Mark Statman’s most recent book is the translation collection, Never Made in America: Selected Poetry of Martín Barea Mattos (Lavender Ink/diálogos, 2017). His poetry collections include That Train Again (Lavender Ink, 2015), A Map of the Winds (Lavender Ink, 2013) and Tourist at a Miracle (Hanging Loose, 2010). Other translations include Black Tulips: The Selected Poems of José María Hinojosa (University of New Orleans Press, 2012), the first English language translation of the significant poet of Spain’s Generation of 1927, and, with Pablo Medina, a translation of Federico García Lorca's Poet in New York (Grove 2008), Statman’s poetry, essays, and translations have appeared in fourteen anthologies, as well as such publications as Tin House, Hanging Loose, Ping Pong, and American Poetry Review. A former Associate Professor of Literary Studies at Eugene Lang College, The New School, he lives in San Pedro Ixtlahuaca and Oaxaca de Juárez, MX.
What prompted you to move to Mexico? How are you acclimating to the change?
calling for another way of thinking
here in a Oaxaca valley
how on the wind, voices
the voices, those voices
when the wind dies down
the voices of the dead
as in the dead, dead, die
as in the sun (comes)
sometimes I just need
a break from one city, any, every
always the one that does
the most damage
the one within hearing
I know cities
lived my life in cities
can make my way around
almost all of them
because beyond taxis and trains
what I know to do
is find the someone, someones
who will talk about their lives
as stunning, yes,
as the smoke over there
coming off that hill
across the valley
those hills and mountains
all have names
but it’s not always the official ones
are how they’re called
you get to know that
the one over there
is the cerro del humo borrado
though next time
and make it something else
My decision to move to Mexico was both personal and professional. In May 2016, at the age of 54, my friend, the poet and scholar, Robin Mookerjee, died, suddenly, unexpectedly. We taught together in the Literary Studies department at Eugene Lang College at The New School in NYC. At that point that spring a year ago, I’d just finished my 31st year teaching at the College.
It was Robin’s death that set everything in motion. I’d already started to think that sometime soon it might be time to make some changes, but Robin dying, and just 54, really got me started. I was just a few weeks shy of my 58th birthday. After 31 years at Lang, suddenly, very suddenly, I realized the seriousness of that question, what comes next? I knew that one day my life would no longer include teaching. And that had me to thinking, Hillel-like, if not now, why not? If not now, when? I had no good answers for not making the changes. With (relative) youth on our side, my wife, the painter and writer, Katherine Koch and I decided to sell our Brooklyn home of 25 years. We would move to Oaxaca, Mexico, become permanent residents there. Our son, the musician, Jesse “Cannonball” Statman, would accompany us, help set up our new home, before taking off on a 4 month tour of the US and Europe. We’d be bringing with us our two Labrador retrievers. Sadly, this past March, the older one, the zen-like Cannonball, from whom our son took his stage name, died just before his 14th birthday. We were glad his last year was spent away from the NYC winter, spent warm, comfortable, sleepy days on a sunny patio.
There were ins and outs to the process, the fears, the strangeness of becoming an expatriate, of no longer living in one’s own country, of leaving NYC, where Katherine and I had each lived most of our lives. But we did have a number of things going for us. One of them is/was that we were doing this together, that we knew Oaxaca, had been visiting for a while, since 1987, and we liked what the city is and has become—a good literary scene, a good arts scene, a good music scene. There is good food. It’s a beautiful city, small (400,000) but culturally very cool. It has a history of indigenous independence, of occasional radical politics (which is off-limits to us, as permanent residents, we can’t get involved in Mexican politics though the U.S. is more than fair game and we do our best to make our voices known—as citizens, we still vote in all elections in Brooklyn, since that is our last U.S. residence). We know people down here, Mexican and US poets, painters, etc. There is even a Lang graduate here (2003), a very well-known musician (internationally) who is one of our closest friends—she was Jesse’s baby sitter when he was 4, she was a student of mine for two semesters, and, in the fun stories department, she has an adorable 5 year old who seems to take a certain delight in hanging out with us.
I also knew that I wasn’t precisely retiring, just that I was not going to teach anymore and I would devote myself to writing and translating. So I’d have work to do. When we moved down in September, I had three books left on my current book contract, two now, since one came out in April, so the change didn’t mean wholesale break.
