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Juan Mobili on Poetry, Places, Identity and More

Tony: Hi Juan, thanks for joining us today. This interview will be recorded and transcribed by our student editors at Cricket of Mathéo. It will be published on Cricket of Mathéo and featured on the website of The Hong Kong Review.

Juan Mobili: That sounds great.

Tony: Our students have prepared some questions for you, and I’ve helped refine them a bit. Let’s get started with Wendy.

Wendy: Your poems often explore political and historical themes, like in “Contraband.” Do you think your unique upbringing in Buenos Aires and New York contributes to this focus? How do these experiences shape your poetic voice and message?

Juan Mobili: Thank you for the thoughtful question, I’m touched by how much you engaged with my work. The answer is a resounding yes.

We’re all shaped by our experiences. In poetry, what separates an ordinary story from an extraordinary one is often how it’s told - how you use language to draw others in. I believe I belong to a certain place, a certain time in history, and certain people who have influenced me. This is the foundation of my poetry.

In the 1970s, I lived under a brutal dictatorship in Argentina. Though not forced to leave, I felt it was safer to depart in 1978. New York has become a second home, as important to me as Buenos Aires. Cities, not countries, resonate with me.

Losing friends to the dictatorship, people did not simply disappeare but were taken away, and murdered, is an absence I carry with me. You may find peace with it, but you never forget. Family is also important, and while I won't get into the next question directly, I can say it's important to examine the past, not to repeat the story, but to uncover new perspectives, new threads to enrich remembering.

Wendy: Thank you for your answer. It’s true, the places we live shape who we are. Your second question is: You’ve mentioned preferring to revisit the past to learn what you missed, rather than directly writing about it. Can you elaborate on how you use poetry to evoke emotions and what techniques you employ?

Juan Mobili: Intuition comes first, then craft. I’ll give you an example. Reliving the past for me isn’t about retelling the same story. For instance, with parents, a defining moment might shape how you see yourself. But your brother’s recollection of the same event will be different.

Wendy: Right, memories are subjective.

Juan Mobili: Exactly. This is why I focus on what I missed in the past. Now, being older than my parents when they died, I see their actions differently. I have more empathy. What seemed rude then, I now understand as my father’s struggles. So, the story isn’t always rosier, but it’s more complete.

Poetry requires both substance and craft. Substance means honestly examining yourself and the world. Craft is a continuous process of learning and refining. My language has become more precise, with a rhythm and vocabulary that’s more uniquely mine. I can hear my voice more distinctly, if you will.

As a young poet, I imitated poems I admired. It was a form of practice. I pay attention to what can be strong beginnings to draw readers in, and surprising endings that challenge their perspective. Going back into a poem can be hit-or-miss, but that’s the creative process.

I don’t write directly from dreams or analyze specific traumas. My first drafts are free-flowing, possibly excessive in the number of metaphors. Later I revise with a more critical mind. I may imagine someone might suggest something is too sentimental or distracting. I keep in mind something that Miles Davis said “I listen to what I can leave out”. Each time I revisit a poem, I may come up with some new understandings. This is similar to reading a book. Does this answer your question?

Wendy: Yes, thank you very much. You’re right, our understanding of books can change over time as we revisit them.

Juan Mobili: There’s a novel called The Hours by Michael Cunningham. It’s a beautiful story about three women’s lives. He suggests rereading great books every ten years because you’re a different person each time.

Wendy: Absolutely, I agree. Let’s move on to the third question. Metaphors are a cornerstone of your work, like the one in “This Poem”: “nor the last time/ peonies died young.” Can you explain the significance of the metaphor and the message you’re trying to convey?

Juan Mobili: Even before I knew what a metaphor was, I thought in images. They’re not always obvious comparisons, like “cold as metal” or “soft as bread.” These images come naturally to me.

The poem “This Poem” started with just the first two lines, and I wrote wherever it took me. Originally, it was called “An Apology” about something I disappointed my wife with. Marriage, in part, is about learning to apologize regularly. However, I wanted it to be more universal, not specific to one incident.

My wife mentioned peonies, beautiful flowers with a short lifespan. They bloom one day and can die the next. This metaphor reflects the fleeting nature of beauty and cherished moments that may fade from memory. The meaning is rich, but I don’t want to overexplain and take away from the reader’s interpretation. I’m happy when readers share their own interpretations, even if they differ from mine.

