A few weeks ago, I, Jonathan Marcantoni, Editorial Trance, was turned on to poetry collection Detrás del Acero by Joe Carvalko. His book examines life in 20th century America, placing special emphasis on the working class and the evolving relationship racial minorities have had with the greater society over that time. The book is both socially conscious and personal, as Mr. Carvalko uses aspects of his own life, his family history and his wife’s culture to influence his poetry. The language in his book is simple yet dense with emotion and ideas. The work has a haunting effect on the reader, with even the harshest descriptions of working class life giving way to the beauty of the natural world and the resilience of his characters.
JM: You state in your preface that you come from a mixed heritage that witnessed the changing fortunes of various southern European empires, and now, with Detrás del Acero, you are depicting the changing fortunes of America in the 20th century. Could you elaborate further on how this book ties in to your own perception of your ancestors and the history which you carry in your veins?
JC: My perception of my ancestors and the history I carry in my veins, contains multiple elements, which when deconstructed, I find are drawn from biology, what I fashion as my culture, and the immateriality of my spirit, that which impels me to reach for a future (and oppose my demise). In this context (which I regard as the elements of my “essential form”), I create from whole cloth a narrative that speaks to virtues, traditions, and the permanency of things that make us human: love, sacrifice, courage. I am the evolution of a distinct set of individuals, ones who traveled a specific path (see the poem, “Fuera de los Eventos,” “Out of Events”). I have an idea of that path, having had my DNA tested on more than one occasion. I know my genetic origins, the tribes whose genes I carry, what they did generally, the work, the culture, including the spiritual beliefs held, and where they eventually, at least for the last 500 years lighted (see, “Óvalo Infinito,” “Timeless Oval”). This is aided by genealogy, based in part on family history passed down, researching names and places, and recently sharing my genetic markers with others who contain the same DNA, and are therefore cousins.
In the language of Aristotle, this constitutes the essential elements of the material, and its origin (see, “Entre Eternidades de Luz,” “Between the Eternities of Light”). It says little about how this manifests in me—for what purpose, to what end? What I do through poetry is acknowledge that I come from somewhere. For example, my poem, “County Road 80,” is about a Sephardic Jew, partly inspired by my genetics that indicate I share over 30% of my genes with other Jews. The Carvalhos, (also, Carvahals, Carvahaises) are Sephardic Jews the world over. My paternal branch, likely at the turn of the 16th Century, Portugal or Spanish, converted to Catholicism. More directly, as what this long line of genetic material produced, I find that I am the product of parents, who themselves carried the long historicity (progress and aims) of their cultures—Italians (maternal side) who originated from 16th Century Spain, and Carvalhos who likewise originated from Spain, before it was politically formed as Portugal).
Their outlooks and drivers likewise influenced me (each spoke Portuguese and Italian, my father also spoke Spanish and some French, which inspired in me a love of language). My father, complex as most of us are, was strict with his children, a man who fought for the underdog (factory unions), who needed a wide social space, loved his family, but often unkind to those who loved him, a good provider, who would die for his children, a lover of music and art, constantly told me there were no problems we could not fix (see, “Coda,” “Último Viaje al Hospital Veteranos,” “Last Trip to the VA,” “Dejar Ir,” “Lettin’Go”). I do not make excuses for him, but his father entered the US illegally and was deported when my father was a teenager-he never saw him again. My mother was protective, a good provider, kind, introverted, a poet, a song writer, who told me at every opportunity how much she loved me. Her father was a baker and a poet, and the entire family made music a vocation, which is why I have played an instrument since I was 5 years old (see, “Un Riff de Ocho Barras”). Home life was atrocious because of marital problems (see, “Gorriones y Ratas,” “Sparrows and Rats”). I mention this, because all this background that is passed forward by way of tradition and value, overlays the individual, and in my case my response to the world, (see, “Secretos Interiores,” “Interior Secrets,” “Recuerdos,” “Conceits of Memory,” “Aguas de Lydia,” “Lydia’s Waters” chapter). Part of that world included my service experience (5 years) and a time when I went looking for a POW lost during the Korean War (I wrote a novel about this, see, generally, “Fuegos de Dorian”).
JM: Your poetry moves back and forth amongst different races and different classes, showing the interconnectedness of these disparate people, how is this both a reflection of American society and a reflection of you as a person?
