Monday, January 14, 2019

Luis Alberto Urrea--POET: Letras Latinas exclusive

PEN Faulkner in Washington, D.C. will be hosting a timely conversation, "Beyond La Frontera," with Luis Alberto Urrea tonight as part of their "Literary Conversations" series. Letras Latinas Blog thought that now is as good an occasion as any to share a conversation it conducted with him----about, exclusively, his poetry:

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Convo with the author of CALIFORKYA VOLTAGE

One of the greatest pleasures of this work—directing Letras Latinas—is meeting and conversing with emerging writers. Last summer, when Letras Latinas curated nine poets for “La Plaza” at the Latino Studies Association’s conference in Washington, D.C. I had fun hanging out with Joshua Escobar (a.k.a. DJ Ashtrae). Right around that time Noemi Press was in the process of officially acquiring Escobar’s full-length manuscript for the AKRLIICA series, a joint venture with Letras Latinas. Escobar’s book is forthcoming in 2020. It merits repeating that AKRLIICA was conceived—that is, Carmen Giménez Smith and I first had the conversations about the need for such a series to exist—at the Ragdale Foundation north of Chicago at a week-long NEA-funded gathering of Latinx poet-editors from October 13-20, 2010. In addition to Carmen and myself, our group included:  J. Michael Martínez, elena minor, Roberto Harrison, Raina J. León, María Meléndez Kelson, and David Dominguez. We coined ourselves, The Ragdale 8.

Here’s Letras Latinas Blog’s photo gallery re-cap 
of that groundbreaking week nearly ten years ago:

That said, Letras Latinas Blog is now pleased to present an incisive interview with Joshua about his genre-bending chapbook Caljforkya Voltage (No, Dear/Small Anchor Press). Deepest gratitude to Mirene Arsanios for generously agreeing to conduct this conversation.

—FA, Torquay, U.K.
December 2018


JE:    JOSHUA ESCOBAR a.k.a. DJ Ashtrae

The Interview:

Thanks for writing such an evocative poem/ short-story/ playlist. I’m really intrigued by the form, maybe because when I first met you were writing fiction, and Caljforkya Voltage is a hybrid piece combining narrative sections with more poetic parts, though even that distinction feels wrong. Maybe we should think of your text as an assemblage, a sampling of experience, a playlist that accompanies the reader through a dystopian yet exhilarating landscape. Could you talk about how you landed on this form? And how the land you’re describing informs it?

When we first met, you were working on The City Outside the Sentence, which I admire deeply, and I was struggling with form. Actually, I was 22 and struggling with many things: my artistic abilities, my upbringing, my “coming out” as queer. I had thought that writing fiction would yield some resolution. However, as I penned juvenilia about my hometown, I became disillusioned. My plots seemed reductive. My sentences ended up negating meanings, half-meanings, unfinished thoughts and complex emotions. My characters’ desires eventually overshadowed my own. Meanwhile at Bard, I was talking with you, Mina Zohal, and Alex Cuff, among others, about abstraction, fear, displacement. I saw the performances of Sound artists like Colin Self, Suzanne Kite and Nathan Young, who address the destruction and depravation that their communities have faced while contributing to the radical existence of their communities through conceptual practices. My education at Bard taught me so much about embodiment. 

            So I love how you’re thinking about Caljforkya Voltage. It’s a mish mash of different kinds of writing. Its lyricism accompanies the reader through a beautiful dystopia based off of my hometown, San Bernardino (which may soon be home to the most advanced shipping industry in the world). In my early experience with American arts and letters, I had seen San Bernardino cast as an inferior place. Mike Davis, Joan Didion, David Lynch (all whose work I respect otherwise) have depicted it as fundamentally broken, haphazard, deranged. One writer, celebrated in my urban studies classes, described it as the “id of Los Angeles.” At the same time I have witnessed in San Bernardino severe poverty, civic malfeasance, homophobia, the criminalization of youthfulness, and the crushing of native subcultures. I also understand it to be the birthplace (along with London) of raves and electronic dance music. From the beginning I’ve wanted my work to energize this region, this life I feel, which is readily dispossessed. However, with such ambitions, it’s easy to become overburdened and way too serious—like my juvenilia. Plus, my purpose isn’t to address these criticisms, since folks tend to discuss San Bernardino’s problems as baldly as they do the death of American poetry. Not to mention, my life beyond San Bernardino has enabled me to write. From my hometown, I have drawn a dystopia. And I’ve created a persona, DJ Ashtrae, who operates in this world where there is no difference between nightlife and the day-to-day. I find these moves to be fruitful and empowering. My form is ornate and somewhat narrative, poetic and fictional. It frequently shifts between different registers of sound, temporality, feeling. Grammar breaks down. It’s easy to become lost, but being lost feels pleasurable. Poet Leila Ortiz describes the people and places encountered in my work as “out of context and close to the heart.” She and I write a lot about the where we’re from (She grew up on the Lower East Side). And we struggle with being Latina and Latino even as we find our cultures to be deeply joyous.  

