Red Leather Gloves
an interview with B.V. Olguín
Red Leather Gloves is an intimate account from an insider’s perspective of the inner workings of the Sweet Science. These are poems that have been written in blood, sweat and tears about the blue collar members of society who use boxing as a way out to make their dreams of wealth, glory and fame a reality, only to realize that boxing takes more than it can ever possibly give. But this is also a collection profound in its scope dealing with topics such as death, drug addiction and religion. Red Leather Gloves is a must read for lovers of both poetry and boxing.
Note: In preparing for this interview, I watched quite a bit of boxing. I saw the Ray Mancini vs. Duk Koo Kim fight referenced in the poem “Taboo.” Since Ray Mancini was never the same after the Kim fight, I saw a previous fight Mancini had with the Nicaraguan WBC Welterweight champ, Alexis Argüello on October 3, 1981, in which Mancini was knocked out in the 14th round. I also not only saw the third fight referenced in the poem “Man to Man” between Emile Griffith and Benny “The Kid” Paret, but I also saw their first two fights. In the first fight between them, Paret lost his welterweight title when Griffith knocked him out in the 13th round; but after the fight, Paret approached Griffith to congratulate him and Griffith kissed him on the cheek, so their interaction was amicable. In their second fight, Paret won a grueling 15 round decision. It makes sense that after 28 rounds of pounding each other senseless, bad blood would brew; we are told in the poem “Pascal’s Wager” about a young boy who starts playing “punch with the boy next door” but after some time “you fist your friend back / everyday for a month / until you are too afraid / to tell him secrets / or ask for a taco.” In the way the physical pain distanced the two boys in the previous poem, Griffith and Paret were themselves distanced by the physical pain they dealt each other in their brutal wars. Because those fights took place in the early 1960’s and the early 1980’s, I wanted to contrast those styles of yesteryears with those of 21st century boxers, so I saw the recent fight between Adrien Bronner and Emmanuel Taylor on September 6, 2014, in which Bronner won by unanimous decision after dropping Taylor in the 12th round for the sole knockdown of the fight. Of course, I also saw the second fight between Floyd Mayweather vs Marcos Maidana on September 13, 2014 in which Floyd won by way of a unanimous decision. I feel that during this interview process, I breathed and lived boxing.
1. In “Taboo,” your speaker’s protagonist returns to training a month after killing someone in the ring. You dedicate “Taboo” to Ray Mancini in memory of Duk Koo Kim, who died from injuries suffered at the hands of Mancini on their Nov. 13, 1982 fight. Mancini claimed the fight with Kim took his heart away from boxing. We read “Veterans pretend not to notice how he holds back / the overhand right as if it were made of glass;” When a boxer loses that killer instinct, they are finished; is this poem in part a lamentation of the death of two boxers, i.e., Kim’s physical death, and Mancini’s death as a professional boxer?
Yes, you are correct about this poem being an elegy for the dead and also the living. But it is about something else, too. This poem is about the socialization of young men into a culture that, paradoxically, pushes one to be viciously competitive, which involves teaching them the techniques of destroying a human body piece meal in an effort to destroy the body’s ability to function and, by extension, a person’s will to continue fighting. For instance, you use body punches to the rib to weaken muscles a fighter uses to keep his hand up. After a certain amount of body punches, the fighter can’t help but start to drop their arm, and this leaves them open to head shots.
More precisely, the poem is about the regimens and rituals that prepare a fighter to try to kill while at the same time establishing impediments, like gloves and prohibitions on the use of kicks, that usually prevent a death in the ring. But these protective measures also fail quite often. The poem seeks to expose how the training involves teaching and motivating someone to try to kill another human being, symbolically, and for real, and it also is about the hypocrisy that comes from announcers, coaches, promoters and other fighters when a boxer actually succeeds at doing what they were trained to do but not really supposed to do. Paradoxical and contradictory, I know, but this is what boxing at the professional level involves, and to a certain degree, this (il)logic also prevails in the amateur ranks, especially in the end-of-the-road boxing gyms where I trained.
This conversation makes me recall a ritual preparation before my fights at tournaments. My coach would wrap my fists and wrists and lace up my gloves, very tight, a full hour before my fight. After a while, the one-pound leather sacks tied to each arm would feel like an extension of my body, and the tight cotton hand wraps boxers wear to keep their knuckles and wrists from breaking as they punch someone in the head or gut, start to cut off circulation enough that your hands start to go numb.
