By Millicent Borges Accardi
The daughter of a longshoreman and a lathe operator, the writer and artist paulA neves (and sometimes PaulA Neves) grew up in the Ironbound section of Newark, New Jersey.
Known for its working class and multi-ethnic community, the Ironbound neighborhood has two origins for its striking nickname: the criss-cross railroad tracks that meet and surround the neighborhood and the large metal working industry in the 1920s.
Her family came from mainland Portugal and has fairly young roots in America–dating from the 1960s. She says, her “father’s family came over first. My father went back to his village in the late 60s to find a wife, and did.”
Her parents were “married in 1967” and then her father returned to New Jersey and her mother followed “three months later, the day after Thanksgiving. “
paulA’s favorite writing place is any corner of the backyard or at a local coffee shop. She prefers a “table or desk by a window or in an open space with a view of big mature trees and birds.” Yet, she claims that “water’s good too,” but ultimately her writing is best when she can see “beautiful Mother Earth persisting despite us.”
Since 2012, paulA has participated in the popular Kale Soup for the Soul reading cooperative, made up of Portuguese-American authors (who write about family, food and Luso culture). In 2017, she curated a Kale Soup reading in Newark for Portugal Day.Her first chapbook capricornucopia (the dream of the goats) is due out in April of this year from Finishing Line Press:
neves’ poems circle delicately like “birds . . . red heralds / stillborn in the throat” around the many sacrifices of giving to the light, which in Portuguese (dar à luz) is the idiom for giving birth. capricornucopia returns time and again to considerations of “how our mother tongue / forgets the word for missed” and how being lost or being found is often one and the same thing—Carlo Matos
In this interview for the Portuguese American Journal paulA speaks of her Portuguese heritage, the immigrant experience, her creative process and how she makes her own rules and gets away with poetic license.
Q: If you had to describe yourself and your work in ten seconds–on Shark Tank they call this the Elevator Pitch, what would you say?
A: It’s more like a personal ad: Gen X latchkey Luso-American feminist seeks love and frango de churrasco (despite being a vegetarian). By the way, my Ma and I sometimes watched Shark Tank when I’d go over to dinner at her house (which is now my house). She’d stare up from the kitchen table at the “sharks” looking to make a killing and say something like, “Yeah, just like that…”
Q: How does queer-theory affect your work?
A: It doesn’t. I just live my life. Theory is why I haven’t gone beyond two masters degrees. If you’ve insisted on being a poet since 14, and have managed to survive, that’s queer enough.
Q: How do you think LGBTQ people are perceived in the Luso community?
A: Well, put it this way: My mother used to call me “Maria-Homen,” which literally translates to “Mary-Man.”
I don’t know if this is a common Portuguese expression–I took it as her version of “tomboy.” While a trailblazer in many respects, in others my mother was a typical Portuguese woman of her generation and background: she liked to point out the obvious, indirectly, over and over again. And not in an amused, oh isn’t my daughter just so eccentric but cool like in a “Fried Green Tomatoes” kinda way. When she called me “Maria-Homem” it was actually pretty devastating, not only because it carried the weight of her disappointment, but, worse, because it was code for “I’m aware of how the community sees this.” The thing I always thought was funny though was that her own name was Maria. So I mean, why not call me “Fatima-Homem” or “Rosa-Homem”” I should write about that. LOL
I have to say though, I never experienced overt discrimination from the Portuguese community, but at the same time I knew how to present myself in a “closet with an open door.” In other words, though I could pass in some ways, I never outright pretended to be someone I wasn’t. That razor-thin tension of identity has always been a theme in my work. I came up in the 80s, so being out was still fairly tricky in general, never mind in a “traditional” ethnic community. Well into my 30s, just like with trying to find other Luso-American writers, I thought I was the only one. And I didn’t officially “come out” to most of my family til my early 40s. Now, I know other LGBTQ Luso-Americans (and writers). We all know there’s still tension, and I can’t speak for others’ experience, but generally I think increased visibility is good.
