Tuesday, May 3, 2016

This Blue Novel: An interview with Valerie Mejer Caso



This Blue Novel

by Valerie Mejer Caso and
translated from the Spanish by Michelle Gil-Montero
interview by Ae Hee Lee

On the preface of This Blue Novel, Raúl Zurita writes “My experience with Valerie Mejer Caso was one of startling revelation, of wonder: I knew nothing of her book, and hardly an hour later closing it, my life was another.” And indeed, Mejer’s poetry does more than address the subjects of homes, family linage, and identity— it revisits and reinvents memory. It is a poetic narrative of weaving loss and hope, past and future. One that surpasses “the logic of the world.”
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Note: The book by itself was a delight to read, but the answers Mejer gave me for this interview threw another yet wonderful light upon my reading of her poems. There was so much wisdom and poetry in the process of gleaning and creating this book that I could but admire and reflect. I realized her answers were like the blue in this book, a water lamp that illuminated every word and memory, drowning it and saving it at the same time.

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  1. A family tree of open mouths
seeps the dizziness of time. (45)

To large extent This Blue Novel is described as autobiographic. And we notice several family members of different nationalities (German, Spanish, etc.) making an appearance. To start this interview off, could you tell us more about your heritage and how you were inspired you, or maybe even drove you, to write this book?

I still have the notes I wrote down before writing the book. I did this for three books, I drew or outlined them beforehand, thought about their systems. This Blue Novel was also created this way. Zurita has repeatedly told me in many occasions an incredible phrase by Pacheco: “The past is a foreign country, the people there do strange things.” Now if to this we add that these people are not only foreign because they exist in the past but because in fact they were... they become doubly foreign to my understanding, as they were figures I had known in their old age and of whose past splendor I was aware of, “but I did not know them.”

Look, this is what I wrote on my notes: “the purpose of this book of poetry titled This Blue Novel is very simple: tell my story, the story of my mother, the story of my father and their respective genealogies. Tell what happened in the three houses of my childhood: my house, the house of the mother of my father, and the house of the mother of my mother.

When you are a child, the events have a phenomenological halo, that is, you see them pass by you and you don’t understand them. This book, then, has the intention of revealing the events of my childhood, of connecting this amorphous phenomena, beautiful, tragic; of tracing between them invisible strings that in their togetherness make a novel, using a poetic point of view, the mythology of this family of immigrants.

When I was a child and I would see my German grandfather eat a raw egg at 4 a.m., destine a gigantic room to set a collection of ships; when I would see my grandmother from my mother’s side (Luz) copy paintings by Goya everyday from 5 to 7, these actions were the phenomena, because they did not belong to the logic of the world, but to a poetic universe.

On the other hand, there were the stories I would listen to as a child: one day, after 8 months of being married, my grand uncle and aunt were returning from mass when they were caught in a shootout related to the Cristero War, which he had been involved with. My grand uncle fell onto my grand aunt’s lap, she moved the body and ran to the home she lived in with her ten siblings, she shoved her hand into the coat to take out the keys, and took out instead her husband’s eye. That eye occupied a central place in the imaginary map of my childhood: how did it slip into the pocket, how did the eye transform into the key, that is, in all these stories I found a poetic dimension to those phenomena without logic. My family, these people I did not know, the things they did, the inexplicable part of their lives and actions, are the crucial ingredients that will construct the plot of this book.”

A last thing regarding how I had already been a kind of spectator of them and how there were enormous gaps in their stories— writing a book presented me with the possibility of embodying them, of turning them into proper nouns. “I will introduce you to my dead,// one by one” I say at one point.

  1. Starting from the very title of the book, “This Blue Novel” is a phrase is peppered throughout the collection of poems. Breaking the fourth wall constantly, the book references itself various times:
And at the end of the autopsy,
at the door to our room at the Golden Motel: this blue novel, (29)

This created for me a fascinating effect of the blue novel weaving itself into existence. Could you tell us about how you approached working with the individual poems as you envisioned them as a collection, that is, this blue novel?

To start, this is what I wrote back then: “The fact that the title of the book includes the demonstrative “This” hopes to give the feeling that this book, that is to say, this mythology, has already been written in the sense that everything it talks about has already happened.” And that feeling I had in writing the book influenced, I think, the fact that I wrote the book as if it were really already written.

