First in a series of interviews with poets to be featured at Split This Rock Poetry Festival: Poems of Provocation & Witness, 2016
by M. F. Simone Roberts, Poetry & Social Justice Fellow
Rigoberto González, author of 17 books of prose and poetry and avid book reviewer, has graciously agreed to judge Split This Rock’s 2016 Poetry Contest. We are doubly lucky that he agreed to give a featured reading at the 2016 Poetry Festival: Poems of Provocation & Witness in April 14-17, here in DC. The poet he chooses to win the 2016 contest will also read at the festival during one of our free poetry readings in the evenings.
Before we dive in, I want to let our readers know that I tend to wonder about what people think might be possible, even wildly imaginary, solutions or improvements to our problems. I think many are fully aware of problems facing us in this time. At this point, I’m interested in where poets or advocates want to go – what their neighborhoods in the beloved community look like. Also, my frames of reference come from the avant-garde literary tradition and European philosophers. I've tried to structure some of these questions to reach from that background toward the frames of reference González presents in his poetics, and then let things happen. In this way, traditions that don't often talk to each other in public might begin to communicate.
Because we focus on poetry that witnesses for and fosters social justice, on issues that affect a wide range of communities, urgency is a primary quality. González is like many in this community of poets -- he knows he's writing to save lives, his own and many others, from the hazards of the global economic dislocation we call "illegal immigration," to the particular menace US society presents to queer people, and people of color, and queer people of color, to the deeply dysfunctional relationship between our current civilization and the natural world that supports and surpasses it. In the taut beauty of the poetry I spend my time with here at Split This Rock, there is one constant demand -- to live, to thrive.
I hope the interview that follows highlights the ways that Rigoberto González works on the side of life. I hope also that it leads you to go buy and read his poetry and fiction. I have been re-reading Unpeopled Eden and Our Lady of the Crossword, and poems on the internet -- obsessively.
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Simone Roberts : If you don’t mind, we might start in the practical realm. A central element of our mission is to bring poetry back to the center of public life in the US. As Split This Rock goes forward, we’re looking for ways to enliven connections between the poetry and advocacy/activism communities, so I want to ask you about this connection or interplay in your work. What’s your dynamic between these ways of being a citizen, how do you take poetry into your activism or vice versa? Or maybe you don't?
Rigoberto González : As a queer person of color and an immigrant, it’s impossible not to view my writing through a political lens, and that’s exactly how it should be considered. As an artist, that is what I take to my craft—my memories, my journey thus far, my political leanings and my literary education, much of which is the work of other political voices: queer, feminist, ethnic, etc. My identity will not be separated from my imagination. One of my many concerns has been to express myself as a queer body of color, as an immigrant, to make these identities visible and voiced because there’s a dangerous sentiment out there that wants to silence those voices, make invisible those bodies. I am not afraid of declaring my work political because I have no choice. I will not hide or apologize or disguise where I am coming from, who I am. I learned this courage from the poets and writers who came before me.
SR : I'm a huge fan of your imperative that readers and writers need to read broadly. In one interview you said you tell your students to “never be caught off-guard” when someone mentions a writer. The fiction writer Carole Maso's character Ava reads "promiscuously," allows all kinds of collisions and attractions among writers, styles, periods. The point being to make literary contact with as many different kinds of people / writers / styles as you can. It’s a way of honoring differences, reading outside one’s VEN-diagram of identities and one's tradition. We have readers who will be in the know, but would you describe for others the most vital or surprising trends you see in Latino and Chicano poetry, a few writers you would like us all to drop everything and read right now?
RG : Before I discuss Latino literature and drop some names, I’d like to add that I also insist that my students read works in translation. Not only is it a good way to expand their literary map, but also to understand that American culture is one thread in an extraordinary tapestry of cultures that will enrich their education. I ask them to start with the Nobel Laureates and work their way into the various countries, continents and eras. One trend in Latino poetry that I’ve been pleased about is the growing participation of young voices whose ancestry is Central American or South American. The largest groups within the category of Latino are Chicano, Cuban and Puerto Rican, so it’s great to see writers like Javier Zamora (who was born in El Salvador but who writes in English) and Juan J. Morales (who is of Peruvian and Puerto Rican ancestry)—his book The Siren World was recently released-- and the Panamanian American poet Darrel Alejandro Holnes. Also, Maya Chinchilla, the Guatemalan American author of The Cha Cha Files: A Chapina Poética. Recently, I’ve been excited by the work of Chicana poet Natalie Scenters-Zapico (read The Verging Cities) and Puerto Rican poet Urayoán Noel’s Buzzing Hemisphere/ Rumor Hemisférico.
