Susannah Rodríguez Drissi, an award-winning Cuban-born poet, writer, playwright, translator, director, producer and scholar, has a connection to UCLA dating back more than 10 years. She first taught while pursuing a doctorate in comparative literature. After graduating, she returned to UCLA as a lecturer and visiting research fellow. And for two years she has been a faculty member in UCLA Writing Programs.

“I enjoy working closely with students and inciting in them a passion for both the written word and also the spoken word,” Rodríguez Drissi said. “I make it point to remind my students that good writing also involves developing one’s writing pitch. Much like a musician, a writer must develop the ability to recognize given sounds, and the way those sounds work together toward a specific effect. You check your pitch, I tell them, by reading your work out loud.”

She says that she is proud to contribute to the writing program’s commitment to teaching and student mentorship in a climate that often values research over teaching.

As a scholar, Rodríguez Drissi’s research focuses on Latin American literatures and cultures, with a special focus on Caribbean literatures and cultures, particularly Cuba. This research focuses on the links between Latin America, the Caribbean and the Arab world, especially focusing on Cuba and North Africa. She also has interests in postcolonial studies, translation studies, transglobal trends and medical humanities.

She recently published a new collection of poetry titled “The Latin Poet’s Guide to the Cosmos” (Floricanto Press, 2019), a collection that transcends the barriers of language by drawing from Romance languages, especially Spanish, Italian and French, but also words from Berber, the language of the indigenous population of North Africa.

Rodríguez Drissi, who will be participating in book launch, signing and Q&A at the Last Bookstore on Monday, July 29, talked about her new poetry collection with UCLA Newsroom.  

Your book is a multi-lingual experience, and you come from multi-disciplinary background as a poet, playwright, translator, and director. How does your background inform your work? For example, how do you choose which language to use when?

I’m a comparatist by training and a bricoleur by circumstance, so multi- and interdisciplinarity are at the heart of everything I do. Having grown up in Cuba during the Cuban Revolution of 1959, I had very little in terms of manufactured toys — imagination and “imagineering” were everything. I invented what I didn’t have and repurposed what was available. It’s been the way I approach everything I do. I am at my best when presented with obstacles, limits, puzzles, etcetera.

I write in Spanish and English and at some point, I’ve also written in French. Deciding between English and Spanish — my two primary languages — has never been an issue, except in terms of the work’s availability to reach an audience that has yet to master the language of the text. That inability to reach both English and Spanish speakers is always an anxiety-producing reality. However, choosing the language of the text itself is not often a choice I consciously make — the story, poem or play comes to me in either English or Spanish. With “The Latin Poet’s Guide to the Cosmos,” language turns a bit unruly, doesn’t it? It refuses to stay in place, to obey categories, rules, borders. Language in “The Latin Poet’s Guide” was anything but obedient to me or my wishes; instead, I let it flow, overtake and overcome. The reader who takes the journey and reads the 26 poems that make up the collection is a reader willing to surrender. I, too, had to surrender while writing it.

The poems in “The Latin Poet’s Guide” are written at the intersection of several Romance languages, especially Spanish, Italian and French, but I have also included Berber words, such as “thamurtheu,” for example, which means homeland. The Berber or Tamazight language is the native tongue of the indigenous population of North Africa. Its inclusion in the collection is a nod to the cultural and linguistic exchanges that have taken place for centuries between North Africa and parts of Europe and, thus, by extension, and through the process of colonization, also the so-called “New World.” Much like the bricoleur, I used the languages I had at my disposal, and imagined what I didn’t have or wasn’t readily available to me. The result is something (almost) entirely new.

Your collection is also described as a cross-linguistic piece. How do you believe writing in multiple languages can enhance a poetic work for a reader?

I am not so much writing in multiple languages as using multiple languages to inspire a new form of expression. I rely a great deal on sound and sound associations to both construct and defer meaning. Poetry is a combination of sound, image and meaning, I believe. If you tinker enough with sound and meaning, you ultimately reach a kind of cosmic experience of infinite interpretations, of infinite images. Thus, in “The Latin Poet’s Guide,” the reader is not reading only 26 poems, but 1,001 poems — that is, an infinite number of poems. As Verónica García Moreno so perfectly describes it for the Los Angeles Review of Books, “The Latin Poet’s Guide” is “a book to forget other books […] A book that does not end, that is never reached, and thus, reaches toward us.” For the reader, the experience of encountering a language that they don’t understand may be frustrating, but the rewards of taking the journey are many: for one, discovering that every word in action becomes both beautiful and meaningful in the light of its own context.

Your research focuses on Latin American literatures and cultures. How has your Cuban heritage influenced your writing?

Being Cuban is who I am, how I have come of age — it is a given, and something I don’t feel the need to either question or defend; but, I hope that it is not my only lens, as that would be rather limiting. Instead, being Cuban is one of the many ways I approach both my academic and also my creative work; it is not, however, the only way. I take pride in my ability to look at the world through a double lens, both inside and outside of Cuban culture. When attempting to understand something, however, I prefer the bird’s eye view.

Firmat’s review of your book says “The reader who accepts the challenge will come away from the collection with a renewed understanding of the ways in which our languages anchor us and set us adrift.” What challenges and understandings do you think this book presents to its readers? Was that something that you were writing toward?

On encountering these poems, the reader cannot make out descriptions of places or things, in any concrete way — but their interest is oddly piqued by their ability to recognize “something.” The experience is synesthetic, if you will, as the reader is forced to squint with the ears in an effort to understand. In much the same way as the diasporic, displaced individual desperately seeks to recognize and be recognized, so do these poems allow for the reader to experience a desperate need to understand a language that seems strangely familiar but that, alas, they cannot make out, except for moments of sound association that serve as emotional ciphers to the rest of the poem. 

I sought to play with sound, to allow myself total creative freedom to explore language and its bifurcations and multifurcations, its incantatory power. The collection speaks in tongues, many tongues — that, in itself, is magical. But, it isn’t all about magical play, is it? There’s also a very concerted attempt to define Latinity or, for our purposes, Latinidad, in terms of language. Ultimately, it is my hope that the collection offers some valuable insights into the nature of language and identity, as well as the relationship between sound and meaning. It offers an illuminated and illuminating side of exile that finds expression in language’s un-mendable rifts, as well as its joys and its remarkable labor of transformation. My warning to the reader is as follows: Take heart, this collection is not for the faint of tongue.

What do you hope people take away from reading Cosmos?

It’s simple, really. I would love nothing more than for the reader to feel the same joy while reading the poems that I felt while writing them and, most importantly, while reading them out loud. If I accomplish that, then I’ll consider the collection a huge success — my job, a job well done. Beyond that, it is up to the reader, I think.