I asked Millicent Borges Accardi to sit for an interview about poetry in general and her newest book, Quarantine Highway, specifically. This book was written during the first part of the Covid-19 pandemic. I think you’re going to be as interested in her answers as I was!
How did you come to poetry? Did you read poetry as a child? Write it? Or did you come to it later?
My first grade teacher Hope Virtue was the daughter of Harlem Renaissance poet Claude McKay and most days she read poetry to the class—whether we liked it or not.
As a teacher, she ran a tight ship, regularly ordering boys into the corner with their hands on their head, and Mrs. Virtue had particular punishments for me and my friends (for talking too much), one trick was she made us sit at our desks and hold our lips shut (like ducks) so, in that sense, she was not my favorite teacher –but the poetry?
Especially on rainy days, Mrs. Virtue would close the grey venetian blinds and read verses her father wrote. Perhaps magical, but I disliked the teacher at the time so my opinion is complicated. Yet, looking back, I feel blessed. For days spent so early in my life, to know poetry in that way. She never talked down to us. She just read poem after poem. Such a gift now, I think.
As far as Luther Burbank school knew, poetry meant that we stood up and recited “Trees” by Joyce Kilmer from our textbook, which was nowhere near as interesting as the verses Mrs. Virtue read to us, like “Courage,”
O lonely heart so timid of approach,
Like the shy tropic flower that shuts its lips
To the faint touch of tender finger tips:
What is your word? What question would you broach?
Your lustrous-warm eyes are too sadly kind
To mask the meaning of your dreamy tale,
Your guarded life too exquisitely frail
Against the daggers of my warring mind.
There is no part of the unyielding earth,
Even bare rocks where the eagles build their nest,
Will give us undisturbed and friendly rest.
No dewfall softens this vast belt of dearth.
But in the socket-chiseled teeth of strife,
That gleam in serried files in all the lands,
We may join hungry, understanding hands,
And drink our share of ardent love and life.
She wore turbans, dangly earrings and colorful robes and gestured with arms adorned by heavy brass and gold bracelets (that rang like thick bells when she moved). And, when we were good? There were scoopfuls of pastel marshmallows (taken from a glass jar on her desk) and more poetry. There was always poetry.
Claude McKay By James L. Allen – http://www.si.umich.edu/CHICO/Harlem/text/mckay_slide.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8220852
Your new book, Quarantine Highway, probes deeply into how it feels to live in a now that is radically different from a then that we were removed from only by months. Although we are almost three years from the start of Covid now, your poems make me remember how different things were before spring 2020—because we still have not gone back to before: “Do you / remember that time when we held everything / in our arms tightly, as if we knew what we were talking about.” There is a metaphysical sense to these poems that seems different from your last book, Through a Grainy Landscape. Did you plan that or model it on a certain school of poetry or a certain poet’s work? Or was it that you were writing these during the first year of “quarantine” and were questioning our concepts of existence, living, and knowledge?
In a way Grainy Landscape was modeled after the poems and writings I was reading in translation from the Portuguese and the work was less desperate and gentler. There was a hope and an ease and less franticness to my life and my writing There seemed to be an endless pathway of hope, that anything was possible, the lush landscape of Portugal and The Azores—with influences by writers such as João Miguel Fernandes Jorge, Armando Silva Carvalho, Margarida Vale de Gato and the title taken from lines in a poem Tiago Araújo:
I’ve driven all night through a grainy landscape, on a motorway with dim and orangey lights
And the tone for the book is inspired by this passage:
The light crossing the room between
the two windows is always the same, although
on one side it’s west – where the sun is now – and on
the other it’s east – where the sun has already been.
But? the Covid and its fall-out (especially) impacted our world and put a lid on my writing. I would say. The work in Quarantine Highway are more self-contained and fenced in. Quarantine was written as a way out. Attempting to reach out and create connections, to deal with what everyone says is “the new normal,” a phrase I hate, as if things were now different and stuck. Forever stuck.
But then also, Good luck? Bad luck? Too soon to tell. There were a lot of pandemic tragedies and also a re-setting of how we do things as a society. One bright spot was, when the national parks were shut down, miraculously native plants and wildlife returned. The same is true for waterways. So many rivers and creeks, with an absence of tourists and fishermen suddenly rejuvenated. And people too, reanalyzed their work-life recipes and started to make different choices, more people working remotely and children being homeschooled, there was more reading and baking bread. A slowing down of the Type A lifestyle that a whole generation of people had been used to—People began to reconsider what they valued versus money and material goods, health and quality of life.
I was desperate to reach out, when writing Quarantine Highway, through social media, Zoom meetings and literary events, books. The written word. Latching onto old habits like knitting and growing food from seed.
