Ivón Gordon Vailakis
By Rebecca Seiferle
Ivón Gordon Vailakis is a native of Quito, Ecuador. Her latest poetry collection Manzanilla del insomnio(2002) was awarded in Ecuador the prestigious Jorge Carrera Andrade Award in Poety. Colibríes en el exilio ) (1997) was a finalist for Casa de las Américas Award, and the poems from her new manuscript-in-progress were finalist of Brazil's International Poetry Contest. Her poems have appeared in journals such as The Drunkenboat , Drexel Review, Frigate: Transverse Review of Books, , Crab Orchard Review, Blue Mesa Review and many others. She has published short stories, a memoir, translations of her own poetry and of Gabriela Mistral. She has published many articles on Jorge Carrera Andrade, Gabriela Mistral, Sandra Cisneros, Helena María Viramontes, Carmen Boullosa, and others in academic journals in Spain, Chile, Ecuador, and the U.S. She has two books in progress, one dealing with the critical work of Gabriela Mistral, and the other on the figure of La Llorona in Latina Writers(2002) She was a recipient of Senior/Scholar Fellowship from the Fulbright to research on the Converse Jews in Ecuador which led to Manzanilla del insomnio. She has a Ph.D. from the University of California, Irvine on Latin American Literature, with emphasis on Contemporary Latin American Poetry and Literary Theory, and teaches at Redlands University.
Rebecca Seiferle: Do you write poetry in English? or is Spanish, your first tongue, the one you still prefer for writing poetry?
Ivón Vailakis: I write in Spanish, that's where the sound of the word comes to me. Spanish is my mother's tongue, Spanish is the language that I carry within me.
Rebecca Seiferle: Is there any difference between your preferences for English or Spanish in writing poetry or prose or critical studies?
Ivón Vailakis: When I write I prefer to write in Spanish. Since it is the language I learned in my homeland, the language in which I recall my memories. When I write prose, critical studies, I still prefer Spanish. But English is a language I am quite comfortable, so I can write in English as well. More and more most of my contexts are in English.
Rebecca Seiferle: Why were you drawn to translating the poems of Gabriela Mistral? Is your in progress critical study of her work an outgrowth of the translating process?
Ivón Vailakis: It was more of a whim. I was with JC Todd in Philadelphia, we were talking about translation, and she said that I could do an excellent job in translating Mistral. So I gave it a try, and found out, that I can actually translate Mistral and enjoy it. I was quite pleased with the outcome of my translations. I always felt that the translations of Mistral were weak, but now there are several translations of her work, that I find excellent.
My critical study of Mistral started in Graduate School, when a Professor said that her work was mediocre. Since I wanted to focus my study in women poets, Mistral was one of them. After reading her work, I knew that she was such a giant poet, rich, deep, and with many nuances, that I just concentrated on her work. At that time,
Rebecca Seiferle: Has translating Mistral had an influence upon your work?
Ivón Vailakis: No. I just started translating Mistral. I think our worldview and style are quite different.
Rebecca Seiferle: In a more general sense, is your work particularly influenced by various writers? Does this influence reside in a number of writers who has stayed with you for a long time or are you also influenced by those you're reading at the time?
Ivón Vailakis: I think when you read poetry and especially if it has an impact on you, it stays with you for a long time. Then in a fleeting moment an image comes, the rhythm comes out of you, and you start to doubt. Is it mine? does it belong to someone else? I have poets that I read and reread, among them are Vallejo and Sabines. They are the two poets I like the most. When I write I try not read other poets, because I am a sponge, and I soak their language, their anima, their internal rhythm, so I stay away from reading when I am in the frenzy of writing.
Rebecca Seiferle: Have you translated other poets, and how is the influence of translating a work different than merely reading one?
Ivón Vailakis: I have not translated other poets, but it is something I would like to do.
Rebecca Seiferle: Your books, Colibríes en exilo and Manzanilla del insomnio, seem to be extended sequences. Do you think of this consciously or is it the intuitive way in which you write, writing extended sequences of shorter lyrics that are interrelated?
Ivón Vailakis: I am not aware that they are extended sequences. But I think books of poetry are like a family, and whenever I write, I have themes I focus, and the poems come, and I see the relationship of a poem from a previous book related to one in the next book, I call them cousins. So, yes I do think that some of my poems are linked as relatives. I have a certain intention when I do a collection of poems for a book, but some times the poems have an intention of their own.
