Javier Zamora was born in La Herradura, La Paz, El Salvador. At the age of nine he immigrated to the Yunaited Estais. His chapbook, Nine Immigrant Years, is the winner of the 2011 Organic Weapon Arts Chapbook Contest. Zamora is a CantoMundo fellow and has received a work-study scholarship from Breadloaf. He’s received scholarships from, Frost Place, Napa Valley, Squaw Valley, and VONA. His poems appear in Phat’titude, The Homestead Review, Spillway Magazine, and other journals. He attends NYU’s MFA program.
|IMMIGRATING IS LOVING TWO WOMEN
Immigrating is my index plowing two different necks. It’s my fingers
furrowing those women’s love you’s. Both seed my ears with same syllables,
not-same sound. It’s harvesting two crops. It’s hollering when lost
and I lov yu, when found. It’s sowing goosebumps on fields of burnt sugar cane
is hearing sugar-cane leaves sharpening the breeze’s blade, replaced by wheat’s
machine’s brief scythes on this side, longing for yesterday’s dull machete
of my neck. Immigrating is one woman’s splayed hands eroding that knot
barricading the every-breath-questioning of each sprinkled step. Try loving
Commentary on the writing of “Immigrating is Loving Two Women.”
For my final English paper at UC Berkeley I wrote about Lorca’s duende, and as a responsibility to the poet, I read The Selected Poems. I prefer to read work in its original language, but W. S. Merwin’s translation of “Media Luna” intrigued me. He chose to translate “segando”and “temblor”into “scything” and “shimmer.” The reasons why these particular words were chosen is another conversation in itself: what drew my attention is the sound of the translated words.
I was forced to pay close attention to the translation, something that rarely occurs. “Scything” sounds like a scythe cutting through the air; “shimmer” shows the quivering nature of the word through the double m’s and the “shhh”-sound I interpreted as the sound of light. When I realized the unique nature of these words, I tried using them in my own poems, but failed miserably. I realized there are times that words cannot be forced into a poem they do not belong to. I think I was using sugar cane as a metaphor for motherhood, sounds strange—and it was.
Part of the concept of duende is that for the duende to have a shot at being revealed the atmosphere has to line up. A means to tap into the sub-conscious is through dreams, which comes from our sub-conscious. I had always known that dreams come from deep within our thoughts, but never known how to seek that space where the portal into my sub-conscious where our creative force hides. In my essay I argued dreams pointed at glimpses of the realm of the duende. As evidence, I used raúlsalinas’ confession that his canonized poem, “Un Trip Through the Mind Jail,” came to him in a dream. In a similar way, “Immigrating is Loving Two Women” was revealed to me in a dream.
I rarely dream. Before my essay, when I did dream, I told other people, but never wrote them down. Since I discovered duende, I record every dream I can remember. The line, “immigrating is like loving two women” was the first line I ever wrote from a dream. But what influences a dream? I believe the present and the past are glimpses of the first glances at one’s future, which is what we call dreams.
Most of my writing comes from stories I learn from my relatives. I’m always listening for the poetry that is their words. Earlier, maybe not that day, or month, or year, my father told me how he’d cheated on my mother. It’s a story that I carry with me because it has had a big impact in my life, emotionally and physically. Their divorce separated me from both of them. I believe we unconsciously carry all the hurt and joy we’ve experienced. Somehow, the mixture of my parent’s divorce, my paper on duende, and my interest in the two words in Merwin’s translation of “Media Luna” came together in the dream I had. When I woke up from the dream lines wrote themselves. Something unnamable helped me tap into my duende. I’m not saying I’ve revealed my duende, that would be bold and untrue, but at least I had the opportunity to at least see the portal through which it can come out of hiding.
The border is also part of my story, my lived experience, and therefore unwillingly or not, I carry it within me. Not necessarily because I want to, but because it’s part of my subconscious. What the border means to me is the tragedy of what the imaginary can do to human beings. The border is not a physical thing (although it has also been turned into that). It’s an imaginary concept that has the capability to split us. That suffering—that “othering” that takes place—haunts us, haunts our subconscious, and that’s a scary reality. And I’m not just talking about the effect it has on immigrants, but on every human being because the modern concept of a nation-state cannot exist without borders.
