Have You Been Long Enough at Table, a debut poetry collection by Leslie Sainz, bubbles over with poetic range. There are sonnets and prose poems and ghazals and a narrator grappling with her Cuban American identity and family history of immigration and displacement. The poems bring the reader to the table covered in ancestral fruits like plantains, tamarind, and malanga—a table both abundant and sparse, representing the lack one feels when culture and family history begin to erode.
Over email, Leslie Sainz and I discussed her writing journey, the origin of the title Have You Been Long Enough at Table from Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, the recurrence of water and wetness in her poems, and the last poem she read that felt like someone dumped a bucket of water over her head.
I would love to learn a little bit more about your writing journey. When did it begin? How did the idea for this poetry collection spark? Were you always a poet?
I’d like to say yes, I’ve always been a poet because I like the way that sounds, though I staunchly agree with Elizabeth Bishop that “there’s nothing more embarrassing than being a poet.” But that’s the truth: I’ve been attracted to a certain intensity, energetically speaking, since childhood, and writing poems and engaging with the stuff of poetry has provided me with that intensity, with little fallout, for a long time. Once I started writing poems in grade school, I never really stopped. As an undergraduate, I had the enormous privilege of studying with poets like Terrance Hayes, Jim Daniels, and Yona Harvey, though I hadn’t a clue what I was actually doing. I just wanted to feel fluent in poetry. I wanted to know it as it seemed to know me. The understanding that I could or would write a book didn’t materialize until I was in graduate school, and the first of my two years there were spent writing poor Mary Ruefle and Mary Ann Samyn imitations. I was hiding behind those early poems a great deal of cultural, existential, and familial angst, which eventually became Have You Been Long Enough at Table.
Have You Been Long Enough at Table is an excellent title. It somehow manages to both invite and disinvite. The lack it exudes only emphasizes the lack of a question mark, which is especially moving. I know the title was pulled from Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea whose main character is Cuban, like you. What inspired you to title your debut poetry collection, Have You Been Long Enough at Table? Why was this the chosen title?
Your impression of the title feels very true to me and I’m relieved that you believe it works! It’s been a bit polarizing, I think. But once I landed on it, I never wavered. It’s exciting to me that you’ve extracted from the title a sort of paradoxical quality, as I felt invited and disinvited to the book as I wrote it. Some of that was self-imposed, of course. The rest naturally erupted from attempting to document national and personal histories that have intentionally been obfuscated, or falsified, or eroded by memory.
Regarding the origins of the title, I first read The Old Man and the Sea in my second year of graduate school, at my father’s suggestion. I’ve always bristled at the notion of “Hemingway’s Cuba,” and, if I can be candid, have never been swayed by his curt, stilted syntax. But when I read the following passage, I felt as though I’d turned into a single goosebump:
“Eat it so that the point of the hook goes into your heart and kills you, he thought. Come up easy and let me put the harpoon into you. All right. Are you ready? Have you been long enough at the table?”
I was stirred by the second question’s strange construction, how oddly it read against what preceded and followed it. I felt captured by the adverb “enough,” by the situation of time and desire, by the subtle revolution between a survey of readiness and one of satiety. And the application of the metaphor “at table,” domestic and so distant from the scene’s dominant image systems. At the moment of reading it, it was obvious to me that the phrase “Have you been long enough at table?” was the perfect surrogate for my own book’s questions, provocations, and rituals.
Speaking of The Old Man and The Sea, there is so much water and wetness in these poems. There are waves and rafts and “wet air” and bath water and dishwater and tears and seafoam and of course the ocean. What role does water and wetness play in your work as a Cuban-American poet?
I have a deep reverence for the element of water, which is only rivaled by my fear of its power. My understanding of this delicate and dependent relationship is very much a cultural one, informed by diasporic spiritual practices as much as the stories of los balseros. I was born and raised in Miami, a city of sweat, humidity, rain, hurricanes, beaches, and swimming pools. And though they’re ubiquitous, all the presentations of water I’ve just named have different textures, colors, uses, connotations. It’s an abundant image system to work from, though my reliance on these images is not always a conscious choice.
Theoretically, I’d say my poetics, like water, is occupied by questions of density, clarity, hardness, and movement. When the balance between these characteristics is poor, the ecosystem of the poem suffers.
There are so many different poetic styles utilized in this collection like the sonnets to ancient gods such as “Sonnet for Obatala” (the Yoruba god who created the earth). There is also a partially redacted poem, “Massive Activity.” I’m so curious about your diversity in style. What inspires your poetic range?
I love this question and appreciate the opportunity to consider more closely an element of my poetics that mistakenly appears intuitive. I suspect my affinity with formal eclecticism derives from my love of contradiction and my sensibilities as an editor. I contradict myself constantly. I’m sure I will in this interview if I haven’t already! To me, following an American sonnet with a prose poem, or a ghazal, or an exercise in erasure, feels like a rebuttal. This is especially true when ordering a collection of poems, but I think it can apply to one’s generative process as well.
