A Blizzard of Possibility: An Interview with Tomás Q. Morín
Cate Lycurgus: From the first time the knife appears in “Machete” as a smile that cuts and causes white supremacists to “dance like fields of cane,” to “Sartana and Machete in Outer Space” which takes on the voice of characters in the film Machete, to the final poem which wields humor as a tool of outrage and resilience, the pieces refer back to and recast each other. While many collections have rich resonances among poems, rarely does one read a book that transforms and interprets itself even as the text progresses but — Machete does just that. Which is all to ask — how (do) these machete pieces frame but then also reshape the collection? How does one go about writing and making the imaginative process a transparent one? What is gained or sacrificed in the process?
Tomás Q. Morín: I have to start with the fact that a machete is a tool, first and foremost. Has it been used as a weapon by the oppressed who had no traditional weapons? Absolutely. But while you can take a machete to war, you can’t use a gun to chop brush, cut sugar cane, coppice wood, build a shelter, butcher a deer, or split a coconut. Okay, yes, a gun can open a coconut, but not with any kind of elegance! I’ve written poems that are swords and others that are plows. In this collection, I tried to make a poem that’s as versatile as a machete, a poem that both cuts and clears space for new life.
Elizabeth Bishop’s “dramatized mind in action” has guided me in terms of making my poems open to readers. Rather than just put thoughts in a poem, I want to write poems that show thinking. What is gained is intimacy. What’s lost? I don’t know. Maybe the safety of the writer?
CL: I want to return to the idea of poem-as-tool, but first I’m intrigued by explicit thinking in poems which happens throughout yours via asides, like the observation geese do not have the fascist paunch of those who goosestep; or digressions, like a list of also-googled questions related to man-boobs; or direct address, be it to a child, poet-friend, or reader. Most notably though, not only individual pieces but Machete at the macro level reveals its process. The final poem addresses an earlier one, both altering the previous and recasting the type of connection poems might forge. What is the importance of poems that talk back and forth to each other within a book?
TQM: I think if you’re not writing a “project” book, then the poems you assemble for a collection had better talk to one another. Otherwise, what holds the book together? In my first two collections, I went about this in subtle ways. I made the poems in those books speak to one another by echoing emotional notes, moods, and subjects. As you noticed, in Machete I take this up a notch by having some of the poems directly reference each other. What this implies is that my poems exist in the same universe. I love it when filmmakers do this. It makes so much sense to me. Why wouldn’t my poems exist in the same universe if I’m the one writing them and they’re all coming from my brain? I mean, isn’t it the same universe even if I’m not aware of it? And as for the present revising the past, well, trauma has taught me that the past revises the present. Before that present even exists! This all got me to thinking, why shouldn’t that revision go both ways, you know?
CL: It’s so interesting that you mention the cartilage of a book, or what holds it together. I have a friend who lambasts ‘project’ books, insisting that, like you mention, the writer’s universe should be enough for the book to cohere, given each poem can carry its own weight. And yet they do amplify and talk, just as even writing an individual poem is some sort of mediated conversation with the world. As a reader this conversation (or eavesdropping on it) revises how I understand my own experience, my own traumas. We want to revise them, but since they can’t be deleted like a bad line, can you talk about the connection between trauma and transformation in poems? Transformation — of image, of tone, of scope — happens so much across this collection, for example an infant is “the hypotenuse that closes my triangle,” the soul is a vegetable, duct tape “miss[es] the simple life: kissing/ someone’s thighs/ while they walk down the street/ in their torn blue jeans” or the Racial Dot Map of America makes the speaker feel like “a nectarine without a peel, a grated carrot on a bed of lettuce.” Likewise, the pieces address a whole host of personal and public traumas. How do you know when a transformation is a success, versus a digression? (How) does trauma get revised?
