Of Ruben Quesada’s debut collection D.A. Powell writes: “Like Whitman, Quesada is a poet of motion—journeying to the center of the US, where the traditions and innovations of first-generation Americans transverse the meditative starbursts of hills…. From Costa Rica to Los Angeles and across the continent, Quesada’s poems chronicle one family’s history…carries us toward “that seam in space” where dream and experience intersect.” But not everything in this collection is sheer movement. There are also moments of unexpected tenderness and playfulness that act as kind of anchors to a reader that may suddenly find herself transcribed to a place of being, a place far from constant movement and withering. What Ruben evokes over and over again in this collection is the ever elusive and endangered animal of memory. His poems, portraits of neighborhoods and its people, are above all poems of moving toward the edges of beauty, of “the alpenglow of tomorrow and tomorrow.”
In early 2012 I had the pleasure of conducting this e-interview with Ruben Quesada.
Lauro Vazquez: Thank you first of all for agreeing to this interview. Could you explore your family’s history for us? How did you end up where you are?
I can trace my family’s history back to the mid-19th century in Costa Rica, but in the United States it starts with me. Today, I live in Lubbock, Texas, where I’m about to finish a Ph.D. in English at Texas Tech University. My time here has served me well; I’ve published a collection of poetry, I’ve traveled across the country for academic & creative writing conferences; I’ve given public readings & lectures on poetry, and I’ve attended numerous residency programs. I’ve had a taste of the life as a poet and as a scholar—and I’m hungry for more. In Texas, I’ve learned that I love being a reader, a writer, and a scholar.
I consider myself extremely fortunate to be where I am now. I was born and raised by a single, working mother and two older sisters in Los Angeles. As early as I can remember, I was told to make education a priority. My mother taught me to read and write in Spanish—it was the language of our home. At school, I spoke in English only; I grew up bilingual. Growing up with the disunion of language and culture made it difficult to find my own voice. I felt that I didn’t want to betray the language and culture of my family. Ultimately, education is what I’ve come to inherit from this country.
After high school I didn’t want to leave the culture I’d come to know, despite being offered the opportunity to study at various institutions: New York University, San Francisco State University, or UC Irvine. Soon, I discovered that through writing I could take my culture and my academic interests with me anywhere I lived. I knew I wanted to study creative writing. The only Creative Writing Department in California was just about an hour’s drive east of Los Angeles at the University of California, Riverside. It was there that I earned my B.A. in Creative Writing, and almost a decade later I returned to complete an M.F.A. in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts.
My early poems were influenced by writers like Philip Levine, Sharon Olds, Joy Harjo, Li-Young Lee, poets that I studied in my early writing workshops. At UCR, I studied fiction with Susan Straight, nonfiction with Chris Abani, poetry & translation with Christopher Buckley, Gary Soto, Maurya Simon, and Juan Felipe Herrera. I wrote about the body, childhood, my neighborhood, and my family. I find these to be the topics of most first collections by postmodern poets. It was this poetry that encompasses the majority of Next Extinct Mammal. But an awareness of my place within the world still eluded me. I felt that I still hadn’t found my voice.
In 2007, I moved to Texas and I started to feel the absence of the culture I’d known my entire life. I imagine it’s similar to what my mother must have faced when she arrived in America. Although, I haven’t fully abandoned the life I had but I’ve chosen to make poetry my life. I know now that I’m building a life immanent in poetry. Poetry has offered me the life I want to live.
LV: I am very much intrigued by this idea of writing as a “living culture” in the presence of this dismembering of language and culture. Much of what I take from reading your work is the experience of taking a disembodied reader and “re-membering” him or her through the momentary intimacy of time and place that is evoked in your poems. Could you talk a little about this?
Charles Simic suggests that “to be capable of being in uncertainties is to be in the midst.” It is my re-membering that attempts to breathe life into a depicted culture. I try to find myself in the midst of a moment. Simic reminds us to ask, what words can the poet trust? How can she/he know to trust them? In order to be accurate with one’s emotions, careful attention must be paid to language being used; there must be a conscious use of decorum. The making of a poem, the idea of poesis (meaning making) excites me when I sit down to write.
The most rewarding aspect about being a writer is the research that comes with the making of lines. I attempt to bring a culture to life. The research I speak of is for the living culture. I research the world before me in an effort to reflect its sensibilities through the imaginative use of language. My goal is to have my poetry make “us know and brings to light many differences between things” (Metaphysics, 980a 6-7). Borrowing language and concepts from the varied interests I have for the world provides me with an approach to the human condition in certain terms. The language of the experience already exists. It is my responsibility as a poet to discover it. It is poetry of empirical imagination and language, and with the aid of digital information is it also a technologically empirical depiction.
