Sunday, January 22, 2012

An Interview with Rigoberto González

Rigoberto González is a prolific and generous writer, the author of three poetry books, So Often the Pitcher Goes to Water until It Breaks, a National Poetry Series selection, Other Fugitives and Other Strangers, and a new collection Black Blossoms; two bilingual children’s books: Soledad Sigh-Sighs and Antonio’s Card; the novel Crossing Vines, winner of ForeWord Magazine’s Fiction Book of the Year Award; a memoir, Butterfly Boy: Memories of a Chicano Mariposa and a book of stories Men without Bliss. The recipient of Guggenheim and NEA fellowships, and of various international artist residencies, he writes a Latino book column for the El Paso Times of Texas. He is contributing editor for Poets & Writers, on the Board of Directors of the National Book Critics Circle, and on the Advisory Circle of Con Tinta, a collective of Chicano/ Latino activist writers. He lives in New York City and teaches at the MFA writing programs of both Queens College and Rutgers University—Newark.


In his newest collection of poems, “Black Blossoms” (Four Way Books, 2011), Rigoberto González presents us with a brave exploration into the lives of women and their journeys. As much as Black Blossoms is a tribute to the violent lives of women who would otherwise go uncelebrated or at least unacknowledged, it is also very much a work of place. Place in the sense that these “black blossoms” collected here in this book are allowed—through the splendor of poet’s imagination—to re-bloom in all their precarious and delicate ways. They together form a place, a garden of sorts that cannot exist without one another; it is as if these voices have found a home in each others company.


Lauro Vazquez: First of all thank you for taking the time to do this interview with me. Before we delve into questions dealing more directly with your work, could you give us a small background about who you are, where you come from? What kind of household you grew up in etc.? Were the arts encouraged and if so how?

       I was born in California, raised in Michoacán, educated in Spanish, and then English when my family returned to the U.S. when I was ten. I come from three generations of migrant farm workers, grape pickers mostly, and until I left for college I spent summers working alongside my family harvesting grape, onion, and green beans. As you can appreciate, our working class perception of the arts was enriched with folk music, Catholicism, and storytelling. I grew up with a strong sense of myself as a Mexican, and later, in college, as a Chicano and a gay man. One element that has remained consistent is my identity as a politicized person. My family was always willing to participate in boycotts and labor strikes. The good fight is the single sensibility I have kept sacred all these years. There was also familial conflict, of course, and not much freedom in a crowded household that resorted to physical and verbal abuse as a way of channeling the frustrations that came with poverty and exhaustion. I did my best to document this experience in my memoir Butterfly Boy.   

LV: Much of your personal history has been chronicled in your memoir Butterfly Boy: Memoirs of a Chicano Mariposa. At its core Butterfly Boy is an affirmation of the self in the face of racial, economic and sexual displacement. Writing seems to remind us here that where there is human creativity there is human dignity. Can you tell us a little about what writing does to you?

Writing helps me understand my losses--I lost my homeland, my parents, my youth, and more recently I have been struggling with health issues--and from this knowledge comes growth, maturity and the ability to survive in my new environments, which I call my gains. I believe writing is a way into the beauty of memory and imagination. Writing also gives value and visibility to my particular experiences and observations. I have made writing a part of my everyday life and I feel extremely fortunate it has become my greatest pleasure. 

LV: Tell us about your literary interests and your writing process. What are you currently exploring? What poet or poem do you constantly find yourself returning to? What keeps you going in your own writing?

I usually have multiple projects unfolding at once. I just completed a book of essays, Red-Inked Retablos, my fourth poetry collection, Unpeopled Eden, and the sequel to my YA novel The Mariposa Club called Mariposa Gown--all three will be published in the next year or two. At the present I’m juggling two large projects--a second memoir and a novel. This multi-tasking has been a successful strategy for me over the years--moving from one genre to another and working on two different manuscripts at the same time is my usual process. I don’t know any other way to work, except to work hard and productively. I’ve learned to write while flying across the country and while sitting in sterile hotel rooms and noisy airports, though I prefer to write in my studio in Queens, surrounded by all the art objects I’ve accumulated over the years. What keeps me going is knowing I am part of a thriving writing community--other writers of all walks of life inspire me. Even looking at the growing collection of book spines on the shelf makes me want to write!  