Then my coach would lead me into a pre-fight ritual of violence that would progressively make me go rabid with rage. I would start punch combinations on his hand mitts, and slowly but steadily, he would start slapping me on the face and head with the mitts. His hits, the hits of a full-grown man who weighed about 200 pounds, would start to land harder than the punches I would receive in the actual fight to come. Then he’d crowd me so that I fought back harder, which he followed by yelling “come on, don’t be a pussy, punch harder,” which he would punctuate with “kill, kill, kill.” He actually said this shit! And sadly, I bought into the whole ritual of trying to become a killer.
By the time I got into the ring for the fight, I wasn’t just concerned with winning, I was mouthing to myself, “I’m gonna kill this mother fucker. Kill! Kill! Kill!” And I tried to do it. Every fight. Of course, as a 14-, 15-, and 16-year-old teenager who fought at weights that ranged from 106 lbs. to 128 lbs., I wasn’t really strong enough to kill with my fists (so long as gloves were attached), though this possibility was ever present as all fighters have different levels of subdural hematomas that can always burst in unexpected ways. That is what happened to Duk Koo Kim in his fight with Mancini.
In the end, the poem “Taboo” is about many types of dying—the death of our natural human inhibition against homicide, the death of the illusion that boxing is just a sport, the death of innocence, and the untimely and tragic death of a real human being, and all that falls apart once they are killed.
2. Also in “Taboo” we read “His best stablemate will only say fuckin’ ref, huh, / expecting no answer.” This implies that the ref was to blame. The referee in the Mancini-Kim fight, Richard Green, killed himself within a year of that tragic fight. I admire how subtle you were in this poem because “Taboo” seems to deal with the obvious, i.e., “No one mentions the dead fighter,” but it also deals with the taboo topic of suicide. Duk Koo Kim’s mother also committed suicide shortly after the death of her son due to grief. Was this your actual intention to bring to light these various taboos and if so, why?
I’ve got to be honest and admit that I did not know that the referee killed himself after the fight. You did your research, Bato, and I commend you for your rigor. My reference to the referee was an allusion to the frequent displacement of blame onto referees when something goes wrong in the ring. I have another poem, “Tournament,” which riffs on this a bit more. In “Taboo,” the boxers’ critique of the referee helps them, and everyone, continue avoiding the reality of our training, that is, that we really are trying to destroy a human body so we can knock out a fighter; we are trying to bring our opponent to the point where their brain short circuits and they lose complete control of their bodies and collapse. It is easier to blame the referee for not stopping the fight, than it is for us to admit that we were the ones who did the damage to the fighter who was hurt. So the allusion in “Taboo” is meant to be a form of verbal and situational irony.
In the poem “Tournament,” I try to get into the humanity of the referees, who usually are no longer able to fight at a competitive level but know the fight game, or sweet science as it is euphemistically called, well enough to manage a fight so that no one gets seriously hurt. The poem “Tournament” explores how the referees, in a sense, are held captive by the bloodlust of the fans. I wrote the poem about several incidents I witnessed, including one of my own fights, in which the crowd started yelling at the referee for repeatedly stopping the fight to let my opponent pick up their mouthpiece. (My opponent spit out his mouth piece when he could not fight off my combinations, which really is a form of cheating, but he was getting desperate.) Fans frequently insult the referee for administering a standing-eight count, which is when the referee separates the fighters and counts to eight to ensure that a hurt fighter has time to recover enough to adequately defend themselves. Fans hate it when a knockout was prevented even though these very same fans will critique a referee when someone gets seriously hurt or even killed. Again, this is the paradox that I tried to dramatize in the poem “Taboo”: we are taught to try to kill, and go through some preliminary steps that can accelerate death or at least come close to it, but at the same time, we still have the lingering legacy of human culture that teaches us that it is wrong to kill. The poem “Tournament” looks at this proto-fascist group-think by focusing on the referee.
Within this twisted world, everyone is held captive, even the referees. And I would say that the referee in the Mancini-Kim fight had PTSD, which I further explore in the penultimate poem in the collection, “Twist,” about how my body still remains primed and aware of any and all potential threats, real and imagined. For example, I know when someone is in range of my fists, which signals to me that I am in range, too, so the animal in me that was once unleashed starts to pace in this inner cage of my body, back and forth, back and forth, awaiting an attack, and ready to attack. Thankfully, I’m getting too old to do anything with this learned reflex, but my mind still has not let go of it, and probably will never be able to do so completely. We call this muscle memory. Combat veterans have it, too. Poetry helps.
