Interviewed by Millicent Borges Accardi
“You’re both Portuguese.” This was how a friend introduced me to the poet and novelist Frank Gaspar at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference in the early 1990s when I was at the hotel bar, waiting for my Maker’s Mark. We talked about New Bedford, Massachusetts, kale soup and linguisa, but mostly we talked about Portuguese literature and why the work of Portuguese-American writers often seems to be invisible. Fast forward five years, Gaspar and I were teaching writing in the same department at Long Beach City College; he was a tenured professor, and I was a lowly adjunct. In the years since our initial meeting, Gaspar has become a cherished mentor, literary adviser, and trusted friend.
Born and raised in the old Portuguese West End of Provincetown, Massachusetts, Gaspar is a graduate of the University of California, Irvine’s MFA program and the author of five poetry collections and two novels. Among his many awards are the Morse, Anhinga, and Brittingham prizes for poetry, four Pushcart Prizes, fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, and the California Arts Council. His debut novel, Leaving Pico, was a Barnes and Noble Discover Award winner, and a New York Times notable book. His second novel, Stealing Fatima, was a Massachusetts Center for the Book’s MassBook of the Year in Fiction.
Gaspar’s literary work provides readers with an insider’s view of the rich ethnic Portuguese culture of Provincetown. He has crossed the boundary of poetry and fiction, especially with his newest novel, The Poems of Renata Ferreira (Tagus Press, 2020). The book is a hybrid of fiction, history, poetry, and artifacts
In The Poems of Renata Ferreira, the foreword is essentially an inventive narrative about the fictional character of “Frank G,” (loosely based on Frank X. Gaspar himself) a young man living in Provincetown during the Vietnam War era. He befriends a mysterious older Portuguese woman named Renata, who creates assemblage art and becomes a muse to Frank G. In turn, he becomes smitten with this free-spirited artist, and they form an adventurous alliance, fueled by sex, drugs, and literature, until Frank G ships out to Vietnam.
Renata’s poems in the novel, originally crafted in Portuguese, are bequeathed to the fictional Frank G, and the real-life Frank Gaspar translates these verses into English. While the character of Renata is best understood through her poetry, there is a magic surrounding her. Erotic. Unexplainable. Intense. In this interview, Gaspar intentionally maintains an air of mystery about whether Renata is real. While Frank G is based on the author, Frank Gaspar, Renata seems to have grown out of a combination of people and events from his life—whether she is, indeed, a woman the author knew, or an ethereal being he channels through his literary practice, Renata is as real as any memory can be.
Frank Gaspar’s books include three novels: The Poems of Renata Ferreira, Tagus Press, January 2020, Stealing Fatima, Counterpoint, 2009 and Leaving Pico , Hardscrabble Books, University Press of New England, 1999 and Deixando a Ilha do Pico (Portuguese translation) Edicoes Salamandra, Lisbon, 2002 and five collections of poetry: Late Rapturous, Autumn House Press, 2012; Night of a Thousand Blossoms , Alice James Books, 2004; A Field Guide to the Heavens , Wisconsin University Press, 1999; Mass for the Grace of a Happy Death, Anhinga Press, 1994 and The Holyoke, Northeastern University Press, 1988 and (reprint) Portuguese in America Series, University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, 2007.
This interview was completed over a number of weeks, via email and phone conversations, during the fall of 2020, and it has been edited here for clarity and length.
Millicent Borges Accardi: In your new book The Poems of Renata Ferreira you are, technically, the transcriber and annotator of a treasure trove of poetry artifacts. How did you get started sorting through Renata’s crate of work?
There are two origination stories to Renata and her work. The first is essentially the “foreword” of the book, which follows my early days, knowing Renata as one of the bohemian roomers in my house and neighborhood in my quest journey to New York. Renata plays a large part of my coming-of-age in both stages of my life. She disappears then reappears and leaves a fish with my old typewriter and artifacts and papers—including, of course, the manuscript of the poems.
The second origination story: In the fall of 2015, I was sitting on my back porch working on a novel. Suddenly I found myself writing a poem. Only I wasn’t writing it. It was crazy. It came all at once, and not from me. It came through me, perhaps, but it just came.
This happened again and again, totally interrupting my writing and coming from someplace and someone quite other than me. Soon that was all I could do—receive these poems, always completely taking me over, always all at once. If I was not at the keyboard when a poem came, I lost it. I remember driving more than once, yelling, “No, no, wait, not now,” but it didn’t matter. In 2016 I received an invitation to Mercer University in Macon, Georgia, to serve as the Ferrol A. Sams Distinguished Writer. I was housed on campus in a vast, empty, antebellum mansion. It was a beautiful space to work in, and I had it all to myself. Renata became more and more insistent that I take down her poems, and by the time I came back to LA, I had the stack of her poems that would become her book. Finally, I began sorting them. The book seemed to find itself. I only held back about a half dozen poems.
This seemed to be my next book, but of course it was Renata’s book. So I had some long talks with Chris Larkosh, my editor, and I told him I would write a foreword. The book became a hybrid—prose and poetry and memoir bumping into one another. You will see the two epigraphs in the book are from heteronyms of Fernando Pessoa. But Renata is not made up. She is real on some level. It’s a very strange experience. Renata’s appearance has nothing to do with my conscious will. I believe she was an eruption of some part of my psyche that remains unavailable to me. Unless she returns. I have not heard from her.
In the narrative, you tell the story of Frankie G’s time in New York. This section is based on your own experience, and the sex and drug use is pretty explicit. What memories did you decide to leave out?
