poetryamano project: august 2017

This week I’m sharing another installment archiving my Instagram poetry project entitled @poetryamano (poetry by hand). This account focuses on sharing poems written by hand, either in longhand or through more experimental forms such as erasures/blackout poems and found poems.

Below are highlights from August 2017. This month found me focusing on haiku on short, imagistic haiku. Also included below is a haiga inspired by the 2017 eclipse.

Be sure to check out the previous installments of the archive – and if you’re on Instagram, follow @poetryamano for the full happenings.

Enjoy these forays into variations on the short lyric!

aug 2017 1
Image description: A handwritten haiku that reads: faces shuffle through the coffee drips its bitter business.”
aug 2017 2
Image description: A handwritten haiku that reads: “at night lilacs lose their color to the moon.”
aug 2017 3
Image description: A handwritten haiku that reads: “writing across this blank paper a branch’s shadow.”
aug 2017 4
Image description: A handwritten haiku that reads: “why again why the wind fed broken glass.”
aug 2017 5
Image description: A handwritten haiku that reads: “reading scraps of Sappho years later my ears burn.”
aug 2017 6
Image description: A handwritten tanka that reads: “the gray cat’s eyes stop to take you in long before you can place them.”
aug 2017 7
Image description: A handwritten haiga that reads: “after the eclipse same trees under the same moon.”
aug 2017 8
Image description: A handwritten haiga that reads: “paper clip dash of wire hugs air to itself.”

 

 

community feature: Salamander Magazine

One of the big changes in my life that I was unable to share about during an academic year full of transition (including the present pandemic-related interruption) is how it’s been going during my first year as Editor-in-chief of Salamander Magazine. While we are currently in production for our 50th issue–and also running our annual Fiction Contest through the end of the month–I thought I would take a moment to share a bit about the first issue experience.

Front-Cover
Image description: A painting of a brown man and woman with the word “Salamander” over their heads.

I am proud of the final product on a number of levels. This issue contains amazing work from poets Naomi Ayala, Francesca Bell, Rosebud Ben-Oni, Caylin Capra-Thomas, Emily Rose Cole, Brian Clifton, Jackie Craven, Chard deNiord, Alexa Doran, Moira Linehan, Nora Iuga, Adeeba Shahid Talukder, Madeleine Wattenberg, and many more. On the creative nonfiction front, this issue features pieces by Marcos Gonsalez and Rochelle Hurt, while on the fiction front this issue features stories by our 2019 Fiction Contest winner Christina Leo as well as Michael Howerton who placed second, a flash fiction by Russell Dame, and an excerpt from David Maloney’s novel-in-stories Barker House (Bloomsbury). The issue rounds out with reviews of poetry collections by Lola Haskins, Brett Foster, Fady Joudah, and Tom Sleigh as well as a short story collection by Hadley Moore.

Another outstanding part of this issue is the art portfolio by our featured artist, Karla Rosas (KARLINCHE). Her piece “La Puerta Negra” is on the cover. I’d been a fan of her art for about a year before getting this gig. Especially this being my first issue at the helm, I wanted to feature art that hits me on the intersection where I and many others exist, where the personal meets the political, and shows how one can’t be seen without the other. I feel the Latinx community has had a number of awful and unjust narratives hanging over us. Featuring Latinx artists creating strong work in the face of such narratives is vital in pushing back against those narratives.

We had the issue 49 out mid-December and were able to celebrate in February with a reading featuring two of our contributors, David Maloney and Moira Linehan, as well as acclaimed fiction writer, Sonya Larson, who joined this year as a member of our Advisory Board.

Last thing I’ll share is that I’ve had a great time getting to teach this issue this past Spring in my introduction to creative writing course. Students have enjoyed interacting with these pieces of contemporary literature and learned a lot from them. I enjoy teaching the journal both to share my enthusiasm about the work but also as a way to share insights about the editing process.

Thank you to all the contributors and all our staff and readers who have made the success of this first issue possible!

To further celebrate this first issue, I’ve created a cento based on lines from poems in this issue. Expect another issue-related post when the next one comes out. For now, enjoy the fun collage/homage below!

Popcorn-sad

by José Angel Araguz

(a cento based on lines from Salamander Magazine, issue no. 49)

The heart is a wormhole—
limited to the path
you never had to become.

But grief’s like a cat, leaving then returning
our eyes lilac-bearded, our toes-daisy rich.
Today I will polish my own damned self.

