Nobody becomes a poet by accident: an interview with Lester Gómez Medina
When I met Lester Gómez Medina, I was struck by his open admission, even insistence, that poetry is work.
Born in Nicaragua, Gómez Medina spent his formative years in Costa Rica, before emigrating to England to study a masters at the University of Roehampton. A former student of Spanish Philology, Gómez Medina’s intricate knowledge of language gives him a unique perspective on writing. He channelled this structural knowledge into deeply personal poetry that draws on his childhood in Latin America, as well as his experiences of migration. Training initially with the London-based collective Invisible Presence under the stewardship of Argentinian-British poet Leo Boix, his short collection The Riddle of the Cashew (2021) was later published by Exiled Writers Ink.
Below is a conversation between Gómez Medina and Brainscan about his writing process, poetry as healing mechanism, and his book The Riddle of the Cashew.
So to start, could you tell me a little bit about yourself and your background?
My name maybe?
Sure, you can start with that if you like.
My name is an English name, for a Latin American person. That’s very ironic really, because, I come from Central America, Costa Rica where I grew up, and Nicaragua where I was born originally. And I suddenly got a name that is an English name, and I end up living in England where this name is an old-fashioned word – I just learned about this recently. And it’s so interesting to me. But that’s my name and I like it. ‘Lester’. Like Leicester City.
When did you start creative writing and why?
Since I started university in my country, in Costa Rica, when I was studying language, I had to read the whole spectrum of language – or most of it. Linguistics, literature, theory, and other things that had to do with language. It awakes a strong interest in how language outside of the formality of grammar could generate another effect, which is through fiction, writing, creative writing. I used to enjoy reading certain texts that were speaking to me, or that I related to…I had curiosity of reproducing that, but I never did it formally.
You actually started out writing short stories. How was that transition, from short stories to poetry?
The transition has not been at all bad, it has been very good in my opinion. And I enjoy it because I am always willing to share a story. To tell you something, because I am a receiver in that way. I like stories. I like to be told things that awake my imagination or my curiosity. So I do the same, probably, I project that. My poems are usually narrative, telling you things.
The only difficult thing that I went through was probably how was a [narrative] poem a poem, and not a short story. Or the other way around. How a short story was not poetry. That was a challenge… But I have overcome the storm, and I made the best out of that, because I know how to identify what is what. And I like that, you know. It’s enjoyable to me.
I use this metaphor – I have the ingredients, and I know, what dish I would like to do. The idea is the ingredients, and the format is the dish it will end up being. Poems, or short stories.
How have your personal experiences informed your writing?
I think I have gone through a process of maturity, as a creative writer, poetry in this case, in that I have found out how to make it better, how it works better. In the beginning, I was following a kind of phrase, an idea I found out about, said by the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, who I really admire. He was wise, for me, no doubt. And he has a phrase, “poetry amongst many other things is what we have forgotten.”
Since the moment I heard that, for me it was useful. It gave me a clear idea of what would be the source for what I was doing at the moment, with this process of writing. It helped me to put in a thread, that the kind of poems that I should develop for my first material had to be not only fed by the experience of migration but…those things that are related to me directly. Which is my background, my family background. And there were numerous members of my family, aunties, uncles… I think there were many stories to tell. But I choose those that affect me the most when I remember.
I use that word again, remembering, what I have forgotten. And you tend to do that when you migrate, I believe. That has been my experience. Because when you’re a kid, there’s a lot you may face that may hurt you. You’re leaving it behind, but it’s still there. And the windows…I call it windows, the windows may open again, and those things, they can come back to you and visit you at any time. So I was trying not to let them come back as an avalanche that would hurt me, although they did, some of them. It was an interesting process of bringing back things that I forgot, let's say, that I left behind. And I discovered that they were very intense, touchy, and interesting to hear probably.
As you translate your own poems, do you feel that the voice or character of your writing changes depending on the language you’re using?
It’s a different person, I believe. I have never had this question asked in this particular context or way…It reminds me of when I was working with my mentor Jane Duran for my book The Riddle of the Cashew. I went through a whole year of working with this very experienced person, and I learned a lot from her. She told me once something, ‘I advise you to write in your first language, because it's your strongest language’. Because what? It’s clear to me, after her explanation. It’s the language that you feel. It’s the language through which ideas will flow in a stronger way. Because it’s the language that you can control better. I agree. I agree absolutely.
Since then, I gave up that illusion that I needed to write directly in English. I do it now, but without that pressure. What I learned from that is certainly she was right. I can give you a poem in English, from the Spanish language, because in the Spanish language it was good. What it ends up being is a slightly different thing. Probably the tone of voice is different, but I can’t tell you [how], because I don’t necessarily feel the language. And literally I mean it, I don’t feel the language, at the level where, if you tell me ‘I like you’, I know the qualifying thing of that. Simple. But I don’t feel it, naturally. But if you say it in my language, I will feel it. And poetry is about that, it’s about feeling.
I can say, what you are hearing, or what you are reading – it’s two different masks. Masks, you know the word, where it comes from? In Spanish we say ‘máscara’, so slightly longer (sp)… but it’s Greek. It means persona. So that’s all we are. Appearances.