You say so many interesting things, some of which I’d like to unpack: I’m interested in the ways in which being in an interdisciplinary program has encouraged the breaking down of genre boundaries and allowed you to shift between registers. I’m curious about the ways in which experimentation doesn’t know what it is, but follows an impulse or a logic that is often rooted in the body—its dislocation, struggles, desires. This openness or venturing outside set conventions doesn’t make it easier, quite the opposite—it requires that you make the rules of your own writing as it is happening, while looking at literary precedents, people you’re in conversation with. What I’m trying to say is that literary innovation rarely happens in a vacuum; it is supported by an artistic community that enables finding “a form for half meanings, unfinished thoughts,” etc.

            I’m straying here but I was wondering about the relationship between communities and an increasingly atomized society. I have a sense that your characters already live in a desolate, post-catastrophic or pre-apocalyptic world, while enjoying kale smoothies and beautifully sculpted bodies. Can you talk about what kind of community is possible under such conditions? 

Thanks for noting the characters! I love them fiercely. Their discipline and integrity drove me to seek something more fruitful than the retrograde coolness of the dystopian genre. 

            The dystopia of Caljforkya fascinates me. There are no capital markets, no weapons, and nobody works. Technology is dysfunctional. Oppression and catastrophe coincide. Subsiding in the chaos are the haunts and echoes of the old world. The characters understand this as history. 

            Since dystopian forces have turned the world inside out, community serves as a way to address the desolation of daily existence. Enjoying kale smoothies and beautifully sculpted bodies is not only fun. These are the very few joys that are left. Surviving in this dystopia is not based on violent domination, as it is in The Walking Dead, but on joy, ecstasy, mutual pleasure. Therefore, community restores the hope one needs to make it through another day’s, another month’s, another season’s brutalities.

Branching off my previous question, I’m really impressed by how your chapbook resists the coolness of doomsday aesthetics by insisting on history. It reminds the reader that these characters or this land are the result of a difficult migration history that no neo-liberal amnesia can’t (hopefully!) erase. Can you say more about what prompted you to insert your family narrative in the book? 

Most of Caljforkya Voltage is involved with sex and nightlife, which can seem hedonistic. However, one idea that I hope comes through is that nightlife is somewhere queer people can exist openly. So I connected this work back to my great great grandmother Trinidad in order to overcome the hedonism in my poetry and the everyday erasure of queer existence. 

            My relatives had become somewhat tired of family lore. However, they sometimes noted a photo of my great great grandfather and Pancho Villa. They didn’t say much about his wife—Trinidad—but I felt her vitality in their words. I mentioned this to my parents, who then connected me with my great tìas, Trinidad’s children. I asked them lots of questions over the phone. The most fruitful of these conversations happened on a bench in Washington Square Park. Trinindad vis-a-vis my great tìa Norma has taught me so much about love and struggle. Being queer can be so frightening, empty and disorienting. Yet, Trinidad has taught me not to avoid who I am or who I love, but to embrace them. It’s the only way to live. 

I love this, receiving advice from someone who is no longer here but whose spirit survives through stories passed down generationally. You say, “what she had to forbear, I can’t know, but she would have told me when I’m old enough that love is dangerous.” I’m interested in who you address and how.  The book opens with a content warning (Advertencia) and set of instructions, followed by a track list.  When writing Advertencia, who were your imagined readers?  The pronouns you use throughout the text—you, he, we— keep shifting. Can you talk a little about these different forms of address? How and why they keep shifting?

Advertencia is a trigger warning that discloses the sexual nature of Caljiforkya Voltage. It is also notice of precedent. In the American scene, queerness has been painted as threatening, degenerate, and worse. That’s a history I want to undermine through erotic poetry. I also want to address the fear of intimacy many gay people share. To some extent, to “come out“ now is to accept the possibility of becoming HIV positive. Maybe you have already accepted this, but what will your family and friends think? How will this affect your love life? What if you already have it? What if it transmits to someone else? Are condoms and medication the only real answer? Are you ready to deal with a world of stigma? 

            I wanted to write about a region without it consuming me. I found that using any one perspective— first, second, third person—created a hierarchy. So the pronouns shift—between I, he, we—in order to work through different limitations: of language, embodiment, feeling. I thought I could break with convention because this is our day-to-day experience. Our subjectivities expand and contract (they morph?) as we work, drive, socialize, love. 

