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Catalina Gómez: Good Morning. I’m Catalina Gómez from the Hispanic Division of the Library of Congress and we are here reporting Salvadorian born poet William Archila who lives in California. This recording is for the Archive of Hispanic Literature on Tape but also will be featured in the series Spotlight on U.S. Hispanic Writers which is cosponsored by the Hispanic Division, the Poetry and Literature Center of the Library, and Letras Latinas from the University of Notre Dame. So William, Thank you for being here. It’s a pleasure.

William Archila: Thank you for having me.

CG: So to begin, can you tell us a little bit about yourself, your trajectory as a poet.

WA: Well, I’m originally from El Salvador. My family moved to this country in 1980, right at the beginning of the civil war which lasted about 12 years. In 1992, a peace treaty was signed between the left and the right winged parties. And at that time, I thought it might be ideal for me to go back to my homeland and reconnect with the people, with the culture, and the music, and so on. But something odd happened. Once I was there, I felt like a stranger and that’s because El Salvador had changed, and I had changed, and an entire generation of people I knew were no longer there. They had left, or they were dead. And so, that childhood quality that I remembered was no longer there. And so when I came back to California and I lived between L.A. and San Francisco, I began to have this feeling of homelessness that I didn’t belong neither here nor El Salvador; that I was not part of this America or the America of El Salvador, and I felt like a foreigner. And so there was this in between state. Like I was here, and I was there; or I was neither from here nor there;  as if I was someone in the making, that I wasn’t fully transformed yet.  And so this feeling of exile began to emerge, where I just felt extremely homeless and I began to write with the idea that I would found a homeland. I didn’t know back then but there was no homecoming except in the words, or phrases, the sentences that I was putting together. The poems themselves became my homeland and that’s why I start my first book “The Art of Exile” with the quote from the poet Czeslaw Milosz, “Language is the only homeland.” And so my work comes from that neither here nor there, and the theme of the last country is the theme that runs through my work. And the idea of the old self resurfacing, or the past resurfacing into the present; and the new self or present trying to change the old self and there’s always a struggle between the two and against forgetting, but the good thing out of that is that it’s a step towards creation and that the dislocation of my exile has somehow began my imagination, and that’s when I started to really think seriously about writing.

CG: So you studied? Did you go on a program?

WA: Right. Sorry about that. So I went to the University of Oregon. I started writing, like I said, when I came back from El Salvador in ’92. I started writing, but it wasn’t really serious writing. I wasn’t taking it seriously. It’s not like I said, “Oh, okay I’m going to become a poet.” Or anything like that. I just started writing because it was a necessity to get these things out. But what I found out is that it gave me such a high to put my thoughts into words and to put them onto paper. And then when I found out there were other people who shared the same feelings, other immigrants who shared the same feelings as myself and that there was a community out there then I began to share my work with friends and then people started telling me “Oh, you should read here, read there.” And I’m like sure, why not? So I did and then people began to respond, and I thought “Okay, this is nice to do this, locally here in L.A.” And then I think, somebody suggested I go to this workshop at the Japanese American Museum lead by Garrett Hongo, and I didn’t know then who he was but I was told that he was well spoken in the writings of the writings of diaspora, and so I went and after the workshop he told me, “You should come to the University of Oregon.” And at that time and I didn’t think about going back to the classroom, let alone to work in poetry. And it took me a couple months, maybe a year to you know... He came back the next year to give another workshop and he asked again and I said, “Yeah, I think I’m going to.” And I did, and I went to the University of Oregon and worked there and you know, and couple years later the poetry book came out. So it’s been nice ever since. So it’s been a long trajectory, but it was unexpected, it was not something planned. And there are a lot of things that come along with being a poet that I had not planned. Like all these things that happened, and I’m like, “Oh, am I supposed to do that too?”

CG: Right.

WA: You know. A lot of the poet business, type of stuff.

CG: Like all official, you’re a poet

WA: Right. I was just thinking you’re just going to write some poems, you know? But yeah.

CG: So “The Art of Exile” came out in?

WA: I believe, that’s a good question. I believe it came out in 2009? Sorry. Yes, 2009.

CG: Perfect. Okay, so I think we’re ready to start the reading. Again just reference the book in the beginning, and then read each the title.

WA: So this is from “The Art of Exile”, this is about the war in El Salvador in the 1980s. This The Decade the Country Became Known Throughout the World.

