one more from Griselda J Castillo

In my recent microreview & interview of Griselda J Castillo’s Blood & Piloncillo (Poxo Publication), I wrote about Castillo’s collection in terms of its rich and complicated relationship with praise as well as its distinct take on ideas of attention and reckoning. All of these elements can be found in this week’s poem, “Trade,” from the same collection.

In this poem, Castillo’s singular approach to the poetic line is applied to cultural critique. The poem presents the meditations of a Mexican-American speaker thinking of Mexico while living in New Mexico. The speaker’s narrative guides the reader through the echo and change beyond the place names, and delves into the differences between those two places as well as the difference between memory and present reality.

Castillo chapWhat happens as these intersections are explored is critique via the performance of language. Castillo’s poetic sensibility invites the reader to play close attention not just to line breaks but to choices in capitalization and idiom. The way, for example, in which “Mexico” is capitalized in the third stanza, where as “american” is not in the second stanza, provides a visual cue of what the speaker is wrestling with. However, it is not a simple gesture of dismissal, but rather a nuanced reaching into memory. One gets the impression that for the speaker this “new” Mexico feels “watered-down,” and that the only way to push against this feeling is to emphasize memory in whatever way one can, in this case via typography.

The use of Spanish in this poem is also performing emphasis. The few Spanish words that appear in this poem do so without calling attention to themselves with italics or translation. This move in Latinx poetry always feels like a necessary one, a gesture of saying something in the only way it can be said, and trusting the reader to take out their phone and consult Google translate if necessary. But more than translation, what Spanish is performing in this poem is presence. Among the English of the majority of the poem, the Spanish words foreshadow the “poor cutting” at the end of the poem, transplanted words that reflect the transplanted speaker. Indeed, the way “poor cutting” brings together both subject and the speaker’s feelings is a an example of Castillo’s accomplished and engaged lyricism.

Trade – Griselda J Castillo

my tacos get cold
and homesick
outside the burrito place
beneath red and yellow umbrellas

someone’s tin foil american flag
flaps against an old cottonwood
bullied by the winter wind
rushing the gray day along

in Mexico it’d be a hot
october day frying under the sun
in its delicious way
caressed by street chatter
from vendors and cockfights
in the alley

papel picado frames a world seen
from under my father’s mustache
my hands swallowed
in his never-ending palms
as he lifts me onto
a carousel of hot afternoons
warm rains
fertile earth birthing
green hackberry leaves

mango trees sigh through an eternal
summer of mom cotorreando
watering temperamental bougainvillea
and exuberant hibiscus
her cooing echoes are the memory
of our backyard

but this is new mexico
where an arid adaptation smothers me
in unfamiliar chiles

where snowy dry roasted mornings
are so cold even yucca and piñon
hunker down
thorns muffled under a cream blanket

I pour watered-down horchata
around dismal flip-flops
throw limp tacos at
a weathered potted plant
and think

poor cutting
never considered
what it would endure
embedded in foreign sand

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Copies of Blood & Piloncillo can be purchased directly from the author at: griseldajcastillo@gmail.com

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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.

how i write

This week’s post consists of two parts: First, a blog post I wrote for a journal a few years ago that, for one reason or another, wasn’t used by them. The prompt was to describe your writing space and how you write, and also to include a picture of that space. The pencil sketch that constitutes the “picture” of my writing space was done by Ani Schreiber (@anischrieberart).

The second part of this week’s post is a poem of mine, “Engrossed,” which I thought would be a good complement to my discussion of engrossment and how I write.

Most of what I talk about in this piece still applies to my process now. The cities may change, but the page, the page is always present (presence).

Enjoy!

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HOW I WRITE – José Angel Araguz

The short answer to where I write is always: Anywhere I can. From subway trains to park benches, as long as my notebook is with me, I’m good to go. The answers to how and when are also short: By hand, and daily. I try to take at least thirty minutes a day to work out a few lines as well as to revise and jot down some notes on daily life. I prefer to write by hand because it keeps me close to words, to the messiness and pressure. I mean literal messiness, as my palms are often blotted with ink after a writing session. I usually find time in the morning; if not, I’ll steal some time between tasks later in the day. I also keep a bullet list going of things to write about later. If I keep at it, the list never lasts too long, and it also helps focus and do some memory work: What was it about the squirrel with half a tail that I wanted to say?

At my desk sketchThe pencil sketch of me at my desk was done a few years ago by my wife. What is shown in it points to the thread between the various where’s as well as the how and when. There is a particular engrossment that I fall into when I’m writing, and it is the source of a lot calm and excitement at the same time. In the sketch, I am at my present desk, a mess of notes on my corkboard, stacks of papers at my side. These are expected details, in a way, part of the writer-hamster wheel.

What I mean by engrossment, though, can be first seen in terms of what my body is doing. Only one leg is on the ground, barely; the other is up on the chair, tangled under me in what I’m sure is an unhealthy sitting position. Also, though I write with my right hand, my left shoulder is for some reason raised. Sometimes I rock a bit while I write; couldn’t tell you why, except that it is unintentional, and something I only catch after I’ve been doing it for a bit. The other thing to observe in the sketch is that I’m shirtless and in my boxers. This is kind of embarrassing to share, now that I think about it. But that’s just it: When I write, and how and where, all come together to get me to a place where I’m not thinking, where I’m lost in reverie or revelry to the point that I don’t even notice the scratch of my wife’s pencil behind me.

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Engrossed – José Angel Araguz

Grabbing a raincoat, I find a moth and ask:
What do you do here in my closet,
what of your light

to which he says: At the end of each night,
my light goes into my soul, what of
yours? The day is then

the weather’s blue colors, mirrors and rain,
that almost white where a thick darkness
blurs with a thick light.