The metaphor also suggests that apologies, like the cycle of blooming and dying, may be repeated. We strive to do better, but mistakes can happen again.

Wendy: Thank you. My last question is: How does your poetry contribute to a more inclusive and empathetic world? How does poetry play a role in your family life, as depicted in the poem “After Midnight in Our Kitchen”?

Juan Mobili: My goal is to write poems that make the world feel more welcoming, a place where it’s easier to exist. Empathy and inclusivity are important aspects of that. If the world can’t affect you as a writer or artist, you might want to choose a different path. The challenge is to stay open, vulnerable, and absorb the world while still offering insightful responses. People don’t want to read your diary; they crave something that resonates with them.

Making the world feel hospitable involves capturing the everyday moments that remind us of life’s beauty and happiness. In “After Midnight in Our Kitchen,” I describe something as simple as my father dipping stale bread in milk, a habit he had when waking up at night. I’d come home around 3:00 AM and join him. There’s an unspoken worry parents have when their children return late. In Argentina, the kitchen is the heart of the home, a place for gathering and connection. Here, the familiar comfort of the kitchen contrasts with the unknown dangers of the outside world.

The last two lines of the poem took me over a month to write. I wanted to evoke a sense of hope. There’s a tradition of throwing coins into fountains to make wishes. I used the image of a well to represent that hope. The final line expresses the wish that the coin reaches the water at the bottom of the well, signifying that the message is received.

Echo: In “A Vision of My Granddaughter,” you explore themes of generational birth and death. How do you view the interplay between family lineage and the broader cycle of life and mortality?

Juan Mobili: The inspiration for this poem wasn’t entirely mine. It started with American poet Gary Snyder’s beautiful poem “Axe Handles.” In a way, poems and families function similarly. They’re how traditions and knowledge are passed down through generations.

I have two granddaughters, but this poem focuses on my special bond with my seven-year-old granddaughter who enjoys talking and art.

One day, I arrived late to a writing group. The prompt was to write a poem based on an image. Someone handed me a copy of a painting depicting a dark silhouette of a young woman against a bright light.

The American saying about “the light at the end of the tunnel” sparked the first line: “What if it’s my granddaughter at the end of the tunnel?” I wanted something more intriguing than just a hopeful light. The poem then explores the concept of me growing younger as she grows older. It’s not a literal idea, but it hints at the notion of life’s cycles—reaching a peak and then potentially experiencing a decline. Perhaps the concept of older people becoming “childlike” was subconsciously present. But in the moment, I was purely imagining the scene and the woman she might become.

The image of the candle she lit at my funeral resonated. It represents my absence, yet a wish to live on through her, not necessarily as inspiration, but as part of her future, with some of my ideas passed down. Maybe she’ll even delve into the past to understand her heritage and find comfort in my presence.

Echo: How does “The Last Day” fit within your broader body of work? Are there recurring themes or motifs it explores in relation to your other writings?

Juan Mobili: This poem, like “A Vision of My Granddaughter,” features a “what if” scenario, prompting the reader to consider a non-traditional perspective. In this case, it’s starting the day before the last day.

I sometimes participate in writing groups where prompts or ideas might emerge. For “The Last Day,” the image came first. I tried not to interpret it but describe it vividly.

For instance, I envisioned hell as a firehouse with people going down a pole like firefighters. Then, a cat appeared—an unexpected element considering I’ve never owned one. The idea of this sole remaining being on Earth took hold, not a god or angel, but a cat.

The final image of the cat playing with yarn went through revisions. Initially, it was a bowl of yarn. Ultimately, the last cat playing with the last ball of yarn felt more fitting.

The pandemic provided more time for self-reflection, study, and writing. It also influenced my poems to become shorter and more surprising. Animals started appearing more in cities during this time, and also more present in my poems.

Two elements are crucial for me in a poem: structure and a sense of flow. The three-line stanzas felt right for this poem. Each poem seems to dictate its own form.

Structure and surprise - the unexpected moment that grabs the reader - are also important. A cat is an independent creature, unlike dogs who crave affection. Having the last being on Earth be a cat, a silent and enigmatic presence, represents the poem’s open-ended nature. The aim is not for the reader to think about my life, but to be drawn into their own contemplation.

Autumn: Reflecting on your life experiences in Buenos Aires and New York, how have these contrasting environments shaped your worldview and creative process?

