Five Questions for Patrick Rosal
Name: Patrick Rosal
Title/Occupation: Author, Poet
Organization/Company: See below.
1. Where did you grow up and how did you end up where you are now?
I was born and raised in New Jersey. I’ve had short and very temporary stints in Yonkers, NY, Altoona, PA, Austin, TX, and most recently Brooklyn. For the most part, however, I haven’t left my birth state.
My parents, immigrants from the Philippines, met in Chicago in the early sixties. My mom was a nutritionist who got a fellowship at the University of Chicago. My dad was a Catholic priest who was traveling the USA with two other priests in order to raise funds for their parishes back home. His companions eventually abandoned him in the Midwest in the middle of summer with twenty bucks in his pocket. The two clergy told him to wait for a bus that never came. He hitched a ride into the city and tracked down a cousin to stay with for a few days. He patched together priest work (changing bread into the body of Christ and forgiving sins mostly, since exorcism had hit a trough moment in Church history) and ended up staying for some time.
My parents ran into each other at a gathering of a group of Filipino health workers. The meeting led to an affair, and my mom got pregnant twice before my dad formally left the priesthood. They spent some time apart, my dad remaining in the Midwest and my mom in Canada, before they reunited in Brooklyn, then moved to New Jersey. I was the second of three sons to be born. That’s how I got on earth. The New Jersey drama in my life that follows doesn’t really measure up.
2. Which performance, song, play, movie, painting or other work of art had the biggest influence on you and why?
At our house, during any given twenty-four hours, I could hear four different languages, a kundiman from my dad’s violin, Led Zeppelin from my brother’s record player, and Run DMC from Video Music Box. Both my brothers became visual artists and we all played musical instruments. Art was around us all the time when we were growing up, not as elite culture, nor as a chore; we just took it for granted that everyone wanted to play music and draw pictures, the way other kids played sports. There were books in our household too, though they were my dad’s. We never touched them. In fact, we sort of stupidly resented them. I did anyway.
My life’s single most influential work, then, is probably a piece of literature I never read. When me and my brothers got tangled in a scuffle, set the basement on fire, or slipped into some other trouble, no matter the scale, my dad, trained as a theologian, quoted to us Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica (the one document, I would learn from my Western Civ class, that comes closest to providing a philosophical proof for the existence of God). The fact that my dad smacked us with a belt or those yard-long plastic matchbox tracks then quoted Aquinas from memory in Latin made his admonitions that much more terrifying; that he could translate them into English immediately afterwards, awe-inspiring; in retrospect, hilarious. Of course, St. Tommy couldn’t have written his Summa without the authors of The Bible, so that’s an influential work too, for what editors do such powerful work as fear and shame.
3. What skill, talent or attribute do you most wish you had and why?
Carpentry. I wish I knew how to build things well with my hands. When I was in the cub scouts, our den mother had a Vietnamese guy (who lived with her in some vague way)—Phuk, I think his name was—try and show me how to cut, drill, hammer, shellac etc. so that I could earn my woodworking badge. The details in memory are sparse, but Phuk ended up making a pencil holder, essentially a wood block, with six holes drilled into it. I earned the badge on that – what he made. Now I want to build bookshelves for my girlfriend.
4. What do you do to make a living? Describe a normal day.
By profession, I’m an academic, have taught in higher education for a decade now. I’m affiliated faculty with the MFA program at Rutgers-Camden, but in this year that I’m not teaching, I travel, conduct small workshops, do readings and performances from Santa Clara to Cape Town in the last year alone. This summer and fall, I’ll be spending four months in the Philippines on a Fulbright, reading and writing toward, hopefully, a new book.
I’m normally an early riser, 5 to 6 am, and for a time I was writing a couple hours a day as soon as I got up. I seem to be using that time to read, rather than write, lately. Having come to books later in life and belonging to, I think, a generation mostly apathetic and quite naïve about politics, I feel like I’m always trying to catch up with what’s going on in the world. Lately, I’ve been steadily reading news, history, politics, fiction (I’m zooming through and enjoying Carpentier’s The Kingdom of This World right now), etc. I used to be a DJ and music producer, and I liken all this reading to digging crates. Everyone knows the hits, but I’m also interested in how you find the break beat or horn hit to work into your mix that other DJs don’t know or have forgotten about, sounds that will ultimately move the crowd.
5. Have you ever had to make a choice between work and art? What did you choose, why, and what was the outcome?
That question has taunted me quite a bit this year. In my early twenties, before I ever read a collection of poems, I worked in public relations and made decent money. I also had a future in video and television. I had done all kinds of production work—field, studio, post—including camera work for NCAA Div-I football and basketball. I was finishing the protracted pursuit of an undergraduate degree when I took a creative writing class that really did alter the course of my career.
The past few months, I’ve asked myself if I made the right decision to leave those parts of my life behind. When I’m in a good place in my head, I know I didn’t really choose between one or the other.
Poetry and all its affiliated efforts are my work.
I love reading, writing, performing, and teaching. I’ve been blessed to experience the success I’ve had, to travel to many small towns and big cities, both here and abroad, to meet thousands of people and to have laughed with them – made them laugh even. What’s better than that?
Look, I’m a middle child, born out of the illicit affair between a farmer’s daughter and a priest who broke his vows, both of whom survived American and Japanese occupations of their homeland – and they managed to sing to us as children. I grew up in the geographical punchline of the most powerful nation on the planet. I lived on an all-white street whose block-long backyard fence I jumped every afternoon to hang out with my friends who lived on the nearly all-black street of our neighborhood. There seems to be no border, no language, no religion or political ideology that makes any real sense to me. And above all, I’m a bad jazz pianist. So what else could I do, but write poems?