            The pronouns keep shifting because I wanted to play with projection and performance. Are the experiences depicted in Caljforkya Voltage real? Is this a chronicle masked as art? What do we make of a voice that isn’t easy to locate? I hope my work raises these questions before it can be typecasted or dismissed.

I read Caljforya + Voltage several times and always, my reading experience is so rich, traveling though different intensities and sensations. Could you talk about the role of these sensations in shaping the narrative: I’m thinking about sleep, speed, but also colors.

Foregrounding sensation allows me to explore southern California through a gay subjectivity, and to develop pleasures that are sensual without being sexual, which I think is healthy. It generates autonomy plus plurality. If narrative unfolds through the senses, then a reader can assemble it as needed. 

            The intensities are important, essential, scrappy. They develop only through lots of creative editing. Like voltas, they can change a perspective or relationship. In the future, I want to further explore these sensations and intensities by layering them, while thinking through horizontal oppression in the Inland Empire (the IE).

And to end, can you talk about the book title? How you (mis)use spelling to poetic ends and the language/s you’re attempting to create. +++ What are you up to now? Thanks Josh!!!

The title came to me after a winter of re/connecting with artists and punks—Manny Sifuentes, the Groans and Janet Hernandez, to name a few—in the IE. I wanted to highlight the kind of energy made that exists here and stays here (versus all the labor and goods and resources depreciated, stored, and exported). 

            The misspellings and broken grammar suggest that the English language is imperfect and somewhat broken, rather than the way people use it. The misspellings and broken grammar also show that it’s possible to relate, feel, and live even if we seem to lack the means to. 

            Nowadays, I am living in the IE, making zines featuring artists in the IE & queer + p.o.c. (ig: orange.mercury). I’m teaching composition at community colleges, which is my dream. I love working with these students. Each of them has so much to teach the world. I have a chapbook coming out next spring with DoubleCross Press. I am also preparing for the launch of my first full-length book, which will be published by Letras Latinas and Noemi Press in 2020. I’ll be editing it with Suzi Garcia and Carmen Giménez Smith. Thanks for these wonderful questions, Mirene!!!


JOSHUA ESCOBAR a.k.a. DJ Ashtrae makes poetry into a kind of music. He mixes gay erotica with travelogues, interviews about the HIV epidemic with biographies of Mexican immigrants, the lyrical with the actual, English with Spanish. He is the author of Caljforkya Voltage (No, Dear/Small Anchor Press) and XXOX FM (DoubleCross Press, 2019). Bareback Nightfall, his first full-length work, will be published in 2020 by Noemi Press as part of the AKRILICA series, a co-publishing venture with Letras Latinas. He is a CantoMundo Fellow. He publishes the zine, Orange Mercury, and lives with lil’ piñata in San Bernardino, California.

MIRENE ARSANIOS is the author of the short story collection, The City Outside the Sentence (Ashkal Alwan, 2015). She has contributed essays and short stories to Vida, The Brooklyn Rail, The Rumpus, The Animated Reader, and The Outpost, among others. Her writing was featured collaboratively at the Sharjah Biennial (2017) and Venice Biennial (2017), as well as in various artist books and projects. Arsanios co-founded the collective 98weeks Research Project in Beirut and is the founding editor of Makhzin, a bilingual English/Arabic magazine for innovative writing. She teaches at Pratt Institute and holds an MFA in Writing from the Milton Avery Graduate School for the Arts at Bard College. Arsanios currently lives in New York where she was a 2016 LMCC Workspace fellow, and an ART OMI resident in fall 2017. On Friday nights you can find her at the Poetry Project where she coordinates the Friday Night reading series with Rachel Valinsky.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Fable of the Pack-Saddle Child: An Interview with Mia Leonin

Fable of the Pack-Saddle Child

an interview with Mia Leonin
conducted by Therese Marie Konopelski

Fable of the Pack-Saddle Child is an intersectional poetic narrative, a book-length variant of the long poem that challenges the stylistic boundaries of adult fiction. It is anatomically complex, incorporating qualities of poetry, prose, and image-driven story books. Indeed, one might think of Leonin's Fable as an adult fairy-tale, with textures of dream-like magical realism and concessions to the blunt realities of  life. 

