microreview & interview: Citizen Illegal by José Olivarez

review by José Angel Araguz

olivarez

The Latinx experience is often reduced to ideas of duality. There’s the phrase “ni de aqui, ni de allá” (neither from here nor from there). There’s Gustavo Peréz Firmat’s idea of “living on the hyphen,” which acknowledges the duality of having a hyphpenated identity, in his case Cuban-American. Even one of the more popular textbooks in Spanish classes across the nation is titled Dos Mundos, a nod to the narrative idea of living in two worlds.

This kind of phrasing and thinking is reductive when only one duality is considered. What I have found in my own experiences is that it is not only one duality that defines my own Mexican-American life, but a multitude of dualities. This thinking feels truer to the Latinx experience because while one duality implies a clean split into halves, multiple dualities implies a series of splits in one’s identity. One of the driving forces of José Olivarez’s Citizen Illegal (Haymarket Books) is an exploration of the complexity inherent in these kinds of multiple dualities and splits.

The opening poem “(citizen) (illegal)” begins this exploration in the subverted phrasing of its title, which takes the phrase “illegal citizen” and turns it via parentheses into two separate adjectives. The poem goes on to develop its narrative using the rhetoric of word problems:

Mexican woman (illegal) and Mexican man (illegal) have
a Mexican (illegal)-American (citizen).
Is the baby more Mexican or American?
Place the baby in the arms of the mother (illegal).
If the mother holds the baby (citizen)
too long, does the baby become illegal?

Here, the logic of words is placed against the logic of human laws. Having isolated (citizen) and (illegal) in the title, the two words begin to develop a life of their own as they move in their narrative placement. In the first line, (illegal) is strictly in the language of immigration law. Yet, the word is something different—and marked as such by the absence of parentheses—by the end of the stanza. This change occurs via the question asked in the last three lines of this stanza. This question’s narrative places the mother and child, one marked as (illegal) and the other as (citizen), in a familiar embrace between mother and child. Through context, the question parallels the proximity of this embrace with the proximity of words on a page, both the physical closeness but also the way the closeness of two words changes the meaning of both.

In bringing together word logic and law logic through this parallel, Olivarez evokes the fear immigrant parents live with, even in such innocent moments as holding a baby. By taking charge of these two words in an objective, logical way, the poem makes the humanity that is affected by them more evident and real.

One of Olivarez’s accomplishments in this collection is this ability to make present the humanity behind dualities in poem after heart-wrenching poem. In the aptly titled “Mexican American Disambiguation,” Olivarez works the duality of presence and influence through contemplation of American cultural staples:

everything in me
is diverse even when i eat American foods
like hamburgers, which to clarify, are American
when a white person eats them & diverse
when my family eats them. so much of America
can be understood like this.

Here, we have another moment of closeness, of something being embraced out of need. While the stakes are albeit different than the closeness between a mother and her baby, the meaning remains the same: words and ideas are affected by the human presence behind them. Even a hamburger, which here is at first taken as an American symbol, can become politically fraught when put in contact with the narratives of the Latinx experience. This poem quickly shifts to higher stakes as the speaker takes note of his family’s effect on the idea of the American Dream:

my parents were
undocumented when they came to this country
& by undocumented, i mean sin papeles, &
by sin papeles, i mean royally fucked which
should not be confused with the American Dream
though the two are cousins.

Within the complexity of the wordplay here, which moves between English and Spanish as well as between the metaphor of the American Dream and ideas of family, lies the conscience of this speaker. It is identity, ultimately, that the speaker is seeking to make clear by working through the ambiguity of symbols and ideas of America. Yet, clarifying one’s identity isn’t as simple as noting the right words; one must work through what the words mean. From “sin papeles” to “royally fucked” to “American Dream,” the poem seeks to understand each word through correlation, ending at “cousins,” a word that means family, but not immediate family. In Citizen Illegal, readers are invited to slow down and dwell on such distinctions for what they say about connection as well as for what is missed.

This navigation through distinctions of duality is consistently reckoned with in this collection on a personal scale. In “my therapist says make friends with your monsters,” the speaker delves into the context of therapy, where “monsters” are self-created; yet, within the greater context of the collection’s Mexican-American narrative, the speaker’s monsters are as double and duplicitous as the two countries themselves. The lyric sequence “Mexican Heaven,” braided throughout the collection, reimagines heaven as a source of respite but, as the following excerpt shows, tinged with familiar mistrust:

all of the Mexicans sneak into heaven.
St. Peter has their name on the list,
but the Mexicans haven’t trusted a list
since Ronald Reagan was president.

Movement is the common thread of this meditation on multiple dualities. In the most compelling moments of this collection, Olivarez presents to us poetic spaces where one dwells alongside the speaker on the elements in motion around him. The poem below, “I Walk Into Every Room & Yell Where The Mexicans At,” is a good example of what I mean. Within the context of a problematic conversation at a party, the speaker navigates beyond the good intentions of the conversation and unravels the meanings and memories at play in his mind. In this space, one sees not only what it feels like to be seen in a distorted manner, but also what it is like to survive it.

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I Walk Into Every Room & Yell Where the Mexicans At – José Olivarez

i know we exist because of what we make. my dad works at a steel mill. he worked at a steel mill my whole life. at the party, the liberal white woman tells me she voted for hillary & wishes bernie won the nomination. i stare in the mirror if i get too lonely. thirsty to see myself i once walked into the lake until i almost drowned. the white woman at the party who might be liberal but might have voted for trump smiles when she tells me how lucky i am. how many automotive components do you think my dad has made. you might drive a car that goes and stops because of something my dad makes. when i watch the news i hear my name, but never see my face. every other commercial is for taco bell. all my people fold into a $2 crunchwrap supreme. the white woman means lucky to be here and not Mexico. my dad sings Por Tu Maldito Amor & i’m sure he sings to America. y yo caí en tu trampa ilusionado. the white woman at the party who may or may not have voted for trump tells me she doesn’t meet too many Mexicans in this part of New York City. my mouth makes an oh, but i don’t make a sound. a waiter pushes his brown self through the kitchen door carrying hors d’oeuvres. a song escapes through the swinging door. selena sings pero ay como me duele & the good white woman waits for me to thank her.

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Influence Question: How would you say this collection reflects your idea of what poetry is/can be?