SR : I was jealous of the questions Bernard Lumpkin asked you in your 2013 Lambda Literary interview – they were so good. I want to extend in a few directions from one of them having to do with identity. Lumpkin asked why Maui (the protagonist in the Mariposa Trilogy , a series of young adult novels about a young genderqueer Hispanic man) in Mariposa Gown participates in a worker’s rights demonstration, and you answered with the great point that he is not the “center of one story, he is a participant in a network of stories.” One way to go with this idea is abstract: what do you see happening with the rich trends we call “identity politics” and “intersectionality” these days, and are you encouraged by the trends you see?
RG : Yes. Because it shows we are learning from our own communities. Our communities are so endogamous that the multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic identities are not perceived as unusual anymore. Our young people are embracing intersectional identity in ways that are so complex that they are changing the language, the literary landscape. I’m also referring to the trans and gender-fluid communities, to the Afro-Latino communities, which keep showing us that the homogeneity of any kind has always been a fallacy. I am particularly amazed by our trans communities that continue to lead despite the dangers and despite our willful ignorance. The trans communities are so far ahead of us, we need to stop and listen.
SR : When you imagine a world that’s a good place for queer and transgender people, what are the qualities of that world?
RG : As much as we struggle for acceptance and freedom, I believe that in the end we are simply looking for that space where we can communicate, interact and even disagree without the loaded language or baggage of difference and misunderstanding. I believe that’s why the page—that beautiful place of expression—is so attractive to many of us writers. We continually create that world, we are constantly situating ourselves within it, and we hope that our reality will mirror that imagined space.
SR : I am fan of many ideas of “decentering,” of not making oneself or one’s kind the center to every other margin. One of my favorite French philosophers who works on gender implores her readers to each have our own Copernican Revolution and stop imagining ourselves as the Earth before we understood we go around the Sun. So, another direction to take this question is less abstract: who are authors, or works, you’ve encountered who are good at writing in or through their many stories? At decentering, or making more complex the expression of their identity?
RG : The Chinana writers Alma Luz Villanueva, Helena María Viramontes and Denise Chávez immediately come to mind. Their fictional narratives are richly layered with multiple perspectives so that everyone has a voice and the result is this collective of experiences that teach us how, even in shared space, within the same community, there are multiple planes of being. In poetry, I have to single out the poet Ai, one of my early champions and also a significant literary influence. She never wrote autobiographical poems, but that didn’t mean she didn’t write about herself. Instead, she looked at the struggles, anxieties and demons of her creations as a way to understand the contexts of her own curiosities and questions. And like I noted earlier: translation is always an excellent way to decenter the self as an American identity. There’s no better passport than a book in translation.
SR : The imagery in Unpeopled Eden relates to this question of expanded identity. It’s written in the voices of dead and the “dead” -- people who are marginalized. Especially in poems like "La Pelona as Birdwoman," the starkness, the violence of it remind me of Arthur Rimbaud, a 19th century French poet who came from the provinces and the working class, was queer, and who wrote from perspectives and in voices that French poetry had never heard before. Also, neither of you offer any warning, or explanatory apparatus. This jarring language is the language for the world of these poems, which is not the world the readers know. Both you and Rimbaud insist readers either learn that language or remain strangers. They’re poems that are secure in their “otherness.”
... I've taken
all the antifreeze.
A puddle thick with red--
next to my wounds
and pray for me,
a string of pigeon skulls
By dawn our bone pieta
breaks out of its shadow,
unleashes its cicada cry.
Like Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell, this is a journey to realms where the living, or those who make themselves unavailable to trouble, grief, cruelty, to cannot go. This isn’t about influence. I wonder about the capacity of your language in this book. You've built a language for yourself that, like Rimbaud's but in a contemporary way, slams loss and love and violence and grief and sex and beauty and fragility all right next each other -- it's how your poetry arrives at its own realism. When did you feel this style or voice coming to you in your poetry, and was it surprising? For you, how do you feel it interacts with what's real, whether that's the radical insecurity of the migra or the half-life of people who live too close to death?
