The moment I opened my eyes, I knew it would be a bad day. The throbbing pain on the left side of my head made it clear that I had a migraine. I was already overwhelmed with everything I had to do, and the migraine made it worse.
My husband and I had just purchased an apartment in the heart of Old San Juan. It was a beautiful old colonial full of charm and history. And it was a lifelong dream of mine to own one. But the amount of work I had to do to get it ready for the renters that would, hopefully, help us pay the mortgage was almost a nightmare.
So, I got out of bed, determined to find coffee and some serenity. I decided to take the morning off and wander the old city, soaking up the sights for the millionth time. Usually, I could stare at one of the old buildings for hours, imagining the lives that had lived there or sit on a bench in the plaza all afternoon, enjoying the cool breeze while people-watching.
But this time, it wasn’t working. I kept thinking about everything I had to do. The pain in my head was piercing, and the warm air just felt hot and sticky. I felt myself getting cranky. And every beautiful old building I looked at just flashed dollar signs at me.
I headed to the store to get an iced something with caffeine. And as I passed a ruin of what a hundred years ago was some family’s home, I stopped. I had seen this particular ruin too many times to count. But this time, it called out to me.
So, I got closer as thoughts of how many repairs and cleaning it would take to fix the building popped up in my mind. And I got crankier. But I still crossed the street and looked through a dilapidated wood frame that at one time had been a window. The boards that had covered it had partially fallen away from time and decay, but the Spanish colonial wooden bars were still strong.
As I looked in and saw the deterioration and collapse and the piles of garbage, a ginger cat stared back. He stood out from everything around him, and it wasn’t just because of the color of his fur. It was also because of the calm and serenity that emanated from him. I could feel it travelling through the air and washing over me.
I’m not the type of person who claims to talk to animals and hear them respond. However, that day and at that moment, I could swear that that cat had communicated with me. Or maybe it was the Universe speaking through the cat. I don’t know. But I felt it—a calmness and a sense that everything was going to be okay.
My migraine loosened its grip on me and a weight lifted as I looked at that cat. And the cat remained motionless as he stared back.
I smiled and walked away, and a sense of relief washed over me. Everything was going to be fine; I could feel it.
From then on, every time I was in Old San Juan, I would pass by those ruins and look for that ginger cat, but I never saw him. Not until three years later. Pandemic restrictions were starting to ease up, and I travelled back to Puerto Rico to check on our apartment. I was stressed and anxious about everything happening and decided to walk around my favorite colonial city. Without realizing it, I wound up in front of the same ruins. And, again, they called out to me. So, I decided to look in, and there he was.
The ginger cat stared at me just like it had before. And just like before, I felt a calmness take over. As I walked away, I smiled. Everything was going to be okay.
Teresa Douglas 0:11 Welcome, listeners the next behind the scenes from Latinx lit audio mag. I’m your host Teresa Douglas. And today we’re going to be interviewing Adrian Ernesto who is the author of Flashes and Versus…Becoming Attractions from Unsolicited Press, Between the Spine from Picture Show Press and La Belle Ajar, and We Are the Ones Possessed from Clash books and Speaking con su Sombra at Alegria Publishing. Adrian is a Colombian-American poet who lives with his wife in Los Angeles, and their adorably spoiled cat, Woody Gold. Welcome, Adrian.
Adrian Ernesto 0:51 Hi, how you doing?
Teresa Douglas 0:53 I’m really happy to have you here.
Adrian Ernesto 0:54 Hey, thank you for having me here. Because it’s an honor. And this is like my first podcast interview. So I’m kind of excited.
Teresa Douglas 1:04 And I love that I got to snag you before all the other podcasts people come calling. I have to start by telling listeners one of the things that I loved about your poem. And so let’s start with that. And then I’ll get into the questions that I normally ask our guests. But listeners first if you haven’t listened to the poem, well, I hope you have, but listen right after this, if you haven’t. One of the lovely things about this poem that really stood out to me is the way that this sort of seamlessly drifts dreamily between Spanish and English, which I really thought was a great representation in words of what’s happening in Van Gogh’s peace, Starry Starry Night. Because you look at that painting. And just the way the brushstrokes sort of swirl around, I felt like this poem did the same thing, where the words were just very dreamy, just swirling around the reader, as you’re reading them, and listening to them. And it was just gorgeous. But we’ll get into that more later on an interview. But as you know, Adrian, I start these things by telling people that we’re sitting at my kitchen table, metaphorically speaking. And it’s as if I’ve invited you over. And of course, I’m going to want to serve something to you, just to be polite. And if I were going to serve you your favorite comfort food, what would that be?