Joseph Rios was born and raised in the Central San Joaquin Valley. He studied literature at UC Berkeley. In 2011, he co-founded Quinto Sol Remembered to recover the history of the first Chicana/o press and its journal, El Grito. His poetry has been published in The Acentos Review, BorderSenses Literary Journal, and Poets Responding to SB1070. He is an alumnus of the VONA workshop and the Summer Creative Writing Program at Berkeley. Recently, he was a featured poet in the Lyrics and Dirges series at Pegasus Books and the Lunada series at the Galeria de la Raza. Since 2005, he has worked in landscaping, avionics, fruit packing, building maintenance, college recruitment, high school college-advising and is an award-winning journalist.
After Maceo Montoya
An open yard of forklifts
Puddle reflects clouds
Operator lets off the brake
Commentary on the writing of “La inmensidad.”
Jesus was dust control. His job was to spray the delivery lots with phosphate-rich water he tapped from the winery silos. From eight to five, Chewy patrolled the grounds in that loud, bouncy monster of a water truck. When he flipped the switch inside the cab, the rear of his truck released a wide spray of foul-smelling liquid. If you got on his bad side, though, Jesus made sure to aim his tail your way. And he had great aim, that bastard.
After work, I’d wave Chewy down because I didn’t like walking the quarter-mile to my truck. When his machine slowed up, I’d grab a hold of the open door and hurl my body into the passenger seat. He never came to a complete stop. Chewy always expected me to “run, cabrón, run.” Jesus and I worked together for the length of the grape and overlapping pomegranate seasons. He was laid off before me and I never got to say goodbye. But that’s just the way these things go. One day you have a job, the next day you don’t. No hard feelings.
Months later, a friend invited me to a father-son exhibition by Malaquias and Maceo Montoya at Fresno City College. I was a student there at the time and had just finished my applications to transfer. I had already met Malaquias at the In the Grove release a year or so earlier. The special issue was guest-edited by Daniel Chacon and dedicated to the life and work of Malaquias’ son, Andres.
Before that reading, I didn’t know much about the “Fresno School” or the deep tradition of Chicano poetry in the San Joaquin Valley. I covered the event as a journalist. And like a good journalist, I did my homework and read up on all the writers slated to take part in the edition (Philip Levine, Juan Felipe Herrera, Garrett Hongo, Javier O. Huerta, Sasha Pimentel Chacon, Tim Z Hernandez and others). After a few weeks in the library, I decided to give up journalism and become a poet—but I didn’t say that out loud for a very long time.
Maceo’s “Immensity” series reminded me of all the guys I used to work with—Jesus at the winery, Roberto at the airplane shop, Hugo in landscaping, Enrique, Homeboy, Repollo, Estallion—the list goes on. I gravitated to the series because I felt Maceo had captured what I saw when I was out there.
Out in Woodland, I imagine Maceo saw how the landscape swallows a man, how the scope of his labor can dwarf, even silence him. He captured how vast the landscape can be and how very small and wanting we sometimes feel on the job. A loneliness can take over when your mowing some mansion backyard, manicuring vines, digging a trench, or dust-mopping a hangar—there are moments when you consider the futility of your labor and you just want to put down your tools right where you stand.
I think this is what Maceo meant by immensity. The immensity is in the open fields, the hills, the clouds, but also in the stares of Maceo’s human figures. It’s in their gaze. We feel their hopelessness, their submission, their solitude, and their sadness.
I saw my Madera winery in Maceo’s Woodland. I saw myself in his man on the hay bails, the man eating alone, and the boy on his big wheel. I saw Jesus there. I know it’s presumptuous, but I like to think that if Jesus saw the paintings or read the poem, he’d see himself there too. I’ll never know for sure.
Rigoberto González is the author of ten books of poetry and prose, and the editor of Camino del Sol: Fifteen Years of Latina and Latino Writing. He is the recipient of Guggenheim and NEA fellowships, winner of the American Book Award, The Poetry Center Book Award, The Shelley Memorial Award of The Poetry Society of America, and a grant from the New York Foundation for the Arts. He is contributing editor for Poets & Writers Magazine, on the executive board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle, and is associate professor of English at Rutgers-Newark, the State University of New Jersey.
