This is the first of a three-part series featuring conversations on poetics, identity and writing among CantoMundo poets. I first met poets Ruben Quesada and David Tomas Martinez at the CantoMundo Fellowship Retreat this past June. After a weekend of readings at the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center, some of the fellows went out to a bar for our last night; Erika L. Sánchez, David and I, along with author Brian Kornell, piled into Ruben’s car and we continued a discussion we’d been having all along at the retreat: Latin@ identity and poetics. Over beers later at the bar, we discussed everything from Hitchcock to basketball to code-switching (I also might’ve accused David of being a clandestine bullfighter, but that’s another story) At the end of the night, running across a busy street in the rain back to Ruben’s car, the banter that had developed between Ruben and David became a sort of incantation that led me to think more deeply about what it means to be a Latin@ poet in 2013. It is with great pleasure that I introduce Ruben Quesada and David Tomas Martinez to start off this series. —Rosebud Ben-Oni
Rosebud Ben-Oni: What led you to poetry?
David Tomas Martinez: The honest answer as to why I got into poetry? Because I didn’t know any better, because going to college was as improbable as making a living through poetry, and my parents, who were not college educated, didn’t have the authoritative stance they normally have. Honestly, as a teenager, I didn’t think I was going to live past 23, so why not take a chance? Also, I had what all writers have, a strong sense of ego coupled with crippling bouts of self-criticism and doubt; in other words, I wanted to prove myself to others, but believed I was special enough to prove myself. I look back, and I have done a lot of crazy stuff, but it was by far the craziest.
I had a child as a senior in high school, 17 and no diploma. I went to adult school after a brief stint working in a shipyard, so that I could join the Navy. The Navy changed many things for me. It allowed me to separate from the gang life in which I was entrenched and gain some perspective as to what I could become. I was discharged a year later and attended Job Corps and pursued house painting. While at Job Corps, the “coach” of the intramural basketball team noticed my potential as a basketball player and asked if I had interest in playing basketball at the local junior college. It was a dream for me. Unfortunately, I had no idea how college worked and showed up to the first day of classes without a class or being enrolled or any materials particularly attributed to being a student. I may have had a pencil, but I seriously doubt it.
Ruben Quesada: I have always been an introvert. Having had minimal contact with classmates and kids outside of school, I turned to writing. I wrote to those I knew. I wrote them letters that I’d never share. I wrote to the girls I had crushes on; I wrote to my sisters who made me angry; I wrote to my mother whom I’d started to think didn’t understand me. Eventually, in high school, I’d come to understand that my writing could be crafted. I’d read poetry in school, but I never understood its place in my life.
In my senior year of high school an English teacher, Lucila Dypiangco, assigned extra credit to enter the inaugural Los Angeles Times Cesar Chavez essay/poetry contest. I missed the deadline for extra credit but a classmate, Irma Rodriguez, pushed me to enter the contest on my own. I did. And I won. Poetry filled an emptiness. It was through poetry that I could be heard and I could be imaginative.
RBO: Why study poetry, and why a PhD?
RQ: My mother always insisted that with education I would be successful. With her encouragement and the guidance of a high school counselor, I was admitted into NYU’s Dramatic Writing program and San Francisco State University’s Creative Writing Department, but making a decision on where to attend was beyond my control. I couldn’t afford to go anywhere. I didn’t receive enough funding to attend either school, and my mother certainly couldn’t afford to pay for anything. My older sisters all went to a local community college and eventually earned their undergraduate degrees. And I followed in their footsteps.
After finishing high school, I worked and went to East Los Angeles College part-time, where I learned about poetry from poet Carol Lem. I transferred into a creative writing program that would allow me to continue to work and attend school. I earned an undergraduate degree from the Creative Writing department at University of California, Riverside (UCR), and I continued working for the next five years. After saving money and paying off debt, I returned to UCR to complete an MFA, and during the last year of the program I took a literature course and found my love for literary theory. I knew then that I wanted to pursue a doctorate degree that would allow me to explore literary theory and continue to write poetry.
DTM: I never ended up playing basketball. I got a job and continued to go to school. Even when I was younger, and spent my days hanging out and gangbanging, I still would try and go home and read philosophy, such as Nietzsche’s, not that I understood the books, but I wanted to know more. My plan has always been to get one degree, and go to work. First it was my Associate’s degree, then it was my Bachelor’s, then it was my Master’s, and now it is my Doctorate.