LV: I get the sense that you were always sure of your identity as a writer. And yet it would take you close to a decade before you would go on to pursue an M.F.A. What were those years in-between like? And what was your experience like in the M.F.A. program?
The years between my B.A. and the start of my M.F.A. program were spent learning how to be independent of family and of place. During those years, I lived in Hollywood, Long Beach, Pasadena, and Korea town; I moved a lot. I found a job working for Starbucks Coffee as a supervisor and eventually as a store manager. I wanted to learn who I was outside of academia. There are many students who don’t give themselves the opportunity to break away from the academy until they’ve taken every degree they aspire to earn. I see that as problematic because in order to fully understand the human condition, one must experience the joy and the despair of life; I don’t often see this happening within the walls of an institution. I wanted to experience as much of my surroundings independently. I wanted to make mistakes and learn how to fix them or avoid them.
When I wanted to return to school I knew I was ready to give myself over to a structured learning environment. I wanted time to think, to read, and to write. My time in the M.F.A. program at UCR allowed me to release stored creative energy. The program encouraged a cross-genre approach to writing that offered me the opportunity to not simply refine the craft of writing, but to practice and master the writing of poetry and prose.
One of the most memorable pieces of advice came from Professor Chris Abani during a nonfiction workshop. He encouraged our class to take risks, to explore our limits for creativity, and to question our actions; it was this permission to take risks which gave me a strong sense of objectivity about my own work. I wanted to take risks, but why? Discourse analysis fascinated me. It is this type of self-examination, within the literary tradition, that has been a major turning point in the discovery of my own voice.
The M.F.A. program appeased my hunger for writing and whetted the appetite for literary criticism. Consequently, I decided to pursue a doctoral degree in literature and creative writing. I wanted more time to learn.
LV: And what words does Ruben Quesada trust? Do they come from a world in constant flux, from a cosmic matter, an already-lived material to which only the poet has access?
I trust the words that appeal to the emotional or narrative condition being depicted. My poems provide a sense of being in the world. I don’t try to sift through words to discover something unusual or esoteric; on the contrary, the process is much more painstakingly calculated. The Greco-Roman idea of decorum, as it applies to the aesthetics of poetry, serves to guide the poet’s use of language (the composition & craft) to render with convincing appeal the volatility of nature and time. Existing social conventions are not fixed; language is fluid and constantly evolving to more accurately represent the world around us. Walt Whitman may have begun to mirror the world around him by showing the landscape and the men and women of America on equal terms, but it was subsequent generations of poets that sustained this idea.
It is language, then, which provides us with a common union. Mutlu Konuk Blasing explains it best in Lyric Poetry: The Pain and the Pleasure of Words when she describes our acquisition of language as a “personal-communal” history. It is through language that individuals are able to share in the underlying or inherent connotation of words. The words I use are not accessible only by the poet, but they are the words I’ve come to learn and know. I grew up learning two languages; the words I’ve acquired and that I have come to trust were taught to me. I have come to these words on equal terms like any man or woman who lives in the cosmos.
LV: Let’s talk about the title for this collection: “Next Extinct Mammal.” Throughout the collection we are presented with a voice of movement; yes there is both inner movement toward the neighborhoods and landscapes and people that inhabit this country and also outward movement—a pause that comes when moving toward the edges of the cosmos and the limits and peculiarities of the human experience. While not exactly a “momento mori” the collection reminds me of one. Could you comment on this?
These poems posses sensibilities of the contemporary elegy, although they are not in the Classical elegiac meter; they are poems of mourning and loss. The title of this collection is from the final line of the final poem, “Nostalgia.” The poem aims to portray the speaker’s longing for the familiar. It was a fitting way to wrap up the speaker’s journey of an evolved sense of self. The world at the start of the collection had to be left behind in order to understand his idiosyncrasies. When the speaker moves away from the origins of home the collection unravels. Objectivity enables clarity of one’s place in the world. Consequently, the outward movement is filled with loss—a loss of people, places, and time. I find it apropos for you to suggest this to be a momento mori collection because at the end of the collection the speaker, too, realizes he will be lost. The speaker recognizes his own mortality in the world.