NewBorder poetry editor John O. Espinoza recently interviewed poet Rigoberto González. Rigoberto and John discuss Roxana Rivera, mentorship, Black Blossoms, Tomás Rivera, Arizona, banned books, the state of Chicano literature, and “Mexiphobia.” Insightful, entertaining, and a great conversation between two incredible poets.
NB: Your third book of poetry, Black Blossoms, is dedicated to three women: your mother Avelina Alcalá, the poet Ai, and Roxana Rivera. Your mother’s life is written about in your wonderful memoir, Butterfly Boy, and Ai was an award-wining poet who left behind a notable body of work. I mention this only because the lives of those women are readily available to the public, but Roxana Rivera’s life is not so much. She was a young woman whom you and I knew, but I would like to ask you what your relationship was to her and how her untimely death may have changed you?
RG: Although Roxana was part of out writing community for such a brief time, she touched many lives, mine in particular. She was one of the first poets I agreed to mentor, and quite reluctantly, I might add. It wasn’t because I didn’t value her energy and talent, it was because I was new to this role, taking younger people under my wing. It seemed like such a huge responsibility and I had just published my first book when I first met her. But she made it easy because she already had skills that I was still working on: she was an incredible public speaker, she was not shy, and she was fiercely politically-motivated. She was a Chicana from L.A—I had always admired those mujeres who were fearless and strong.
Her death struck such a blow. I had only felt that level of loss once before, when I lost my mother. It made me realize how much I had grown to love Roxana as a friend. When I wrote Black Blossoms, I wrote through those losses and the exploration of women’s difficult journeys and lives. Now all I have is memory, so I do what I can to keep it sacred, which is why I include a critical study of Roxana’s poetry in my forthcoming book of criticism and essays, Red-Inked Retablos. I embed within that piece the story of how Roxana and I met, kept it touch, and parted ways the last time I saw her alive. She left me so many gifts, but the gift of being unafraid to mentor, is the one I cherish the most.
NB: My favorite section of Black Blossoms is the fourth and last section, “The Mortician Poems.” This harks back to the poem “Mortician’s Secrets” from your first book, So Often the Pitcher Goes to Water until It Breaks. What brought you to return to this figure from your first book, if it is indeed the same figure that we’re talking about? Are you done with the mortician, or do you hold future plans for him?
RG: That mortician is one of my pesky muses. I thought I was done with him in my first book, and then he came back in full force for the third, where he took shape in the stories of the women in his life—his mother, wife, mother-in-law, daughter. I actually have a few more mortician poems that I took out of Black Blossoms. My editor at Four Way Books wisely noted that there was one or two too many. She was right. There’s a fine line between obsession and overindulgence and I started to get too clever and “show-offy.” I think I removed three poems from the series before the book went into print.
The mortician is now gone and buried under language but that only means his ghost is afoot. He’s around here somewhere, biding his time. He’s not in the next book, Unpeopled Eden, but he may be coming back for the fifth, in which I return to the exploration of masculinity and male sexuality. It appears that this mortician has one more story to tell—about his gay lover! How could I deny him entry into my imagination, when his stories are so juicy, when his bordercrossing is so deliciously rendered?
NB: You are a poet, novelist, short fiction writer, a book critic, and, not many people outside of your circle know this, a biographer. About six years ago, you wrote a literary biography on Tomás Rivera. Tomás Rivera, for those who don’t know, was an important pioneer in Chicano literature though he authored only a single slim, but powerful novel …y no se lo trago la tierra, plus numerous short stories and poetry. Yet, at the end, you decided to not publish the manuscript. I’m wondering what led to your decision to withhold publication? Do you have any future plans to write another biography?
