Rita Maria Martinez
In Conversation with Leslie Contreras Schwartz
Rita Maria Martinez is a Cuban-American poet from Miami, Florida. Her first collection of poems, The Jane and Bertha in Me, published in January 2016 by Kelsay Books, celebrates Brontë’s classic novel, Jane Eyre, through persona poems. Martinez’s writing has been published in journals including the Notre Dame Review and Ploughshares; in the textbook Three Genres: The Writing of Fiction/ Literary Nonfiction, Poetry and Drama, published by Prentice Hall; and in the anthology Burnt Sugar, Caña Quemada: Contemporary Cuban Poetry in English and Spanish, published by Simon & Schuster. She earned her Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing from Florida International University. For more information about Martinez, visit her author page. In this interview, she talks about her fascination with Jane Eyre, writing about chronic illness, and doppelgängers.
Leslie Contreras Schwartz: In your debut collection, The Jane and Bertha in Me, you describe the experience of a speaker with chronic illness and how her experience both overlaps and illuminates those of the characters Jane and Bertha in Jane Eyre. I found your handling of these characters both grounding and compelling in that the poems seek to deconstruct the idea of the virgin-whore myth and provide a lens into their very complex and individual experiences. The women—all of them—are not set up in opposition to each other but are given chances to explain, in a feverish nature often, and define their own experiences. Can you talk about the impetus driving this collection, and what connections you sought to discover between the speaker, Jane and Bertha? Why did you seek to parallel these figures?
Rita Maria Martinez: The main impetus for writing this collection was to honor Charlotte Brontë’s beloved novel. I want fans to relive some of the excitement they felt when first approaching Jane Eyre. Perhaps The Jane and Bertha in Me will prompt readers to revisit the novel and will prompt others to pick it up for the first time. Readers from all walks of life are drawn to the work of the Brontës. Jane Eyre, for example, was translated into Lithuanian last year by Mary Kazlauskas, J. Subatavičius. The novel is very popular in Japan; this is alluded to in Jasper Ford’s witty time-travel novel The Eyre Affair when a Japanese tourist reads from the classic novel and is transported into the story. Italian translations of Brontë juvenilia have recently been published and translated by Maddalena De Leo and others. A new Spanish edition of Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell, La inquilina de Wildfell Hall, Waldo Leirós is circulating. Nick Holland’s biography, In Search of Anne Brontë, made a splash last summer in the States. Last year Northern Ballet opened their Autumn season by showcasing Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights into a modern ballet. An exhibition showcasing writings, drawings, and possessions about Branwell Brontë recently debuted at the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth to celebrate his bicentenary. To Walk Invisible: The Brontës, a two-hour drama, aired on Masterpiece Theater on March 26. As I said last year during Charlotte’s bicentenary, Brontëites just can’t get enough.
I also sought to parallel these characters because I was inspired by the literary criticism of Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar. In their landmark feminist text, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, Gilbert and Gubar espouse the view that Jane and Bertha mirror one another. Bertha is Jane’s doppelgänger—the cast-off wife who represents a dismal portrait of what Jane herself can become if she loosens the reins on reason and emotion. Jane forges a dangerous alliance with a dangerous man; she actually encounters several men who pose a threat to her psychological health. For those who have difficulty likening Jane to Bertha, one must examine the text of Jane Eyre closely. As a little girl, Jane Eyre responds to being locked in the red room by losing consciousness and having a sort of nervous breakdown when she thinks she sees the ghost of her Uncle Reed. During her convalescence, Jane is cared for by servants and an apothecary is called to assess the child’s mental and physical state.
Like the madwoman in the attic, Jane can also be violent. When Jane’s perpetual tormentor, cousin John Reed, assaults the small child with a book titled Bewick’s History of British Birds, he is oblivious to the kind of rage he will inspire. Readers often forget John is several years older than Jane. Had Jane lived at Gateshead longer, his assaults may have escalated to those of a sexual nature. Jane’s counterattack on John is savage and animalistic; on a smaller scale, it mirrors Bertha’s vicious attack on her brother Mason. Bertha ultimately represents the passions unrestrained. Readers see similar inclinations in Jane when she departs from Gateshead as a child and tells off Aunt Reed. Most of us cheered Jane on for being such a gutsy, resilient child. In part, I also wrote about Jane and Bertha because I wanted to explore issues like codependence and psychological abuse.
An even larger parallel between Jane and Bertha is that both are displaced persons. Bertha is a transplant from the West Indies, a foreigner who leaves the only home and society she has ever known to live in icy England with Edward Rochester. She does not speak the language. Her world constricts further when Rochester imprisons her. Upon marriage, Rochester has inherited all of Bertha’s money. Jane, an orphan, a penniless woman of genteel birth never belongs anywhere. She is unwanted by most of her stepfamily at Gateshead. Friend Helen and teacher Miss Temple are her only friends at Lowood School. And, as an adult, where does a governess fit in? She’s not supposed to socialize with most of the servants, nor should she get too chummy with her employers. The governess works hard, lives on the fringe, and often lives in fear. If fired, she loses more than just wages; she loses security and a basic essential, the roof over her head. Jane’s predicament as a governess rings true for marginalized members of our society, such as the undocumented who live under a constant yoke of fear. Jane Eyre continues to be a very relevant work.
LCS: What are your favorite poems in this collection and why? I especially am interested in their creation, the thought process behind them, and how you felt writing them.
