recent writings

Been busy with life and emotional happenings, but am hoping to get back into the swing of Influence-related things. Thank you to everybody who read my latest post and would-have-been speech! I greatly appreciate it.

I continue to be grateful to have been a finalist. One of the boons has been getting to be featured in articles and interviews, such as this one by David Bates of Oregon ArtsWatch titled, “It’s not my poetry that matters, it’s poetry that matters.” Bates did a great job of funneling down my in-person digressions and written loquaciousness into readable / followable quotes. One thing I’m glad he captured was my sense of advocacy and community that drives a lot of my teaching, writing, and editorial work:

“Without a platform for one’s work, without representation and visibility of one’s culture and identity, and without a feeling that there is a space for you somewhere in the world, writers can be sent down a discouraging path, questioning the worth not only of one’s words but of one’s existence. Things aren’t perfect, but good work is being done, and good work is being honored.”

berlin-sculptures-mythical-ancient-greek-gods-11876Another recent happening has been my prose poem sequence Gods and Goddesses being published as part of Oxidant Engine’s Boxset Series. Those familiar with my prose poems in Reasons (not) to Dance (FutureCycle Press) and The Book of Flight (Essay Press) will find this sequence kindred to those poems.

This Boxset Series is awesome and includes work by Rachel Mindell, Alexa Doran, Marlin M. Jenkins, Robert Okaji, Dorothy Chan, and John Sibley Williams among other stellar writers. Purchase a copy here.

Below are two excerpts from my prose poem sequence. Enjoy!

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Gods and Goddesses – José Angel Araguz

She told the class to imagine themselves as gods and goddesses, and to draw that. A few laughed, then grew silent, leaving the strokes of a pencil to grow louder, faster, a hand in the back of the room furious across a sheet, where teeth could be found, and the beginning lines around a mouth. Everyone waited, wanting to hear what it had to say.

First – José Angel Araguz

– and then the sun looked down upon the earth, took in how countless and unending life here seemed, saw in it something of the universe, at least what he knew of it, boundless and crowded, only what he saw was a thing that held nothing as bright as he was, nothing that aspired to take his place, nothing even to take a place beside him, and he continued in his thoughts, taking note of everything in regards to what he could not see, trying to block out his reflection which is all he saw – on the water, on the leaves – his thoughts multiplying and emptying him until he looked at the ground and saw shapes, dark, no light in them, a whole world that was not a world but a passing feeling that moved as he moved. The first shadows looked back at the sun –

what I would have said at the OBA ceremony

Screenshot_2018-01-31-17-22-38-1As preparation for the Oregon Book Awards ceremony, finalists are asked to prepare a few words, under two minutes, to say just in case. I gave my words a lot of thought and, though I did not win, I feel like sharing these words with you here below.

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OBA (non)acceptance speech

I first moved to Oregon in 2007. I had just battled through an MFA program and gone into one of the darkest times in my writing life. I didn’t come close to quitting, no. I came close to not sharing again, and not knowing how to share. In Eugene, where I found myself in this stew of writerly feels, I slowly reclaimed my writing life. Got into my habits of revision, into trusting my own voice and choices. I met some great writers who have become dear friends. I also got married and divorced in Eugene, but that’s another story. Read the books, ha. When I was in Ohio later, completing a PhD, I drew upon those rain soaked lessons to see me through the ups and downs of academia. Oregon, you taught me how to fight for my writing. I’ve been back here two years, and in that time I’ve seen libraries close in parts of the state. I’ve worked with public school teachers who speak of creative writing not being a priority in the curriculum. I’ve felt the pangs of grief as small colleges struggle and close. What I have to say tonight is: Oregon, fight for your writers. From a poet whose family comes from Matamoros, Mexico, and whose poems are about surviving the projects of Corpus Christi, Texas, receive my gratitude but also my respectful wish. That the writing spirit that kept me going when i needed it, keep you going, too. I want to thank everyone who has fought for me, everyone who has read my work and reached out, either via email or at a reading. Writers, we carry each other. I also want to thank everyone who fights for their poems everyday. Poetry makes it so that the fight feels nothing like a fight, but like the gift we didn’t know we could be a part of. Muchisimas gracias. No contaban con mi astucia.

