I first met Carolina Ebeid at the Mestizo Cafe in Salt Lake City where she was taking part in a reading for “Pintura:Palabra, a project in ekphrasis” in which Latina/o writers from across the country were invited to engage in writing ekphrasis and participate in workshops after spending time with the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s “Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art” exhibition. Carolina was very warm with me, having recently selected two of my poems for publication in West Branch, one of which went on to be selected for Best American Poetry 2015. During her reading I was very struck by how well she is able to create pressure through stillness in her work.
This is the last installment in a series titled "Latina/o Poets on Liminal Spaces." You can read my introduction to the series here, and conversations with Javier Zamora here, Erika L. Sánchez here, and Marcelo Hernández Castillo here. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
NSZ: You’re the daughter of a Palestinian father and a Cuban mother. How has their act of immigrating, in passing through one space with the promise of getting to another space, passed on to you?
CE: It’s interesting that you call it an act of immigrating because that seems to be able to be answered with the fact that I was born, that my parents met on a bus in Massachusetts, and that resulted in my being able to be here in the world. Whereas if I were to change the word act to story, of the way that their immigration stories have been passed on to me, or how they exert pressure on me or my imagination that’s a much more complicated thing to entertain. They are definitely very different, my father’s incorporation into this country and society, and my mother’s stance toward this culture and society. So they moved first to Massachusetts, but then moved to New Jersey, and they lived in a very Latin American neighborhood. But a neighborhood close enough to the urban area of New York City where there were many, many cultures and languages. My mother in a lot of ways had open arms and she, as I said at CantoMundo, loved the opera. I think she had an optimism for the pace of life just outside of New York. I have to really talk about the differences between my parents. So, I don’t want to get too far away from your original question. Is there a way that you could ask a follow-up?
NSZ: I’m interested in the act of immigrating, and I call it an act because I’m using the word liminal, and because it comes from rites of passage. I think that there’s this sense that this act of immigrating and arriving in the U.S. will complete the rite of passage, which is not really the case. In many ways you’re held in this liminal space perpetually, and I’m also really interested for you how that liminal experience is passed on. So while for some it’s this idea of being held in an incomplete rite of passage, I argue that a lot of the incompleteness of that rite of passage is also passed on. I think that you can be held perpetually in that liminal space by your parents, or the stories of your parents. So my question: is the incomplete rite of passage passed on to you? How does that happen and how do you explore it in your art?
CE: Well, let me ask this question. What would a completed rite of passage look like for an immigrant? Or, are you positing that that isn’t actually possible?
NSZ: Personally, and feel free to disagree with this, I don’t think it’s possible in this country. I think it can seem superficially possible, but often that leads to other kinds of violence like being the “model minority” or “the token minority” which leads us back to never fully being incorporated.
CE: Yeah, an idea of success: having a house—that’s the idea of American success—certainly looking like everyone else. Okay, I don’t want to just say, I don’t know, but…
NSZ: Well you started discussing it in your first response. The idea of the stories themselves, and how that is passed on and exerts something over the imagination…
CE: …which may be why I’ve always felt like a misfit within my father’s family who all speak Arabic, and I don’t speak Arabic. I’ve felt even within that smaller culture, whether it’s the culture of a house or a wedding, I’ve felt certainly not incorporated. And that’s because of what we call, metaphorically, a barrier—a language barrier.
NSZ: So to my mind, though you might not think about it this way as the writer, you play a lot with liminality through form in your work. For example, in your poem “Anniversary” you write,
My silence you undo like the moment the globes of overhead light in a ballpark/
their humming wattage—and the stars begin to swirl,’ she wrote on a valentine/
There’s this way in which you create moments of stillness on the page, and that stillness then creates this liminal space in form, where we know perhaps where we’ve been in the progression of the poem, but we’re not always sure where we will end up. So, how do you conceive of that stillness in your writing, how do you think about the way that it keeps us suspended in liminality?