I can begin to believe that you won’t come back again. Listen,
I saw their ghosts slither with the wind,
with the blood and birth. Popcorn-sad,

I step over stones and believe
the answer was in the moths
watching from above with small black eyes.

*

To purchase a copy of issue 49, go here.

To learn more about the Fiction Contest, go here.

highlights from Pretty Owl Poetry’s #takeovertuesday

This week, I had the awesome opportunity to participate in a #takeovertuesday on Pretty Owl Poetry’s Instagram account. I posted a series of “a day in a poet’s life” posts in their stories as well as held a poetry reading via Instagram live. I also had the opportunity to field some questions ranging from the writing life to astrology.

I share the question and answers below in the spirit of community. Thank you again to the editors of Pretty Owl Poetry! Thank you as well to everyone who shared space with me on Tuesday, either by asking questions, attending the reading, or simply viewing the stories. In these times where so much of life is affected and different due to the pandemic, I am honored to be a part of such a thriving writing community!

pop takeover 1
Image description: A man drinking coffee while sitting at a table with the following question and answer imposed: What kind of question should I ask you? Answer: IDK. I know a tad about astrology and tarot. And poemtrees. And surviving systemic oppression. Y’know, light stuff.
pop takeover 2
Image description: A stack of books with the following questions and answer imposed: What is inspiring you lately? Where do you seek inspiration when you feel uninspired? Answer: Community. As an introvert, I’ve learned to redefine socializing. For me, a book review is social, a way to center community. Here are some important anthologies for me right now. On top is a book of aphorisms. I like reading and writing in fragments as silence, too, inspires.
pop takeover 3
Image description: A couch pillow which features a skull wearing a flower garland with the following questions and answers imposed: Can ghosts have astro signs? Like if a Scorpio died in Pisces season would they change or synthesize? Answer: After conferring with my astro-colleague, I’m thinking, yes – one’s passing instigates a “death chart” parallel to one’s birth chart and interacts with it much like an Instagram filter.
pop takeover 4
Image description: A journal set atop a set of loose pages with a pen laid across and the following question and answer imposed: What do you consider your best practice in revising your own poetry? Answer: My process is to fill up journals and then leave them alone for a year or two. Then I revise by hand, editing down. From there, finally, poems are typed. Once typed, poems might be revised depending if I’m working on a project or submitting. I’m not done with some poems until they’re in a book.
pop takeover 5
Image description: A collage photo of two men and two women with the following question and answer imposed: And who is the poet that you most look up to and want to emulate? Answer: Obvs couldn’t pick just one. Here are some folx who for years have been lights to follow: Bert Meyers, Juan Felipe Herrera, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Sharon Olds.
pop takeover 6
Image description: A meme half consisting of Winnie the Pooh in a red shirt next to the word “apostrophe” and the other half consisting of Pooh in a tuxedo next to the words “top comma” with the following question and answer:  Fav meme template? Answer: On the spot, the Tux Pooh one is canon.  Here’s one I came up with based on something the amazing @hcohenpoet tweeted about an inventive response when not remembering the word “apostrophe.”
pop takeover 7
Image description: A book held open to a page where some pen marks have been made on the printed words with the following questions and answer imposed: How do you know when you’re ready to share a piece of work? How do you know when it’s done? Answer: With most poems I’ll feel I’ve given everything I had to it, seen all I can. So I send it out or share it as part of testing that feeling. Sometimes I’ll just leave a poem alone for a month or so. Time is the great reviser. The final feeling of being done sometimes doesn’t happen until a poem is published (but as seen here that’s not always the case). I encourage y’all to have a fluid relationship with your work, to show it and yourselves kindness.
pop takeover 8
Image description: A book laid on a table next to a mug with a skull on it, all with the following questions and answers imposed: What are you reading now? What new book do you recommend? Answer: I wrapped up a review of this new poetry anthology from @orisonbooks! I’ll be reading a poem from it tonight along with poems from the other anths from previous stories.