José Olivarez: For me, poetry has been most powerful in shared experiences. The moment that made me want to write poems was seeing my peers, teenagers at the time, perform poems that spoke truthfully about their own experiences to an audience full of rapt teenagers and adults. My favorite past time is getting drinks with friends and then reading them my favorite poems (Ada Limón’s Glow, all of Lucille Clifton’s poems, Aracelis Girmay’s On Kindness, Patrick Rosal’s BrokeHeart: Just Like That). I believe that poetry is communal. I wanted to write a book that people would want to share with each other. I wanted to write a book that people could laugh to and cry to and feel all the feelings to. I wanted to write a book that young poets would want to read and rewrite and challenge and remix. I wanted to write a book that could belong at the library and on public transportation and in the park. I wanted to write a loud poetry. An impolite poetry. A poetry that asks you to reimagine the world.

Influence Question: What were the challenges in writing these poems and how did you work through them?

José Olivarez: One of the challenges in writing these poems early on was that the poems were fitting too neatly into already established narratives about Latinx people and immigration, things like the sense of belonging neither here nor there, the arc of the American Dream, the othering gaze of whiteness. Where did these ideas come from? How could I complicate and destabilize them? I tried to rewrite the poems with an eye towards mischief and subverting those tropes. When I finished a poem, I tried to rewrite it to see what other possibilities existed. That’s how poems like “Poem to Take The Belt Out of My Dad’s Hands” were made. I didn’t want to write poems that fit too neatly into what was already expected of me.

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Special thanks to José Olivarez for participating! To learn more about Olivarez’s work, check out his site! Copies of Citizen Illegal can be purchased from Haymarket Books.

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JoséphotobyMarcosVasquezJosé Olivarez is the son of Mexican immigrants and the author of the book of poems, Citizen Illegal. Along with Felicia Chavez and Willie Perdomo, he is co-editing the forthcoming anthology, The BreakBeat Poets Vol. 4: LatiNEXT. He is the co-host of the poetry podcast, The Poetry Gods and a recipient of fellowships from CantoMundo, Poets House, the Bronx Council on the Arts, the Poetry Foundation, & the Conversation Literary Festival. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Paris Review, and elsewhere.  In 2018, he was awarded the first annual Author and Artist in Justice Award from the Phillips Brooks House Association. He lives in Chicago.

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microreview & interview: House of McQueen by Valerie Wallace

review by José Angel Araguz

wallace

In the note for “Let’s make a dress from these,” from Valerie Wallace’s  House of McQueen (Four Way Books), we learn that the poem’s title is a quote from Alexander McQueen himself, spoken “as he walked into his workroom with a handful of red medical slides.” In the same spirit of ingenuity and repurposing, Wallace’s collection presents poems that inhabit similar liminal spaces. Ranging from ekphrasis and collage to engaging with docupoetics with singular purpose, the poems of House of McQueen brings McQueen’s aesthetic vision and humanity to life through its engagement with the observable and imaginative.

The aforementioned poem, “Let’s make a dress from these,” which centers on the dress made from medical slides mentioned in the note above, starts with an objective description: “Stained red medical slides layer vertically on sleeveless sheath, / high-necked and cut away from right shoulder to right hipbone.” The reader is presented strictly with what the eye can see in these lines. The poem then moves from the physically observable, to the suggestive and poetic:

Heavy overskirts of crimson ostrich feathers swish & switch,
thick & deliberate into underskirt of plum-black ostrich feathers.
These skirts obey the law of push. From the slightest pressure they bloom.

In these lines that round out the first stanza, the observable is engaged on two levels. First, there is the evocation of the image through phrasing with the repetition of “ostrich feathers” across two lines; but there’s also a structural echo of the image in the enjambment of “swish & switch, / thick & deliberate.” Here, the repeated use of the ampersand works like typographical stitching joining two descriptions of ostrich feathers. The last line of this stanza furthers this evocation, taking it to an imaginative space through its mention of “the law of push” and “bloom,” language that makes the observable fact of the dress into an active, engaging image.

Another kind of engagement between the observable and imaginative occurs in the poem “Shears,” only this time it is one on the level of craft. Composed out of text found and “occasionally corrupted” by the author from Basil Bunting’s Complete Poems (New Directions), what makes this poem remarkable is how Wallace is able to find and repurpose language outside of the McQueen-centered project and bring it into conversation:

Silk tweed gray felt sable damask flannel
Glory of sharp tool be the lasting part of me

Plip scut slew slew all sounds fall still
Have you seen the fox? Which way did he go, he go?

These opening lines begin with fabric language and quickly go into intimate revelry. The repetition and wordplay here are to different purposes than in the poem discussed above; yet the move on the poet’s part to evoke image and feeling from recovered language remains the equally compelling.

Similarly, the poem “Autobiography of Alexander McQueen,” which is composed of quotes from print and video interviews with McQueen himself, takes the found language approach and creates from it a sense of human voice and presence:

I’m a romantic, really—
I try to protect people.
People say I do it for the shock value
I just like exploring the sinister side of life.

Drawn from McQueen’s lips, these opening lines are haunting in the way they represent isolated moments of self-awareness and aesthetic vision. Despite their repurposing into poetic form, in this case a pantoum, the designer’s unique sense of self-possession and character ring out. When the poem closes and the form repeats the first and third line above, the argument performed through the act of the poem lands for the reader as an argument of being:

Solitude is the blank canvas I work from.
Life is transformation.
People will say I did it for the shock value—
But I’m just a romantic really.

House of McQueen can, in fact, be read as a romantic’s transformation of language materials into aesthetic revelation. The very spirit of high fashion is implied throughout the conceptual and structural narratives explored. Wallace’s deft eye and ear create poems that keep pace with and come close to matching McQueen’s original sartorial creations. What stands out as the book’s highest accomplishment is how Wallace is able to bring readers again and again to the liminal, imaginative space of inspiration.

The poem below, “Council House, 1972,” opens the collection with exactly this note of dwelling on the possibilities inherent between the observable and imaginative. From the feeling of having “never seen anything like it” to “wondering, how to draw that color — sea coast changing to dawn,” the reader is presented with two artists: the artist McQueen was on the verge of becoming, and Wallace now, able to find the words to house them both.

Council House, 1972 – Valerie Wallace

When I was about 3 years old, I drew a dress on the wall. And what dress was it? Cinderella.

When she turned, I’d never seen anything like it.
Dress made for charming prince and fairy.
I could manage the little sleeves, tiny waist rising
out of skirts which laughed as they traveled with her across the ballroom floor.
And they had stars woven in them.
I got caught wondering, how to draw that color — sea coast changing to dawn.
There was trouble, but I didn’t care. I knew it was the dress
that saved her. All the rest was just a story.

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Influence Question: How would you say this collection reflects your idea of what poetry is/can be?

