"Chicano writers from El Paso are the most progressive, open-minded, far-reaching, and inclusive writers of them all."

Octavio Romano

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Michael Luis Medrano Interview: Not an ideal way to live a writer’s life

Michael Luis Medrano

Not an ideal way to live a writer’s life
Poet Continues Fresno's Poetic Legacy
An Interview with Michael Luis Medrano

by Raymundo Eli Rojas


Michael Luis Medrano will read this coming Friday, Oct. 22: “Bilingual Poetry: From South America to Aztlán, una noche con Michael Luis Medrano” 7 p.m. Student Union Building, Union Cinema, UT El Paso. The event is sponsored by the Department of Creative Writing. Contact: (915) 747-5713.

Raymundo Eli Rojas (Rojas): Michael, for those who are unfamiliar with you and your works, can you tell us a little bit about yourself? Where were you born and raised? Education? Where are you living now? Anything else you want to share.

Michael Luis Medrano: I was born and raised in Fresno, California where I attended Duncan Polytechnical High School and California State University, Fresno. I received an MFA (Master of Fine Arts) in creative writing from the University of Minnesota in 2006. I moved back to Fresno in 2008 after spending five years living in Minneapolis and San Diego.

Rojas: How did you get into writing? Do you just do poetry?

Medrano: My formal introduction into poetry and Chicano literature was in the late poet, Andres Montoya’s lit class at Fresno City College. There, I was introduced to many Fresno poets, including Omar Salinas, Jose Montoya, and Lorna Dee Cervantes. Their works, especially Salinas’s Fresno poems were fresh and inspiring introductions to Chicano poetry. I also started attending writing workshops led by Margarita Luna Robles and Juan Felipe Herrera around 1998. All three teachers are/were very innovative in their pedagogy. I value their influence til’ this day.
Above photo, Andres Montoya from Andres Montoya Poetry Prize website

I was introduced to the prose poem by Ray González in Minnesota and have been writing those lyrical paragraphs since 2003. But trying new forms is not at all foreign to me. JFH encouraged playwriting along w/ verse. I’ve tried acting and improvisation also and feel that poems can take various shapes and forms. 

Rojas: About your book Born in the Cavity of Sunsets (Bilingual Press), tell us how it came about? About getting it accepted for publication and post-acceptance: any rejection, publishing industry woes, revisions?

Medrano: The book’s shape (concept, narrative arc, etc.) was developed in the creative writing program. Most of the poems that were written after poets, for particular individuals, poems about death, and the more daring surreal poems were written in the program. The poems that sound more performance driven (“The Cholo of Yesteryear,” “Listening to Bukowski,” and a few others) were mostly written in Fresno where I honed my poetry chops at venues like Juan Felipe Herrera’s Manikrudo performance ensembles and the Central Chakrah experiments with Tim Z Hernández and Estela Molina, among others.

After the manuscript was completed in May 2006, I printed out at least 20 copies of the manuscript in the graduate students computer lab at the University of Minnesota. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the only grad student doing this — how else was I going to afford to send the ms out! 

I believe I sent to at least a dozen different presses between August 2006 and May 2007 before receiving an email confirmation from Bilingual Review Press in September of that year.

Although the book was in cue w/ the publisher for two years (yes, it was a long two years), once it was worked on, the process, from galleys to actual book was very quick. The folks at Bilingual Press, (Gary Keller, Karen Van Hooft and everyone else involved in the work) were amazing. I would love to work with them again because they do amazing work.

Rojas: I'm sure you get ask this a lot, but tell us about “Poem for the addict and the resurrection of arms”?


   Enrique Raya
   spent a decade in the cavity
   of his bedroom
   for the injection in his tentacle arm.

   One night after the needle
   numbed Enrique to sleep
   his spying parents bobby-pinned
   the door open and the swollen walls
   of his bedroom busted like the sores
   on his biceps, lips, and tongue.
   His mother damned him
   and his father injected Enrique
   into drug rehab the next day.

   Years later and flushed
   clean of intravenous addiction
   the county coroner's office
   offered Enrique guest speaker's privilege
   at the House of Hope,
   haven for juvenile offenders
   and ordered the addict not to curse
   when discussing
   death to the general, dying public.

