By Kathi Stafford
— Millicent Borges Accardi, a Portuguese-American poet, is the author of three books: Injuring Eternity (World Nouveau), Woman on a Shaky Bridge (Finishing Line Press chapbook), and Only More So (forthcoming from Salmon Press, Ireland). The painting on the cover of Injuring Eternity was painted by her husband, Charles, a talented artist in his own right.
She has won fellowships from the National Endowment for the arts (NEA), the California Arts Council, Barbara Deming Foundation, Canto Mundo, and Formby at the Special Collections Library at Texas Tech (researching writer-activist Kay Boyle).
Ms. Accardi has been awarded with writers’ residencies over the years, including a stay at the prestigious Yaddo community. She is also the founding member of the Westside Women’s Writers group, where the interviewer first met her. She recently attended Disquiet, the International Literary Program in Lisbon, Portugal.
Accardi’s poetry has appeared in over 50 publications. Her work has also received three Pushcart Prize nominations.
Her passion for writing, her brilliance, and her wit all contribute to her absorbing and remarkable poetry.
In this interview for the Portuguese American Journal, Millicent speaks of discovering her poetic voice as well as discovering her roots and identity as a Portuguese-American. She talks about growing up in an immigrant family and being taught that she was not “Portuguese” but “American.”
How does your heritage as a Portuguese American influence your work?
I didn’t think it used to. I hardly paid attention to it beyond kale soup or the occasional mention of Magellan. But as I have gotten older, I think I have reconnected or tried to reconnect with the past in ways I never did when I was a child. Recently I have been writing a lot about growing up and the Portuguese rituals and foods I remember. There is not much since ethnicity was a forbidden topic. I was American. Now, the world has shifted and it is a good thing to celebrate one’s heritage and background. This summer I headed to Lisbon for a writers’ conference–it was my first visit to Portugal! My family came from the Azores, Terceira, one of nine volcanic islands in the middle of the Atlantic, about 930 miles west of Lisbon and 3,000 miles away from the east coast of North America, where my grandparents and Aunt and Uncle were born. Terceira has the reputation for being a party island, where people are casual and laid back.
Tell me more about your experiences this past summer in Portugal. I know you were very excited to be traveling there for the first time.
In a way it was a relief, seeing the country of my ancestors; it was a long time coming and because it was for a writers conference, I feel as if I had a crash course in all things Portuguese. In one summer, I met more Portuguese-Americans who were writers too, than I had in my whole entire life! I got to see the famous Fernando Pessoa statue, try port and vinho verde (“green” wine). I saw the harbor, went to a midnight Fado concert in a small club. It was a tremendous experience. Before my trip I had known only one other Portuguese-American, besides family. Now, I have my own experience of walking in Lisbon and Sintra.
Do you speak Portuguese?
Portuguese was my father’s first language. He told me he did not speak English until he learned in school. And, after that, he used to have to run home from school so he could translate the newspaper for his Great Aunt and Grandmother who raised him. His sister and brother and parents were born in The Azores. As a kid, I grew up understanding some songs and phrases through osmosis, names for food as well as swear words *a few choice ones I learned on a trip to Hawaii where our cousins had some rather loud family discussions. When I was a kid, the push was to assimilate, to be “American,” so I was never taught Portuguese. Now that I have visited Portugal, I’m more inspired to learn formally. However, what was very curious to me was that the longer I was in Lisbon, the more I seemed to comprehend and there was an absolutely astonishing moment in a taxi where the driver and I had a conversation back and forth. He asked questions and I was answering him in English. It wasn’t until I got out of the cab that I realized HE had been speaking Portuguese and I had understood at least enough to respond!
What are your memories from attending Disquiet?
Disquiet was the International Literary Program (ILP) held in Lisbon, Portugal that I attended. The second annual program will be held from July 1 to July 13, 2012. It was sponsored by Dzanc Books and the University of Lisbon. For two weeks I attended lectures public readings and film screenings. One of the highlights of the conference for me was a poetry reading by Portuguese writer Nuno Judice. It was trance-like. Here is an excerpt from one of his poems:
“Recipe for Making the Colour Blue”
If you wish to make the colour blue
take a piece of sky and put it in a pot
large enough to place on the flame of the horizon.