We explore a Spanish-speaking sea-side village through the eyes of a ten year old, who searches for meaning in language, her neighborhood, and the figure of her unknown father. Her fresh, unassuming wonder about the world and its progressive maturation is an unidealized window into the childhood consciousness. The symbol of the winding Spanish tilde (~) guides us through Micaela's morally complex world, reflecting the lived experience of bending "highs and lows." Leonin tells a tale that defies resolution, forcing the reader to examine their notions of family, victimhood, and community. As a Peruvian-American, the context of Micaela's struggles inspired me to reflect on familiar problems that traverse the boundaries of Central and South American cultures. Fable of the Pack-Saddle Child provokes a bittersweet nostalgia of our past selves and/or that of our parents, a well of resilience and strength for the future.

-Therese Konopelski, University of Notre Dame (class of 2020)

[Therese Konopelski]: Fable of the Pack-Saddle Child is a unique poem-tale of a young girl’s life with her single mother. I was reminded of what my own mother could have been like as a child, discovering the nuances of the tilde in Lima, Peru. Who was the character of Micaela inspired by? Why is her town and culture left unnamed?

[Mia Leonin]: Fable was a long time in the making. I was raised by a single mother and I didn’t know who my father was or even that he was alive until I was sixteen. In my twenties, I started working on a long poem that explored that parent-child relationship in a single-parent family. As a younger writer, I was very drawn to persona and the dramatic monologue. Louise Gluck’s poems and her ability to communicate psychological depth and complexity through such spare, even quiet language made a huge impact. Later I discovered Ai whose use of persona was wide-ranging but always emotionally bold and unapologetically visceral. No subject was too intimate or taboo for Ai, and I think on some level, that gave me permission to write (albeit indirectly) about my “illegitimacy.” 

In very early drafts of Fable, I explored writing from the perspective of a single mother. Later, I imagined what life would be like for a father who doesn’t know his child. I created a life for him as a radio announcer with many lovers. I even wrote poems from the point of view of the lovers! Normally, the dramatic “I” would take me where I needed to go, but this poem was vexing. If it felt emotionally authentic, the structure didn’t hold up and vice versa. I would give up and then return to it. 

In that time, I wrote two other books of poems and a memoir about my family story. In my 2016 book of poems Chance Born, I explore the lives of women and children who are “hidden in plain sight” – mothers and children living in the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan, a three-year old child from South Florida who died while the Department of Children and Family Services was investigating her family for “an unrelated incident,” and others. In writing these poems, the first- person persona no longer worked. It felt false and even unethical, especially in the case of the war poems. I experimented with the third person and that allowed me the latitude and vision I needed to write those poems. I think this technical lesson on point of view paved the way for Micaela’s character. At one point, I returned to the long poem and did an exercise where I imagined her world. I saw her walking to school with a magic stone in her pocket. I saw her mother shaving a man’s face and whistling. The shift to the third person was like the turn of the key that ignited the motor. It also made me realize that in my many previous drafts, I’d forgotten the most important, or at least the most vulnerable figure in the story: the child. That’s when I knew the book would be about Micaela’s world from her perspective. The limited third person led me into her world – the imaginary and magical, the mundane and hurtful. 

I wanted her story to read as a fable, but I wanted the content to be as harsh as real life. Two films that deeply influenced me were Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth and Pablo Berger’s Blancanieves. Both films feature young girls as protagonists. Awful things happen to these children and because they are children, their agency is limited to their own resourcefulness and imagination. Many children are not spared harsh realities by virtue of being children. In the face of difficult times and even trauma, a child’s resourcefulness and her imagination can serve as vital coping mechanisms. Intervention and compassion from adults, say a teacher or grandparent, can make a huge difference in a child’s life; however, none of these are replacements for the security, stability, and loving care that is the basic human right of every child. In Fable I wanted all of these truths to co-exist. 

[Therese Konopelski]: Why is her town and culture left unnamed?

[Mia Leonin]: In regards to setting, I have known a few cities by the sea intimately: Miami, of course, where I’ve lived for over twenty years. Havana, a city I’ve travelled to many times, and Lima, Peru where my daughter’s father is from. I also visited Barcelona while on the cusp of writing this book and it made a lasting impact. I could have pulled off setting this story in Miami, Havana, or Lima, but I think the city would have become too much of a character. I was committed to Micaela’s point of view. Children her age don’t construct identity based on place. They are immersed in place. I also wrote the Spanish as very panlingual. If you know Spanish, you’ll recognize South American, Caribbean, and Miami as linguistic influences. I didn’t want the personality of one country or culture to take over the story. 

[TK]: What do you see as the relationship of prose, verse, and image in this poem? What vision did you have for the illustrations before they were commissioned? What inspired the unique aggregate narrative structure of Fable of the Pack-Saddle Child?    