JC: I was raised in a household that was accepting of other religions, nationalities and races. Three of my grandparents were immigrants, English was a second language. My parents, who spoke English well, also had many friends of different persuasions and nationalities, although partial to Italians, Portuguese of course, but Latinos generally (Spanish, Puerto Rican).
My father was a member of the NAACP in the 50s. When I left home at 17 to join the Air Force, I was stationed out west, and I looked for friends that I thought mirrored my origins back east. I met my wife, a nuevomexicana (see, “Retrato de Mela Suse,” “A Portrait of Mela Suse”). She was raised in Spanish tradition in that part of the country. She also had an affinity for the Native American culture, and her genes may explain some of that as she is 52% Native, and 48% European (see, “Panteón de Wanagitipi,” “Pantheon of Wanagitipi”). Except for one sister, her other three sisters live as Chicanas, with large families, in New Mexico and California.
Our children are the sum of each of us-Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Native American, although raised on the east coast. I embraced my wife’s culture, (family, food, language to a degree). We made frequent trips to Colorado and New Mexico over many decades, and recently bought a house in a small Spanish town in New Mexico, where we will spend time (see, “Valle de Rociada”). Many of the poems express my affection for her family. Many of the poems also reflect my experience with the underclass, which I represented as a lawyer (indigents in the inner city), as a board member of the American Indian Center in Sioux City, and as an observer of the unfairness in the American justice system and the large swath of bigotry that exists in America. I have traveled much as a lawyer to India, Africa, Asia, and lived in the mid-west, worked in NYC and as a result have seen much of what it means to be underprivileged (see, “Sombras Ignoradas,” “Ignored Shadows,” “El Inocente,” “The Innocent,” “Reflexiones,” “Reflections”).
JM: How do you approach your writing?
JC: I have always tried to lift the curtain and see what’s behind it. As a kid I worked in my father’s workshop helping him fix things, and became adept at using tools. And because we had relatives in construction, when I got older I worked digging holes, for me a metaphor for wanting to uncover something. When I joined the service they trained me as a mechanic and a technician to fix the armament systems on planes. I needed to know how things worked. When I left the service I went to school and became an engineer. For twenty five years I worked either digging holes, as a mechanic or an engineer. I went on to become a lawyer using my skills at engineering to try cases (some criminal cases), and then into corporate life as a patent attorney. I mention this as background in how I approach writing. I am always deconstructing to find out how things work.
I teach a course called Law, Science and Technology, and a good part of it deals with the philosophy of science (I wrote a book on the subject). So even in my poetry, I need to know about the underlying ideas and when the subject is not susceptible to “reductionism” such as human emotion is not, I am looking for a lead up to the event, imagining what inspired the emotion. I also look heavily into what drives the expression, for instance a character, and what is going on in his/her mind. Is the character on a quest for significance, for survival, for the impossible fulfillment of love, or power that may be keeping them harnessed to a wheel?
JM: What poetic and narrative traditions have influenced you and your style?
JC: I am more impressed with foreign born writers. I have read a lot of Saramago, Marquez, some Borges, Nabokov and Coelho. Older poets, such as Longfellow and Whitman. My list of modern poets are many: e.g., Jim Harrison, Baron Wormser, Rilke, Nuruda, Blanco, Lorca.
JM: How would you describe your style?
JC: I want my poetry to be accessible, so that the reader and I come away with similar ideas about what the poetry means. Only in rare instances do write something that might have multiple meanings. Although I borrow heavily from philosophy (epistemology, i.e., how do we know what is true), I try not to have it show through. I employ a narrative (storytelling) style rather than using formal forms. In addition to the individual poems having internal themes, I strive for collections that overall have a theme, so that as in Detrás del Acero, the work tells a story from an early life to a mature life, to a vision of the end of life. It is more than a random collection of poems, but a track of poems that follow a time line. Much of the poetry (if not all) comes from direct experience rather than abstract thought. Again, I think I am influenced by my life as an engineer and a lawyer.
JM: Your work is deeply concerned with the working man and I have noticed that literature and poetry has fallen out of favor with much of the lower classes in this country, whereas in the past you had literary icons like Upton Sinclair and John Steinbeck who really trained their eye on the working man and his struggles. Where does your work fit into that tradition?