My daughter was very young, I had little time, and I locked myself up in two occasions in order to write it. Without crossing anything off or erasing it, as if I were simply reading it instead. In my first try, I covered my father’s family, in my second, which I think it goes from section XI to XXV, my mother’s and that final elegy in which the ships sink. “Two houses sink like ships”... and that is why the book starts saying “They sink, I ascend.”

But I also see that in that apparition in the line you mention is the fragment that occurs in Texas. It was a frightening journey in which we accompanied my father to buy weapons, and I think it was then that the idea that one day I would write became related to my survival. This is why I put it there, never have I ever been in need of more saving than then. And what was going to save me was my own book. I think later I was much affected by that novel by Unamuno, which he called “una nivola” instead of “una novela,” Abel Sanchez, where the character rebels against the author. This is in a secondary way, but I recall having read it many times in the fascination of discovering a new way of writing.

  1. Time is a subject that hovers over the entirety of This Blue Novel. In my reading, I found it breaks the conventions of linear narrative, challenging the traditional connotations of a novel, and it creates a poetic space of past and present in which stories of objects and the house go hand in hand with prophecies:
            It already happened (but not on this page).
It will happen as right words arrive.
The date will arrive. The dart will fly.
Meanwhile, fog circles my waist. (115)

Other times, time also seems to loop in the page. For instance, the speaker cannot seem to escape Sunday. It comes again and again:

I knew the infinite was flat, with no distinctive smell
in the pool, on the road, in the desert,
that white arithmetic, miles from all piano… Is it Sunday again? (27)

How did you visualize time in the scope of your life and the book? What kind of role did you see it taking as you wrote the book?

What comes to mind is an incredible phrase in Forrest Gander’s novel As a Friend (a novel that has a poem at its core): “Time is what the stars shine through.” I think that in the physicality of poetry and literature, time is the great subject of study. In my case I think I made it into a character. It turns into such, little by little, from when you are a child: you feel an hour passed as if it were five minutes, and that one minute felt eternal… and it starts to become a question mark. And later it never stops being one, and even more so when existence happens in time.
I also think that one of the most important books in my life is “Sculpting in Time” by Tarkovsky, a book that seemed more about how poetry works than any other theories directly addressing poetry. I think it is a way of flooding, of seeing that life. I think it is a way of tackling/confronting how life, like cinema, occurs in a medium, time, which we are ignorant of. We try to take it in all at once, as I specifically did in this book.

On the flipside, there are the dates. I found I wrote about these in a note that existed before the book: “The dates will be very important like markers throughout the poem, as they will indicate the places in time where events happened and ended up being milestones in the stories of these families. The dates are clean daggers that write a text in another language. Fatality is a date because it was a Wednesday when the library of my grandmother’s house caught on fire, and from then on that date became a milestone, it crystallized. In this the book, the date will approach itself as if it were an object in itself.” I think that tragedies are what make of time something else, they encapsulate it. In the last section of the book I have this feeling “There is fate, beginning that Wednesday,” “Fatality is just a date” and phrases in a similar vein accumulated in section XXIV, when the library burned.

  1. The Blue Novel invents nothing. Neither is everything true.                         Its wildest improbability is life. (31)
This is probably one of my favorite moments in the book. You also wrote in the postscript “History enters with the image,” which caught my attention in a different way. It made me want to ask: how would you say you reconcile the relationship between truth in those memories that dwell in the mind, the concrete pictures that photographs offer (which are so wonderfully woven into the book), and the surreal imagery you paint? Or maybe you think it is not necessary to reconcile at all?

It is an important fact that I did not have access to the pictures that appear in this book until two years after I published it in Spanish. It was when I returned to see Maria Cristina Caso, to whom the postscript is dedicated. Upon reading the book, she gave me the photographs. Maria Crisitna my aunt and her daughter, also called Maria Cristina, were “corroborating” the story, recognizing the stories in the images. I think when I said “History enters with an image” it has to do with the process of memory. In the back cover’s inside there is the photo of children petting a deer, and next to it, a dog. They were the pets of the house, and it was maybe 1924. The younger of the sisters of my Grandmother Luz (the one who made copies of Goya and to whom I dedicated this book) is called Teresa, and she had been born in the year when the revolution was coming to an end but when the Spanish flu was making its way in. These children grew up with a mental injury, and remained children forever. All of this brings me back to the deer, which one day came into the house and broke something that was important to my great-grandmother, and then when Tita (Teresa) walked into the kitchen, they were beheading it. From then on, Tita did a hand gesture that pretended to be a knife on her own neck every time someone died… People who had died from then on, were referenced with this gesture as well. Her father who died in the sugar plant, Ramón who dinned so much a Christmas thirteen years ago and was found dead in the morning. In the book, a deer crosses the garden without a head. I think that’s what they said, that the body kept walking for a moment.

