Margaret Randall Interview
conducted by Kevin Sweeney
via email on January 15, 2017
KS: I loved your poem “I Like Being Old” that appeared in The Café Review, Fall 2016. This passage sticks out:
It’s all good. More than good as I embrace
this red rock landscape, this place
that belongs to me
Is that the landscape in New Mexico where you now reside?
MR: Yes, when I speak about a red rock landscape, when I speak about vast spaces and open sky and brilliant desert colors, I am almost always speaking about New Mexico. I have lived in many places, and many of them continue to hold something of “home.” But New Mexico is special. My family moved here when I was ten, and I spent the next eight years getting to know some of its secrets. Then I moved back to New York and a few years later to Latin America, where I spent 23 years in Mexico, Cuba, and Nicaragua. When it was time to come home, I always knew I would return to New Mexico. My parents were still alive then, my brother still lived here (he still does) and so family connections went into the decision. But the colors of the land, the light, the vast sweep of sky were also important. The language of this land can be found in much of my writing.
KS: When you say “It’s all good,” is that a political statement or is it a statement about bodily health and /or spiritual well–being? Maybe all of the above?
MR: In this particular poem, the line “It’s all good” refers to my good fortune at feeling healthy and whole at 80. But politics has always been broader to me than partisan positions, so the statement also reflects my spiritual well–being. It would be hard to call this political period in U.S. history good, in view of the recent neo–fascist takeover.
KS: If the previous question didn’t provoke a mention of Donald Trump, let me ask one now. Given your life’s work, is it particularly disheartening to see such a person assume the presidency? How should those whose political views are similar to yours prepare for the next four years in the United States?
MR: I hesitate to mention Trump’s name because he is so much about putting himself front and center: that sociopath’s penchant for making everything about him. The man is disgusting and dangerous, but he is also part of a global trend right now: Brexit in England, Macri in Argentina, the coup against Rousseff in Brazil, the rise of forces such as LePen in France. The failure of neoliberal policies to solve people’s real problems has opened the door to neo–fascism. It’s going to be a very hard next four years, during which we can expect to see many social gains reversed. As for how people whose political views are similar to mine should prepare, I think we have to be alert, resist in every way we can, and also continue to do our own work, whatever that may be.
KS: In your introduction to your book Risking A Somersault In The Air you refer to Haydee Santamaría, about whom you’ve written an entire volume, I’m hoping to read. In a brief footnote in “Somersault” you mention her suicide. I imagine her as someone who’d been striving mightily to bring change and save the world she knew. In Richard Feinberg’s review of your book he notes: “A feminist sensibility adds poignancy to Randall’s tender, impressionistic portrait of a self–effacing and melancholic yet much revered Cuban fighter.” What caused her despair? Would it be too broad a statement to say she was a victim of patriarchy?
MR: Haydée Santamaría was one of the great figures of the Cuban revolution, female or male. She was an extraordinary woman: brilliant, creative, committed. Patriarchy victimizes women (and also men, often rendering them less than human in their treatment of others), but I wouldn’t say that Haydée was a victim of patriarchy because I wouldn’t say that she was a victim. She was quite forceful in fighting sexism within the Cuban system; as a member of the Cuban Communist Party’s Central Committee she several times appeared at meetings dressed as a man to bring attention to certain injustices. Still, I don’t believe any of that prompted her suicide. To understand why she took her own life, you have to know what her life was like. She was one of only two women who took part in the revolution’s first military action, and in that action she lost her brother and her lover at the time. Their deaths were only the first in a long string of losses. She suffered from depression, and I don’t think depression was understood in the 1970s as well as it is understood today. But Haydée’s life was complex. I recommend the book I wrote about her, Haydée Santamaría, Cuban Revolutionary: She Led by Transgression, which Duke University Press published in 2015. I think that book may be of special interest to artists and writers, since Haydée nurtured Cuban artists and writers to such an astonishing degree.
KS: It seems that poets who write and especially like to read political poetry aren’t the best source if you’re looking for a good spiritual poem. However, despite your political bona fides, your poem, “Benoit Sees the Shapes,” looks pretty spiritual to this reader, especially these last 3 lines:
I want to forget the contest itself leads to oblivion
and end this poem in hope
even as the evidence tries to stare me down.
You seem to suggest there’s a possibility of hope here but maybe it’s a long shot. Am I right about that?
MR: Yes, you are right. But the thing is, Kevin, I really do reject the idea of political poetry as a discreet category. For me there is only good poetry and bad poetry. A good poem (and a bad one too, of course) can be about anything. For me, one’s ideological outlook and one’s spirituality are of a piece.