JC: Yes, literature and poetry is out of favor, because I think that the public seeks entertainment, not the knowledge and eventually wisdom that literature, poetry and stage performances provide. And, worker rights, civil rights, fascism, communism, subjects that caught the attention of my parents’ generation and then my generation, have faded into the landscape, barely visible to the naked eye. Many on the right are also afraid of what they think is a liberal brand of intellectualism. This happens every so often (China’s Intellectual Revolution, Nazi’s Third Reich, Mussolini’s Fascism, and now to some extent in this country).
I was introduced at an early age to writings about the worker (Upton Sinclair), the underclass (John Steinbeck) and the vacuous middle classa and bigotry (Sinclair Lewis). And, until you mentioned two of them, I consciously had not considered their influence, maybe because I somehow assumed they were part of my background. Real life experiences, of which I have had many regarding these three subjects, are one thing, but writers who serve to create a fiction that serves as the iconic metaphor of all the ills and evils that millions individually experience, is quite different, to be admired when done well. So, yes, undoubtedly I was influenced by these giants, because they encapsulated what it meant to be a worker at the bottom, to have to make choices between starvation and migration in a country of plenty, to live in a society where it is impossible to rip away the bigotry that conceals itself in the corners of many middle class homes or places of worship. I’ve written about these subjects in my memoir, A Road Once Traveled, and then again in my novel We Were Beautiful Once, and in my latest novel (to be published late this year) Death By Internet. Also, I confront the racial attitudes of conservatives in an op-ed.
Let me answer the next two questions in one thought:
1. Your past and even some of your literary influences like Saramago, speaks to the good and bad histories of colonialism and how it brings together a wide range of cultures that do not assimilate so much as borrow from one another to create something new. Is your poetry trying to take all these divergent strands and link them together, or is it connecting our various backgrounds into something new, a new stage of humanity which America represents moreso than Europe ever has?
2. You spoke of how your work seeks to “deconstruct” the subject of your poem, as you worked through the narrative of Detrás del acero, what do you feel you have found about the foundation that your life and that America has been built upon?
JC: America is driven, as all societies are, by the dual social norms of solidarity and separation. In fact political parties, the media, government, corporations, and education system spend millions on creating and maintaining social constructs, i.e., what things mean and the rules we apply to define these two divisions. We form relationships which beget greater relationships which we term solidarity, which manifests in kinships, similar extractions, shared fates, sense of nationalism, and our sense of conspiratorial duty. Appeals to each according to their needs would seem a fairly basic rule of political success.
The second social norm maintains differences in social order and value, differentiating age, race, sex, sexual orientation, physique, education, occupation, and neighborhood, without end. So, similarities in ethnic background, language, race, religion, sex, occupation, or role bring us together. Difference pulls us apart. Those things that bring us together are associated with our need for affiliation or love, within the sphere of those we share solidarity. Sometimes fear is what actually keeps us tethered to a group (fear of condemnation if we leave, punished if we dare believe differently).
Those things that separate the groups, in order to maintain the purity of one’s solidarity, are fear, hate and even death. America from 50,000 feet has for many, maybe the majority of people, been a rough place to live from the very beginning, because the forces of separation have always existed, and will forever deny those that are different from assimilating.
Such has been the near extermination of the Native American through military might and Jim Crow laws enacted against black assimilation, miscegenation laws that made it a crime to marry someone from another race, the current controversy over same sex marriage, or immigration.
As I write my poetry, I tend to reinforce my point of view about the nature of society, of individuals—I doubt I am capable of being objective, and have no desire to be such. I doubt my poetry has the power to influence any of this. What I hope for is that it helps liberalize those who read it to see that what we do is often hurtful, and not something to be proud of (see, “El Uno Porciento,” “Los Arroceros,” “Estación de Trenes,” “Nonesmanneslond,” “Misión Cumplida,” “…Reflexiones, Sombras Ignoradas…,” “Un Lugar Para Llorao”). I am trying to open the heart of those who care to listen, although I may already know that those with hearts that do not wish to be opened will never read my work. I suppose that is the challenge.
JM: Finally, what subjects are you keen on investigating in the future? Where is your work taking you next?
JC: I am told that I have a flare for explaining what it’s like to live in a place where people struggle against, not the giant forces reported in the media, but the matters that consume us at the level of everyday life—a hard day working in the field, a lost job, a lost child, not making the mortgage, a factory that takes its business to China. Whether this is a novel or a poetry collection is still up in the air.
You can purchase Detrás del Acero for Nook or Kindle.