Since Jesus never learned
English, he was promptly denied
a second coming
from “Retablos: 10 Deleted Scenes”
---Paul Martínez Pompa
As the initial screener of the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize I often get to encounter and enjoy a range of voices unknown to me. Such was the case back in November of 2003 when manuscripts for the first edition of the prize began to pile up in my office. Paul Martinez Pompa’s was one such voice. And although he was not selected as the winner that first year, his work struck me enough that we began to correspond by e-mail and I was able to persuade Paul to publish a chapbook with Momotombo Press, another Letras Latinas initiative. It was titled Pepper Spray. Here is how Chicano poet Luis J. Rodriguez opens his introduction to this slender volume:
Paul Martínez Pompa’s poems sizzle like Chicago on a sticky August night—as gunfire, a woman’s moans, a child’s cry, glass breaking, a drunken man falling, and a lonely saxophone drenches notes through blast-opened windows in leaning three-story brick buildings.
Vaya, homes, estas palabras matan.
Later he states:
I don’t know Paul Martinez Pompa personally. Yet as soon as I read his work, boom, there was a connection…
Pepper Spray went on to become one of Momotombo Press’s best selling titles, getting adopted in a number of university classrooms around the country, including at DePaul, in Paul’s hometown. He himself pursued his college degree at the University of Chicago before enrolling in the graduate writing program at Indiana University in Bloomington, where he served as the poetry editor of Indiana Review. Paul has published his work in a number of journals and anthologies, including The Wind Shifts: New Latino Poetry and Telling Tongues, A Latin@ Anthology on Language Experience.
In the summer of 2008, Martín Espada selected Paul’s manuscript—a manuscript he re-worked and submitted a second time—as the winner of the third edition of the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize. Espada correctly characterizes the work in My Kill Adore Him, the title of the book, as “smart,” “gritty and visceral, but” without ever “cross[ing] the line to sensationalism.” But he also designates Paul as “a poet of meticulous craft.” I have a confession to make: yesterday I was re-reading, probably for the third or fourth time, My Kill Adore Him. The opening lines of “Pulling Tongue” (p. 5) read:
Lissette opens me with her fingers.
I struggle to breathe
With her tongue in my mouth.
Suddenly we are stars
In a Mexi-Rican film
By poem’s end it occurs to me, for the first time: the poem has an ABBA rhyme scheme throughout—delicate, just right. And that’s how Paul’s poems work on you, over time.
(Luis Rodriguez is so right, then, when he says of his poems: “Visit them several times. Some come at you sideways. When you least expect it.”)
But Espada, in his introduction to Paul’s book, also highlights Paul’s deft use of humor and irony:
“Nowhere else will you find a poem celebrating a Mexican grandmother’s phone call to the local Pizza Hut.”
Let me close with part of what Chicana poet, Lorna Dee Cervantes, has to say about our poet:
“Straddling literary strategies, no supposition nor paradigm is safe. He slays the stereotypic dragons within as well as without, putting popular culture, elegy, nightmare, personal narrative, identity and gender politics in the same hat, and drawing from the source, Pompa plays a poetic hand for keeps.”
Please join me in welcoming Paul Martinez Pompa.