Mild-mannered and beloved in bilingual literary circles in Washington, Rei Berroa is better known farther away. When he is not in his Spanish literature classroom at George Mason University, or at his desk in Fairfax drafting pieces for his 41st book of poetry, criticism or translation, he will be to-ing and fro-ing around Latin America — in person or by phone — organizing poetry events and cultural exchanges, reading his work. Not long ago he was in Nicaragua, brainstorming how to support a poetry festival there. Just the other day he was talking about inviting Uruguayan street musicians to Mason. In 2011, he received the International Poetry Prize at the annual festival in Trieste, Italy.
Friday night, in the Washington Heights neighborhood of upper Manhattan — unofficial headquarters of the Dominican diaspora in the United States — the annual Feria del Libro Dominicano kicks off. The Dominican Book Fair is an elaborate three-day multi-disciplinary cultural celebration, “where the book is the protagonist,” as organizers like to say. In past years, up to 20,000 people attended.
This year, the festival is dedicated to Berroa.
“He is one of the most important Dominican writers living outside the island,” says Carlos Sánchez, the Dominican Commissioner of Culture in the United States.
Sánchez puts Berroa in a category that includes the better-known Dominican American writers Junot Díaz and Julia Alvarez. A 557-page anthology of Berroa’s work is being published by the Dominican Ministry of Culture to coincide with the fair.
The fair takes place mainly in a school at the corner of Amsterdam Avenue and 165th Street. Among the pavilions devoted to cinema, crafts, historical memory, Dominican identity and youth expression, there will be a salon dubbed “la Casita de Rei Berroa.” In a homelike setting, Berroa will receive the visiting public, offer tea and coffee, talk about his work, perhaps even play the guitar and sing. He has set a few of his poems to music — the effect is “something like Leonard Cohen,” he says.
Elsewhere on the festival program — which runs to 43 pages — Berroa is scheduled to give readings and join other writers in conversations on literature and identity.
“For me it is such a joy that I was the person chosen” for the fair, says Berroa, 65. “It’s not only a celebration of what in my solitude I create, but I will be there in the middle of the society of individuals, who might reach my poetry and find some solace to carry with them. That’s the social role that poetry should have.”
In his work, Berroa says he tries “in one way or another to transform everyday life into words that are everyday words, but by the order in which they are presented, and the rhythm that they convey, they can lift the human spirit above the fragility of life. That something as small and as stupid as a blade or a little bullet can end the immensity of the life of the human being, put an end to something that might become extraordinary.”
One of his abiding themes is endeavoring to rescue the unique humanity of individuals from such categorizing forces as politics and religion. There’s also a subtle humor to his poems. One piece, “With Respect to Certain Activities of Doves,” is a meditation on birds relieving themselves on the heads of statues of Great Men, from “Lincoln to Lenin, from Bolivar to Zapata.” Another, “The Usefulness of Laughter,” counsels against trusting gods that “don’t want to, or don’t know how to, or cannot laugh or smile.”
Here is “Hierarchies,” as translated by Berroa and writer and activist Margaret Randall:
As for gifts,
the first is being born
and living the first among our goods.
Our fundamental duty is to free ourselves,
to love and be loved
our most important task.
At the end,
please underline the novelty of this assertion,
to die with dignity is our last desire.
Berroa left the Dominican Republic to study and see the world. He got a doctorate in literature from the University of Pittsburgh and began teaching at George Mason in 1984, the year he helped bring the great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges to visit the campus. He lives with his wife Ana and daughter Olivia, 13. The license plate on his car is: POETA. Each spring, he organizes the annual Poetry Marathon hosted by Teatro de la Luna, the local Spanish-language theater, and the Library of Congress. The marathon features poets from different countries taking turns reading their work in Spanish.
An American citizen, Berroa considers himself “American by choice and Dominican by birth.”
“But when you read my poems, I am not talking about Dominican or American, it is the human experience. The thing that matters the most to me is how to survive in a world in which the powers that be are all around us, trying to exert their force on us. How do we free ourselves from all that?…The greatest thing that an individual can be is a human being.”
While he is fluent in English, and writes prose in English, “I have never been comfortable writing poetry in English, because your language is your real mother and father, and your homeland and your craved paradise,” Berroa says. “When it comes to poetry, there is only one way to do it: the mother tongue, the tongue of the mother.”