Standing there, I see myself almost a man,
almost a moth, pieces of
a remembered face

brought up, overlapping, as if the changing face
were on old film, and that old film
played across moth wings

holding their position. Almost myself
frame by frame and without sound,
imposed on dust

for an audience. Almost my face holding
still, and face turning away. Face
of wing-wilt and wend.

Grabbing a raincoat, I found a moth and asked
myself about light, and myself answered
light; a moth

throbbed at having been found. When
my words had flickered aloud, the moth,
too, flickered,

an unknown face caught cringing, unfolding
face laughing, face
forgetting its name.

originally published in Qu

family & language

Tonight I have a reading at The Book Bin in Salem, Oregon. This reading will be my first official reading from my new book, Until We Are Level Again (Mongrel Empire Press).

until 3_300In honor of the reading, I am sharing the poem below which inspired the cover art by Ani Schreiber. Birds figure heavily in the new book, landing and taking flight like the few things I know about my father; their movement of coming and going also mirror the guesswork his absence puts into my hand.

I once worried about writing too many poems about my father’s absence, and family in general. This book – along with Small Fires (FutureCycle Press) and a newer, unpublished manuscript – serve as a kind of trilogy answer to this worry. Every poem serves as another moment in a large conversation about language and family, one in which family is language I am trying to understand. When a family member is missing in this world, the feeling is like a misplaced word. I write to turn over words for the family they show.

The Story of the Prisoner Who Made Friends with a Sparrow – José Angel Araguz

My father digging
for grubs and snails, eating
his bread only enough
to leave crumbs on his palm,
his hand out each morning
through the bars, holding out
whatever he has found
for the flutter that knows him,
the eyes that never meet his,
that look around him,
for him, a child’s eyes
almost, unable to place
or name a father,
only take
what he can spare,
and move on.

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unapologetic with Sharon Olds

I recently found myself returning to this week’s poem, “Station” by Sharon Olds, in conversation with students. Specifically, I referenced what happens in the poem as a way to describe the work writers have to do to find space and time to write. Among the themes addressed, the poem makes clear how the decisions made in balancing obligations and artistic ambitions aren’t always easy, but they are always necessary.

dock-2820217_960_720The poem presents a scene where the speaker has taken time away from parenting to write poems out on the dock by their house. The speaker describes the walk back with unapologetic clarity. The speaker’s unapologetic clarity reads like a response to being watched “with no / hint of shyness” by their partner. The tension between the necessity of the speaker’s act and the combined judgment of the partner plus the other work waiting for the speaker at home is anchored in the final line by the image of poems feeling “heavy as poached game hanging from my hands.”

Station – Sharon Olds

Coming in off the dock after writing,
I approached the house,
and saw your long grandee face
in the light of a lamp with a parchment shade
the color of flame.

An elegant hand on your beard. Your tapered
eyes found me on the lawn. You looked
as the lord looks down from a narrow window
and you are descended from lords. Calmly, with no
hint of shyness you examined me,
the wife who runs out on the dock to write
as soon as one child is in bed,
leaving the other to you.
Your long
mouth, flexible as an archer’s bow,
did not curve. We spent a long moment
in the truth of our situation, the poems
heavy as poached game hanging from my hands.

from Satan Says (University of Pittsburgh Press)

poetryamano project: march 2017

This week I’m sharing the third installment archiving my Instagram poetry project entitled @poetryamano (poetry by hand). This account focuses on sharing poems written by hand, either in longhand or more experimental forms such as erasures/blackout poems and found poems.

Below are the highlights from March 2017. This month found me moving from handwritten poems to erasures. Can’t believe I’ve been at it for over a year.

Be sure to check out the first and second installments of the archive – and if you’re on Instagram, follow @poetryamano for the full happenings.

Stay tuned next week for more of the usual Influence happenings. For now, enjoy these forays into variations on the short lyric!

poetryamano march 2017 1

3 word poems: An idea picked up from Roberto Bolaño’s novel The Savage Detectives.

poetryamano march 2017 2

poetryamano march 2017 3

poetryamano march 2017 4

poetryamano march 2017 5

poetryamano march 2017 6

One of my first erasures, trying to work out a surreal image.

poetryamano march 2017 7

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poetryamano march 2017 9

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Happy amano-ing!

José

time travel & W. S. Merwin

Screenshot_2018-01-31-17-22-38-1In the spirit of the syllabic breakthrough I mentioned last week in the poem that inspired the title for my latest collection, Until We Are Level Again (Mongrel Empire Press), I share “A Letter to Su T’ung Po” by W. S. Merwin. Merwin has been an inspiration for over a decade. His lyric insight and meditative verve worked through in syllabics made me ambitious and had me counting mine own syllables regularly. The poem below is a fine example of how sometimes the words fall into place how we need them.

Revising from old journals earlier this week, I discovered the following note I made underneath where I had written out Merwin’s poem by hand. I share it now as a way to mingle with the time travel implied in the title and content of the poem:

I heard Merwin read this poem a week after filing for divorce from my first marriage. Ani was with me , both of us full of questions. This poem is a river in itself. The last line crosses centuries in a gasp, like one stepping away from the face of a river.

A Letter to Su T’ung Po – W. S. Merwin 

Almost a thousand years later
I am asking the same questions
you did the ones you kept finding
yourself returning to as though
nothing had changed except the tone
of their echo growing deeper
and what you knew of the coming
of age before you had grown old
I do not know any more now
than you did then about what you
were asking as I sit at night
above the hushed valley thinking
of you on your river that one
bright sheet of moonlight in the dream
of the water birds and I hear
the silence after your questions
how old are the questions tonight

from The Shadow of Sirius (Copper Canyon Press, 2009)