 

microreview: Cenote City by Monique Quintana

review by José Angel Araguz

cenote city

Monique Quintana’s debut novel, Cenote City (Clash Books), is a stellar addition to the Latinx storytelling tradition of texts born out of exploring the intersections where folklore, politics, cultura, and literature meet. Told through fable-like short chapters, Cenote City presents the story of Lune whose mother, Marcrina, cannot stop crying to the point that she has become a tourist attraction, relegated to the nearby cenote, a natural pit or sinkhole that contains groundwater. In the character Marcrina, one can see a variation of the folklore figure of La Llorona (whose own tale has her become a ghost forever crying by the side of rivers after drowning her own children as an act of revenge due to her husband’s infidelity). Quintana draws from this connection and creates a character imbued with a similar sense of sorrow and mortality. What distinguishes Quintana’s Marcrina is the empathetic role she plays in the lives of the community of Cenote City as a deliverer of stillborns. Mediating the humanity of this motherhood experience in one role and serving as a human avatar of endless sorrow in another, Marcrina stands as a symbol of resiliency and depth against The Generales, the police force entity of Cenote City.

Marcrina is just one of a number of characters that inhabit the world of Cenote City; others include a clown able to make children disappear, and a “tiny coven,” one of whom’s members is able to set up a mannequin’s hair into a beehive style and then cast a spell that makes bees appear from it. With radical poetic impulses and flourishes reminiscent of Arthur Rimbaud, Quintana moves the narrative along mainly through the impressions evoked from images and the inner world of her characters. This approach allows her to make full use of the rasquachismo aesthetic, a Chicano sensibility that works to “[transform] social and economic instabilities into a style and a postitive creative attitude.” This aesthetic makes use of collage and places at the forefront the struggle of the oppressed. As a form of storytelling, rasquachismo offers Quintana the use of fruitful and evocative juxtaposition. While this approach at times leads to a dense prose style, the risk is ultimately worth it for how engrossing and captivating the reading experience becomes.

An example of what I mean can be seen in “The Daffodil Dress” (below). In this chapter, readers are presented with a memory of Lune finding Marcrina floating in a pool of water as well as the ensuing panic and recovery. One choice use of juxtaposition occurs around the images of insects coming out of the mother’s mouth. Having insects stand as words in the text lends the narrative a startling new understanding of language. Even when Lune cannot hear what her mother and father say between them, the presence of words is seen as alive and restless.

*

Monique Quintana

The Daffodil Dress

The spring after Lune’s father left them, she found her mother in the backyard of their house, floating in a plastic baby pool, her dress blooming around her body like a daffodil. Lune had been to a birthday party in Storylandia. She began to scream and tried to pull her mother out of the water. The warmth of the water was a shock to her hands and it soaked her party dress, making the skin on her legs burn and itch. She clawed at her own skin with her nails, painted pink by her mother with care. If the clouds could bear witness to that afternoon, they would say that Lune was a swirl of ribbons and brown skin, her kneecaps scraped by the sea of grass, bluish green and bleating, not willing to give up their secrets.

Lune’s screams were loud enough to bring the neighbors, to bring the ambulance, to bring the police, to bring Lune’s father. The paramedic, a young woman with slanted eyes and bright hair administered CPR, while the next-door-neighbor clung to Lune in the sway of bodies, and Lune held her hands in a fist, ready to curse anyone who would let her mother die. The red haired woman hovered over Lune’s mother like she was a kite, blowing the air, willing her to live. Lune’s mother had full round breasts buried under the daffodil dress, and her hair was matted to her mouth like clods of dirt. Lune thought she could see insects fly from her mother’s mouth and ears, when her father appeared and knelt beside her mother and the paramedics. The paramedic’s hands were shaking on Marcrina’s face when Marcrina began to cough up water, the baby pool tipped over and made a bigger pool in the grass, barely touching Lune’s toes again, the tight leather straps of her sandals burning her ankles. She clawed at her own ankles, pulling the sandals off her feet.

Lune thought that her mother had been dead and had been revived because her father had returned to them. There was a tourniquet wrapped around Marcrina’s arm and a stethescope placed at the rise and fall of her breast. Lune thought that her mother’s dying would make her skin turn blue, but it remained as brown as ever, and the daffodil of her dress lay shaking on her hips and her breasts. The paramedics tried to make Lune’s mother go to the hospital, but her father wouldn’t let them take her. He undressed her in the warm glow of the bathroom, the light of the ceiling, making new daffodils on her body. Lune saw her father put her mother in the bathwater, saw him pull her hair away from her face, her shoulder blades shuddered at the touch of the water. Lune could hear them whispering to each other and those whispers became the things that flew out of her mother’s mouth like insects. She tried to make out the lines of the wings and the plump black segments of their bodies, but the insects were hazy and only the buzz of letters could be recognized. No full words. Just moving mouths and shoulder blades and the slow crashing of bathtub water.