[ML]: I tried to write Micaela’s perspective in lines of poetry and the mother’s (or rather adult world) in prose. I wanted the form to reflect the juxtaposition of the contradictions Micaela is living. By the end of the book as the story reaches a crescendo, those lines blur. I paid close attention to the imagery and sensual language of Micaela’s world. I had fun playing with the Ñ words. But I was also aware that mother and daughter existed in a finite world and that there was a story to be told, so I kept track of that as I wrote and edited. 

Perhaps because movies were an inspiration and because the tilde became an important symbol, I always imagined the book with illustrations. This was also the case because I wanted it to have the feel of a children’s fable. However, I did not commission illustrations. I sent the text to an amazing visual artist, Nereida García Ferraz. Nereida has a deep, abiding love for books, but she is not a book illustrator. I sent her the text and she sent me the following image back. It’s pretty amazing because that first image now strikes me as a blue print for the entire book. It’s like she captured the unconscious of the book – the shadows, the dreams, the desires, hopes, and fears all in one image. We both knew we wanted to work on the book together and thus, a fruitful conversation began between me, the already existing text, Nereida, and her art.  

"First Micaela," the first draft of the "Fable" collaboration by Nereida Garcia Ferraz

[TK]: What is the symbolism of Micaela’s dog in the poems? Is it an analogous figure representing the women upon whom equally senseless violence is inflicted through the eyes of Micaela? 

[ML]: Despite being resilient, animals and children are ultimately defenseless in the world of adults and they should be protected. I think this book was my subconscious attempt to work through the binary of vulnerability and resilience. One does not overwrite the other; yet, we are raised on the myth of American individualism and pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps survival tactics. I abhor a hero’s tale because heroes are liars. The truth is that the individual is intimately connected to a larger constellation of community, country, and consciousness and when we ignore this, we give ourselves the license to ignore human suffering. When human suffering is ignored, cruelty thrives. 

It was utterly necessary to tell this story from Micaela’s point of view. Therefore, we get glimpses of her mother’s history and relationship to trauma. I tried to find a balance between giving enough information to reveal how trauma is passed down generationally, but I held enough back to keep the focus on Micaela’s experience. Within the first few pages of the book we see that Micaela’s mother is someone who demands center stage. She is a character who could easily overtake the book. I wrote a lot of back story for her so that I would know her better, but I used (or tried at least) the precision of poetry to say as much in as few lines as possible. 

The white space in the poems allows time to breathe and digest the prose passages. For that reason, the prose passages reflect the adult world and the lines of poetry are like limbs of a tree where Micaela can crawl out and see glossy leaves and blue sky. 

"Micaela con tildes," an illustration by Nereida Garcia Ferraz

[TK]: Micaela wonders what food her father is. “Is he scrambled eggs or palomilla steak smothered in sweet Vidalia onions?” How did you cultivate the child-like perspective the novel is written in, complete with fantastical names such as Crab Man? Why is it written for adults? What interested you about the fables of pack-saddle children?

[ML]: “Pack-saddle child” is a folk etymology I came across when I was researching “bastard,” a word whose origins ironically are not fully known. Thus, the fable of such a child is made up. I was raised in a small Midwestern town where the nuclear family was the dominant social structure. Later when I moved to Miami, I met many people whose family structures had been disrupted by war, immigration, economic hardship, political strife, etc. My telenovela story of not meeting my biological father until I was nineteen was just another Miami story, which was comforting in a sense. But even though it is common, it still leaves its mark. By the time I was working on the version of Fable that was eventually published, I was more interested in how children deal with traumatic events and I was primarily interested in telling this story in the magical, sensual language of poetry. My intention is to tell this story to adults in order to stretch our empathy and understanding. I wanted to remind myself and other adults what it is to be a child – the beauty, the vulnerability, and the hurt. 

When I decided that this was Micaela’s story and that I wanted the reader to experience the world through her eyes, I set some parameters. In addition to those I’ve already mentioned, I decided none of the adults would get a name unless they were kind to Micaela. The two women who befriend her are her teacher Señora López and the neighborhood bodega owner, Doña Nina. That led me to make up nicknames for the other characters like Crab Man. 

[TK]: How does Micaela benefit differently from her two maternal figures, her mother and Señora López? Where do you see Micaela in 10 years? 

[ML]: Micaela’s future is a Rorschach inkblot test. I would like to imagine that she uses her imagination to undergird her spirit and along the way she forms bonds and she builds the family she will never have with her mother. Statistics say otherwise. Neglected and abused children are more likely to suffer from addiction and mental health issues. The neighborhood boys in the book, for example, are a microcosm of society. Ditto with Micaela and her mom. This is not just one neglectful mother and her child. This is systemic poverty. This is a culture where schools are the place where many children get their only hot meal, where teachers are often pressed into the role of counselors, nurses, parents, and more with little or no support. This is a place where sexual assault is silenced and the victims of sexual assault are left to carry their experiences in the form of silence, shame, and in the case of Micaela’s mother, acting out. She relies on her sexuality as a way to access male power.  