Adrian Ernesto 2:38 I love cheeseburgers. I love them. My wife and I actually go to this little cafe it’s in Seal Beach because we’d like to go by the ocean and especially being a poet and being by the water. It’s such an inspiration. We actually go away every year for Thanksgiving, we have a tradition of going to La Jolla and so whenever I’m near the water, I get waves of inspiration and it inspires so many poems. And over there at Seal Beach, they make the best burgers and my wife and I go and walk along the pier. And it’s the best lunch I ever I get. Burgers with my baby at the beach. So I love myself a good cheeseburger.
Teresa Douglas 3:36 I have to ask, are you like one of those quarter pounder, big slab of meat burger people or are you like tiny burgers with gourmet things on it or something between?
Adrian Ernesto 3:49 Well, I used to be like the quarter pounder but I’m older now. I love it when it’s charbroiled with either cheddar American cheese and oh my god some french fries. That’s like, that’s ideal. I don’t have the burgers as often as I used to. I eat more healthy stuff. But last time we had I had a cheeseburger was we’re flying back from San Antonio because we went to go visit my parents and we landed in, in Las Vegas, and there’s this place we went to and they had Oh my gosh. It was like seven the morning and I was like I’m having a burger because I need to have my burger fix!
Teresa Douglas 4:37 Yeah, sometimes you just need it. That is the classic comfort food. I think. I mean fries. It’s like those dirty little secrets. You don’t really need fries. Nobody really needs fries. But we sometimes we just need fries to you know, just the whole package. See now I’m hungry. Thank you for sharing that I would definitely want to serve you cheeseburgers if you were sitting at my kitchen table with fries that we would probably have to arm for. Well, let’s switch from talking about food, which is always important, but to something more important. And talk a little bit about you because again, you sent this lovely poem in. And can you just tell our listeners how long you’ve been writing? Is this been a long-term thing? Let’s just jump into it. What’s, what’s your story?
Adrian Ernesto 5:27 Well, when I was seven years old, mi pappi gave me his antique typewriter. That’s when I started writing like Star Trek fan fiction and sports newsletters. But it wasn’t until I was in elementary school that I discovered poetry. My teacher, Mr. Babcock had us memorize poems, and then we would have to memorize them and recite them to the class. And the first poem that I loved was Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken. But it wasn’t until like later on all that seeped into my DNA. It wasn’t until my bachelor undergrad years at the University of Texas at San Antonio when I first rediscovered my love of the verse, and, the Beats were an introduction and then I just started. I had an old woman in my class that told me if you want to seduce a woman, you should use the poems or be inspired by the poems of Pablo Neruda. So, I took her advice, and I seduced her.
Teresa Douglas 6:52 I think that must be advice that gets out to a lot of places. I remember going into one of my MFA classes, and strangely not in that class, but in the Spanish class I was in after that, and someone said, Yes if you are trying to seduce somebody, you need to read Neruda because this is how you do it. And they were not wrong. They’re not wrong. Those are wonderful poems. And it’s interesting because I talk to different people. And we need to give props to our teachers, because you were not the first person who said that they were turned on to poetry, because of something a teacher did in school quite early, that maybe built that foundation. So thank you, to all you teachers out there.
Adrian Ernesto 7:47 You don’t know how, how important it is. Because at the time, I was like, Why do I have to memorize these poems? And now I’m like, if I hadn’t memorized those poems. I wouldn’t be a poet right now.
Teresa Douglas 7:58 Yeah. And so to all the teachers out there, thank you, you matter, and we appreciate you. So that’s how you started and it sounds like then the poetry has been. Maybe not the first thing you wrote, but definitely your most enduring love. Because you’ve been doing poetry for some time now. Is that true?
Adrian Ernesto 8:21 Absolutely. La poesea es mi amor, it’s my love, and even my wife knows how much I love poetry because she inspires and I give her the most intimate pieces that she hangs on the wall over our bed. She gets the best ones. Like there was a poem that I submitted, that I wrote to her as a gift. And I actually had to, like, edit out a lot of the more risque parts, which she loves. But you know, I had to send it in. A couple years ago, I was all about yeah, let’s get all the carnal images. But now I’m kind of like, let’s try to imply more. When you imply more, it gives a river reader a chance to bring in their own experiences to the poem. So that’s one of the things that I’ve learned throughout the years. Poetry is my calling. I sometimes write some cina pieces that usually center around my love of the verse. I would love to move up to writing prose. But right now poetry is still my passion, and the poems that I write, they’re me amor, and they actually give me meaning and enjoy to my life on and off the page. Whenever I’m having any kind of struggle or sadness. I write a poem, and it brings everything into focus. Like the poem that I wrote Starry Starry Light is actually a combination of two kinds of images because my mother loved Van Gogh, but she also loved the song by McLean. So when I first wrote it, it seemed like it was, I was trying to weave these two things in together. It’s kind of like a dance between the song, the painting and my memory of my mother because she inspired the book, which we’ll be talking about.