Creating and sustaining a sense of displacement was central to Have You Been Long Enough at Table. If familiarity leads to comfort, then maybe a multiplicity of poetic forms can be unsettling. Personally, I don’t go to poetry, the writing and reading of it, to feel comfortable or affirmed in my beliefs. I am wary of comfortable ideas in neat packages.
I’m also the daughter of immigrants who fled a communist regime (the Soviet Union). The narrators in your poems grapple with the difficult work of straddling two cultures: American and Cuban. I often find it so complicated to feel nostalgic for a place that was and still is “worse” than the one I am in now, but I often can’t help but long for home. I’m curious how you feel about this complexity. Is home Florida? The U.S.? Cuba? Somewhere else?
It’s quite meaningful to be in conversation with you about this. Thank you for sharing your experience with me and illuminating the stickiness of this particular limbo. Because it is a limbo, isn’t it? Full of deprivation, liminality, guilt.
I’ve struggled to put language to this complexity all my life but will attempt it again here. In my case, to claim feelings of nostalgia for Cuba would be problematic and unearned. As I alludeded to in the book, I’ve never stepped foot on the island. My parents, exiled as children, grew up in Brazil and Jamaica. Even if they were able to return to the island with their safety guaranteed, what could they recognize there? What kind of tour could they provide for their children? In a technical sense, yes, the U.S. is my home. Physically, I haven’t known any other. But it would be disingenuous and frankly wrong of me to assert that my relationship with the island isn’t cellular, because it is. It resides in my DNA and is externalized in food, dance, prayer, and a host of other customs and attitudes.
The experiment of writing Have You Been Long Enough at Table was, in part, to sequence that DNA through lyric. Presently, and for the eight or so years it took me to write this book, that was only “graspable” through the imaginative. And so, the speaker-selves situate themselves in “what could have been” and “if this, then that.” I want to be clear, it is not an act of fetishization or presumptuousness for children of immigrants, especially exiles and refugees, to configure in their minds a hospitable homeland. That changes, of course, when one attempts to speak on behalf of those who couldn’t, or didn’t, leave the originating country.
In “Glassware” the narrator is sitting at a dinner table with her parents. “I am impressed by my convincing father and loyal mother. / Their face veins make clear they are not lying to themselves, / not themselves. Faithfully, I am a large shard / made of their smaller shards.” This is just one of several instances of sharpness and anger or discontent in your poems. Other poems possess knives like “Sonnet With Ogun.” What does this sharpness mean to you? What angers you? What does it take to be a daughter of immigrants?
There’s an immediacy to sharpness that interests me. It’s incredibly sobering but can appear sensational if you’re not careful. In the poems you’ve referenced, and in most of the collection, the speakers wield it defensively. The aggressions to their person exist in allusion or suggestion, but they’re no less real or pointed. An attempt at privacy, maybe.
I am quicker to cry than I am to anger, and I cry when experiencing rage. There are so many things to be angry about—a great many of which could keep me angry forever even though anger is doomed to fade. And then what? What succeeds anger? I think my answer is “a daughter of immigrants.” We walk behind denial and anger (we see them so clearly), but beside bargaining and despair.
I’m curious what you read while writing this book, What poets and/or writers inspired you?
These texts offered courage and language in the moments I had neither: Break the Glass and Door in the Mountain by Jean Valentine, Federico García Lorca’s Selected Poems (particularly the one with the W. S. Merwin introduction), Slow Lightning by Eduardo Corral, Violet Energy Ingots by Hoa Nguyen, Incarnadine by Mary Syzbist, Ghost of by Diana Khoi Nguyen, Lean Against This Late Hour by Garous Abdolmalekian translated by Ahmad Nadalizadeh and Audra Novey, The Secret History of Water by Silvia Curbelo, Dancing in Odessa by Ilya Kaminsky, Please by Jericho Brown, and Look by Solmaz Sharif.
I’m infinitely inspired by the works of Harryette Mullen, Peter Gizzi, Pablo Neruda, Rae Armantrout, Denise Levertov, Carolina Ebeid, Kim Hyesoon, Mary Ruefle, Don Mee Choi, Rosa Alcalá, Roger Reeves, Mary Ann Samyn, Daniel Borzutzky, Elaine Equi, Rodrigo Toscano, and many others that (regretfully) escape me in this very moment.
What was the last poem you read that felt like someone dumped a bucket of cold water over your head?
I’d have to say “At Low Tide . . .” by Tomaž Šalamun, translated by Brian Henry.
by Leslie Sainz
Published on September 26, 2023
Diana Ruzova is a writer based in Los Angeles. She has an MFA in Literature and Creative Nonfiction from Bennington College. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Hyperallergic, Peach Magazine, The Cut, Oprah Daily, LAist and other publications. You can read more of Diana's work at dianaruzova.com.