Sunday, July 8, 2012

An Interview with Javier O. Huerta author of American Copia: An Immigrant Epic (Arte Público Press, 2012)

“I am going to the grocery store.” That was the line poet Javier O. Huerta was asked to write during his citizenship interview process. That simple line, years later, would become American Copia: An Immigrant Epic, Huerta’s second collection of poems. Using a vignette form, a play, and even text messages, Huerta weaves together a poetic narrative that breaks the illusion that we live in a land of bountiful substance. Here, a mere trip to the grocery store unveils the political, cultural and economic nuances hidden away between the aisles of our supermarkets.


Lauro Vazquez: First of all thank you for agreeing to this interview. Can you share a little of your personal background with us? What does the childhood of a bilingual poet look like? In what language did your first poems arrive?

Javier O. Huerta: No hay de que—so, nomas de papa.  Gracias to you, Lauro, and to the Letras Latinas blog for the interview.

A little of my personal background—Back in elementary I had to repeat 2nd grade. My first 2nd grade took place in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas. My second 2nd grade, in Houston, Texas. It was decided that I should be held back in 2nd grade because I needed the extra time to learn the language of our new country. I remember being upset when they informed me of this decision, at the injustice of it. In Mexico, in my first 2nd grade, I earned Primer Lugar in my class, and I have the certificate to prove it.  So I found it completely unfair that I had to be placed in a second 2nd grade. I picked up English pretty easily and was caught up by the end of that year. Thus, I received two 2nd grade report cards: one from escuela Guadalupe Victoria and one from Guadalupe Aztlan school. I still have those two 2nd grade report cards and have transformed them into a bilingual found poem, which is part of a longer work-in-progress called La tarea me marea: the education of Javier O. Huerta.

LV:  Your graduate student profile lists among your specialties “19-century British” and “Chicano/a,” how did you arrive where you are?

JOH: So, “19-century British” and “Chicano/a.”  Let me take them one at a time.

“19-century British”—This begins with Keats.  It begins with the instructor in my first ever creative writing workshop expressing his preference for Keats over Wordsworth. Imagine, he said, if Keats had lived as long as Wordsworth. Then I took Keats with me to the Bilingual Creative Writing Program at UTEP. In the critical introduction to my creative MFA thesis, I argued for “negative capability” in the use of metaphors, that metaphors and images should be allowed to speak for themselves without imposing our own interests onto them, that the relation between the literal and the figurative should remain in uncertainty. For the statement of purpose in my application to UC Berkeley, I proposed a larger project based on that critical introduction. I wanted to study Keats in relation to the connection/disconnection between literature and science and explore how the decentering of the poet is a consequence of the decentering of the earth. At Berkeley, they told me that to study Keats I had to become a Romanticist, and if I wanted to be a Romanticist I needed a contiguous field. So I chose the Victorian Period, and that’s how I arrive at the Long 19th Century.  I have moved on, as many graduate students do, to a different project from the one proposed in my statement of purpose. But that project on Keats is now a chapter of a work-in-progress called, The Copernican Revolution in Poetry.

“Chicano/a”—This begins with Quinto Sol, and Quinto Sol began in 1967, when the first issue of El Grito was published. Quinto Sol Publishing and its journal El Grito made an unprecedented effort to create a space for Chican@s to publish their literary, artistic, and scholarly works in the late 1960s. Many of the texts that are now considered foundational and canonical first saw light in El Grito and/or were published by Quinto Sol via their Quinto Sol prize. The individuals behind this effort were associated with UC Berkeley as undergraduates, graduate students, staff, and faculty, including the late professor Octavio Romano. On April 16, 2012, Quinto Sol Remembered (QSR), a student group at UC Berkeley, organized and hosted an encuentro to commemorate the 45th Anniversary of Quinto Sol. Some of the Chican@s who lived that crucial moment —Alurista, Hector Calderon, Juan Carrillo, Lucha Corpi, Sergio Elizondo, Malaquias Montoya, Celia Rodriguez, Edel Romay, Rosaura Sanchez, Gustavo Segade, Alex Saragoza, Nick C. Vaca—returned to UC Berkeley to share the struggles and excitement of creating a space for Chicano/a literature and scholarship “on our own terms.” I’ve always thought that to be a Chican@ poet means to be in dialogue with the Chicano/a tradition. Being a member of QSR and attending the QSR encuentro allowed me to learn more about the first Chicano publishing house and the Quinto Sol generation. Honestly to speak of the QSR encuentro is to speak in understatement because nothing I say could capture the energy of that day. Our student group QSR has discussed plans to edit an anthology of critical essays on Quinto Sol and El Grito in preparation for the 50th anniversary.