TQM: The transformations in my poems are never just riffs, association for the sake of association. These transformations happen because I’m trying to capture something and it wriggles into the shape of something else. This forces me to readjust my grip and try to hold the poem a different way. In these moments, my poems remind me of old Proteus, one of my favorite characters from Greek mythology. He knew everything that had ever happened and everything that would happen. But he’d only tell you if you held him tight as he turned into a lion, a snake, fog, and all sorts of other things. That’s what it feels like sometimes to write poems. If transformation is happening, then I know I’ve really got a hold of something. The trauma of my childhood hasn’t been much different. I recently read a brilliant book called When the Body Says No by Gabor Maté. It’s taught me that my trauma can manifest in different parts of my body, that it’s resourceful and can try different ways to get my attention. So in a way it’s the trauma that’s doing the revising. But it’s not revising me; rather, it’s revising the messages it sends me. So why would all this revision be necessary? Because I’m stubborn sometimes or just dense as a block of wood. But that denseness and stubbornness were important tools that helped me survive as a kid. While I don’t need those old tools anymore, it’s still hard sometimes to convince my mind and body that things are okay now, that we can shift from surviving to living.
CL: What a fascinating way of approaching a poem — I know I’ve definitely let some slip away because I didn’t hang on long enough! This leads me back to the collection’s epigraph, Dios aprieta, pero no ahorca, or “God squeezes, but he doesn’t strangle.” Can you speak to the framework this proverb provides for the book? How do you apply it to your own acts of making?
TQM: The familiar version in English is from 1 Corinthians 10:13. It’s the one about God not giving you more than you can bear. That’s how most people would translate it. The literal translation I made of a God who takes you by the throat and squeezes, but never hard enough to kill you, reminded me of The Book of Job, my favorite biblical story. A close second is the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel. I love these stories because Job and Jacob have hutzpah. They don’t just whimper while God’s hand squeezes tighter and tighter. No, they reach out and try to give as good as they get, even though they’re outmatched. I’ve tried to summon that kind of foolhardy courage every time this country has invented a new way to dehumanize us. In one of the poems in Machete, I argue that our money should say “In Pain We Trust,” instead of the usual. The countless atrocities of the last 400 years speak to how we’ve made pain into a religion. In my poems, I’m desperately trying to find a way to “keep on the sunny side of life,” as the Carter family reminds us. But it’s hard. Some days it feels impossible. And then I see my son smile and my strength is renewed.
CL: Job is one of the more humbling stories, to me: how despite my good-faith attempts everything can (and probably will) be taken, how I am not in control. At the same time, I take comfort in the psalms where God wants us to “pour out our complaints before him” (142:1-2) bringing them to (not of) him — so that we know lament is heard, so that we can see what god will do. It’s no coincidence to me that the scripture’s poems (psalms) are both the praises and the laments. But the “to” seems crucial as well — whereas oppressors and empires exploit, injure or de-humanize, the power with which Job and Jacob struggle does not want to de-humanize them. Instead, God made Job and Jacob in a divine image. I’m interested in the idea of pain as a religion — either a national or a personal one — but I can see how your poems tackle oppression head on without going under. I think of a portion of “Whiteface” that reads:
41. Our heads swing high in the dark
42. Our country is a circus tent.
43. The trapeze has always been the last act of the night.
44. This is why we nod and nod.
45. Because we are at the end of something.
46. From down below, when the light catches our heads, they shine.
47. They shine like disco balls.
48. They shine like something sharp.
49. Like a thing that could light your way.
TQM: That “to” is so key, isn’t it? I agree 100% that the power they wrestle with isn’t out to de-humanize them. If anything, I’d say its goal is to re-humanize them. The danger, for us, when the hand is at our throats or we’re wrestling with that angel is to make a religion out of pain and fear, to ritualize them in such a way that we get caught in a loop of our own making. The Puritans said it was God they worshipped when they landed on these shores, but nah, it was fear. The genocide of this continent’s indigenous people was a sacrifice laid at the altar of fear. Fear is a hungry god who’s never full. Still isn’t to this day.
In that section from “Whiteface,” you can see how that circus tent could just as well be a church tent. And what comes at the end of a ritual? The star of the show in many cultures that practice human sacrifice is usually the person who’s losing their life so that everyone else can feel good and safe.
CL: The church tent is often a circus! This has me thinking of the ways animals populate your poems: we hear how “a day with a cat is a master class/ in keeping your distance/ even from the ones you love”; we learn whiteness is a real color given “the pure white duck with a white bill” that the speaker loves; or see a son’s nursery with its Glow Worm and Twilight Turtle as the father’s “breasts are two dolphins/with electronic headgear”; the collection even begins with a fin-handed speaker who sings of the body aquatic! The cover, too, has a roaring tiger, and so I wonder if you might speak some about the ways animals both enter and shape your work?
