On Fools, Nakedness and “Challenging Octavio Paz to a Swordfight in a Mexican Park”: A Conversation with Nelly Rosario and Sheila Maldonado

HK: Welcome to the Conversation. Alice Walker once noted, “People do not wish to appear foolish; to avoid the appearance of foolishness, they are willing to remain actually fools.”  Have you ever tried to cover up acts of foolishness?



NELLY ROSARIO: I don’t discard the importance of the fool (and foolishness). Kings needed the no-holds-barred honesty of jesters to cut through all the court intrigues; we need Jon Stewart’s Daily Show to cut through all the media spin. It’s no coincidence that The Fool/Jester opens the tarot deck. His number is zero, the number that renders everything nada. He’s cleverness embodied, the madman and the child, the trickster whose sane insanity disrobes the king. The Fool walks the fine line between sanity and insanity, which is why he’s often shown walking at the edge of a cliff, carrying a white rose in his left hand and a bindle in the right.

‘Bindle’ is a word I just recently learned. As a kid, I’d always had this stupid little fantasy of running away from my wonderful home, if only because I liked those cartoon and sitcom images of a character walking around with his belongings all neatly wrapped in a bandana tied to a stick. So having no costume to wear to a party this past Halloween, I threw on my worst rags, scribbled on a unibrow with an eyeliner, and wrapped my iPhone, ID, and keys in a bandana, which I tied to a broomstick.

I walked into the party and immediately felt like a fool’s fool.  There was the wonder-butt Wonder Woman, the hour-glassed belly dancer, the long-legged Flapper, and raggedy ass me.

What the hell are you supposed to be?

Um, Frida Hobo.

I like the bindle.

Then Prince came on, and I danced like hell, not having to worry about sequins flying off or corsets slipping down or whether ass pads stayed in place. For the rest of the night, I drank from a brown-paper bag, talked mad shit, reveled in my zero place.

It’s too exhausting to cover up my Fool. As a reminder, I keep a statue of St. Francis of Assisi, who called himself ‘God’s Fool,’ in my garden.


SHEILA MALDONADO: I wouldn’t be successful with the coverups if I revealed them here. I do reveal them somewhere. That is what journals are for, that is what friends are for. The idea that I cover up yet more foolishness than is already apparent is kinda sad. But this I do, to spare you all. What is apparent is actually measured foolishness, I’m sure I won’t be believed. Or perhaps I will, there are a few who suspect I’m holding back.

OK, so I should have worn a bra for this little video my friend and I released on the interwebs recently: http://sheilamaldonado.com/one-bedroom-solo-the-movie1/. Self-promotion and confession yes. But, uh, it lent to the authenticity of the moment, sure, and it was a decision Ndlela, my director friend, and I came to, not just something we overlooked in some kind of haze or rush. I remember discussing taping my breasts down when I played husband me but I thought the black t-shirt was enough. The blue t-shirt was not.

I live for the mistake in art though. I try to catch me off-guard, to surprise myself. I think I’ve seen and read enough that the only way anything decent or somewhat original will happen in my work is if it is accidental, even or especially foolish. I love how underestimated the foolish is. There is something about that in that quote from Alice Walker, the facades we all love to keep up, how easily seen through they are.

Let’s pile up the coverups of foolishness/confessions of late. I fell flat and hard to the ground on 42nd street just last week with my phone in my outstretched arm while I was talking to my friend Bakar who was on the other end all, “You’re breaking up.” I fell for a friend this past year and almost did not get up from that but then actually kinda did. I googled stalked all kinds of writer peers on the internet, comparing, despairing, imagining a shitload of controversy to keep me from reaching out and moving on with what I have to in my work. I grabbed my gloves as I ran out the door to go to work late as always and then ran back in to take one last drink of water in the kitchen and threw my gloves in the garbage and when I get downstairs I pat myself down for another good minute looking for them and get to work even later. I drank so much coffee I made my right eyelid twitch and for a moment I kinda liked that short-circuiting.


