microreview & interview: Zarzamora by Vincent Cooper

review by José Angel Araguz

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Vincent Cooper’s Zarzamora: Poetry of Survival (Jade Publishing, 2019) is a collection grounded in the great traditions of Chicano poetry. These poems recall the immersive narratives of Jimmy Santiago Baca and Luis J. Rodriguez along with the image-driven lyricism of Gary Soto’s early work. What sets Cooper’s work apart is the distinct perspective of his poetic sensisbility. Whether through dream or memory, Cooper’s visceral lyricism catalogues as well as captures life on and beyond Zarzamora Street.

The collection’s title invites a fitting metaphor. The word zarzamora translates to blackberry which immediately sets one thinking in terms of bramble and tangled overgrowth. Instead of a traditional family tree, these poems deal with family as a similar sprawling entity. Stories of uncles and brothers are engaged in a way that explores a necessary public toughness as well as private depths.

The death of one uncle in particular, Danny, serves as a catalyst for the aforementioned duality, forcing family to open up and reach out to one another. “Five Bullets,” for example, describes a speaker and brother meeeting for “beers and plática,” a ritual public act haunted by personal tragedy. One can feel this haunting in the following stanza:

“I can’t believe Danny is dead,” he blurts.
Surprised, mid-drink, I assent.
The restaurant darkens
and warps into The San Fernando Cememtery.
Bar stools become tombstones.
We dive into Uncle Danny’s uncovered grave.
Stand on his casket
together. Speaking the sacred to the public
worms watching from the niches of the Earth.

This surrealistic blurring and change of scene evokes how sudden memories can come and take over one’s reverie. A similar move occurs in the poem’s ending lines describing a moment as the two men leave the bar: “I leave a tip, as if / a handful of dirt.” Lines like these show how death can color daily life. This imaginative space where memory and feeling blur is where Cooper’s poetic sensibility flourishes.

As much as Danny’s death haunts the speaker of these poems, Danny’s own voice — present in the collection through letters written from prison — serves to further the experience, countering meditations on the life lived with the living presence granted by words. In these letters, the somber, straightforward tone of the poems is checked and challenged by Danny meditating in an imaginative space of his own. Writing from prison, Danny meditates on his own past as well as reaches out and, through his advice to the poet, gestures towards the future.

In one early letter, Danny reflects on family not writing to him:

“Some people have a hard time writing and others like me and you can express ourselves better in writing. Anyway, it doesn’t mean they love us any less because they don’t write. It’s just part of who they are.”

There is a power to this statement that speaks to the heart of the collection. On one level, Danny is working through the complicated feelings of not receiving word from people he cares about; on another level, he is defining the space between him and the poet. In naming “part of who they are” as not being able to express themselves in writing, there’s the implied naming of a part of who Danny and the poet are, a part of them able to honor life through words. As Zarzamora moves through its poems of varied voices and recollections, Cooper’s poetic mission runs parallel to Danny’s epistolary one. Both men are seeking to understand and hold onto lives often overshadowed by death and misunderstanding.

Through unflinching honesty and nuanced lyricism, Zarzamora stands as a testament to the personal lives involved in the poems while also honoring Chicano identity. In this book, Cooper represents narratives and voices often overlooked through poems that evoke their necessary human presence. “Brazos” (below), is a good example of what I mean. Through some riffing with tropes associated with the devil, this poem works out a real sense of the high stakes reckoned with in the world of this book.

Brazos – Vincent Cooper

The devil danced with the most the beautiful
women in the room
before they noticed his feet.
He ran away from the chicanos who chased him
into the bathroom
of the baile where
he vanished,
and Sulphur remained.

He crept behind children playing little league,
hid under the bed of chicano lovers making love,
and laughed in our faces during the depression
of our lives…

And he was present when my Tíos died.
We whispered I love you’s into Mike’s ear
while the devil was massaging Mike’s bare feet.
Saying, “He can’t hear you.”
Told Tony to leave the house
and meet five bullets down the street.
Laughing and swimming in Tony’s pool of blood.
He picked up Danny off the toilet
and threw him onto the living room floor without
air to breathe.
He rode shotgun with Jody.
Infected him with AIDS
watched Jody rot in a prison cell.

