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

Octavio Romano

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

J. Michael Martinez Interview: Chicano Walt Whitman and El Paso Writer Updates

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Felipe Ortego once called Ricardo Sanchez the “Chicano Walt Whitman.”

Now 40 years after Ortego first made that comparison, once again, another Chicano, J. Michael Martinez, has won the Walt Whitman Award (2009). Alberto Rios won the prize in 1981.

The Walt Whitman Award brings first-book publication, a cash prize of $5,000, and a one-month residency at the Vermont Studio Center to an American who has never before published a book of poetry. The winning manuscript, chosen by an eminent poet, is published by Louisiana State University Press. The Academy purchases copies of the book for distribution to its members.

J. Michael Martinez was born and raised in Greeley, CO, a town known for its beef industry. He is a graduate of the University of Northern Colorado and received an M.F.A. from George Mason University. Martinez is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Literature at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

In 2009, Martínez’s collection Heredities (Louisiana State University Press) was selected by Juan Felipe Herrera for the Academy of American Poets’ Walt Whitman Award. It was released last month off of Louisiana State University Press.
Herrera states: “Heredities breaks away from four decades of inquiry into cultural identity. Martinez’s exhilarating descent into the unspoken — lit by metaphysical investigations, physiological charts, and meta-translations of Hernán Cortés’s accounts of his conquests — gives voice to a dismembered continental body buried long ago. This body, though flayed and fractured, rises and sings.”

Make sure to check out J. Michael Martínez' website at: www.jmichaelmartinez.org/


Raymundo Eli Rojas (RR): Before going to get your MFA, what made you decide you wanted to become a writer?

J. Michael Martinez (JMM): First off, thank you so much for the interview.

I started writing in the third grade. My mother saved my first story, which was written in four or five sentences, a tale of children playing in snow.

I read voraciously growing up. Although I wrote continuously then (letters and journals), I didn’t identify as a poet until much later. In school, elementary through high school, my friends were artists of various sorts, all talented and peculiar. I attempted drawing, painting, sculpture, playing guitar; however, none of these arts were mine. None of these arts made me theirs, owned me in the consuming way true vocation consumes. One day, I picked up Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. The book soared in me. Something clicked and I began to experience my life as a poet, learning to see the world as language, to decipher this language and, impossibly, to write it.

More concretely, I discovered the artistic medium that truly came to me naturally. It was at this time I began to pursue poetry seriously. Through writing I was able to express in image the interconnection between phenomena. The poetic act became an act of transcendence: language attempting to be other than denotative, descriptive. Metaphor became a reconciliation of opposition.

When I wrote, “the peeled skin of an orange is a curled serpent,” I ruptured perception. Logically, the peeled skin of the orange was nothing more than a peeled orange. It was not a serpent.

Within the ontology of the poem, the meaning of the serpent and the orange peel became transmutable.

This was that; and this was still this and that was still that. The dialectic of the metaphor synthesized the images while keeping their essences distinct. The principle of non-contradiction (“A” cannot = “Not A”) became flaccid, sterile, an impotent logic. Metaphor was then, and is still for me, the affirmation of the plurality of simultaneous experience.

Octavio Paz states in his The Bow and Lyre, “the poet does something more than tell the truth; he creates realities possessed of a truth: the realities of his experience. Poetic images have their own logic.”

For me then, and now still, language was/is a medium of recovery and redemption: from difficult periods of life, from the limitations of the body, and trying to distill a vision of the world in double i.e. physical reality as an allegory for vaster totalities.

RR: What was it like growing up in Greeley, Colorado?

JMM: Growing up in Greeley was a unique experience.

I was one of the few Latinos in my school in the 1980’s. I was raised partly in the suburbs, partly in the Spanish Colony, and partly on my grandfather’s farm in Pierce, CO.

Even then I was shifting between different worlds, different ways of knowing the world, my identity in constant flux. I remember playing in parks with my suburban white friends, playing football with my Chican@ cousins in the dirt yard behind my grandmother’s small home in La Colonia.

Back in the day, my mother and grandmother built the home up themselves from a small three room home to five rooms in order to house my nine other uncles and aunts

Greeley is a place where multiple cultures and worlds orbit each other. And while in this place I was always conscious of my ethnicity, my origins. I am Chicano.

However, I don’t speak Spanish fluently and my skin is light enough to mistake me for Italian or Spanish. For example, early one evening, walking a road in Greeley to a poetry reading, I was heckled by a Fraternity — I was called “spic,” “wetback,” asked to run back to Mexico.

