Sunday, February 9, 2014

Written in Water: A Conversation with Manuel Paul López

Manuel Paul López is the author of Death of a Mexican and Other Poems (Bear Star Press, 2006) for which he was awarded the Dorothy Brunsman Poetry Prize and The Yearning Feed (University of Notre Dame, 2013) winner of the Ernest Sandeen Prize in Poetry. And while both collections are almost ten years apart they read—to me—as extensions of each other. (Paul will be reading from The Yearning Feed on Wednesday February 12, at the campus of the University of Notre Dame.)

These are poems filled with electrifying lyricism, unexpected humor and great imagery; employing a variety of forms including free verse, the psalm, the sonnet, and the letter—these poems explore the physical and metaphorical border. Yes, the U.S.-Mexico border but also cultural and linguistic and historical borders.

Some poets might venture out to say that their verses are written in blood or in fire but I would venture out to say that the verses of Manuel Paul López are written in water—which makes for verses (and borders) that are fluid and soak and absorb and spill beyond their physical limits. As in the series titled “The Xoco Letters.” Set far from the border set in Chicago, in Rick Bayless’ Xoco restaurant to be exact, “The Xoco Letters” dip the fibers of undocumented Mexicans whose bodies lie dried and preserved in our deserts into the glasses of America—of Xoco patrons who have a “choice of tap or sparkling with slices of lime—classy!”

Paul Manuel López holds in his hand the bitter glass that is the history of Mexicanos in the U.S., a population that has historically been— as during WWII, times of labor shortage—been recruited to serve as a disposable working class and in times of crisis—as during the Great Depression or more recently during the post-NAFTA period—been vilified for their condition as economic refugees and a surplus working class.

This is a glass as bitter as aguardiente but also—through the alchemy of the poet—as refreshing as water.

Lauro Vazquez: Thank you for agreeing to the interview, Paul. This is a two part question: First, you grew up in the border town of El Centro, California which I presume has a particular climate, geography, culture etc. How did this landscape affect you as a poet, in other words, did El Centro, did the border ever read to you as text of poetry?

Thank you so much, Lauro, for the opportunity to share some thoughts here at Letras Latinas.  Yes, I grew up in El Centro, California, which is a small town near the Calexico/Mexicali border.  The Imperial Valley, as the region is known, is made up of several towns, such as Calexico, Brawley, Imperial, Holtville, Seeley, Ocotillo, and Heber.  The geography is flat desert land that pulls water from the Colorado River via a complex network of irrigation systems or canals that feed the agricultural industry and brings water to the homes of thousands of Valley residents.

My relationship with the Imperial Valley is one of love, pride and respect.  I taught at the high school and community college for several years where I met many wonderful and brilliant students. 

As a source for my poetry, the Imperial Valley is very much a part of my work at times, but not necessarily always. The fields, canals, language that I heard and hear when I return—they’re in the stanzas I write and the dialogue that speaks. I must also say, however, that I am by no means attempting to be a spokesperson or an authority on the region.  That’s neither my place nor my intent.

LV: I know for instance that Andres Montoya was significant influence to you—his work is very much I think a reflection of the central valley; it captures the valley as text. Do you see your work in the same vein, that is as reflecting the landscape in which you grew up?

Andres Montoya.  Yes, I am indebted to his work for many reasons.  I made an unexpected discovery one evening in the Imperial Valley College library when I happened to grab his book from the stacks several years ago.  It was one of those books that rip your mind open and let in the light, especially at a time in my life when I was struggling to maintain clarity in what it was I wanted to do.  I’ve written and spoken about this before, but the first poem I ever read by Montoya was “Star Struck” in his collection The Iceworker Sings.  Everything I knew but didn’t consciously know was embedded in that poem: the valley landscapes, its ditch banks and expansive star-littered skies, the intimacy of the voice, the hope, the resilience, I was enchanted in an instant, Lauro.  I love that poem immensely and owe just as much because it validated a particular perspective that I’d harbored without even knowing it yet.

Many speak of certain literary permissions that are granted through their readings and discoveries of new works; new ways to express whether in form or content—reading Montoya was just that sort of experience for me.  In terms of seeing my work in the same vein as Montoya’s, my only hope is to continue reaching for what he accomplished in that beautiful book, but more importantly, to continue turning on new readers, new generations of poetry readers, to Andres Montoya’s work.