LV: Taking into account the current renascent politics of American nativism and the general anti-Latino atmosphere most exemplified by Arizona’s and Alabama’s draconian anti-immigrant-laws and the intentional or unintentional exclusion of Latino/as from all other aspects of the broader culture, literature included (take for example the long overdue recognition of Latino/a poets in Eduardo C. Corral’s recent winning of the YaleSeries of Younger Poets Award and a Whiting Writers’ Award) what is the role of a Latino/a writer in our times?

I prefer to identify as a gay Chicano. I also embrace other terms, like queer and Latino. I think it’s important to celebrate all of this language as an antidote to the hostility, derision and fear that others are attaching to them. A writer is an activist and a citizen, and has a responsibility beyond the poem, story or novel to participate in the political arena. For some of us that means picketing and organizing protests, others take to the pen or the computer and articulate positions through essays and editorials, and some perform that activism through the classroom as teachers. Activism is defined by the individual. I understand not everyone is willing to accept the challenge, but I sure as hell know that everyone can. In any case, this is an old argument and usually the only ones who speak up are the ones who want to negate that premise for selfish reasons.  At the very least, people who do not want to participate in these conversations should please cease from making such comments as “I don’t want to be known as a Chicano writer” or “I don’t want to be known as a gay writer.” We need role models, not cowards.  

LV:  Among the three women this book is dedicated to is the poet Ai, a poetic teacher and mentor of yours. In his review of Black Blossoms Steve Fellner writes: “No doubt Ai appreciates his prose tributes, but I strongly believe what would matter most to her is the development of his poems.  With Black Blossoms, his new collection, González has performed the ultimate tribute: he has made his poems better than hers [Ai’s].”  How present is Ai in this new collection and to what degree has she influenced your work?

First of all, I have to disagree respectfully that my poems are better than Ai’s--that has never been my goal. Ai has been present in my work since the first book, which opens with a poem about a slaughterhouse. I gravitated toward Ai and Federico García Lorca and Sylvia Plath very early on because they guided me through the dark places--directly to the center of grief and anxiety in order to give it language so that I could climb back out again. But Ai was the most present voice in the writing of Black Blossoms, particularly because I was writing about women. Ai wrote about men, people of all ethnicities, historical figures, cultural figures, focusing in the moment or the narrative, which in turn gave dimension and complexity to the persona or the protagonist of the poem. Her poems worked with imagery that gestured toward class, emotional disposition and cultural setting. All of these become the components of life, landscape and the individual stories within them--an approach to writing I have tried to exercise in Black Blossoms. Also, Ai didn’t really write about herself, and neither do I, not in my poems anyway, so I found the perfect literary ancestor in her.  

LV: As much as Black Blossoms is a tribute to the violent lives of women who would otherwise go uncelebrated or at least unacknowledged, it is also very much a work of place. Place in the sense that these “black blossoms” collected here in this book are allowed—through the splendor of poet’s imagination—to re-bloom in all their precarious and delicate ways. They together form a place, a garden of sorts that cannot exist without one another; it is as if these voices have found a home in each other’s company. Could you comment on this?

I’m flattered that you see the collection that way. Yes, that’s exactly what this is--a garden that complicates the old trope of women as flowers. The flowers bloom, certainly, but they also bleed and wilt and die. My aim was multi-dimensionality. In my second book of poems, I make a reference to visiting my mother’s grave and realizing that she’s surrounded by other women. It was a startling discovery that helped me find solace, imagining that my mother had other strong women for company. Their narratives do not end because their lives did, and I wanted to honor those stories of survival and sometimes heartbreak.

