“The Four Corners, the Edges, and Various Colors”:
An Interview with Ángel García
Iliana Rocha: Ángel, I am such a huge fan of your debut collection Teeth Never Sleep, winner of the 2018 Cantomundo Poetry Prize. What was its provenance? How did it evolve into what it is now?
Ángel García: Thank you, Iliana.
The evolution of Teeth Never Sleep was a years-long process. During my MFA program, I began working on poems I thought were deeply interrogative of the personal, while also just beginning to explore the broader challenges of adhering to strict gender roles and how that conformity can be learned, performative, and toxic. Really though, they weren’t pushing towards their potential because I — “the poet” — was afraid. The fear was two-fold: it stemmed from having the speaker say what I was not prepared to say, and more accurately, because I was afraid of how people would perceive the work and consequently perceive me. The larger complication is while writing this collection the line between speaker and poet and myself became very thin, becoming indistinguishable.
After many years of going to therapy, anger management, learning to recognize toxicity in its various manifestations, and facing the fear of being alone to face myself, I began to allow myself the grace that accompanies honest confrontation. That was definitely the first step. But I think what really allowed me to overcome the fear of interpretation was having a community of poets (I think it’s important to say mostly women) who were compassionate and patient with me and my work. They pushed me to go further and deeper. They encouraged me to combat the fear of perception and interpretation because they did so with an ethic of care. And in true friend fashion, they called me out on my bullshit.
IR: I know you’ve answered this question before, but I have to ask again about La Llorona. The proem “El Esposo de la Llorona Habla” prefigures the book, and the La Llorona poems throughout anchor the collection while simultaneously generating forward momentum. Can you talk a little about why you are so drawn to her? And, possibly, how her folklore relates to your own poetics?
ÁG: I’ve been drawn to La Llorona since childhood. Among the many real-life ghost stories my mother told, stories she shared with us as children about her family being haunted in Mexicali, La Llorona stood out as both narrative and myth. And I suppose as an adult, it’s the myth-making around her that has interested me, that first drew me into the persona poems. The reality is that men have traditionally been responsible for this myth making. We are supposed to fear La Llorona and what she is capable of, however, as a child I was never afraid of women. It was men I feared: their addictions, their violences, their predatory proclivities I witnessed even as a young boy while walking down the street with my mother — the cat-calls, the turned heads, the crude lingering gaze.
Yet, often myths about women incriminate and when I decided I was going to write these poems, I didn’t want to contribute to a long history of men who blame women for their own actions so often found in narratives ranging from mythology to music (the ranchera is notorious for blaming women). The witch. The seductress. The possessor. The manipulator. Instead, I turned that gaze toward La Llorona’s counterpart, the man who is forgotten and therefore incapable of any wrong doing. Similarly, another consequence of “the husband” being made invisible is that he’s not given space to emote. In thinking about her folklore, her mythology, I address the fallacies and make room for criticism and conversation about the husband. The poetic process, I think, is similarly a matter of exploring and reflecting complexity rather than relying on given answers.
IR: There is another thread of the speaker being a witness to violence (“Elegy for What Once Slept in a Cage”), a victim of violence (“Self-Portraits of a Man as Beast”), and a perpetrator of violence (“Meditations on Leaving”). Many times, the speaker slips into and out of these roles, and these roles seem to resist clear demarcation from one to the other. It is this slippery quality of the self’s relationship to violence I find interesting. What is the function of violence throughout the poems? Especially those moments in which the speaker indicts himself?
ÁG: The resistance to demarcate between witness, victim and perpetrator of violence stems from my deep-seated disbelief in the idea that we become different people over time. I once told a friend about how as a young boy I did all kinds of terrible things to animals in Ensenada. That friend, sensing my shame and guilt perhaps, replied, “You are no longer that person.” But as someone who has seen, experienced, and inflicted violence, it’s important to constantly remind myself of that which I am capable. While my speaker’s behaviors and attitudes change over the course of the collection, as a process of recovery, it was important to me that he also remember that which he was capable of. By remembering the violence and the consequences, the idea was that my speaker would be able to maneuver away from it, so that he can avoid becoming again, as a poem in the collection states, “a king of animalia.” As a poet and a man, I didn’t and don’t want to shy away from it, because then it would be easy to forget, to avoid, to ignore.