Valerie Wallace: Thank you so much for this question. I think poetry is a space for great permission, so for me this collection invigorates that idea, because it takes on many challenges at once – persona, ekphrastic, formal, free, a bit of narrative – all in an attempt to make a cohesive  emotional . . .  welling forth about a singular life.

Influence Question: What were the challenges in writing these poems and how did you work through them?

Valerie Wallace: This is probably obvious, but my primary challenge – which animated all the other challenges – was to stay true to McQueen’s aesthetic and vision. Ultimately I used form and craft in service to his tailoring foundation, and a wide range of source material, as he had, for his collections. I researched Scottish and English history and the history of fashion, learned bespoke terminology, read McQueen biographies, and made use of interviews with McQueen, as well as his close friends and family. I felt my own imagination had permission to be wild. If I thought, Why not? I tried it. If I thought, What if…, I did it.

I’ll just add that at first I thought I was writing a kind of elegy. Then I thought I was writing language poems. At times, I was forcing poems into these categories. Of course, those poems were not very good. I learned that I had to strengthen my listening muscles. I had to listen to what the poems needed to say, wanted to say, find the little soul for each. As that began to happen, the poems and I began to trust each other, and then a collection began to hum.

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Special thanks to Valerie Wallace for participating! To learn more about Wallace’s work, check out her site! Copies of House of McQueen can be purchased from Four Way Books.

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wallace 2Valerie Wallace’s debut poetry collection House of McQueen (March 2018) was chosen by Vievee Francis for the Four Way Books Intro Prize in Poetry. In their starred review Publishers Weekly said that Wallace created “…a literary seance…serving as a scholar of and medium for the late iconic fashion designer Alexander McQueen….” Her work was chosen by Margaret Atwood for the Atty Award, and she has received an Illinois Arts Council Literary Award and the San Miguel de Allende Writers Conference Award in Poetry, as well as many grants to support her work, for which she is extremely grateful.

microreview & interview: Phantom Tongue by Steven Sanchez

review by José Angel Araguz

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Phantom Tongue (Sundress Publications) by Steven Sanchez begins with “On the Seventh Day,” a poem depicting the speaker poring over images of male models in the Sunday ads—”glossy men” that “look like my G.I. Joe / if his clothes weren’t painted on”—then cutting and pasting body parts, fashioning ideal versions of attractiveness. This act is narrated in a compelling and telling manner; as the speaker notes that “These paper men / are caught inside words / they don’t even know exist,” it is hard not to notice the parallel with the speaker himself, a youth whose burgeoning sexuality is manifesting outside of words through this play with images. The poem ends with a similarly telling image:

I’ve learned to hide these men inside
the pages of my dictionary,
where words always cling
to their wet curves
like the newspaper ink
on my hands, headlines
and stories staining my skin.

This final image is charged with guilt and self-consciousness. Unlike the title’s reference to God resting after the creation of the world, this speaker is far from being able to rest or feel settled. In fact, his act of creation leaves him scared and with an impulse to hide his fascination.

This tension between fascination and self-consciousness lies at the center of Phantom Tongue. Starting with this poem about bodies, the collection begins to explore ideas of breaking—how bodies break, and what breaks with them—balanced by meditations on what is not broken. One can see this balance in the sequence “Passing.” In the section One of the Guys, the speaker is asked on the playground “Are you white or a wetback?” and responds with “I’m just like you.” The speaker is then told to grab a rock and join in the taunting and assault of another child. Unable to find a rock, or unwilling to, the speaker picks up a “large dirt clod” and is commanded to throw it at the head of the other boy. When he moves to do so, however, the speaker ends up only feeling how the dirt clod “explodes in my raised hand.” This closing image implies not only the futility of violence, but also the speaker’s discomfort in participating. It is almost as if the dirt clod breaks apart in empathy with the speaker.

This scene of coerced action resulting in futility skillfully leads to the second section of this sequence, Boy Scout. In this poem, the speaker is out fishing and reels in a brown trout, the experience bringing him closer to a growing sense of mortality:

I feel the rest of his life in this wire, taut
like string between two plastic cups.

Does he hear my heart tightening its pace,
a fist that will not let go?

The feeling of life on the wire compared to a childhood makeshift telephone drives home what is being communicated through this experience to the speaker. Viewed within the context of a conversation, the speaker is aware that he is at fault for the breaking from life that is going on at the other side. This awareness becomes a new knowledge in the form of the final couplet where the speaker’s heart becomes “a fist that will not let go.” Even the breaking life of a fish holds its fascination and lesson.

Sanchez’s attention to and facility with empathy is also present in the poems about his complicated relationship with his father. In “La Llorona,” for example, we are given an imagined origin story that is braided with the Mexican folktale. As the speaker tells us “My father’s forgotten / who brought him / to America,” the poem sets its license for this braiding as being grounded in the father’s absence of details. We further learn:

Somebody found him
when he was a boy
walking in the streets

of Tijuana, his mother
absent. The jagged
remains of his living

room window
cut his hands
when he reached

one more time
toward his own father,
dead for three days.

From here, the poem enters the speaker’s dreams where he tries to comfort the father. Where in reality the speaker’s father reached to the dead father, in dream he reaches toward the speaker. In this parallel, death and dream frame the speaker’s father with absence. This absence then becomes a space where the poem can explore the story of La Llorona and braid it to the father’s via imagery:

I can never touch him,
always my reflection
in water. A woman

emerges and slides
her finger across
his navel

where kelp grows
like an umbilical chord
inching toward his neck

Comfort exists in these stanzas edged with threat, as it does in life. The uncertainty of water—a realm of intangible reflections and unperceivable depths—makes a suitable parallel to the life of the father, who, through his own absences, lives an uncertain life. As the poem’s dreamscape baptism comes to a close, La Llorona holds the father and prays. In this way, braiding the narrative of La Llorona with that of the father redeems both troubled figures.

In “Approaching El Arco / Reloj Monumental,” redemption is explored in a way that allows for complication and doubt. As the poem moves through its crushing depiction of the speaker being questioned by border patrol while walking near the entrance of Tijuana, there comes this moment:

A gull walks

in circles a few feet away, his left wing
broken, upside down; his white

remex makes a path in wet sand
that three offspring follow. I could

hold the gull, stroke his sleek back,
and make a purple sling from my shirt.

But I wouldn’t know what I’m doing,
how to reset or mend his bones.

I would just break another one
I try to convince myself, even though

I know what happens if I do nothing.

This act of pausing, of acknowledging what’s in front of the speaker and each possible course of action, of lingering over meaning, speaks of the great empathy at the heart of this collection. By considering the broken wing of the bird, the speaker goes through the motions of feeling something (not quite innocence, but like it) break inside himself. Moments like this one showcase Sanchez’s gift for dwelling in complexity.