TQM: Animals are us and we are animals. I’ve believed that for a long time. The idea goes back to when mi abuelo told me as a boy all these stories he would make up about Coyote and other animals doing very human things. At least I think he made them up. He spoke Spanish, understood a tiny bit of English, but could not read or write in either language. So I doubt he would’ve read them in a book. Besides, all you need is a plot and some wisdom to make a fable, and he had plenty of that to spare. One day after my catechism class, I asked him why he never attended church. He waved his hand slowly at the backyard and said something like, “This is a church, too. Jesus doesn’t only live in a building we call a church. He’s in the trees and the wind and the grass.” It was a short jump for me from that idea to realizing that animals share with us this holy space we call the world. When I was writing my memoir Let Me Count the Ways, revisiting his stories inspired me to write, and slip in, an animal fable of my own. He also inspired the poem “Weather Sayings” because he always had these little sayings he loved. Like when times were rough, he’d say, “Ta cabrón el marrano.” A literal translation is probably just as funny as the original, “The pig is ornery.” If someone saying that out of nowhere doesn’t get you laughing and give you a reset, then nothing will.
CL: Oh yes — this reminds me how if someone was uncomfortable, my papa would call him a “cat in a rocking chair” — so many sayings center on animals! And I think all the time about how we use “inhumane” as derogatory, when really to be “humane” can be pretty damning. It’s interesting because even as many deem animals as inferior, we still use them to tell our stories, to speak truth. I think of the end of your piece “Royal Silence” where we have a “bull bullfrog declaiming/in a Polish accent that silence is royal,/ and natural, and that the world only speaks/ when we have committed a sin or two/against it—this is an old ribbit, he says, retold/ over and over through history; think Memphis/ and Rwanda; think Chile and Warsaw…” There’s something about animals’ lack of pretense, or perhaps their unknowability—a strangeness that can become humorous in our own imaginations—that catches people off-guard and can frighten. Is there an overlap between the humorous and the inarticulable? If so, how do animals (or children?!) keep your poems in the center of this Venn Diagram?
TQM: You might not believe this, but I rarely ever set out to write a poem with an animal in it. They just show up. As does food. Czesław Miłosz once said something like he didn’t trust any novel in which money didn’t change hands. I feel similarly skeptical of poems in which animals don’t appear. Or food! We spend so much of our lives surrounded by animals and eating that it strikes me as odd when at least one of them doesn’t appear in someone’s writing. I mean, at least drop an avocado tree in the background, ya know? [laughs] Both animals and kids, especially the little ones, remind me of that moment in The Brothers Karamazov when Alyosha tells Ivan that one should have more love for life than for what life means. As much as I agree with this, it’s so hard to practice because we are such anxious, thinking creatures who can’t forget that we are anxious, thinking creatures. There is so much absurdity and humor in this. But animals and kids, they pull me back toward that beautiful forgetfulness we call living. Is it the same for you? I’ve noticed plenty of food in your poems.
CL: Yes! I love to both garden and cook and so what’s on the counter or out the window often makes it into my pieces. Food and trees! All the miraculous and life-giving. Which leads me to The Brothers and more love for life than what it means — poems seem to get this! That just being might be best — we love them because they don’t mean perfectly, exactly — or maybe because they mean uniquely and we can’t understand it. Are there things you have to forget to start writing poems? Things you have to unlearn to understand?
TQM: I’m lucky that I don’t have the best memory so the forgetting is easy. But the thing I do sometimes have to remind myself is that there’s time. Plenty of time to get the poem right. There’s plenty of time to get it wrong too, of course! [laughs] One thing I enjoy about poems is that I can dip in and out of any time. I can slow time down or speed it up. This is the bread and butter of fiction writers. It was a blast to write “Sartana and Machete in Outer Space.” I had never tried to write a Mexploitation poem, much less Mexofuturism. Is that even a word? In order to write Mexploifuturism I needed to remember everything I’ve ever learned about how to make a poem because it was, pardon the pun, a new frontier for me.