3. In “Man to Man” you return to the topic of dying inside of the ring. You dedicate this poem to Benny Paret, who was killed in his third fight with Emile Griffith on April 3, 1962. In the 12th round of the Griffith-Paret fight, Paret was out on his feet, being held up only because of the ropes; it was criminal how referee Ruby Goldstein allowed Griffith to hit Paret over 25 times in a row before stopping the fight. Out of all of the deaths inside of the boxing ring, what made these two stand out for you, i.e., Mancini-Kim, Griffith-Paret?
If truth be told, there are far too many ring deaths to choose from. Which is to say that I chose these two instances for specific reasons. First, I saw the Mancini-Kim fight live on TV, though the Griffith-Paret fight was from a different era and I’ve only seen archival footage of the fight.
I picked these fights because they open a window onto some unexplored, misunderstood, or under-theorized realities of boxing, boxers, and patriarchal culture in general. I’ve discussed the Mancini-Kim fight above, and as important and archetypal as this tragedy is, I think the Griffith-Paret fight is especially important today. Why? Because there are multiple levels of tragedy that surround this fight and ring death.
As you note, Benny Paret was killed in the ring in a championship fight defending his title against Emile Griffith. It was their third fight against each other. To say there was bad-blood between them is an understatement. There was a rivalry, to be sure, but Paret added to the animosity by outing Griffith, who was black and gay. Paret, a black Cuban immigrant to the U.S., was especially bigoted and used numerous epithets against Paret, particularly the Spanish-language epithet “maricón,” which translates as “faggot.” Paret repeatedly taunted Griffith to the point where the fight became much more important than simply a championship match. At stake, really, was Griffith’s very life.
We are talking about 1962, seven years before the Stonewall Rebellion a few blocks away from Madison Square Garden in Manhattan. Being openly gay in general was dangerous; for a boxer it was absolutely lethal. Period. As I’ve noted, boxing is a sport that dances very close to murder. Indeed, it is a ritualized pantomime of lessons on how to destroy a body and a human being’s will to survive. And it is governed by a hypermasculinist, sexist, and homophobic order.
So, when Benny Paret outted Emile Griffith, he was in essence putting Griffith’s name and face on a poster that might as well have read: “Wanted: Dead.” Other fighters would be especially determined not to be beaten by the “faggot” fighter. Some would try to kill him with even more vigor than their ritualized homicide. Griffith was quite literally backed into a corner and had to fight his way out of it for his very life.
The final round in the fight, in which Paret is knocked out on his feet as you note, was an atrocity not just because the referee allowed the fight to continue. In championship fights, it is verboten to stop a fight in the last round when a title is at stake. In those days, fighters fought 15 rounds instead of the 12-round fights of today, and there was an expectation that the loser would not last the full 15. The real tragedy is best explicated by Griffith, who says in his autobiography, Nine… Ten… and Out, “I kill a man and most people understand and forgive me… However, I love a man, and to so many people this is an unforgiveable sin; it makes me an evil person.” The crime of this situation is obvious: inhumanity breeds more inhumanity, even by the victims of inhumanity. Griffith had to kill Paret in order to keep living. This compounds the crime of homophobia that Griffith describes in this book by adding: “So, even though I never went to jail, I have been in prison almost all my life.”
Of all the deaths in the ring, this is the one that makes me cry the most because the tragedy of it all is just so layered and deep that it sometimes just makes you want to give up on humanity. Thankfully, Emile Griffith never gave up hope, and this is enough to keep hanging on to the belief that maybe, someday, somehow, we’ll be able to work our way out of this morass of hatred and evil. But it can happen only if we are honest about how far we have descended.
4. You have some very strong sexual innuendos in “Man to Man” such as “how hard they can become,” “splayed on his stomach / plump ass up,” “Emile Griffith fisting Benny Paret,” “A perfect punch / will make a man moan as if it felt good.” The title “Man to Man” seems to portray the two boxers as passionate lovers; was your intention to suggest that boxing inside the ring is as intimate, if not more so, than sexual intercourse?
