Friday, November 16, 2018

On Poetic License and Tough Editorial Questions

Melinda Palacio

Reading at the University of New Orleans on November 14, 2018

 On Wednesday, I had the pleasure of reading with New York poet Neil Shepard at the University of New Orleans. The students asked some great questions. The two that stuck out the were: What tough choices did you have to make in putting together your collection, Bird Forgiveness, and, Do you continue to revise a poem after it's been accepted for publication. 

The first question reminded me of my first poetry chapbook, Folsom Lockdown, These were poems that I wrote after visiting an father in Folsom prison. They spoke my truth, of what it was like to visit my estranged father in prison and of the childhood that I had without much interaction with him. Much time has passed between the events of those poems and their publication and the distance of time now that I’ve had three poetry collections published. At the time I wrote the prison poems, I had family members on my father's side ask that I not publish poems that told the world that my father was in prison. I wasn't about to listen to that advice. Those poems spoke their own truth and represented a collection that won a poetry prize and my father is proud of the fact that he is the subject of a book penned by his biological daughter. Even difficult or embarrassing subjects will stand the test of time if the work is genuine, honest, and good. 

I mentioned this first work in order to say that tough decisions are something I was so familiar with in my first book that everything else, writing about intimate moments or about my grandmother's last days were manageable because I had started off with such a tough mandate: having to go against an elder's wishes to not speak my truth. 

As a writer, you're not always going to please everyone and it shouldn't be a goal to please other people or to write for other people. The truth of the poem or the work, whether the writing is a poem or a novel, should  take precedence and be the most important thing, especially in fiction or poetry, which is only accountable itself, a challenge when writing poetry or fiction based on historical or real events. Some people want to box you in for not giving an outright journalistic account of what actually happened. Someone who interviewed me on the radio once read a line from my poetry back to me and asked, 'did that really happen?’, and the answer is both yes and no.  It's called Poetic License. 

With Bird Forgiveness, some of the tougher decisions were made by my editor. I tend to want to include every single current or newer poem into my latest collection. Two weeks ago, I had the pleasure of hearing Joan Baez sing at the Arlington Theater in Santa Barbara. She sang a song, 'The President Sings Amazing Grace, that reminded me of a poem I had included in the Human Forgiveness section of my book, but didn't make my editor's cut. After hearing Joan Baez's song, I wished I had lobbied harder and worked more on improving the poem. I will include it here for La Bloga. 

The last question about revision is one that I can easily answer. I am always revising. At readings, I may appear to be reading from a published work, but the truth is I give myself permission to continue to revise, even after a poem is in print. I might revise as I read and if a publication wants to reprint a poem, I will certainly revisit  and rewrite it if there is time. This may drive anthologist crazy because there might be two versions of the same poem. In fact, professor John Geary was in the audience and he asked Neil Shepard this very question. He had a poem of Neil's in mind for an anthology, but has seen more than one printed version of the poem, which version should he choose. Neil suggested running the different versions side by side, but in the end made it clear it was the editor's decision to make. 

Our President Sings Amazing Grace
Melinda Palacio

For the slain Reverend Pinckney and nine 
of his flock. Bible study will never again
be sitting in the same room, breaking bread,
discussing all things of importance, faith

On the other side of the fence, a divided
nation, the crazies call an obama nation, an obamination, 
an-oh-not-my president nation. 
Since when is the President, not your President?

Will you move to Canada?
Oops. You forgot Canada allows equal marriage.

Will you move to France?
You forgot France will not tolerated your ignorance.
Parlez-vous français?
That's right. You don't speak the language.
Go back where you came from.

Is your solution a fence?
Because all of a sudden you notice the town you live in,
the street your house is on is not spelled in English.
English only. You voted for it. 

A Mexican told you. I will marry your daughter 
and you will eat nothing but burritos,
burritos three times a day.

Which flag will you fly?
Will you hold up stars and stripes,
rebel stars and bars,
or will a white dove help you
with a white handkerchief?

For your pain, for my pain, for their pain, for our pain,
President Obama Sings Amazing Grace.
Amazing Grace,
How Sweet the Sound...

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Max Vigil: Cinderella in Huaraches