Receita para fazer azul Se quiseres fazer azul,
pega num pedaço de céu e mete-o numa panela grande,
que possas levar ao lume do horizonte
Your realism and attention are somewhat reminiscent of Fernando Pessoa, the Portuguese poet. Has his writing had any impact on your work?
I think the biggest impact he has had on my own work is the notion of different personas and of writing from a point of view of “the self” but with different selves or characters. For example, in the poem below, the “I” is a
young boy in the middle of the night in a desert cabin, talking to his older brother who says:
“Wanna buy some sleep?” In the darkness
I nod and, then, realizing years later
say, “Yes,” aloud and so he begins.
He gathers up a cocoon of sleep
in his hands and tucks in my feet,
my ankles, my legs, my torso
and then zips it up tightly under my chin
almost as if he loved me.
It was a subject taken from a story my husband once told me and it seemed to need a male narrator instead of a female. People have asked me about the autobiographical nature of my poems, and I am shocked to think that they think the experiences I write or tell about happened to me. I just feel that an “I“ narrator is closer to the subject than a distant second, so for most of my poems, I adopt the role of someone else; like an actor. I put myself in that place where the poem can grow safely rather than pushed into some artificial form.
Also, as a child growing up in southern California, I had few Portuguese role models: Magellan, the explorer and John Philip Sousa, the composer of patriotic marches. As a college student majoring in English I read Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentinean author who happens to share my last name, as well as Fernando Pessoa (the Portuguese poet). Later, I watched Meredith Viera on The View and the gourmet chef Emeril Lagasse. At Long Beach City College where I taught English, I got to know the poet and novelist Frank Gaspar, the author of Leaving Pico, a fictional memoir of life growing up as an Azorean Portuguese immigrant in Provincetown, Massachusetts.
But these examples of Portuguese role models were few and far between, and have often left me with a feeling that my culture, and the culture of my ancestors, is not one that has received expression and understanding in the creative arts. Honestly, I have felt like Fernando Pessoa,
I am the escaped one,
After I was born
They locked me up inside me
But I left.
My soul seeks me,
Through hills and valley,
I hope my soul
Never finds me.
“Devotion to the Breath” was a vision of oxygen “unfelt in the night.” It reminded me of your yoga practice. In addition to yoga, what other practices are important to your writing?
Stillness and the ability to sit still and listen have been very important to me. Four or five times a week I do yoga and I meditate, although not as often as I would like. I also play the flute. I try in whatever way I can to listen to what the universe tells me and if my schedule and my mind is too cluttered it makes it difficult for me to hear. Of course I have many day jobs and projects and I need to earn money to live, but I try very hard to carve out time to step back and listen too.
In your new book, Injuring Eternity, the natural world shows up beautifully in such poems as “Mourning Doves” and “Sewing the Black.” How does nature enter into your writing?
I sit at my computer to write and have a view of Topanga Creek (which is seasonal and sometimes has water and frogs and, at other times, is dry). I can see raccoons and coyotes sneak by my window, hawks, finches, orioles, mourning doves, squirrels, rabbits and the occasional deer in the backyard. When my husband Charles and I moved here 8 years ago, we came from Venice Beach, where my view was a parking lot and, after that, then the Pacific Ocean. My views have changed and along with that my opinions about nature and the pace of life has slowed down. The beach is a glorious place. With perch and dolphins and beautiful expanse of water. However, I also witnessed drug busts outside my window, street vendors, parades, fights, police on horseback during the summer months, homeless people, gang members. . . it was a complete 180 to transition from a Disneyland-ghetto like view to a quiet more natural view, and, as a result, the birds and the wildlife have crept into my poems, in a very satisfying way. What I used to love about Venice Beach was the commotion. The Hari Krishna parade to the sublime stars in the winter ocean sky. Now, it’s the little gestures I see every day. The comings and goings of wildlife. I live a few hundred feet from Edelman Park with its 200 acres of rolling hills. Topangans call our area the wildlife corridor.