   Mr. Coroner himself,
   stuffed in a politico's pinstriped suit
   introduced Enrique
   to the court-ordered audience--
   the gangsters on probation row
   who slung curse words like a drug;
   the imaginary mouths of the politically correct;
   he even introduced the addict
   to his false set
   of teeth grinning with apprehension.
   The two clasped hands
   as if the evening news was there
   to ask questions and snap
   photos of that frozen moment:
   Mr. Coroner's face
   soured at the sight of his tattooed arms
   of which Enrique quietly whispered in his ears,

   These are my anonymous arms,
   tattooed in ink
   to censure sores
   left from the needle's
   non-discriminating spout,
   any questions? 
© Michael Luis Medrano

Medrano: I used to work as a teacher’s aide for this youth prevention program in Fresno called House of Hope. The students, mostly gang-bangers had been part of that group home/boot camp/juvenile hall system for so long they had seen too many guest speakers and volunteers weave in and out of their troubled lives. 

The students often made fun of these visitors and usually found some kind of flaw in their approach whether were getting paid or simply didn’t come from the same, hardcore background. Once in a while, a volunteer with a similar or even crazier past would come through and the kids would really listen. That’s what the poem is about, a dedication to the rehabilitated homeboy element who can still rattle bones.

Rojas: How does politics play in your poetry? Can a poet write political and nonpolitical poems?

Medrano: Edward Hirsch in The Demon and the Angel (Mariner Books 2003) writes, “art is born from struggle and touches an anonymous center.” So, we’re dealing with a specific kind of language, or music, when executed in the right creative state of mind is also a form of justice. I’m not saying only oppressed communities can create art, what I’m saying, there must be struggle before we learn to balance. 

Another way to illustrate this: anyone can replicate their world through drawing or copying the style of another poet, but when the artist risks everything, that’s when real art occurs and that’s when real change happens. So, yes, writing poetry is a political act.

Rojas: Tell us about your years in Minnesota, did the Mid-West enlighten you, traumatize you or both? Are you now fluent in Minnesotan, eh?

Medrano: I enjoyed Minneapolis immensely, with its flourishing arts communities: lots of great things happening in virtually all facets of the arts. I would say the hardest part of living there was being Chicano, not only that, but a California Chicano. I tend to be outgoing among people of color, but, in Minnesota, where the vast majority of the writers in the writing program were Anglo, I often found myself as the lone vato in that community. I found myself in a sort of floating exile because I couldn’t relate to my classmates.

I came to the program looking for a writer’s community, but instead, I came to a program where the attitude was about more on individual work rather than fostering community. Most of the time the halls of Lind Hall were desolate, especially during my third year. I did make connections with writers connected to the Loft literary arts center in Downtown Minneapolis, Ultimately I did feel that I did not make the most of my stay in the Twin Cities, but for some strange reason, that golden state west of the Mississippi beckoned.

Rojas: Do you have the pleasure of writing full-time, or do you have a day job?

Medrano: I teach part-time at the local community college. Not an ideal way to live a writer’s life, but, I do have sizable windows of time throughout the day.

Rojas: You are set to visit UT El Paso, what will your visit involve?

Medrano: I will be visiting Daniel Chacón’s students on Thursday morning followed by a reading Friday evening. I leave Saturday morning, so, it’ll be a brief stay.

Rojas: You are coming from one Chicano(a) writing Mecca, Fresno, to another, El Paso, how does it feel coming from a long line of Fresno Chicana(o) poets? Is there a Fresno Chicano(a) poet who is your favorite? Any El Paso favorites?

Medrano: As a member of the new generation of Fresno poets (Tim Z Hernández, Marisol Baca who’s an amazing poet and whose manuscript is seeking a publisher, and a large number of non-Latino writers who are doing great things, people like Lee Herrick, and Burlee Vang come to mind), I feel an extra sense of pride in following in the footsteps of many great poets who have since passed and are still with us today.