This happened not a week after a headless deer
ran through the garden.
In this house, the true stories seem like dreams.

“She is real only to the point where I can imagine her” writes Gloria Gervitz about her mother in her book Migraciones. This is of course a point of paradox between the real and the surreal. I recall that book that Lorca’s sister wrote clarifying that almost everything that her brother had written “had really happened.” This is what I proposed to myself about reality before writing This Blue Novel:

In This Blue Novel, the words will form connections that currently are nothing but empty spaces in my memory. In this way, with the necessity of revealing these lacunae, these vacuums, between story and story, this book happens not in the known stories but in the effort of going through them, of embroidering all of that unknown territory.

“In my house the dead were more than the living,” writes Octavio Paz in his book Pasado en Claro. The objects belonging to my father’s first wife surrounded my childhood. She died while giving birth her first child, which is why I never met her. She is one of those dead that were more than the living. The invention of these unknown living and dead with whom I grew up is one of the purposes of this book. Only the poetic language can trace reasons and connections between all these events.

What I do know is that this story ended in tragedy, but this tragedy is only the denouement: my father destroyed all the ships in my grandfather’s collection. This tragedy, like all tragedies, asks why? And I chose the poetic route to answer the question. This is like what Paul Auster does in his book The Invention of Solitude. From this same question that emerged from the way his grandmother murdered his grandfather, that is, from a tragedy, the author dedicates himself throughout his book to attempt to write the portrait of an invisible man, inaccessible, a man who had been his father and whom he did not know. Auster chooses prose to write it all, absolutely everything that he remembers in relation to his father. I would choose poetry as my medium.

This book of poetry starts when the denouement of this tragedy is already inevitable: my father has already destroyed that large collection of ships that belonged to his father, my mother has already died from cancer. The image that would best describe would be that of encountering a box of damaged photos and make sense of the fragments through words. In this sense, the book doesn’t have truth as purpose: “Language is not equivalent to truth; it is our way of existing in this world,” writes Auster in the Invention of Solitude.
  
  1. Translator Michelle Gil-Montero expressed her thoughts about the “blue” in the book, the azul. In her own words, the Spanish word for the color “in fact comes from, ‘lapis lazuli,’ whose own etymology conflates stone and sea and sky…” To this she adds the blue of fire and the blue of death. For my part, I have always associated azul with the color of the fantastic and fairytales. And indeed, the book refers to Snow White and the Hunter, Hansel and Gretel, Christian Saints, characters from Greek and Roman Mythology, and more. The more I read, the more I felt you inserted the seemingly unreal to real living spaces and lives. This long introduction boils down to me being very interested in hearing more about the color azul and what it means to you.
 I think that an invention in the moment in which it occurs comes from multiple places, all of the ones you mention, but the fact is that when I told myself the title would be “This… blue… novel” the blue appeared alone. In this book the title existed before any of the poems. All of the epigraphs in this book elucidate the references (debts) that were already existing for me. These are some of them:

The houses are all gone under the sea. – T.S.Eliot            

Le bleu est une couleur propice à la disparition. – Jean Michel Maulpoix  

 ¡Todo a voces azules el secreto de su infantil mecánica! – José Gorostiza

And to end, I think the one by Eliot became the main key: the houses sank in the blue of the sea. The book then could not be anything else but blue.