RMM: Picking favorites is difficult, but I had a great deal of fun writing some of the more light-hearted and quirky poems like “Reading Jane Slayre,” “The Jane and Bertha in Me,” and “Blanche Ingram’s Bitterness.” The latter was inspired by a 1941 movie called Ball of Fire, a comedy starring Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck. It’s a quirky retelling of Snow White featuring gangsters and a group of bachelor professors who are writing an encyclopedia. The youngest, Professor Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper), is a grammarian who is researching modern American slang. I loved the play with words in this movie, so I thought it would be fun to write a poem fuelled by slang of that era. The end result was “Blanche Ingram’s Bitterness.” I especially enjoyed writing “Jane Dreams of Rescuing Helen.” I have always mused about how Helen Burns, Jane’s childhood best friend, would’ve turned out had she reached adulthood; Helen was always a kind and generous friend to Jane. Rewriting Helen’s destiny was very exciting. There are several surprises for readers in that poem. “Jane Eyre: Classic Cover Girl” is an ekphrastic poem describing a series of Jane Eyre book covers. Some of the artwork is featured in real covers, and others are spoofs created by fans. Each cover is a small universe, a microcosm, so I wrote these in nonce sonnets and provided my take on them.
LCS: I really appreciated how you connect your own Cuban-American experiences, in their specificity of the speaker's "scarf(ing) the pages (of Jane Eyre) like pork rinds, / yuca chips, crackers slathered with guava jelly," with no qualifications or justifications of how a woman of color in modern times can relate to the Victorian era literature of Brontë. I feel by ignoring the tendency to explain to a white audience, and merely forging connections between experiences, especially the speaker's experience of invisibility with Jane and Bertha's, speaks to larger truth about women's experiences that is often missed. Can you talk about your thoughts about how you approached this? It has been my experience that women of color, especially, are charged with justifying writing about anything outside of the accepted experiences, or asked to continually stay pigeon-holed into writing about certain experiences. Do you agree, and can you tell me your thoughts on this and how it did or did not factor into your writing?
RMM: As a first-generation Cuban-American poet, I’ve made room for both José Martí and the Brontës on my shelves. In the poem Reading Jane Eyre, I mention reading the classic novel as a teen and eating “crackers slathered with guava.” This description seemed perfectly natural to me. I didn’t see a need to censor or change a detail like this. However, I grew up in Miami where there is a diverse population and a large Cuban population. I was raised in a household where Spanish was spoken more than English. I have never been criticized for incorporating Spanish words or phrases in poems. My mentors always embraced diversity both on and off the page when I was a student at Florida International University. I graduated from the same creative writing program as Inaugural Poet Richard Blanco. I have received the support and appreciation of the local writing community, which as I said before, is diverse. However, I’d be negligent if I didn’t mention magazines like MiPOesias, brainchild of Dulce Menendez, which embraced my writing during its more initial stages. I am also grateful for the encouragement that Letras Latinas, the literary initiative at the University of Notre Dame’s Institute for Latino Studies, has provided on several occasions. There is much for which I am thankful. Ultimately, I write about my obsessions, and I write to have some fun in the process. I think that if one does that, the right audience will follow.
LCS: The most powerful poems in your book are those which deal with violence against women, and the complicated roles Jane and Bertha have with their perpetrators. There is a lot of tension between recognizing their own role as victims, and also violently fighting for any autonomy against victimhood. How does this relate to what you were trying to say about the body's own violence against itself when one experiences a debilitating, chronic illness? How are they different?
RMM: As a young child, I rarely “tattled” when someone resorted to name-calling or verbal bullying, even if it recurred. However, I never hesitated to report if a classmate crossed the line physically in some way. Why did I report one type of violence and not the other? How do girls and women deal with psychological abuse? These are some of the questions I considered when writing “The Jane and Bertha in Me.” The poem “The Madwoman” appropriates abrasive and politically incorrect language to expose its inherent ugliness; the poem also airs dirty laundry in terms of exposing atrocities committed against women who have suffered from mental illness or disability.
The body’s own violence against itself when one experiences a debilitating, chronic illness often arouses feelings of betrayal or resentment toward the very vessel one is trying to heal and protect. It is challenging to cherish that which we associate with pain or discomfort. Ironically, the character, persona, and patient must ultimately “make friends with” his or her chronic pain—as with emotional pain—in order to survive its ravages and fight back in a way that is productive and healthy. You are correct in pointing out that there is a great deal of tension in terms of Jane and Bertha recognizing their own roles as victims and also violently fighting for autonomy against victimhood. Brontë depicts Jane as plain and Bertha is rendered as a she-beast. Yet savvy readers realize these characters are not one-dimensional—something I hope comes through in poems like “The Madwoman and The Literature of Prescription.”
I stretched my comfort zone when writing these two poems. I don’t want to abstain from tackling topics like the stigma that often accompanies physical and mental illness. Ignoring these issues would render me guilty of contributing to Bertha and Jane’s invisibility—of playing a part in Bertha’s third-floor imprisonment and Jane’s incarceration in the red room. The subject matter of “The Literature of Prescription” warrants telling. For patients—especially female patients like myself—who grapple with chronic daily headaches (CDH), life is challenging. Visibility is an issue when only four percent of the population has been diagnosed with this neurological and genetic disorder. CDH is often misdiagnosed and misunderstood. There are times I have felt invisible or have been treated as such by the medical establishment. There are times I’ve repeated my wishes to doctors four to five times within one appointment in an assertive manner in order to receive proper medical care. Studies indicate male physicians are less likely to take pain-related complaints from female patients seriously. Being an advocate for oneself and for others is crucial. Being informed and assertive is essential for both patients and caretakers. If I’d lived during a different era, perhaps I too would have been sequestered away like Bertha. Charlotte Brontë may not have had CDH, but she did struggle with poor overall health and brutal headaches and migraines which lasted for days; this aspect of her is recounted in “The Literature of Prescription.”