Q: How do you define yourself? Label yourself?
A: Paula PaulA paulA. It’s been a process.
I have actually never liked my name. Paula. Portuguese feminine of Paulo, an apostle I’ve always disliked. I’m reminded of that disdain right now as I’m reading Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary (I saw the play a few years ago, but haven’t gotten to the book til now). Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is beautiful, sure, and there’s debate about whether or not he was truly a misogynist. But, let’s see: he’s revered in an institution that has historically excluded women from its main arteries, and he was one of the architects of that institution, so…
Paula. Feminine of Paulo and Latin for “little”–a double ignominy! Besides I always got the idea from my family that my name was an afterthought. And what’s this business of a Portuguese kid with no middle name!?
Paula Neves. That’s it? Not Paula Maria? Not Ana Paula? Not that those would have appealed to me either, but still.
For years I wondered what my middle name would have been, the way some people wonder what their stillborn twin would have been like. I considered naming myself: Paula Ines. But then my initials would have been PIN. Paula Ersatz. PEN. Too obvious. I googled my name looking for ideas.
Glammy Portuguese scantily clad actress pops up. No, not me either. So I finally decided to let it be, and realized I just say it’s Paula. With a capital A. When I spell it in lowercase except for the capital A, it’s me embracing and smirking at “little,” and playing with the idea of disappearance—as in, how, how many people are paying attention?
The A is also a nod to a phantom name. And to see how many people mistake it for Paul A. Neves.
Q: What activities and events tie you to the Portuguese community?
A: Unfortunately, since both my parents have passed, not many, outside of collaborations with other Luso-American or Lusophillic literary/artistic collectives. And, of course, I still eat at Portuguese restaurants.
Once a month for the last three and a half years–since my mother and my uncle’s wife died two weeks apart–I have had lunch in a Portuguese restaurant in the Ironbound with my uncle, aunt (his sister), and her husband. We all got our footing in the Ironbound, for better or worse, and they are the only relatives of my parents’ generation that are left in the U.S. I treasure this new tradition.
Q: What activities in the Portuguese community that you knew as a kid no longer happen or in which you no longer participate?
A: In 1979, as an 11 year old, I marched with the rest of my Portuguese school classmates in first Portugal Day parade in the Ironbound. I still remember learning the words to the Portuguese hino nacional (national anthem), how both familiar and strange “herois do mar!” felt in my mouth. Cause, you know, we were American kids in one of the biggest and oldest U.S. cities, not seafaring heroes. On the other hand, I’ve never gotten seasick and love being on boats. Hmm…
Neither here, nor there, (but a dork in both languages.) I continued to go to the parade on and off through the years—with my family, then later my “American” friends. But, as the decades have shifted, so have the demographics, and like the Puerto Rican parade in NYC, which happens around the same time, it’s become a party people attend regardless of ethnicity.
Just today I was walking through what has been one of the major sites for the festivities—sardinhas, frango de churrasco, sangria, música. It is the parking lot of the Iberia “castelo,” an iconic restaurant with a building that looks like a medieval castle. It was sold recently to make room for a mixed use ‘luxury apartments” and commercial development that is emblematic of Ironbound’s gentrification.
Part of the gentrification is being driven by 2nd and 3rd generation Portuguese who have cashed in. In 2013, one of my last times at Iberia for Portugal Day, I watched the parade with my mother and her best friend/neighbor, and my girlfriend. After the parade, we grabbed a bite and a nip at the Castelo, but my Ma and her pal ducked out early because they still had hot dates with Atlantic City slot machines.
As I watched my mother cross the parking lot festooned with multicolored plastic banners and Portuguese and American flags snapping in the wind, the thumping of Luso-Latin pop music and the laughter of festa-goers rebounding everywhere, and saw her disappear into the streets of the Ironbound, I felt profound saudade.
Something was ending and I didn’t even know what it was yet. Three months later, she was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, and a year after that she was gone. Now those grounds where we, and so many other, existed, will soon be gone too. No one can tell me that gentrification is all about progress. It is also about the profound loss of histories.