He had been present at all our miseries
because the reckless familia
only knows to live on the thinnest edge of life and
death.
Every day with a methadone trip
and heroin and liquor
and worst of all “love.”

They made a fungus of love,
mildew smiles.
Black rotted teeth.
Honey brown chests
with Old English tattoos, on
spore covered stomach muscles.
Their drunken killer smiles dimpled,
telling stories,
our brazos wrapped around their shoulders.
We, the naive, craved their empty promises.
We were naive.

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

Vincent Cooper: I knew, even as a child that I was witnessing something artistic, conversations and other moments resonated. Years ago, a poet said that the first poets you encounter are your tios, tias and primos. This is absolutely correct in my case. My where is South Texas/ Southern California. What I heard were uncles singing and telling jokes. Brown men playing basketball here in the barrio is what I saw. Old schoolers dressed in guayaberas n’ Stacy’s clacking. Smelling like barbecue, tortillas burning on the comal, Old Milwaukee or Schaefer beer and sweat. Some comments or praise I’ve received is “Thank you for sharing personal experiences.” The only thing I can do is write a true and honest account of my experience. I write about being here in the barrio and about missing the barrio. My community. I don’t understand why this wouldn’t be for the literary canon. I write the way I remember it. This is simply the life that we have here in San Antonio.

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

Vincent Cooper: I am a masochist. The wheels have to be spinning already. There has to be a poem manifesting, prompted by a scene, memory, other writings. It might be an encounter with a relative that will trigger a poem –and it’s typically a negative thing happening that spurs the main idea to the poem. I don’t naturally just go sit at a desk and start typing up a million words. These poems in Zarzamora go back about 10 years. Right around the death of my Uncle Mike, I wrote pages of Westside San Antonio poetry. I debated writing these poems as prose or even as a novel. The narrative style is how I’ve written for at least 20 years. Initial edits by Viktoria made these bits of narrative into poetry. The voice and story was there but she taught me about breath, line breaks –or no line break, etc. She handed me books by Lucille Clifton and Li Young Lee too help build up and process.

Offending relatives was something that crossed my mind and I did remove poems, stories, and letters from Zarzamora. There was one letter where my uncle Danny had written racist comments. He was trying to stick up for me, or cheer me up, regarding an incident that happened in school. I think my relatives who’ve not even purchased the book are probably still offended, but I know this book is my experience not theirs.

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Special thanks to Vincent Cooper for participating! To keep up with Cooper’s work, follow him on Twitter: @vinnycoop13. Copies of Zarzamora can be purchased from Jade Publishing.

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Vincent Cooper is the author of Zarzamora – Poetry of Survival and Where the Reckless Ones Come to Die. His poetry can also be found in Huizache 6, Huizache 8, The Acentos Review and Riversedge Journal. His forthcoming manuscript The Other Side of Semper Fi chronicle’s his tumultuous stint in the Marines pre/post America- 9/11.

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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 –

poetryamano project: june 2017

This week I’m sharing another 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 highlights from June 2017. This month found me going further with erasures. Along with continuing to work out of a true crime book, I also did three tarot-themed erasures.

Be sure to check out the previous 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!

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[On the above two pictures: The Hanged Man was the first card I felt connected with in tarot. My wife drew it for me before a trip during a difficult time in my life. I was to be on my own, and the card asked me to ground myself (thaw out) in my writing. It was a powerful experience.]

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june 2017 3

[On the above picture: Found poem made, literally, by hand (my hand’s blocking the rest of the text).]

