frankie’s ethnic heritage.  Frank, you also have Portuguese roots, grew up in Provincetown and then lived in New York around the same time, and your names are very similar. Is Frankie a semi-autobiographical version of you?

A. Yes.  He seems a much nicer guy than I am, though.


Q 6. Then there are Renata’s poems. In many of them Renata addresses her lover, who is named Anaktoria. What is the significance of this name for the book?

A. I don’t know, except that is what came from Renata.  But Anaktoria was, of course, Sappho’s favorite young girl, and Anaktoria leaves Sappho, it is surmised, to marry. So it seems that Renata was very much interested in Sappho. I might say that Sappho was Renata’s muse.  Plato was so taken with her poetry that he actually called Sappho ‘The Tenth Muse.”  Almost all of her work was destroyed along with much ancient writing, but every so often a tatter of papyrus will show up with a line from her on it. Some lines were found on the wrapping of an Egyptian mummy, thanks to archaic recycling. I hold out hope that the Vatican Library or the ruins at Herculaneum will yield all of her scrolls.  But Sappho’s lines of longing for Anaktoria, and her addressing her in the poem, must surely have resonated strongly with Renata who, when she is not with Anaktoria, plaintively longs for her (and sometimes scolds her).


Q 7. A major thread in Renata’s poems is the longing and desire for the absent lover and the need to have a conversation with the lover if only in memory.  It seems to me that the longing and nostalgia running through Renata’s poems affect the way she writes about the landscape of life around her, and imparts a dreamlike quality as her lover drifts through the poems. I am reminded of the ghost in Don DeLillo’s novel The Body Artist. Is that what you intended?  Or did something else affect Renata’s poems more strongly?

A. I hadn’t thought of DeLillo.  I think I accepted the longing and nostalgia for not only the notion of saudades that would certainly have been in Renata’s consciousness, but I also recognized in her poems the sense of longing and desire found in almost all love poetry. Of course much of that poetry does not at the same time chronicle the underground of a resistance operator in days before a coming revolution. But you are right, there is no doubt about her feelings and inner being affecting the way she writes about the landscape and fraught life around her.


Q 8. Are there authors who have influenced you in regards to writing this book?

A. Pessoa, of course.  Jose Saramago, and the poets that Frankie G. writes about in the foreword: Dickinson, Millay, Espanca.  Certainly Nabokov in terms of the structure. In a distant way, Clarice Lispector.  I don’t know.  To be truthful, I haven’t thought too much about that.  And anyway, Renata wrote the poems, and she seems to have been very well read in American and Portuguese literature. Her voice seemed to determine predecessors, but I haven’t looked hard enough to see who they might have been.


Q 9. In the midst of teaching, living life and avoiding the coronavirus like all of us, have you thought about your next project?

A. No, I have not been able to settle on anything.  Maybe the box will yield up some more of Renata’s work. Or I could write a critical piece on her influences!   I am very fond of her.  Maybe I should blow her a kiss goodbye and let us find our separate destinies.  If they cross again, so be it.


Selection of Renata's poems from the book.