"Mother con tijeras," an illustration by Nereida Garcia Ferraz

[TK]: Micaela’s mother is a rather interesting figure of female independence, maternal yet still a child herself in some ways. Why did you decide to have her not play a role in Micaela’s coping process in the book? 

[ML]: Micaela doesn’t blame her mother because victims, and children in particular, don’t blame their abusers nor do they tend to blame those who play a complicit role by looking the other way. Victims blame themselves, and by “blame” I mean they absorb the shame and hurt that surrounds the event and they keep it to themselves. In Micaela’s case, she just retreats further into her fantasy world and starts to slip away.  

[TK]:What do you believe is the impact of Micaela’s sexual assault on her psyche? She seems to fixate more strongly on the tilde after this event. How does her journey to the gypsy caves help her to reclaim her identity? 

[ML]: The impact of the sexual assault is very damaging to Micaela, but she’s a child and even worse, she’s the child of a neglectful parent. I think her mother’s neglect and their lack of economic stability have as much of an effect on her as the assault, probably more. The tilde begins as a flight of fancy and a way of entertaining herself at school, but as her already tenuous world begins to unravel, the tilde becomes a character. This is another aspect of the fable form, or my version at least. The tilde on top of the Ñ comes alive and leads Micaela on her search for connections and cohesiveness in an increasingly chaotic existence. 

Micaela is very imaginative and resilient. She survives poverty, neglect, and trauma as best she can; however, I don’t think her journey helps her reclaim her identity because she is a child and her identity has yet to form. I would say, however, that her path is altered by going to the gypsy caves. Because she is trapped by her situation, the act of setting out on a journey is as important as the journey itself. She does gain some strength and agency from her visit to the caves. Still, it became clear to me as I wrote that Micaela would not be rescued by the gypsy’s or anyone else for that matter. Micaela would not be rescued. She would survive. A rescue is a moment, an event. Survival lasts a lifetime. 


Mia Leonin is the author of four poetry collections: Fable of the Pack-Saddle Child (BkMk Press), Braid, Unraveling the Bed, and Chance Born (Anhinga Press), and a memoir, Havana and Other Missing Fathers (University of Arizona Press). Leonin has been awarded fellowships from the State of Florida Department of Cultural Affairs for her poetry and creative nonfiction, two Money for Women grants by the Barbara Deming Fund, and she has been a fellow at the National Endowment for the Arts/Annenberg Institute on Theater and Musical Theater. Leonin has published poetry and creative nonfiction in New Letters, Prairie Schooner, Alaska Quarterly Review, Indiana Review, Witness, North American Review, River Styx, Chelsea, and others. She received a special mention in the 2014 Pushcart Prize anthology. Leonin teaches creative writing at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

An interview with Francisco Márquez

Francisco Márquez

After my transformative experience last summer at the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley, I was fortunate enough to forge/foment a pilot partnership between Letras Latinas and the Community of Writers. The result was the Letras Latinas Scholarship at the Community of Writers poetry workshop. What follows is an interview with the inaugural recipient: Francisco Márquez

Márquez is one of the poets whose work will be performed by a stage or film actor this coming Monday in New York at “Every Day We Get More Illegal,” a collaboration between CantoMundo and Emotive Fruition. Márquez was also recently chosen by Douglas A. Martin for the Emerge-Surface-Be fellowship, an initiative of the Poetry Project.

October 25

FA:  Francisco Aragón
FM:  Francisco Márquez


Thank you for agreeing to answer a few questions in your capacity as the recipient of the Letras Latinas Scholarship for the Community of Writers gathering at Squaw Valley last June. I experienced the gathering for the first time in 2017. I'll save my impressions for my headnote to this interview, and I don't want to bias your own response! What was it like for you, having to write a new poem every single day for a week?  Had you ever been to workshop of these characteristics? If not, how did this experience compare with other types of writing workshops you've attended?

And thank you for all the work you do with Letras Latinas! It means a great deal to me to have received the scholarship, not only for allowing me to attend but also as a validation of my work within the Latinx literary community. In regards to your question, I have been in workshops where I have had to write a poem every day and I usually don’t enjoy it. This is because the work feels forced, and then, after trying to edit it, becomes abandoned. This was very different.