Yes, throughout the collection I made a deliberate decision to bring out the homoerotic aspects of boxing. I mean, come on, it is obvious. The roots of boxing are in Greek homoerotic athleticism, which could not be more clear about the erotics of boxing. There’s a little S&M, or rather, quite a lot, lots of homoerotic gazes upon strong chiseled male bodies, painful training regimens that have a strong sense of exasperation and pleasure intertwined throughout, and fights that involve lots of prancing, showboating, and mutual respect of each other’s physicality and facility in the sweet science. And let’s not forget all the hugging, which we call clinches in boxing.
Fighting is a veritable drag show, which Puerto Rican boxer Hector “Macho” Camacho repeatedly demonstrated through his outlandish costumes. He wore every uniform of the Village People and added about a dozen more, including at least one skirt!
I am aware that many fighters will reject my depictions and decisions to illuminate the homoerotic aspects of boxing. At the same time, many other boxers and boxing aficionados reveal otherwise and have repeatedly told me that they appreciate it. (I should add that the greatest crowd pleasers are this poem, “Man to Man,” along with “My Tía Lucy Hates Boxing,” and “Ode to Ali.”)
And, hey, who hasn’t heard of Oscar de la Hoya? Well, in a 2011 interview in Univisión’s program Aquí y Ahora, he admitted that the widely circulated photos of him in drag were in fact him. He admitted to being a cross dresser, though he still has not come out as gay or bisexual, which he may not be. But Puerto Rican boxer Orlando “El Fenómeno” Cruz is gay and out. He is the first boxer to come out as gay during his actual boxing career. (Emile Griffith was out only to close associates while he was boxing, and later came out long after his boxing career ended, but he was closeted throughout his whole career for fear of repercussions as I discussed earlier.) In fact, Cruz is an activist for gay rights and recently married his partner in Central Park in Manhattan.
The homoerotic aspect of boxing is actually one of the dimensions of the sport that has made it so popular among playwrights and filmmakers. As early as 1994, Oliver Mayer wrote a play, Blade to the Heat, which premiered at the Joseph Papp Public Theater in New York. I happened to be in Manhattan at the time, and went to see the play, along with luminaries such as the late Gregory Hines, who sat next to me. Blade to the Heat features an interracial gay romance among boxers, with the Latino boxer being the “bottom.” I think this play involved less complexity in characterization than it should have presented, but the foray into this realm deserves to be applauded because it was brave and insightful.
Boxing actually invites a complex understanding of gender and sexuality, and films such as Beautiful Boxer, by director Ekachai Uekrongtham, is exemplary. This film focuses on a famous Thai boxer and activist Nong Toom, who was a transgender person who becomes a champion boxer in order to afford gender reassignment surgery. She is renowned for beating an opponent then kissing him in the ring. When it comes to complex treatments of homoerotic desire in boxing, it just doesn’t get better than that!
I would say that these artworks, and my book, explore the idea of a continuum of gender and sexuality rather than strictly-delineated gender divisions that carry strict sexualized divisions. If we can succeed at outing boxing, maybe the rest of patriarchal culture can also get queered and complicated beyond patriarchal homonormative paradigms. In the end, it simply would have been dishonest to not explore the homoerotic aspects of boxing, so the trope of homosexuality, sex, and homosexual gazes, desire and intercourse, run throughout the book.
One last thing: taboos also happen to be great for book sales!
5. The reader becomes aware while reading Red Leather Gloves of the bigotry within boxing. In “Knockout” the speaker laments “You want to squeeze him tight, chest to chest / like your mother did … But you can’t. They won’t let you. / If you let him recover they will hate you, / call you Stupid Meskin. Pussy. Maricón.” There seems to be a disregard for any boxer who does not act 100% macho. Emile Griffith was gay and as you mentioned in “Man to Man” Paret called “him maricón at the weigh in.” It’s as if you are making us aware of the injustices suffered by various minorities. Another example being in your poem “Catfight” where women who fight are viewed as sexual objects both by boys in the playground, “A blouse was the biggest trophy,” and by men who pay to see them inside the ring, “Kiss her puta!” Do you view some of these poems in Red Leather Gloves as political statements?
Yes, all the poems in Red Leather Gloves, and the collection overall, were written as part of my broader artistic, scholarly, and political explorations and interventions into what I am calling critical masculinity studies. That is, the term refers to my attempt to examine, from inside out, the various socialization processes of a patriarchal heteronormative society and, to be sure, our resistance to it, or at least our attempts to resist.
