An Interview with Tomás Q. Morín
Jasmine V. Bailey: Your most recent collection of poetry, Patient Zero, (Copper Canyon, 2017) is rather dazzling. One of many things that seems right about the book is its title. I began reading wanting to understand the metaphor, and by the time I read the title poem, I felt I did. Would you talk about the epidemic and its patient zero?
Tomás Q. Morín: For a number of years, the title of that book was Love Train. A couple of smart friends who read the manuscript didn’t think the title worked. I resisted their advice because I had grown to love that title for the book. Eventually, I was able to see that they were right and that I needed to get out of the way and choose a different title. The same thing happened with my first book. So I started rereading all the poems in what would come to be called Patient Zero. I was trying to find a poem that contained all of the thematic notes of the book. Because the poem “Patient Zero” was about love gone sideways, hope, despair, and the mythologizing we humans love to do, I chose it.
Now, the epidemic is love, as is mentioned in the Son House lyric the poem contains: “Love is a worried old heart disease.” A lot of my poems begin with a silly question that I’ve asked myself. In the case of this poem it was, “If love is a disease, then who would be the patient zero where it all started?” The poem is my answer to that question.
JVB: In “Love Train,” you write, “a begging angel who has written on his heart / WILL WORK FOR LOVE.” Is that an ars poetica for you? Is it just you?
TQM: WILL WORK FOR POEMS … Ha! No, not an ars poetica. I don’t ever beg for my poems to come. But that doesn’t mean I don’t do certain things to ready myself for when they do. I try to eat well, exercise, and get enough sleep. The sleep part is harder now as a new parent. The speaker in that poem is desperate to please his partner, to not make her feel like he’s let her down once again. So his longing is real.
JVB: The poem, “Shore Party,” narrates a day at the beach where the speaker is on the periphery of his wife and her (girl?) friends. The speaker seems to think it ought to be simple, but can’t make it so. Lines like, “the sad // box where I would have kept them / like singing mermaids gives way / to the aimless wind,” suggest melancholy and dislocation that can’t be erased or dissolved. How ought we to read that poem?
TQM: Well, what the speaker feels should be simple is the act of being around a close group of friends while he feels disconnected from the friends he once had. It’s like being a seventh wheel. All of that is internal, though. In the poem I condense many summer days spent on Lake Travis with my ex-wife and her friends. I didn’t always feel as melancholic as the speaker does in that poem. The poem is not all melancholy, though. It ends in laughter as the speaker joins the friends bobbing in the water, just as I did many times when they invited me into their circle of laughter.
JVB: In “Carità Americana,” the speaker weaves witnessing the end of his father’s life with an experience in a butcher shop and references to classical art and idiosyncratic superstition (“that blessèd cow without nipples / drawn by a lovesick artist in New Jersey / who wanted me to believe it gave the milk / that made the immaculate cheese / now sitting in my hand”). To what extent is this book about surviving the loss of those we love, especially when that loss seems more than inevitable — necessary?
TQM: It’s not so much about surviving the physical loss of those we love, so much as surviving losing them emotionally. The guy caring for his father in that poem lost his father long before they ever came together in that hospital room. The couple in “Love Train” likewise are emotionally estranged. So the book explores how we navigate that difficult space.
JVB: The speaker in “Carità Americana” remembers his father making him sick by hiding butter in his food, apparently to prove his lactose intolerance was imagined. Immediately after this memory, the speaker tells us, “I can’t lie / and tell him what he wants to hear, / will not say that I love him … Instead, I’ll wash his hair / and clip his nails … and teach him about regret.” This is complicated and painful, and it rings true to me of many familial relationships. What makes the speaker’s brand of pity American?
TQM: It’s not pity, really. Carità translates usually as charity. I’m sure pity sometimes is the engine of charity, but in this poem it’s duty. The son shows up to his father’s sickbed because that’s what we expect them to do. As a new parent, I hope that if my son and I are estranged one day (heaven forbid), I hope that we would come back together if one of us was ill and in the hospital. And what makes this charity American? Nothing, other than it happens on American soil, unlike the Roman story of Pero and Cimon that inspired the poem.
JVB: “For My Daughter” is the first poem I’ve read by a male poet imagining the child that might have been born of a terminated pregnancy. The speaker begins by counting birthdays, then says, “You’re still only zero.” There’s something so disorienting, so blunt, and ultimately powerful about that way of framing a person. You are the father of a young child now. Was it hard to bring yourself to write this poem? Is it difficult to revisit?
TQM: It wasn’t hard, in fact, because that child had been living and having adventures in my imagination for a long time. So in a way the poem is really a record of that. The poem came pretty quick, too. I don’t think I’ve read that poem in public since my son was born. I used to read it often. When I look at the poem now, it feels like a closed door with no knob. Before, the poem was a way for me to walk through the loss, and joy, of this child with an audience. But now, something has shifted. Maybe it’s because the little girl doesn’t visit my imagination anymore?