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[On the above two pictures: Continuing with the tarot-themed erasures, here is IX The Hermit. I’m connected to this card in three ways, and its message of being a beacon for others means a lot to me, especially during times where I find myself naturally at a distance from others, or simply not fitting in. My wife took the card photo in answer to the question “Which card would you date?” Bless her for hanging out with me on the mountain. Also: My big ol’ noggin is in caricature in the background of the second pic! ]

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[On the above two pictures: Another tarot-themed erasure, this time focusing on the Chariot and the idea of motion in my writing. That each poem is a response to a belief, in the word and myself.]

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june 2017 7

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Happy amano-ing!

José

The Writing Life: TV interview

Screenshot_2018-01-31-17-22-38-1This week I’m excited to share an interview I did over this past summer as a guest on Stephen Long’s show The Writing Life.

In this interview, I talk a bit about my history with the Spanish language, from it being my first language as a child and the one I learned to pray in and still speak with my family in, to finding my way into written Spanish. This relationship with moving between language on the air to language in print parallels the relationship I have between my two tongues.

During the interview, I share the poems “Thank You For Not Smoking: una traducción práctica” published at Hinchas de Poesía and “Speaking Spanish in NYC” published in Glass: A Journal of Poetry. The latter poem is also part of my latest collection, Until We Are Level Again (Mongrel Empire Press).

Enjoy!

 

one more from José Olivarez

olivarezIn my recent microreview & interview of José Olivarez’s Citizen Illegal (Haymarket Books), I noted some of the ways the collection interrogates the multiple dualities of the Latinx, specifically Mexican-American, experience. Through word play and rhetorical moves, Olivarez uses his gift of speaking about narratives that often get neglected to present the nuances of language as well as life.

In “My Parents Fold Like Luggage” (below), the speaker is in story mode, presenting a fabulistic interpretation of his parents crossing over the U.S.-Mexico border. It is a narrative of risk as much as deception; these two sources of tension are presented through the speaker’s point of view through the metaphor of folding. Informed by memory, distance, and imagination, this folding turns out some rich moments of language:

my parents protect this moment. this now.
what folds them into the trunk of a Tercel.
the belief that the folding will end.

it doesn’t. dollars fold into bills. my parents
near breaking. broke.

Here, human breaking is folded into financial breaking. So much is riding on this fraught vulnerability, both in the moment and in the larger picture. The distinct punctuation and use of variations on “break” do a great job of evoking what is at stake. One finds a similar turn in the poem’s ending:

from the sky, it is impossible
to hear whether my parents cheer or pray
as the car steals north.

The key word here is “steals,” a word that nods toward the risk and deception of the narrative. Yet it’s the context, “from the sky,” that renders this ending heartbreaking. Not being able to “hear” from the distance of memory creates an engaging ambiguity. In not knowing if they “cheer or pray,” the poem allows those words to live side by side in the poem and moment.

My Parents Fold Like Luggage – José Olivarez

my parents fold like luggage
into the trunk of a Toyota Tercel.
stars glitter against a black sky.
from the sky, the Tercel is a small lady

bug traveling north. from the sky,
borders do not exist. the Tercel stops
in front of a man in green. stars glitter
like broken glass. the night so heavy

it chokes. in the trunk, it is starless.
my parents protect this moment. this now.
what folds them into the trunk of a Tercel.
the belief that the folding will end.

it doesn’t. dollars fold into bills. my parents
near breaking. broke. they protect what might
unfold them to discover they are six:
a family.  if the man in green opens the trunk,

the road folds back. this moment & everything
that follows disappears into the ink of a police report.
why doesn’t he open the trunk? my parents say
god blessed us. maybe they are right,

but i think about that night & wonder where
god was—a million miles away in the stars,
in the shared breath between my parents, maybe
everywhere. maybe nowhere. from the sky,

the man in green is so small it is impossible
to see him wave. from the sky, it is impossible
to hear whether my parents cheer or pray
as the car steals north.

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To learn about José Olivarez’s work, check out his site.

microreview & interview: Citizen Illegal by José Olivarez

review by José Angel Araguz

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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.

