Alex, what are some pros and cons of living in San Antonio for an author? Have you been living in this city since you were born?
This is a great, complex question, one that’s impossible to answer definitively, so you’ll have to settle for merely my opinion. I love San Antonio, love calling this place home. Culturally diverse and living up to its moniker as “Military City, U.S.A.,” San Antonio certainly does feel like—as folks abroad have dubbed it—a “little-big” city. Here, we value customs and family, history and mom-and-pop shops, growth but not Austin-level growth, the Spurs and the majestic missions and, most importantly, quality breakfast tacos. Pleasant and capable of punching above our metaphorical weight class, us San Antonians are lovable low-key humble-braggarts.
A few years ago, I discovered in this city what I’ve witnessed is a strong, vibrant poetry scene—a community built on the beautifully lyrical efforts of spoken-word and traditional read-from-the-paper writers who’ve chronicled their South Texas experience, who’ve documented their complicated family sagas, who’ve been unafraid, and rather bold, to reveal and champion who they are in their work, sometimes by way of Spanish and Spanglish lingo. A few years ago, I realized San Antonio’s big enough to contain multitudes; there are interest groups, networks and clubs here for just about anyone. Mark my words: anybody who says San Antonio’s too small for them is a blowhard; they’re not disclosing the truth: that they’d simply prefer getting lost somewhere else with more highway traffic.
My family and I moved from Corpus Christi to San Antonio when I was about 13 years old, due to my dad’s job relocating. I tried leaving San Antonio in my early 20s, but it wasn’t in the cards for me. It wasn’t because I was dissatisfied with the city—the setting in which I’ve received my high school and college education, in which I’ve written all my poems and stories, in which I’ve befriended countless bright, good-hearted people. To sum up, this is what I’ll say about San Antonio becoming potential headquarters for writers: Garbage in, garbage out. Undoubtedly, the inverse is true. You don’t need the backdrop of Paris, Seattle or Los Angeles to call yourself a writer—let alone to be a good one.
You hold an M.A. in English Literature from St. Mary’s University. I have a simple question for you. Why literature?
To get filthy rich.
I’m gonna let that one sink in.
I really don’t know, but I think you’re good at Spanish, too. Is that correct? I’m saying this because you live in Texas. If I’m right, do you also read Spanish poems at times?
¡Incorrecto! Despite my being Hispanic, I wasn’t raised bilingual, though I did pick up basic Spanish here and there. My not speaking, nor understanding, Spanish fluently is a theme I attempted reconciling in my first poetry collection, WARBLES.
Perhaps someday I’ll make an honest, concerted effort (and, at age 31 as of this writing, it will be an effort) to learn Spanish. However, what I know now, I know within reason, and for a reason, and I’m mostly okay with that.
Have you shifted your focus from prose to poetry recently, or has poetry been your priority all along?
I started writing short fiction in 2015. Poetry didn’t enter my world until summer 2016, when I enrolled in a graduate poetry workshop. Initially, I’d labeled myself a short-story writer, so it took me time thinking of myself as a poet. Eventually, though, I comprehended that the occupation of “writer” is all-encompassing—absorbs poets, novelists, short-story writers, essayists and memoirists. Thus, I learned to reclassify myself, so to speak, simply as a writer, which is supremely more flexible and cozy.
I never imagined poetry becoming a priority. It wasn’t until early 2017, when my first poem, “Salt,” was published in print in the San Antonio Express-News, that I considered writing poems outside a classroom. Once I got over my internal shock of seeing something so personal as a poem published in a city newspaper—and after receiving kudos from my family, friends and colleagues—I decided to commit myself to recreating that special feeling. I was strongly convinced that I had more to say via poetry, so I chipped away at it night after night, on my sofa and in Starbucks cafes, not knowing that the work would soon supply the pages to two full-length collections.
Is it possible to share one of your poems with us here, please?
I’ll share two poems, both of which encompass themes of cultural identity discussed above (and below).
Ju speak Spanish? (WARBLES) UNO. Ju speak Spanish, jes? I looked down at my arms, white. No, I answered. Ju should learn Spanish, mijo, it’s important. I don’t recall selling another tool that day. Instead, I wandered the department store, the alleys of memory. Not even my own father told me to learn Spanish. The customer was wrong. Who was he to judge if my tongue was properly educated? DOS. Recently, I thought about his words, about blueprints. Straight white lines connecting, crosshatching on dark blue paper. TRES. When you think about it, what blueprints are fully attuned to the rigors of reality? When it comes down to it, what fathers fully understand all they must teach their children?