The break-out of your book into three categories, (“Morning,” “Noon,” “Evening”) was particularly striking, since they traced so many patterns beyond the idea of life cycle. What led you to organize the book as you did, and what do you hope the reader understands about these groupings?
While I was putting the book together, I was focused on the notion of time, and how each moment matters, about how we as humans live in consecutive moments of now and how mostly we deny this and apply labels to time, and are either interested (perhaps too interested) in the regretting the past or looking forward to the future. Anyway, while I was re-ordering the poems and sorting them out, groups of them just organically seemed to be related to a particular part of the day. Whether the poems take place there or were written there, some pieces just seemed as if they fit as morning work versus evening. Perhaps, in some cases, it was the subject matter (jazz for me is always an evening thing).
Your love of jazz really comes across in this volume, especially in “Not for Miles Davis” and “Lady Night.” If you listen to music while you are writing, what other styles and artists are your favorites?
While I write, I have soundtracks. I do not always listen to music but if I do, it’s purposeful. I went for a time just playing and re-playing Sketches of Spain. Then, I shifted to David Del Tredici. I like piano classical. I like Bird and Sonny Rollins and Wes Montgomery, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, there are too many to name.
Throughout the book, your mother is such a vivid presence. Did she encourage you in your writing?
My mother Audrey was my self-proclaimed “biggest fan.” When she died a few years ago, I was lost. Only children, I think, have different bonds with their parents than do children from larger families. Although she made the choice to be a wife and mother and housewife, she did not want that life for me. In another time, she might have made a different choice. I think she felt trapped into the 1950’s or 60’s version of what path she should take. From the beginning, I was raised not as a son or daughter but as a person who was expected to go out in the world and earn a living and get an education. It was the time of women’s liberation and my parents wanted me to have choices. My mother read books to me when I was little and we always had great books in the house: Little Women, Emily Dickenson, and Shakespeare. Of course I had Nancy Drew and The Bobsie Twins and Tracy Belden too, but they were glassed in bookcases of adult books that I was free to read and to look at. There was never an issue about age-appropriate rules of what I could or could not read, which resulted in my reading Candy and The Exorcist and Marquis de Sade! Books were there to read and there was no censorship. In many ways I was treated like an adult from day one.
My grandparents lived in a converted garage guest house in the back too. I spent as much time with my grandmother, Margo as I did at home. My mom was always ready to encourage me to write and to read. There was sometimes not much money but on Cherry Ave in the house with the blue roof, there was always a budget for books. My mom took me to Los Alamitos Library 3 or 4 times a week. We spent many hours there. In fact, I was named after The Millicent Library in Fairhaven, MA, where my mother used to go as a child. At the entrance is a stained glass window featuring “Millicent” as an angel, the muse of poetry. So I guess in a way, that was my destiny.
W.S. Merwin has a well-known saying: “When a poem is really finished, you can’t change anything.” Did you sense that completion as you put this volume together?
I studied with Gay Talese at USC, and he has a great story about his writing process! For his book, The Kingdom and the Power (I think it was) he said he checked into a hotel with a typewriter and cardboard shirt boxes. His father was a tailor so he grew up having many of these boxes around the house and perhaps collected them later in life? He wrote the outline of the book, each chapter was on a box and he taped the boxes to the walls of the hotel room and as he worked he added details for each chapter and once he wrote a chapter I supposed he took down that shirt box. As a student I was impressed and astonished with this story. As for my habits? I like to use these purple scientific notebooks, each page is numbered and they have a nice hard covers on them. I record notes in these books wherever I am. I use them especially when I am traveling. The books are smaller than a laptop and easier to cart around and to pack. From the pages, I translate the notes onto the computer. This was my writing process for many, many years. Recently, though, I have been using prompts and I find that with prompts, I am able to compose on my laptop. For some reason it seems easier that way.
What is the first poem you remember really striking your interest?
I am going to completely embarrass myself. But the first poem I remember was Trees by Joyce Kilmer.