Fresh from facebook, I see more foolish behavior. I don’t do this though, at least not to stay thin: http://nymag.com/thecut/2013/04/another-awful-story-about-models-eating-paper.html?mid=twitter_thecutblog

This makes me think of the alice walker quote. Something about the foolishness we hide that make us more foolish. I do recall eating little pieces of bounty paper towels when I was young, usually they had ice cubes in them that i had been eating too.


I also hear now from my director friend that another of our friends now calls walking around your apartment braless sheilaring, or sheilaing, or sheiling, any of those variations.


One last thing, my pms showing right now, obsessive. Ndlela, the director, and I both wonder why coming from the harsh places our families come from: him, South Africa, me, Honduras. We insist on our foolishness. I think we just stopped at wondering and didn’t really answer. But we stay watching Al-Jazeera or whatever other news outlet that tells us the homelands are deteriorating and we don’t know what to do but hold onto our particular ridiculousness. Maybe it is a helplessness. Maybe it is laughing instead staying tragic.


NR: It’s always good to talk to you, Sheila, because I know we stay laughing even when bawling. Yes, “we have to insist on our foolishness” in a world that insists on despair. It’s how my parents dealt with growing up in a dictatorship, it’s why the gallows humor of soldiers, doctors, funeral workers, etc. It’s why a site as full of depressing news as truthdig would be insufferable without its comments or cartoon sections. You and Ndlela and the rest of us fools are right to hold onto ridiculousness, even as we watch our homelands deteriorate on Al-Jazeera or Telemundo. And we’re not the only ones holding tight to white roses in one hand and bindles in the other. While teaching a graduate graphic-narrative course this spring, I came across the works of Palestinian cartoonist Mohammad Saba’aneh, who was arrested without charge in Israel in February (five days before your birthday and eight days before mine), and of Egyptian cartoonist Dooa Eladl, who says, “The extremists don’t scare me…Whatever they do, I will continue to use my skills to poke fun at them.”

I did a doubletake at the St. Francis statue in my garden today, in light of my earlier post, imagining the rotundness of the stone booty under his robe. April showers in his beggar bowl, a fake bird on his shoulder. I love me some Francis AKA Giovanni AKA Francesco.

Every year in Catholic school, we were made to watch “Brother Sun, Sister Moon,” a 1972 Italian biopic of St. Francis of Assisi. We had to bring in signed parental consent forms because of the scene in which he disrobes on the streets of Assisi. No frontal, but the two nude scenes kept us from falling asleep. He really has a nice ass, Graham Faulkner-as-Assissi, especially when standing buck-naked in protest before Pope Innocent III. There I was in my plaid uniform, wanting to streak in the auditorium as St. Claire, frolicking in poverty and bathing al fresco with Francesco in sparkly Italian waters. The nuns freakin’ loved that film. As to St. Clare? It’s said that Pope Pius XII designated her patron saint of television because, when too ill to attend a Mass, she was able to see and hear the service on the wall of her room. Seeing the film again on YouTube after all these years, in a world so punch-drunk on consumption and materialism, I don’t feel like a fool for still liking it.


SM: I came to this page so tired from a day of teaching but so excited to see the new tidbit. You read my fishy mind. Spent most of Palm Sunday and Easter watching all those church movies on Spanish TV with my mama. Didn’t resist for once. Guess I’m getting old. Can’t fight Christianity as much as I used to. Got a poem out of flipping channels between one movie about the Virgin and this wicked reality show that is really an endless beauty pageant, Nuestra Belleza Latina. That I resisted a lot more but of course was a little bit enthralled, for poetry purposes.

I was the fool who gave part of an hour today reading some article pitting poetry schools against each other, some reaction to the new Norton Postmodern Poetry anthology. It made me feel like never writing a playful poem, as I did between the TV Virgin and TV whores, a poem with “a thread of melancholy” as a friend said about what I write but mostly made of some relief and joy, what I sometimes think of as anti-suicide poetry, something that fights that brooding tragedy, that black hole that I always feel like women of color in general are expected to write from. I really don’t know what that article wanted, I’m sure I’m projecting some of my own issue onto it. I just thought of Bolaño as I often do when faced with literary foolishness. I thought of his or his friend’s alter ego in Savage Detectives, a wandering, unanthologized, fuck-the-world poet— was it Belano or Lima?— challenging establishment poet Octavio Paz to a swordfight in a Mexican park.** That shit still cracks me up. That’s my kinda fool.