Savage (DREAMT, or The Lingering Phantoms of Equinox) I dreamt I was translating a poem by Roberto Bolaño but his words Resisted my touch, my gaze, Squirted hot mescal into my cocoa eyes of Which my tongue refused to lick the Dripping drink due to its teetotaler master, And in this way, every single way imaginable, My native tongue has resisted me.
You published WARBLES in 2019 and then DREAMT, or The Lingering Phantoms of Equinox in 2020. What are the main themes of these two poetry books? Should we expect your third book in 2021?
In WARBLES, I attempt to reconcile my lifelong sense of feeling sandwiched between cultures—and languages—in South Texas.
In DREAMT, or The Lingering Phantoms of Equinox, I propel further my identity investigation by entering into the dreamscape—populated by my literary and musical influences such as Haruki Murakami, Roberto Bolaño, Ayn Rand, Sherman Alexie, John Coltrane and OutKast. By the book’s conclusion, I bring to the surface the disturbing reality of the Trump administration via an erasure/blackout poem crafted from his 2017 presidential inauguration speech, hopefully challenging readers to ask themselves: So what action can I take next?
After the publication of DREAMT this past July, I felt pretty happy about the dent I’d left in poetry—nearly 100 poems between two books. Now, I’m taking a break from that genre to write a novel, my goal of which is to amass 30,000 words. I’m over the halfway mark. In a nutshell, the novel’s about a Chicano poet extraordinaire named Larry Rios who may or may not be a murderer. We’ll see where it takes me. I also have a manuscript of short stories that needs a bit more editing. We’ll see what happens with that.
By the way, shoutout to my publisher, Hekate Publishing, for believing in my books, for utmost professionalism and being a joy to collaborate with.
Do poetry books sell well in the U.S? I mean, can you make a good living by just publishing your poems?
In response to the first part of this question: I wi$h!
I suppose it’s possible for writers to make a living, even big bucks, on their poetry—I’m thinking of Rupi Kaur, R. H. Sin, Lang Leav, Robert M. Drake—but, and this is a contentious “but,” this particular set of poets I’ve invoked belong to a popular cluster I’ve heard called “Insta Poets.” Which, according to certain drones inside the stuffy offices of the poetry-verse, are less than respectable. Now, no disrespect to the Insta Poets out there—I get it, I understand the allure of micro, soundbyte-able, digestible photo-filtered verse. But (there’s that “but” again), I’ve found much of the poetry shared on Instagram to be cliched, easy, safe, unchallenging. Basically, platitudes. Strong contemporary poetry, on the other hand, ought to be unconventional and aggressive, possess rhythm, kick and, in the best examples, universal specificity. Because great poems are never about just one thing. They overturn expectations. They underpromise, then suddenly overwhelm your sensibility. Maybe I’m not looking hard enough on Instagram for outstanding poetry. I don’t really care about Instagram, so I don’t know why I keep mentioning it. If all social media platforms disappeared tomorrow, I feel a huge monkey’ll have been lifted off our backs; writers can then return to pounding out their work the good old-fashioned way without the stifling, stymying presence of Instagram injecting hubris into their hearts.
With all that said, I’ve earned on my two poetry collections probably a couple hundred dollars, of which I’m flattered and thankful for. DREAMT received a starred review on Kirkus Reviews, but do I expect that to make my wallet any fatter? Heck no. I take what I can get then run to spend it at Dairy Queen, and also on buying more books!
What are your major plans for the next five years of your life?
- Stay alive.
- Publish another book (non-poetry).
- Pay off one or both of my meaty college loans.
- Get hitched.
- Buy a house.
- Obtain a signed copy of any Cormac McCarthy novel.
- Learn to fly a plane.
Have you ever given up on writing? Have you ever rued your decision to be a writer/poet? What helps you hang on and keep working optimistically?
Coincidentally, it’s in my nature not to give up easily on things once I commit to them. So, no, I’ve never given up on my creative writing, although I can imagine a life in which I’m not a writer—a life in which I’d chosen to major in mechanical/industrial engineering, or join the military out of a displaced sense of patriotism (these things almost did happen).
What helps me hang on? Good books, which revitalize my own writing. Good friends, who keep me tethered to the real world. My parents and extended family, who’ve supported my art. Good coffee, which gives me that extra boost I desperately require. Love, which I’ve found again and again—the thing that paints life tragic and is worth waking up for.
To end our short talk, let’s read your most favorite poem by a classic poet together. Thank you!
The poem that’s been my favorite classic since long before I dreamt of writing poetry is “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley:
I met a traveller from an antique land, Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand, Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown, And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command, Tell that its sculptor well those passions read Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things, The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed; And on the pedestal, these words appear: My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair! Nothing beside remains. Round the decay Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
P.S. The actor Bryan Cranston read this poem for a trailer for the final season of AMC’s Breaking Bad. It’s bone-chilling.