While the collection begins with a fascination with the body, this fascination quickly becomes an unflinching awareness of what is at stake within a body. Along with the physical breaking possible, there is the body as the house of what is broken and what continues to break. In the final poem, “What I Didn’t Tell You” (below), an address to a younger brother begins as advice and quickly shifts into regret and apology. Sanchez’s ability to look deeply within his own breaking—the physical and emotional, as well as the breaking that makes up memory—is illuminating. Throughout this collection, worlds that have gone neglected and unseen are made visible and granted the rich and transformative acknowledgment of poetry.

What I Didn’t Tell You – Steven Sanchez

for my brother

You can ask me anything,
Even about my first kiss,
which was at your age
and tasted like stale beer.
I used to feel guilty swallowing
the pulse of another man,
but now I know there are many
ways to pray. There’s a name for
that most intimate prayer:
la petite mort—the little death.
If, when your lover rakes
your back, you recall
the flock of worshippers
surrounding you like raptors
when they learned you’re gay,
clawing at your shoulders,
squawking for salvation,
remind yourself you have to die
before you can be resurrected.
Never forget what the Bible says:
when two people worship together,
they create a church
no matter where they are—
which must include
the backseat of a car
or the darkest corner
of Woodward Park.
These are some of the things
I wanted to tell you
that night in April
you called me for help
with your history report
about the gay rights movement.
Neither of us admitted
what he knew about the other.
Instead I started
with the ancient Greeks,
told you it was normal for them,
that for one brief moment
they were allowed to shape
their own history and religion,
organizing the stars, forming
Orion, for example,
flexing in the sky, arms
open in victory, belt
hanging below his waist.
But he was punished
for his confidence,
a scorpion’s hooked tail
piercing his body
like a poison moon.
When I see Orion,
I think of you and remember
what it felt like
for my knuckles to sink
into your stomach,
for my fist to collide
with your face. Your voice,
your walk, your gestures
reminded me of myself,
your figure bright and fluid,
creating a reflection
I wanted to break.
And now I see
your body spill open—
Big Dipper hooked
to your ribs, North Star
nestled in the middle.
I reach for that ladle
and drink.

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Influence Question: How does this full length relate/grow out of your chapbooks?

Steven Sanchez: The earliest draft of Phantom Tongue came first, followed by my chapbooks: To My Body (Glass Poetry Press) and Photographs of Our Shadows (Agape Editions). While my two chapbooks have a lot of thematic overlap (in terms of Queerness, internalized oppression, and Pocho-ness, among others), the image systems and tones between each chapbook felt different. Despite these differences, or probably because of them, I was able to figure out how to meet Phantom Tongue on its own terms.

Originally, Phantom Tongue had three sections, and the differences between the first two sections reflected the differences between the two chapbooks. The third section tried to reconcile those differences, but, like a bad sewing job, the thread was visible and didn’t match. I expressed my concerns to Sara Henning (my wonderful editor at Sundress) and she encouraged me to remove the sections and see what happened.

Reading through it without sections, I still saw significant shifts that reminded me “oh, we’re switching between chapbooks now,” so I tried out an organization strategy I used in my first chapbook—begin the book with a poem centering the body and end the book with a poem centering the body. If I could begin and end with a body, Phantom Tongue could tell the story of that body.

However, the final poems in Phantom Tongue had tones that clashed with each other. The title poem itself comes relatively late in the book and is a poem of witness (sort of) where the speaker lacks agency. But I wanted the end of the book to acknowledge and challenge what happens in the title poem. I turned to the poems from my second chapbook for help and found the poem I wanted to close on—What I Didn’t Tell You. When I found that poem, I realized a few of the poems in that chapbook had a similar tone and pacing; I realized that Phantom Tongue needed those poems near the end.

Ultimately, I found that my first chapbook seemed to privilege the physical, lived experiences of a body, while the second chapbook seemed to privilege the ways bodies get read as texts and assigned meaning. While those chapbooks can be their own entities, I realized Phantom Tongue felt clunky because the physical body and metaphysical body inform each other and cannot be so easily separated (if at all). My chapbooks were so helpful in my revision process, sort of like a phoropter in an optometrist’s office—sometimes one chapbook made an aspect of Phantom Tongue super clear, sometimes that same chapbook made me lose focus; toggling between the two helped me hone in on the smaller details I couldn’t see on my own.

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Special thanks to Steven Sanchez for participating! To learn more about Sanchez’s work, check out his site! Copies of Phantom Tongue can be purchased from Sundress Publications.

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1888_sanchezSteven Sanchez is the author of Phantom Tongue (Sundress Publications, 2018), selected by Mark Doty as the winner of Marsh Hawk Press’ Rochelle Ratner Memorial Award and a finalist for the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize & the Four Way Books Intro Prize. He is also the author of two chapbooks: To My Body (Glass Poetry Press, 2016) and Photographs of Our Shadows (Agape Editions, 2017). A recipient of fellowships from CantoMundo and the Lambda Literary Foundation, his poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Poet LoreNimrodNorth American ReviewMuzzleCrab Creek Review, and other publications. He holds a B.A. in Philosophy and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from California State University, Fresno.

microreview & interview: Rodney Gómez’s Citizens of the Mausoleum

review by José Angel Araguz

mausoleum pic

What a poet lists in their poems says much about what is important to them. There is a gesture of trying to catalog and hold onto, but also one of presenting and (re)presenting. Listing is a move I often find myself drawn to and examining in reading contemporary poems because it is through listing that a poet can achieve a differently-clear response to Robert Lowell’s question: “Yet why not say what happened?” In Rodney Gómez’s Citizens of the Mausoleum (Sundress Publications), “what happened” is recollected, invoked and evoked, acknowledged and interrogated via a poetic sensibility able to handle lists in a way that establishes clear human presence.