We can also afford to live here well. The cost of living is about 1/3 the cost of Brooklyn, depending on the dollar. We rent a big house in Oaxaca Centro (four bedrooms, courtyards, patio, tons of storage) and we bought a small house in the country with some land that is quite beautiful, very rural, we’re surrounded by farms and fields, with goats, sheep, oxen, horses grazing, but only a 25-30 minute drive to the big house in the city center.
I write, a lot, more than I have in many, many years. I read, and the reading is deeper than it’s been for a while because I no longer think about teaching; the question, how would I teach this poem, this idea, no longer (or hardly ever) comes up. It’s reading that matters in my own small and large schemes. Katherine paints, gardens, writes. She reads as well, again, a lot. We are those people who divide their lives between the country and the city. We see friends, go to parties. We go on day trips to ruins, churches, little towns. We’ve been to the beach for a week (about 120 miles away but a six hour drive because we are in the mountains, a mile high, and you go through a bunch of ecosystems, rainforest etc to get to the Pacific). We drove back to the US in April/May (a new RAV4 because it was easier to buy a new one than bring our old one down and here a 4 wheel/all wheel drive SUV helps a lot, especially on the rutted dirt roads it takes to get to the country) for the launch of my most recent book, spent a week in NOLA, saw my parents in Arizona. There seem to be lots of folks visiting here. We’ve had friends from the U.S. because of Oaxaca’s deserved rep as a cultural center.
How has living as an expat affected or influenced your writing, if at all?
what I meant
there’s a funny kind
to which no
one listens very well
the man said
he was playing
a golondrina (swallow)
a paloma (dove)
and palitos (little sticks)
and a boy at the next table
he said, he jumped
the man said
do you wonder
who knows your name
but he was a stranger
who didn’t know mine
buy this music from me
(the birds, the sticks)
which I did
ten pesos, fifty cents
thinking then he’d go away
this dusty café
this afternoon sun
and he left
his life somewhere else
and not mine
which stayed here awhile
and alone in its place
As I mentioned, I’m writing more than I have in years. Partly this is a function of having retired from teaching—I have more time on my hands. I’m a tireless reviser, I love the process, the idea of re-visioning but that work was something that for many years was left to the summers simply because it took so much time, and there was student work to read, there were comments to write, there were classes to teach, there were meetings (and meeting and meetings…).
I also have the chance to take a longer view of my work. Again, it’s a sense of time. I can sit for an afternoon on the porch where I work in the country, sit and read and think. I can daydream in a focused way, and not have to worry that my time is wasted. I’m learning to feel comfortable with the idea of not having to rush anywhere. You know how hard that is for a New Yorker?
I do think there is something very powerful in being away from New York, in being away from the U.S. and the literary world. There were times I’d feel anxious about my whole self as a poet. It was a kind of competitive anxiety. I could feel overwhelmed by the sense that there were so many poets, so many readings, so many magazines. I would feel unsure of myself—did I really know what I was doing? Here I am, almost 60 years old, I’ve now published my 9th book, I’ve read internationally, I’ve been published in the magazines I most want to read, my work is in anthologies, but I still was subject to that odd, New York literary scene anxiety. Which isn’t a healthy thing to live with. It’s very healthy to doubt one’s work, to want to keep moving it to the next level. But it isn’t healthy to live in a way that makes one doubt one’s actual self, one’s being.
So being an expatriate does help. I’m away from that world. I’m someplace beautiful and scaled down to life as I now want to live it. Would I want to live like this if I were younger? I don’t know. The energy of NYC was something on which I thrived. I loved Brooklyn (though the Brooklyn I lived in and loved for more than three decades no longer exists). But in many ways that life, which was so essential to me as a young and even middle-aged poet, isn’t essential anymore.
Would I be able to write as much were I still living in the U.S.? I somehow doubt it. Would I be okay? Probably. Is this better? Um. Yeah.
