On the road with the poet laureate of Queens.
By Paul Hond
On a clammy, hazy summer day, a red
Chrysler Sebring with a black top pulls into the parking lot of the
LIRR station at Little Neck, Queens. The window rolls down, revealing
a youthful, dark-haired man of 63 sporting killer shades that might
be worth as much as the car. “Get in!” he says, with a pearly grin.
He explains that his usual set of wheels, a Subaru Outback, is in the
shop. The Sebring is on loan from his girlfriend.
The driver is Julio Marzán
’71SOA, and he’s grinning for a reason. Once, he drove from New
York to Mexico City in a Chevy Cordova. That was in 1975. He’s driven
cross-country eight times. His novel The Bonjour Gene opens with, “Benjamin
Martin’s thoughts drifted far from his driving on the New Jersey Turnpike.”
And then there’s his poem “Utopia Parkway,” named after a Queens
thoroughfare. As a lesser poet might say: Marzán / is a cars man. And
today, happily enough, he is conducting a motor tour of New York’s
most sprawling borough.
“You won’t believe this!” he
says, as he bounces the Sebring over the railroad tracks. He turns left
onto a quiet, narrow road. Old single-family homes appear through threads
of summer vegetation. Queens might take a backseat to Manhattan and
Brooklyn in the public mind — less style-conscious, more functional,
a place you drive through to get to the airport — but to Marzán,
who has lived here for 38 years, it’s a rambling atlas of unexpected
charms. “You won’t believe this is New York City!”
As the road dips and bends, one begins
to see Marzán’s point. Trees, wildflowers, and — is that a
Marzán smiles, enjoying the reliable
effect of the anomaly; through a visitor’s eyes, he experiences these
wonders anew, and his enthusiasm carries him past a stop sign. “Uh-oh.”
He brakes in the middle of the intersection, which is traffic-free,
and continues cheerfully on. “Wait till you see this.”
In a moment, the land opens up onto
Little Neck Bay. The coastal road describes a hilly, wooded peninsula
dotted with the stately homes of Douglaston, while on the calm water,
a few sailboats slowly unzip the slate-colored surface. Narrow your
gaze and you could be back in Gatsby’s time (Fitzgerald’s West Egg
and East Egg correspond to nearby Kings Point and Sands Point), or earlier,
when the bay was glutted with hard clams (thus the name “littleneck
clams”), or even back to 1839, when Walt Whitman taught school at
Jamaica Academy, on the grounds of what is now Queens College.
Leaving the shoreline, Marzán steers
the Sebring into regal Jamaica Estates, and prowls along the side streets,
ogling the prewar Colonials and brick Tudors. “Each one is an individual
expression,” “he says, noting a crooked staircase, a plot of blazing flowers, a whimsical
rooftop terrace. The occasional McMansion, crammed between older, more
modest homes, violates Marzán’s idyll, causing him to groan, but
he quickly recovers. “There,” he says, pointing to a grand
redbrick Colonial with white columns, “is where Donald Trump grew
up.” If the houses quicken Marzán’s imagination, he’s also excited
by the opening of a Grimaldi’s Pizzeria in the Douglaston Plaza Shopping
Center. “But,” he says, “if you want the best pizza anywhere?
Umberto’s on Long Island.”
On the Long Island Expressway, heading
west, Marzán lays out the map of his life, which began in Puerto Rico
in 1946. His parents split up before he was born, and his mother, Lydia,
took him and his sister in a reconfigured World War II cargo plane to
the Bronx. It was a time that “predated all the clichés about the
Bronx and Puerto Ricans,” Marzán says, in the droll tone of one used
to explaining such things, “or any consciousness of West Side Story.”
There were no books or television at home, so he read G.I. Joe comics
and tuned in religiously to radio programs like Boston Blackie and Challenge
of the Yukon. Lydia, who worked as a seamstress down on Spring Street,
listened to Spanish-language soap operas on WADO.
One day, when Marzán was in the
third grade, Lydia took him furniture shopping on East 116th Street.
Marzán remembers a tall, older man approaching his mother in the store
and talking to her in Spanish. When the man asked for her number,
Lydia told him that she didn’t have a telephone. “The next day,”
Marzán says, “Bell Telephone shows up. That’s how we got a phone.”
The man started coming by in his Plymouth. Marzán and Lydia would get
in, and the man, whose name was Marcy, would take them to the White
Castle, to the park. Soon Lydia and Marcy got married. He was a German-Jewish
salesman from Brooklyn who adored the people and culture of Puerto Rico,
a Latinophile who consorted mainly with Spanish speakers. “All our
friends were Sephardic Jews,” Marzán says with a laugh. “They all
spoke Spanish and listened to Eydie Gorme, a Sephardic Jew from the
Bronx who sang in Spanish.” The family even moved to Puerto Rico for
a year (where they could afford to send Marzán to a private school);
many years later, Marcy, true to his wishes, died by the beaches of
Marzán decided to become a writer
at 17, though he didn’t know what kind. The idea just came to him
one day while he was riding the subway. After graduating from Fordham,
where he took some writing classes, he entered the MFA program at Columbia.
It was 1969, and Marzán, a kid from the Bronx who loved Keats and Dylan
Thomas, found himself in the rarefied precincts of a remarkable literary
world: he studied translation with Richard Howard (French) and Gregory
Rabassa (Spanish), poetry with Stanley Kunitz and David Ignatow, had
a workshop with Jorge Luis Borges, and, during an event at Low Library
in 1972, as an alumnus, came face-to-face with Pablo Neruda, his “poet-revolutionary
role model” who had won the Nobel Prize for literature the year before.
