Monday, April 26, 2010


Octavio González recently published his first poetry collection, The Book of Ours, with Momotombo Press (Letras Latinas, Notre Dame University), which may be purchased through Tianguis. His essays and poems appear or are forthcoming in Puerto del Sol, OCHO, MiPoesias, The Richmond Review, Cultural Critique, Psychoanalytic Perspectives, and other journals. González teaches literature and composition at Rutgers University, where he is a doctoral student in English.

González kindly agreed to sit down with La Bloga and answer a few questions about his book and other literary matters.

DANIEL OLIVAS: In his introduction to your book, Rigoberto González (no relation) recounts meeting you about five years ago at a “gathering of the queer literati at a Chelsea penthouse, where seasoned poets and novices converged to dialogue about craft and poetics as seen through the distinct lens of sexual orientation.” Do you have any particular memories of that night that have stayed with you? Was this a turning point or milestone for you as a poet?

OCTAVIO GONZÁLEZ: I do remember that night! It was an intimidating and invigorating experience to be in a room with so many talented and witty poets. I had been taking poetry workshops and working at the collection just released as The Book of Ours, which has been a labor of love for many years.

DO: When did you decide that you would become a poet? What kind of journey has it been?

OG: I began writing fiction, actually, and only saw myself as a poet much later. This is all relative, of course, since my writing life started when I was in middle school and I began writing poetry in high school. My first poem was awful! But, even though I never felt that poetry came “naturally” to me—I think it comes more naturally to some than it does to others—I worked on it, revising my poems obsessively. One poem in my collection, “American Sign Language,” an unrhymed villanelle, has gone through more iterations than I can keep track of. Let’s just say it began as two separate poems and the refrains existed before then, as mantras in my mind, which wrote themselves, as it were.

DO: Could you talk a bit about editing your book with María Meléndez?

OG: María Meléndez is an incredible poet and a warm, gentle, and visionary editor. She has helped me really chip away at the marble and let the forms and gestures and movements inherent in the poems come forth. We had conversations over the phone and went back and forth with ideas and suggestions. María was perfect in the way that she allowed me to edit the pieces while also guiding the wheel at important turns—I will always remember when she made a line editing suggestion and then said, Well, it depends on whether ultimately you want to end the manuscript on a hopeful note—it depends on your own vision of the whole. Her experience as a poet really helped me see the horizon or the “arc” of the collection.

DO: Who do you read? What authors have been your biggest influences?

OG: I’m working on twentieth-century fiction right now, for my dissertation research, so I’m really interested in Junot Díaz, a fellow Dominican-American author. I’m also intrigued by the modernists at the beginning of the twentieth century—the lyrical modernists such as Woolf and the Joyce of the “Penelope” chapter of Ulysses. Two novels that really inspire me are Story of an African Farm (by Olive Schreiner), and Cast the First Stone (Chester Himes). I like my fiction poetic and my poetry prose-like—never prosaic!—and so I enjoy mixed genres and authors, like Woolf, who worked in various forms throughout their careers. In my life as a whole, poets such as Rhina Espaillat, and T S Eliot, Walt Whitman, Sylvia Plath, and other lyrical modernist and confessional poets have had the most influence on me.

DO: One of my favorite poems in your collection is “Fairy Tale in New York” which begins: “God squeezes but he doesn’t strangle.” Can you talk a bit about that poem and how it developed?

OG: This is an old Dominican saying that my Mom always used as a refrain. I found it to be the inspiration for this piece, which, funny enough, is the most recent to go into the collection. I wrote it in 2008. I wrote it in one sitting, in a Starbucks in the Flatiron district of Manhattan, and I was fighting back tears as I was writing it at some points. Mainly toward the end. My work is deeply personal, and I sometimes worry that it is too self-oriented. But that is the lyrical mode that attracted me to poetry to begin with.

Ironically, this piece is the least “lyrical” in a strict sense, as it contains many voices.

DO: Do you have a favorite poem in the collection?

OG: The title implies a book that is “ours,” which speaks to the multiple selves (as the Anzaldua epigraph also suggests) that any one person contains. You can also hear the Whitmanesque echo in this theme—“I am large, I contain multitudes”—and the very Americanness of this lineage that I feel embraced by.

And so my favorite poem is the one (really two) called “My Sister’s Book.” Like the title to the collection as a whole, this series of poems alludes to the many voices one hears and is haunted by, the famous negative capability of the poet that Keats formulated. I feel like even those poems that are the most “me”—for example, the love poems in the middle section—are other “me”s, and I hope readers can enjoy this echolalia not as cacophony but as chords that touch the heart.