RG : I’m quite pleased that you responded to the language of the book because it required so much labor to achieve. Another way to think about the dead (who are not dead) is through my preferred trope: ghosts. In many ethnic cultures, ghosts are the manifestations of those things mysterious, unresolved, of those relationships unreconciled, things left unsaid and undone, that haunt us for life. I frequently explore death in my work and I wanted to find another way to sift through the rubble. Unpeopled Eden was a particularly difficult book to write because what haunted me was my father’s death. I am currently writing a third book about my relationship with my father, not because I want answers, but because I want to understand what happened. I knew then that I need to speak about our relationship in a language that communicated with the ghost of my father’s presence and absence in my life. I gathered the images, the shards and fragments, and pieced them together, like that string of pigeon skulls that make a rosary. I kept at it, gathering and weaving, until this imagined world, this surreal landscape became real—the place where my father and I could meet, two beings from different planes of existence (what we had always been, even while he was alive), and talk.
SR : This one's a little more complicated, but still on the identity-difference theme. Buddhists think of the self as a practice or a collection of activities or habits that can be changed (though not easily). A handful of Western philosophers (without Buddhism) have attempted to shift or open their collection of habits in really brutal ways. Rimbaud promoted a “derangement of the senses." He meant to sort of shake and reorder his physical senses, but also his sense of meaning. He lived in a time of huge social and economic change, and wanted to make himself over, and to write poetry in completely new ways. He was also very confrontational in relation to “tradition” and class and the kinds of politeness that choke down change.
In the 20th century, this kind of thing gets to be a normal method and takes on very political overtones. The Situationist International used détournment (loosely: flipping the script, culture jamming) and dérive (loosely: drifting through social or public spaces with vastly different vibes) to challenge common expectations of a capitalist society and imagine other ways of being and doing. But, détournment doesn't just mean looking critically at the world. It means engaging with it in really disruptive ways that force the mind and body, and other people, to engage with, say, a clothing boutique or a residential urban street, or a fancy restaurant in unconventional, even violent ways. Ideally, this process eventually affects “the system.” These are possibly self-harming methods, and often involved drugs like mescaline or LSD. But, Rimbaud and others in this line thought of these brutal practices as almost spiritual kinds of re-shaping a self, re-making the world.
Certainly, reading can be a gentler kind of mental unsettling and shuffling. I wonder if you think about practices for opening up more elements of ourselves, or opening to other kinds of people or the world that might benefit individuals? And, how you feel those ways of being open "scale up" or might be tweaked for various communities in the US? I mean, beyond reading. Is it possible that we need something more radical than what we've tried before?
RG : If we’re now moving into the social sphere, then the alternative is a shift in leadership and release of control of the dominant narrative. In the U.S., whiteness is still the center. Heteronormativity is still the center. Those two elements are being unsettled because there are hostile and vocal reactions to what assumes a position of power or visibility that does not fit the desired profile—hello, Obama, hello gay marriage. But to bring it closer to home, let’s consider the growth of the Latino population in the U.S., and how the representation in politics is growing, but not sizeable—not yet. That fear, of the browning of America, is what’s bringing to the forefront all of these racist political candidates who are enabling racist reactions to a group that, tough cookies, is here to stay, and grow and grow and grow. What should be happening is communication, not pushback, otherwise whiteness will continue to be perceived as an obstacle, not a potential collaborator or ally, which will only bring more conflict and strife. But I don’t want to come across as simplistic by saying representation and inclusion are key (though they are necessary). Rather, I think we need to challenge all those binaries, move away from the black or white world, from the this or thats of our everyday interactions. This is where I place my faith on the young. As digital natives, as a population that is experiencing the complicated world during their formative years, it is they who will show us how it’s done. So instead of singling out class, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, race, let me celebrate the guidance of the young who must live with the damage the rest of us have made. We owe these young people so many apologies. Yet I am inspired by them—they will have helped us reconfigure, reimagine, rethink our world. So that’s a long-winded way of saying, I am not sure I have the answer to your question, but I am positive the next generation will be more useful than I have been.
SR : I want to ask you a handful of questions about the writer's life. You mentioned in your PEN Ten interview that a way writers hurt themselves is by sitting in bad chairs and slouching. Your solution was an ergonomic sitting ball, to keep your back in good alignment. You got me thinking about self-care for writers, and activists, who work on painful issues, who live in communities so pressed with grief these days. Times are always like this, sure, but I think each era is like this in its own thorny way. What do you feel is particular about this era and the self-care required to confront it? I’m thinking of state violence and the Movement for Black Lives, emboldened conservative attacks on all levels of women’s autonomy, of the terrifying violence against transgender men and women. There's a lot of exhaustion going around.