Q: I know it is old-fashioned to ask this? But how do you perceive food as an entry point into your poetry?
A: Food, like language, sustains us, much of it prepared by the seasoned hands and hearts of countless women.
Q: Do you write in Portuguese? Have you worked on translations? You once described yourself as bilingual Portuguese-English but that your Portuguese was not “academic.”
A: My Portuguese is neither academic nor up to speed conversationally. I really have no one to speak it with now. I understand 100% and can get by pretty well, but when I open my mouth in Portugal, people switch to English, like I have linguistic BO.
I sometimes code switch in my poems, but only once have I done a complete translation—of one of my own poems. It’s called “Burning Bussaco”/”Fogo no Buçaco” and it was published in Quiddity International Literary Journal a few years back. Translating was a fun challenge and on my “get back to” list.
Q: How do you know when a thought becomes a trigger for a poem?
A: These days I’m just happy to have a thought, and remember it. Those mid-life hormonal blips are real, yo.
Q: Do you have a good relationship with the writers within you?
A: Now I do. Now I’m in a committed relationship with them. I used to keep them waiting, in case something better came along.
Q: Do you have to bolster their ego to convince them to work?
A: No. It’s a question of mortality now. With most of my family of origin gone, there’s no time for ego.
Q: Or does writing come easily?
A: About as easily as answering these questions. You know how long it took to get them back to you.
Q: What and where was your first public reading?
A: In 1994. In New Brunswick, New Jersey at a long-gone bookstore. It was a fundraiser for a local LGBT magazine I was assistant editor for. I read a short story I’d recently published in an anthology edited by Tee Corinne. It was a story about being queer and Portuguese-American. Imagine that.
That’s how I got my start–writing short fiction/memoir pieces for anthologies, not poetry really (though I’d also published one of my first poems in another one of Corinne’s anthologies). It was not a great story but I don’t know—something happened—I stepped out of myself and really worked it, got up close on the mic and read like Debra Winger in this low smoky alto.
Afterwards, I get all these phone numbers pressed into my hand. But I freaked out and bolted. I mean, you know, I was still a nice Portuguese girl from the Ironbound.
Q: What was your most recent poetry reading?
A: A reading as part of Brick City Collective for an event about Newark gentrification called “Newark at the Intersections: Who is the Renaissance For?”
Q: What have you learned between the two events?
A: Gentrification is not as sexy.
Q: Did you begin writing with poetry or have you evolved to that form?
A: I first mostly published prose pieces—op-eds, memoir, short fiction, even though my very first publication was a poem called “My Grandmother’s Fire Escape,” about my immigrant Avó growing grape vines in the Ironbound, published in a now-defunct Portuguese American newspaper out of Coral Gables, Florida.
After that I published a lot of prose, in that paper, and in anthologies. But I’ve written poetry consistently since I was 14 and discovered Emily Dickinson. I would say now I’m revolving back to prose.
Q: Do you think you will write a novel?
A: Claro! Novel, memoir or hybrid, I believe I will write some kind of long form prose project.
Q: Among writers in the Luso community there is much talk that we need The Great Portuguese-American Novel. Like all we need is one Great Gatsby or The Godfather to reach the general public—what do you think of this notion? And why is the Great ___ Novel almost always with a male protagonist?
A: I don’t think we need the great hybrid novel as much as we need people, besides other writers, to read–novels, poetry collections, memoir—just books.
Maybe if this net neutrality issue blows up and makes it more expensive for people to expend so much of their imagination online, they’ll go back to books. Somehow I doubt it though. I think they’ll just pay more for the drug. As to the male protagonist question—most of the world’s religions still promote the idea of God as male. And Christianity is all about how God sacrificed his only son. I always wondered why it wasn’t God’s only “child”–why “son” specifically?
Q: What do you do for a living?
A: I am an adjunct college instructor. My stepfather recently asked me, “Why you no get job make more money?” I answered, “Why most people no get jobs where they have more time?” Let’s see what happens when the robots take over.