CE: Well that line, there is the visual phenomena when you’re in a city and there’s too much light to actually see the night sky. So we drive out to the middle of no-where, or more rural areas, and there are so many stars. And I was imagining being in a stadium, which is itself a very communal space, a space where everyone is oriented towards looking at the same thing in the arrangement of seating, and suddenly the stadium lights going out and everyone would be looking up, so that’s another kind of spectacle. I’m associating stillness with a kind of quietude that makes something else very audible, where the quieting of the lights makes the light of the stars audible or seeable to us. And I suppose that within that silence there’s something else that we are tuning into. Of course, that something else is really mysterious, and I am really attracted to whatever that mystery is. I know sometimes we’ll talk about that as white space, which I think is entirely very noisy.
NSZ: I love this new poem that you have up over at Linebreak called, “Speak-House” in which there’s this voice that’s constantly asking in the poem, “Say something, say something, say something,” and I was struck because the title of your forthcoming book through Noemi Press is You Ask Me To Talk About the Interior. I was wondering where does the pressure to speak in answers come from in your creative mind?
CE: First of all, the speak-house comes from the latinate word locutorium, which is in a place where monks live that have taken a vow of silence. The speak-house or locutorium is the space in which they can speak. So it’s where they can receive visitors or be able to talk. And I can see that kind of space replicated in other spaces, like prison. I can see where that kind of glass wall is a type of locutorium, or speak-house. Where speaking is different, it’s a kind of communication, a breaking out of silence, where a normal pattern of life is broken and you can be more free. Personally in my life, I often feel gagged by own inability to order my thoughts, order my racing thoughts. Sometimes in conversation it will often happen, just like perhaps you can perceive, how I’m much more comfortable playing the role of the questioner in what we call everyday life, and in conversation. But on the page, in a poem, that’s where I think I can most express myself even though it’s within poetic rules and poetic grammar where I’m not after clarity exactly, but perhaps a kind of Carolina clarity. I’m interested in that difference, of a more everyday speech where there’s a premium put on a kind of discursive clarity—getting to a point, satisfying that end. As oppose to the poetic space, where there is no clear end point because it isn’t linear. I mean, poems are much more circular in shape. I really love thinking of that space as liminal because I like its associations, as you have held on to, that it is darker and doesn’t have the rational light of that revolution of scientific thinking.
So I was thinking about that French phrase, which I’ll just say in English, the hour between dog and wolf, which is the hour of twilight. Which describes how as human beings we have biological eyes and are mainly diurnal animals. In that space it’s hard to see, so a dog could be mistaken for a wolf or vice versa. We don’t know whether to feel safe or not, or feel threatened, and that is that locutorium space I think. So where I was describing it before as a place of freedom, I don’t think it’s a place of freedom, and I don’t think it’s a space to just exhale, it’s the exchange that’s happening.
NSZ: As you were talking, I was thinking about how when I was in high school and in college I would take part in vows of silence to show solidarity with different border causes: taking down the border wall, stopping femicide and narco-violence. I was thinking about how there’s this way in which, that experience makes you realize how binding words are. And while not everyone necessarily has this experience in taking a vow of silence, I remember thinking that I was going to feel so relieved at the end of it and I would plan what my first words would be. But when the time came to speak, the words always fell short.
CE: That’s really interesting. I’ve never taken a vow of silence, personally. I’ve had laryngitis, which is very frustrating…
CE:…which feels like a gag. And I’ve also had to be in Spanish-only speaking places and at very first that can be frustrating to not be able to really express myself. I can’t even say compared to English because sometimes I feel frustrated with English as well. But, yes, certainly speaking is in certain instances the frustrating thing because it does fall short, as you say.
NSZ: And with that in mind, in your poetry, when your speakers do speak it’s often in these really beautiful lyric ways where their speech is sort of disjointed, disconnected, or they’re so deeply connected that it almost fogs the lens in this way that we’re looking at things in new ways. So how is the mere act of speaking a liminal act? Especially when you think of the importance of speaking as a woman, as a Latina, how can that be a liminal act?
