by Alissa Bird
For Lisbeth Coiman, poetry and literature are a lens through which we can better understand one another. Her distinct voice is the product of a life lived across three countries as a poet, educator, and cultural worker. In her latest poetry collection, Uprising/Alzamiento (Finishing Line Press, 2021), Coiman demands that we confront the humanitarian crisis facing her home country of Venezuela, a crisis born out of political and economic turmoil that has left the Venezuelan people without proper access to food, water, and medicine. This collection, written in both English and Spanish, bears witness to this devastating reality and asks some of the greatest questions facing humankind: How do we respond to human suffering? How are we complicit? At the heart of this unsparing and expansive collection is Coiman’s resonant voice, a voice that lingers long after reading.
TCR: What was your first experience with poetry?
Lisbeth Coiman: In college in Venezuela, I studied languages and so I learned a lot about American history, American literature, as well as British history and British literature. But, of course, as most Americans have done, I read a lot of dead white men, right? But eventually, I took a social linguistics class called Language and Culture, and it brought me to life. In that class, I met writers and poets like June Jordan and Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, and Gwendolyn Brooks, mostly women and African American writers. And I read a lot of diaspora writers, people who write in English but who are not born in English-speaking countries, or African writers who have English as a first language but come from the Empire. I remember one book, The Empire Writes Back, which was written mostly by writers who were born in the colonies and who wrote in English. This was my first encounter with literature that I could grasp, as in, “This is real; these are people like me.”
I became interested in African American poets of the civil rights movement, especially the role of women in that movement. I based my entire thesis on the poetry of Sonia Sanchez through a black feminist perspective. My tenet was that you could not understand Sonia Sanchez using the, how do you say, poetics that we use to analyze Shakespeare or all the dead white writers, we need to use a poetics that reflects the cultural context that these women, these poets have been immersed in, poetics that reflect the intersection of politics, race, gender, and class.
So my first encounter was as an analyst of poetry, not a writer of poetry. I was doing social, linguistic analysis, trying to understand how poetry gave me the living experience of these people. Although we [Venezeulans] experienced racism and had a shared history of slavery, we did not experience it in the same way.
TCR: I sensed this with this collection, that you share the living experience of those in Venezuela.
LC: I’m so delighted to hear that, to hear that I am doing with my work what I learned from African American literature.
TCR: In your introduction, you write, “I speak to those who lack a window into the reality of my once-wealthy nation.” Was this collection written with a specific audience in mind?
LC: So, this is poetry gossip, [laughs] but I had an unfortunate social media fight with another poet about my country. This person posted a meme grossly reducing the reality of my country, such a complex reality, to a meme. It invalidated the struggle of my people.
Now, I don’t believe in right or left; I believe in humanity, and this is the human reality of my country: there are people who are starving. I have parents there, who are in their 80’s, who have worked all their life, and they are not wealthy; they are, you know, equivalent to DMV clerks. They worked all their life; they had a decent life, and all of a sudden, these people are starving. These people get sick and don’t have access to medical attention. They don’t have transportation anymore. They don’t have running water. They don’t have reliable electricity. They don’t have reliable communication.
And I don’t understand. This was a wealthy country, and they did not deserve this. My siblings, too, were hard-working people; there were seven of us, and all of a sudden, they were like, [purses lips and sucks in cheeks] like this because they are hungry. So this is the reality that I know.
It is very easy, in California, where you pay five dollars for a coffee with milk, and you have a laptop that is twelve hundred dollars at least, to send memes on social media saying that any attempt in Venezuela to restore democracy is a CIA orchestrated coup d’état.
You don’t have a clue what you’re saying.
So that’s my first audience—the people who are seeing this through a very narrow ideological lens.My second audience is people who don’t know anything about Venezuela. I feel it’s my duty to say this is what’s happening in my country, and we need help. And third, I want to pay tribute to those people who are fighting, who are risking their lives, who are dying on a daily basis because they believe in democracy.
So those three people are my concern.
TCR: This collection bears witness to human suffering and refuses to look away. I constantly felt the tension between agency and powerlessness in these poems. Can you talk about that?
LC: I’ve asked my brothers, who live in Venezuela, “Why don’t you go out and protest?” “Why don’t you go and fight?” “How are you taking this so calmly?” And they say, “What am I going to do? They are armed to their teeth. We don’t have a way to protect ourselves.” There is not even the possibility of urban guerrilla warfare because the discrepancy between the people who have the power and the regular people is so great. And I feel like I’m privileged even though I’m a working-class woman, you know, struggling to stand on her own feet. I started my life new at fifty, and I’m still standing, making progress by progress. So I feel that I am privileged compared to what they’re going through. My sister, for instance, you might consider her privileged because she lives in the most stunning landscape there is in South America; she lives up in the Andes, beyond the tree line. So she has this bucolic landscape as a backdrop; she’s married to an artist, has children, and has this beautiful life. Her family has a quality of life that I don’t have. They have friends, have a community, and live in the most stunning landscape surrounded by art. And how do they eat? They exchange their art for bags of food.
TCR: They trade their art for food? What does that look like?
LC: They go to someone who sells groceries, and they exchange. My sister is a special ed teacher, so, let’s say, she teaches your child, and in exchange, you give her a pound of meat. And what infuriates me is that people do not understand. These people forged a life for themselves. They lived comfortably, and then the country went awry twenty years ago, and they’ve been struggling and struggling and struggling, until there is nothing. There is nothing.