Teresa Douglas 10:40 Let’s go ahead and talk about that. That was a lovely introduction. So it sounds then that if we’re going to walk through how you wrote this piece, you started with just honoring the memory of your mother. Is that how it began?
Adrian Ernesto 10:54 Yes.
Teresa Douglas 10:56 Yeah, and because I’m not familiar with Don McLean, and for those that may not have heard, what type of music does he do?
Adrian Ernesto 11:06 Oh, he’s like a folk guy. And he wrote the song that goes, Starry Starry Night. Actually, the song is so beautiful that Roberta Flack wrote the song, Killing Me Softly with his song. It’s actually inspired by that song.
Teresa Douglas 11:24 What! I love that song.
Adrian Ernesto 11:28 My mother loved that song too, and I realized later on it’s because she loved Van Gogh, and she would replay it. And I remember, just the feeling on her face. And so it was basically the memory of her, standing in front of the painting, hearing her favorite song. It’s amazing, because I published the book, and the book is basically poems that were inspired by her, and I’ve written for her, because five, seven years ago, when I first started this career, we were broke. So the only thing I could do is give my mother poems. So I would send her these poems. And right after she passed away, my father gave me an envelope of all the poems that I had written her. And it took, like, a while for me to open those, even though I wrote those poems. So basically, I I finally opened them up. And then that’s when I started collecting, putting the poems together. And you mentioned that you like the bilingual aspect. Right before my mother’s memorial service, a lot of family and friends came out of town and one of our friends, Marianna, who knew my mother for a long time, she told me that she loved the way that I blended Spanish and English. She was the first person ever to tell me and I, at the time, I didn’t think that was much of anything. And she actually left something embedded in my mind. And so then when I first started putting these poems together, that’s an aspect that a lot of readers connect with. I was talking to a poet friend of mine, who’s a fantastic poet from Costa Rica. He’s also published with Alegria and his name is Juan Pierre Rueda. His wife is reading my book, and Juan Pierre mostly writes in Spanish these beautiful poems. To me, he’s like the modern-day Lorca, he’s such a great poet. He’s younger, and he’s such an inspiration. So he was talking to his wife and his wife told him, why don’t you write more like Adrian. And I was like, Dude, I’m sorry. Because I love the way you write. And so that was kind of interesting how something that I thought was nothing really is actually a style that I’m embracing. And now I’m working on a sequel to Sombra, which is basically all my bilingual poems and it goes further. Just because I finished the book doesn’t mean that poems for mother stopped. I keep writing more and more because she’s in my life more. I think I’m connecting with her more and there are poems for my dad. So I’m slowly working on that but right now I’m promoting the Sombra book. I also have another book coming out in April. It’s a horror death book called We’re the Ones Possessed, that I actually had to write before I could do the book of my mom’s poems. And my book before these two was La Belle Ajar, which which are poems inspired by Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar.
Adrian Ernesto 15:19 After my mom passed away, after the memorial service I came home, really depressed and very sick. And I was in my office, I turned to the bookshelf, and The Bell Jar was there and I opened it up. And I just started taking words from each of the chapters and creating these poems. So what I try to do is each chapter was one poem. So after 20 days, I had this group of poems. And I kind of felt like at the time, you know, I was missing my mother and Plath somehow became a mother figure to me and I had this poem. And so I got published, and then this horror subscription service, Night Worms selected it as one of their titles for the month, even though it wasn’t really a horror book, they just liked it. So then, after that happened, I was like, I’m dealing with, issues with death, I want to write a horror book of death poems that Night Worms will be proud of. So I challenged myself. And so I wrote, you know, these poems, and then they got picked up. And by writing that book, it actually gave me the courage to write the book for my mother. Being a Beatles fan, I actually equated to the Beatles recording, Let it Be during the dark times, and then them doing Abbey Road. So We are the Ones Possessed is my ‘Let it Be’ and Sombra is my ‘Abbey Road.’ If you’re a Beatles fan, that’s like an analogy that I like to use. But I’m really proud of both. It’s the darkness and light that is with me being Gemini. I’m proud that this book ‘We Are the Ones Possesed’ had to be published before I could write Sombra because you can actually deal with a lot of your issues if you just face them up on the page. And that’s something that I did, I’m really proud of it. And I’ve just started receiving blurbs from the horror book, and people are really loving it. So now I’m a bit busy promoting two books now. But this is what I’ve always dreamed of. So I’m really enjoying it. I’m planning a book launch at the Sims Poetry library in April. And I’m meeting a lot of poets and it’s just been a dream, you know, They say you should do what you love. And I when I wake up every morning I’m excited, okay, what am I doing today? So I’m really blessed to be able to be a poet and to write poems and send them in and be able to talk to you about my poem. Yeah, that’s amazing.