  1. I am aware you are a translator yourself, having translated works such as Tremble, Temblar by C.D Wright and Apalaquia, Apalachia by Charles Wright, and Torn Awake, Arrancado del Sueño by Forrest Gander (2005). Could you also tell us how did you find yourself as a writer and translator engaging with the published translation of your work? Especially as you write in This Blue Novel that “English is a language of water and good for recounting disasters” (31).       
The violent family spoke in English. This is why they returned to that scene, making the whole first part of the book return to its original medium for me. And Michelle Gil Montero was someone whom C.D. Wright asked to do this translation. And I think among the innumerable debts that I have with C.D. that I will never be able to pay back, there is the one in which she picked Montero, who not only did a detailed job but also did so with a great perspective on the ensemble, and with an artfulness that made the broken cup in this book one that could be drank from.
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Painter and poet Valerie Mejer was born in Mexico City. Her poems explore containment and fragility, layering loss and possibility over a once-familiar landscape. She is the author of the poetry collections THIS BLUE NOVEL (Action Books, 2015), translated by Michelle Gil-Montero, RAIN OF THE FUTURE (Action Books, 2013), translated by C.D. Wright, Forrest Gander, and Alexandra Zelman; de la ola, el atajo (2009); Geografías de Niebla (2008); Esta Novela Azul(2004), which was translated by Michelle Gil-Montero as This Blue Novel (2013); and Ante el Ojo de Cíclope (1999). Her book De Elefante a Elefante (1997) won the Spanish Government's "Gerardo Diego 1966" International Award. Her etchings appear in Raúl Zurita's Los Boteros de la Noche (2010), and her paintings appear in Forrest Gander's Ligaduras/Ligatures (2012) and in Antonio Prete's Menhir (2007) and L'imperfection de la Lune (2007). Mejer is also the recipient of two CONACULTA grants as well as a grant from Sistema Estatal de Creadores for her translations of Australian poet Les Murray's work.

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Ae Hee Lee is a South Korean by birth and Peruvian by heart and memory. She is currently an MFA candidate in the creative writing program of The University of Notre Dame and works as a graduate assistant for the university’s Institute of Latino Studies. You can find (or will find) her poetry in Dialogue, Cha, Cobalt, Spark: A Creative Anthology, Ruminate, Day One, Silver Birch Press, and The Margins.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

LETRAS LATINAS is pleased to announce....

Felicia Zamora


Felicia Zamora wins 2016 Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize

Letras Latinas, the literary initiative at the University of Notre Dame’s Institute for Latino Studies is pleased to announce Felicia Zamora of Fort Collins, Colorado as the winner of the seventh edition of the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize—an initiative which supports the publication of a first book by a Latino/a poet residing in the United States. Noted poet, Edwin Torres, was the judge.

In its constant unhurried evolution, Zamora has crafted a work that celebrates the impact of form as human revolution — the poem’s breath, the poet’s body — passing over time in a landscape thirsty for passage. The lungs between the lines, one continuous vertibration, page to page, word to other. Zamora’s reminder, is to affect each part of the poem by the organized assemblage of its gathering. Implementing a profoundly gentle humanity that connects to the shifting external across borders, continuously returning to invention — with a charge to the ‘think’, a dare to the heart, that brings the reader to the reader’s own voice. With a language that lives to be lived, she brings about ‘other’ as ‘in’ — to affect change by knowing that change needs to happen underneath our organized paradigms, beneath layers of cognition. This is quietly revolutionary work that throws a gauntlet to the social diaspora. A living palimpsest to newly awaken our social engagement by breathing in a simultaneity of opposing forces — as tectonic plates of hearing that create new fissures inside the unfolding kinetic,” read Torres’ award citation.

Felicia Zamora is the winner of the 2015 Tomaž Šalamun Prize from Verse, and author of the chapbooks Imbibe {et alia} here (Dancing Girl Press 2016) and Moby-Dick Made Me Do It (2010). Her published works may be found or forthcoming in Bellevue Literary Review, BOMB, Camas, Cimarron Review, Columbia Poetry Review, Crazyhorse, Dogwood: A Journal of Poetry and Prose, ellipsis…literature and art, Harpur Palate, Hotel Amerika, Indiana Review, Juked, Meridian, North American Review, Phoebe, Pleiades, Potomac Review, Puerto del Sol, Tarpaulin Sky Magazine, The Burnside Review, The Carolina Quarterly, The Cincinnati Review, The Laurel Review, The Journal online, The Normal School, The Pinch Journal, TriQuarterly Review, Witness Magazine, West Branch, and others. She is an associate poetry editor for the Colorado Review and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Colorado State University.  

“This prize is a huge honor for me. The work of Letras Latinas and the Institute of Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame impacts Latino/a poetry around the country, and for an emerging poet like myself, helps bring dreams into fruition,” said Zamora.

