Walking around town sporting his beret, Ricardo Fitten looks like a poet. He is, in fact, just that. On any given day, you might spot this Cambridge resident selling copies his poems for $5 each, outside Diesel Cafe in Davis Square, Somerville. He pulls out a folder with printouts and photocopies. Some of the older poems are typewritten and flecked with speckles from a mimeograph machine.
Fitten, 71, was born in Panama. He came to the United States in 1958 when he was 16. His journey to becoming a poet was anything but typical: He started out as a biochemistry research assistant at MIT, working with the polio virus. He left that to work with bacterial viruses and E. Coli, both as a lab assistant and doing his own experiments.
“My idea was to graduate and pursue a PhD, you know. But I got involved with a French woman. And [had] children,” he says.
He helped raise his companion’s daughter, and later the couple had a son together. (His daughter is now an elementary-school teacher in France, and his son is a truck driver living in Texas.) Because of the responsibility of raising children and the fact that lab work depended on grants, it was difficult to meet the consistent lab hours required for scientific experimentation. Between lab gigs, he worked in restaurants, painted houses and spent time as an accounting temp at Star Market.
When Fitten talks about his lab work, you can see that he has a certain admiration for the viruses he researched – how cleverly they replicate once inside a host’s body. He leans forward a bit as he explains how they use the host’s DNA molecules to make more virus molecules, or else insert themselves into the host’s DNA. A paper based on his work with the virus T4 was published in the scientific journal Virus Research, in 1973. He also worked at a Harvard lab and the biotech companies Biogen and Genzyme. He retired in 2007, after being on disability for a time. But he didn’t work anywhere long enough to get a pension. “I’m dependent on Social Security,” he says.
Asked if that’s part of the reason he sells his poems, Fitten responds: “Two reasons. I wanted to get read. And also I figured I could make some income. I go through a lot of soy milk in a month. And cigarettes,” he laughs.
In 1969, Fitten saw a course listing in MIT’s catalog for a poetry workshop, so he signed up.
“I was reading Rimbaud, you know, the French poet. I liked him a lot, and I decided to move onto Paul Valery. Paul Valery intrigued me,” he says. “Before that, I hadn’t read much poetry except in college, where they made you memorize the prologue to the to The Canterbury Tales. We had to learn it in Middle English.” He laughs and recites a bit. “I still remember. I wasn’t excited about that,” he recalls. But after reading Rimbaud and Valery, he was hooked. He took another workshop and started writing on his own.
“I didn’t begin to like my own writing until somebody made a comment on it in 1972,” he says. “And that gave me the incentive to continue. I started trying to get published in ’75 — with no luck — and just kept on writing.”
Fitten gave up trying to get published after his 39th rejection slip, but began doing poetry readings. He’s recited poetry backed up by a band. Sometimes he makes up the poem as he goes along. He started learning guitar about 10 years ago so he could write songs. “Some people loaned me books with chords, so I picked tunes out and put lyrics to them,” he says. He has CDs and DVDs of various performances, including one that aired on Somerville Community Access Television.
He regrets that he never got his PhD. “I could have gotten involved in a profound way in biotech. And I could have done more independent work,” he says. Up until last year, Fitten was hoping to get another lab position, although he knew it was a long shot because of his age. Now medical problems have made that impossible, and he doesn’t get out as much.
Despite these challenges, Fitten still enjoys those occasions when he gets talk with friends outside of Diesel and share his poems with the community.
Ricardo Fitten reads his poem “Taosim From a Black Man.”