Leslie Sainz’s Debut Poetry Collection Explores Cuban Displacement & Emancipation

"Have You Been Long Enough at Table" gives voice to the Cuban experience on the island and in the states

Leslie Sainz Have You Been Long Enough at Table

Photos courtesy of Leslie Sainz; Tin House

Leslie Sainz is a Cuban American poet and the proud daughter of Cuban exiles who is interested in different types of violence—familial, societal, national—and yet how we can still persevere to reach freedom and joy. This past September, she published her debut poetry collection Have You Been Long Enough At Table, a title taken from Ernest Hemingway’s famous novella The Old Man and the Sea which follows a Spaniard fisherman in Cuba. In response to what is undeniably a white man’s version of the island, Sainz flips the novella on its head in order to reclaim her own story—where her Cuban family perpetuates the violence they endured and escaped, where the U.S. and Cuba weaponize their powers in the name of imperialism, and ultimately, where Cuban women can emancipate themselves and begin a revolution.

“The title Have You Been Long Enough At Table feels dangerous to me, which I like. Maybe it shouldn’t, but lifting that question from Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea felt like rustling around in his grave and retiring the notion of Hemingway’s Cuba,” Sainz tells HipLatina. “As a phrase, it communicates lack, a looming threat. There’s a real urgency to how it positions food—a substantial cultural touchpoint for the book—but it also establishes the importance of being in relation to others, of feeling responsible for their wellbeing. All of this supports my understanding of the collection as a whole, which primarily investigates codependency within a family system, and between nations. From the very beginning, my goal was to write an ‘unsolvable’ piece of literature.”

The collection only just came out at the tail end of this summer but for Sainz, it’s undoubtedly been many years in the making. She recalls writing poems or “writings that resembled poems” since grade school, transforming her love of writing into a life-long venture. In fact, she became so successful early on that a poem of hers won a Gold Key award from the regional Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, then a Silver Key award at nationals. This earned her an invitation to attend the award ceremony at Carnegie Hall, allowing her to reimagine the possibilities of her career to come and what could be possible.

“Coming from a low-income background—my parents couldn’t afford the trip, a wound that still stings—I’d never experienced something so luxurious before, and, naively, I thought, ‘If this is the life poetry can provide for me, I have to see this through,'” she explains. “The truth is, I’d already loved the practice of writing poems, how it clarified and complicated my ideas about the self and the world, how I felt when I was in it.”

Such themes crop up consistently throughout her debut, which is intrinsically interested in the self, identity, family, and how these elements of our lives work in parallel—and in rejection of—larger forces outside of our control like politics and government. Interestingly enough, as she wrote the first draft of the collection during her MFA program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she rejected the common idea that is often perpetuated in the poetry community that tells poets they need to allow the page to speak for itself without ideas and expectations beforehand. From the get-go, she knew exactly what she wanted the collection to be.

“I often knew in advance the exact content I needed to write to fill out the emotional and historical gaps of the collection. I kept a list of subjects to address and worked my way through them. Of course, not all of those poems made their way into the final version of the book—there was still plenty of room for improvisation, for surprising myself,” she says. And in the end, it took her eight years and five drafts to get to a place where she felt like she’d said what she needed to say in the way she wanted to say it, and most importantly, that it was ready to be published.

The time she took to finish the collection was necessary given the book’s themes that are especially relevant to her experiences as a Cuban American woman from an island that has experienced an oppressive military dictatorship and is still feeling the effects today including extreme poverty (last year, it was found that over 72 percent live beneath the poverty line) and lack of civilian political power.

However, rather than focusing on current life on the island, she chooses instead to give voice to those who have escaped Cuba. For example, “Gusano (N)” powerfully traces her family ancestry by showing the horrors each of them saw and how they left—but, she as points out, they didn’t completely leave their past behind. While in exile, she shows how the perpetrators of violence in her story are sometimes her loved ones, who carry with them the remnants of the regime they escaped from. In poems like “Glassware,” she writes of her “convincing father and loyal mother”, subtly hinting at their absence and disassociation in lines like “My father lives / with my mother and, some days, with himself.” As an immigrant daughter, she grieves for her parents and for herself, what she too has lost through her family.

Part of what makes her work so extraordinary is her turns of phrase and uses of language unlike any other contemporary poet today. With razor-sharp words and images depicting Cuban American life, culture, religion, and dreams, she takes us to a quiet world brimming with darkness beneath the surface, one still recovering from the violence it has faced and continues to, and every choice to get us there feels intentional.

“Sonics are paramount to my poetics” she says. “My poems first exist in the air before they compile themselves on the page, in part because as I’m writing, I’ll read aloud each line, over and over, until the next one appears to me. As a result, I think my ear has become one of the most finely tuned tools of my creative intuition, and it determines diction, syntax, breath, and pacing.”

While the sonics breathe life into the poems, grief and remembrance are at the heart of this book but Sainz makes it clear that those sentiments are not the whole of her Cuban American experience or her family’s Cuban one. Though it’s a difficult yet authentic read, the collection also brims with an undeniable love for the people who raised her and allowed her to live, as well as hope for the possibility that the past doesn’t always lead neatly into the future. Sometimes we can change course. Sometimes we can acknowledge and heal from generational trauma. And, as she point out, sometimes the family that caused pain is the same family that can bring us back to moments of happiness and ultimately, freedom.

“I might have had the most fun writing ‘Still Life with Christ, Aromatics,’ a nostalgic poem brimming with food imagery that recollects my family’s Nochebuena traditions. Though the collection as a whole traces a number of the more unpleasant memories of my childhood, [the poem] provides a sort of reprieve, an alternative portrait.”

As much as her creative practice has been a moment for growth and education, she’s also found that the journey of releasing her debut has been a just-as-important learning process. On the job, she’s had to learn to demystify the secret world of publishing: how publicists eventually have to prioritize other titles once your book is published, how you shouldn’t feel afraid to advocate for yourself to be paid adequately by colleges and universities for their events, how you have to stop comparing your success to everyone else’s. But perhaps the hardest lessons she’s had to learn is to trust in her own voice even when it feels impossible, even when she’s saying hard truths about the horrors—and joys!—about the world we live in, and encourages others to do the same. Sainz notes:

“Write what feels most risky to you and do not compromise that sensibility even a little bit for the white gaze, which still dictates what gets published. Also, take your time, and: you don’t have to be legible to anyone else, not even the communities that have made your work possible. You honor them not by privileging certain kinds of writing over others but simply by writing.”

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