For years, Andres Rojas “kept poetry roped away,” he says. “It was painful even to think about it. Poetry had kicked my ass.”
But poetry wouldn’t leave him alone. It was integral to his passion for landscape, his love of language, his very rhythm of being in the world.
It’s not unusual now for Rojas to walk Blood Mountain briskly, along the Appalachian Trail in Georgia, reciting a line aloud to work it until he gets it right. He jokes that when hikers approach, he slows his pace, mutes himself and waves. Still, the accents and beats of many of his poems reflect the rhythm of his hiking Bly Gap in North Carolina, or through Osceola Forest.
Because he couldn’t keep the beats and the wilderness away, four of his “forest poems” are being published in Jacksonville’s Bridge Eight and next fall’s riverSedge. In the last four years, he’s published several poems and become poetry editor for the online Compose magazine.
Though Rojas earned a master of fine arts in creative writing at the University of Florida in 1993, the tedium of submitting poems for publication and the loneliness of rejection letters cut deeply. He had a couple of poems published in the ’90s, but found himself thinking of French symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud, who gave up poetry at age 20 to wander the African deserts.
Rimbaud famously said, “To become a modern man-sized industrialist is to lose one’s general lust for a poetic and artful life.”
Rojas quit submitting poems and went to law school.
Many of Rojas’ poems are named for specific natural landscapes. The speaker in “The Oak at Bly Gap” defines himself against what he’s not: “Not the trunk, not broken,/bent at odd angles to the world” and “Not the blood butterfly aloft,/the sun-shade goldenrod,” but also finally, “Not not. Not all.”
Other poems are set in Osceola Forest, Chattahoochee Gap Spring, and Hemming Park, where the speaker has seen a hawk and “a bile she-cat” seize prey in the urban heart of Jacksonville. “Older,/I tell her, than us,/hunger is patient.” The poem goes on to pun poet Robert Lowell’s “Ode to the Confederate Dead” against Axe Handle Saturday, when an angry white mob attacked blacks in response to peaceful lunch-counter sit-ins at Hemming Park in 1960.
Though he’s walked the Georgia length of the Appalachian Trail and back, and though his poem “Mirror Memory” compares the sheen of salt left on the body after swimming in the ocean to what memory retains of experience, he says his nature poems aren’t really about nature.
“There’s a void at the core,” he says, because no one can answer the questions, “What is nature? What is it to be human? And what is the relationship between the two?”
As Rojas explains how his poems are more about language than place, he sips his Belgian beer and looks to a TV above the bar to see American Pharoah win the Belmont Stakes.
“Thirty-seven years!” Rojas shouts to other spectators in Silver Cow, a watering hole on King Street in Riverside, referring to how long it’s been since a horse won the Triple Crown.
When we come back to our conversation, he talks about his law career with Foley and Lardner and the city of Jacksonville. He was good at it, he admits, “but I’d much rather make friends with people than fight them.”
Ironically, he gave up his law career for a position with the Internal Revenue Service that gives him more time to focus on poetry. Surprisingly, his job helping Spanish-speakers understand IRS language “makes 90 percent of the people I work with happy.”
I’m reminded of the true depth and girth of Rojas’ education. When he speaks like he has a doctorate in linguistics (discussing the differences between syllabic and accentual language) or in English (quoting T.S. Eliot, Susan Sontag, and John Ashbery with ease), I have to remember his doctorate is in the law.
But nothing Rojas says is pretentious. He brims over with love for the nuances of language and hiking trails.
When he was a child in Cuba, he recalls, “There was much more poetry in the curriculum than in the U.S. You couldn’t be a cultured person without knowing poetry.”
Though his family moved to Rochester, New York, when Rojas was 13, that early grounding in poetry led to his teenage appreciation for how punk rock works differently in English than in Romance languages, to his later love for the intellectual rigor of law studies, and to his poetic explorations of wilderness.
Rojas says you have to grow a poem and work out of it what you can. “A poem should multiply meaning.” He talks about nurturing a sapling or pulling the weeds away from a flower you find in a field. “You look for the opportunity the landscape presents you.”
Often Rojas waits for a phrase or a line and, when it comes, “all these other things I’ve been carrying around with me attach themselves to it.”