Each time I was ready to stop learning, there were figures in my life encouraging me to further my education. I feel like the ghost in the machine, the tick that makes the television turn on without anyone touching it. I have no idea how I got into the academy, beyond the fact that, for whatever reason, people have taken an interest in me and my work. And the only reason I chose poetry was because I enjoyed working through and understanding a poem. Those anthologized poems seemed so wondrous with their enumerated lines and paper reminiscent of the Bible, and those anthologized poems seemed so distant from my reality. The obvious next step is creating your own poem. Which I did not do very well, but I am not one of those false-modesty poets, and I do recognize moves that would intrigue me about a student. Or at least I like to tell myself that and give a boost to my teaching and early work.
RBO: Has your upbringing/identity affected you?
DTM: Much of my identity has been guided by location, being born in San Diego, California, near the border, product of a biracial relationship, of working-class stock. Neither of my parents have a college degree, so my childhood was pretty meat and potatoes, or rice and beans if you will. My father was born here, but his father emigrated from Acapulco and settled in Tijuana. He was a short, dark-skinned man. My father’s mother was born in Los Angeles and her family has been there for as long as she can remember. My white side is an intermingling of French, English, and the obligatory American Indian drop (an interesting talk would be to discuss the possible reasons so many groups claim indigenous blood); however, every person on my white side has married, or is married, to a person of Mexican descent. So both sides of my family are mixed and matched with all sorts of ethnicities. This led to a childhood that was fairly pluralistic. I was always around brown, black or white people. I understood very early the registers of various languages that the different cultures adopted. I became sensitive to them, which would help me later as a poet.
In particular, I became able to code switch. At home, it was necessary for me to speak correct English; slang was permitted only in increments, especially as I began to drift towards gangs. When we would visit family I would have to follow the Spanish and reply. With my friends, we spoke in a language that most kids become familiar with, a language that excludes the uninitiated. All forms of jargon, and slang is a form of jargon, are used to exclude outsiders. It also shows membership within a group. Doctors use Latin to name diseases. Besides it being a language of power (Latin sounds like a magical spell—that’s why the Catholic church uses it), it keeps the patient unaware of the true ramifications of the diagnosis, and calmer. Now this might be a simplification of jargon; however, this is by analogy a point that I can make to exemplify the power I felt when using slang. It showed my dexterity with language to some, baffled others, and wooed still others. Powerful stuff, words. These sensitivities to different types of registers of language, styles of speaking within these registers and each style’s independent kind of syntax and diction helped me as a poet. Juxtaposing these various gradations of language began to lend complexity to my voice, and, more importantly, this juxtaposing represented myself more accurately. This switching of registers and codes and dialects is now more accurate of speech patterns in our information free-for-all era. No matter where you live, you have an idea what others sound like.
RQ: My sisters and I grew up in Southeast Los Angeles, in the city of Bell. It was predominantly a Mexican neighborhood. I remember always being identified as Mexican; it felt like my family’s Costa Rican origin was being absorbed by the dominant Chicano culture. It didn’t matter that we spoke a different type of Spanish or that we had different customs and traditions. When it comes to poetry and writing, the Chicano literary movement has prevailed since the 1960s. This incredibly important movement created a space for writers like me, but when I started writing in the 1990s, it didn’t account for the diversity amid Latin American cultures.
During my time as a student, I read many Chicano poets, e.g., Gary Soto, Jimmy Santiago Baca, Alberto Ríos and Luis Omar Salinas. I felt a connection to their poetry of place and family. I learned about language and narrative style from their poetry. These men had something important to say about their lives. They wrote with clarity and precision of imagery. But where were the other Latin@s like me?
These Chicano poets were the models I had, but I wanted to be more Stevens than Soto. I wasn’t Chicano and I didn’t see myself in their subjective narratives. I wrote narrative poems about my cultural experiences and this influence is reflected in my first collection of poetry, Next Extinct Mammal. But in time and with a burgeoning awareness of other Latinos like me, I started to move away from the narrative subjectivity to look beyond myself, to focus on bigger questions about our humanity.
