January 23, 2024
Ojo en Celo / Eye in Heat, winner of the 2023 Ambroggio Prize of the Academy of American Poets, is a collection that challenges the limits of our gaze. It shows us what it is to escape the mirror and move beyond mirages. Margarita Pintado Burgos invites us to ponder the impasse while showing us ways to see better, to break the habit of lying, and to confront images along with language.
We recently had a chance to delve further into the book, asking the author about her inspiration, the translation process, and more.
What inspired you to write this collection?
What inspired me to bring these poems together under Ojo en celo / Eye in Heat, (a collection that includes poems from three previous books, and new poems) was the desire to understand myself and my poetic expression better throughout time, to share with others those findings about who I am as an artist, mother, daughter, friend, lover, etc., and to try to make something beautiful, something honest, somehow restorative, hopeful. I wanted to trace a zone in my poetics, go deeper into that zone from which a considerable part of who I am as a poet emerges. I began writing poetry soon after leaving Puerto Rico, which meant leaving family, friends, pets, sounds, smells, the landscape…I was departing from myself (in a sense), and I was very aware of that. What moved me to write poetry in the first place was, I think, a sense of displacement, and a desire to belong. I realized language was a place I could belong to. That discovery filled me with hope.
What was it like working with Alejandra Quintana Arocho to create the English translations?
I loved working with Alejandra. She is cool and relaxed but also very responsible, organized, mature, and receptive to my ideas. You know, it is different when you are translating a writer who is bilingual, like I am. It can be either frustrating or fulfilling for the translator. Alejandra is super bright and confident, so it was definitively fulfilling. I learned a lot with her, and I hope she learned too about the whole process. We enjoyed getting into deep conversations trying to find the perfect sound and meaning, without losing the cultural reference or linguistic twist, etc. I would describe her and our approach as conservative, with a twist here and there. Conservative, but exciting. Alejandra’s translations attempted to be as close as possible to the original language, choosing words that resemble meaning and sound, respecting the syntax, the word choice, the mood. She is a creative translator who is not trying to replace the poet. So, she uses her creativity to solve problems, not to change the poem. She can really listen to a poem. That’s huge. I have worked with other translators who are kind of deaf to the poem. They can read the words, they can understand the words, but they don’t get the whispers, the silence of the poem. Alejandra does. That, I repeat, is huge. Some poems were a real challenge because I use a lot of repetition and alliteration, and words that are open to more than one interpretation. Trying to convey all of that was like trying to solve a puzzle. But Alejandra is great at solving puzzles, so we never really struggle too much, I don’t think. I remember we took our time deciding on how to translate the title of the poem “Espantar unos pájaros”/“Shooing Some Birds.” We felt that “espantar” was such a serious word compared to “shooing,” but we decided that it really captured what I was trying to express, which is shooing (literal and metaphorical) birds. Also, there is the poem, “Censura”/”Censorship,” that ends with different verses in each language. I suggested it to Alejandra, and she just gave me a huge smile. The Spanish version reads, “Sólo pido/ que el halcón que a veces me visita/ no me niegue,” while the English one reads, “I only ask/ for the hawk that sometimes visits me/ not to unfriend me.” There is a bit of a play in the poem with social media and the whole idea of being cancelled, so we felt it was the right choice.
The idea of observing, watching, seeing is central to this book—but I love how it is almost always a reciprocal act: a watcher being watched, an observer being observed. I’m thinking of your wonderful poem, “The Contortionist,” which ends the speaker’s narrative with a meditative move inwards, the eye turning back on itself. Has this always been a prominent aesthetic concern of your work, or did it emerge for this collection?
I love this question. Yes, seeing is central to this book. I was referring to a zone in my poetics before, and that zone is heavily invested in what you are bringing up here: watching the world, having that gaze returned to you, and looking at yourself with the same critical eye you have used to evaluate the world. The desire to see is the desire to understand and to be critical, to move beyond the appearance, to recognize that our perception might be wrong, to consider that a scene or event can be observed from many places. Ojo en Celo / Eye in Heat, among other things, delves into the desire to see also what remains hidden. After finishing that poem, “Ojo en celo,” which I chose as the title for the collection, I felt that I had found a way to explain, to understand and to approach my poetic universe. Observing the world and imagining how the world stares back at me has been a constant in my work. I believe that moving from the island of Puerto Rico to the U.S. made me a more contemplative person, and more sensitive to how people see/perceive me. Also, I think being a poet is being a witness, so the act of watching, bearing witness, is central. We are here to listen, to pay attention to the world, and to keep discovering who we are in the process. I think the poem “The Contortionist” is a perfect example of that reciprocity, about the desire to find myself in others, and to love them, in a way. I was living in this tiny town in Arkansas when a circus came to town. In this town there was a Walmart, a few gas stations and like twenty churches. So, the circus was a big deal. I was feeling very deprived from beauty those days and seeing the performer that day, this small woman from Mongolia contort herself in the middle of nowhere… it was too much for me. I wrote the poem in my head right there. I felt that she and I were One. Both displaced, both exposed, and having to perform for others (having to fit). And I understand that we are all “performing,” but perhaps this feeling is accentuated when you are in a foreign country.
Achy Obejas, who selected your book for the Ambroggio Prize, writes that the speaker is “both attracted to and repelled by the world.” Are there particular social, political, or personal events or circumstances that you can point to as contributing to this ambivalence?
That took me by surprise. I think Achy nailed it, but that surprised me. Of course, I can see that ambivalence, or tension everywhere, but “repelled” seemed to me like a strong word at first. I think because I am a contemplative poet (an observer) who is critical of the world and of herself, I keep trying to find a place in the world (Achy also mentioned this) knowing that perhaps that place will remain elusive. But I keep trying because I know that I am bound to find beauty and meaning in the journey. I wouldn’t describe it as a love-hate relationship, is more about just being in the world with your eyes wide open. The world is in a love-hate relationship with itself, sort of speak. I am just observing. And participating, of course. About the personal circumstances, well, I am who I am: a Puerto Rican woman who left her country and found out that returning is much harder than expected because there are not enough opportunities there for Puerto Ricans who want to contribute directly to their country. I am openly bitter about the political and economic situation of the island, and I blame both colonialism and corrupt Puerto Ricans in power. For people like me (people from colonized nations) the political and the personal are inseparable, although in my poetry politics emerge almost as a subtext, it does make its way, but it is not at the center of my poetics. I am proud of being Puerto Rican. I am proud of my language, and I am committed to continue writing in Spanish and to celebrate my heritage and my culture with hope, always trying to find new ways to express the beauty and complexity of that place I call home.
What are you working on now?
Right now, I am working on a poetry book called Failing to Assimilate that explores the good and the bad, the gains and the losses inherent in the process of assimilation. It is a book about what’s accomplished when one fails to “successfully” assimilate to a culture, a country, a language, a family, new roles (job, motherhood, etc.). I am still thinking about it, but the poems are coming, and I feel very excited about it. I am also working with Alejandra on the translation of my book Una muchacha que se parece a mí/ A Girl Who Looks Like Me, and working on Distropika, a poetry website I co-direct, among other projects I am keeping to myself for now.
Margarita Pintado Burgos holds a PhD in Spanish from Emory University. The author of Ficción de venado (2012), Una muchacha que se parece a mí (Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña Award, 2016), and Simultánea, la marea (2022), Pintado is also a Mellon Foundation Letras Boricuas Fellow and a full professor of language and literature at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego. She co-directs the poetry website Distrópika.