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Más soon!

José

fiction feature & interview: Maria Alejandra Barrios

For this fiction feature and interview, I am happy to present a story by Maria Alejandra Barrios. This story is followed by an interview with the author on the piece as well as on her work in general.

In “A Girl Cooks,” Barrios presents a narrative that interrogates traditional roles within families, specifically between daughters and fathers. The narrative develops around the act of cooking and braids memory with present circumstances, a move that creates tension within a personal, intimate framework. Another engine at work in the story is the role of naming. Each time a food is named, the narrator gives presence to memory and to herself.  It is this latter empowerment that is the thematic arc of the story. The reader follows the narrator’s inner realizations to its powerfully nuanced conclusion.

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A Girl Cooks
by Maria Alejandra Barrios

I knew that I wanted to cook something simple and not necessarily typical of Colombian cuisine for the occasion: maybe some pasta pomodoro or maybe some beef with asparagus. As soon as I heard my dad was being released from prison, I bought the first ticket to Colombia I found, and I rented an apartment so we could spend some time together. We communicated all these years through long distance calls. When I told him I had moved to the United States, he went silent for what seemed like a long time. And I ran out of credit, so the call ended. I feared I would spend all my money on silent calls, so we never spoke about it again.

The night before being released from prison, my dad told me that he didn’t want me to pick him up. He would take a taxi from prison to the apartment. I didn’t say anything because I knew it might be a thing of pride or an attempt to protect me. Instead, I thought about how in American movies people always change in prison, I wondered if he had changed much, he had never been the protective kind.

I thought about what to cook. When we still lived with my dad, my mom always cooked Colombian dishes like arroz con coco and patacones with some fried fish or a frijolada con tocino. He didn’t like anything at all: he said that everything was too salty or not salty enough, that the rice was sticky, or the patacones were greasy. My dad would even get mad at me when I finished all the food or had something good to say about el arroz con pollo.

So no Colombian food, I thought. Even if I wanted to, I didn’t have anyone to call on the phone like I used to call my mom when I was making buñuelos: “Mija, the important thing is that you find good cheese.” In bodegas, I found fresh Mexican cheese that was similar to Colombian cheese but never the same. The buñuelos would always taste like a modest version of home, and I would eat them while talking on the phone to her. I would lie and say that I found the right kind of cheese and that they tasted exactly like the ones at the pueblo. Through the phone, I could hear her smiling.

My dad said he would arrive at 2 pm. I served two plates of pasta pomodoro and some cheese on the side. I put a bottle of wine between the two plates and some red flowers in a vase. I took one last long look at the table before opening the door.

“Papi,” I said.

He hugged me. His hug was tight and desperate like he was thinking about hugging me the whole time he spent in the taxi.

We sat down at the table. “We should eat now while it’s still hot.” I was nervous, exactly how I would imagine my mom had been before every meal we shared with him. I wanted every bite to be perfect.

He started gulping the food. At some point, he placed the plate closer to his mouth so that he could eat faster. My dad finished his meal before me and poured himself a generous glass of wine. He didn’t offer me any, so I poured myself a more modest glass.

“I wish Marta was here,” My dad said after taking the first sip. The last time my dad saw my mom, ten years ago, he threatened to slap her. I took a sip of wine too, and I thought that maybe my dad had forgotten about everything that had happened before he went to jail. I wondered if I had forgotten too.