The opening sequence “Checkpoint Aubade” takes as its subject the finding of mass graves of unidentified migrants in South Texas. After the first section establishes how “bodies were potted / in Falfurrias” and how “roots / curled between their ribs,” the second section delves further through a list:

Duvalín spoon
rebozo
lone sacrum
Flamin’ Hot Cheetos
Lavoro jeans
Puma sneaker
bajo sexto
scattered jacks
receipt from Pollo Loco
butterfly knife
keys
Tres Flores brilliantine
comb with missing teeth
manifesto
full bottle of Levothyroxine
rosary
Circo Vasquez flyer
Coca Cola watch
bobby pin
miniature stop sign
coil from a sleeping cot
retablo of St. Jude Thaddeus

What’s powerful about this list is how it brings together a diverse array of everyday items and through juxtaposition and presence evokes human life. From the pleasures of eating (“Duvalín” “Cheetos” “Pollo Loco”) and pop culture (“Circo Vasquez flyer / Coca Cola watch”) to self-consciousness over appearance (“Tres Flores brilliantine / comb with missing teeth” “bobby pin”), all of it stands in stark contrast with the mortal context of the poem, represented directly by the inclusion of “lone sacrum” and indirectly through the “missing teeth” of the comb. Furthermore, the presence of the epigraph at the start of the poem noting that the bodies are unidentified begins a narrative of identifying within the reader. Reading the above list, one senses the human life lost and is simultaneously taken right to the limit of what can be identified. This move in a poem makes clear what is at stake for the Gómez in these poems without any filter or rhetorical scaffolding.

Listing works in a different way in “Love,” where the speaker meditates on the ways this words changes for people:

I’ve never understood how someone could fall in love
and just as quickly fall out, as if love were the Chunnel
or a passage under the Great Wall. Take my friend Al,
a surgeon, a bright guy with whom I went to State,
he meets a girl online, dates her for a week, and pretty
soon he’s professing an undying love, tattoos her Zodiac
sign on his bicep, and they go everywhere together—
the groceries, the gym, the shower—and pretty soon
they’re calling each other honey, which is the amazing
part because the only thing I’ve ever called honey
was printed on glossy paper or pressed in a candy shop,
and he describes this girl as a swan, which just a few
weeks later becomes a snake, how is this possible,
for love to evaporate, one mayfly minute to the next,

In this short excerpt, one can see a subversive listing at work. There’s the quick list work of trying to understand love in the first three lines, which show the speaker’s bafflement through a blunt logic. Then there is the narrative of a past relationship his friend, Al, has gone through. Through this narrative, there is a listing of details that changes as the emotional course of the relationship changes. From clear bicep to tattooed bicep, from “swan” to “snake,” these details shift in a way that is familiar, but it is the speaker’s urgent desire to understand (“how is this possible”) that keeps up the momentum created at the start of the poem.

This momentum-carrying listing features again in “Cloud,” one of a series of poems that take the death of the poet’s mother as its subject:

A cloud
hoarding my mother’s voice.
Symphonium.

When I sprint
at late hours
I am nothing
but cloud

and scour myself
for her.

She has gone
to a greater kind
of hiding.

This excerpt shows how the poem grounds itself in the idea of cloud. The line “A cloud / hoarding my mother’s voice” implies things being carried off and held at a distance. The speaker’s following note that he runs and becomes “nothing / but cloud // and scour myself / for her” shifts the meaning of clouds further, adding to it an active need to combat the “greater kind / of hiding” that is death. This active need is returned to and developed further at the end of the poem:

Sometimes
I’ll run on the bare back
of the arroyo,

skimming the water
for her face.

Cranes alight
to avoid my madness.

I am interminably
missing.

Here, one sees the logic of what’s being experienced by the speaker: loss leads to looking, looking leads to seeing what’s there and what’s not there. In this duality, one can sense the speaker’s reason for running and looking; in a broader view, this duality also represents a reason for the kinds of listing engaged with in this collection. What else to do in the face of the “interminably / missing” than begin to take stock of what is here.

Citizens of the Mausoleum does just that. Through poems and sequences devoted to personal and public loss (“We, Too, Are Asking Why” stands out as a vital and necessary poem about the Sandy Hook shootings), Gómez’s gift of braiding a sharp lyrical sense of phrasing and imagery with engaged poetic and political convictions is on full display. As can be seen in “Our Lady of San Juan” (below), Gómez goes one step further in these poems beyond saying “what happened” and presents poems that invite the reader to say it for themselves.

Our Lady of San Juan – Rodney Gómez

cupped hands : a sun dial
cesta of moon : votary
when she says I love you : glacier
hallelujah : crumpled wrist
walking on knees : acceptance of death
broken promise : burnt mesquite
promises kept : a flame
indifference of cicadas : Gethsemane
confessional : ornate rhythm of water
heavy element : the wages of sin
hidden prayer : lock for the mouth
rosary : a fastening, a clasp
an open mouth : cantankerous censer
frayed habit : lost key
burning cottonwoods : baptism
inevitable loss : confirming the time
when she re-appears : flicking a lighter
las desaparecidas : oversight of the body
rain on feather: balm
other: where the god resides
other: when the wound heals

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Influence Question: How would you say this collection reflects your idea of what poetry is/can be?

Rodney Gómez: Well, I wanted the work to be something that I could read and enjoy. I don’t know who it was who said that poetry shouldn’t be entertaining, but I disagree with that statement. Poetry, and art, should be entertaining. Whenever I read poetry, I want it to be fresh, authentic, new, and real. I also want to be absorbed in it. I want a diversion from my real life and I want to be fascinated by what I’m reading. Now I wouldn’t describe the poems in Citizens of the Mausoleum as happy poems. And they aren’t entertaining in the way that an episode of Monk might be entertaining. That is, they’re not amusing. They can be very depressing, in fact. But I think I’m satisfied enough with the collection that I can confidently say I would read the book if I picked it up at a bookstore and didn’t have any prior knowledge of it. I would be interested in it. I would get some satisfaction out of it. If it caused discomfort, the discomfort would be worth it. I remember reading Rachel McKibbens’ blud and thinking about how heavy a book it was. In theme and tone and subject matter. But I couldn’t put it down after I started. I wanted to write something like that. Something that felt like it was hitting you over the head with a brick, but afterwards you felt you had achieved something by the experience.

Influence Question: What were the challenges in writing these poems and how did you work through them?

Rodney Gómez: The poems were composed over a period of about five years starting in early 2011. I was grieving over the death of my mother and started using poetry as therapy, which is something I hadn’t really done in the past, having very little wounding to tackle. (My parent’s, migrant farmworkers and blue collar salt-of-the-earth types, poor folk and Mexicans, sacrificed a lot to make sure I lived a pretty normal and uneventful life.) None of the early poems made it into the book, but the challenge in writing the ones that did, being predecessors of the early trauma-filled poems, was making sure I wasn’t writing myself into solipsism. I don’t usually like navel-gazing poems. I like poems that say something to me as a human being. And so I very clearly wanted to write poems that were more than my experience. The trouble with that is an epistemic one about authenticity and having the right to say something that is more than you can possibly know. A poet’s perspicacity ends where someone else’s rights begin. So I tried to write what concerned me not only about my very limited world, but the larger world too. So you see, at the beginning of the book, a poem about the death of migrants in Texas. And you see a long poem about guns later on. There is a very real grappling in those poems between the speakers’ perspectives and imagined ones.