After he helped put her mother to bed, Lune’s father heated up cold cocido in a pot and they ate together in their kitchen nook. Lune’s father put his wife’s insects in his mouth and ate them. He ate the secrets and Lune and her father ate the soup together, and they were happy that she wasn’t dead.

*

To learn more about Monique Quintana’s work, visit her site.
Also worth checking out: Blood Moon Blog, where Quintana writes about Latinx literature.
Copies of Cenote City can be purchased from Clash Books.

into the octaves part three

araguz coverThis post is the third and last of a short series of posts discussing some of the thinking and inspirations behind my latest poetry collection, An Empty Pot’s Darkness (Airlie Press), which is available on SPD (check out the first post here and the second here).

For this final post, I’m sharing a sequence that did not make it into the book. It’s a sequence strictly written around the life of E. A. Robinson, with some braiding of my own narrative in there. I share them, flaws and all, in the spirit of craft lessons as well as a kind of fan fiction among poets.

On the craft side, one can see the moves I was trying out. The word “untriangulated” comes into play, for example. There are distinct syllabic patterns throughout these as well. As for fan fiction, I do borrow from Robinson’s own mythic Tilbury town and mention a number of his characters. Even if you haven’t read his poems, however, there is at least a sense of a lonely dude being written about.

This last bit might be at the heart of both these posts and my book. Facing and acknowledging the loneliness that the death of others leaves us in. And also the loneliness of mortality, of living on. In conversation with a friend, I surprised myself by calling this my most vulnerable book, mainly due to how stripped the poems are, eight lines per page, no title even. Whatever flaws in the lyrics below, what I hope comes through is the effort to push beyond sentimentality into clear sentiment and human gesture. Ultimately, in lyric poetry, and especially when it comes to elegiac material, human gesture is what we’re after.

Octaves for E. A. Robinson

His medicine was stronger than any
supplied to him.  It waited for him to sit
alone, and drew from him its strength the way
the sun and moon divide the sky, pulling
the light between.  The days of sun would burn.
The days of moon returned to count the hours,
the body for him especially a thing
irreparable: grit turned on itself.

*

He stood with them in the moonlight as though
walking on air – that’s how it comes to me
at least, this poet of images like rare and vague
Bible curses slipped through codes and tongues,
and only registered by some to have
a cursing power.  Many read his words
and puzzled, but never called it puzzle: the air
in which they read, the moonlight he stood in.

*

No readings, talks or lectures: no voice, then,
one would think, reading on the poet.
Time was always set aside for words,
for words and drink.  He drank the words, the words
drank him.  His writing like water passing
from one glass to another, the same volume
kept, the same clear substance moving.
A restlessness you could almost see.

*

I walk the city where you stumbled, stumble
myself a few  times. I do not have
your untriangulated stars only
a vague idea where they are. The lights
I walk under are different from the ones
that lit your way. You stumbled in the dark.
I am blinded on my way between
the page and working for the page, the stars.

*

They dropped names into a hat
and picked yours out. The winner
was from Arlington, so there
your middle name. The words came
slowly. Whatever the sun
did to the sand, whatever
filled the air that day: laughter,
broken waves: each has named you.

*

You gave them drink, Win,
gave them Tilbury,
the house on the hill,
the mill and no one
there anymore, gave
Flood and Stark, Bright tore
down the slaughterhouse,
you did not give, Win.

*

Had I your nerve South Texas
would be riddled out, riddled
with faces over bottles,
riddled with birds, wingspans wide
as palm trees. I’d follow down
each crack on the face the Sphinx
sits there holding, be part of
the wearing wind howling through.

*

Black diphtheria: two words
to end a life your mother’s
body left for her sons to
care after to carry out
past the porch where the preacher
prayed at a distance down to
where two brothers dug and you
clung to life you’re supposed to

*

you loved your brother’s wife like
Lancelot loved Guinevere
you fell into your stories
drank Tilbury dry drank Flood
would’ve drunk the moon could you
see straight into yourself as
the bullet through the head which
has not landed since it shot

*

just a person in the crowd
or in Hood’s sketch a man too
busy reading to look up
every curve and shade around
the pages made them seem set
for flight but not yet one more
turn of phrase what sentence then
for the silence you’re drawn in?

