Monday, October 21, 2013

An Interview with Blas Falconer

Blas Falconer

Commissioning prose on Latino writing (reviews, interviews, etc)—is a big part of what we do here at Letras Latinas Blog. We got a big boost when Lauro Vazquez joined the team over two years ago, and another this past summer with Lynda Letona on board. That is: both of these Notre Dame MFA-ers stepped to the plate to create/facilitate content. Facebook has also helped: I “met” Sebastian H. Paramo through the Letras Latinas Writers Initiative (a FB group for those Latino/a writers who are currently enrolled in, or have completed, a graduate creative writing degree). Sebastian was invited/added to the group by one of the Initiative’s earliest members, Javier Zamora (currently an MFA candidate at NYU). Long story short: I asked Sebastian one evening, on Facebook, if he'd be interested in carrying out an interview for us. Here is the result. Our heartfelt thanks to him as we present this thoughtful exchange, anticipating the final installment of Latino/a Poetry Now, at which Blas Falconer will be one of the featured poets. —FA
Sebastian H. Paramo: The title of your collection I found to be an interesting choice which also embodies the choice to become a parent. Talk about the inspiration and how it felt right to use this as a title. I found it very interesting that this sort of thing still happens today with the foundling wheel, except that it's called a "baby hatch," according to Wikipedia.

Blas Falconer: When Joseph and I adopted our son in 2008, I became the primary care giver of a newborn, so when I wasn’t working, I was with him. A fairly common experience for parents, I had little time for anything else, and the limitations that were placed on my writing shaped the writing itself. Instead of spending an afternoon working on a draft of a poem, I only had time to jot down brief impressions. Writing came in short and infrequent bursts, 20 or 30 minutes long, while the baby napped, and when I probably should have been grading or cleaning up. I had a notebook full of images, files full of “starts.” I needed something to ground the work, an image that functioned as a touchstone, in my mind, at least, and the foundling wheel served that purpose well.

I first learned about foundling wheels from a story on NPR. It was the origin of the medieval device that piqued my interest:
“The first foundling wheel, a rotating platform, dates from 1198. It was installed in the wall of Santo Spirito Hospital near the Vatican on orders from Pope Innocent III. He’d been dismayed by the number of newborns found caught in the nets of fishermen on the Tiber River.”
The image of the foundling wheel and its history captured what was central to the book—the adoption, of course, and what was at stake for everyone involved. In this “scene,” all the major figures could be located on one side of the wall or the other, and the emotionally and legally complicated process of adoption in the modern world could be suggested in one imagined moment, in that turn of the wheel. With this as my foundation, I was finally able to begin pulling the impressions together and write the title poem.

Once a solid draft of the title poem was written, I could move back and forth as if on a timeline to consider the lives before and after, for example, the moment one realizes that he wants to have a child (“Annunciation”) or what it might be like telling the child, a toddler now, about his mother (“You Will Like It Here”). I could consider a birthmother’s hesitation (“Another Point of View”), the impact parenthood has on the relationship (“Maybe I’m Not Here at All”), consider my own childhood (“Passing”), my own parents (“Another Kind of Music”).

Because of the time restraints on my writing, I didn’t finish one poem and then start on the next. I was always drafting and revising several at the same time, so they seem more deeply connected than the poems from my first book, often alluding to each other and back to the image of the foundling wheel, the act of its turning or its tragic origins.

There are other reasons why the title resonated for me, but they are less obvious. The fact that the wheel turned, that this child was quickly transported between two distinct worlds, two distinct lives, made me think an awful lot about the poetic turn, how it can be abrupt, shocking, disorienting. Becoming a parent felt like that, too, and so it seemed an invitation to be more daring than I had been in my first book when it came to turns. The manner in which the work was written—in fragments—leant itself to this.

The wheel also made me think of the cyclical nature of parenthood, what’s passed on to a child—genetically, yes, but also habits, gestures, perspectives. Becoming a father, I couldn’t help but see my own parents differently, their sacrifices. I also saw how much like them I had become. Who influenced them, I wondered, considering the long lineage on either side, and how do those people live still in my own behavior, now? How will my own children be shaped by me, by my history?

Ultimately, I see this narrative and these themes circling this one event, the adoption, and the image of the foundling wheel created the gravitational pull to keep them in orbit.