Daniel Cano

Remnants of Westside Tobacco Road or the train to the sea
    Before he passed away, I spoke to Max Vigil many times about his American journey. He told me he arrived to LA's Westside in the mid to late 1930s. He used the old city name, Sawtelle, rather than West L.A., a suburb of Los Angeles. He said, and pointed, as I drove him through town, “The first house we lived in was right there on Barry Avenue and Olympic, right behind that building that says Barry Plating, on the corner, just a block from Tobacco Road.”
     He spoke slowly and clearly, as if considering each word before releasing it.
     I said, “Tobacco Road? I never heard that, I mean other than the book and movie.”
     “No!” he said, surprised. “Oh yeah, it was right there, where the Abelars lived, on Federal between Olympic and Pico. The Dorames lived there, near the railroad tracks, mostly shacks and dirt. I guess it was called Tobacco Road because it was such a poor area. From there we moved to La Gara, on Pontius Avenue.”
      “Weren’t all the neighborhoods poor in those days?” I asked.
     “Yeah, I guess that’s right.”
     Max remembered his family moving to different locations around West L.A. He said his childhood memories remain hazy, though one thing was certain, "Sawtelle was a great place to grow up."
     “As a kid, did you ever think about the future?” I asked.
     He said kids didn't look too far ahead in those days. “Everybody lived for today. You see, my mom was the one who raised us.”
    “Didn’t your father move with you to California?”
     "My father left us--in El Paso.”
     “How old were you when he left.”
     “Let’s see. Mmmm, I don’t even remember.”
     He spoke about his mother, Lupe, and his aunt, Adolfina, as gente educada. His mother and aunt demanded good speech and manners in her children. Also, they instructed him to be respectful and to never accept disrespect from others. His mother and his aunt spoke, read, and wrote English, something rare in first generation Mexicans.
     His family had already lived in Texas years before they arrived in Los Angeles. He remembered his mother telling him how, in El Paso, she and Adolfina had worked in the early days in a factory cleaning floors.
     “My mother and my aunt…all they were allowed to do was scrub floors. You know, Mexicans! Back then…in El Paso, man…Texas, whew," he said. I took his cryptic talk to infer that Texas racism left little opportunity for Mexicans in those days.
     “My mom and aunt came from Parral, Chihuahua. My mom only had a third-grade education, and I’ll tell you what. That lady, when she died, could do more with the English language than I could…amazing--in speech and mathematics. But we never did see eye to eye.”
     Parral de Chihuahua would loom large in Mexican/American history as the location where federal forces executed Francisco "Pancho" Villa.                                                                    
     “Do you think in your family's background education was appreciated? It doesn’t make sense that your mom and aunt could grasp English so easily.”
     He said, “My mother told me ‘speak English’ and ah, she was the example. She learned English in El Paso—fast. None of this…you know? She would not go for that….” insinuating how many  first-generation Mexicans learned little or no English after years in the U.S. He added, “She made a conscious effort to study it.”
     “I suppose some people acquire language easier than others,” I said, “or else there’s education in their family’s background they didn’t know existed.”
     “Yeah, well that’s interesting,” he said. “My grandfather, Eugenio Rodriguez, my mom’s dad, was the postmaster in Parral—during the revolution, and an enemy of the federals.”
     I suggested, “He had to have been educated to be the postmaster.”
     “Oh, yes. He was Indian, an educated Indian. Let’s see. From Mexico my grandfather brought them all over here [to El Paso], including my grandmother, Dolores. He went back to Parral, and I don’t think he was ever heard from again.”
     Fortunately, at the time, the U.S. welcomed Mexican refugees instead of calling out the army on them. U.S. Labor, of course, greeted them with great smiles and open arms.
The heart of Sawtelle, 1960s, before its destruction
     “So, then" I surmised, "your mother, aunt, sister, and grandmother came to Los Angeles, Sawtelle, together?”
     “No, not my aunt, but I had two uncles, Benny and Abel who were already here. They had come out to California earlier looking for jobs. They were excellent cooks, self- taught. They settled here, in the Westside, Venice, I think. In fact, now I remember, they went back [to Texas] after us and brought us out here. That must have been about 1939. I also remember when my Uncle Benny got married. It was on December 7th, 1941. We came out of the church, and there were guys selling news papers up and down the street, you know, yelling U.S. Bombed--Pearl Harbor Attacked!”
     “So, you were about eleven, then?”
     “Yeah, that’s right. I became an Air Raid Messenger.”
     “An Air Raid Messenger? At eleven?”
     “You don’t know what that is? Well, we had Air Raid Wardens whose job it was to make sure at night all the windows were sealed off so that there was no light anywhere because a lighted match could be seen from twenty thousand feet up. So, my job was to run around and find anybody who had a light showing, knock on the door and tell them to secure it, and if they didn’t, we’d take care of it.”
     “Was it a volunteer job?”
     “Oh, yeah! It was my first big volunteer job. I loved voluntary work.”
     I said, “Could explain your later volunteer work in politics, when you got older? Did you know anybody else who volunteered as a kid?” I asked, wondering how many other kids might like such jobs.
     “No,” he said, thoughtfully. “I never did.”
     “So,” I probed, “your grandfather as postmaster, literate, and educated, could have had an impact on your need to educate yourself?”
     “Yeah, it’s interesting, my uncle Abel’s son studied law at UCLA. I guess he’s in his 60’s now. He was very successful in real estate.”
     “That means he was at UCLA when few Chicanos were enrolled there.”
     “Right. Yes. And his brother Charlie was a B-52 pilot, a lieutenant colonel. In Vietnam, he flew on twenty-two missions.”
     “Yeah,” I said, “I think there was something there, in the genes or something, that went back to your grandfather, the postmaster,” I laughed. “Or else someone was a good model for all of you going back to your grandfather.”
     Max was one of the few of my father's friends who earned an advanced university degree, and he went on to work in the Reagan Administration.
     He said, in response to my suggestion, “And my father, a very intelligent man, was in the military, the cavalry. He was on this side [the U.S.]. He wasn’t from Mexico. He was a Spanish-Indian, from Socorro, New Mexico, and those people are not Mexican but Spanish.”
     “But wouldn’t that make him mestizo?”
     “Yes, but not Mexican. He was Pueblo--Isleta, an Indian from this side, not the Mexican side.”
     I thought, how ironic, back before 1848, there was no "this side". It was one large territory, where recent discoveries have found Mayan and Aztec gems in Southwest Pueblo ruins.
     “So, your father’s dad was Spanish and his mother Pueblo.”
     Max thought, then answered, “Now here’s where it gets complicated. My dad was adopted by a Vigil. His real father’s name was Abeyta…question marks all over the place. He [Max’s father] said both Abeyta and Vigil were Spanish.”
     “But the birth mother was Indian, Isleta?”
     “Yes, right.”
     “And your father had no connection with Mexico.”
     “None at all. Now, there’s a painting in a restaurant in Albuquerque, Maria Teresa’s, of which my cousin, who lives up in the Sierras, in California, has the same picture, handed down through the family. And that’s him, last name Abeyta. Chato they called him. In recent years the restaurant was sold. It’s no longer Maria Teresa’s. I want to go back and chase it [the picture] down. My dad ended up in Indiana, the Fort Wayne area, Decatur, where he died. In the later years, he and I kept very much in touch.”
     I said, hesitantly, “But growing up you never knew him. Did you look for him?”
     “No. He found me. I first had contact with him in ’57-’58. And he was remarried at the time. You ever hear of Carole Lombard? Well, he married her kin. My dad’s wife was a very pretty lady. See, that’s where Carole Lombard is from.”
     “But your dad was from El Paso?”
     “Well, he was stationed at Ft. Bliss. I was born at Ft. Bliss. My parents split before we came to California.”
     “But your mom, grandmother, and sister came to California directly from El Paso?”
     “Yeah, now let me tell you about that. My aunt would have been a terrifically wealthy woman.”
     Max explained how each day, in El Paso, his mother and aunt, Adolfina, when they were young women, scrubbed floors in a large factory. One day as they worked, scrubbing the stairs, a nicely dressed man approached Max’s aunt and began to speak with her, first a hello, then a little more each day.
     “You know,” Max said, as he told the story, “the man said to them good morning ladies and made conversation with them. One thing led to another and my aunt and the man began dating. The man owned the petroleum building where my mom and aunt worked, and he owned some other holdings. Well, as it turned out, they married.”
     Max remembered his mother telling how his aunt's wedding had been like a fairy tale. Then,
some time after their marriage, her husband had promised Adolfina a trip to New York. When the time came for the trip, an emergency arose at his company, and he could not leave. He told her to take a friend and enjoy New York and, at a later date, he would take her again.
     Max said, “While she was in New York, her husband suffered a fatal heart attack. Now get this. It was written in his will—'if my wife is at my bedside when I die, she receives everything I own.’ Otherwise she would only get a certain amount. The lawyer told Adolfina the stipulation had been a part of the will before she married him, and he never got around to updating it. So,” Max said, “my aunt inherited only a portion of the estate. She remarried, traveled, furthered her education, and eventually moved to California, where she bought a beautiful home on Selby Avenue in Westwood. So, you see, that's why I said she could have been extremely rich.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