The collection began as a series of prose poems modeled on Sandra Cisneros’ House on Mango Street, which featured young girls and young women caught in a vortex of patriarchal culture, with each of them trying to figure out how to survive. Sandra is a master of the prose poem, even though many people don’t recognize this aspect of her book. (I call her a Chicana Charles Baudellaire, though she is far more subtle, and thus more effective at her cultural and political critiques, than Baudellaire.) I especially love how Sandra gives us scenes that express so much danger without losing the beauty of a character’s nuances or their innocence. She captures the moments, over and over, when a young girl, adolescent young woman, and older women are on the verge of losing complete control of their lives as patriarchal mores start to intrude into their innocent daily routines. I wanted to present similar moments in the socialization of an autobiographical male poetic persona alongside another gallery of characters who were undergoing a similar process; except we were being taught to be the predators. For me, Red Leather Gloves is my companion piece to Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street, though of course I am making no comparisons to my homegirl mentor Sandra; I’m just emulating her.
As the original prose pieces evolved, various readers started to recommend that I try a few experiments to pair down the pieces into verse. I did, and liked the result, especially the fact that the traces of prose stories remain in the narrative poems, which were much more economical. At the same time, I also retained the Bildungsroman structure, that is, the coming of age story. So you will note that the collection has a standard chronological narrative arch, and this is because the book really wants to be a novel, or an interrelated collection of short stories. Why is this important? Because I wanted this collection of poems to be a running set of episodes in the socialization of young boys into racist, sexist, predators who steadily develop skills that further amplify the dangers that regular male privilege already poses to humanity. It is a collection that chronicles a Dante-esque descent into the abyss, one level at a time, except that different from Dante’s inferno, we had no way out.
Indeed, a sub-theme in this book is the loss of faith—in friends, coaches, family, and even God. Poems such as “Pascal’s Wager” explore this topic further, as does “Sign of the Cross.” The only faith I developed was in my fists. This is why, in the poem “Killer Instinct,” which is about my violent barrio school that was a de facto gladiator arena, I use an epigraph from Thomas Hobbes, “Bellum omnium contra omnes,” or “war of one against all,” which comes from a 17th century political tract. But this is not to say that I have lost all hope. On the contrary. In this very same poem, I have a second epigraph from Karl Marx that reminds us that human beings are social by nature and can recover our love of each other if we can keep reminding ourselves that we are all dependent upon each other for everything.
That is to say, yes, the poems chronicle episodes in the socialization of an American bigot who happens to be a Chicano male, while at the same time offering glimmers of hope on how we might work our way out of our horrible socialization into anti-human predators. I explore this theme much more overtly in my second collection of poetry, At the Risk of Seeming Ridiculous: Poems from Cuba Libre, which also was published the same year as Red Leather Gloves, and explores my encounter with socialism in Cuba. The title of my book on Cuba, I should add, comes from a quote from Che Guevara, which should indicate where I’m going as far as the political paradigm that I think might help us get beyond the hate.
6. Your poems have some very powerful religious references. In “Sign of the Cross” the speaker informs the reader about how the battered boxer personifies a crucified Christ with “a crown of blood / and purple patches all over / that will have made the crowd go silent … from shock and the shame.” In “Madrina” the body of the boxer becomes the sacrament, “This is my body, the body of Christ, / that was given up for you…” These references seem to speak of the awareness that boxers possess in that they know their physical wellbeing is sacrificed for the sole benefit of others to enjoy. Am I missing something? What were your actual intentions?
You busted me. On several levels. Regarding religion, and the religious subtexts and architecture of some poems, all I can say is that I guess my Catholic upbringing remains imprinted. In truth, I had not noticed the Catholic and Christian overtones of the collection—or rather, the critical uses of Christian motifs—until after I had finished a full draft. At one level, Christianity makes it easy to explore violence, victimization, and the decline of human civilization. That is what the story of Jesus is all about.