What is the view of the U.S. at this time in Mexico and, do people there, generally speaking, distinguish between U.S. government and its people?
in my mailbox
say no to irony
no to irony!
today’s task for today
The election of Trump, across the political spectrum, was seen as a disaster for Mexico. His approval rating, last time I looked, was between 5 and 10% on the part of the Mexican people. It’s hard to get lower. I think there is a general amount of good will for folks from the U.S. on the part of the Mexican people. At least in the south, where I am. But there is a sense of wonderment still. How did Trump win if HRC got more votes (explaining the electoral college in the weeks after was not the easiest thing to do)? And how could so many people have supported him to make it close, to make it that he won? From afar, it wasn’t hard to see him as a con artist and duplicitous, as a liar, a racist, a xenophobe, a misogynist. Since the idea of the U.S., the idea of our democracy, is something that resonates with people here, a belief in our ideals, even as we have so often fallen short of them, well, it was hard to see a country so admired and respected, fail in the way people here believe it has.
Mexico has responded to the current administration by realizing that the U.S. as a trustworthy partner, especially economically, is no longer a given. There’s been some real branching out, approaching the EU and Japan, for example, as trading partners. It’s one of the things the Trump administration didn’t count on. They thought they could bully Mexico (and Canada) into completely redoing NAFTA. Well, that’s not going to happen. And the idea of Mexico paying for the wall is something no one takes seriously (the former president of Mexico, Vicente Fox has produced a hilarious video ridiculing Trump). And the country of lucha libre found the tweet of Trump beating up on CNN so sadly stupid, more a humiliation for Trump than anything else.
But most people here still see the U.S. as a land of opportunity. They talk openly about going to the U.S., even if illegally. Mexico remains a poor country, especially in this region. There is a lot of political action here, which is healthy. People believe in change. In the possible. But it’s also tempered by historical issues of failure, of violence and corruption.
So most people seem okay with U.S. citizens. I think there are pockets of anti-Americanism here, but that seems to be more about policy, than people (that wall…). I know my own take on the U.S. has been made more thoughtful. There was a lot of conversation on Facebook around July 4, and the question was raised as to whether one considered oneself patriotic. A lot of people said no, pointing at the White House. I said yes, noting that mine was the patriotism found in Ginsberg’s very patriotic “America,” in Whitman’s vision, in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s sense that America is “a willingness of the heart.” Again, for me a difference between politics and country.
Would you recommend Mexico as a home to American writers and artists seeking refuge from the political and social crises in the U.S.? Is there a sense of community there?
Ocotlán de Morelos
the shoulders of saints
now comes as human prayer
they’re singing him
for the hopeless
saint of the impossible
some curse him
others pray and
hear in prayer
I’m not sure how to answer this question. Obviously it’s working for me, for Katherine, and for a lot of people here who have come down. We left before the current administration and we’re very glad we did. We follow events in the U.S. quite closely, and we register our protests with letters, phone calls, donations, making clear our horror at the national nightmare epitomized by what has become of the presidency. Yes, we want refuge, but we certainly didn’t leave Brooklyn to abandon our country, at least not this NY Mets and NY football Giants fan! We came down here because we were ready for that part of our lives to begin. So we’re here, because we knew it was where we wanted to be.
Southern Mexico is easy for us call home. But isn’t perfect. It is a country of incredible physical beauty but it isn’t quite paradise. As I mentioned, this is a poor country. Most of the economy functions in cash, off the books, which places a strain on government resources. Literacy is a big problem. There is adequate health care but getting access to it for many people is not always easy. Water is an issue (for everyone who lives here). Sanitation. The environment. There is civic and social unrest in a good sense, but it doesn’t always make life easy. There are strikes, protests. Major roads will be blocked off by protesters, suddenly, and for hours at a time. The things that most folks in the U.S. take for granted (mail delivery, telephone, internet, electricity, running water) can become issues. Or not. It depends.
I also think it’s important to be critically conscious of the class, race, gender, and sexuality issues here. Earlier, you asked about adjustment. That has been a tough one. I don´t think my class and racial privileges have ever been as overt in my life as they have been here. I note this as someone who identifies as a straight white male. As a Jew who has experienced some violence for that. But my cultural, ethnic, and racial heritage is rich: half my family is Cuban by way of Poland, having fled almost a hundred years ago to escape religious and ethnic persecution. They fought with and against Fidel until they all finally left the island. Another part of my family is African American. Another quarter of my family has Asian blood. We are straight and gay, my family.