Q: There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you. Maya Angelou—do you think that is true?
A: There are stories we want to tell because we’ve lived them and those we long to tell because we’re going to live them, soon, soon, but we never do. Both kinds are agonizing.
Years ago I trained as a hospice volunteer–just, you know, to sit with people, keep them company. One day the facility I was at sent me to the senior daycare holding pen. I mean that’s a crass way to put it, but that’s essentially what it was. It was like something out of that old Robin Williams movie, Awakenings. Only these people didn’t awaken. Some had dementia, some just kept quiet and stared. I swear they seemed catatonic from holding decades of untold stories inside them—stories that no one was interested in hearing. So, now they’re making robot companions for old people.
Because, you know, just like we give our kids iPhones and tablets as babysitters, robots will really be able to connect to our humanity, and make that data profitable for somebody, right? Then there was that last New Year’s Eve my mother was alive, her body in agony from cancer. We watched the first ball drop in Madeira on RTP. It was 7pm New Jersey time. So many 7pms New Jersey time over so many years. My mother said, as the fireworks lit the screen, “I always wanted to travel to the islands–and Brazil—now I never will.” She died with that untold story inside her, and I am haunted by it.
Q: What’s an accomplishment with your writing that speaks to you of success?
A: My chapbook capricornucopia (the dream of the goats). It’s actually my second book but—it stayed in the oven longer.
Fellow CantoMundista Diana Marie Delgado wrote recently on social media that it “takes 10 years to write a book of poems and an hour to read it,” and I’m like, try 20. Mine’s a chapbook, so it’s brief (so probably 1/2 an hour to read), but I put everything, including the kitchen sink, in there (ok, 45 minutes to read).
As you know, I didn’t believe it when I got the acceptance email. I really never expected it would get published, and in a way it didn’t matter because I was proud of the work. But yeah, it took a while for those poems to get it together.
Q: Is your voice the same voice as you write with?
A: Um. It sounds similar, but it is actually that of my not-stillborn-after-all twin, the one with that mystery middle name, someone braver, hipper, better looking, and an international-caliber soccer player on the side.
Q: Do you prefer wine or beer?
A: What happened to sangria? What kind of joint is this?
Q: Your new chapbook is arresting—can you say something about how it was shaped?
A: What is this, 20 questions?
Here is a recent poem of paulA’s from The Acentos Review:
— after an ad in the Lisbon Metro recalling PIDE’s victims
for more than a braid of a daughter’s hair
or a son’s milk teeth wrapped in chita
the priest-professor told you to believe
so you believed
in economies of ofertas
you believed in Fátima and fadistas
who sang of sailors and their strong sea
legs, taking them anywhere but Tarrafal
far from your honeyed wax heart
far from the woman like your mother
who carried your perfeito coração
hoping the gulls would eat from her hand
hoping just one would have come
instead of PIDE to ask
what she had to offer
if she believed in her own ofensas
perdoai as nossas…ai Senhor
if she believed her feet were anchors
or there but for the grace of God
pillars of a house
where they’d set old smoke on fire
again and again insisting
with eyes the brass of chalices
that she shouldn’t have
Millicent Borges Accardi, a Portuguese-American writer has received awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, CantoMundo, Fulbright, the Corporation of Yaddo, and California Arts Council. Her most recent book is Only More So. Find her @TopangaHippie
paulA neves is a Luso-American writer from Newark, NJ. Her work has appeared in Newest Americans, Acentos Review, Cleaver Magazine, The Abuela Stories Project, and Queen Mob’s Teahouse. A Canto Mundo fellow, she has also received scholarships/residencies from the Sundress Academy, the Luso-American Foundation, and the Disquiet Literary Program. She is a member of the artist-activist groups Kale Soup for the Soul (www.facebook.com/KaleSoupfortheSoul/), and Brick City Collective (www.facebook.com/groups/854035714763988/). She is a graduate of the MFA program in writing at Rutgers-Newark and teaches for various university programs. For more info: paulaneves.net or @itinerantmuse