RG: The Tomás Rivera project was a huge disappointment and even now I hesitate to say much because I want to remain respectful to his memory and to the people who knew him. I never finished the book, though a draft of what I did write (along with notes, outlines, interviews, etc.) is archived in The Rigoberto González Papers at UCLA. The impetus for the project was to get to understand the complexities of a writer who made so many compromises during his lifetime, including to his own health. Essentially, he worked himself to death beneath such incredible social and professional pressures. I discovered that, although there was an inspiring narrative in Rivera’s life journey, his was also a cautionary tale—and I’m not sure that I wanted to be the one to illustrate that. He was one of my first literary heroes, and though even heroes are not above critique, I was beginning to feel as if I was mining ground that was not mine to unearth.
People who know about my unfinished project tell me that it’s a necessary to write it, to present a more complete image of a man who exists mostly in fiction—his life has inspired more than a few sentimentalized children’s books and details in bibliographies and short biographies are factually inaccurate. But I am too uncomfortable with that. I have no problems divulging the personal scenes in my own life, but I don’t want to take responsibility for exposing the private ones in another person’s, especially someone I didn’t know and never met.
I am staying away from biography and focusing on more autobiographical work. I mentioned Red-Inked Retablos, which contains personal essays, and next year I’m also publishing a book of micro-prose called Autobiography of My Hungers. It’s a book containing 75 vignettes, none longer than 300 words, that travel to the different periods of my life in which I experienced some form of hunger induced by poverty, longing, or desire.
NB: There’s another culture war happening down at the Arizona border sparked by the Tucson Unified School District’s dismantling of Mexican-American studies that comes with the banning of books by Latino authors. Chicanos, Latinos, and other rational people of Arizona have protested this, naturally, and even those from outside of state lines. This is a type of battle that reminds of the Chicano movement and counterculture that pushed back against an antagonistic mainstream. I’m reminded of Corky Gonzalez who traveled around the Southwest reading his epic poem, “Yo soy Joaquin.” I’m reminded of the Brown Buffalo firebombing Safeways. Has the bigotry changed since then? Has the response from the Chicano literary community changed? What’s different? What remains the same?
RG: Bigotry has not changed, it just has a more efficient way to travel—social media. It’s frightening how quick a racist or classist gesture gains momentum, followers, and support. But so does political activism. Either side of the battle can blog, FB and tweet its way into action and reaction. Arizona’s missteps have managed to galvanized our Chicano youth in very exciting ways—I think that it was this book banning at the high school level that finally did it. It gave a very familiar face to a stage in life that was within their reach—there was nothing abstract about being a student during the formative years and getting stripped of agency. Young people feel it constantly in the failed American school system. Enough is enough, they said, and spoke up, and rose up. Stay up, raza!
The Chicano/ Latino literary community has responded with plenty of support. Tony Díaz conceived of Librotraficante, which gained international attention. Francisco X. Alarcón and La Bloga cultivated an online floricanto in response to SB 1070. And timely books like Melinda Palacio’s Ocotillo Dreams, Adriana Pámamo’s Looking for Esperanza, Eduardo C. Corral’s Slow Lightning, Javier O. Huerta’s American Copia, and Reyna Grande’s The Distance Between Us, to name a few, are placing the undocumented person’s narrative at the center of the literary imagination, not at the margins. So in those respects I am confident that we are rekindling that fighting spirit.
I felt that spirit quite strongly at the last National Latino Writers Conference in Albuquerque, where Arte Público Press publisher Nicolás Kanellos gave the keynote address. When he detailed the decades-long history of censorship at the press, he concluded by saying these efforts to suppress Chicano/ Latino books were only going to intensify because we were the primary threat to white supremacy in this country—we will outnumber every other ethnic group by 2050. It was a startling moment, but at the same time I felt the presence of resolve in that room, not defeat.
NB: One would think that Tucson book banning would have shined a major national spotlight on Chicano literature, particularly border authors, but it seems, to me at least, that it has not. Do you see some strategy in which Chicano and Latino writers can resist censorship, while bringing their work to the forefront of the national conversation?
RG: I will tell you what matters: demonstrating our importance and visibility to our young people who don’t like to read or who don’t know that members of their own community write books. I will use as an example my own brother, who for the longest time bragged that he had only read one book in high school, J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. But when he read in the local newspaper that the school district had banned Arturo Islas’ The Rain God, he asked me to get him a copy. He read that book and has since grown to love to read books by Chicanos and other groups. The last time I spoke with him, he was reading Manning Marable’s biography on Malcolm X. I imagine that this narrative will be repeated countless times, that in the process of awaking minds we have also piqued curiosities about our literature. From this new group of readers will come the next generation of writers. If that’s not shining an important light, I don’t know what is.