CE: Well when you said fogs the lens because the speaker is too connected, I immediately thought of an image, where a physical lens, a camera lens, is so close up on the mouth and the face that it’s hard at first to see what it is a viewer might be looking at. It’s like the detail of a painting that might not make sense, like the leaf of a tree in a gigantic landscape, Hudson River School kind of nature scene of the nineteenth century. Whereas, taking just a small detail of a leaf you wouldn’t see the literal, the big picture. And I’m interested in that kind of communication.
NSZ: I like this idea of a close-up to a leaf. It’s still a leaf, you’re not destroying the physical entity of the leaf, but the way in which what that leaf communicates through a close-up is very different. I think of Laura Mulvey’s essay “Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema” in which she talks about the violence of the close-up. How in real life you would never get that close up to just one part of someone’s body where everything else is gone. That kind of close-up through a lens is impossible in our day-to-day interactions. But in film, where we suddenly have the power to do that, what we can communicate through the body is completely different. And you do something similar in some of your poems where we’re looking at something, as good poems do, from angles that we’re not used to, and how then does that provide a ludic voice within a superstructure in a liminal space?
CE: The capitalist culture is such a huge steamroller, flattening everything out that I associate Western culture with capitalism. Certainly writing poems within that is inherently subversive and ludic, some would even say ludicrous. I was asked the other day by someone who went to my high school, who had posted on FaceBook this hall of fame that he made up, with people who had graduated and who are now making six or seven figures. This is important because we’re a very big Latino culture, from various parts of the world, very first generation people. So actually they’ve done much better, because their children, the children of the people in the Hall of Fame, have made it, they have better lives. Which is measured in having things and being able to afford these things. But we would not be seen as successful as poets, and it’s not because we’re criminals who don’t contribute to society, who steal, or break down society. No, we as poets are unclassifiable in some way. They don’t know how to measure us. He was asking me what my book was about, and if I minded if I revealed my net worth, and A. it was hard to explain what my book is about because we just don’t speak the same language. How could I answer that? He doesn’t understand poetry, he’s probably not read many poems, and, B. yes, I have trouble talking about my net worth, I don’t even know what my net worth is. But it’s hard for me to answer within a poetry culture what Latina/o writers are within that because it’s such a poly-vocal segment within the broader poetry culture.
NSZ: So do you hold yourself in a liminal space? Do other people put you there? Or, it just is?
CE: I mean, I live with a poet, and my son calls himself a poet, and I’m in a program, so I’m surrounded by people who value the same things that I value. But, of course, I’ve had experiences where the liminal isn’t understood, where I feel like a misfit. And to broaden the lens so much, living itself is liminal, from darkness to darkness, from dust to dust, we are….there’s one quality of liminality that I want to bring forward which is that it is transitional. You’re arguing that perhaps we are stuck in that transition, that there is no passing through it. But, in some ways, that is human experience because we don’t understand what it’s like not to be alive. I mean the experience before being born or the experience of being dead. But that’s in the broadest term.
NSZ: But I think that within a superstructure, as Latinas/os we’re in a much more uncomfortable space than others through experience. And it’s about what you then decide to do with that trauma, the trauma of your parents and/or of the self. Of course, we’re in a transitional space in life, which is a very Western Judeo-Christian understanding of life and death, but I think within Latina/o experience in the U.S. and within Latina/o poetics there’s a different kind of liminality. A liminality where you’re never enough of X or enough of Y, you’re not totally enough of anything. For example, I would even argue that a lot of these people who have “made it” with their net worth, I don’t know how much they really relate to the superstructure even on the level of their family stories and ways of understanding the world. I think that in many ways we are a lot of what our parents pass on to us. It’s difficult to escape it, and no amount of money, or the right clothing will let you escape it.
CE: I can speak of the experience of passing where, people don’t immediately identify me as Latina and they will say things about Latinas/os that I find very uncomfortable. Or I’ll be around Latinas/os who will not think that I am of a certain culture, or that I don’t understand their Spanish. Which I don’t know if that’s filled with liminality, or the converse of that which is not incorporation. Both the same things, but different views of that experience.
NSZ: Well, I think it’s about what you do when you’re held in that space. So sometimes it’s liminal and sometimes it’s not, but both are uncomfortable.
CE: I see. Do you see liminality as a poet as discomfort?