LV: Lets talk about water. Water seems to be the cornerstone of these poems; it is both a recurring motif and a recurring image. To be more specific the cornerstone is the prologue poem in Death of a Mexican, the poem titled “The Poet and the Tía:”

That boy of yours, Consuelo,
he sure is sensitive.

What's wrong with him?
Every time he leaves the house

he comes back wet:
puddles on the floor,

clothes a sopping mess,
tosiendo como un burro enfermo.

We live in a desert for godsakes!
How does he get so wet?

Where does he find
such sad-looking rain?

The question “How does he get so wet?” seems to imply the poet as water bearer, as the one in charge of finding water where there is none, where there is only bone-dry death, would you agree?

My work sometimes introduces a ‘seer’ of sorts, a speaker or character who risks his or her own self-preservation in order to attain some other vantage point of understanding.  There is a dancer in love with the spirit of Nijinski, a writer who wears a black cape and carries Neruda’s memoir around like a book-thumping wise guy, there are fathers obsessed with Henry Miller and his cohort of 20th century rascals, or grandmothers who ride giant, flying tortillas in a piece called “When Abuelita Poems Attack.” This cast of characters often appear in moments of crisis, familial strife, injustice, because let’s face it, the times we’re living in have put us in a vice, a pressure cooker, testing our resilience at every turn.  So in this regard, yes, not only the poet, but all artists should feel compelled to find water where there is none. 

LV: In The Yearning Feed we have of course “The Xoco Letters,” which along with your own verses incorporate the reviews of Yelp users. These are of juxtaposed very carefully with the poets own observations and with reportage-like insertions that reflect the current reality of migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. It is a Dante-like descent into the border. For instance:


Since volunteering with the Border Angels, I’ve witness two water tanks slashed. One near Jacumba was contaminated with urine. Who would do such a thing, Xoco? Xoco, there is only one thing as unforgiving, and that is thirst.


Run Run se fue pa’l Norte
no sé cuando vendrá

--Violete Parra


(from Yelp Review #3)

Amy S.

Columbus, OH
We filled our glasses with water (your choice of tap or sparkling with slices of lime—classy!) and we were seated at our table.

“Yelp review #3” is particularly haunting as it is repeated several times throughout the sequence. As a reader I had the experience of being metaphorically disembodied, of being torn by the viscera between the border of the poet, and the slashed and pissed on jugs of water and the border of clean glasses “with slices of lime.”   What can you tell us about this particular Yelp review, perhaps as how it relates to your process as a poet and of course its relation to the border, and what effect you wanted it to have on the reader. Also many of your poems are visionary collages of the border—at times these are bleak and dystopian. How did you come to develop this aesthetic?

The excerpt from “Yelp review #3” is about privilege and entitlement.  It’s intended to create a looping effect, a suggestion of abundance and waste, comfort, ignorance, clarity; it’s an attempt to present the reader face-to-face throughout the poem’s duration with a clear and stark image of a simple glass of water where one has the luxury to choose tap or to make the experience ‘classy’ by ordering sparkling with a slice of lime.  I thought this detail was an interesting and revealing phrase in this particular Yelp review.  Now juxtaposing this against the urgency of those who lack the prospects of even a sip of water during their migration through the harsh deserts creates a conflict in my mind, one that I’m reminded of every time I pick up a glass of water to drink.

The migrant deaths that occur in the deserts along the border with Mexico every year are an ongoing tragedy, as you know.  I am often outraged by the politics that surround this issue, the lack of compassion, politicians who speak from both sides of their mouths.  “The Xoco Letters” really began in April 2010 when I attended the Tucson Poetry Festival.  While there, I met a woman associated with the Samaritans, an organization committed to leaving water and providing first aid to migrants they find in need along the border, among many other important functions as an organization. The stories she told me were heartbreaking.  She also gave me a copy of a book called Crossing with the Virgin, published by University of Arizona Press.  It’s a collection of first-hand accounts told to Samaritan volunteers by migrants who had miraculously survived the treacherous journey north.  In addition to this, while on my way home from the festival at the end of the weekend, I remember looking into a newspaper dispenser at the airport and reading a headline about Arizona’s SB1070 and what it entailed.  I remember feeling infuriated, but also stunned by its implications.  When I returned home, I began reading the ongoing debates, blogs, newspapers, and many of the comment threads associated with this contentious legislation.  Words like “anchor babies” to describe children born to undocumented mothers were flung by many.  It was repulsive, dehumanizing, and twisted. On Sunday, April 4th 2010 a 7.2 earthquake hit the Mexicali border region and caused a significant amount of damage on both sides of the border—my parents’ home was rocked hard.  In Mexicali, houses fell, streets cracked.  Let’s just say the weekend’s events collectively took on a different meaning for me as time passed. 