NB: You’ve been living off and on in New York for at least 10 years, if not longer. So I ask you this question because you seem to have a finger on the pulse of the literary goings-on in Manhattan. Why do you think the New York literary establishment, in lieu of the Tucson book banning and other “Mexiphobia” (as Sandra Cisneros calls it), hasn’t stepped up and recognized Chicano literature with a major award, lending merit to a literature that has a long tradition and commitment to social justice? Certainly the National Book Critics Circle has stepped up by recognizing Juan Felipe Herrera, but most others have not. Why isn’t Chicano writing getting New York’s attention?
RG: I’m now 14 years into my New York City residency. The irony is that I simply wanted to get lost in the expansive Manhattan landscape, to do my own thing among a vast number of working artists who inspire me on a daily basis. I never imagined that I would find myself connected to prestigious literary organizations, but there I am. I stopped questioning how or why I got there and I simply do what I believe is a service to the literary community at large—calling attention to worthy books and authors through reviews, interviews, articles and, yes, even literary awards.
It’s important to recognize that just because Chicanos are not receiving the top literary nods doesn’t mean we’re not doing important work or that we are being disrespected or undervalued. That love should come from our community and it does. Have you ever seen what happens to a room when Luis Alberto Urrea or Luis J. Rodríguez or Sandra Cisneros walks in?
If Chicano writers rely on the New York publishing world for validation, we are relying on the wrong thing, even if and when we get it. Yes, these snubs are frustrating and sometimes maddening, but I take great comfort in knowing that we have not stopped writing just because the Pulitzer prize committee hasn’t given us a bone. Because that’s not why we write. We are not here to please a mostly-white institution. If New York never notices, it’s New York’s loss, but it’s only a matter of time before it catches up to the cultural and demographic shifts of this country’s readership. All the rest of us have to do is to keep writing, build up the readership, and not allow New York—or anyone else—to tell us they discovered us or that our journeys began when they first took notice.
NB: Thank you, Rigoberto.
NewBorder Senior Editor Joseph Daniel Haske recently sat down with Katie Farris and Ilya Kaminsky to discuss poetry and translations. Here is what the mosca en la pared heard.
Haske: You are known for your work and your ability as translators. Do you think that being a skilled writer makes one a better translator? Do you see a significant connection between the two things?
Farris and Kaminsky: Well, the best answer to this question was provided by WH Auden: “The translators should know at least one language well. Preferably their own.” Which is to say: yes, one needs to know something about English in order to honor the quality of the original in a new language. Otherwise, one is making a bad Xerox at best.
Haske: How do you decide which writers to translate? Why are the works featured in New Border appealing to an English-speaking audience?
Farris and Kaminsky: We decide by looking at the work that appeals to both of us – and we are very different kind of writers. Will it appeal to others? One hopes. but, in truth, it is up to every individual reader. These pieces by Kharms have a certain rawness to them, but they are also surreal in a way. Kharms was an early absurdist, writing way before Becket and Co. There is a certain sense of folk-style to his rawness. He is known for hating fairy-tales, and yet in his work there is a certain cruelty of a true fairy-tale. A hero always gets her or his leg or hand cut off. Is it appealing? It is crazy. But there is a sense of reality to it as well. That combination, perhaps, is appealing.
Haske: As a poet and writer, is it a useful exercise to translate the work of others? Does translation make one a better writer? Should all writers translate?
Farris and Kaminsky: Writers should write. And, also they should eat ice cream. And, make love. And, write about butterflies and their mothers in law and they should drink vodka on balconies. What else? Oh, yes, fishing is nice. Ok, end of this particular two-doctor-team prescription for happiness. Seriously, though: translation is an education for any writer. One gets inside the head of another—preferably another who is vastly more interesting than one’s self. Than then one has to stretch one’s own language in order to accommodate the other. Doing so, one is able to watch one’s own language as if it is foreign object—and this distance, this strangeness, is a gift to a creative writer, we think.