DTM: I see similarities in our upbringing, but also radical differences that shaped the people we have become today. For instance, you seemed to always want to create, bring beauty or truth or whatever gift you could share with others; on the other hand, while I care about creating something beautiful, something I can give to the reader, I am seeking a more reciprocal relationship with the world. I got interested in poetry, because people said I was good, just as much as me just enjoying poetry. You can’t put as much time into something as I have with poetry and not love it; however, I know part of the reason I stuck with poetry is because I am competitive. I wanted to be better than people in my workshop, in my program, in the books I read, in the anthologies I bought. I have had to struggle with my competitive nature, and furthering my education has helped exponentially. This competitive streak was much more accommodating when I was gangbanging than it has been in the classroom (don’t let people tell you any different, careerism may work for a bit but is, I believe, for a myriad of reasons, unsustainable).
I used my competitive nature and general hunger in most aspects of my life, as motivation, reasons to continue arduous and often unheralded work alone. This competitive nature that pushes me to work hard is accompanied by and supported by a desire to stand out, to be unique, which I would assume most artists have to varying degrees. Initially, this desire to be unique made being the only Latin@, or one of two, easier. The novelty of being a pet quickly passed. Though the novelty of being “‘hood'” inside the walls of the academy hasn’t completely passed, I am much more comfortable with being a part of academia now, and I better be. It is the only way to thank the Latin@s that paved the way—to not waste their work.
RQ: Having a competitive attitude is often necessary for motivation; I agree and admire your view on being competitive. You say that you’re not sure how you got into the academy. People took an interest in you and your work and in this way we are very similar. But unlike you, it has taken me some time to find comfort within the walls of academia. Having grown up in Los Angeles, a city whose populace is primarily people of color, my adjustment into the Midwest was/is somewhat challenging. Academic institutions in the most populated cities in America, or those along its coast, are more diverse. An examination of these English departments will reveal an assortment of people of color, and in many cases they are the dominant faculty. The move away from a majority of white faculty in English departments has yet to reach the Midwest. I find myself as one among five people of color in my department; this might speak more to the community than the institution itself.
Recently, a new literary festival was announced in my neighborhood. This festival is sponsored by businesses and the local literary magazine housed at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Its organizers are creative writing degree holders. Yet, with all their education and experience within the literary community, they’ve failed to introduce our neighborhood to Asian, Latin@, Native American and LGBT writers of any sort. The literary festival’s self-proclaimed purpose is to provide the community with “a more diverse and enriching cultural experience” through literature. The line-up of fifteen writers includes three black writers, and the rest are straight, white writers. It’s this type of academic sponsored activity that makes it difficult for people of color to feel comfortable in academia outside of coastal institutions. This is where I find myself.
DTM: I find your answer very interesting. I think that is unfortunate to have a literary festival promoting itself on plurality and to glaringly lack any true plurality. However, I think that lack of plurality points to the fact that Latin@s have been historically underrepresented in the media. In places like Southern California, where we come from, the community can seem pervasive but invisible outside of our own barrios. One of the things I think that has helped me is my appearance. I’m not referring to how ravishingly handsome I am, but that I am thin, 6’1″ and my features are not often considered “indio.” In the Latin@ community, as well as many others, I would argue, people suffer from “white is right” syndrome. For instance, when I go and visit my tias in Tijuana, they always make a big deal about my physical appearance, and say I look like a novela star. While it makes me feel good, I know that it is just representative of a larger problem within the community. Not that I feel I can pass, because I don’t think I can, but I truly do believe that if I had more of an indio-looking appearance, my experiences would be completely different.
Another thing that helps me is that I am a man. People react to my personality and me in a specific way because I am a man. I know this. I am also straight, so that helps. I bring these things up, because I feel it is just as important to know where you have places of privilege as where you may suffer from social constraints. No one is completely oppressed or fully privileged in this society; we all have some commonalities if we look hard enough. And ultimately, that is what I want, a more honest, balanced society. Utopian, I know, but an idea I try to give to my undergraduates and to the readers of my work. If I can open the conversation up a little, I did my job.
RBO: What would you like to see from Latin@s in the literary/academic field?