The poems in Quarantine Highway were inspired by the work of Emily Perez, Rosebud Ben-Oni, Carl Marcum, Amy Sayre Baptista, Norma Cantu, Ángel García, Eduardo C. Corral, Carolina Ebeid, Diana Marie Delgado, Sheryl Luna, Laurie Ann Guerrero, Luivette Resto, Leticia Hernández-Linares, Ire’ne Lara Silva, Raina León, Javier Zamora, Juan Morales–
Here’s the final poem in the book (that I think lends a sense of hopefulness)
from a line by Pablo Neruda
Wet was the light as we saw it
through a threadbare lens
of what we call time or that period
of waiting between what will happen
next and what we regret having happened,
the hard-bad opposite of a world hunch or an omen,
the silent-low sense of doom to come,
a spirit arising in the country we
call home, the desire for isolation,
desperately to be different, the
unexplored nonsense of late.
This is the air in the pastel room when we
are enclosed and locked up by
an intense wondering and fear
of comfort fear of letting our guard
down and forgetting to protect ourselves
from nearly everything we can imagine,
even the scrape of skin upon
our hands, the whispered hello
of a neighbor or a child playing in the creek
below the yard where there are dirt
banks instead of lawn. We are who
we choose to become, are becoming
or perhaps we mean we are who we
are sentenced to be, a corona crown
of in the if and now and meant for always
that time is a path to follow, as we near the
day of the year when June rises
her longest glance of a day and tells us
it is all right to enter.
At the same time that these poems seem metaphysical, they contain beautiful and surprising images of the physical world. In the poem “Yes it’s Difficult,” I was particularly struck by a description of how we interacted with each other before Covid: “. . . it was how we did things then, / sighing air, sipping in fine water droplets / into each other’s lungs.” It seems unimaginable now. Sorry, no question. I just really wanted to say how much I loved these images in the book.
Thank you! I appreciate that–
As far as the question, I had read about The Spanish Flu, from 1919, where 500 million people or one-third of the world’s population became infected with the virus, or 25%–30% of the world population, with over 50 million deaths, where COVID-19 has infected nearly 60 million , with 1.3 million deaths. Both pandemics significantly changed society, and nearly no one was writing artifacts about the Spanish Flu—perhaps the devastation was too much to document? And, for me, there was comfort in writing down what was and is going on, documenting the experience, creating artifacts gave me some comfort.
In the middle of that, I was re-reading TS Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” and so many parallels came up for me that I had missed when I read the work originally in college. The sparse imagery, the talks of destruction. Although published in 2022, the poem is an artifact of the aftermath or carnage from the first world war, and the Spanish Flu, among other things, of course.
From an essay by Michael Austin, “The Wasteland” is a poem that imagines what it would be like to be trapped in the wounded land – one incapable of growth, productivity, or renewal. The young Eliot saw this as a metaphor of the modern malaise …
There’s a juxtaposition in some of the poems of scenes from your youth. I found this fascinating and would love to hear you talk about it a bit.
I suppose being cooped up, in quarantine, sends one back to memories. Like being in a cage– all you have to work with are memories so you look back for analogies. You look back for examples from life because outside life is in the past. All we have is the past. Our memories of how the “outside” world used to be, before.
Some of the poems in this collection seem to have begun from a line in the poem by another poet, such as Jane Kenyon, Inês Fonseca Santos, and Pablo Neruda. I began to wonder how you begin a poem. Is there usually a mental “irritant” in the way that a pearl is formed in an oyster? Where do your poems originate?
It depends on the poem. Sometimes a line comes to me or I overhear a phrase, or read a word. An image dreamt. Many phrases drift in and out of my consciousness and/but it is the images that stick with me that I tend to write about and pursue further. Many of the poems in Quarantine Highway were inspired by poetry I was reading especially during the early days of Covid when we were all newly terrified and looking for hope and a way out on the written page.
Much of your work involves your identity as a Portuguese-American poet. I’ve read about your connections, but I’d love to hear your description of how you relate to the identity, how it informs your poetry, and your involvement in the Portuguese-American poetry community.
Portuguese-ness, is or can be complicated– Most Portuguese in the US are from The Azores, not the mainland and there were three “waves” of immigration to the US, the last significant influx being in the 1970s, and most of the migrants sought work in industries that did not require a formal education: textile mills and whaling (New Bedford), tuna fishing and dairy farms (California)—So as a child I was discouraged from learning Portuguese or asking too many questions. Because being Portuguese was seen as being “less than” or lower class. I was admonished to BE American! And yet, I was so interested in my Portuguese heritage, fascinated by it.
My dad was dark skinned and –at Sears (where he worked)– his friends were Mexican -and he easily moved between Spanish and Portuguese languages. We went to festas in Artesia and San Pedro, San Diego — BUT I did not live in a distinctly Luso area like Ferry Street (in New Jersey), “Little Portugal” in San Jose or New Bedford, MA (where the ATMS are in Portuguese)—
In junior high, I was bused across town because of my Hispanic last name, Borges. For me, personally, as a adult and as a writer I have felt freer to explore my own identity by participating in Portuguese communities, giving readings and workshops, like the Kale Soup for the Soul cooperative, a group of writers reading work about family, food and Luso culture. The terrific lectures and talks that Diniz Borges at the Portuguese Beyond Borders Institute presents– In the past twenty years, I have interviewed maybe 60 or 70 writers, artists , actors, musicians in the Portuguese community (in an effort to understand where I come from).