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Special thanks to Rodney Gómez for participating! To keep up with Rodney’s work, follow him on Twitter! Copies of Citizens of the Mausoleum can be purchased from Sundress Publications.

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RG*

Rodney Gómez is the author of Citizens of the Mausoleum. His work appears in PoetryPoetry NorthwestThe Gettysburg ReviewBlackbirdDenver QuarterlyVerse Daily, and other journals. He is an editor at Latino Book Review and works at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.

microreview & interview – it’s the soul that’s erotic: an essay on adélia prado

review by José Angel Araguz

 

Kaminsky-front-cover-small

Early in his essay-turned-chapbook it’s the soul that’s erotic: an essay on adélia prado (Orison Books), poet Ilya Kaminsky speaks of Adélia Prado’s work as being in the mystic tradition. He then promptly delves into the questions and assumptions that come along with references to mysticism. Noting that “the term mystic may mislead or intimidate,” Kaminsky goes on to argue that mystical experience, far from being something “attainable only by a few human beings,” is actually “always available, and to anyone.”

This opening note on mysticism’s accessibility and ubiquity quickly frames his analysis on Prado’s work within an argument that feels familiar within poetry circles. Replace the word mystic with poetry in the above statements and one finds the divide to be similar; both mysticism and poetry are regarded with mistrust by some non-practitioners (not to say non-believers), a mistrust that ranges from veiled skepticism regarding the respective value of each, to outright dismissal. To push this comparison further, mystics and poets are equally defined by practice: a mystic is only a mystic when voicing their spiritual truth, and a poet can only be called so via the creation of a poem. Or, to put it another way, the poet is by no means an embodiment of poetry any more than a mystic is the embodiment of truth: both are fingers pointing to the moon.

Navigating this fine line between the ineffable and the practical is not only the work of the mystic and poet, but also of the critic. Kaminsky does a great job throughout this short essay of establishing a sense of the traditions Prado’s work is in line with, both mystically and poetically. On the mystical side, the references range from the philosophical (Emil Cioran) to the spiritual (Paul Tillich; Martin Buber); on the poetry side, a reference to Czeslaw Milosz leads to references to Whitman as well as Mayakovsky, Anna Swir, Allen Ginsberg, and a number of other singular poetic sensibilities. This diverse catalog of associations is handled in a way that places them in the reader’s grasp; Kaminsky eschews any kind of intellectual name-dropping by inviting the reader into what informs his own personal reading of Prado’s work and the stakes such reading creates.

This engaged meditation on the mystical and the poetic serves not only to make clear Kaminsky’s own take on the work, but also provides a lively introduction to Prado’s work. If, according to W. H. Auden, the real gift of a critic is not what they say but the excerpts of another’s work they curate for a reader, the excerpts chosen by Kaminsky do a great job of speaking for themselves:

With me it’s wild parties
or strict piety.
I didn’t deserve to be born,
to eat with a mouth, walk on two feet
and carry inside me twenty-five feet of guts.

(“The Third Way”)

Here is but a glimpse into Prado’s sensibility. In these five lines, one immediately senses the reckoning that infuses Prado’s work, a reckoning that would be light except for its underlying awareness of mortality. To add to Kaminsky’s analysis, I would argue that Prado’s work can be considered mystical for the way it lives vulnerably and exuberantly between life and death. It’s the kind of lyricism that cannot be taught, but rather caught and lucked up on.

Reading through this essay, I got the sense that Kaminsky has a clear idea of the precarious nature of this register of lyricism. His notes have the tone of a writer honoring the work of another not by arguing for it, but by speaking alongside it. It is in this spirit that the response below to the question “What are challenges in writing about Adélia Prado?” should be read.

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Influence Question: What are challenges in writing about Adelia Prado?

Ilya Kaminsky: Spiritual thinker is someone who believes in the impossible.

Poet is someone who believes in the impossible via words that stun.

What’s the danger of spiritual thinker? Demagoguery.

What saves A. Prado for that? A sense of humor.

Challenge in writing about it? Showcasing her sense of humor without making her sound glib.

On the page, Prado’s writing is elemental. It is straight out of earth, stars, water, lungs.

The challenge with elemental writing is to address it in kind.

So, the piece is a series of brief pieces connected by a bit of wind.

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Special thanks to Ilya Kaminsky for participating! To learn more about Kaminsky’s work, check out his site! Copies of it’s the soul that’s erotic: an essay on adélia prado can be purchased from Orison Books.

Untitled*

Ilya Kaminsky is the author of Dancing in Odessa (Tupelo Press) and Deaf Republic (Graywolf Press, forthcoming in March 2019). He is also the editor of Ecco Anthology of International Poetry (Harper Collins). With Jean Valentine, he has translated the poems of Marina Tsvetaeva, Dark Elderberry Branch (Alice James Books).

microreview & interview: Hannah Cohen’s Bad Anatomy

-review by José Angel Araguz

anatomy

There’s a sense of recklessness that feels natural to poetry. By recklessness, I mean less Robin Williams standing on a desk shouting a Whitman poem in Dead Poets Society and more the honesty and nerve involved in trusting language to carry what you mean. It is this latter recklessness that runs through Hannah Cohen’s chapbook, Bad Anatomy (Glass Poetry Press). In poems that show the lyric self pulsing between various modes of suspension and isolation, Cohen engages language in a way that invites the reader to experience the plummet into language we call poetry.

The collection opens with “Aubade Inverse,” a poem that subverts the traditional aubade with its focus on lovers reluctantly departing and grounds it in feelings of threat and danger:

I left scuffmarks
on white doors. I wish
I could break. I left
my legs in bed.
I left you
before you, left wet
knives in the knife block.

The emphatic “I” statements here create both a presence and momentum that charge the poem with the panicked feeling of someone checking for their car keys in the dark. Yet, despite this feeling, or perhaps because of it, the aubade’s theme of love is still invoked in the poem’s ending line: “I leave / nothing.” These three words point outward in a few directions. They can be read as the speaker implying that they “leave / nothing” meaning no trace; but they can also be read as refuting the departure implied in the aubade form, the speaker adamantly making it clear that they “leave / nothing” behind, suspending what they can through the act of the poem.

Or perhaps both meanings are meant: The way ambiguity works here and throughout these poems shows a poetic sensibility awake to the subtleties of line break and evocation. This next set of three lines from the middle of the poem serve as another example of this sensibility:

I am drinking. I drive
so fast I kill
the moon.