  • Poet reads “The Decade the Country Became Known Throughout the World”-- The Art of Exile (2009)

WA: During the Civil War the disappearance of citizens was a common event, so rumors of their whereabouts was a constant conversation. So for us, our family, living in California as immigrants, living outside the country, news only came through letters…

  • Poet reads “Latest News”-- The Art of Exile (2009)

WA: I’m going to read a small poem.

  • Poet reads “Self-Portrait with Crow” -- The Art of Exile (2009)

WA: Before I read this next poem, that I’m reading I like to say, that it’s a little known fact that Duke Ellington was born in El Salvador and that in 1974 before he died he went back to his native country and taught music at the local schools. And at that moment the entire room goes quiet and faces of confusion fill the room. And that’s when I say “Actually, none of this is true”

CG: I was just going to ask that.

WA: Except that he died in 1974. But if it was true, this is what would have happened.

  • Poet reads “Duke Ellington, Santa Ana, El Salvador, 1974” -- The Art of Exile (2009)

CG: Wow.

WA: So, this poem is about a tropical shirt that is very common in L.A. The Nuyorican poet Victor Hernández Cruz calls it the tuxedo of the Caribbean. And I think he’s right. I think it’s a very elegant shirt. This is called “Guayaberas.”

  • Poet reads “Guayaberas” -- The Art of Exile (2009)

WA: And the last poem from “The Art of Exile” is about a pig. It’s a very common animal in El Salvador. I’ve always have a strong fascination with pigs since my childhood and that’s because my grandmother used to take me to the slaughterhouse to watch the pigs before they got slaughtered. I guess that was her substitute for the zoo, for taking the child to the zoo. But this poem is also for the barefoot boys I met in the streets of El Salvador.

  • Poet reads “Bury this Pig” -- The Art of Exile (2009)

CG: That’s great.

WA: Thank you. So the second book “The Gravedigger’s Archaeology” is really a continuation of the first book and an extension into new ground. And I say a continuation of the first book because the last line in “The Art of Exile” reads “I flander through patches of dirt like a gravedigger with shovel ready to open ground, cut a gash along the black earth, see the water creep out into the air.” And so the new book is really about digging, literally digging into the ground; but also digging into the history of El Salvador, personal history, and so on. And this is the reason why I opened the book with a quote from Paul Celan “The dug and heard nothing more;/ they did not grow wise, invited no song,/ thought up for themselves no language./ They dug.” But it’s also an extension into new ground which I’ll read those poems later. But I’ll start with the title of the poem, The Gravedigger’s Archaeology.

  • Poet reads “The Gravedigger’s Archaeology” -- The Gravedigger’s Archaeology (2013)
  • Poet reads “Grease” -- The Gravedigger’s Archaeology (2013)

WA: This poem is about digging into the history of El Salvador.

  • Poet reads “Atlacatl”-- The Gravedigger’s Archaeology (2013)

WA: One of the new grounds that I venture in this book is artwork. In this poem I’m interested in Goya. Not so much the Goya as the court painter but the subversive and imaginative painter of his later years; the Goya of the black paintings, the Goya of the disasters of war.

  • Poet reads “Goya’s Execution”-- The Gravedigger’s Archaeology (2013)

WA: So I have this issue of being tongue-tied when I meet a poet or artist that I admire. I don’t know what to say. Like if I were to meet Federico García Lorca or Fernando Pessoa, what would you say? So I gave myself this challenge that if I had three minutes with one of my heroes, what would I say? And so I chose Charles Mingus, the Jazz artist, composer, pianist; known for his temperament in the 60s, but I know him for his ambitious music, especially when he hollers.

  • Poet reads “Three Minutes with Mingus”-- The Gravedigger’s Archaeology (2013)

WA: And I conclude with the last poem in the book, and this is my homage to Seamus Heaney. This is for my father.

  • Poet reads “Dig” -- The Gravedigger’s Archaeology (2013)

WA: Thank you

CG: Thank you, William. That was fantastic. Actually, I just have one small question. So do you have an interest for these books to reach El Salvador, or for them to be translated into Spanish and be in that market at all? Or not necessarily?

WA: That’s a very good question and a very complicated one for me to answer. I have asked myself that question many times, and at first I realized that I was writing the poems that I was not seeing out there. So they were basically for me. And then I realized I was writing poems for other people who had gone through the same experience as myself; some immigrants or people in the state of exile. At one point I realized that a lot of the people I write about are people who cannot afford to read or buy books. And that has always been a struggle because most of the people I write about are working class, have very little time to think about reading. They mostly spend their time working, coming home, hardly have time to spend time with their children or even help them with their homework or anything like that. So picking up a book of poetry is the last thing on their mind. It’s all about survival, you know?