Here is an older poem that illustrates my childhood, trying to explore my own identity (from Only More So, Salmon Poetry 2016):
Like God and his Eve,
you never passed on
your secrets; I struggled
to learn. Coitadinho, coitadinho.
Never sure which accent to
migrate towards; which window pane
to breathe on for the best cursive fog.
I shunned the loud
The visiting relatives, named for saints,
Over and over, in the driveway
at night, drunken Uncle John or Paul,
or Robert crashed his truck
into the side of our house:
filha da puta!
While you went to night school
two nights a week–for twenty years,
and ate linguiça sandwiches,
I watched and listened.
I would catch you: sitting at
Rudy the barber’s chair
I would sneak up behind to hear
At school, I pronounced our name
as you taught me,
as an Englishman would:
flat and plain, riming it with
a word for “pretty.”
After a while it seemed
that someone else
had heard a grandmother’s
lullabies at night:
a verse that sounded like
a baby’s cries for milk,
wanting the nipple:
Mamã eu quero, Mamã eu quero
As you grow older, papa,
I long for a language that joins us,
beyond our last name,
the space between our front teeth,
and wavy black hair.
kale soup and sweet bread.
But, the only Portuguese words
you ever gave me do not stand for love.
Que queres, que queres.
What do you want, what do you want.
How does being a Los Angeles poet inform your work? I wondered this, in part, because of the title of this book. I lived in Riverside County for decades and so I traveled to LA often. An overwhelming image I have of LA, therefore, is the vast freeway system, but of course, you live there, so you have many other perspectives of the city. Do you feel that the city does or does not inform your poems?
It’s funny but even though I was born in Long Beach (LA County) no one seems to consider me an LA writer. Even though many of my poems and essays feature landscape and places in Southern California, like Venice, Santa Monica, downtown LA, Topanga, the beaches along PCH, the mountains. And most of my publications have been in non-local literary journals and presses. I just had a poem in The Citadel (Los Angeles City College magazine, and it was one of the only local credits I have had. This is also true for readings and events. For some reason, when I get lucky enough to be invited for a featured reading or to teach a workshop, it’s nearly always on the East Coast or in Texas.
But perhaps I did not respond to your question properly? Where I live and where I travel informs my work, definitely. For example, I wrote a lot more gritty poems about the Boardwalk and the coming an goings of the vendors and homeless population when I lived in Venice and since I have been in the hippie enclave of Topanga. My work reflects the creek, the seasonal birds and wildlife from the Santa Monica mountains and the canyon roadways, more rural settings. Definitely affected is the fact that we have only one road, Topanga Canyon Blvd, in and out of the canyon where live and our lives tend to be framed and formed by that one main artery. During floods, storms, fires—we have one very rickety and curvy way out. My hippie shack is near a place called Edelman Park, which is a wildlife corridor, which means we get a fair amount of rattle snakes, coyotes, rabbits, racoon, bobcats, hawks, squirrels and even deer. Once I was on the deck and the backyard was foggy and like a magical spell, two deer arose up from the mist and looked at me—then scampered away. We also have a family of coopers hawks who circle the yard and hang out (looking for food I would imagine) but it s also a mystical experience when one alights on our wooden foot bridge–
Are you already at work on a next project? If so, do you mind sharing what you have in mind or are working on?
I am in the midst of poems LOOSELY based on the psalms, but not in a traditional way, not an interpretation. Mostly, as the psalms are sorted thru and buttressed into the messy world we are still enmeshed in —
Find out more about Millicent Borges Accardi and Quarantine Highway:
Link to Quarantine Highway on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/195344735X/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i8
Quarantine Highway Blurbs
With an immigrant lens that defies and armed with a linguistic deftness that challenges, these poems grind against expectations and bust open the façade, the nuance, and go straight to the heart. —Norma E. Cantú
Amid a global pandemic, the ceaseless wildfires of California, a political landscape of turmoil, Millicent Borges Accardi offers us a powerful collection of self-reckoning. —Ángel García, author of Teeth Never Sleep
- Millicent Borges Accardi, an NEA fellow, is a Portuguese-American writer. She has four poetry collections including Only More So (Salmon Poetry Ireland). Among her awards are fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, California Arts Council, CantoMundo, Fulbright, Foundation for Contemporary Arts NYC (Covid grant), Yaddo, Creative Capacity, Fundação Luso-Americana, and Barbara Deming Foundation, “Money for Women.” She lives in the hippie-arts community of Topanga, CA.
@TopangaHippie on Twitter