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The Cathartic Cynicism of Elidio La Torre Lagares' "Wonderful Wasteland"

by Mario Alegre Barrios

Foto de Héctor A. Suárez De Jesús

We met when the last century was coming to an end, just five years shy of the start of the third millennium, and as he debuted as a published poet with Embudo: Poemas de fin de siglo' (Funnel: End of Century Poems).

Nearly 30 years have passed since then, and in this time, Elidio La Torre Lagares has established himself as a writer and university professor, scarcely aware of the speed with which that time has passed, especially when he realizes that he still carries on his skin the feelings—both of dazzling lights and stormy shadows—inherent to the creative processes of the works that make up his bibliography.

As a result of the tragic experience lived in Puerto Rico due to Hurricane María in 2017, the ghosts and demons that were born in those dark days were somehow exorcised by Elidio with Wonderful Wasteland and other natural disasters, a collection of poems written in English—with immense pain and rage—that was selected by the libraries of Tulane University to kick off the National Poetry Month celebrated this April, alongside the work of Louisiana poet Cody Smith and Pulitzer Prize winner Jericho Brown.

An associate professor in the Department of Comparative Literature at the Faculty of Humanities of the Río Piedras Campus of the University of Puerto Rico, Elidio comments that 'Wonderful Wasteland...'—an assembly with resonances of César Vallejo and T.S. Eliot, especially due to the cynicism and irony enclosed in the title—was born in English 'seeking new readers, especially for the things that were happening in Puerto Rico after Hurricane María.'

Why in English, when the process of writing, especially poetry, is so personal, so intimate, so deeply associated with the essence of what one is?

"For me, it is like assuming a literary voice, like assuming a character, myself but discerned through another voice —he explains—. Although English is not my mother tongue, it is part of my upbringing, because my mom was an English teacher, my dad was in the military, and we consumed a lot of English at home. Many of my first readings were in English. I belong to a generation that didn't have nannies; my babysitter was the books I read, while my parents worked and I had already finished school.

Elidio adds that when he sat down to write this book 'it came out in English, I imagine because of the way I related to the news through the cellphone, which reported the disaster in Puerto Rico after the hurricane, precisely in English.

"There were many things distorted, falsified, a lot of protagonism, a lot of censorship, mainly because much of that tragedy was mediated mostly around what happened in the metropolitan area of Puerto Rico, when the tragedy was much greater in the rest of the island —he comments—. I couldn't see my father in Adjuntas until a month after María passed, because it took 3 or 4 hours to get to that area and once there, entry to the town was almost impossible... the situation there was devastating."

In November 2017—two months after María—his father died. It was Sunday and just the previous Friday Elidio had seen him well, though very discouraged.

"That day, the last time I spoke to him and saw him alive, he told me he never thought that at his age (80 years) he would have to do to survive what he did when he was a child: look for water wherever it was and bathe with a bucket —he says—. That was Friday. On Sunday my sister called me to tell me that daddy had died. My father's pain somehow triggers the pain I capture in this book. He died alone, he died sad, he died in the darkness."

Elidio still vividly recalls that image: arriving in Adjuntas around 10 p.m., completely in darkness, under the rain. His younger sister—who lived close to their father—and he spent the entire night with his corpse, sitting beside him while it rained incessantly and the echo of thunder followed the flashes of lightning. One of the poems in "Wonderful Wasteland and other natural disasters," titled "dead father in the storm," captures this indelible experience.

Part of the process of writing the book took place for Elidio as part of the "daytime refugees" community at Plaza Las Americas, in Starbucks, where he would go daily with his daughter Sophia to make use of the electricity and WiFi.

"We knew the country would not be the same after those days," he asserts. Shortly after, I obtained an academic release at the UPR, something I deeply appreciate from Drs. Agnes Bosch and Mirerza González, deans of the Humanities and Academic Affairs respectively, so that I could finish the book. I have always been very grateful to the University of Puerto Rico, especially to my campus, even more so for the opportunity to finish this book that somehow saved me.

Regarding the selection of the book—published by University Press of Kentucky at the end of 2019, just a few months before the closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as part of the New Voices in Poetry series and a finalist for the Juan Felipe Herrera Poetry Award in 2020—for the Tulane University event, Elidio points out that with that health emergency, "almost all the plans for its presentation were drastically altered."

"There was something done via Zoom, which back then was very primitive, and the book remained like that, until now, when this opportunity arises thanks to Tulane University, which fills me with great satisfaction and pride for what it represents and that has translated into new readers and followers on my social networks and reviews, as well as a second life for the book," he notes. "In reality, I never thought about touring with those poems because even now some of them are still very tough, as happened to me with 'September,' in 2000, a book of stories linked to the difficult part of my childhood and which I have only now been able to reread without so much pain.

With a deep concern about the way artificial intelligence has settled into our everyday reality, Elidio asserts that "we are children of the algorithm."

"What the algorithm has done is isolate us from everything that is not like us or that does not identify with our interests, contrary to what culture is, which is the breadth, diversity," he points out. "Sometimes we are even afraid to do a Google search because, we think, it modifies the algorithm."

Founder in 2004 of the now-defunct publishing house Terranova, with which he published Vicios de construcción in 2008 and Réquiem Domesticus in 2011, Elidio is about to publish the poetry collection Aguacerando, a finalist for the Octavio Paz Prize in 2022.

"The day I was finishing writing it, my daughter Sofia called me from New York and when she asked what I was doing, I told her I was finishing a book, but that I still didn't have a title," he recalls. "And you, what are you doing?" I asked her, "Well, here in Manhattan, waiting for it to stop raining because it's 'aguacerando'," she replied. And that's how I titled this poetry collection, Aguacerando. Meanwhile, I am writing a semi-autobiographical novel in three parts... in a process that has been quite difficult, of constant back and forth.

Original interview in Spanish available in Esto es el agua.

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