I think some of it had to do with the endless Californian landscape, the silence, the poets I was lucky enough to attend it with, and the liberal amount of free time. It also differs in that most conferences or residencies will pack the experience with readings, seminars, craft talks, etc., and even though CoW did include these activities, it never felt overwhelming or like the main purpose of the conference. In fact, after workshop, I had most of the day to walk around, nap, eat, have a drink, and write throughout the day, so at night and the next morning I could organize my thoughts into something presentable. It’s rare when from a week’s worth of poems more than a few, or one, seem possible.

Finally, the community in the title definitely held true in that there wasn’t as much a hierarchical divide between attendees, or even faculty members, as I have experienced in other places. It wasn’t too difficult to get to know our teachers and I think, in turn, it made for a more trusting work space. A final detail that added trust was, because our work was often not even a draft but a fragment or simply a page of writing, we weren’t allowed to give critiques but instead gave mostly observations and reactions to the work. It restored a kind of faith in my voice when I had been feeling, previous to the conference, a bit discouraged with my work. That was definitely a huge lesson I gained.

You were kind enough to let me a have a look at 10 pages of your work before carrying out this interview. Could you share with our readers some context for this work? In other words, were these poems produced while pursuing your MFA at NYU? And speaking of NYU, how's that been for you? I've met a handful of terrific Latinx poets who have come out that program in recent years. What were some of the highlights of your time in the program?

Yes I can, and thank you for asking for them! Three-ish of the poems were written during my time at NYU and the others after. Actually, one of the poems in the packet, “Citizen,” was written while at Community of Writers. I owe a lot to NYU. It was one of the first times where I truly felt seen in a space filled with other imaginative, sensitive, good people (and poets) who didn’t seek to compete but, instead, grow as a community. I was also fortunate enough to work at the creative writing department for the two years I was there as well as at Coler-Goldwater Hospital with their fellowship program helping elderly patients with disabilities write poems. Those were highlights, particularly Goldwater, because it allowed a glimpse into why we write poems in the first place—that is, as a way of being witnessed, a way of discovering what we think we know about ourselves, what we don’t, of telling our significant stories. Working with Sharon Olds, Catherine Barnett, Yusef Komunyaaka, Matthew Rohrer, Rachel Zucker, Meghan O’Rourke, Edward Hirsch, and Terrance Hayes, among other stellar poets—those are other invaluable highlights I can’t forget. And to add to that, it’s more than the names; it’s really how intimate my time with them was. I’ve heard of cases where it’s hard to access or reach out to a certain renowned poet but these were all caring professors who made themselves available in genuine ways. Finally, I actually met some of my closest and dearest friends and that is irreplaceable. Yes, like you said, so many incredible Latinx poets have come out of the program and done brilliantly in the world like Ada Limón, Christopher Soto, Diannely Antigua, Javier Zamora, and many, many more, and to think I had a place in the school where they wrote drafts of their first books humbles me every day. 

In your poem, "Citizen," you reference Venezuela when talking about the speaker's background. How do you see Venezuela, or other Latin American countries, figuring in what I hope will soon be your first book? Is this something you give much thought?  The sense I got from your sample, which I loved, is that you are invested in cultivating a variety of poetic modes, and that your writing and your exploration of language is more your muse than your subject matter. How do you see yourself navigating this, as you forge ahead as a literary artist?

That’s a big question! And thank you, I’m so happy you enjoyed it. I have tried over time to navigate the nuances of why I write poetry in English and not so much in Spanish. I have written in Spanish before, but there seems to have been a choice made at some point after I moved to the US. I always return to texts like Dura by Myung Mi Kim and Dictée by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, among others which explore the connections of lineage, identity, history, and language, and I aspire to explore that facet of my relationship to it more. However, I think a reason I write more through language is because of my training as a pianist when I was a child. I studied musical theory, piano, guitar, and composition, and I think it informed my ear’s antennae and choice. Much in how the same way we are drawn to certain paintings or movies, there are times, and I’d say most of the time, that I can’t un-hear the way a line sounds. It’s imperative to write it as such and then also imperative to betray it. As I move forward, I am consistently interested in ways of using my work and the space I take up to interrogate super-structures of power—through performance, hybridity, risk in content and form, queerness, and language, how sometimes you have to question the muse, its comfort within you, and, like any relationship, be wary of the power they have over you, in order to deepen. Is it healthy? Are there lines of meaning I am writing over and therefore ignoring?