Sebastian H. Paramo: Many of your poems sort of deal with the presence and absence of child/hood. "Another Kind of Music" seems to embody this, as do some of your other poems. I loved that not only did you bring in your new fatherhood here, but examined your own relationship with your father/childhood with new eyes. Could you talk a little about including this poem and the process? Since it's your longest poem, I wonder because I usually associate long poems with taking longer times to conceive.

Blas Falconer: The book’s arc begins with the realization that a recurring speaker wants to be a father and ends with the couple and the child together in their home, but this story is interrupted by poems that consider his own childhood, how his own parents struggled to understand each other, and what he, as he grew older, thought that he wanted.  “Another Kind of Music,” a prose poem sequence, comes at the middle of the book and addresses many of these issues.

In section one, the speaker acknowledges his homosexuality and his inability to communicate that with anyone. His father knows that something is troubling the boy, but the boy doesn’t think that the father will understand. The second section captures the family, the sister practicing the piano dutifully, the mother sitting still, but there is a sense that everything is going to fall apart, the mother is eventually going to leave. The third section juxtaposes the son’s sense of wonder with the father’s practical sensibility. Their inability to understand each other is made very clear. In section four, the speaker’s desires are growing, and he begins to better understand who he is. In section five, we see the speaker, a young gymnast and his coach. The speaker has fallen in love with the coach, who seems oblivious. The speaker’s heartbreak is told through a moment in which the coach fails to spot the young man as he attempts a new and seemingly dangerous acrobatic move. In six, the young man is with a young woman, and it is his first kiss. In that moment, he makes the decision to kiss her back, if only to avoid confronting his homosexuality or facing heartbreak again. One kiss leads to another, and he becomes the mother, dreaming of a different life.

I wrote the sequence over a long period of time. At first, I didn’t know if it was a poem or a memoir. All I knew was that, in this prose form, I felt free to explore a different syntax (or music) and that I was able to better inhabit the moment that I was trying to recreate. It was as though I were being lowered into a memory, into a younger self. In this space, I felt free to be more open-ended, to leap unapologetically, because I was talking to myself, my adult self, about what had happened to draw parallels with my parents’ relationship, to suggest that, among other things, when communication breaks down between two intimates, it is just another kind of “passing.” 

Sebastian H. Paramo: In some of these poems, I found there to be a sense of loss/absence that echoes from your title poem throughout. Particularly, in "Attic," "Maybe I'm Not Here at All," and "Vertigo" to some degree. Could you talk more about how that loss/absence figures into the putting together of this collection.

Blas Falconer: Several weeks after our son was born, Joseph’s father died. These poems and others address his struggle to grasp his new role as a father while also processing his father’s death. One of the main narrative threads in the book is the toll that everything takes on the adopting parents and how tragedy and fear can make strangers of two people who care about each other.

Toward the end of the book, the elegiac poems and poems about my son’s febrile seizures lead to a more meditative mode on the subject of loss. More specifically, the question posed by Mary in the poem “Annunciation”—To have a child who suffers great pain? Certain death?—resurfaces, and the parents wrestle with this fact.

Sebastian H. Paramo:  One thing I really enjoyed was that your poems engaged with landscape and intersected with the metaphysical landscape. Particularly in your preface and epilogue poems, it seems that they're very much in conversation, by posing the initial uncertainty "/You'll test/yourself the way you always have, a boy /stepping into the dark and the story it held—whatever it was." and the closing poem offering reassurance "Before long, we could skip a bar and reach each other faster, which is/ how you might tell a story." Could you talk a bit about your sequencing of this conversation?

Blas Falconer: If the book as a whole tells the story of this family, then the first poem, a prologue, is a call to the muse, sitting outside of the narrative but expressing the need to speak frankly. “To press the air, to bless the silhouette” is written in loose heroic couplets with the title being the first line, but by the end of the poem, the tight form falls apart to urge the poet to step into the dark and the story it held, “whatever it was.”