KS: So what about Castro’s Cuba? After his death the Washington Post put out an extremely harsh editorial on his life and regime. They saw him as anathema to gays, women, and basically to anyone who disagreed with him? Will it be better or worse there now that he’s gone?
MR: I didn’t see that piece in the Washington Post. It surprises me to hear it described Fidel as “anathema to gays, women, and basically anyone who disagreed with him.” The truth is, Fidel worked hard to bring equality to women as well as racial equality. It’s true that LGBTQ people had to struggle longer in Cuba, but that really can’t be blamed on Fidel, who took power in
1959 — back then Stonewall was 20 years in the future in the U.S.
To my mind, Fidel was a great leader, someone who did the impossible to shape his country in a new image of justice. His death produced a great sadness in me. He was also human, and made many errors. I point to some of these in my memoir of eleven years living in the country, To Change the World: My Years in Cuba (Rutgers University Press, 2009). Incidentally that book — critical as it is — has just been published in Cuba and will be featured at this year’s Havana Book Fair. I’ll be going to Cuba for that next month. But getting back to Fidel, he shepherded social change even as the United States attacked him economically, militarily, diplomatically, and culturally for more than half a century: not an easy task. As for whether Cuba will be “better or worse” now
that he is gone, the changes the country is undergoing — and there are many — don’t really have much to do with Fidel’s death. He stepped down in 2008 and his brother Raul took over. Then, in December 2014, the Obama administration and the Cuban government reestablished diplomatic relations. This gave way to many changes, although the decades–old U.S. economic blockade is still in effect. But Cuba has been adopting many aspects of a market economy while trying to maintain its greatest socialist achievements, such as universal health care and free education. There are many problems. It is a small country with a weakened infrastructure and an unevenness in terms of development. It’s not going to be easy to make such a complicated transition. But I have great faith in the Cuban people, and believe they have some surprises in store for us.
KS: The post–Somoza Nicaragua you wrote about sounds pretty amazing with peasants and regular people writing poetry and creating art. But is Utopia always a fantasy as some poets and philosophers have suggested? The fact that you can write a poem titled “I Like Being Old” seems to indicate it’s possible to live in a sane and fair world. True?
MR: I believe it is possible to create and then live in a sane and fair world. But I also know that powerful forces of criminality and greed oppose such change. The first few years of the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua were exciting, but then those forces took over and those who call themselves Sandinistas today have no relationship to what we dreamed of back then. I hope the younger generations will be able to mobilize for a change that is less vulnerable to that criminality and greed. It they can’t, I don’t think the world itself will be either sane or fair; global warming, endless wars, and hatred of difference will have done away with humanity.
KS: In your interview with Ernesto Cardenal you refer to “the religiosity of the Nicaraguan people” and “the importance of faith in their lives” in what seems like a favorable way. Does that mean you don’t see religion as the opiate of the people?
MR: I am a convinced atheist, but also consider myself to be a spiritual person; my spirituality is based in nature rather than in some invented god. As for religion being the opiate of the people, that line is so often quoted out of context. Religion, political manipulation: any of it can be “the opiate of the people” if it is used to control and dominate. People need to be free to acquire knowledge and make their own decisions about what they want in life.
KS: Cardenal spoke to you about his experience with Thomas Merton who, he said, “always hated the American way of life.” Was that true of you too, at least in the past, given your long absence from the United States?
MR: I love American cultures and landscape. And I believe the American people, like most people anywhere, are decent. What I hate is corporate greed, consumerism, lies, and manipulation.
KS: Is it a fair question to ask you, or for all of us to ask ourselves, where do the monsters come from? I’m thinking of the Somozas in Nicaragua, D’Auboisson in El Salvador, Mugabe in Zimbabwe, Mobutu and Kabila in the Congo just for starters.
MR: These monsters come from where we all come from. They weren’t born monsters. We need to create societies in which understanding and justice prevail, not the conditions that permit the Somozas, Mugabes, or Trumps to gain power.
KS: Were you starting out today, do you think you would still be drawn in the same way to Latin American, or might other regions, like Africa, draw your attention?
MR: This is a difficult question for me, Kevin. I lived for 23 years in three Latin American countries and three of my four children live in Latin America. Latin America is a part of me today, such that it is impossible for me to contemplate it not being part of my history. On the other hand, I find other parts of the world interesting as well: certain African countries, Laos, Cambodia, Canada. Every country has its fascinating cultures. It’s all about getting to know them and discovering which make you feel at home.