Juan Mobili: The differences are stark, especially in terms of language and scale. One city is a superpower, the other is much smaller. But what people think about is more similar than you might expect. When I arrived in New York, it felt strangely familiar, like a sister who grew apart from another, but they still have much in common.

Both Buenos Aires and New York have a unique rhythm and intensity, and pockets where you can feel transported to the past or future through architecture. Despite its size, New York felt like a continuation of my life, not a complete break.

The initial years in New York were challenging. At 20, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be there, and the language barrier made it difficult to write for a few years. However, New York offered safety - freedom from the fear of the military or friends disappearing. This allowed me to process my experiences and heal my relationship with Buenos Aires. While I loved Buenos Aires, I resented it for what it did to loved ones. New York took me in and allowed me to make peace with my past.

There are fewer poems directly referencing New York compared to Buenos Aires. Perhaps this is because I don’t actively try to include New York, but it undoubtedly shapes my identity as one of the “two particular halves” that make me who I am. My next book, that may be titled “Learning to be a Foreigner,” reflects this sense of belonging nowhere entirely. New York accepted me, but not completely, and Argentina is no longer the Buenos Aires of my youth.

Autumn: Religious allusions are prominent in your work. Can you elaborate on religion’s role in your poetry and how it has impacted your life?

Juan Mobili: Religion permeates my poems even when it’s not the main focus. I grew up in a religiously divided household. The members of my mother’s family were devout Catholics, while my father’s were rather agnostic, almost atheistic. This clash is a recurring theme. A poem in “Contraband” titled “God, My Father, and the Bombing of the Churches” is based on a story about my atheist father spending the night comforting nuns my grandmother sheltered from a bombing threat. This act ultimately won her approval.

While I don’t identify with any specific religion, I believe in a higher intelligence and the power of nature as a spiritual force. Some poems, like “Christ in the Rain,” challenge traditional religious imagery. I understand some might find this offensive, but it’s my way of exploring faith.

Ultimately, I believe living a spiritual life is about treating others well. My poems aim to promote love and compassion over hatred and war. I was once drawn to Buddhism, which emphasizes a meditative approach to life. Poetry serves a similar purpose for me –a way of quieting the mind and letting inspiration emerge. This explains the potential sections in my next book: “Learning to be a Foreigner” and “Don’t Tell God I Told You.”

Autumn: How do you cultivate the vivid imagery in your work? Is it more intuitive or methodical?

Juan Mobili: My process is primarily intuitive. I start by writing freely, even if it’s bad. Sometimes a word or sentence pops into my head, or I might be inspired by something in my garden. This is the intuitive aspect—being open and receptive to my surroundings.

However, there’s also a methodical side. After the initial burst of writing, I might spend years revising a poem. In the mornings, I write new material, and in the evenings, I revisit existing poems, making edits as small as a comma change. A friend once said, “You work a long time to be spontaneous.” Freshness is important, but there’s a lot of revision behind the scenes. Some poems get overworked and lose their vitality. It’s a balance between intuition and commitment to the craft.

Autumn: What are your hopes for the impact of your poetry on readers? Are there specific themes or future directions you’re excited to explore in your upcoming work?

Juan Mobili: Every spring, I edit an issue of The Banyan Review, a poetry journal. This editorial work exposes me to a wide range of voices and styles.

My next book will be a departure from “Contraband.” The poems may be more introspective, with less focus on narrative and more on metaphors.

Tony: Thank you, Juan, this was a wonderful conversation. We appreciate you spending time with us today.

Juan Mobili: It was my pleasure. Thank you for having me.

Juan Pablo Mobili was born in Buenos Aires, and adopted by New York. His poems appeared, among others, in The American Journal of Poetry, Hanging Loose Press, South Florida Poetry Journal, Louisville Review, and The Paterson Literary Review, in the United States, as well as a number of international publications such as Impspired (UK), The Wild Word (Germany), The Hong Kong Review (Hong Kong), Pasaje (Argentina), and Otoliths (Australia). His work received multiple nominations for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net, and an Honorable Mention from the International Rights Human Arts Festival. His chapbook,  “Contraband,” was published in 2022, and he’s also a Poetry Editor of The Banyan Review.

Host: Tony Huang

Interviewers: Wendy, Echo, Autumn

Copy Editor: Nancy He

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