DO: You are a first-generation Dominican American. How do you think your culture affects your approach to poetry? Did you see a difference between you and your fellow students at Swarthmore and Pennsylvania State University?

OG: My culture is part of who I am, and my personal history and sense of destiny and politics are deeply informed by my heritage and experiences, both as a child, and as a college student, and now as an adult. I see being an American as an incredible gift, perhaps because I do not take it for granted—to paraphrase a famous feminist, one is not born an American. Being an American, in the largest, hemispheric, Whitmanesque sense of the word, is a promise, a process of becoming that is never completed.

DO: You are currently a PhD candidate at Rutgers where you teach literature and composition. Has teaching affected your poetics?

OG: I have had my students write a sonnet and now a semi-sestina—the former for a poetry-analysis course I assisted-taught, and the latter in an expository writing class! Part of my pedagogy is having students try their hand at creative forms, to invigorate their appreciation for writing as a mode of expression that is more personal than the college essay. I also deeply love poetry and poetic form and am a fan of sparking that love in others, if I can. I try to use my bully pulpit as an instructor to encourage the love of writing and reading poetry—cultivating the slow sense of wonder that poetry forces one to adopt.

DO: What are you working on now?

OG: I am working on a series of prose vignettes that are autobiographical. You could say my current works in progress begin where the collection ends—the beginning of my journey when I set foot in the United States.

DO: Mil gracias for spending time with La Bloga.

◙ AN EL MONTE KIND OF FEELING: Writing for the Los Angeles Times, Reed Johnson discusses the work of Salvador Plascencia and Michael Jaime-Becerra, who both weave the sights, smells, and sounds of El Monte into their fiction. Johnson observes:

That landscape is El Monte, once a dusty Spanish colonial crossroads and now a bustling bedroom community about a dozen miles east of downtown Los Angeles. It already boasts at least one famous literary stepson, crime-thriller author James Ellroy, who briefly lived there with his mother in the post- World War II era. Cheech Marin also is a former denizen. Yet another onetime resident, Frank Zappa, immortalized El Monte in a song.

But the El Monte that haunts and graces the fiction of Jaime-Becerra and Plascencia, who both grew up there, is no Hollywood film noir backdrop or comic punch line. It's a mutating, multilayered city of 120,000 that in certain moods and times of day can feel like a patch of rural Jalisco or Guerrero grafted onto the L.A. megalopolis.

For both novelists, it's a place with an identity no less incisive than that of trendier SoCal precincts, imbued with what Plascencia calls its own "strange, weird" mythology. How many cities can boast of being the home turf of both an equine '60s TV star and the MGM lion? A city that, as Plascencia writes in "People of Paper," is surrealistically named "for the hills it does not have?"

Read the entire piece here.

◙ WE ARE THE WORLD: The new issue of Somos Primos is live. Check out their literature and book coverage.

◙ NAVA FOR JUDGE: The June election is just around the corner and, if you’re a loyal La Bloga reader, you know that award-winning novelist, Michael Nava, is also a brilliant lawyer who is running for a seat on the Superior Court in San Francisco. If you want to learn more (and help him win), visit his website.

◙ COUNTERPUNCHING OVER IMMIGRATION: Over at Counterpunch (“America’s Best Political Newsletter”), Álvaro Huerta discusses Arizona’s new draconian immigration law (known as SB 1070 before the governor signed it). He says, in part:

This pernicious bill not only targets undocumented immigrants in this desert state, but also punishes Latinos in general, both legal residents and citizens. Apart from criminalizing undocumented immigrants with misdemeanor and felony charges, not to mention imposing monetary fines and imprisonment for deportation purposes, the bill allows for the police and other authorities to stop and interrogate individuals “suspected” of lacking legal documents in this country.

Read the entire piece here.

◙ ON THE RADIO: Don’t miss Andrew Tonkovich’s interview with me on KPFK 90.7 FM this Wednesday at 2:30 p.m. on Andrew’s wonderful show, Bibliocracy, an oasis of literary treats. We discuss (and I read from) my new collection, Anywhere But L.A. (Bilingual Press), as well as Sudden Fiction Latino (W. W. Norton), and other bookish things (such as La Bloga). You may listen to it streaming live online if you happen to be out of radio range. And don’t forget to support public radio and programs such as Bibliocracy!

◙ THAT’S ALL FOR THIS MONDAY. DON'T FORGET MY CALL FOR META-FICTION AUTHORS FOR A PROPOSED AWP PANEL...THE DEADLINE IS FAST APPROACHING. In the meantime, enjoy the intervening posts from mis compadres y comadres here on La Bloga. And remember: ¡Lea un libro!

1 comment:

Francisco Aragón said...

Thanks for posting this interview.