Haske: Who are your greatest poetic influences? How do these writers inform your work?
Farris and Kaminsky: Anyone from Gilgamesh to Dicksinson to Nabokov to Celan to Woolf—it truly depends on how much I drunk at breakfast (Ilya) and what my cats told me this morning about my neighbors’ cats (Katie). How do they inform my work? We (each yelling louder than the other) steal from them! And, in the process, we (we hope) learn a thing or two. And, if not, we are happy to be fools who play with Akhmatova and Bronte and yes, Kharms.
from Wild Honey Is a Smell of Freedom
Wild honey has a scent – of freedom
Dust – a scent of sunshine
And a girl’s mouth – of violets.
But gold – nothing.
Water – like mignonette.
And like apple – love.
But we have learned that
blood smells only of blood.
from Northern Elegies, # 4
As for memories, they have three parts—
the first is only yesterday
when laughter is still heard, but our cheeks
are wet— this part doesn’t last long. Already
a different sun is over us; not far
is an empty house, walls are frozen in March and in August humid,
where spiders are dust and chairs are dust and doors,
photographs are transformed
into photographs, and people come to this house as to a cemetery,
and, back at home, they wash their hands, breathing,
not breathing. But the clock ticks, April
becomes April, the sky is sky,cities change to cities, witnesses die,
there is no neighbor to cry with, no face to spit at.
And the our dead slowly walk from us,
to our dead. Their
return to us would be terrifying.
We find we have forgotten
even the highway number that led to the lonely house,
and, choked with shame or anger, jump in the car and drive to it,
but all (as in our sleep) is different:
neighbors, chairs, walls, and no one sees us —
we’re foreigners. We got off on the wrong highway exit
and now we stand here
and we realize that we could not contain
this past in our lungs, our hands,
it has become almost as foreign to us
as a deaf neighbor in the next apartment is foreign.
And yes, we would not recognize
our own dead husbands, mothers, wives, children; and those
whom God separated from us, got on
splendidly without us—all is for the better…
They Don’t Understand at Thing
I walk into the barber’s and whisper:
“Be so kind, comb my ears.”
The smooth barber begins to grow pine needles, –
his face droops, like a pear.
He tosses saliva, he yells, he squeals,
and for a lo-o-o-ong
time someone’s head in a crowd
like an old radish.
from Northern Tales
The old man did not know why he went to the woods. Then, came back from the woods and yelled:
– The old woman! The old woman!
The old woman fell down. Since then, all rabbits in winter are white.
Symphony no. 2
Anton Mikhailovich spat, said “yuck,” spat again, said “yuck” again, spat again, said “yuck” again, and closed the door. To hell with him. Le me tell about Ilya Pavlovich.
Ilya Pavlovich was born in 1893 in Constantinople. When he was still a small boy, his folks moved to Petersburg, he graduated from the German School on Kirchnaya Street. Then he worked in some shop; then he did some other thing; and during the Revolution, he emigrated. To Hell with him. Let me tell about Anna Ignatievna.
Not so easy to talk about Anna Ignatievna. Firstly, I know nothing about her, and secondly, I have just fallen of my chair, and have forgotten what I was about to tell you. So let me tell you about myself.
I am tall, not unintelligent; I dress prudently and with taste; I don’t drink, I don’t bet on horses, but I do like ladies. And ladies don’t avoid me. They smile when I go out with them. Serafima Izmaylovna has been asking me to her place, and Zinaida Yakovlevna implied she would have liked to see me. Then there is a funny business Marina Petrovna, which I would like you to consider. Quite an ordinary thing, but a funny business still. Because of me, Marina Petrovna turned completely bald – bald like a baby’s bottom. It happened like this: I went over to visit Marina Petrovna, and bang! she lost all her hair. And that was that.