José Antonio Rodriguez’s House Built on Ashes

house built on ashesThis week I had the distinct pleasure of having poet and essayist José Antonio Rodriguez video-conference into my current creative nonfiction class here at Linfield College. We discussed his memoir House Built on Ashes (Oklahoma University Press),  a collection of lyrical essays that delves into his childhood memories, interrogating them for the stories and insights behind them. The essays range in topics from the intersection of the immigrant experience and borderland culture to sexual identity and social class dynamics. What makes the collection richly compelling, however, is how Rodriguez’s writing makes such complex topics human and intimate.

In class discussion before Rodriguez’s virtual visit, I shared the following excerpt from an interview with Rodriguez on the Letras Latinas Blog:

[TK]: Each story has thought-provoking endings that capture José’s feelings about each episode…How did you choose which aspects informed the final lines of the narrative? In hindsight, what importance do you attach to formative thoughts such as these during your journey to adulthood?

[JAC]: Well, I’m a big fan of ambiguity because it highlights moments of uncertainty or doubt in the narrator’s mind, moments that I think are valuable and generative for all individuals. I feel that society keeps pushing us past these moments of uncertainty, keeps ushering us into answers and certainty because that’s supposed to communicate strength and resolve; so those endings are a bit of resistance against that push and a way of communicating this particular narrator’s every-present sense of conflict or uncertainty with the world around him. About their importance, I think many times those thoughts were brief and transitory because life was coming at the narrator from every direction, but they left a trace of potential or possibility, and that capacity to imagine other ways that one might confront a situation or react to it, is their greatest gift to the narrator. To me. It is a great irony that often that which estranges us from our environment allows for the possibility of better powers of observation, which is integral to writing. I was pushed to the margins or estranged from the environment in so many ways, that I was left observing the world rather than fully being in it.

What Rodriguez says here about using ambiguity as a way to remain in uncertainty and, thus, subvert society’s expectation to move away from uncertainty and have things end neatly is a powerful lesson in how to have art and politics meet without one sacrificing the other. This move also invites the reader closer to the experience of the text and provides a space to dwell on complex feelings rather than turn away from them, a turning away that in creative nonfiction can read as false or simplistic.

I also made sure to note the moment in the interview excerpt above where a series of statements by Rodriguez about “the narrator” of his essays is interrupted with the shorter statement “To me.” This brief acknowledgement of self is a lived out example of what is at stake in creative nonfiction and the work one must do in writing it. To speak of a narrator-who-is-you and thus frame a piece this way can establish distance between the raw material and your own self at risk and alive with feelings. In this space, aesthetic moves can be made and revisions considered that lead to illuminations not afforded in real life.

In the piece below, “Open House,” one can see some of these ideas at work. The narrative of an elementary school open house braids the two worlds of the child narrator together, that of his family life and that of his education. The split across language and culture, home and aspirations, is charged by Rodriguez’s use of the present tense. The reader is brought right into the action and thoughts that propel the story. By the end, the meeting of two worlds becomes a blurring of them, to the point that the open house – which itself is an event where others go and see a place – becomes a site where the narrator himself feels the weight of being seen.

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Open House
By José Antonio Rodriguez

It is a strange sight, the school at night, aglow with light emanating from all its open doors. Amá, Luis, Yara, and I walk toward it, together. Amá begins to lag behind. We slow our pace and she catches up but eventually lags behind again, like she prefers to walk one step behind us.

In every room, we find a corner to stand in, Amá wringing her hands like she owes the room money. I tell her about how crowded the school is, built for half the number of students that now live a third of their lives in it. The teacher walks to us. In every room I translate for the teacher. In every room I translate for Amá. In every room I am a gran estudiante. The Spanish reminds me of church. The Spanish sounds foreign—talk of literature, talk of math, talk of science. In every room the white students marvel at my perfect Spanish, my Spanish without an accent, avert their eyes from my mother’s lack of English.

In every room they harbor the suspicion, hear the language, my first tongue, the telling sign that I could not be from here, that I could not be American. How they look at me, see someone they didn’t imagine.

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from House Built on Ashes (University of Oklahoma Press)

Watch a clip of this piece being read here.