Here is his boy (and mine), Nicanor Parra, otro Chileno, with his idea of a fool: Montaña Rusa

Roller Coaster

For half a century poetry was

the paradise of the solemn fool.

Until I came along

and moved in with my roller coaster.

Get on, if you want to.

Clearly it’s not my fault if you come down

spurting blood from your mouth and nostrils.


(trans. Ron Padgett in Luna, Luna)


As a Coney Island child living for thrills, a refugee from institutions and all the misery that seems to come of them, I scream words like this from the top of the Cyclone in my head, hands to the sky. A sword to the solemn fools, a roller coaster plopped in the middle of so-called paradise. Man, this was a good teaching day, too. Imagine a bad one.

So yes, I feel every bit of those Middle Eastern cartoons, subversive in their foolishness, lacing jokes with questions, poking fun, needling, after and especially when revolutions are done. I hope they stay open with the questions and the laughs. I can get a little too disillusioned and all I’ve ever really had to suffer is the mindfuck of school, not the endless paranoia of a homeland turning on you. Granted, I might be the child of that as well; my father mentioned some of his activism when he was young in an even more repressive Honduras than today, but also seemed to live with a great deal of fear and immobility and feared for me when he saw I had those tendencies young, too. I am this pisces, though, this one who embraces and quickly rejects so fiercely, only age is taking the edge off that fast disillusionment. I’m trying to be the fool stopping short of that cliff in the tarot card but it actually was this sort of art installation ledge that I fell off of when I was talking to my friend on the phone on 42nd St a few weeks ago, manic from sitting in an office all day for a temp gig, trying to arrange a meeting between us and some beers. It was only Monday.

Back to the St Francis movie and the urge to streak that you had. I didn’t go to Catholic school but remember a whole semester of art history in high school that was spent looking at slides of every church in Europe, elaborate and ecstatic, walls and windows soaring. Architecture does some stuff to me. I like a well put together room, some good light. We were in the back room of the library, this intimate little cave of a room and inevitably I started picturing me naked on one of those golden altars getting it on with one of the many crushes of those energetic years. I figured if you shared your nakedness, I should too. Pisces fools leading each other off cliffs.


NR: I’m not gonna lie; I was thinking of looking up the meaning of the Spanish title in literal form. I don’t know why, but I imagined “Russian Mountain” to be an alp of orange-pink cotton-candy ideas. Then I saw the translation below it as “Roller Coaster,” and realized that I’d forgotten to remember the meaning of ‘montaña rusa’.  Yes, Parra, I’m bleeding memory through my nose and mouth.

And since we’re on the topic of bleeding, below are some of my week’s scribblings. I’m experimenting with a 12-year-old character who’s allowed me to play with Fool Voice. I’m jumping off a cliff here…

Dear My Parents,

This is to express my happiness in the world. Congratulations to me for releasing Egg #1 from my carton of two million!  Yes, my first blood came yesterday at 2:34 PM, Brooklyn time in the USA.  I went to the bathroom for a urine, and when I pulled down my underwhere did I find me a lucky penny.  Well, in a very way I did.

Thank you for talking to me about the sekso when I was just eight years old.  Since that time, I have been doing a lot of periodic thinking about those special ideas.  For an example, it is truly incredible that Ma once had eggs inside of her too and that I am one of them, but all hard and boiled and full of subeggs of my own, except that after yesterday I am only have 1999,999 left. I am a clock of biology, for another example, and the moon is my battery included!


Your Daughter. mother of your grand-eggs


SM: We’re losing all our language, replacing it with new nonsense. Nonsense, the language of fools of course. Looking up the etymology of montaña rusa would be cool, like why Russian mountain exactly for roller coaster? Is there something more nonsensical or outrageous about a Russian mountain as opposed to, I don’t know, a Chilean mountain?