*

Copies of An Empty Pot’s Darkness can be purchased from SPD and Airlie Press.

into the octaves part two

araguz coverThis post is the second of a short series of posts discussing some of the thinking and inspirations behind my latest poetry collection, An Empty Pot’s Darkness (Airlie Press), which is available on SPD (check out the first post here).

Around the time of putting the early drafts of these sequences together, I remember having a conversation with a friend about Donald Justice and the work he put into having Weldon Kees’ poetry be more well-known. I remember saying that it’s what we do as writers: carry each other forward, whether in memories, stories, or creative work. Always advocating for presence on some level.

This thought shaped the collection in a lot of ways. An influence and example of this type of carrying each other work is the sequence “Twelve Poems for Cavafy” by Yannis Ritsos. In this powerful sequence, Ritsos pays homage to the poet Cavafy through distinct lyric meditations. The ones that move me the most are the ones that focus on the every day life of the poet, honoring the things that lived around the poet and his poems.

The poem “His Lamp” (below) is a good example of what I mean. Ritsos uses Cavafy’s lamp as a jumping off point into a meditation on mortality. Similarly, the sequence “for Dennis Flinn” in An Empty Pot’s Darkness chronicles moments of my friendship with Flinn, specifically during a summer in which I lived at his house. He lived without electricity, and offered me a room during a tough period in my life. We survived in the dark together, often talking or writing by the light of kerosene lamps ourselves. In the excerpts below, I do my best to honor Flinn’s armchair. It’s the kind of thing you don’t realize plays a large part of the experience of living with someone until that person is gone.

excerpt from “Twelve Poems for Cavafy”
by Yannis Ritsos

2. His Lamp

The lamp is peaceful, serviceable; he prefers it
to any other lighting. He adjusts his light
to the needs of the moment, to the age-old
unavowable desire. And always
this odor of kerosene, this subtle presence,
very unobtrusive, at night, when he returns alone
with so much fatigue in his limbs, so much futility
in the texture of his coat, in the seams of the pockets,
that every movement seems useless, unendurable —
once more, to distract him, here’s the lamp — the wick,
the match, the flickering flame (with its shadows
on the bed, on the desk, on the walls), but especially
the glass cover — its fragile transparency
which, in a simple and human gesture,
once more involves you: in saving yourself or in saving.

**

excerpts from “for Dennis Flinn” sequence — José Angel Araguz

You spent afternoons in your armchair,
in and out of sleep. You’d call my name
to see if I was around. Evenings,
you’d go housesit, leaving me the dark.

Since you died in someone else’s house,
no one’s explained it to your armchair:
He is sleeping in another life.
When he wakes, you’ll know it when you creak.

*

No plot then, no arc, no denouement.

The day you turned ash, I wasn’t there.
I can only tell it like you might
through white, gray words: You rest in pieces.
Perhaps you’d laugh. You merely left scraps.
A chuckle. A crackle in your throat.
You left life as broke as you had lived.

I can almost hear your armchair creak.

*

Copies of An Empty Pot’s Darkness can be purchased from SPD and Airlie Press.

into the octaves part one

araguz coverThis will be the first of a short series of posts discussing some of the thinking and inspirations behind my latest poetry collection, An Empty Pot’s Darkness (Airlie Press), which is available on SPD as of this week!

Back when I started experimenting with the octave form, I drew inspiration from a series of poems by Edward Arlington Robinson also entitled “octaves”:

XI – Edward Arlington Robinson

STILL through the dusk of dead, blank-legended,
And unremunerative years we search
To get where life begins, and still we groan
Because we do not find the living spark
Where no spark ever was; and thus we die,
Still searching, like poor old astronomers
Who totter off to bed and go to sleep,
To dream of untriangulated stars.

I wrote about this particular octave once in a previous post, and noted how much I admired how Robinson gets away with the highly syllabic words “unermunerative” and “untriangulated.” As my own experiments at the time had me working around intuitive syllabic phrasing, I took it as a challenge to include highly syllabic words throughout the sequences of An Empty Pot’s Darkness.

The octave below is from the sequence “for Christine Maloy” which pays elegiac tribute to a young poet from my hometown Corpus Christi who was living with lupus, a serious autoimmune condition, until she died one winter due to flu. Her death was discussed in the local news in a way that glossed over how vulnerable people who are immunocompromised actually are to things like the flu which are summarily dismissed or made light of in society. In writing about her passing and our friendship, I found myself at turns angry and lost to these attitudes and how they overlook the real human lives affected by them.