Here, the clipped enjambment creates an opportunity to dwell on the meaning of each turn. Between “drinking” and “drive,” there is recklessness; when we get to “kill” there’s a heightened sense of danger, a sense that is pivoted into surreality by the time we get to “moon.” The juxtaposition of action, voice, and image in these lines evokes not a swagger or false bravado (see my earlier reference to Dead Poets Society) but a clear, suspended feeling. This moment works in a way that is instructive and illuminating; dwelling on these lines brings out what the speaker means as the reader understands it. In the middle of a poem that ends with “I leave / nothing,” these lines point to ways in which meaning can be followed as it leaves from word to word.

This ability to navigate across ambiguity and voice is present throughout the world of the poems in Bad Anatomy. In “Like Someone Driving Away From Her Problems” we find that:

even god doesn’t believe
in the rusty jesus-saves
signs       can’t save her
from living
without landmark
or companion       the road a black snake
beheaded

Here, isolation is depicted as a space that even god can passively inhabit, joining the speaker in disbelief. The apt break between the words “can’t save her” and “from living” do similar work as in the opening poem, creating a space where mortality itself is glimpsed for a moment as a threat before moving on with the narrative. This reckoning with mortality is found again in “Upon Starting My Period After The Election” as the speaker reflects:

Even my body knew it was wrong to begin
again. What’s different between this cycle

and a hundred ones before? Is this my god-
given right to be less every time?

Here, the interiority and isolation found in other poems is given a more outward, public turn. Yet, the poem engages with the outside world on its own terms, framing this meditation on the political climate within the workings of the speaker’s body. The purposeful break on “my god-” sets up the gravity of the following line; together they evoke a personal and public bleakness. When the speaker notes at the end of the poem that she “can’t stop the betrayal,” the speaker’s menstruating body parallels the more public feeling of betrayal felt by most since the last election.

By tempering lyric recklessness with vulnerability and honesty, the poems of Bad Anatomy deliver reading experiences that reward nuanced and repeated readings. These poems are filled with the insight and thrill of overhearing someone tell a story at a bar, or reading someone’s lost love letters. And like great stories and love letters, these poems are compelling because of their unabashed mix of light and dark. What I mean can be seen in the final lines of “Sad Girl’s Drinking Ghazal” (printed in full below):

Just fuck me up. I love how pure bourbon is. I’m not
Hannah tonight. She’s only the crow in my rib cage.

What keeps me reading and re-reading these poems are the flashes of lyric self like this one; they occur in moments braided from voice and imagery, but are executed with raw soul.

Sad Girl’s Drinking Ghazal – Hannah Cohen

This shitty cocktail is more insightful than I am.
Unfilled, I count all the secret valleys in my rib cage.

Even the universe lets me down. I’m drunk, awake.
Is this how to feel? Next morning’s sunk in my rib cage.

There’s something romantic about a building condemned.
All that space. All the never-smashed ribs in my rib cage.

Call it a tendency to forget. I like things false
and true. Can’t pray for what isn’t there in my rib cage.

I keep returning from the dead. What a masochist.
Don’t, don’t, don’t — that self-defeating heart in my rib cage.

Inhabiting a body is easy. But living
in one? Can I be more than the bones in my rib cage?

Just fuck me up. I love how pure bourbon is. I’m not
Hannah tonight. She’s only the crow in my rib cage.

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Influence Question: How would you say this collection reflects your idea of what poetry is/can be?

Hannah Cohen: I have a few tangential thoughts for this question:

– At its best and even at its worst, poetry is a community. An ever-changing, populous community of thoughts that manifest into words. With this in mind, Bad Anatomy represents everything about being a person with depression, anxiety, and an unhealthy sense of self-deprecating humor. These traits interact with each other like passersby on a street, or rowdy drunks in a bar. However, there’s always that thread of hope that weaves itself throughout the chapbook’s pages, and I fully believe that for a poem or set of poems to fully succeed for the reader and its author, there must be that “break.”

– Poetry can be short and terse, with gaping spaces of images that sometimes don’t make sense the first time. The ending poem “[and the deer flash guernica]” serves as a soft echo to the chapbook’s opening poem, with a one-act scene of some deer at night juxtaposed to the multiple “I” scenes in “Aubade Inverse.”

– Accessibility is important. I want to believe people can emotionally and mentally relate to the poems in Bad Anatomy. Even if they can’t always see where the poems are coming from, they can understand the content at least.

Influence Question: What were the challenges in writing these poems and how did you work through them?

Hannah Cohen: These poems are like my own piercing arrows in that they’re tangible problems I’ve dealt with and continue to deal with in my life. While obviously not 100% autobiographical, several poems from Bad Anatomy sprouted from real situations and feelings. “2 a.m.,” for example, was made up of several moments where I was driving home in the dark. I suffer from pressure headaches and take Excedrin mainly for the placebo effect. I put all these things together and gave it that title to emphasize the aimlessness I was experiencing in my early twenties. Other poems have painful content (see “Sad Girl’s Drinking Ghazal”) that was eventually tamed by either its form or presentation.

Another challenge was the actual order of the poems. I did not want an obvious A to Z narrative, nor did I want poems to merely be mirrors to each other. I am thankful that one of my blurbers, Emilia Phillips, was able to offer some valuable advice about how to arrange Bad Anatomy for the most emotional impact. “Saturnism” was a frustrating poem to work into the chapbook, because it’s based on Vincent van Gogh and is the oldest poem. I almost removed it entirely. However, because it’s bookended by two short-ish poems about either separation or moving on, it seemed to finally work as its own entity, allowing me and the reader to inhabit a different mental space.

In the end, I’m happy with the final result. At some point, you just have to save the Word document and send it off to your publisher because if you keep nitpicking or changing up the order or a poem’s line, it won’t ever be done. Poems aren’t this finite object – you can always change it up at a reading or any future reprints.

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Special thanks to Hannah Cohen for participating! To learn more about Cohen’s work, check out her site! Copies of Bad Anatomy can be purchased from Glass Poetry Press.