As I was looking from across the table at my dad, I thought about how my mom always used to make tamales for my dad on his birthday. Before making them, she would always look for all the coins in the house: she would look behind sofas and underneath pillows so that she could buy the biggest piece of meat she could afford at the tienda. After that, she would kill a chicken in the backyard. The smell of the herbs and the spices marinating the meats was so intense that Marina, the neighbor, always knew what she was cooking. Marina would beg for the recipe, but my mother would shake her head and say: “That’s a gift for mi hija. When I die, she’s the only one who’s getting the recipe.” When sitting at the table, she would look at my dad’s face first, waiting for a word of approval or an expression of pleasure. When it didn’t come, she would look at me. When eating with my parents, I was always nervous about my dad’s reactions to mom’s cooking. But when eating tamales I could never hide my joy. I would eat them fast, with my face so close to the plate you would think I was about to kiss it.

It never occurred to me to cook dad tamales for lunch. Pasta was easy, and tamales took hours and left my hands smelling like onions for days. Maybe papá had changed, in his sleepy eyes I no longer saw the young man that had made mami suffer so much. Looking at him, I saw that something in him had switched off, I just didn’t know when.

Afraid that he would be sleeping with his eyes open just like abuelo used to, I looked at him and asked the question that had been burning on my throat since I learned he was being released from prison:

“Do you remember mami’s tamales?”

He stayed silent, and I decided it was time to stand up. As I was picking up the plates, I realized I would never make tamales for him. It was the only thing my mom had left in this world that was only for me.

this story originally appeared in Reservoir Journal

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CalderapicInfluence Question: How did you get started in writing?

Maria Alejandra Barrios: I started writing with some kind of discipline when I was 15 years old.  I read a book called “Opium in the Clouds,” by Rafael Chaparro Madiedo and it got me really into reading and most importantly, into writing. I started writing very romantic stories that I would describe now as magical realism. I started uploading them into MySpace (which was really popular at the time), and people started messaging me and commenting on my stories. It was the first time I felt part of a community and that I felt confident enough to put something I created out in the world. Maybe this was also because I didn’t think about it as much as I think about it. All I cared was about me having fun with it and connecting with others. Looking back I think these stories were a lot about heartbreak. Or what I thought heartbreak was.

Influence Question: How does this particular story fit into your larger body of work?

Maria Alejandra Barrios: In recent years, I started writing more about my hometown(Barranquilla) and my country. When I lived in Colombia, I wrote about the places I dreamt about living in. Now, with some distance, I think I am able to write more about the things that I love about my country but also the things that upset me and that I’m still trying to understand. Relationships between fathers and daughters and the role that fathers have in the society I grew up in is one of those things that I’m still trying to figure out. I think this short story was the first step into me exploring the subject and hopefully having a bigger perspective on it so I can hopefully write a longer story about it in the future.

Influence Question: What are you working on now?

Maria Alejandra Barrios: I’m working on finishing my first short story collection of interlinked immigration stories. I’m working on edits and working on the final story that I hope ties everything together. I also started writing my first novel, which has been a scary process because I consider myself more of a short story writer. However, I have always been attracted to the idea of writing about love, and I think this novel might be a way of exploring that while also keeping the voice-driven first-person narration that I love so much.

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Special thanks to Maria Alejandra Barrios for sharing her thoughts on this story and her work! To find out more about Barrios, check out her site.

Maria Alejandra Barrios is a writer born in Barranquilla, Colombia. She has lived in Bogotá and Manchester where in 2016 she completed a Masters degree in Creative Writing from The University of Manchester. She was selected for the Immigrant Artist Mentoring Program: Performing & Literary Arts for the city of New York in 2018. He stories have been published in Hobart Pulp, Reservoir Journal, Bandit Fiction, Cosmonauts Avenue, La Pluma y La tinta New Voices Anthology and The Out of Many Anthology by Cat in the Sun Press. Her poetry has been published in The Acentos Review and her fiction is forthcoming in Jellyfish Review and Lost Balloon.  Her work has been supported by organizations like Vermont Studio Center and Caldera Arts Center.