The Beginning of a Beautiful Summer Day (A Symphony)
The rooster had hardly crowed when Timofey jumped out of his window onto the roof and frightened every pedestrian on the street at that hour. Khariton the peasant stopped, picked up a stone and threw it at Timonfey. Tmofey disappeared. “Very Smart!” laughed the human herd and someone named Zubov run full speed and rammed his head into a wall. “Oh!” exclaimed a woman with a swollen cheek. But Komarov gave her a quick slap and the woman run howling to the doorway. Fetelushin walked past and laughed. “Hello little ball of fat!” Komarov wakled up to him, and hit Fetelushin in the stomach. Fetelushin leaned against the wall started to hiccup. Romashkin tried to spit from the balcony on Fetelushin’s head. At this point, a few doors down, a big-nosed woman was beating her kid with a trough. A fat, young mother was rubbing her pretty little girl’s face against the brick wall. A pretty little dog broke its hind leg, and was rolling around on the sidewalk. A little boy was eating some sort of a revolting thing from a spittoon. At the grocery, there was a long line for sugar. The women yelled and hit one another with bags. The peasant Khariton, having drank some methanol, stood in front of the women, his trousers undone, and said bad words.
Thus began a beautiful summer day.
Old Ladies Are Flying
An old lady fell out of the window, because she was too curious. She fell out of the window, and was smashed to pieces.
Another old lady, stared down at the remains of one who was smashed, she stared at them, out of her excessive curiosity, and also fell out of the window, and smashed.
Then the third old lady fell out of the window, then the fourth did, then the fifth.
When the sixth old lady fell out of the window, I got bored watching them and went to Maltsevitsky Bazaar where, it was announced, they gave a woven shawls to the blind.
One day Orlov had too many mashed peas and died. And Krylov, hearing about this, died too. But Spridonov died for no reason. And Spridonov’s wife fell off a kitchen cabinet and also died. And Spridonov’s children drowned in a pond. And Spridonov’s grandmother took to the bottle and hit the road. And Mikhailov ceased combing his hair and got ill. And Kruglov sketched a grandama with a whip and went crazy. And Perehvostov received four hundred roubles by wire and became so uptight that they fired him from work.
Good people, they are all my good people, these citizens – but they can’t keep their two feet on the ground.
Manuscript Found by Natasha Rostova During the Fire
I will try to live on earth without you.
I will try to live on earth without you.
I will become any object,
I don’t care what—
I will be this speeding train.
or a beautiful gay man laughing in the front seat.
A human body is defenseless
It’s a piece of fire-wood.
Ocean water hits it.
Lenin puts it on his official shoulder.
And therefore, in order not to suffer, a human spirit
inside the wind and inside the wood and inside the shoulder of a great dictator.
But I will not be water. I will not be a fire.
I will be an eyelash.
A sponge washing your neck-hairs.
Or a verb, an adjective, I will become. Such a word
slightly lights your cheek.
What happened? Nothing.
Something visited? Nothing.
What was there you cannot whisper.
No smoke without fire, they whisper.
I will be a handful of smoke
over this lost city of Moscow.
I will console any man,
I will sleep with any man,
under the army’s traveling horse carriages.
Benjamin Alire Sáenz is a poet, novelist, artist and writer of children’s books. He has studied at the University of Louvain, the University of Texas at El Paso, the University of Iowa, and Stanford University, where he was a Stegner Fellow. He has published seven novels, five collections of poetry, and four children’s books. His work is translated into Dutch, French, Spanish, and German. Among his awards are the American Book Award, the Tomas Rivera Award, and a Lannan Poetry Fellowship.
NB: Along with Daniel Chacón, you recently started up a radio program (Words on a Wire on KTEP in El Paso, Texas) that focuses on the process and product of writing. The focus is mainly, yet not solely, on border and border-inspired writers. How did the idea for the show come about, and what purpose do you hope it will serve for the wider literary arts community?
BS: The idea began with a conversation with Daniel, as we were having dinner one night. Really, it was Daniel’s idea, and he was very excited about the whole venture. We both felt that most books which are talked about in the mainstream media are bestsellers and non-fiction books that center around politics or current events. We wanted to provide a forum for writers who are creating serious literature.
NB: Simon and Schuster released your latest book, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, in February. Recently, you’ve invested your talents into crafting young voices and creating characters who develop in the multicultural borderlands milieu. Why young adult fiction? How does this interest in young/new voices relate to your work as a professor of creative writing?