Teresa Douglas 18:19 You almost buried the lede there. I’m going to stop you . Where is this poetry reading happening? So if people are in the area, and want to attend, where do they go?
Adrian Ernesto 18:31 The poetry reading for my next book? It’s the same as poetry library in Los Angeles–
Teresa Douglas 18:43 –in Los Angeles. So folks, if you’re in Los Angeles, and after reading, or listening to Starry Starry Light, you would like more, [check that out].
Adrian Ernesto 18:55 I’m also doing some readings for Speaking Coastal Sound before that, and I’ll be doing like dual readings. But if they follow me, at the PoetNotARockstar on Instagram, you’ll see what I’m doing. Next week I’m doing a reading with two other grant poets where I’m reading poems from Sombra, it’s a Saturday afternoon poetry thing that’s usually in Pasadena, but since of the pandemic, they’re doing it online, so I’ll be reading poems from that. There are a couple things coming up. But, the book launch for the horror death is in April. And then before that, I’ll be doing an Instagram live on the day of the release, which is March 22 with some poets I absolutely adore and inspire me that live out of state. I live in LA.I wanted to invite them and they can read some of their work. And then I’ll read some of the poems from the horror. And then we’ll see where it goes from there. So I’m doing a lot of promotion, and interviews. And it’s a very busy but wonderful time in my career.
Teresa Douglas 20:24 Nobody wants this pandemic, we’d all like to see it go away as soon as possible. But it is nice, on the one hand, that if you’re doing something online, then people who are not necessarily in the area can also enjoy it. Like, I could go and I’m in Canada, right? It’s not like I’m gonna get on a plane and fly down. But it is nice to have that extra exposure and to be there with other poets who are not in your same area.
Adrian Ernesto 20:51 Absolutely.
Teresa Douglas 20:52 So I want to get back to something you were talking about earlier, how moving between Spanish and English is something you’re pushing. Because especially for people who can understand both of these languages, there are nuances that you get when you’re switching between the two, you talk about how you were trying to weave in the songs from Don McLean. And this poem is a dance, because you’re dancing between the two languages, and getting the benefit of both. For example, sus ojos focus amazed at the glowing estrellas, amarillas beaming circulos. So many waves of Azulas swimming in el cielo sky. And I just love the way that sort of comes out. This, this increases for me anyway, just the dreaminess of this piece, because it’s so very organic. And I don’t know why I love in this cielo sky so much. But even just that repeat, brings this idea of this person, this woman who was looking at this painting and having her almost out of body moment. And just the idea that this is like her church, that she comes here, all the rest of you are wandering off and doing whatever is a beautiful moment in this piece that I don’t think would have been as beautiful if it had only been in one language. It’s just so definitely done. And it sounds like you decided to push that because of the specific things about your mother. And I really think that listeners will look forward to reading more of your work just because of that extra little boost of emotionality that I think you were probably going for, because you’re writing about someone who you love who’s no longer there.