The epilogue is a prose poem that reflects on a childhood friend whose father had died, how I struggled and failed to talk about it with my close friend, who I watched suffer tremendously, silently. In “How to Tell a Story,” the two children cross the monkey bars back and forth, and the poem points out that you can tell a story without telling every fact or detail in the story. We can communicate with each other, perhaps more immediately and more powerfully, with a few particular details and gestures, the way we could cross the monkey bars faster by skipping rungs. The figures or characters in this poem are in the body of the book, too, but by placing this poem at the end, outside the narrative as an epilogue, I want to suggest that the book is the story, the individual poems, bars. We skipped many, but I hope that the ones that we’ve touched are enough to get you across.  

Sebastian H. Paramo:   The ekphrastic seems to come in a lot here with your poems "The Annunciation," "Still Life with Three Zinnia Elegans," "Look at You." Do you have a background in art and could you tell us more about how it was useful for this collection? I noticed you seemed to use the poem almost like a canvas in your other poems such as "Still Life With Orange" and that the image of the horse returns in "On Joy."

Blas Falconer: I don’t have a background in the visual arts, but sometimes I like to think of the poems that I’m writing as small films. I’m the director with his camera, zooming in and out, so they are often image driven. I’m trying to render the image in such a way that it mirrors the feeling or feelings that I hope to capture. Eliot’s objective correlative and all that. With the ekphrastic poem, I can focus on an image that isn’t mine, a pleasure in itself, and remain sensitive to the emotions or ideas that rise up. When I studied Bruce Checefsky’s photograph of three blurred blossoms, I felt something similar to the feeling that I had while watching my son have his first seizure, his delicate body trembling fiercely. When I saw Tulu Bayar’s prints of photographers, I began to wonder what they were looking for. I thought of Joseph and his father’s death, how harsh the world seemed to him, but also, that he couldn’t see that he was still the source of great tenderness. The ekphrastic poem allowed me to temporarily turn away from the story while still exploring the themes and emotions that the story wrestled with.

Sebastian H. Paramo:    One last thing, I really loved the way you played with the possibility in your poems. They had a fairy-tale/mythic quality to them. I think it may have to do with the way you somehow suddenly bring us into a moment and then bring us out.

I'm thinking of this particular example:

It begins with

a silver faucet, a salt shaker
on the window sill. I must go
if I want to take you with me.
You've lived here
longer than I've lived
anywhere. Think warm bread,
think fire. Then something more stable,
more lasting, a table or chair.
From there, it builds itself:
the walls, a roof, the world outside,
four dogs, and ten
acres of trees. It's cold.
Today, let's call it a farmhouse.
You say, Maybe a barn painted red.
We build it together, which
is what I meant by Better.

Could you tell us more about this poem?

Blas Falconer: Frankly, becoming a parent for me seemed so unlikely, that the subject matter may have leant itself to this mythic quality. Then, once we miraculously became parents, we struggled to understand what that meant for us. Throughout the book, there are references to adoption stories—Joseph and Mary, for example, and Moses, of course—but these stories clearly wouldn’t serve as models for our family. As can be seen in “Another Kind of Music,” my own upbringing wouldn’t work either, so we had to imagine something new for ourselves. This poem speaks directly to that desire to build our lives together, less from where we’d come or what we knew, and more from what we imagined was right for us, one image at a time. “Lighter,” the penultimate poem in the book, shows the home built and a moment when the two parents work together to care for their child.

Blas Falconer is an NEA fellow and the author of two poetry collections: The Foundling Wheel (Four Way Books 2012) and A Question of Gravity and Light (University of Arizona Press 2007). His poems have been published in various literary journals and featured by Poets and Writers, Poetry Daily, The Poetry Foundation, and Poetry Society of America. A coeditor of The Other Latino: Writing Against a Singular Identity (University of Arizona Press 2011) and Mentor and Muse: Essays from Poets to Poets (Southern Illinois University Press 2010), he teaches at the University of Southern California and in the low-residency MFA at Murray State University.
Sebastian H. Paramo
Sebastian H. Paramo is Texas native and has lived in Dallas, Milwaukee, and New York. He received his BA from the University of North Texas & MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. He is an editor at the online journal, The Boiler and his work has appeared or is forthcoming in Terminus, Canary, Lunch Ticket, The Oklahoma Review, Used Furniture Review among others. He was recently awarded a residency at the Vermont Studio Center. Currently, he lives in New York where he teaches college writing at College of Mount Saint Vincent. 

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