Rebecca Seiferle: Many of the poems in Manzanilla del insomnio are connected with a sense of a Jewish heritage or tradition? I noticed that it was your fellowship to Ecuador that allowed and aided in the writing of this book. Was it a reunion with familial and cultural traditions that struck you at this particular time? .
Ivón Vailakis: That was the intention of the book. I wanted to do research on Converse Jews in Ecuador, and translate that research into poetry. So all my research from Ecuador I wrote it into poems. It was quite an interesting experience. I never thought that after more than five-hundred years fear and silence would be such an important presence. When I wrote Manzanilla del insomnio a lot of people were disappointed that my research was translated to poetry. They wanted prose!!! But to me, that was the challenge. In the process of writing it, I wanted to recover my own roots, and my own relationship to the diaspora. So the book reflects that process of recovering identity through a diasporic condition.
Rebecca Seiferle: Your prose piece I Am Word evokes that multicultural sense of being of several lineages but belonging to none. Do you consider yourself to be a Latin American, an Ecuadorian, or an American poet, or all of the above?
Ivón Vailakis: Identiy is so fluid, that by just clinging to a word, to an identity it makes it stagnant. So I would respond I am all that and more. I am a product of the diaspora. I am a mixture of cultures and of identities
Rebecca Seiferle: Your work often uses images of the body. Is this perhaps reflective of that multicultural sense, placing identity in the physical body, or of gender, the way in which many contemporary women writers use bodily imagery, or of being Latin American, since this bodily imagery is a strong current in that work as well? Or is it an intersection of all of these various realities or an intuitive sense, and just 'something you have always done"?
Ivón Vailakis: Some critics have remarked that about my work. I am not conscious of that imagery, imagery for me it is intuitive. I think the body is such an important presence in my life, I am very conscious of the body, in the internal and external way. I feel the body is our connection to the sensation of the universe. So my body is my identity, and through my body I connect to my cultural roots.
Rebecca Seiferle: Since you are a native of Ecuador and live and teach in the United States, where do you feel most at home? or is home in several places at once? or does it result in a sense of being deracinated?
Ivón Vailakis: Home is my body. When I am in Ecuador I feel at home, when I am in the U.S. I feel at home, and sometimes I don't feel at home in either place. I feel like many other immigrants, you feel the nostalgia for your home (Ecuador.) I miss my family, knowing that you have a family to support you, to be with you when you need them, I miss my friends, the familiar; and yet, I have created a new home, my own family, new friends.
Rebecca Seiferle: Do you feel at home in contemporary American poetry? or do you place your work within the Latin American tradition?
Ivón Vailakis: I find myself more among the Latin American tradition. Yet, it is strange, because I am not there, I am here. I would like to transgress to the American tradition as well.
Rebecca Seiferle: Are there any particular difficulties for you as a poet from Ecuador writing in Spanish and living and teaching in the U.S.? With publication, readings, recognition? You recently won the Andrade Award which is most prestigious in Latin America but few know of it here; has it had a positive effect on recognition in this country or elsewhere?
Ivón Vailakis: Without any doubt there are difficulties. I feel isolated to say the least. If I lived in Ecuador, I would be much more recognized in Ecuador as well. But living here, I feel isolated. I know poets from other Latin American countries, and our friendship is linked by poetry, and I feel connected to them. But in the sense of having a community of poets, or relating to a community of poets here, I don't feel connected. It is through JC Todd's and my translations that I am appearing in journals in the U.S. Has winning such a prestigious award had any positive effect here, I don't think so. Most people are unaware of such an award. And to be honest with you, I am not a good promoter of my own poetry. I am ready to cross over.
Rebecca Seiferle: What are you currently working on, in poetry? prose?
Ivón Vailakis: I am always working on something. I am completing a new book, entitled, Poems of salt. That one, I think it's quite different from the other ones, but I am sure that they are some cousins there too. I am very excited about this one, I am usually quite secretive about the title of the book until its publication time, but this time I am quite open about it. Then I have two books I would like to complete, one is on Mistral's poetry it is a critical approach to her work, and another on Chicana/Latina literature. Also, I am enjoying writing prose/poetry like the piece I Am.