Adrian Ernesto 22:41 Yeah, and when she was alive, she would speak to me in Spanish and I would speak to her in English so when I write bilingually, it’s like I’m merging the way we talked–
Teresa Douglas 22:52 That’s gorgeous
Adrian Ernesto 22:54 -together. So I’m kind of honoring the way that I was raised, you know, speaking bilingually. When I do it, I’m honoring my voice and my culture. It’s something that I’m really, really proud of. I was in La Jolla and a friend of mine who runs the Subterranean Blue magazine contacted me saying they wanted me to be the featured poet for their Beat poetry issue. They want me to write a poem. And I was like, What am I gonna write, so we went to eat and walk on the beach. And I told you that it’s inspirational, walking on the beach, and the lines are coming to me. And then the poem, I’m writing about how the Beats actually inspired me to embrace my own language to be who I am. And so I was kind of, like thanking them for doing that. And that’s kind of like where I’m at right now. I want people to read my poems if they speak like me and they’re bilingual. I want them to write their own poems and their own experiences on the page, because we need more people from our community, from our culture to write, and in our language, so it’s very important. That’s something that Allegria Publishing is doing, in Los Angeles. They’re publishing a lot of Latinx poets and writers. They just published the first two biographies and the writers are incredible. Not only are they incredible writers, but they’re incredible people. There’s a movement starting there, and sometimes we get together during some of the readings and I’m just amazed at the writers and the people that they have. It’s a privilege and honor to be involved with the Alegria family and then with Clash books for right next, it’s a different beast because they’re outcasts and their poems are beautiful and weird and strange and memorable. And it’s so nice being involved. It’s kind of like my being Gemini because Clash books is from the East Coast. Being involved with both publishers feeds my inner Gemini, the darkness and light.
Teresa Douglas 25:29 Doing it at the same time is probably pretty satisfying.
Adrian Ernesto 25:34 Yes. Because I mean, I was going through a hard time during the pandemic, and I was avoiding facing a lot of the issues of my mom’s passing, even though she passed away in 2017. And when I finally sought help, my therapist encouraged me to write letters to my mother. And that’s basically how, after I wrote the horror-death poetry collection, I realized that’s writing to her that we could write, speak Su Sombra together, and that’s the idea to help me get over the all the anxiety and stuff. And so I kind of felt like we rise together. So it makes it even more special now that it’s actually out into the world. And even from then, all the poems in there to now me writing in the bilingual voice has improved. You can see the growth from the beginning to the end of the book. And now I’ve gone further. And I feel like I’m really, really embracing it more. You can see with this poem, how it’s worse earlier in the book, it isn’t as smooth. It’s more about that dichotomy, that the words aren’t really connecting. But the further on and later in the book, you see I was basically training myself to get better and better. And I feel like this poem is one of the peaks. I’m really proud of it because it honors her and honors a memory that’s really strong in my heart.
Teresa Douglas 27:23 And I feel like, we need some of that now, because reading this, it can also be, I will go ahead and just say healing, for others who may be separated from family, where they’re not hearing Spanish in their own homes, especially if they’re separated because of the pandemic, or perhaps they’ve had a loss in their family. It’s a healing thing to hear those bilingual words, again, because so many of us and I’m one of them, have been away from family this whole time. And having that opportunity to hear this gives you that feeling, in some ways, a little bit of being home, even when you’re not home. And it’s such an important part of what literature does for people who are perhaps, in that same moment of grieving, or coming to peace with wherever they are in time. And it’s a real gift, this thing that helps you that can also help so many other people. So thank you.
Adrian Ernesto 28:22 Yeah, and I actually realized after, as Speaking Con Su Sombra was about to get published, I realized that the book was a lot bigger than me. People in the universality of grief and who want mourning can actually read the book and maybe sometimes heal themselves. The book is, it’s a very slow read because if you’ve lost somebody you’re gonna feel it. So it takes people maybe a little longer to get through it. But you feel a connection on the page, if you lost somebody because you know how it feels. And poems like Sorry, Starry Light, and then my book, hopefully will help people find some peace and [know] that they’re not alone. And their grief and the loss and the hurt that we can find some kind of healing soon put through the gift of the poem.
Teresa Douglas 29:37 Grief can be terrible, but even though it’s sad, there’s still beauty in the world. And I believe that profoundly. Well, this has been so good to have you here, Adrian and to talk through your work and the things that you’re doing and the things that are upcoming. I have no doubt that there are many who are going to want to hear you speak at the different readings you’re doing and to read your work. and see when things are coming out. And I’ll type in the show notes all of your social handles. But if you want to just say what they are one more time, so that folks can have them that would be wonderful.
Adrian Ernesto 30:11 Sure, I can go to my website, Adrian Ernesto Cepeda dot com. My Twitter handle is poet not Rockstar. My Instagram is the poet, not a rock star and my Facebook is poet, not a rock star. And also, you can purchase a signed copy of my latest book, from my website, there’s gonna be a link and there’s a coupon for your listeners. If they go to my website, they can type in Sombra Amiga and they’ll get a discount at checkout.
Teresa Douglas 30:49 Oh, I feel very special. Did you hear that listeners? You have a discount. That’s very awesome. Well, thank you again so much for coming, Adrienne and for being on the show.
Adrian Ernesto 30:59 Thank you so much for having me and for selecting my poem so I can honor my mother and my language in my poems. I really appreciate it.