Transcripts

Bookend: Poet Dan Vera Blends Spanish, English Influences In Latest Work

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:03
Time now for "Bookend," our monthly exploration of the region's literary scene. This time around, Jonathan Wilson sits down with the poet Dan Vera.

MR. DAN VERA

00:00:14
As my gentile tongue screws up that perfect Yiddish sound, Kim complains we have no right to a word if it's mispronounced. I tell her, cry me the River Grande River, and recite the litany of the beautiful made bland.

SHEIR

00:00:29
That's Vera reading from his poem, "Kvetch," from his book, "Speaking Wiri Wiri." Vera is a first generation Cuban American. He grew up in a heavily Mexican American community in Texas, but he spent the past 12 years here in D.C. And he's turned his efforts to get to know that city's literary history into a website, "D.C. Writers' Homes," a joint venture with poet Kim Roberts. Jonathan met Vera at the Wydown Coffee Bar on U Street to discuss his latest work and how he feels about calling himself a D.C. writer.

MR. JONATHAN WILSON

00:00:58
So, you've been here in D.C. for 12 years, kind of immersed yourself in the city more than other writers that I've talked to. Talk about how you really have taken a proactive approach to kind of getting to know the history of this place and becoming a part of it.

VERA

00:01:16
Well, when I moved here, about 12 years ago, I was just really fascinated to discover that writing and writers had existed in D.C. before me. I live in the Brookland neighborhood and was fascinated to find out that Sterling Brown lived a few blocks from me, and wanted to know more about him. And that kind of started a progression of interest in writers, you know, playwrights and poets and novelists who called Washington home. And that sort of found its way into, you know, finding their actual houses and trying to photo document them through D.C. Writers' Homes.

VERA

00:02:04
But, also, I think, trying to find a place for myself, in a way, in the landscape of the city.

WILSON

00:02:06
Do you consider yourself a D.C. writer? I mean, you grew up in Texas. You have this Cuban American/Mexican American background. But, is the identity of being a writer based in D.C. important to your writing, important to your craft?

VERA

00:02:22
I think it is. I consider myself a D.C. writer in the sense that, you know, one of the unique aspects of living in Washington is this realization of American history. So, the example I like to give is that I live a few blocks away from Sigsbee Street, and Sigsbee is a name that's not remembered anymore, but Sigsbee was the Captain of the USS Maine. The Maine, of course, was the ship that was, that exploded in Havana Harbor, and that ship, sort of -- that explosion precipitated the Spanish American War which precipitated US involvement in Cuba.

VERA

00:03:07
And, you know, it's this kind of cascading line of history that sort of led, in many ways, to my family being here, and to me being where I am. You know, I can't think of another city in the United States where, you know, if you pay attention, if you connect the dots between your surroundings and yourself, you can find these amazing connections.

WILSON

00:03:26
In terms of going back to the start of your career, how early did you think about being a poet?

VERA

00:03:33
You know, I started writing poetry in college as a very private affair. I certainly didn't consider myself a poet, and still sort of struggle with that designation, because it's, you know, really the manifestation of poetry comes one poem at a time. And, so, part of it's -- the way I experience poetry is trying to be present with a blank page, or a blank screen, and trying to really pay attention, and articulate what the matter at hand is with each poem. And to extent that I'm successful, it's really success that only happens one poem at a time.

WILSON

00:04:12
So, let's talk about your latest book. It's called "Speaking Wiri Wiri." What does that term mean for people who come across this title and want to know?

VERA

00:04:19
"Wiri wiri" was, and it's spelled W-I-R-I W-I-R-A. "Wiri wiri" was a term that my father used in our house whenever we were speaking too much English. He wanted to make sure that we preserved Spanish and that certainly he could be part, part of the conversation, since he hadn't really learned a lot of English. So, "speaking wiri wiri" is really the title of a book that explores issues of identity and the way that language kind of functions, and certainly somebody who grew up bilingually -- how we're part of each other, but also part of a national landscape that's mostly in English.

WILSON

00:05:04
You experienced, growing up in America, with multiple identities. You had English, Spanish, Mexican American community, Cuban American community. I imagine that really colors your love of language and the way you look at both English and Spanish. Do you think you would have been a poet without that childhood?

VERA

00:05:22
I love the English language, and I think one of the things I love about the English language is the permeability of English, to not only sort of accept, but also struggle with the incorporation of other languages like Spanish. So, when I write, I'm constantly going back and forth between these two possible ways of articulating the world around me.

SHEIR

00:05:53
That's poet Dan Vera talking with Jonathan Wilson. Vera will be participating in the Folger's Shakespeare Library's day long District of Literature event this Monday. You can find links for information about the District of Literature and hear more of Vera reading his poetry on our website, metroconnection.org.

SHEIR

00:06:21
And that's "Metro Connection" for this week. We heard from WAMU's Emily Berman, Jacob Fenston, Jonathan Wilson, and Steven Yenzer, along with reporter Robbie Fienberg. WAMU's managing editor of news is Memo Lyons. Metro Connection's managing producer is Tara Boyle. Lauren Landau is our editorial assistant. Our intern is Steven Yenzer. Lauren Landau and John Heinz produce "Door to Door."

SHEIR

00:06:43
Thanks, as always, to the WAMU engineering and digital media teams for their help with production and the "Metro Connection" website. Our theme song, "Every Little Bit Hurts" and our "Door to Door" theme, "No Girl," are from the album "Title Tracks" by John Davis and used with permission of the Ernest Jennings record company. You can find all the music we use each week on our website, MetroConnection.org. Just click on a story and you'll find information about its accompanying song.

SHEIR

00:07:06
And if you missed part of the show, you can stream the whole thing on our website by clicking the "This Week On Metro Connection" link. You can also subscribe to our podcast there or find us on iTunes, Stitcher, and the NPR news app. We hope you can join us next week when we'll take a bit of a roller coaster ride with a show about ups and downs. We'll take flight with a local acrobatic pilot, and we'll meet a man who reviews D.C. elevators. Plus, we'll learn how the federal government's budget turmoil is effecting Head Start programs for local kids. I'm Rebecca Sheir, and thanks for listening to "Metro Connection," a production of WAMU 88.5 News.
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