IR: On that same line of inquiry, how does the poetry interact with machismo? With different masculinities? Especially in the long poem “Self-Portraits of a Man as Beast”? “Cages”?
ÁG: This is a difficult question and something I’ve been thinking a lot about. While the book clearly addresses and deals with toxic masculinity, and this was something I was intentional about, I’m less convinced about what it offers in terms of solutions or examinations of different masculinities. The reason for this is two-part: 1) I initially dissected masculinity as a way to show its complexity — not to absolve, vindicate, or defend masculinity — but simply to break it open and examine it more closely; and 2) while I have done a lot of work in my own life to address the toxic aspects of my masculinity, I am in no position to be prescriptive.
So, to really answer your question, I think the poetry works to explore machismo (though I have to admit I’m not a fan of that word because if the inherent racial and ethnic implications) as a way to examine it inside and out. As hopefully suggested in other poems, there are absolute moments of and potential for love and tenderness. On the opposite side of the spectrum, as evidenced in the poem you’ve mentioned, “Self-Portraits of a Man as Beast,” are the toxic effects. At the risk of making a generalization, but worth saying, so many men spend their lives trying to prove their manhood without ever considering how that is ultimately what harms and kills them (or what gives others permission to harm of kill us, i.e. oppressions and institutions). With self-harm, I think there are many conversations that need to take place about the effects of toxic masculinity — effects with consequences for women for sure — but for men as well. “Cages” I think is reflective of the possibility for those conversations. Sometimes it takes men speaking to other men, being vulnerable and honest with each other and about how the performance of masculinity has hurt us. So while the poems themselves don’t necessarily show the reader different masculinities in which to inhabit, I think they allow room for more of those conversations to take place. I always go back to Azaldúa’s suggestion that straight-cis men look to queer men for guidance — not to tokenize or burden them with our learning — but simply to look for models of the many masculinities that exist.
IR: The “Anitpode” poems really give a name to the central tensions throughout the collection: “antipodal” — those forces working in opposition to one another: father/son, inheritance/selfhood, English/Spanish, violence/love, expectations of masculinity/enacted masculinity, myth/reality, leaving home/coming home. How do you see the poems disrupting or complicating these easy binaries?
ÁG: The problem with binaries is that they are generally constructed by those in power to create essentialized truths. Those “truths,” while highly problematic, shape the ways in which marginalized peoples are expected to exist, or even more painfully, shape the ways in which we begin to judge ourselves. My first experience of contending with and contesting binaries was thankfully a method I learned from Chicana Feminism — the introductory binary being virgen/puta. And while not all binaries are as overtly political as the example just given, it was my hope to disrupt the binaries you have mentioned because at least in my mind, everything is political.
IR: You’ve mentioned that you grew up listening to, but not speaking Spanish, and this is a phenomenon to which many individuals from immigrant families can relate. Additionally, the many references to animals, mouths, etc. suggest a yearning for language, an inability to communicate. What is the role of language in the book? Especially in regards to the title, Teeth Never Sleep? How would you characterize the relationship between English and Spanish?
ÁG: In regard to the previous question and this one, I think living one’s truth is the most obvious way to disrupt binaries. But of course, it helps to articulate that disruption with language. For me, Spanish was a language of home, of intimacy. It was and is the language chosen by my parents to speak to me about their memories and their pasts. And English, because of circumstance and accessibility, became and is the language of my present. And to disrupt the notion of who can access language and who cannot, I wanted to push myself to remember and enact in two languages, three really, if Spanglish is a language of its own. We often tend to think about code-switching resulting from living in two worlds. But code-switching is also a testament to survival and resistance in one’s body and since the book is in so many ways a rejection of silence, I afforded myself the ability to speak in many languages. Despite my deficiencies in Spanish and English, there is a deep need, a constant longing, a hunger to speak the way I both know and don’t know in order to be true to my senses and sensibilities. The techniques have always been there, they’ve existed for generations. I’m simply enacting my own version of delving into the in-between because from that space I can say what needs to be said.