That night, working the late shift at a diner, my Mexican American coworker pointed his finger at my shirt and asked, “You Mexican?” Made for a reunion, the shirt was an homage to my family: “La Familia Martinez” in bold type over a family tree that traced my genealogy back five generations to the root of my hybridity, the marriage of an indigenous Mexica grandmother to a colonializing Spanish grandfather.

A white waitress, eavesdropping, stated, “You didn’t know he was Mexican! Look at those cheekbones, he can’t be white!” I went home confused and wounded by the irony. Similar confusion about my ethnic identity continues to this day.

Concerning the Indigenous and European heritage of the Mexican, Octavio Paz wrote in his Nobel Lecture:

consciousness of being separate is a constant feature of our spiritual history. Separation is sometimes experienced as a wound that marks an internal division, an anguished awareness that invites self-examination; at other times it appears as a challenge, a spur that incites us to action, to go forth and encounter others and the outside world.

My struggle for ethnic identity was, during the time Heredities was written, the mirror of my poetic struggle: I could not name who I was because I was neither this, nor was I that. The question of my ethnicity, at that time, pushed me to seek a center that would allow me a state of comfort in myself.

Poetry is that center.


as the meat
     within the shell

as the shell before the caw

a bleached weed
               a fig
dusted to sweet the skin

egg albumen of peacock

held to the ivory of oxen hoof
               the space

between sins               I am

               as I am so

the host               on the tongue
               God of Bread

complexion of conquest
               the salt of Lot

as God is
               a crown of thorn
               diadem of wheat

so am I the echo
calling fossil back to name

amaranth ash               spread across the light 


RR: Some of your poems on your website deal with identity. What were you thinking when you wrote “White”? What about other references to whiteness in you poetry?

“White” was originally written for an assignment in a Graduate Folklore class. We were asked to write a riddle. I wrote this. In general, I try to write without knowing exactly what I want to say. I try to let the words sing themselves into order. Only after many revisions do I get a sense of what the poem wants to say.

The word “white” occurs often in my poetry. It is used to reference skin hue, the white space on a page, a space after death, religious iconography, and, more often, spaces where fragmentation exists and transcends me. Poet Edmund Jabes stated, “Only in fragments can we read the immeasurable totality”.

RR: Can you summarize your Heredities for readers who are not familiar with your work?

When I write, oftentimes, the work knows more of what it wants than me. It’s a consciousness more conscious than my own. I’ve learned to relinquish my intentions for the poetry to the poem.

As in meditation, where one empties the mind to move into a greater space of silence, so poetry moves my life to myself, speaking an unspoken world into language. In surrendering control, I learn from what has been written.

That said, I’m not sure if I can summarize Heredities.

I can say, when writing the poems that now comprise Heredities, I was in my mid to late twenties and coming to terms with what it meant for me to be Chicano in the US, responding to cliché conceptions and articulations of Latinidad.

RR: I assume part of winning a contest is which poems you put in your book, what order, etc. How did you put it together (I'm talking about selecting which poem went into the collection)?

The book went through about three major manifestations. It was originally in the order of my MFA thesis. Two years after my MFA I realized what each section was articulating: certain poems had ideological and imagistic relationships.

I re-titled the sections and poems around conceptions of the body, archetypes of self, investigations of namings, etc. I then gutted it entirely, removed about twenty poems and kept only what I felt were the ‘best.’ I am constantly writing and, the summer before submitting to the Whitman the first time, I inserted two new poems.

I was the finalist the first go-round. I knew the book was missing a culminating poem. One of my friend’s pointed out to me what was missing and her comments touched and rocked me to my emotional core. I deeply value the comments of sensitive readers and these are essential to the success of any of my works.

Subsequent to her comment, I worked the rest of the Summer months on that one poem and added it to the manuscript.

Many, many thanks to Juan Felipe Herrera for selecting my baby. 

RR: Which writers, living or who've walked on are your inspirations?

Living: Roberto Tejada, Rosmarie Waldrop, Susan Howe, Carole Maso, Helene Cixous, Cynthia Cruz are some living poets/writers who I turn to for inspiration.

Walked on: Rainer Maria Rilke, Maurice Blanchot, Lorine Niedecker, Reginald Shepherd, Edmond Jabes, H.D., Octavio Paz, Pablo Neruda, Miguel Hernandez, Federico Garcia Lorca, Sappho, Paul Celan.