Zamora’s winning manuscript, Of Form & Gather, will be published in 2017 by University of Notre Dame Press.


Letras Latinas strives to enhance the visibility, appreciation and study of Latino literature both on and off the campus of the University of Notre Dame, with an emphasis on programs that support newer voices and foster a sense of community among writers.

Friday, April 1, 2016

LETRAS LATINAS is pleased to announce...


Joe Jiménez wins Letras Latinas/Red Hen Poetry Prize


Joe Jiménez  


Letras Latinas, the literary initiative at the University of Notre Dame’s Institute for Latino Studies, and Red Hen Press, the Los Angeles area literary press, are pleased to jointly announce Joe Jiménez of San Antonio, Texas as the winner of the Letras Latinas/Red Hen Poetry Prize—an initiative which supports the publication of a second or third book by a Latino/a poet residing in the United States. Noted writer and critic, Rigoberto González, was the judge.

“Joe Jiménez’s poetry shimmers with arresting imagery and light, but its beauty is hard-won—a victory song celebrating the bittersweet journey of one who inhabits the queer space inside the Chicano heart. Among the many graces of this book manuscript is that its language feels at home in serene desert vistas and on explosive barrio streets. It recognizes guidance from the living and the dead, and its breath aches with longing and comforts like prayer,” read González’s award citation. 

Joe Jiménez is the author of, The Possibilities of Mud (Korima Press, 2014), as well as the chapbook, A Silver Homebody Flicka Illuminates the San Juan Courts at Dawn, recipient of the 2011 Gertrude Press Poetry Chapbook Prize. In 2012 he was the recipient of the Alfredo Cisneros del Moral Poetry Prize. His YA novel, Bloodline, is forthcoming from Arte Público Press later this spring. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles and is a member of the Macondo Writers Workshop in San Antonio, where he resides and teaches.

News of Jiménez’s win prompted Poet Laureate of Texas, Laurie Ann Guerrero, to offer these thoughts on his poetry: “Joe Jiménez’s vulnerabilities and raw truths mark the fecundity of and fluidity of masculinity. His is the work of a broken-open, risk-taking documentarian and demands that his reader enter openhearted as well. I am overjoyed that his work will now be in the hands of so many and, too, that we get to call him one of our own.”

Jiménez is the first Chicano/a poet to win the Letras Latinas /Red Hen Poetry Prize. Founded in 2012, the Prize’s previous winners have been DC-based Cuban American poet Dan Vera, Salvadoran-born, Los Angeles-based poet, William Archila, and Argentine-born, New Jersey-based poet Ruth Irupé Sanabria. "The fact that our winners, so far, come from such varied backgrounds speaks, I think, to the rich diversity of voices emerging from Latino communities across the United States," said Francisco Aragón, director of Letras Latinas and faculty member at Notre Dame's Institute for Latino Studies. "But I'm also pleased to have Joe join this list not only because of his fine poetry, but because of the work he does with youth. He's slated to teach the first ever Macondo Writers Workshop for youth this summer."

“I am grateful for this opportunity to bring attention to the part of the world I am from.  Deeply, and with each of my bones, I love South Texas, and these poems, from the alligator gar and the cotton field rattlesnake, to the armadillo and the half-human owl, push me to question the loneliness of men, to ask the man I have been about the one I am becoming. I hope these poems stir thoughts and questions and joys, sadnesses even, because I believe life is richer when we ask these things of ourselves,” said Jiménez, after learning his manuscript had been singled out by González.

Red Hen Managing Editor Kate Gale said of the award, “We are proud of our partnership with Letras Latinas and to be publishing the groundbreaking work of Joe Jiménez.”

Jiménez’s award-winning manuscript will be published in the spring of 2019. In the spring of 2017, Ruth Irupé Sanabria’s Beasts Behave in Foreign Land, selected by Lorna Dee Cervantes, is slated for publication.

Letras Latinas strives to enhance the visibility, appreciation and study of Latino literature both on and off the campus of the University of Notre Dame, with an emphasis on programs that support newer voices and foster a sense of community among writers.


Red Hen Press is committed to publishing works of literary excellence, supporting diversity , and promoting literacy in our local schools. We a community of readers and writers who are actively engaged in the essential human practice known as literature.