That would be another book. I can say that my time in New York was dangerous, at times despairing, and always a strange tension between knowing I had to shape the arc of my life and being utterly lost to that idea. I came very close to harming myself more than once. It was a wonderful time only in retrospect. It galvanized me. I mean, I was just a kid. I was ignorant, I was fearless. I read, I wrote, I lived on the very edge, and there was nothing romantic or fanciful about it. Everything I wrote during that time was lost. Writing this now, I can see some of those pages, I can see scenes. To leave you with two images: I was almost shot; I carried a scary knife. But yet I roamed bookstores and pounded my Underwood. I was insanely in love with the city. You can imagine, coming from the West End in Provincetown, and suddenly trying to settle into what seemed the center of the world. It ate me up at the same time that it started my real life.
What encouraged you to delve into Renata’s life and her belongings?
The search for her origin story, which I strongly felt she deserved. I felt she was too real to just be an ethereal voice channeling poetry through me. She was flesh and blood to me, and I was obligated to provide that for her. The book needed to be about her, and not me.
What attracts you to Renata’s poetry?
It is so strange, yet perfectly readable. It moves all over and can take up several states of mind, political realities, philosophical questions, declarations of emotion, all at once. It’s full of propulsive energy. Also, the references to the Portuguese Revolution of 1974 sent me looking for facts, sent me finding about what she was alluding to. I did know much of that from my own reading and from going to Lisbon and talking with friends and so forth, but she took me deeper. For instance, would be that I knew from the poems that she retyped censored material. So, I had to look into women rescripting and disseminating banned material. I found that it was real, and that it had a history going back to the early communists in Portugal.
Of what significance is the red carnation on the book cover? To the work inside? To Portugal? To you?
On April 25, 1974, when the rebels against fascism entered Lisbon (without firing a shot), the spring harvest of carnations was taking place, and the flower sellers had carnations in great abundance. Although word had been sent to keep the streets clear in case of fighting, people were overjoyed that the soldiers had come and they filled the streets.
A woman named Celeste Martins Caeiro was said to be the first to give flowers to the soldiers. Soon all the gun barrels were adorned with carnations. Carnations everywhere. This is how the overthrow of the fascists became known as the Carnation Revolution. When I had all of Renata’s poems I didn’t quite know what to do with them. I stupidly did not send any to magazines. But it was the Carnation Revolution that pushed me to put her book together and get it out to the public. It is such a beautiful story.
Of course, Renata knew that. She was in the resistance. It might be why she gave me the poems.
Renata’s poems are layered and deal with the Portuguese Revolution and women as lovers. How are the two connected? Do you feel as if female energy contributed to the so-called nonviolent Carnation Revolution?
Like in the poem, “Swans”:
sun finally on the shelves, sun on the cast iron sink
sun after the grey days of fog and the long bells
from the river, I can open a book, all the clocks stop.
I admire the books, they were not put in the world
to be fucked or weep in the mornings for no reason
even though they kept all that inside themselves,
they loved me best, I can read and fall asleep in the sun
the book will surrender and settle on my chest
Women were very important in the resistance, which was progressive and inclusive, and the resistance led the public to understand that they were not helpless, even with the draconian regime curtailing their activities. Millicent, as you know, our mutual friend, Teresa Alves, whom I acknowledge in the book, and who wrote cover copy, is the widow of Vitor Alves, one of the masterminds of the coup. Teresa was there every step of the way and was also active after.
How do you shake off the Renata-ness of the poetry when writing new non-Renata poems? Do you get lost in the rabbit hole? A little like a dream?
To be sure, I am struggling with that. In some of my new poems, I’ve gotten the comment, “This is sounding like Renata here” or “Too much Renata in this line.” Really it was like possession, being possessed. She is her own complete being as far as my psyche and processes know.
In your opinion, what is the lost history of Renata? Before you knew her and after? Where did she first disappear to after she left NYC?
I believe she ended up in Lisbon eventually, of course. That she came back to Provincetown briefly in the ’80s is somewhat puzzling. I do very much believe that she is interested in finding Sappho’s lost scrolls—if any exist.
Renata would be in her eighties at the time that I write this. She was always athletic and vigorous, and I have little doubt that she is still a vital force, wherever she might be. I would like to collaborate with her in the search for the lost Sappho, but the initiative is up to her, not me.
Renatus, a first name of Latin origin, means “born again” (natus = born). In Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish, it exists in a masculine and feminine form i.e., Renato and Renata. In what way is Renata born again?
In a way, she was born in me, somehow. When the poems began coming I had the experience of an entity separate from me, but after I began putting the book together I sensed that Renata was inside me, or a part of me, my psyche. Either case could be true. This is not a usual phenomenon, but I learned that Joyce Carol Oates wrote The Poisoned Kiss while being dictated to by a Portuguese man named Fernandes. But Oates’ account, how Fernandes would not let her do her own work each day until he was finished dictating to her, seems very close to my experience with Renata as my muse.
If Renata is or were alive, what would she think of this book? Can you imagine her reading it?
Oh, man, she would dig the book. She would probably look at her poems and point to things she wished she had put in or taken out. You know—poet stuff. And then she would give me a hard time about New York. “Coitado,” she’d say, “you left out so much. You made everything too tame!”
Millicent Borges Accardi, a Portuguese-American writer, is the author of two poetry books, most recently Only More So (Salmon Poetry). Her awards include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Fulbright, CantoMundo, Creative Capacity, the California Arts Council, The Corporation of Yaddo, Fundação Luso-Americana, and Barbara Deming Foundation. She lives in Topanga (canyon). Other ACM works: “Dispatch from a Pandemic: Topanga, California” and “I Abandon you Each Night.”