RR: What are you working on nowadays?

I just finished writing the libretto for an opera based on the last days of Miguel Hernandez’s life with composer Daniel Kellogg. After a year of collaborations (the LaChiPo collective manifesto, the opera and my essay with Jordan Windholz), I am making headway into a new manuscript.

RR: You are getting your Ph.D. In literature. I was impressed with “A Poetics of Suspicion” in Puerto del Sol.

Thanks so much for liking the essay! This essay emerged from an AWP paper I gave about new Latin@ poetics and conversations with poet scholar Jordan Windholz. Jordan and I are good friends and we often chat about certain discrepancies in the innovative tradition of poetics.

When the anthology American Hybrid came out and, after some investigation, we found it lacking Latin@/Chican@ representation, we decided to collaborate and write the essay.

The essay looks at how the identity politics of ethnic writing rubs against a particular strain of innovative poetic traditions.

Poet Carmen Gimenez Smith read it and offered to publish it at Puerto del Sol. I owe Carmen a great thanks for taking our essay. I hope more folks read the essay and share their views.

RR: What is your academic focus in getting your Ph.D.?

I am writing my dissertation on Latin@ avant garde poetics, attempting to revise US Modernist derived poetics by including plural modernities.

In short, referencing Walter Mignolo, I want to decolonialize innovative poetics.

RR: You join a long-tradition of Colorado Chican(o) poet, either native or imported (Ramon Del Castillo, Lalo Delgado, Bernice Zamora, Gloria Velasquez, Gwyllm Cano, Hector Munoz, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Juan Bruce-Novoa, etc). How does that make you feel that you have joined their company?

That’s very generous of you!

Its humbling to see one’s work recognized. I admire these writers; it’s kind of you to group me with them. I guess to respond, in the end, I’m taking this subsequent recognition as an imperative to support my US Latin@ community in the literary world and beyond.

I’ve always been an activist, whether volunteering to help migrant workers in the fields of Colorado, working with MECHA, organizing against the war in Iraq, or fighting against the legalized racial profiling in Arizona, etc. I’m taking this time to advocate for Latin@s in literature and, by extension, in the broader community.

RR: Can you give us some  Chicana(o) writers we should be paying attention to?

Absolutely! In no particular order, you should check out the work of the following authors: Roberto Tejada, Carmen Gimenez Smith, Paul Martinez Pompa, Rodrigo Toscano, Danielle Cadena Deulen, Francisco Aragon, Cynthia Cruz, Valerie Martinez, Carmen Calatayud, Blas Falconer, Gabriel Gomez, Roberto Harrison, Sheryl Luna, John-Michael Rivera, Kristin Naca, Eduardo Corral….and, well, so many more.

RR: Other than your own, what website link you'd like to share with our readers? (please give me one) (this can be across the board and not necessarily on writing or Chicano(a))

I’d check out the Letras Latinas blog, Eduardo Corral’s blog, Brian Brodeur’s blog “How a Poem Happens,” and, always, I think its important to stay informed: NPR, NY Times, the Guardian, etc. 

 RR: What are you watching on TV nowadays?

JMM: I don't own a TV and haven't owned one for over a decade so I don't really know whats on TV now a days; I don't watch much at all really.


Rechy Reviewed

Mayo NPR
I was browsing the NPR website and found this story on C.M. Mayo's Mexico, A Traveler's Literary Companion: NPR story.

Solis to direct part of play trilogy

Magic Theatre will present Part Two, The Brothers Size, directed by Octavio Solis, September 9 through October 17. A.C.T. Read more.

Blog Updates

El Paso's Cinco Puntos Press put out another post regarding the passing of Patricia Park Smith. C.M. Mayo blogs about the translation of her latest book. Check it out on the Madame Mayo blog. Sheryl Luna's rants on the 1954 Chevy on Dialectical Migration's blog.


Later this week: The coming extinction of Chicano(a) novels and shorts stories in Spanish

The links we share with you today is:

Hello Ladies: Old Spice's Wildly Successful Ad Model

 Kindle E-Book Sales Surpass Hardcovers Amazon

Your calo juarense for today is: don cacahuate - persona vieja o arrugada - Old or wrinkled person 

                                       ---- Glosario del Calo de Cd. Juarez, Ricardo Aguilar Melantzon 

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