IR: So many figurative and literal cages in your work, and such important and urgent symbolism for our time. What do you see as sources of liberation for the speaker? What do you see as the primary causes for being contained?
ÁG: The levels of containment are a primary result of silence. As much as I’d like to try, I can’t attest to the ways in which silence has had negative results in my life. Additionally, though, prescribing to notions of masculinity and toxic masculinity are levels of containment, either prescribed or adopted. The question of liberation is more difficult. The most obvious way to combat the containment of silence is to access language. But this is almost counterintuitive because men are afforded language in a way that others are not. Walk into any room with several people in it and most often there will be a man talking loudly enough to take up the entire space. Men have been given reign over language and volume. This is reflective in terms of publishing and the canon.
But when it comes to our privilege and power, when it comes to our behaviors, our apologies, our culpability, we are conveniently silent. For my speaker and for myself, when we use language to speak about vulnerability rather than our privilege, that is a form of liberation.
IR: Your poems have so many shapes and surprising technical features to them: prose poems, couplets, along with white space, em dashes. The range accommodates a variation of tones and textures, as in the piece “Piss,” particularly in the way the lines interact with each other. Can you describe how you approach craft elements in the collection? How the craft informs and/or illuminates the major themes?
ÁG: Of my many concerns in poetry, I think narrative and musicality two of the heavy hitters. Of the two, the more expendable craft element is narrative because so often, at least for me, narrative dictates a particular form: square, chunky, long lines, and heavily sentence-structured lines. How the poem takes shape on the page weighs heavily, exaggeratedly so. After many years of writing what I felt to be exclusively “narrative” poems, I pushed myself to write new kinds of poems. “Piss” is definitely a testament to this drive. While this poem and others such as “Elegy for What Once Slept in a Cage” don’t stray too far from narrative, I tried to explore the ways in which the poem can occupy more space on the page, be more associative, and perhaps lyrical. Beyond these decisions though, I keep trying to explore the ways in which blank space can be read as silences, both enforced and self-imposed. Much of my recent work is playing more with space and trying to make this more of a practice because so much of the narratives I know are fragmented. Aside from exploring that fragmentation in narrative, I want to explore how that is represented on the page.
IR: In one of the two titular poems, “Teeth Never Sleep II,” the speaker describes the mother figure taking teeth out of a box, the collector lamenting the fragments of “the boys we would never again resemble.” When I read this the first time, I read “resemble” as “reassemble” which conjured all the various identities under construction throughout the collection — immigrant identity, masculine identity. What else do you see as being “reassembled” in the book?
ÁG: Growing up, one of the pastimes while living with and visiting my grandmother was to work on jigsaw puzzles. Like many other puzzle workers, I learned to organize the pieces according to the four corners, the edges, and various colors. But there was never an order to disassembling the puzzles: we simply placed the box at the edge of the table and crumbled the pieces feeling accomplished because the puzzle matched the image on the box. But in life, the final image doesn’t always match the picture on the box. And to make a tired analogy more tired, poetry affords us, the readers, with the ability to imagine new possibilities. So, what can be reassembled, unlike the mother in the poem who is trying to hold on to something that is not possible, it might be true that our responsibility is to make something new. The poems might allude to the responsibility to change something we are disillusioned with and make something new, something better. As many others before me have suggested, writing affords us the possibility to imagine change in the world that we might never reap the benefits of, but a change that every day we strive toward.
IR: Finally, I want to thank you so much for your time. And I’m eager to know, as a fan, what’s next for you. In what direction is your work going? Do your poems extend on themes in Teeth Never Sleep, or is your focus turned elsewhere?
ÁG: Since the publication of Teeth Never Sleep, I have been working on a project that only recently has shown itself to be two projects. However, both of these projects look toward history. One project has been investigating the genealogy of my family and geography in terms of migration and immigration. This is rooted in place and my family archive, at least in terms of what has survived. The other project is rooted in the idea of the border and how we have been erased from the idea of what it means to be to able formulate identity. Since this one project has been recently been divided into two projects, it’s difficult to think of them as separate, but both are looking back rather than forward.
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