BS: I consider my young adult novels to be serious literature. I take my YA books as seriously as I take my other writing. In a way, you could say I write YA books for adults. In some ways, it’s a question of marketing. The only difference between my YA fiction and my “Adult” fiction is that, in my YA novels, the protagonists are always young men in turmoil who tell their stories in the first person. I’ve never written my other novels in the first person. There is also the question of a shrinking literary market for serious literary novelists. The YA market, on the other hand, has a larger market. I’m also happy that my YA novels are taken quite seriously in and out of the YA market.
As far as it relating to my work as a professor of Creative Writing, I think all my writing is related to my teaching. A novel is a novel.
NB: Speaking of Aristotle and Dante…, I recently came across a quote in which you refer to the novel as an example of mariposa fiction. Could you clarify this genre and your book’s place within it?
BS: Mariposa fiction is a term used by Writers and Critics to describe novels whose protagonists are Latino and gay and/or deals with gay Latino themes. From that perspective, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe certainly fits into this category. That said, I don’t think of Aristotle and Dante as simply being a “gay novel” anymore than I think of my poetry and other novels as being “Latino novels.”
I write about characters who live on the border and I explore the difficult situations they find themselves in. And while my characters are always Mexican Americans, I wouldn’t say I’m obsessed with issues of Latino identity. I am obsessed with the way that people come to terms with meaning in their lives, particularly on the border.
In Aristotle and Dante, the two boys discover their sexuality, each character coming to terms in different ways. But the story is also about secrets, about two families and how these two families differ from each other. The parents are a big part of the novel and the roles they play in their sons’ lives.
NB: Can you talk a bit about your experiences with novice/student writers? What do you like most about teaching creative writing at the collegiate level? What sorts of themes, characters, etc. are students writing about these days?
BS: I have always liked teaching and I have always enjoyed being around young people. Undergraduates are hungry to learn, and I feel privileged to be in the classroom as their teacher. My experience has taught me that there are a lot of talented young writers out there, but most of them won’t ever be writers. And there’s a reason for that: most student writers don’t have the discipline and the desire to convert their talent into a career. But the thing is, I teach more than creative writing. I’d like to think that I teach students the importance of critical thinking. I’d like to believe that students writers take something with them when they leave, something they can use in all the areas of their lives.
It’s interesting that after twenty years of teaching, I don’t think that what students write about has changed very much. Young people are using their writing to explore the world they live in just like they were doing twenty years ago.
NB: What challenges do you see programs such as UTEP’s Creative Writing Program facing over the next twenty years?
BS: I don’t think I can answer that question. I think our on-line MFA is the wave of the future. I also think our bi-lingual MFA is ahead of the curve. In some ways, UTEP’s creative writing program already looks like the future.
NB: What comes next for the great Benjamin Alire Sáenz?
BS: I’m correcting the galleys for my next book of short stories, Everything Begins and Ends With the Kentucky Club. The collection of stories is my first in eighteen years.
I thought I’d forgotten how to write a short story and I suppose I was hungry to jump into those waters again. I was glad to discover that I could still swim. I’m also re-working a new book of poems, Night Disappearing Into a Perfect Sky.
NB: What does the future hold for Chican@, Latin@, etc. fiction in general, and for El Paso in particular?
BS: Why do you have to ask such hard questions? I think El Paso holds a very special place in Chican@ letters. I like to call El Paso “Chicano Nirvana.” It’s a complicated borderlands, a mystery that we can never unravel or solve. I don’t know what the future holds for us. I do know that we have to continue writing and there are a lot of young people behind me that give me a lot of hope. I am already becoming the past. It is my great hope that young Latino writers will create something beautiful and lasting.
Calendar of Dust. Seattle: Broken Moon, 1991.
Flowers for the Broken. Seattle: Broken Moon, 1992.
Carry Me like Water. New York: Hyperion, 1995.
Dark and Perfect Angels. El Paso, TX: Cinco Puntos, 1995.
In Perfect Light. New York: Rayo, 2005.
Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood. New York: HarperTempest, 2006.
The Book of What Remains. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon, 2010.
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2012.
Interview conducted by NewBorder’s fiction editor, Paul Pedroza.