RG : Activist fatigue, I believe it’s called, this inundation of language and imagery that keeps hammering the negative—it fuels desperation and anxiety. Social media, for all the good that it has achieved (such as empower people with the ability to disseminate information and amplify voice) also has its downside. I have been active on Twitter and I have to remind myself that this is a tool that filters and funnels, that it is only one view of the complicated world I inhabit. I imagine Facebook (which I never joined) is the same. As are the circles we run in, the social groups we cultivate. It can become so easy to narrow our own vision. That is why I have friendships and participate in activities that are somewhat removed from the political quadrant I engage in. We keep emphasizing allies, but we should keep our networks expansive, our safe spaces varied and our interactions as diverse as possible. And as much as we have become addicted to social media, it’s healthy to step away from it. I have gotten into the habit of stepping out without my phone, whenever I can. It feels heavenly.
SR : You're comfortable and accomplished in several genres. How does it go for you, feeling out which idea or kind of meaning needs to take form as fiction, or poetry, or essay?
RG : This many books later, it’s not that difficult for me to decide what platform is best for the idea that’s spinning around my mind. I know that if it’s personal it’s going to be served best by memoir; if it’s an image, it will find its home in a poem; if it’s a character, it will become fiction. There is so much overlap—I do love employing image and poetic language in prose, I do employ characters in my poetry, but that usually takes place at a different point in the writing process. In the beginning I had so many false starts, but now I usually think about it so clearly and have written so much that I know before the first word is written what it’s going to be. That doesn’t necessarily mean there will be no surprises in the writing, there always are. If there are not, it’s not worth sharing.
SR : Three closing questions. Kind of like Proust’s ten questions, but shorter. 1) What do you think of paradox and fluidity? 2) What makes you most content? 3) What's your writing snack? You've said before that you often write late at night into the wee hours. This must require sustenance. So, what does the body want when writing?
RG : 1) I prefer the term complexity, and I use it liberally, even in my conversations. I believe complexity is the most honest representation of human behavior. It doesn’t make people easier to understand, but it does allow us to acknowledge their contradictions, changes of heart, etc. No one is from another planet, no one is an alien. 2) I actually confessed to someone recently that I am most happy when I am reading, writing, or talking about books. The first two are solitary, the third is more social, but the common denominator is imagination. I am most content when I am motivated by imagination. 3) I need my protein: nuts, Greek yogurt, peanut butter, and caffeinated tea.
Thank you, Rigoberto, for the generosity of your responses and sharing your time and mind with us. It's particularly wonderful that you shared your insight into the generations now growing into their own, and the re-imagining of life, of power, of being together happening among young queer and transgender poets and thinkers! In this time, it's good to be reminded that the radical imagination is still alive, that we will owe our queer and transgender deep gratitude going forward. All these beautiful and inevitable shifts are happening, and the old systems of symbols and power feel it, but I'm sure we can outlast them. Like your inhabitants of Mictlán we may have to become real strangers to this world, but we can outlast them. Those who cling to the old regime will be so surprised when the next era of social being is established and they find themselves so unharmed. But, thank you mostly for the sustenance of your poetry, of all your writing. The poet's who submit to our poetry contest this year are lucky to have such a poet considering their work. We look forward to hearing you read your loving and brutal poems in the spring at the festival. Be well.
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Rigoberto González is author of four books of poetry, most recently Unpeopled Eden, which won the Lambda Literary Award and the Lenore Marshall Prize from the Academy of American Poets. His ten books of prose include bilingual children's books, young adult novels, and Butterfly Boy: Memories of a Chicano Mariposa, which received the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation. He edited Camino del Sol: Fifteen Years of Latina and Latino Writing and Alurista's new Xicano Duende: A Select Anthology. The recipient of Guggenheim and NEA fellowships, the Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, and many other accolades, he is professor of English at Rutgers-Newark, the State University of New Jersey. In 2015, he received The Bill Whitehead Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Publishing Triangle.
Visit his website to learn more: RigobertoGonzález.com.
González has given a number of great interviews. Search for them, and you won't have wasted your time. Here's a selection of interviews I found particularly powerful.
Fate of the Writer at The Rumpus
The PEN Ten at PEN American Center
Poets Forum 2014, Rigoberto González, for the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize at Academy of American Poets
Populating the Bookshelves by Bernard Lumpkin at Lambda Literary
Sitting Down at Rutgers
Spotlight on Hispanic Writers interview and reading at Library of Congress
M. F. Simone Roberts is the Poetry & Social Justice Fellow for Split This Rock. Roberts is an