CL: I can tell you were having fun with it! When I got to the line “God said/ you will be a Mexi-can, not a Mexi-can’t” I started laughing, because there’s something playful and dire there that really takes off (again, terrible pun!) Even without previous knowledge of the Machete movies, this poem’s voicing builds a world. Perhaps you can share some about Mexploifuturism and how you see the voice of Sartana Rivera operating alongside your own?
TM: The poem was a way for me to explore what justice and love and hope might look like for brown bodies in space. Writer and director Robert Rodriguez took care of the Mexploitation part when he made the Machete films. It’s not hard to draw a line from those films to Shaft and Dolemite, but also in a way to tv shows like The Cisco Kid and Zorro from the 50s. All of these present heroes who do what they have to do to help their communities, even if it means crossing the law. Heroes who look like me or my family rarely appear on the big or small screens. The second Machete film ends with a teaser trailer for the next movie, a film that would take the characters into space to fight the good fight. Waiting eight years for that film made me impatient, so I decided to have a little fun and try to write into that cinematic universe. I didn’t know the poem would be a dramatic monologue until eleven lines in when I wrote the line “How can I explain the man behind the legend?” and in my head I heard it in the voice of Sartana, Jessica Alba’s character. This was exciting for a number of reasons. She’s a total bad ass so I knew writing from her perspective was going to be fun, but I also had to figure out how to bring her back to life since the character had been killed off in the second movie! This was the last poem I wrote for the book and it was such a blast. I rewatched the films and studied Jessica Alba’s scenes closely to try and absorb the cadence of her speech. The poem was pure joy to write.
CL: I love that eleven lines in you heard the poem in Alba’s voice. Whereas most people sit down with a persona or speaker in mind, to discover another voice takes the exploration aspect of a poem to the next level. Another moment where the collection richens in terms of register comes at the end of the first section with a translation of Javier Velaza’s “Life Preserver.” Each requires stepping inside another’s language, in a sense — so how would you compare writing a dramatic monologue and translating? How do you see your role, or your own voice’s role, in each instance?
TM: My role as a translator is pretty similar. In those first few lines while I’m untangling syntax, thumbing a thesaurus, I’m also listening for the voice from the original to speak to me in English. That moment feels like being in a blizzard of possibility. But somewhere in those millions of swirling words, there’s a whisper I’m straining to hear. It’s hard to describe how much energy I feel in that moment or how thrilling it is to hear that voice grow sharper until it cuts through the storm. When I heard “But loving is a job/ with benefits, too” seven lines into “Life Preserver” I jumped out of my chair! The voice felt warm, wise, and welcoming, but also utterly unpredictable. I had no idea what this voice would say next in English and so every line that followed was filled with surprise for me. This poem is a force and easily the equal of other poems of hope and light that I love like Nazim Hikmet’s “Things I Didn’t Know I Loved” or Wisława Szymborska’s “On Death, without Exaggeration.”
CL: Every time I read the Szymborska I think less of death’s incompetence and more of what a miracle that I’ve made it thus far—and often without even knowing what I love, or how much I love it! These two poems are some of my favorites, as well. With every failed attempt though, death can grab our wrist and get us to take life seriously; it can make us realize death might not be the worst danger. In “Life Preserver” Velaza writes:
only love saves us at last from the grip
of the worst danger we know of:
to be only — and nothing else — ourselves.
People think of poetry as a solitary pursuit, but at least for me, I write the worst poems when focused on myself, either in terms of content or as a source of strength. Does poetry broaden your sense of self? What role does community play in your work, either on the page or in terms of practice?
TQM: I’m the same way. Any poem that’s just about me is a wash mostly because I’ll be too bored to keep going. I’m more interested in others, be they human or animal or otherwise, and how we share our short time on this ball of mud. There are so many things Hikmet embraces with his love like poplars and rivers and stars and those sparks at the end flying from the wheels of the train he’s on.
the train plunges on through the pitch-black night
I never knew I liked the night pitch-black
sparks fly from the engine
I didn’t know I loved sparks
I didn’t know I loved so many things and I had to wait until sixty
to find it out sitting by the window on the Prague-Berlin train
watching the world disappear as if on a journey of no return
I want my heart and spirit and mind to all one day be as big as his were. Maybe I’ll have to also wait until I’m sixty, too. Or eighty. Either way, it can’t come soon enough.
CL: I think you’re well on your way. Thank you, Tomás — for your heart, spirit, mind, and this conversation!
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