In fact, this Christian subtext also offers me an opportunity to weigh in on one of the most salient and dangerous aspects of human culture: religion. As I reread the book—something I find myself doing over and over again even though it makes me cry every time—I get angry and sad about how people’s spirituality has been harnessed for horrible ends. The saddest part of this process is that sometimes people don’t even realize that they are teaching people that pain is good, violence and warfare are normal, and we should sacrifice ourselves for people, practices, and beliefs that are suspect if not altogether evil. While I did not have Mark Twain’s “War Prayer” in mind when I wrote “Madrina,” or “Sign of the Cross,” I do see the resonance. Each of my poems exposes the dangers of religion and religious training by, ironically, using religious archetypes. To me, the sight of boxer tangled in a web of ropes, arms out, Christ-like while people watch horrified but unwilling to stop the madness, is like a parable. The sad thing is that I’ve seen this live.
This said, I am not religious; I don’t identify as a Catholic or Christian. Yet those cultural aspects certainly remain imprinted in my life past and present—hell, there’s nothing more that I like than a Catholic Quinceañera, that is, until the fights start to break out, which is usually halfway through the evening dance event. I am spiritual though, so to speak. I’ve got a sequence of poems that likely will become a book called The Road is Red, which involves an exploration of my reluctant indigeneity. I’m not on the Red Road, as indigenous spiritual life is sometimes called, but I know that I am an indigenous person; mestizo, to be sure, but Indian, too. This sequence of poems frequently involves motorcycle rides—I ride a Harley Fatboy—and the journey motif becomes very important for me. Call it a Chicano Easy Rider spectacle, which filmmaker Ray Santisteban captured beautifully, I might add, in the last scene of his short film about Red Leather Gloves. Call me a closet Zen Buddhist, but I really am not concerned with where I end up—sometimes it is on a swampside roadway in Louisiana; sometimes it is a lazy plaza in Mexico; other times I don’t have the slightest idea where I am—but the journey is enough.
In summary, no I’m not a Christian; yes, I am a communist; and as far as I can tell, so was the rabble rousing homeless son of a working class carpenter named Jesus, so I’m in good company.
7. In the ninth stanza in “Ode to Ali” you use enjambment before ending that stanza with an end-stop. It’s like you are throwing seven lightning fast jabs in a row before ending that stanza with a hook. There’s a constant flow to your lines. You also use internal rhymes, “He could bust a rhyme while keeping time,” identical rhymes, end rhymes, assonance “he’d move, mock and rock …,” alliteration, etc. This lyric poem is so rich with form and serves as an apt tribute to Ali, the “boxing poet” as the speaker calls him. Could you talk about the musicality in your poetry and how this relates to Ali?
It is impossible, completely impossible, to talk about Ali without talking about music, dance, and song. Period. But more importantly, Ali taught us that music, dance, and song—and all performance in general—is fundamentally political. I love the poem not because of the opportunity it provided me to challenge myself as a poet and try to exercise the poet’s vocation and palet of colors and techniques, but because I got to love Ali as an athlete, political rebel, and human being. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t deify Ali. He is not a god to me. He is not an unambiguous hero either. I know he was afraid, in the ring and out, and I know he had frailties, and still has some questions to answer regarding his silence about Malcolm X’s assassination by a member of the Nation of Islam of which Ali was a member. But Ali put it all out there, like all good poets must, so we can see him in all his imperfect attempts to throw the perfect punch even though it left him open for many punches in return.
But Ali is more than metaphor and more than a muse who enables me, or poets like Elizabeth Alexander, to write poems. He challenges us to be more than artists, which I think is something that too many poets fail to be. He went to jail not just for talking shit, but because the shit he talked was meaningful and consummately engaged with global affairs—racism, capitalism, and U.S. imperialism. He wasn’t just about making money, as most champion fighters are nowadays. And he wasn’t the simple reformist pseudo-liberal we get from American poets today, who masquerade simple calls for reforms of capitalism as actual revolutionary critique. Ali wasn’t shouting just to promote his fight—though he certainly was good at this—or Black civil rights and inclusion into a corrupt political system—which of course he did aid up to a point—but he was using his fights in the ring to shout out sophisticated and, at times, revolutionary political analysis in a way that was immediately accessible and deeply relevant. His words were crystal clear; more so, even, than a haiku. I mean, what can be more profound, beautiful, aesthetically accomplished, and politically visionary than his two word poem, “Me. Weeeee.” Whatever beauty I was able to channel from Ali, nothing comes close to this master dialectical aphorism about the oneness of all things.