DTM: I would like to see more Latin@s in every field, especially my own, obviously. For that to happen, for better or for worse, Latin@s must be well versed in the canon. For example, many consider jazz an improvisational music, and it is, but these were musicians who studied classical forms of music and worked on the fundamentals of their craft, to supplement their improvisational skills. The same can be said for basketball. I don’t see any street ballers in the NBA, because they have no fundamentals (and all of their flashy moves would be called travelling or palming). The same goes for writing. Understanding the history of poetry and studying what the great writers have written prior, not just the contemporary writers you like, is fundamental to being able to write with force. Nobody is born buff; they work on it. For that reason MFA programs, as much as they are chastised for being scams, make it easier to build a poetic foundation.
I don’t think a writer with an MFA, or a PhD now, is necessarily better than one without a degree; however, I do think that it helps to cultivate talent, and places a writer in the direction of other writers, and I would not have been able to reach my potential without my MFA at San Diego State University and my PhD at the University of Houston. Though I did have to make hard decisions, and let go of many things I wanted in order to become a writer. Fortunately, many of the goals that I set for myself are beginning to come to fruition, as far as my writing goals—many personal goals are still far off. But the truth is, all of this would have been worth it because I enjoy what I do. There is always the thrill of the hunt for a new poem. That being said, what I want for the Latin@ writing community, is what anyone wants for their brothers and sisters: happiness. This is how I found my happiness, and this route might lead to that happiness for others.
On a side note, Thank you Ruben, Rosebud, and The Conversant. This also make me happy. As does a cold Tecate.
RQ: I’d like to see more Latin@s in public spaces, in print, in academic positions; a lack of their presence leaves too much room for bigotry. Latin@s must change the existing white, patriarchal, hetero-normative system that suffuses institutions in America. At a conference I attended in 2009, Ilan Stavans spoke of a Latino student in his class struggling to keep up with the work. Stavans urged the student to work harder or to drop out; this response upset me. I understand that higher education isn’t for everyone. I remember my own challenges to stay in college, as I worked full-time to help my mother and sisters pay the rent, and my struggle to learn how to study, how to navigate course work as a first-generation college student. Latin@s must make a space for themselves in the academy.
The academy serves as an analog to the tradition of American poetry. We must be aware that these institutions were not created for us. We see it in the number of Latin@ poets not in the canon of American letters. We see it in the small number of Latin@s appearing in literary magazines. We see it in the limited number of organizations that serve to create and cultivate Latino poetry.
More than forty years after the Chican@ literary movement, we have the first Latino poet winning The Yale Younger Poets prize. Latin@s need to learn about the history of Latin@ poetry within the American tradition. Look back at the poets who have come before you. Know where you stand amid the American landscape and find your place within it, then write. Write against it, write alongside it, but write with clarity and purpose. If you’re going to speak, speak well. If you’re going to write, write well. Say something important. The last thing we need is for Latin@ poets to blur into the portrait of conceptualism sweeping through contemporary poetry. Don’t get washed out into the tide of language that doesn’t give you a hand at rising to the top.
In the last few years, I’ve come to find poets that reach through and beyond their own personal experience to speak with clarity about being in the world. Poets like Carmen Giménez Smith, Tomás Q. Morín, Cynthia Cruz and Laurie Ann Guerrero, to name a few, who have proven to me that Latin@s have important things to say about universal truths of life, e.g., death, suffering and love—the truths of our humanity. It was Horace who reminded us that what is written in poems will be developed from what is known; so that anyone might suppose himself capable of the same. It is these contemporary poets who resist or evade the pressure of his or her moment in time, to provide readers with a vision that is a broader, seemingly, objective view of the world for all to experience—this is what I would like to see.
David Tomas Martinez has published in Poetry International, Drunken Boat and Forklift, Ohio and has been the featured poet for Border Voices. He is a Ph.D. candidate in the University of Houston’s Creative Writing Program in Poetry. Martinez is also the Reviews and Interviews Editor for Gulf Coast: A Journal of Literature and Fine Arts and a CantoMundo Fellow. His debut collection of poetry, Hustle, will be released in 2014 by Sarabande Books.
Ruben Quesada is the author of Next Extinct Mammal. He is Poetry Editor for Codex Journal and The Cossack Review. His writing appears in Cimarron Review, The American Poetry Review, Guernica, The Rumpus and Rattle. He has been a fellow at CantoMundo, Squaw Valley Writers Poetry Workshop, Napa Valley Writers’, Vermont Studio Center and the Santa Fe Art Institute. He teaches digital storytelling, literature & writing at Eastern Illinois University.