LV: In the opening poem “Store” the speaker describes a store in the City of Bell, with its “Kung Hei Fat Choy” sign hanging above the register and its golden Buddha “with brown sticks burning through its hat,” presiding over every aisle, while outside the walls are “painted and repainted, again/ and again, to conceal tags by Chancellor or Thirteenth/ Street gangs.” While in the closing poem, “Nostalgia,” the speaker, “moving through snow” on a train through Iowa’s Raccoon River reflects on the image of the “flurried storefront” being “mistaken for the next extinct mammal of America.” I could it help but notice the sharp contrast between the two stores, one very much alive, diverse, full of conflict and dynamic while that of “Nostalgia” calls forth images of frozen mammoths and saber-tooth tigers. Did you have this contrast in mind when you put this collection together?
A clear narrative is important when composing a manuscript. The writer must examine how each poem functions as part of the whole. In my case, there were moments and ideas which I returned to because there was more I had to say about them. There is a significant perspective to consider through the contrast of “Store” and “Nostalgia.” The first poem provides not simply a view the exterior of the store, but also of the intricacies inside. The movement of the collection offers an allegory of the self. The collection ends with a speaker who does not see past his own reflection. The inside has been closed off and all that is left is a semblance of a blurred self. There is recognition of a possible extinction of his own personality, perhaps by moving too far from the familiar.
LV: You masterfully employ the lyric and the narrative form throughout this collection. And while some poems in “Next Extinct Mammal” divert from the narrative to explore more philosophical work that goes beyond questions of family, identity or sexuality, they still contain that roller-coaster force that you so masterfully employ with your narrative. Take for instance the poem “Horizon Cosmologique.” Here you write: “We are held/ in orbit, pasted/ in this collage/ of universe—a scrapbook/ of stars and planets—/by a kind of giant,/ or maybe something more/ like a robot/ from the Transformers…/ I watched as a child. Maybe/ we’re part of that giant, a patch/ above its left knee, or closer/ to the thigh. Its arms and legs/a band of stars—a membrane/ of magnetars, neutrinos, wads of dark matter…” While not employing a strictly narrative form, the poem still contain that movement of transformation that is encountered by the reader is some of the other poems. What is it about narrative or about poetry that drives you toward movement?
I am driven by a passion to acquire and to share knowledge through an imaginative use of language. The idea of movement you’re referring to comes from the unexpected use of metaphor or images to convey my self-awareness of being in the world. I am by no means attempting to present a solipsistic idea about being human, but merely drawing on philosophical ideas to influence my writing about what it means to be alive. Poetry is an attempt to convey a potentiality of being in the world. “Poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge” and it is my hope that poetry moves the reader to understand the world on their own terms.
Aside from this didactic purpose, I want to tell a good story. As a child, I went to the public library to find some answers about the world and my place among it. I remember one day I tried to make sense of Einstein’s theory of relativity. It was difficult to understand, but what mattered most was that I was being shown a different way to think about the world. In “Horizon Cosmologique,” I try to evoke a state of mind, a moment of contemplation, which questions our place among the cosmos.
LV: Let’s talk about Codex Journal, it does something with technology that I’ve never seen. Could you tell us what that is? Tell us your thoughts on technology and how it can benefit/harm the world of poetry.
Codex Journal came about during my brief role as managing editor of Iron Horse Literary Review. My experience fostering a digital presence for a literary journal moved me to more fully explore SEO and branding. I was interested in a reader’s motivation for accessing a digital journal. The role of a reader was important, but more importantly was the author and his or her work. The question of who is presenting the work becomes vital when all you’re given is a code. The author, then, becomes their own brand. Using QR codes, I sought to re-imagine the literary journal through the growing use of mobile media.
In an age where subjectivity is a representation of the author, the question of how a reader discriminates between the multitudes of identities came to mind. In a world where access to information is seemingly created equal, how does a reader discriminate from an equitable representation of culture in literature? The best way to do this is to know who is constructing the culture; an examination of the author is necessary.
Codex aims to return the reader’s attention to the author, to the origin of the production. I do this quite simply by privileging the source of the work. The work itself is represented by a QR code. New criticism meets reader response head on. The source of the text relies on the reader’s performance to access it. But the QR code, as text, is undeniably static and may defy a re-interpretation by the reader. The text as QR code exists with or without the reader, but the text represented by the QR code only exists with a reader.
LV: What can you tell us about your current project “The Personality of the Planet”?