LV: One of the most fascinating aspects of Black Blossoms was your use of simile and metaphor to create intimacy between the reader and the characters in this collection. Rather than affirm the horrible with a comparison to revolting objects, tea bags, fans of poker cards, daisies, strawberries and hay—to name but a few examples—are used to create intimacy with a reader that is confronted with the significantly uncomfortable subjects of violence, the grotesque, political injustice and the decaying body. The poem thus becomes a place of momentary solace both for the reader and the characters in these poems. Are the poems Black Blossoms in this sense—through their comparison of the grotesque to objects of diametrical beauty—too poems of place, of self-assertion?

In the poem “Thinking Stones,” the speaker declares, “The woman sitting next to me is the place of my birth.” Having lost the place of my birth after the death of my mother left me with a sense of disorientation, and a haunting that seizes me when I see mothers, motherhood, maternal gestures, etc. These encounters are a response to trauma, and trauma comes in many shapes in this book--the death of women, the loss of women, the pain, grief, crises that women confront. I believe women are much stronger than men, so what I seek is an association with that strength.               

LV: On the other hand, in the title poem the narrator addresses banishing women in language that is bordering on the revolting: “when the sun sets next it will/ blossom with the blackest mushrooms and the moths/ will lay their eggs on your leathery smiles.” The narrator remarks with amazement at the moment after death in which “whatever moves from this minute forward sets/ itself into motion without muscle” and sets off a last chance for sensation: “the pucker and stretch in the sutured/ centers of your gray vaginas.” The body here is reduced to a site which bears the burden of death and loss but it is also strangely enough a site of momentary sensation, and of fleeting life. In essence—however fleeting these moments may be—even in the process of death and putrefaction, there exist miniature sunbursts of light that remind us of the lives of these characters. I see the poem thus as a “re-membering” of the dismembered body and life, and the fleeting possibility of feeling something again, of being made “whole.”  Could you share a few comments about this?

Death is not finality. With each death, each loss, something else is born--even if it’s grief, but another energy has been set into motion. I don’t mean to sound mystical or spiritual but that’s why I value writing--it is the preservation of transition and change. Life and death, healing and pain--or even pleasure and pain--can take place simultaneously. We do not exist in absolutes so why perpetuate that myth when the complexity is much more interesting to inhabit.

LV:  One of my favorite poems in this collection is the poem “Floricuatro” from the “Floreo” series. In this particular poem (and in the whole series) the page is broken by two line stanzas composed of very long lines. This breaking of the page by very long lines is also a predominant feature of the poems in this collection. What was it about these characters that compelled you towards this breaking of the page by these long lines?

The long line is a feature I’ve been wanting to write for a very long time. It’s a challenging structure because a long line can easily fall flat or be quickly forgotten if there isn’t another mechanism in place to sustain its energy and keep the reader interested. Two of my role models include Derek Walcott and Carolyn Forché. Their work taught me to employ music, rhythm, story, syntax, and other poetic devices to maintain language and meaning afloat, or rather, soaring. Since writing about women was another challenge, I decided it was appropriate to use the difficult long line as yet another way to acknowledge the effort I was making in writing about women.  

LV: Finally, I am curious to know what your writing process was, for these poems? The majority of the poems here are persona poems, some in the voices of historical figures like Anita Berber or Lizzie Borden, others like “The Unsung Story of the Invisible Woman,” “The Ballad of Lucila la Luciérnaga” and the “Mortician Poems” read more like surreal fables or magical biographies. With such diversity, how did you get “into the heads” of these women and their stories? What kind of research or reading did it involve and how did you go about writing this collection?

If there was any research involved, I believe it’s been done over a very long period of reading literature written by women. This doesn’t mean I’m an authority on gender issues or female identity, but I like to think I’m empathetic enough to write in close proximity to the female perspective. I am not performing ventriloquism or mimicry, I’m simply placing into words what I observe from my limited perspective. In short, all this time I’ve been listening, paying attention--what many of us males should do more often--so that I don’t exclude women from the art I create.

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