1 I think that I shall never see
2 A poem as lovely as a tree.
3 A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
4 Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
5 A tree that looks at God all day,
6 And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
7 A tree that may in Summer wear
8 A nest of robins in her hair;
9 Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
10 Who intimately lives with rain.
11 Poems are made by fools like me,
12 But only God can make a tree.
In first or second grade we had recite it in class. From there on, I was hooked, not with that poem, but with the art form.
Another significant poem to me was “The Infinite One” by Pablo Neruda, which begins like this:
Do you see these hands? They have measured
the earth, they have separated
minerals and cereals,
they have made peace and war,
they have demolished the distances
of all the seas and rivers,
when they move over you,
grain of wheat, swallow,
they can not encompass you,
When I first saw this poem at the bookstore City Lights in San Francisco, I was blown away by its romanticism, its intuitive depth into the soul.
The work of Lynda Hull was also an awakening. Here was a strong yet fragile, bawdy yet delicate writer who was putting herself out there in a bold way. From the poem “Chinese New Year,” she writes:
Fireworks complicate the streets
with sulphur as people exchange gold
and silver foil, money to appease ghosts
who linger, needy even in death. I am
almost invisible. Hands could pass through me
effortlessly. This is how it is
to be so alien that my name falls from me, grows
untranslatable as the shop signs,
Another poem that astonishes and puzzles me completely with its structure and texture is WS Merwin’s “The Heart,” a work which takes the reader through the complexities of an internal organ,” In the first chamber of the heart all the gloves are hanging but two.”
How would you compare “Only More So” from “Injuring Eternity,” at a high level?
The two books are very very different. I would say Only More So is formally crafted and perhaps more dense than Injuring Eternity which has a loose, open feel to it, and as a result it seems to be more accessible for those who may not necessarily be readers of poetry.
In terms of craft, what is your daily discipline for your writing practice? What do you recommend to newer writers in terms of their writing as well?
The best advice is always to pay attention to what has been done before. If you were a cabinetmaker, the advice would be to study with an expert cabinet maker and to look at and take apart finely crafted cabinets long before you attempt your own. How can you break the rules of poetry if you do not know what they are? So many “poets” claim to just write and not read. Now that is the stupidest thing I have ever heard. And not only read but support other writers and artists, attend readings and museums and events, surround yourself in the mix of what is going on in the art word during the time you are alive and making art.
As for my discipline? I rotate between writing every day and making a living. If I have a residency or if I have saved up enough money, I take off for a month or a few weeks and just write. I read, I listen to music but I focus on creation. This past year I participated in a number of daily prompts that the poets Molly Fisk and Lisa Cihlar —sponsored on Nicenet. Some days were great while others were garbage, but the point is to write to the given prompt every day, I was shocked by the work I produced. Sure, many were throwaways but there were a lot of gems, and it was good for me to push myself to cover prompts like “Lumberjack” and “Chicken”
For any artist, restraints and parameters are a good creative challenge. In February, I think it was, I served as the prompt mistress for the online group. I had great fun finding 1940’s and 50’s movie titles to use. It was a great time but I hardly wrote then. Now, when I am working, I take on many projects, from software testing to instructional design to technical writing. Thankfully most of my projects are managed remotely. This can be a plus and a minus. A plus as I am at home and do not have to commute or waste time in an office with idle chatter and politics. Minus because it can be isolating. Often my garden and yoga are the only reasons I have to leave the house. When I am in a work mode, I usually try to fit in the business of books. Like I address postcards or post links to Facebook or arrange poetry readings. I am not good at shifting gears between creation of poems and tech writing. Of course with the prompts I was forced to spend time early morning or after dinner to meet the daily deadlines. It was good exercise for me, sort of like a musician practicing scales.
Kathi Stafford, the interviewer for Ms. Accardi, is a member of the Westside Women’s Writer group. She has previously acted as poetry editor and senior editor for Southern California Review. Her poetry, interviews, and book reviews have appeared in literary journals such as Chiron Review, Nerve Cowboy, Connecticut River Review, SCR, and Hiram Poetry Review. Her poetry has been anthologized in Chopin and Cherries, as well as Sea of Change: Poems for Hitchcock.