CG: Right.

WA: So the thought of translating these poems into Spanish, that has crossed my mind. I think two or three poems were translated and included in an anthology that was distributed in El Salvador and another two poems were published in a magazine in El Salvador. But beyond that nothing has happened and it is something that I often think about. But it’s either, do I go back and translate these poems or do I keep continue writing? So it’s something that when I have the time maybe and the time is right, and I’m in the right space and I know the right translators, I might be able to do that. But as of right now, there’s no translation in Spanish yet.

CG: But there’s nothing coming out?

WA: Nothing coming out in terms of books. No.

CG: So, your main audience is the exiled, right? Or also the people in the homeland?

WA: I would say so. Most of the people that I know that have picked up my book or that have read the book have some connection to that state of being exiled, of not being from here nor there, of being dislocated, of being an immigrate, a refugee. But also the state of being exiled makes you feel like a foreigner everywhere you go, and you see everything as foreign. And I think that’s a great vehicle for poetry because you’re seeing everything for the first time. I’m always feeling like an outsider everywhere I go. So everything to me seems strange, and I have to learn how to get involved in this situation. And that has helped a lot for poetry, and in that sense people who are not necessarily exiled but are interested in poetry have also responded to the book. So that’s also great, and that’s also welcoming. In this sense I’m writing for anybody who is willing to listen to these poems about a small country, these poems about survival, these poems about immigration and the permanent state of exile.

CG: Right, I do find it fascinating that it’s the sense of dislocation that makes you want to dig into the history of your country. It’s that thing that maybe the people there don’t do as much as those of us who leave our countries. I mean in your case, that’s very fascinating.

WA: Thank you.

CG: You’re talking about the dislocation. But you’re trying, digging into something that reality in El Salvador, which is interesting.  

WA: Yeah. The theme of the last country is like I’m condemned to write about all those things that were lost, like I’m constantly going back. But the great thing about it is like I said earlier is, there is a fiction in my digging because what I find are fragments. So I have to recreate, and that recreation…

CG: Right. You’re not writing history, you’re writing maybe visions or memories

WA: Right. I’m writing this fiction where my imagination creeps in and the outcome, it’s a work of art and that is what gets me every morning. It’s that idea of creating something every time, you know. So digging into the history of El Salvador, digging into family or personal history always leads me to directions I never even thought of.

CG: Yeah. Well William, thank you so much. This was wonderful. Thank you.

WA: Thank you so much. Thank you for having me.


U.S. Poetry at the Library of Congress, Washington, DC,

February 8, 2016

Approximately 50 minutes.

Recording Title: Hispanic-American Poet William Archila Reading from his Works
Reading moderated by: Catalina Gómez


1). Selections from The Art of Exile (2009)
- “The decade the country became known throughout the world” – (min. 7:26)
-“Latest News” – (min. 10:37)
- “Self-Portrait with Crow” – (min. 13:06)
- “Duke Ellington, Santa Ana, El Salvador, 1974” – (min. 15:07)
- “Guayaberas” – (min. 18:14)
- “Bury This Pig” – (min. 21:24)

2). Selections from The Gravedigger’s Archaeology (2013)
- “The Gravedigger’s Archaeology” – (min. 25:08)
- “Grease” – (min. 28:40)
- “Atlacatl” – (min. 32:02)
- “Goya’s Execution” – (min. 34:30)
- “Three Minutes with Mingus” – (min. 37:06)
- “Dig” – (min. 40:00)

Conclusion – (min. 42:16)

End – (min. 48:39)

The Art of Exile

LC Catalog record:
William Archila, The Art of Exile, Tempe, Arizona:Bilingual Press/Editorial Bilingüe, 2009)

The Gravedigger’s Archaeology

LC Catalog record:
William Archila, The Gravedigger’s Archaeology, Pasadena, CA: Red Hen Press, 2015)

Related Resources

William Archila

William Archila

William Archila was born in Santa Ana, El Salvador in 1968. He immigrated to the U.S. in 1980 with his family due to the civil war. He is the author of The Art of Exile (2009) and The Gravediggers Archaeology (2013). His honors include the International Latino Book Award and Letras Latinas/Red Hen Poetry Prize. Archila currently lives in Los Angeles, California.

Learn more about William Archila at The Poetry Foundation