Can you tell me a little bit about your book The Riddle of the Cashew?
For me it was a process of learning, a process of moving to the next step in the staircase, because studying with my mentor was improving my skills, boosting my skills. For me it represents my improvement of my skills as a poet, which I learned through dealing with those wounds that were always there. It was a proper journey, I would say. It was through lock down, it kept me occupied. It was a lockdown baby, and it was my first proper achievement.
The acknowledgement is addressed to who the poems were dedicated to. And they are my nuclear family, my three women. My mother, and my two sisters. And although they…they just know that I have a book, and that I’ve appeared on Youtube in a video, which made them happy…they have no idea what The Riddle of the Cashew is about. Especially the sister, who the poems speak about. And I’m a little bit worried, I don’t know if I want to show her that poem. Because…I didn’t reveal things that may expose her, or denigrate her, it’s not that. It’s because she’s very sensitive. And I don’t want to read her a poem that will open wounds for her. It did it to me. For her, it could be even more horrible.
So that is what that book represents for me. My beginning, realising that it could be the first little step that I could make it a long walk, or a race… no, a walk, I don’t want to rush. It’s a goal achieved, after work. It was literally that. I remember once I got angry because my mentor was always telling me - I was always doing my homework, writing, editing, translating, sending it to her, and an hour later she was sending me everything back, saying, ‘what is this, why don’t you do this and that and this and that’. I was annoyed by that. I felt that that was not enjoyable at all. But that was the best lesson of that. I learned how to work. In detail. That fits with me, because I am that person, I just was not exposed to work with somebody like that.
Would you say your creativity has helped you process those things in the past that have happened to you?
I have lately concluded that poetry is something that could be seen as a therapeutic thing, because the process of writing will be that. It doesn’t have to involve art, or poetry, or anything. Just writing things down will help you a little bit.
Yeah for me poetry has been a kind of hidden thing, because you have to expose yourself in front of yourself, things that you left behind or you didn’t want to discuss. I would say poetry has helped me to deal with things, so I don’t see them in the same way. They might pull me down to the ground and drag me, but not in the same way as before. I think it has happened several times, when I was writing very personal things, the art element was helping me to shape it. To not let those things take me to the point where… I don’t want to use the word depressive, but, sensitive. To the point where it could be a wound that could be reopened, and it would hurt. I think that the process I have gone through.
I read a quote from you which said, having to leave where you come from is learning to live where one goes to. Could you elaborate a little bit on that?
When you leave somewhere, you have to adapt. Even Darwin would tell you that, it’s evolution. Adaptation. But it’s clear…you have no choice. You have to go, somehow you are forced to leave – maybe you don’t have a gun to your head, but if you don’t move on, or do something, your situation may get worse, or you may end up frustrated, with all the dreams that you had not accomplished, or anything that might happen.
Having to leave [Nicaragua], it was not my decision, because I was young, a young teenager. It was my mother’s decision, but it’s something I feel very grateful for, because she was not the best at decision making, but that was the best. I don’t care about the other decisions, but that was the best decision a mother could make, to help her kids.
So it was a bit of that. I had to leave. And then, a second time, I’m here. And again, I was not that forced but at some point I felt that my world was becoming very small, even before it became small. I felt that there was more for me, out there, that I wanted to see and experience. That I never got a chance to do, because of resources, because its not cheap to come here. As soon as I could make it, I try, and I’m here, and I’m going through that process of adaptation again…it’s vital I believe. That’s life in general. You go to a new job, you adapt or you will get frustrated believing that your rules that you are bringing and values are the axel of everything – it’s not like that. I had to adapt here. I had to. That’s what I mean, probably.
Do you have a favourite piece of work that you’ve produced?
Not really, but I have favourite pieces that I use depending on the occasion. For instance, when I think about my mother, I like reading a poem from [The Riddle of the Cashew] called The Day of the Iguana. I respect that poem a lot. I try not to read it.
Finally, is there a project you are working on at the moment?
I’m confident that I have enough poems to publish a full collection… But I never stop writing, because I don’t write for projects, I write for myself. And for the reader, in reality. Some people would say, some artist or writer, I don’t think of the reader, I don’t think of the public. That’s hypocritical, in my opinion. I think of the reader, and in the first place, of me. That sounds very selfish, but I don’t care… I keep writing, I never stop, I always do this.
Borges said something in an interview I heard recently… “the poet’s work is forever, at any time, you never stop”. And I understand that completely, because if I’m here sitting, at some point I will see something out of the window that will call my attention - and it never stops, at any time.
But projects, yes, I would like to move forward and…find an opportunity to publish a full collection. Also, I have been talking with somebody who may help me proofread a collection of short stories on the topic of learning difficulties or special needs. Because I work with children with autism and learning difficulties, I believe I could do something that really shares something with people, so that people may learn what it is to have a kid with a condition like that, or being a kid like that. For you to have a small picture of what it could be.
Lester was interviewed by Grace Graham-Taylor for Brainscan Mag.
You can purchase Lester’s book, Riddle of the Cashew here