I should add that the poem “Ode to Ali” is part of a family debate. In my family of fighters, there are two camps: those who hate Ali and those who love him. My father and an uncle got to see Ali fight in the Houston Astrodome, and I grew up watching his fights on TV. One of my uncles hated Ali’s signature “rope a dope,” in which Ali either danced around the ring evading his opponent while strategically staying on the ropes to take punishment so that his opponent would wear himself out, which enabled Ali to dominate the later rounds, usually with a knockout. It was a dangerous strategy, that involved little of the toe-to-toe slug fest that most fight fans—especially fans who were fighters—like to see. My view is that Ali was a strategic genius and, again, a dialectical thinker and mover. When you view his old fights, it is amazing to see how elastic he is, moving in the same direction of a punch so that it appears like a dance, almost Tango-like, with each partner anticipating the other.
This poem is a particular favorite because it lends itself to music. I’ve turned to music late in life, with classical guitar my favorite hobby, and this has helped me learn to hear the musicality of everything: speech, walking on the sidewalk, and of course poetry. The free verse format, which does have structure as you very astutely have observed, works well with jazz ensembles. I’ve performed this in several venues, and one stands out: a late 1990s performance at the Nuyorican Poet’s Café with a three person jazz ensemble. It was magical—the perfect song you hear musicians speak about. When we were done, I thanked the musicians for carrying me. The bass player said, “brother, you carried me,” and so on. We immediately realized that we were in total synchronicity. I’ve never had that moment since but am now hooked: I seek it in every reading. Call it the perfect punch, or the perfect slip of a punch, of which Ali, my man, was the maestro.
8. I like how the poems develop to reveal a cohesive story of a Chicano boxer growing up in a working class barrio in Houston; but I couldn’t help to be reminded of my own youth in Central America; I grew up eating lengua and Pan dulce, and I even remember seeing discarded milk cartoons filled with glue littered across our neighborhood mango fields. So I could relate to characters such as Kino (which is the German word for cinema, das Kino) who in your poem “Gold” “sniffed gold spray paint / from a red bandana every afternoon.” This collection is very rich in portraying its Chicano and Latin American roots, was this your intention, or did this just happen organically?
In everything I do, whether it is writing, speaking, or even the very way I dress and the food I eat, my barrio shines through. I grew up in a barrio called Magnolia, which is considered an “immigrant depot.” It is trifurcated: Chicana/o, Mexican immigrant, and recent Salvadoran immigrants who now have become second and third generation residents. There is a lot of vibrant activity, and a sense of collectivity that takes many forms, such as vecinos sharing a plate of food with each other, or self-help economics in the form of tandas, as community investment collectives are called. We poor people know that we can’t make it alone. And there is a beauty to this collectives gnosis.
But at the same time, there is a lot of poverty, overbearing poverty, which makes people desperate. There is violence that is normalized. I saw my first dead body when I was 10 years old. It was the friend of our next-door-neighbor, who was stabbed to death a few feet from my bedroom window. Others followed. In our block, there were multiple shootings, stabbings, and people just coming unhinged from who knows what. Addictions prevailed. In fact, my barrio is Mexican Mafia territory, or at least it was when I was growing up, and heroin was huge. It caused lots of devastation in my extended family. Weed wasn’t even a big deal. Sniffing was rampant, especially among youth, because paint, glue, and shoeshine was cheap and easy to get. Thankfully I never went that route because the harm caused to the brain by inhalants apparently is irreversible, and it was very obvious the damage. I can recognize a sniffer because I knew so many, and they were really looked down upon, kind of like “crack heads” are seen today. This is not to say that I did not get caught up in other pendejadas. I did. There were very dangerous and bad elements to these forays into various drugs, but luckily I survived.
I wrote about the normalcy of alcohol and other drugs because, well, it was normal, so normal that to not populate this poetic world with junkies would be to try to write a poem about a forest without referencing the trees. I suspect that this will seem cliché to some, but not to anyone who grew up in my barrio, where my brothers still live and struggle with these demons. It is fitting that my barrio is called Magnolia, which is a tree that blooms fragrant white flowers also known as the white flower of death for its ancient use in masking the scent of dead bodies before burial. Again, I know that my characterizations may seem hyperbolic, but not to people who grew up where I did.
It truly was a great pleasure reading Red Leather Gloves. Thank you so much for taking time to answer my questions. Is there anything else you would like to add?