I like the remade Spanish nonsense of your daughter character. I love “underwhere” and “sekso.” They sound odd and yet natural, what might become of our bi-multi-lingualism in another 50 or 100 years, a futuristic Spanglish.

Again, since you’re jumping, I’ll jump. This is a kind of nonsense, perhaps too straightforward but the ADD of existence now, can’t get away from screens nowadays, far too comforted by them, disturbed by them. I think I started this on the notes on the phone while watching TV and finished on a computer screen. Wrote this just as poetry month was starting, around Palm Sunday into Easter, also April Fools.

Flipping Channels Between Virgin and Non-virgins

(Ma’s Palm Sunday TV – Maria vs. Nuestra Belleza Latina)

All the baby boys in Bethlehem slaughtered

Mary and Joseph getting away with Jesus on a donkey


Beauties in spokesmodel competition slaughtering banter

making asses of themselves


Jesus all grown already, making water to wine, proud mama Mary looking on


Beauties as future video whores winding their bodies around Daddy Yankee


Joseph fainting while working and near death, Mary at his bedside


Beauty as actress dying onstage, fellow beauties as witnesses


Salome belly dancing before the court winning anything she wants

with her writhing, asking for John the Baptist’s head on a platter

Mary Magdalene running out screaming no


Aflac commercial, the duck is in the hospital


Same commercial


The bellezas standing before the judges, one must address her nude pix on Twitter,

I did not consent that is my private life it does not affect my dignity as a woman


Mary Magdalene after turning to prostitution standing before a circle of men with rocks in hand,

Jesus stepping in with his line about sin and the first stone


NR:  The ‘remade Spanish’ you refer to in my Dear Parents piece–”sekso”–is actually Esperanto. Then there are words like “subeggs” and “underwhere” that’s just me playing with language, a big part of what I enjoy in writing. Word play, however much it may annoy readers, reflects how I negotiate being bilingual. I remember, growing up, all the hilarity of being lost in translation between Spanish and English–the common mistake of, say, me or my sister telling my father we were pregnant (embarazada ) when meaning to say ‘embarrassed’.

Poor Holy Mary, then, the literal embarrassed embarazada. Poor Magdalen, puta of ill-repute. But happy us, two writers caught between virgins and non-virgins, writing the (foolish) women in between. I laughed at how your “Flipping Channels” throws in the duck in the hospital, flips the script–how daffy of consumer culture to bridge the wide gap between María and Nuestra Belleza Latina with, of all things, a pato, slang for homosexual man.

It’s always great quacking it with you, Sheila.

I’ll sign off by altering a quote by Dostoevsky: “The cleverest of all, in my opinion, is the [woman] who calls [herself] a fool at least once a month.”

**Note from Sheila: In The Savage Detectives, visceral realist poets Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima both confront literary critics and enemies. Belano challenges a critic to a sword fight on a Spanish beach, and Lima has a series of odd meetings with sworn enemy Octavio Paz in a Mexican park.


Sheila Maldonado is the author of one-bedroom solo (Fly by Night Press, 2011), her debut poetry collection. She grew up in Coney Island, New York, across the street from the Atlantic Ocean. Her family hails from Honduras. Her poems have appeared in RattapallaxCallaloo and Me No Habla with Acento: Contemporary Latino Poetry. She teaches creative writing for The City University of New York and Teachers & Writers Collaborative. She holds degrees in English from Brown University and poetry from The City College of New York. She lives in a one-bedroom in uptown Manhattan where she is working on her next project about a lifelong obsession with the ancient Maya. http://www.sheilamaldonado.com


Nelly Rosario is the author of Song of the Water Saints, which won a 2002 PEN/Open Book Award. Her work has appeared in various publications, including Review, CallalooThe New York Times, and el diario/La Prensa, where she is a regular columnist. She teaches in the MFA Program at Texas State University and will be a 2013-2014 Visiting Scholar in Comparative Media Studies/Writing at MIT.  http://nellyrosario.wp.txstate.edu/

On Fools, Nakedness and “Challenging Octavio Paz to a Swordfight in a Mexican Park”: A Conversation with Nelly Rosario and Sheila Maldonado