(Marzán’s essay about the meeting, “Pablo Neruda’s Dilemma,”
was published in the 2002 book Pablo Neruda and the U.S. Culture Industry.)
With Columbia in his rearview, Marzán
moved to Queens, to a high-rise apartment building in Jamaica Estates.
It suited him well. “There was always a parking space — always.”
Over the next four decades, as a Queens resident, he would produce two
books of poems, a novel, numerous essays, and a work of criticism, The
Spanish American Roots of William Carlos Williams, in which he artfully
decodes the poet’s intricate relationship to his mixed heritage: Puerto
Rican mother, Anglo-Caribbean father, suburban New Jersey citizenship.
“Like any child of immigrants from a minority culture in the United
States,” Marzán writes, “Williams grew up aware of living in a
society that devalued the foreign culture he received at home, imposing
on him the life-informing quest to reconcile his cultures.”
Questions of identity and class are
key for Marzán (Benjamin Martin, driving on the Turnpike, had once
been Benjamin Martinez, as a boyhood friend reminds him), but, as with
Williams, his final loyalty is to language. Marzán regrets the excesses
of academic political correctness, which he feels can deprive students
of exposure to essential literary experiences, creating a kind of intellectual
classism. “If it weren’t for affirmative action, I wouldn’t be
here,” he says, referring to Columbia’s effort in the late 1960s
to recruit African American and Latino students, “but if I’d been
given a paltry education that’s afraid to offend, that condescends
to minority students, I also wouldn’t be here.” He challenges the
notion of the hyphenated writer. “Ethnic art can be an oxymoron: once
you get to the art, you realize that what makes it art is also what
makes it less and less ethnic.” For good measure, he quotes some lines
from Williams: “I am a poet! I / am. I am.”
On May 4, 2007, Marzán, who for
the previous 15 years had been a professor of English at nearby Nassau
Community College, where he still teaches, was appointed by Borough
president Helen Marshall and Queens College president James Muyskens to be the fourth Queens Poet Laureate. The laureateship, a largely ceremonial
post established in 1996 by the Friends of the Queens College Library,
is open to published poets who have resided in Queens for at least two
years and who have incorporated the borough into their work. Now in
the middle of his three-year term, Marzán, in his formal capacity,
has done readings at venues throughout Queens, including the Queens
Museum of Art and St. John’s University. In October, he’ll appear
at the Greater Astoria Historical Society.
From the LIE there appears, through
the passenger window, Queens’s iconic structure, the Unisphere, a
140-foot-high steel sculpture of the Earth that was built for the 1964
World’s Fair. It’s a prescient symbol, given that Queens, which
has been home to American avatars Whitman and Louis Armstrong (Pops
is buried in Flushing Cemetery), would later become the most culturally
and linguistically diverse locale in the world — a true global village.
One of Marzán’s best memories is of riding the subway daily into
Flushing during the summer of ’64, to visit the Fair.
“The whole world was here,” he
says, his voice suffused with the teenager’s awe. “I was a kid from
the Bronx who’d never been anywhere other than San Juan.” He was
particularly drawn to the Spanish Pavilion. “Spectacular flamenco
shows. Huge crowds. I loved it.”
In the marshy heat, Marzán guides
the Sebring from the fairgrounds at Flushing Meadows Corona Park to
nearby Citi Field, whose familiar banking logo, a red arc over white
letters, provides a moment of metaphorical contemplation.
But where is Shea Stadium? Hadn’t
the Mets just played there last fall?
“It’s gone,” Marzán says.
Yes, gone. Vanished. Dust to dust.
A parking lot. But there’s no time for further metaphors: the Sebring
is off through North Corona to the hills of Jackson Heights, beyond
whose humps of houses and dipping telephone lines loom the gunmetal
spires of Manhattan.
On Roosevelt Avenue, Marzán observes
the crowds of people — Peruvian, Colombian, Ecuadorian, Mexican
— milling along the street, which, despite a sagging economy,
bursts with small businesses and restaurants, bright toucan-colored
awnings of yellow, red, green. “Great steaks there,” he says, nodding
toward an Argentinian place. After a few blocks, the Latin restaurants
give way to Indian and Bangladeshi eateries, regarded as some of the
best in the city. “In Queens, no one is displaced,” Marzán comments.
“People, languages, cultures just pile up on top of one another.”
He adds, “And there’s no problem with the authenticity of the food.”
Speaking of food, it’s lunchtime,
and Marzán turns around and heads back east to one of his favorite
spots, a trattoria on Union Turnpike in Flushing, across from St. John’s.
There are outdoor tables facing a residential side street of front lawns
and mailboxes. Marzán orders the linguini di mare. “My girlfriend
and I come here and order a nice bottle of wine,” Marzán says, extending
his hand to indicate the simple beauty of what a lesser romantic might
see as an ordinary suburban scene. One could, in fact, spend a long
afternoon at this table. Perhaps even a life. Maybe it’s the excellent
food, or the beating sun, or Marzán’s relaxed enjoyment of place,
but never has 178th Street in Flushing felt more like the Amalfi Coast.
Then again, the poet is seated just
two blocks from Utopia Parkway, whose very name awakens the fancy to
a thousand possibilities. And it’s in the final lines of that eponymous
poem that Marzán, whether driving through Florida or Texas or the state
of Hidalgo, finds his way back home:
“Airport fumes / always transport
me / to that island / no longer mapped / and my wheels / touch that
life / always dreamed / from New York.”