First, thank you for your interest in this work, which I hesitate to call solely mine since so many eyes and pens are scrawled over earlier drafts. And I am especially grateful to you for the rigor of your research and the precise close readings you have done, which are very well contextualized by your research, some of which is so thorough that I am embarrassed I did not know some of the things you discovered that relate to the poetry. But such is the task of the literary critic and interviewer: you make these discoveries to help contextualize the work that the artists sometimes are too myopic to observe or even understand. Thank you for your excellence. And you certainly are a poet and poetry lover as your insights into the mechanics of these poems are right on the mark.
There is something I would like to add that runs throughout this wonderful dialogue of ours. That is, my ars poetica. I feel compelled to share it because there is such a glaring gap between my attempt to create art out of what I can’t help but call horror. It bothers me so much that I have spent a lot of time meditating on my theory of art, and even have a poem titled “Ars Poetica” in Red Leather Gloves that is a meditation on the 5th Century BCE bronze sculpture, Boxer at Rest, which I had the luxury of visiting in Rome recently as I made my pilgrimage to the Coliseum to pay homage to fellow gladiators past.
Cultural critic Theodor Adorno famously commented that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” yet I contend that it is the barbarity of atrocities such as the Holocaust, and other global and local abominations, that make poetry so necessary. Indeed, in order to retain and continually reclaim our humanity, and to meditate and appreciate the wonder of existence and tenuousness of all life, one must delve into the horrors, from the banal to the spectacularly atrocious, even as we endlessly seek a utopian ideal and, indeed, the idea of beauty itself.
For me, then, poetry and all art must have something at stake; it must be attuned to the ephemeral nature and vulnerability of all life as well as the complexities of existence that cannot easily be explicated by a single ethical code, social paradigm, or scientific formula. Poetry must not be afraid to get messy, dirty, ugly, and even scatological, while still being committed to the pursuit of its own internal virtue as a piece of art and part of human culture.
Socrates, through his student Plato, proposed that a pure idea—which he called the Forms—was accessible through multiple avenues, from the scatological to the most elite art forms, and I believe that poetry is the perfect vehicle to perform this elusive pursuit. Accordingly, my poetry navigates the wide space between the carnal and the transcendent, and my individual poems are always grounded in the particulars of place and social space. I find beauty in the vernacular, and to me, the vernacular, and the subaltern social classes from which it emerges, also are the greatest sources of my inspiration. But it gets ugly.
My poetry thus ventures into the horribly confusing intersections of the ordinary and extraordinary, and also horror and beauty, from the internecine violence of my youth in a working class barrio in Houston, Texas, to my experiences as an amateur boxer in which I was undefeated only because I was so readily willing to sacrifice my sense of compassion. And I explore the paradox of violence as beauty in proposed revolutionary contexts such as contemporary Cuba, which fought a revolution ostensibly to enable the actualization of non-alienated models of the species being, if I may quote Karl Marx. My most recent poetry project returns to the observable but incalculable mysteries of existence by again entering, through the body, into meditations on life at the cellular and even atomic levels that are at once hyper localized and cosmic, which my most current poetry explores through the prism of my past work as a volunteer medic.
Throughout my writing, I am driven by one conviction: poetry is part of a human dialogue that also is a political praxis, and it is my belief that the poet must not only be an astute observer and master at their craft, but a person also always willing to do whatever is necessary to intervene into the barbarity that has marked and marred our existence as a species. That is to say, poetry must be art, and art must be a tool and weapon of self-defense and a proactive participant in revolution. Anything else is just words on a page.
B.V. Olguín was an undefeated amateur boxer in Texas in the 1980’s, (14-0, 2 KO), who was born in 1965 and raised in the lower east side barrio known as Magnolia, in Houston, Texas. He holds a Ph.D. from Stanford University, 1996, and is an Associate Professor of Literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio. He is a member of the Macondo Writers Workshop. His poetry has appeared in Callaloo, North American Review, Borderlands, and elsewhere. His jointly-authored translation of Américo Paredes’ 1937 collection of poetry, Cantos de Adolescencia / Songs of Youth, was published by Arte Público Press in 2007, and received the International Latino Book Award in 2008.
Steve Castro is an MFA candidate in creative writing at American University in Washington, D.C., where he was awarded a Graduate Assistantship in Poetry. His poetry is forthcoming in AmLit, and has appeared in Verse Daily: Web Weekly Feature, Spork, Hobart (print), Paper Darts, The Broken Plate, Luna Luna and elsewhere. He was recently invited to read at the 826DC the lowercase monthly reading series in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 5, 2014.