LV:  When speaking of their influences, most writers will speak of certain authors or poems that spoke directly to them or to their experiences.  Much of your poetry is a record what of the music that is often dismissed as inaudible for poetry: the music of a bad joke or the chants at an immigrant rights march for example. I was curious thus as to what your influences—literary or otherwise—were?

JOH:  Corridos. The most overwhelming influence I have to contend with currently is the form and the tradition of el corrido. I have stated elsewhere that my first creative attempts were narcorridos that I composed during child’s play. I have also stated that my father, a fan of Los Cadetes de Linares, dedicated his life to one day being notorious enough to have a narcocorrido dedicated to his exploits. This is the most overwhelming influence currently for two reasons: one private, one public. Private—I suppose it is time to reconcile with my father, who has recently been released from prison. I have made the decision to write my father’s corrido for him, “El corrido de mi jefe.” The corrido is a form that has traditionally narrated histories of violence, and the hope—my hope—is that the rhythms and boundaries of the corrido form will allow me to engage my father’s personal history of violence. Public— This, too, is about violence, about loss. What has been lost on the border due to recent drug-related violence?  In La Colonia Mirador in Nuevo Laredo, a two-story house remains uninhabited. The family that belonged to the house had to flee because of possible threats. The house is still furnished and full of useful things that no one can use. The family may never return. Home is lost. So is the lost corridor since narcocorridos have been banned on Mexican airwaves. I have about 55 pages of a work-in-progress I’m tentatively calling The Corridos Project, which includes not only some corridos I’m writing but also essays, literary analyses, interviews, and translations. The project, both creative and critical, is an attempt to explore the form and significance of the corrido in our private and public lives.

LV: Let’s speak about masks. In a previous interview for Latino Poetry Review you said “we were them [masks] to be seen. And who is to say that our masks are not our real identities?” Such is the logic of lucha libre, as you point out, but also of the Zapatistas in Chiapas—the mask is wore not conceal identity but rather to make the invisible visible.  What mask(s) does Javier O. Huerta conjure up and for what reason?

JOH: The mask of the future. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s see. Imagine two young rommates: a city planner (female) working as an intern on the City of the Future, and a robotics engineer (male) working on the first laughing robot. Imagine that the city planner is full of anxiety because she really has a difficult time with maps and directions in general, and imagine the robotics engineer full of anxiety because his laughing robot keeps malfunctioning and laughs uncontrollably. Imagine a neighbor, versed in all types of philosophy, who is more than willing to let the city planner and robotics engineer know when they are wrong, “You messin’ up!” (catchphrase). Now imagine them brown, like you and me. And that is the premise of my sitcom, a work-in-progress, called Artificial Humor. I hadn’t placed much thought into the ethnicity of the robot, but when the opportunity came to make a short video of the sitcom I somehow got stuck playing the role of the robot. Without the help of a special effects/make-up specialist, I had to be transformed into a robot. We, my production team included some fellow UCB grad students, stumbled onto the defining detail of my robot mask: an ipod nano placed on my forehead to serve as a START button. To give the illusion that the robot is still under construction, we placed some wires on my head and secured them with a beanie. And that’s how I came to wear the mask of a laughing cholobot. Of course, it makes sense that the robot would be brown, like you and me, if you consider all the projections about the Latino population soon becoming the majority. So for the moment we, “Latin@s,” wear the mask of the future, and the future wears the mask of Latinidad.  As to what all of this could possibly mean, only time will tell.

LV: What first drew me to your work, before I even had the chance to read it, was your blog.  In it you had a series of posts titled “undocumented poems.” If I remember correctly, these posts featured poems in response to a social injustice(s).  One of these “undocumented poems” was Mahmoud Darwish’s  “The House Murdered,” the poem was in response to what? A deported immigrant? A family broken? A house murdered? I don’t remember exactly but what I do remember was the concept of poetry in rebuttal, poetry in resistance to a recent crime and in “real-time.” How did you conceive of this series of posts? Did these poems affect your writing or your thoughts on poetry or technology? 