In this sequence dedicated to my friend I try to work out poems that are examples of how formal strategies can be subverted and brought into conversation with personal and political stakes, all in the effort to represent the human life we carry in memory.

excerpt from “for Christine Maloy” sequence – José Angel Araguz

On Facebook, people still seek you out.
This last face, pixelated,
thumbnail hitchhiking to now,
gives a grin, lends small glints to your eyes,
constellates them to sharp points of light.
Is this the shape of your myth?
A held look, a look away
I cannot triangulate.

*

Copies of An Empty Pot’s Darkness can be purchased from SPD and Airlie Press.

new book: An Empty Pot’s Darkness!

I’m happy to announce the release of my newest poetry collection, An Empty Pot’s Darkness (Airlie Press)! This collection takes the octave form I worked with in my chapbook Corpus Christi Octaves and expands on it with new sequences on life, love, and death.

araguz coverThank you to Ani Schreiber for creating the cover art! Special thanks also to Adeeba Shahid Talukder, Vincent Cooper, and Laura M Kaminski for writing blurbs and spending time with the project early. Also, thank you to the whole Airlie gang for taking a chance on this project.

One last thank you to all of you who have taken the time to read my work in the past! This new project has me working in a more nuanced space, one that I hope reads as a further development of my way with the line.

Copies can presently be purchased at the Airlie site – where you can also read more about the book as well as catch an excerpt.

Thank you for helping me welcome this new book into the world!

microreview & interview: Zarzamora by Vincent Cooper

review by José Angel Araguz

zarzamoracover_3_orig

Vincent Cooper’s Zarzamora: Poetry of Survival (Jade Publishing, 2019) is a collection grounded in the great traditions of Chicano poetry. These poems recall the immersive narratives of Jimmy Santiago Baca and Luis J. Rodriguez along with the image-driven lyricism of Gary Soto’s early work. What sets Cooper’s work apart is the distinct perspective of his poetic sensisbility. Whether through dream or memory, Cooper’s visceral lyricism catalogues as well as captures life on and beyond Zarzamora Street.

The collection’s title invites a fitting metaphor. The word zarzamora translates to blackberry which immediately sets one thinking in terms of bramble and tangled overgrowth. Instead of a traditional family tree, these poems deal with family as a similar sprawling entity. Stories of uncles and brothers are engaged in a way that explores a necessary public toughness as well as private depths.

The death of one uncle in particular, Danny, serves as a catalyst for the aforementioned duality, forcing family to open up and reach out to one another. “Five Bullets,” for example, describes a speaker and brother meeeting for “beers and plática,” a ritual public act haunted by personal tragedy. One can feel this haunting in the following stanza:

“I can’t believe Danny is dead,” he blurts.
Surprised, mid-drink, I assent.
The restaurant darkens
and warps into The San Fernando Cememtery.
Bar stools become tombstones.
We dive into Uncle Danny’s uncovered grave.
Stand on his casket
together. Speaking the sacred to the public
worms watching from the niches of the Earth.

This surrealistic blurring and change of scene evokes how sudden memories can come and take over one’s reverie. A similar move occurs in the poem’s ending lines describing a moment as the two men leave the bar: “I leave a tip, as if / a handful of dirt.” Lines like these show how death can color daily life. This imaginative space where memory and feeling blur is where Cooper’s poetic sensibility flourishes.

As much as Danny’s death haunts the speaker of these poems, Danny’s own voice — present in the collection through letters written from prison — serves to further the experience, countering meditations on the life lived with the living presence granted by words. In these letters, the somber, straightforward tone of the poems is checked and challenged by Danny meditating in an imaginative space of his own. Writing from prison, Danny meditates on his own past as well as reaches out and, through his advice to the poet, gestures towards the future.

In one early letter, Danny reflects on family not writing to him:

“Some people have a hard time writing and others like me and you can express ourselves better in writing. Anyway, it doesn’t mean they love us any less because they don’t write. It’s just part of who they are.”

There is a power to this statement that speaks to the heart of the collection. On one level, Danny is working through the complicated feelings of not receiving word from people he cares about; on another level, he is defining the space between him and the poet. In naming “part of who they are” as not being able to express themselves in writing, there’s the implied naming of a part of who Danny and the poet are, a part of them able to honor life through words. As Zarzamora moves through its poems of varied voices and recollections, Cooper’s poetic mission runs parallel to Danny’s epistolary one. Both men are seeking to understand and hold onto lives often overshadowed by death and misunderstanding.