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Hannah Cohen received her MFA from Queens University of Charlotte and lives in Virginia. Hannah is the author of the chapbook Bad Anatomy (Glass Poetry Press, 2018). She is a contributing editor for Platypus Press and co-edits the online journal Cotton Xenomorph. Recent and forthcoming publications include Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Noble/Gas Qtrly, Cosmonauts Avenue, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, Verse Daily, and Gravel. She’s received Best of the Net and Pushcart Prize nominations.

microreview & interview: Griselda J Castillo’s Blood & Piloncillo

review by José Angel Araguz

Castillo chap

Often I find myself discussing poetry as awkward human utterance, that what we are after as poets is being able to say things in a way only we can say them. In Griselda J Castillo’s chapbook, Blood & Piloncillo (Poxo Publication), this work is done distinctly at the level of word choice and line break. In the poem “Taking Inventory,” for example, we have these opening stanzas:

the garden has two fig trees
a stuttering blackberry bush
i stole from
surprised by the moody jolt
that dripped down my fingers

there’s a short peach tree
a pear with a few years yet
to fruit
lettuces and chard
3 honey bees enthralled
in a yellow squash blossom

What is great about these lines are the way the navigate through the inventory of the title, listing what is in the garden, but also keeping the reader close to what each detailed thing evokes. Narrative and meaning flow out of each line. The speaker’s inventory in the rest of the poem develops naturally into a meditation on trespass; the speaker contemplates not only the abundance of what she finds but also what her human presence means, asking “can i really have it all” at one point, only to end by asking:

or does it come
at the cost
of red ants clamping
their jaws into my feet

a reminder that nothing
in this life is free

On the page these lines move in a way that makes me think of William Carlos Williams – the clarity of image and emphatic, clean phrasing – as well as Gary Soto and Francisco X. Alarcón. These three poets are known for their respective minimalist approaches, working out big ideas via short, intense, concentrated lines. What makes Castillo’s work with the line stand out is her movement from attention to reckoning. In this poem’s ending, the speaker’s question leads not to an answer but to an image of pain. In doing so, the poem remains grounded in human experience and imbues even this last image with the feel of praise.

This rich and complicated relationship with praise can be found in other poems. In “Sardines,” the reader is given a profile of the speaker’s father via a contemplation of food. The poem begins:

headless in oval
tin cans
bobbing in tomato sauce

sardines
remind me
of my dad

five packed blue backs
silver belly to silver belly
tiny collars curved

like his back at the table
or the ends of his
mustache starting to grey

Here, there is a back and forth going on between stanzas, alternating between images of the sardines and memories of the father. What this alternating movement does is compel the reader to enter a space where the two subjects of the poem are blurred in a similar way as they are for the speaker. This blurred feeling is made purposeful and direct in the way the imagery of the third stanza suggests the imagery in the fourth. The poem continues in this way, navigating between memory and description. The result is memory uttered on the page in a way that feels present and immediate.

The poems of Blood & Piloncillo present the attention and reckoning Castillo has paid to her life as a Mexican-American, the intersections of culture and family, womanhood and youth. How this attention and reckoning play out on the page speaks to the nuanced navigating required by survival. The poem “Laundry” (below), is a good example of what I mean. The narrative elegizes someone who has taken their life, but in the complex spirit of praise of this collection, this elegy looks at the life around this loss clearly, uttering the human meaning of what is left, and doing so without flinching.

Laundry – Griselda J Castillo

there is small talk
about the warranty

about the years they’ve
gotten out of them

the expected laundering of words
swirl nervous in our tin mouths

we kept the machines
in the garage until

one broke and we
cut it down

then you hung
yourself up

a wet blanket
on Mother’s Day

someone else
had to cut down

waiting for the load
my sister sits

on the cooler
used as a step

cracks a beer
the same beer

you two drank
to kill time

when you’d be here
washing clothes

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Influence Question: How would you say this collection reflects your idea of what poetry is/can be?

Griselda J Castillo: We are blessed to live at a time where we can arrive at poetry or create it in many different ways. I am not too preoccupied with what poetry is or can be, but I am definitely enamoured with the fact that it exists. The best poems are the ones that move you and, at a high level, that reflects what poetry is to me and what I think it can do.

Poetry can at once be challenging and complicated and still also beautiful and engaging. It encourages me to dig, to learn by feeling, to get to the root. When I finally started to do the internal work of figuring out where I write from, poetry allowed me the freedom to tackle difficult experiences with reverence. Poetry offered me several opportunities for grace. This collection helped me to examine my life not carefully for answers but with tenderness for meaning. I think poetry help us find meaning.

This chapbook captures moments from the last decade that were impactful to me for many different reasons.

The poems are summaries of lessons in life that either took or gave me lifeblood and morsels of sugar. Separately, the poems work through boundaries I have traversed or let confine me. I’m a first-generation Mexican-American who grew up on the border of Texas and Mexico, so this isn’t surprising. The poems use Spanish words for which I offer no translation and mixed imagery. They contain undercurrents of values I may not immediately relate to but carry within me just by sheer luck of having Mexican heritage. All this to say, they can be difficult to get into. I hope they inspire readers to get to know my culture (and others!) more in order to reach understanding.

They are also imperfect. There’s a bit of an inevitable contained mess in all of them which is another reflection of what poetry is or can be to me. I’m in my 30’s and still learning about myself and life so some clumsiness is bound to comes through. Poetry allows room for that too.

Influence Question: What were the challenges in writing these poems and how did you work through them?

Griselda J Castillo: The biggest challenge was writing about my family. They are all still alive and some of the topics are still raw. My brother-in-law’s suicide was never really talked about. We don’t talk about our support for immigrants freely. Subjects of infidelity, love, and homesickness are treated coolly. In a way, building this collection of poems helped me to understand the intensity of these moments and how they shaped me. I had to deal with them somewhere.

The poem “Sardines” is about my dad who, after having heard it, will never attend one of my readings! There’s no bad blood between us, but I know I crossed a boundary. My sister won’t attend a reading because of the poem “Laundry.” And she LIKES the poem! They don’t enjoy being exposed. Who would?! So, that was a new and interesting thing poetry taught me. I saw how it affected my immediate family and the poems showed them how they affected me. I hope despite all that they are still proud.

The only way I knew how to overcome this challenge was to do the work. To actually do the physical, mental, and emotional labor and make the poems. But, getting to the desk was also the hardest thing for me to do. It took so long to refine these and get them out into the world. I write for a living and sometimes there was just no more energy in me. I wish I had the stamina, concentration, and resources to have a higher output and write more.

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Special thanks to Griselda J Castillo for participating! To purchase a copy of Blood & Piloncillo, please contact the author directly at: griseldajcastillo@gmail.com

Castillo picGriselda J Castillo is a bilingual poet and creative nonfiction writer from Laredo, Texas. She is the daughter of Mexican immigrants, a first-generation American, and explores her bicultural identity through poems and stories. Her work is featured in Ocotillo Review, Chachalaca Review, and Sparkle + Blink. She also performs her poetry as part of a improvisational art and jazz collective. She received the 2018 Premio for Best Poetry Book from the National Alliance for Chicana and Chicano Studies Tejas Foco for her first poetry collection, Blood & Pilloncillo.