The collage style you mention derives from my readings of Raul Zuríta, especially Purgatory. I was also reading Bernadette Mayer’s work, William Carlos Williams (specifically, Patterson), Guillermo Gomez-Pena’s Warrior for Gringostroika, C.D. Wright’s One with Others and One Big Self, Luis Alberto Urrea’s The Devil’s Highway, and Juliana Spahr’s This Connection of Everyone With Lungs and Response, among others.  All of these works used information, found materials, images, etc. in incredibly striking ways, and I tried to learn something from them. This is not the type of poem I tend to write, but it’s something I had to do in an attempt to expel the nightmares I was having at the time, and most importantly, to draw whatever attention I could to this matter.

Not too long ago, I visited the Terrace Park Cemetery in Holtville, California to see for myself the small plots marked “Jane” or “John Doe”.  These are designated for unidentified migrants who have died attempting to cross into the United States.  Periodically, members of San Diego’s humanitarian group, The Border Angels, leave small, wooden brightly-colored crucifixes near the stones that read “No olvidados” to honor the spirit and dignity of the deceased whose bodies will never return to their families.  It’s really heavy, Lauro.  This burial ground is behind the actual cemetery. To visit, one must trek toward the back end of the cemetery grounds and step over a roped area to enter, an implied criminal act. To stand in that space, knowing there will most likely be more, is heart wrenching.  This is something we must remember as Congress considers a $46 billion dollar plus check to bolster border security.

LV: What do you think is the importance of humor in your poems? Do we take poetry too seriously?  I am thinking specifically of the poem “The Lecture,” in which the father is reproaching the poet for keeping his nose in books while the father (an older Mexicano) holds in his stories all of the Western canon, if you will:

We are all part of the same mierda, cabrón. So why waste time with books like those when you have a storyteller like me at home. Now go and tell you mom that I'm speaking iambic and that I'm feeling horny tonight. Go on. Before it’s too late.

What are your thoughts on this?

On a different note, for me, humor is an essential element of what makes us human beings.  It’s one of the body and mind’s greatest protections.  It’s the magnificent release, escape, defense, etc.  As satire or social critique, it allows us to resist the corruption and injustices of our times by handing the pile of shit back to its source in the guise of a cascarón, which in turn, is smashed over the head of the aggressor.

In relation to comedic or humorous material, I think of what Louis Zukofsky said, though he wasn’t referring to humor, I don’t think, but I’d like to apply it here: “All you have to do is say ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ That’s about all we have ever done as far as action is concerned.  The trouble is most people just won’t be that definite.”  I think this is true.  It is certainly true in my case.  So with this comes an abundance of sloppiness, a rubric of misunderstandings, an obstacle course of starts and stops, trips and falls, which are all great aspects of the human comedy, no?

Humor also provides a push and pull effect in the work I love to read; it’s intertwined within the duality of ecstasy and pain; it can complicate the tension depending on the way it’s used.  I happen to be titillated by the irreverent—it’s exciting to me, confusing, uncomfortable. Humor can also be a hostile—violent even—truth serum.  We can see examples of this in the work of Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Lenny Bruce, and in more recent times, in the comedy of Dave Chappelle, Margaret Cho, and Sarah Silverman, to name a few.  In the arts, I always learn something new by revisiting the work of the great Chican@ arts collective Asco, or Guillermo Gómez-Peña, or Nao Bustamante.  Or from the paintings of Jean Michel Basquiat, with his extraordinary breadth of historical knowledge, color palette and slick condemnations that ironically, in many cases, hang on the pristine walls of the rich.  And of course, there is the incomparable poetry of Nicanor Parra—his work is wondrously funny and just as critical, a real surgeon of nuances. 

Humor in my poetry is just one element, I hope.  It’s one possibility.  I just read a fantastic John Yau quote that went something like: “It’s better to have more possibilities—some even contradictory—than less.”  For me, this is an incredible insight, one I try to apply to all facets of my life.

“Do we take poetry too seriously?”  I know I do.

LV: Finally you will be reading at Notre Dame on February 12, which is my birthday, so will you read an excerpt from “The Lecture” for me, before its too late?  Of course!  Thanks again. 

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