Through unflinching honesty and nuanced lyricism, Zarzamora stands as a testament to the personal lives involved in the poems while also honoring Chicano identity. In this book, Cooper represents narratives and voices often overlooked through poems that evoke their necessary human presence. “Brazos” (below), is a good example of what I mean. Through some riffing with tropes associated with the devil, this poem works out a real sense of the high stakes reckoned with in the world of this book.

Brazos – Vincent Cooper

The devil danced with the most the beautiful
women in the room
before they noticed his feet.
He ran away from the chicanos who chased him
into the bathroom
of the baile where
he vanished,
and Sulphur remained.

He crept behind children playing little league,
hid under the bed of chicano lovers making love,
and laughed in our faces during the depression
of our lives…

And he was present when my Tíos died.
We whispered I love you’s into Mike’s ear
while the devil was massaging Mike’s bare feet.
Saying, “He can’t hear you.”
Told Tony to leave the house
and meet five bullets down the street.
Laughing and swimming in Tony’s pool of blood.
He picked up Danny off the toilet
and threw him onto the living room floor without
air to breathe.
He rode shotgun with Jody.
Infected him with AIDS
watched Jody rot in a prison cell.

He had been present at all our miseries
because the reckless familia
only knows to live on the thinnest edge of life and
death.
Every day with a methadone trip
and heroin and liquor
and worst of all “love.”

They made a fungus of love,
mildew smiles.
Black rotted teeth.
Honey brown chests
with Old English tattoos, on
spore covered stomach muscles.
Their drunken killer smiles dimpled,
telling stories,
our brazos wrapped around their shoulders.
We, the naive, craved their empty promises.
We were naive.

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Influence Question: How would you say this collection reflects your idea of what poetry is/can be?

Vincent Cooper: I knew, even as a child that I was witnessing something artistic, conversations and other moments resonated. Years ago, a poet said that the first poets you encounter are your tios, tias and primos. This is absolutely correct in my case. My where is South Texas/ Southern California. What I heard were uncles singing and telling jokes. Brown men playing basketball here in the barrio is what I saw. Old schoolers dressed in guayaberas n’ Stacy’s clacking. Smelling like barbecue, tortillas burning on the comal, Old Milwaukee or Schaefer beer and sweat. Some comments or praise I’ve received is “Thank you for sharing personal experiences.” The only thing I can do is write a true and honest account of my experience. I write about being here in the barrio and about missing the barrio. My community. I don’t understand why this wouldn’t be for the literary canon. I write the way I remember it. This is simply the life that we have here in San Antonio.

Influence Question: What were the challenges in writing these poems and how did you work through them?

Vincent Cooper: I am a masochist. The wheels have to be spinning already. There has to be a poem manifesting, prompted by a scene, memory, other writings. It might be an encounter with a relative that will trigger a poem –and it’s typically a negative thing happening that spurs the main idea to the poem. I don’t naturally just go sit at a desk and start typing up a million words. These poems in Zarzamora go back about 10 years. Right around the death of my Uncle Mike, I wrote pages of Westside San Antonio poetry. I debated writing these poems as prose or even as a novel. The narrative style is how I’ve written for at least 20 years. Initial edits by Viktoria made these bits of narrative into poetry. The voice and story was there but she taught me about breath, line breaks –or no line break, etc. She handed me books by Lucille Clifton and Li Young Lee too help build up and process.

Offending relatives was something that crossed my mind and I did remove poems, stories, and letters from Zarzamora. There was one letter where my uncle Danny had written racist comments. He was trying to stick up for me, or cheer me up, regarding an incident that happened in school. I think my relatives who’ve not even purchased the book are probably still offended, but I know this book is my experience not theirs.

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Special thanks to Vincent Cooper for participating! To keep up with Cooper’s work, follow him on Twitter: @vinnycoop13. Copies of Zarzamora can be purchased from Jade Publishing.

bwvc*

Vincent Cooper is the author of Zarzamora – Poetry of Survival and Where the Reckless Ones Come to Die. His poetry can also be found in Huizache 6, Huizache 8, The Acentos Review and Riversedge Journal. His forthcoming manuscript The Other Side of Semper Fi chronicle’s his tumultuous stint in the Marines pre/post America- 9/11.