NSZ: Not always. I think it’s more about being subversive. Sometimes there’s real freedom in being subversive, and it can be very liberating in a positive way that can almost be euphoric. And then, sometimes it’s really painful, and it’s hard to put yourself in that liminoid space. In the liminoid, you’re also taking experiences from liminal acts and incorporating them into this idea of creating liminoid phenomenon. That’s why it can be painful to create real liminoid phenomenon because you have to put yourself in that space again, and take from it, and mine it. So as an artist you’re taking from myth in that moment, it’s not always from personal experience, it can be much deeper than that.
CE: And now when you say it’s painful, I wonder if it’s painful because to be subversive you have to work in the shadows, there has to be more of a risk. I don’t know what relationship risk has to visibility or invisibility because the trickster may be visible, but in disguise. The trickster can appear, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that their identity is clear, true, or uniform. I don’t know, I’m very interested in all of these notes and figures you’re working with in order to describe the liminal and the liminoid.
NSZ: Physical spaces are so important in being a writer, so when you’re writing for the purposes of writing from that discomfort to create liminoid phenomenon, where do you feel the most free to create and question?
CE: Well, I think that I choose to be in a space surrounded by books, so my office can be that space. If I’m in bed writing, which I often do decide to write in bed, I call it the Proust roost because it’s said that Proust often wrote in bed. So even the bed itself has to be cluttered with books and papers. So the words of others, I have to have the books open and refer to ones that’ll be an irritant or a seed to spur something on that’s my own. I’m describing a place of solitude as well, and somewhat quiet, but then sometimes I can really work within a coffeeshop where I create a solitude within this boisterous and loud place where people are meeting, and working, and talking. Those describe the places where I actually do some writing.
Sometimes writing happens in a bus on a commute. Which I suppose can be a liminal space, in that it is a transition, not exactly painful, not exactly liminal in the other ways, it’s certainly not a sacred space, but that it has to take place in a kind of respite of the day in which I’m not exactly in a class, I’m not at that destination, or at home. Similarly walking, jotting things down on paper, so that it happens between moments. I know Wallace Stevens would do this, he would walk to work, jot things down on pieces of paper, and then give them to his secretary who would transcribe them for him. I don’t have a secretary that’s going to do that work for me.
And while I agree that writing poems is inherently subversive, inherently not how someone would measure a good way of spending one’s time because it doesn’t equal money, and that it doesn’t have a value that can be commodified in that way, I definitely don’t sit down and think I am being subversive. I don’t sit down and think I am questioning the superstructure in this poem…
NSZ: …No, that would be probably lead to not doing it at all…
CE:…that would be. But that space, if we are to conceive of it as a space, must be alone and apart. Turner’s description of that demarcation of sacred space and the non-sacred space is useful in this way because I do enter this apartness, this asocial space, where I’m answerable only to this transformation that’s about to take place, the poem that’s about to be written. I mean, wouldn’t you agree that it is a kind of sacred space and time?
NSZ: Yes, it is a sacred space and time and it is something that you really have to fight for as a writer. Not just societally, but even in your personal life. As in, I need this time and this space to do this especially as a woman, and I can imagine as a mother. We have to fight for it, even on the level of the domestic sphere.
CE: Yes, and to fight for it means to recognize that it should be a priority. And so often, the domestic sphere of our lives demands that we not prioritize writing and making, especially as women and mothers. People will understand if I can’t get to something because life gets in the way. If I can’t finish an essay they will see that, well, of course my son needing to go to the doctor is more important, or needing to pick him up from school is more important than sitting and ruminating. So time is something to defend.
Carolina Ebeid was granted a 2015 NEA Creative Writing Fellowship in Poetry, and has received awards and fellowships from the Stadler Center, CantoMundo, Bread Loaf Writers Conference, and the Academy of American Poets. Recent work appears in Linebreak, Sixth Finch, and the Colorado Review, and her first book will be published by Noemi Press in 2016 as part of their Akrilica series. She holds an MFA from the Michener Center for Writers, and has begun a PhD in the University of Denver's creative writing program.