Two poets who are no longer with us, Larry Levis and Luis Omar Salinas, have been strong influences in my own work. Another deceased Fresno poet, Andres Montoya, a dear friend to Daniel Chacón and co-founder, along w/ Chacón, Chicano Writers and Artists Association which is still in existence today.

I’m partial to Ray González, not only because I worked with him closely during my tenure in Minnesota, but because he has given so much to American letters. Ben Sáenz’s Dark and Perfect Angels (Cinco Puntos Press) remains one of my favorite poetry collections. I’m also a huge fan of Dagoberto Gilb’s work.

Rojas: Can you tell us about any works in progress?

Medrano: My second collection, a book of prose poems called When You Left to Burn at Sea is seeking a publisher. I’m returning to a novel I’ve had on the back burner and currently writing short stories and flash fictions.

Rojas: I always ask these to all authors/poets: What did this last decade bring to Chicano(a) Literature?

Medrano: To think about the last decade of Chicano Literature is really a question about how I came into writing and why I've continued on this path. I can say the last ten years has brought many fine writers  who could've had publishing careers if they would have stuck with learning the craft. 

The last decade of Chicano Literature has seen many people come and go. Only a handful of writers have stayed in the game, some are writing books or producing plays, etc. In essence, the last ten years will always stand for the time I made writing a career.

Rojas: Can you give us a name of one Chicano(a) writer, poet, or playwright whom we should be paying attention and why we should be paying attention to them? 

Medrano: Watch out for Luis H. Valadez. If his second book is anything like his first, we’ve got a lot of catching up to do.

Rojas: Can you give us a name of a veterana(o) writer we should be paying attention to, and why?

Medrano: Juan Felipe Herrera has been overlooked his entire career. I’m certainly proud to see his current success.

Rojas: Our readers like to know if our spotlighted writers are human, so if you watch TV what are you watching on TV nowadays, and what is the last movie you saw?

Medrano: I recently watched “The Social Network,” about the rise of Facebook and currently my favorite TV program is the 30 for 30 sports documentary on ESPN.
Rojas: What are you currently reading? 

Medrano: I am reading a number of books at the moment, among them, Maceo Montoya’s gorgeous novel The Scoundrel and the Optimist (Bilingual Press) and Carmen Gimenez Smith’s innovative memoir, Bring Down the Little Birds (University of Arizona Press).

Rojas: Is there a website you'd like to share with our readers.

Medrano: Letters from Fresno Station: medranopoet.blogspot.com

Rojas: Michael, thanks for this interview and we hope you'll enjoy your visit to El Paso. 


Memorias del Silencio: Footprints of the Borderland Vol. Vi

Last Saturday, I saw the book release of the sixth volume of Memorias del Silencio. "The book series...i the outcome of creative writing workshops conducted in various migrant communities in the El Paso, Texas area. These workshops were created with the idea that , in the understanding of literature, the participants would find elements to help them achieve their academic goals, as well as the necessary tools to write their own stories. The literary pieces that the author have created bring us closer to understanding the complex subject of immigration." (event program)

The migrants read from works they had written. Later The Sol Repertory Theatre performed a play called "Amor inmigrante" based on stories from Memorias del Silencio. The play was written and directed by Elvira Carrizal-Dukes.

40th Anniversary of UTEP Chicano Studies

UTEP Chicano Studies celebrated 40 years last night. The crowd reminisce about the founding of UTEP's Chicano Studies program, the 3rd oldest in the country, the first and oldest in Texas.

Speakers included UTEP MEChA alumni Carmen Rodriguez (Texas RioGrande Legal Aid), poet Juan Contreras (Ysleta Independent School District, El Paso), and Jose Medina (attorney San Jose, CA). Also speaking was the Dean of Chicano Literary Criticisms (and frequent Pluma Fronteriza contributer) Felipe Ortego y Gasca, UTEP Chicano Studies' founding director, and the current director, Dennis Bixler-Marquez.

UT El Paso alumnus, attorney Jose Medina

Felipe de Ortego y Gasca

Carmen Rodriguez, UT El Paso MEChA charter member and TRLA attorney

Left, Pluma Fronteriza editor, Raymundo Eli Rojas and, right, Felipe Ortego

El Paso poet Juan Contreras

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