JOH:  I wanted to attract and maintain a regular readership for my blog, Unitedstatesean Notes, so I thought that having a regular feature would offer my readers something to look forward to. Every Monday I posted an undocumented poem, by which I meant a poem that treated undocumented immigration as a theme, and yes, I tried to make the poems relevant to what was going on in the world. The first post featured “El lavaplatos,” an immigration corrido from the 1920s, and other posts followed and featured the work of many poets from movimento poets like Lalo Delgado to more contemporary Latin@ poets, from U.S poets to international poets, from multiple-book poets to poets with one poem published in a small journal. I realized that the rights of undocumented peoples formed a major concern in the work of many of my contemporaries, so much so that I believed that “the undocumented poem” could be considered a new form in the same way that we consider elegy, love poem, ode, ekphrastic, self-portrait and dramatic monologue to be poetic forms. I plan to edit an anthology of these “undocumented poems” and have already started on the introduction.  In my “Documents and Literature of the Undocumented” class, I teach work by artists and writers who have personally lived the undocumented experience. These readings cover different genres:  performance art, nonfiction, novels, and picture books. When it comes to poetry, I bring together in a reader the poems that were featured on my unitedstatesean blog. This reader and my lecture on the “undocumented poem” would be the basis for the anthology and the introduction to that anthology.  

LV: One aspect of these posts seeping into your work that I can recognize is in the e-chapbook, “Almost as Beautiful as an Immigrant Rights March down International.”  The margin of the page here features a single-line vertical poem (for the reader, imagine a vertical line much like in a Japanese text) which features excerpts from the “undocumented poems” posts and which mirrors both the music and shape of an actual march.  This poem to me also symbolizes the various poets marching shoulder to shoulder with the undocumented. What opened up your eyes to possi bility of capturing this image: that the closest beauty poetry can aspire to is in marching down International?

JOH:  Once the undocumented poem feature had run for 52 weeks, I decided to write a poem by taking a line from each of the 52 poems. That poem was first titled “The Undocumented Poem to End all Undocumented Poems”, which I then retitled when a friend suggested “The Poem to Document all Undocumented Poems.”  When the good people at Deep Oakland invited me to submit a chapbook for their website, I knew I wanted to create something specific to Oakland and something in the avant-garde spirit of Deep Oakland.  Octavio Paz says that prose is like a march whereas poetry is like a dance, but I feel that my most poetic experience was being part of an immigrant rights march down International, a march that feels much like a dance.  In contrast to the rally for which there is a line-up of speakers, the march has no central voice; it has a head, by which I mean a direction, by which I mean a purpose; it has a tail, by which I mean a history, by which I mean a legacy; the march seems to be a living organism composed of diverse and immediate rhythms. Anyone in the march can start a chant; you don’t need a megaphone.  I wanted to capture the diverse rhythms of that march in the chapbook, to capture the multidirectional voices.  So I decided to include the poem to document all undocumented poems in order to show what you describe so beautifully: the image of various poets marching shoulder to shoulder with los Inquiet@s.

LV: One of my favorite poems of yours is your poem “Yo también canto los Estados Unidos”

            Soy el hermano sin papeles.
            Me Mandan pa’ fuera
            Cuando tienen visita
            Pero me da risa.
            Y me echo un taco
            Pa’ ponerme fuerte
            Y no quedarme flaco.

            Hoy el primero de mayo,
            Voy a marchar con mi pueblo
            Desde aquí hasta la promesa
            Y nadie se atreverá a decirnos,
            “Go back to where you came from.”

            Se van a dar cuenta lo chido que soy.
            Y les va dar verguenza.

            Yo también soy los Estados Unidos.

On one hand it is a bit ironic to call your translation of Langston Hughes iconic poem “I, Too, Sing America” “your” poem but on the other hand the things you make this poem do through the Spanish language—the music you infuse it with—makes it not only yours but also just as beautiful and urgent as the day Hughes wrote this iconic poem.  And yet in these bilingual poems, there is also a beauty that goes undocumented for the monolingual reader. Could you comment on this “undocumented” beauty?

JOH: I don’t know what I would call this poem: translation? imitation? impersonation? cover? variation? If I had to choose, I would identify it as a translation of Hughes’s poem in that I’m not only translating from English into Spanish but also translating from civil rights into immigrant rights. This poem and other such translations in the chapbook were inspired by the Oakland-based Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI) and its stance that the struggle for immigrant rights is a continuation of the civil rights struggle. One way to express this black and brown solidarity for me was to write poems “after” certain voices of the Harlem Renaissance, Black Arts Movement, and more contemporary African-American poetry.  I consider the poems to be bilingual in that I took a rhythm from a poem written in English and adapted it to Spanish. So even though the poem is in Spanish there is still an echo of the rhythm of the original English. I have considered taking these poems from the echapbook and writing more of these “translations” and collecting them in a book tentatively titled, La Bella Suerte.

LV: “Que le dice un guante a otro guante? …. I glove you.”  This is one of your favorite jokes and also captures much of the humor present in your work. What is the importance of humor in your work and in particular the humor of the bilingual poem?