So I have to pitch in [laughs], and I say this without embarrassment, from my $2,600-a-month salary, I pitch in $350 a month to my family. And you know what it is to live in Los Angeles with $2600, right? I have to work 14 hours a day to make up for the rest. And I have to send this percentage of my salary to my folks because they are starving. How can I just sit at my table comfortably and eat? So yes, there is this discrepancy between the agency that I have, my voice, and the perceived power that I have against the disenfranchisement of a people who did not deserve the life they are living.
TCR: Is any part of this book a warning?
LC: There are those who think that what I’m saying is not true. The regular American needs to understand that democracy is fragile. Venezuela was a strong democracy. We were wealthy, we were educated, and we allowed a demagogue to take power and destroy the country. So for me, this book is also a wake-up call for regular Americans. You don’t have to do anything about my country. You are not going to save my country. You don’t even have to feel guilty about what’s going on in my country. But it can happen to you. It can happen to you whether you are complacent or not. So if I don’t achieve anything else, I want to call attention to the human crisis and how these things can be averted by education and social consciousness.
TCR: Each poem in this collection is presented first in English and then in Spanish. You mention the concept of tradaptation [a portmanteau of “translation” and “adaptation”] that one version should not be simply read as a translation of the other. Can you talk about this?
LC: When curating the collection, I worked with an English speaker, a poet, and I presented him with the English version first. I wrote the English versions of the poems to the best of my ability with his help, and then I said, “Well, I have to translate this now.” And there are things that do not translate, and I’m not a translator. But, of course, I can translate, and I have earned a good deal of my life as a translator, but I have never considered translating literature up to this point. If you translate as a poet, you run the risk of recreating a poem.
And so I called two Venezuelan friends, people I really respect, and told them I have this problem; I have poems that will not translate. And they said that’s when you need this concept of tradaptation. So I give thanks at the end of the book to Nerio Guerrero because he presented me with this concept. He says, “You are going to present another version of the same poem that keeps the voice, keeps the idea of the poem, but it’s not exactly the same.”
For example, in English, you say “traffic jam,” right? But that concept does not translate. The metaphor is completely lost in Spanish. So in Spanish, you say “embotellamiento,” “embottlement,” like when you’re putting a liquid into a bottle and it goes first through the neck, which is difficult. That is how you say “traffic.” So in the poem “Freedom to Write/Libertad de Expresión,” instead of adding pectin to the jam, because I’m using the metaphor of traffic jam, I have to create a new metaphor for “embottlement.” So instead of adding pectin, I decorate the bottle.
TCR: Did this process feel like double the work?
LC: Yeah, you are writing another poem.
TCR: Did you ever consider doing it just in English or just in Spanish?
LC: No, from the very beginning, the concept was bilingual. And I have decided, from that very point, that all my work from now on will be bilingual.
TCR: Why is that?
LC: Because I want my people to understand me.
TCR: Your people meaning Venezuelans?
LC: Yes. And Latinos in general. I teach English as a second language to adult immigrants. Most, but not all, of my students are considered low-literacy, students below grade six level, and I have quite a few students who are completely illiterate. But if anything, they read Spanish, and they said, “Miss Coiman, why don’t you write in Spanish so we can understand you?” And I know many people who would read it if I wrote in Spanish. So from that point on, I decided to write bilingual until, you know, somebody tells me they want to translate my work for me. But for now, I’m doing it twice.
TCR: At the end of your book, you thank Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo for her class Poetry as Survival. It sounds like a class I’d like to take.
LC: Xochitl is a great teacher. She is the executive director of Women Who Submit. It’s an organization that encourages women to submit to top-tier publications because, unfortunately, there is a discrepancy between the number of men who get published and the number of women who get published, and the reason is—we don’t dare. So this organization just encourages women.
When I first had that social media fight with that woman about the meme, I got really angry. I was losing sleep, and I said to myself, I need to do something creative with this anger because I am suffering. And Xochitl told me she was teaching this class, Poetry as Survival, which specifically tackles social justice issues. She teaches poets how to deal with anger and pain, and she uses a beautiful metaphor: You cannot weld metal without a shield. You have to shield yourself from certain realities.
TCR: How do we do that?
LC: Well, for instance, she had us write a poem from the point of view of an object. The model she used was based on, I think, a Salvadorean poet who had a poem from the point of view of an AR-15. The rifle was the one talking. The point is, you have to detach. Another exercise was to create a symbol. I do this in my poem “El Guaire,” where El Guaire symbolizes the decadence or decay of the country.
Another exercise was to talk in the second person or to do research about something. That was how I did the autopsy poem, “Rhabdomyolysis.” It was probably the most difficult of all the poems to write because I had to read thirty pages of an autopsy to write it. I drafted many of the poems in that class, and then, for a complete year, I worked on them on my own.
TCR: What do you hope is the impact of this collection?
LC: I have put everything in this book. I want this message to reach the people it needs to reach. I want people to read it not because I want to sell five thousand copies but because I need this message to be heard. My blood is in Venezuela, and I cannot go back easily. I’m left with a constant languishing, a longing for something that does not exist anymore. So the book’s not going to make me rich, but if it reaches you, that’s my goal.
Alissa Bird is a candidate for an MFA in creative writing at University of California, Riverside-Palm Desert. She is a poetry editor for The Coachella Review, and lives in San Diego with her husband and dog, Babadook.