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This interview with Alberto Roblest was conducted in Spanish and translated into English by the writer. This story is also published in Spanish. Read it here.
If Alberto Roblest knows that there is a Metro commute in his future, he comes prepared. That usually means tucking a small notebook into his pocket, though sometimes he’ll bring an electronic tablet. As his train takes off, he begins to write.
Metro rides are fertile ground for Roblest, a poet from Mexico City who has called the D.C. area home for 16 years. Commuters become characters in his poems, which paint a vivid portrait of modern, working-class life. “I’m not an esoteric poet,” Roblest tells City Paper. “I’m preoccupied with reality.”
It was on the Metro that Roblest wrote a number of the poems featured in his forthcoming collection, Inquilinos Mudos, or Silent Tenants, which local publisher Day Eight publishes on May 15. Featuring 19 poems, Silent Tenants is a lucid meditation on language, memory, heritage, and the inner lives of Washington’s Latinx community.
That community includes the people that live with Roblest in a rent-controlled apartment building in Columbia Heights. “I like exchanging ideas with my neighbors, and that’s how the idea for this book was born,” he says. “It’s a book based, above all, on their story, on my story, and the story of the Latinos that live here.”
One such person is Clara, the cleaning lady at the center of “Shadow Dance,” a poem that takes place under the bright lights of a local theater. Clara, who Roblest says is based on someone he knows, “cleans up the sweat of actors” and “dusts off what is left of their characters.” When she gets her own moment on “the stage/ of the theater of life,” she’s overcome with nostalgia, brought on by a melody that “invoked her grandmother.”
Like Clara, the cast of characters in Silent Tenants is often working, or thinking about work. In “Two Moments—Two Cities,” the narrator is on their way to their second shift, and “like always and for some unforsaken reason or another,” is running late, while the narrator in “Emigrant” is trapped in a vicious cycle: “the going and coming from work.” In “The Thread of Days,” “days go up/ and down the elevator,” and in “Broken Promises,” the “years go by working.”
“It’s impressive the number of jobs my neighbors have to maintain their families,” Roblest says, citing rapid gentrification and rising rents as immense pressures. “That’s why the book, in a way, is dedicated to them. It’s dedicated to all workers, all these people who dedicate their lives, well, to surviving.”
Silent Tenants is also interested in another form of labor: the labor of writing poetry. On occasion, Roblest’s poems offer something of a peek behind the curtain at the writing process itself. In “Bilingual: Scattered Phrases—Letters,” Roblest writes, “the arrival of the train and the crowd of people obscure/ the image of the poet … the word he is searching for eludes him.”
Poems are compared to “old home movies,” (“Super 8 Poem”), defined as “all of the love in the world in one party” (“Dedication,” which is dedicated “to all the cursed poets of the world”). “In Full Color” wonders: “If there is red wine/ red paint/ red hotel rooms/ why not red poems?” while “The Point of it All” sees a “great dot” fall from the sky, marking “the beginning of geometry” like “an apparition on a blank page.”
Roblest fell in love with the form as a 13-year-old, when he discovered Spanish Romantics such as José de Espronceda in school. He started writing as a teenager, but didn’t let anyone see his work. “I kept my poems hidden for many years,” he says. “I would’ve been embarrassed if people knew I was a poet.”
Now, being a poet is at the center of Roblest’s identity. He also writes short stories, makes a living as a videographer, and is currently working on a novel, but he sees poetry as the nucleus of all of his creative output. Even his videos “end up being poems,” he says. “Everything I do, everything else is really through that. I look at everything with a poet’s eye.”
That gaze is wide. In this collection, Roblest veers from the small and mundane, such as sleeping next to a partner in “Reciprocal Love” (“I have you = you have me/ and like this we sleep”), to the weighty forces of gentrification and colonialism. “Once Homeland” transports readers to a time “before the massive deportation” and “white supremacists” to Aztlan, the ancestral home of the Aztec people: “a plentiful mother earth.”
Silent Tenants was originally written in Spanish, but will be printed with side-by-side English translations, courtesy of Maritza Rivera, a poet herself. “A poet needs to translate another poet, because if not, it doesn’t work,” Roblest says.
The side-by-side poems punctuate Roblest’s own bilingualism, a topic he returns to again and again throughout Silent Tenants. The Tower of Babel—a biblical origin myth that explains why people speak different languages around the world—looms large over the collection. It appears in “Idiomatic Evolution,” the first poem in the collection, and then again in “Bilingual: Scattered Phrases—Letters,” where Roblest writes, “I’m a silent tenant in a building of words/ a skyscraper/ a Babel.”
“Sometimes, there are words that are better in one language than another,” Roblest says. “I like that ability of moving between languages, jumping from one to another.” His comment echoes a line from “Bilingual: Scattered Phrases—Letters”: “The poet continues his ascent into his world/ of meaning/ on a ladder of words with the intention/ of surfacing/ in one of his two languages.”
Roblest’s own ascent into his world of meaning has proved fruitful: Silent Tenants speaks in a luminous language; one that belongs to his often-silenced Latinx community.
Alberto Roblest’s Silent Tenants is available courtesy of Day Eight on May 15