JVB: At the end of “For My Daughter,” the playing child goes “back home between my horns.” What did you want to imply in ending with that image?
TQM: I’d rather not say, to be honest. I’d rather the reader give that last image whatever meaning they like.
JVB: The end of the final poem, “Gold Record,” is one of my favorite riffs in this book full of wonderful riffs. You write,
in 1927 he moaned to the heavens
about homelessness or immortality or some
other mumbo jumbo any race smart enough to escape
gravity and cross the peacock-black
of galaxies would never believe because they
would know the blues are always about love
gone cold, and its light, the clammy light we might spend
years saying we can’t live without and then do.
There’s so much to admire here. What were your reasons for placing this poem at the end of the manuscript?
TQM: Of all the brilliant advice on my poems my friend C. Dale Young has ever given me, one of them is that the last poem of a collection should both close the collection, but also compel the reader to go back to the first poem and start rereading. After starting the collection with a poem that is a personal bestiary, a poem that explores our love for one another on this ball of mud that is our planet, it felt appropriate to end the book with a poem about the Golden Record and interstellar love. The Record has been called our handshake with the stars, but it’s also a valentine from the human race to whomever might be out there.
JVB: You’re a translator of Neruda, and you include a translation of Neruda’s “Walking Around” in this book. It’s one of the most original versions of the poem I’ve read, including the title, “Calle a Calle.” Talk about the difficult choices you made in this poem.
TQM: “Walking Around is arguably one of the most translated, and famous, of Neruda’s poems so I had to ask myself, can yet another translation bring anything new to the table? The title of the Spanish original is “Walking Around.” I couldn’t find a single translator who hadn’t just brought over that title to their translation. I felt that was a serious loss for English readers. Imagine that you only speak Spanish and you’re confronted with this poem titled “Walking Around.” If you don’t know what the title means, you’re immediately feeling disconnected. No surprise, the speaker is also someone who feels disconnected.
So the challenge was to find a Spanish title that would recreate this effect on an English reader. I tried “Andando” and “Caminando,” as well as “Paso a paso.” None of them felt right. I wanted a phrase that would be something you might find in a travel guide. Replacing the verb with a double noun felt like the right move. One can theorize choices all day, but in the end sometimes you just have to go with your gut, you know?
JVB: Your choice to translate The Heights of Macchu Picchu and to edit a book of essays remembering Philip Levine might suggest that you have a love of poetry of the proletariat — is that so? Can we read that kind of socialist spirit into your poems?
TQM: I did those projects because of a love for The Heights of Macchu Picchu and a love for Phil Levine. Do I love poems about blue-collar people? Sure I do. My father was a bricklayer and my mother’s parents worked in the fields for decades. But I also like poems about rich fat cats because their world is a world I don’t know anything about. The spirit that presides over my poems is not socialist. The angel on my shoulder is not Marx, it’s Curiosity.
JVB: Is America one of your beloveds? If it is (or if it isn’t), what do you mean by “America”?
TQM: I am, by nature, a sentimentalist, but not so much so that I would ever believe a country is capable of love. Are countries complex organisms capable of creating deep emotions in its citizens? Of course. But pretending that a nation can return one's love for it is a dangerous dream because disappointment is inevitable. I think the more interesting question is: Why do some of us want our country to love us back? What value does that dream have? The answer might very well be the key to waking us from the dream.
JVB: You added your signature to a letter asking Oprah Winfrey not to include American Dirt in her Book Club. Talk about the damage you see such fiction as being capable of and the kind of work you would like to see lofty platforms championing.
TQM: Since at least the 1605 publication of Don Quixote, the idea has been around that one of the responsibilities of the writer is to care for their readers. As writers, we create worlds for readers to enter. The experiences readers have in those virtual worlds are no less important than the experiences in the “real” world. One set of experiences informs the other. As we stated in the open letter, American Dirt is “exploitative, oversimplified, and ill-informed, too often erring on the side of trauma fetishization and sensationalization of migration and of Mexican life and culture.” We live in a time of great violence against, among others, immigrants. They have quite literally been placed in cages and separated from their children. A novel like American Dirt trivializes the immense suffering at the border.
I’d love to see lofty platforms champion work by writers who have written on the subject well, people like Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, Luis Alberto Urrea, Valeria Luiselli, Javier Zamora, Reyna Grande, Natalia Sylvester, Yuri Herrera, Ana Castillo, Fernando Flores, Erika L. Sanchez, and the list goes on.
JVB: Tell us about your current projects and any memoirs we might soon be able to read.
TQM: The new collection of poems is in the homestretch. It tackles the challenges of living in our era in a more direct way. I haven’t abandoned Emily Dickinson’s “tell it slant” approach, it’s that I now have more moments where I just tell it straight. My memoir Let Me Count the Ways explores what it was like for me to grow up in a rural town in South Texas surrounded by a culture of drugs and machismo. The title nods to my exploration of how, as a child, I turned to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder to help me cope. The stars of my book are my father, my surrogate father, and my grandfather. For better or worse, they helped shape me into who I am today.
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