Venezuela comes into the book because of my relationship to exile and home. Like most matters concerning belonging and desire, there is a certain unreachable quality to how Venezuela (mis)fits into my work, much like trying to speak on love, queerness, family, or immigration—other themes I obsess with—it will never be fully reckoned with and will remain undefined. However, this is how Venezuela in particular fits into my work, poetry remains to be a way for me to gain power from, or at the very least create my own space for, a situation that at times, in reality, feels unable to be resolved. Poetry resists conclusion and, therefore, to me, remains somewhat a comfort, albeit terrifying and real. If imagination and language is our superpower as poets, then I can, with the most careful of choices, reveal what oppression keeps hidden. The deeper I delve into the question of home and exile, the more similar it looks to my relationship to myself, to my family, to my past lovers and constructed family, to other things we try to get closer to and then find ourselves away from all over again.

I didn't get a clear sense of your relationship to the Spanish language in your poems. Could you comment on this?  Do you envision literary translation (Rightly or wrongly, I'm making an assumption here) as an activity you might cultivate as part of your artistic practice, if you aren't doing so already?

You are right in the observation that I don’t really integrate Spanish into my poems too much—only once in the packet I sent you. I think Spanish enters into my poems when it comes to the long construction of the sentences, and my baby influences of Lorca and Neruda. Moreover, I lean heavy toward the lyric in my work and even though Spanish sounds like that in my head, I feel it is easier for me to break English given its somewhat mongrel history. This makes American English more comfortable for me to break, to blend with Spanish here and there. I’m fascinated with how American English isn’t one stable music but a constructed and evolving fraught sound. I guess most languages are. But working in New York City restaurants, for example, you encounter Englishes that have evolved from, and mixed in with, Dominican or Colombian colloquial dialects, for example, that make for a new and electric music. If anything, these are the kind of words I’m wanting to put into my poems. I would love to use my poems as a way of showing the world the Maracucho dialect from where I grew up. To give a glimpse to how people actually speak and live. Spanish is still a first language for me and its how I talk to my family and some of my friends. But it doesn't feel as breakable as English sometimes. I’m not sure how that sounds but I think it’s how I feel. Perhaps it’s how I came to know them that determines how I use them.

As for translation, to tie it back into Community of Writers, speaking with Mónica de la Torre, a faculty member there, was a kind of a revelation for me. I have translated before, specifically my friend and poet Daniel Arzola’s work, but more recently I have become excited by the prospect of using it as another writing tool. Perhaps, in the future, I could perform literary translation of another work, particularly if that work is one I feel needs to be salvaged and preserved, translation then being a way to care for. So much of writing in English, not to return to this, feels murderous. Translation could be a way to turn that around. I am, however, more interested these days in alternative methods of translation that question the naming of translation vs. interpretation, or fact vs. truth, and translation is definitely a way to get to the heart of that. Texts like Jack Spicer’s After Lorca and Carolina Bergvall’s Via inspire me, as a project, to write the texts of the dead whose words I’d like to preserve and translate—the apocryphal question, and the poem’s mode as finding truth, suddenly blurring. The uncertainty, futurity, and possibilities within translation are necessary and so thrilling.

Finally, what advice might you offer to a poet who is slated to experience the Community of Writers for the first time, now that you've had the experience of attending?

I would advise taking the daily writing challenge seriously. By that I mean do it. But if there’s one thing I learned from that structure, and I learned it from the reinforcement of the faculty, was to not see them as unfinished poems, or as not worthy enough. Everyone is turning in something at the same level and the best way to succeed at the challenge is to take risks, to do something you wouldn’t normally do, to change modes each day and see how it affects your work, and to accept some days you’ll turn up with what feels like a more finished poem than on another day. I would also recommend taking advantage of the natural landscape, to do the wildflower walk, to draw and take notes and know the earth, to dive into Lake Tahoe, and get to know the landscape deeply and thoroughly. It is quite invigorating, especially for someone who is used to New York, and I do believe it is what allowed for the work to flourish. I was fortunate enough, and I’m sure this is the case every year, to be surrounded by poets who not only took challenges with themselves, but challenged the problematic name associated with the valley, or certain comments made by attendees of the conference, or ongoing socio-political issues—you then have the chance after workshop to discuss this even further and foster the opportunity for growth and collaboration. We don’t, as poets, often get the chance to be only among other poets. It’s such a special circumstance. Make it the community you want it to be.


Francisco Márquez is originally from Maracaibo, Venezuela. He received his MFA in poetry from New York University, where he was a Goldwater Fellow. The recipient of grants from the Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts, Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, Brooklyn Poets, and Letras Latinas, he was a finalist for the Narrative 30 Below Contest. His poems have been published in Bennington Review, The Offing, and Nepantla, among other publications. He works at the Academy of American Poets and lives in Brooklyn, New York.