But here in Mexico south, I know more than I did living in NYC the privileges that whiteness and money bring. It happens in large ways and in everyday ways. Katherine and I have a young woman who cleans for us twice a week. We have a guy who is doing extensive work on the country casita, who also takes care of the garden. She calls me Don Mark. He calls me his patrón. We have a carpenter who makes for us what we need. Our money means he and his kids get to go to the dentist (not covered on the national health plan). Another guy, our handyman in the city, is someone who my grandfather, who was a master electrician, who not only was a key member of the Manhattan Project but also helped to design the electrical system on the World Trade Center, would have seen as a fellow craftsman. Neither went to college, but Roberto, like my Grandpa Sam, hasn’t met a mechanical, electrical, or plumbing problem he can’t fix. He calls me amigo. But with the formal usted. And he wants me to use tú. So I do. As much as I want to change this all, to say, hey, I am not your patrón, you can tutear me, the fact is, this is the society and world that has graciously accepted me. If there are going to be changes coming, they will be on a different scale, in different ways. Yes, I want change, I want social justice, but I can’t be the gringo imposing my agenda.
I would suggest that someone seeking refuge make sure this is the place you want to be beyond an unhappiness with the current political situation at home. I would visit, more than once, remembering that being a tourist in a place is not the same thing as living there. I would learn Spanish, get started before getting here and then study intensively when you arrive (Katherine did this, I’m already a fluent speaker). Because you’ll have to deal with systems, bureaucracies, and it’s on you to understand, not on others to understand you. I’ve seen expatriates and tourists who act with Ugly American entitlement that is more than embarrassing and rude; it’s offensive and cruel. I would learn more about the place I wanted to live, the town, state, the politics, the history. I wouldn’t just pick up and move because it’s sort of close and cheaper. It’s true, your dollar will go further and the U.S. is just next door, but anyone making this kind of move needs to be ready for it. Eyes open. And be prepared to give and give and not expect to take (much). If you don’t have it together financially and expect the economy here to support you, forget it. That goes under the rubric of #nothappening
That said, and as I note earlier Oaxaca is a lively place, with a literary scene, an art scene a music scene. There is always something going on, whether in museums, in cafes and theaters, or on the streets. The mix of all the cultures here can at times be breathtaking. And though there is certainly a small expatriate community that, in living down here seems less of the place (not learning Spanish, living in a kind of bubble, their own moveable feast), there is also a larger community of immigrants, migrants, and expatriates who are incredibly welcoming to all who want to make this home. Writers, artists, musicians, retirees, parents with kids, folks just exploring. That community, which I am becoming a part of, mixes easily with and fits into the larger community here, the life of the city. I think we still have the tourists love of the miracle but we’ve come closer to seeing that what’s greatest is in everyday life. Shopping at the markets. Walking the streets. Talking, laughing, wandering. Looking up at the buildings, looking up at the sky. Being of, being here.
A lovely post. I knew Robin, briefly, as we participated in a writing group on UWS some years back. I recall his clear creativity and insightful comment as I was writing my own book (of my short time in Ixcotel State Peni and the women I met there). Glad you have found peace in Oaxaca.ReplyDelete
And... por si no hubieras antes encontrado estas palabras, te dejo con unas muy acertadas del gran Germán Dehesa:
"No conozco el mundo entero; pero en el entero mundo que yo conozco, no he estado jamás en una ciudad en la que quepan tantos colores, tantas formas, tantos olores y sabores, tantos y tan libres modos de ser como en Oaxaca. Sospecho que su ubicación no es geográfica, ni histórica; es mítica. Llegar a Oaxaca no es asunto ni de tiempo, ni de aviones; supongo que requiere de una disposición espiritual y de una voluntad de riesgo personal. En Oaxaca nada es como nuestro (pre)juicio dicta, sino como nuestra imaginación desea."
Saludos desde Colorado (de esta ex-oaxaqueña) y felicidades -- su poesía es bella.
Mary Ellen, thank you for this response. One thing I'm doing now, along with Colette Brooks, is putting together a collection of Robin's poems. Some are quite wonderful.ReplyDelete
An d thank you for the kind words, especially from Dehesa--I did not know this quotation!