My current project is tentatively titled The Personality of the Planet. Wallace Stevens famously wrote, what matters in poetry is there be “some lineament or character some affluence, if only half-perceived, in the poverty of their words, of the planet of which they were part.” The social function of poetry enables the poet to create a “personality of the planet” through the language of its reader. Through the associative connection of language, poetry is able to create a connection from speaker to reader. It is through language, then, that the poet distinguishes himself in the world. Ginsberg reflects the sentiment of a generation. Even earlier in Whitman’s depiction of the American culture reinforces nationalism via familiar language among American communities in the North & South. Singular depictions of life have enabled the American people to see themselves in poetry, whether it is through the depiction of a landscape, or quotidian ways of life, the poet continues to serve as a curator of history by capturing moments to reinforce American community or communities.
In looking back at American poetry, and at our American history through the poet’s sense of the world, readers are able to gain what Muriel Rukeyser calls “the truth of the poem which is also the truth of the poet and the reader, an emotional and imaginative truth…It is reflecting your lives.” She illuminates how poetry is a “creation in which we may live and which will save us.” Rukeyser’s keen sense of the poet’s growing sense of the world around us is relevant today when reading her statement: “for the first time in history…we can see everywhere…we have a sense of the world that has never before been reached.” Through this act of documenting, the poet is saving the world for contemporary and future readers.
Late twentieth century poetic collections describe a world which is inclusive of various cultures, sexual orientations, and otherwise marginalized or clandestine ways of life, the digitization of information from the 1990’s to the present, alongside the proliferation of media, has allowed readers to become part of a “global community”—a shared humanity. Becoming part of a community reminds us to have faith in each other, not because there is concrete evidence that it makes life better, but because our reality reveals to us that we understand what it’s like to be human, and if we have faith in that knowledge the world will be a better place. The tacit knowledge of having faith in something greater than the self is understood through practice or experience, and not necessarily through explicit knowledge.
If Eliot drew our attention away from technology, in The Four Quartets, towards faith or the sacred reality underlying temporal experience, then D.A. Powell’s sense of his own mortality (drawn from his predecessors, Monette, Gunn, and Doty)-- conflated with his sense of technological progress-- provides the occasion to celebrate and affirm the importance of mankind. Consider this moment from “republic”:
no better in accounting for death, and no worse: we still die
we carry our uninhabited mortal frames back to the land
cover them in sod, we take the land to the brink
of our dying: it stands watch, dutifully, artfully
enriched with sewer sludge and urea
to green against eternity of green…
Powell expresses his affirmation for the importance of mankind by emphasizing that we’re still mortal. Technology has become the chronic ailment of our society. We live in a world where “industry and technology converge,” where the pastoral is “vanquished: made monochromatic.” Although mankind finds itself infested with technology and innovation, we are still part of nature, part of the earth. Our bodies find their way “back to the land” and through death we become the green of the earth.
My poetry responds to the call for the poet to resist or evade the pressure of reality—reaffirming the importance of the individual and of humanity in the face of the pressures of Postmodernism’s habit of calling the integrity of the speaker into question. This collection, therefore, is meant to exemplify a sense of being in the world, speaking directly to the historicity of American human experiences during the early Digital Age (Late 1990s – present). Specifically, this collection of poetry aims to portray an increasingly authentic voice resulting from a seemingly infinitesimal amount of information allowing for a greater reliability of representation through what T.S. Eliot’s calls a “continual surrender” to the moment, a “continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality,” to convey a conscious sense of my time and of my place among humanity.
The situations or experiences in this project draw from the tradition of metaphysical poetry. Samuel Johnson says it best when he describes the language and composition of the metaphysical “a combination of dissimilar images, or discovery of occult resemblances in things apparently unlike…heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together; nature and art are ransacked for illustrations, comparisons…” Similarly, my poetry uses a combination of unexpected and surprising similes and metaphors while revealing simultaneity among the things being described.
In order to portray the world accurately, it is necessary to reveal resemblances between the human experience and the digital world. The seemingly unlike resemblances resist or evade the pressures of reality to reinforce a shared humanity. In the midst of the contemporary human experience there exists the potential for a symphonic tonality in the world around us. The strength of the poem relies on the circumstances of the speaker, thereby turning the focus onto the speaker’s view of the world. The central focus of the poem is on the moment being presented. The poems of this collection capture moments in the world. These moments serve to instruct and surprise the reader through subtle recognition of similarities and differences in the human experience, but embrace our shared humanity, our desire to live (to escape death). Every person has a right to experience the beauty of life. Often, economic, political, or social constraints do not permit everyone to participate in a positive shared view of the world. Through decorum and mimesis of the world in my poetry, I hope to create a shared value, an idea that we live in a world that is worth living.