JOH: The importance of humor in my work is to show the lighthearted aspect in the serious and the serious aspect in the lighthearted. I write jokes and I write poems, and sometimes I can’t tell which is which. I have jokes in my poetry, and I have poetry in my jokes.  In the immigrant rights echapbook that we have been discussing, I have an undocumented joke on each page. My favorite is, “why did the ‘illegal alien’ cross the border? To get to el otro lado.” This joke is an imitation of the famous “Why did the chicken cross the road?” joke, and actually the punch line to my joke is an exact translation of the famous punch line, “to get to the other side.” But “el otro lado” is loaded with significance for people living on the Mexican side of the border. Why immigrants cross borders is a serious question that many scholars and public officials have seriously engaged and attempted to answer. I just happen to think that my punch line is a more satisfying answer than their push and pull explanations. Here’s another joke from my poetry, from American Copia:  “What does the corn tortilla say to the wheat tortilla? No te awheates.”  I shared this joke during a presentation in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon last year, and during the Q & A, a woman in the audience provided an interesting analysis of the joke from the perspective of U.S/Mexico relations. She said that it made sense that the Mexican corn tortilla would be the one to provide solace to the U.S. wheat tortilla. Her analysis, I think, provides a convincing interpretation. I take jokes seriously and poetry lightheartedly because jokes and poetry have this in common: they both defamiliarize, and hopefully this defamiliarization leads to both delight and wisdom. And, you should know, I have serious plans to publish a book of bilingual chistes titled Puro Jokes.

LV: “Today I’m going to the grocery store.” This is the opening line of American Copia and also the sentence you were asked to write during the interview of your naturalization process.  In the preface you point out that you wanted to tell the INS agent that you could do “things with the English language that she could never imagine.” What sort of things?

JOH:  Let me tell you about my dream poem, the one that I really want to make happen one day because I really do believe it is possible. I want to write a poem that can be read as either English or Spanish. This poem will be in both languages at once. Well, I guess it would be two poems because the if-read- in-English poem would differ from the if-read-in-Spanish poem. Does that make sense? It would be the same words, but you could read them as English or Spanish.  For example, “a pie”: this could be like “a pie” that you eat or the Spanish words for “on foot.”  So like that, but an entire poem. This is the catch: I want the poem to be good in both languages.  And this is the dream: I would submit it to one of these high-profile English-only literary journals, and they would publish the English poem without realizing that they also published an entire poem in Spanish.  The poem would be titled, “Once.”

LV: And finally since this is an interview profiling your recently published second collection of poems, American Copia, what do you hope readers take from your poems?

JOH: I hope readers take the stories in American Copia and retell them. Copia didn’t start with stories; it started with one sentence: “Today I’m going to the grocery store.” When I was asked to write this down for my INS interview, the seven words in this sentence lost their conventional meaning and took on a special significance for me. I loaded that sentence with all the anxiety that comes with questioning whether one belongs or does not belong to this country and what it could possibly mean to belong or not belong. I knew then I had to do something with that sentence but had no idea what. I carried that sentence with me for seven years, and the whole time those seven words only signified, “This is the sentence I was required to write in order to obtain my U.S. citizenship.” One day I learned of Erasmus’ Copia, in which the sentence “Your letter has pleased me greatly” is rewritten in 150 variations. What appealed to me is the obsessive attention to one sentence. I knew that this is what I had to do with my sentence. But it became clear to me that I wasn’t just engaged in a rhetorical exercise concerning the copiousness in language but with a poetic exercise concerned with the copiousness of experience. I set out to reintroduce meaning into those seven words.  I didn’t choose the grocery store; it was given to me. But now I had to choose it over and over again. I had to fill the words in with meaning through specificity because I wanted the words to mean something other than the significance they carried for me. The “I” would become Javier Omar Huerta Gomez. But my experiences would not be enough because my intent was to swell up the words “Today I am going to the grocery store” with an abundance of meaning. I wanted to explore the varieties of supermarket experiences, so I started to ask friends for anecdotes or thoughts about the grocery store. Then friends of friends. Then acquaintances. Then strangers. Then I searched the internet for other experiences in order to swell up the “I” with as many meanings as possible. People were generously responsive and shared their stories with me.  “Today” became specific dates;  “I“ became specific peoples.; “am going” became specific movements; “to” became specific relations;  “the grocery store” became specific supermarkets. So that’s what I appreciated the most about writing American Copia: the stories and the old and new connections that belong to the stories.  Hopefully, readers will continue the storytelling (even though it is already published, I still consider American Copia to be a work-in-progress) by thinking of their own supermarket experiences, and if you see me hanging out at your local grocery store, you should say hello and share a story with me.  

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