IX Festival Internacional de Literatura Infantil

IX Festival Internacional de Literatura Infantil
Biblioteca Nacional de El Salvador Francisco Gavidia
Del 12 al 15 de Noviembre 2018

La Biblioteca Nacional de El Salvador Francisco Gavidia, BINAES, se prepara para el Noveno Festival Internacional de Literatura Infantil, Manyula.

IX Festival Internacional de Literatura Infantil esta dedicado a los niños y niñas migrantes.

Algunos escritores invitados para el Noveno Festival Internacional de Literatura Infantil Manyula son: René Colato Laínez, Jorge Argueta, Manlio Argueta, Jennifer Valiente, Nayda Acevedo Medrano, Alberto Pocasangre, Maura Echeverría, Alberto Girón Flamenco, Josué Peña, Alejandra Labbé de Abrego y Lorena Juárez de Saavedra.

En el marco del festival, los autores desarrollarán talleres durante la mañana y la tarde, a partir del lunes 12 de noviembre hasta el  15 de noviembre.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Two Years For a Free Meal

Michael Sedano
Formerly of the 7th of the 5th Air Defense Artillery (HAWK) Battalion
Eighth U.S. Army, Republic of Korea

I claimed my first Veterans Day free meal. Every year I would read this or that chain restaurant's ad offering ex-GIs some free chow. Just prove you're a Veteran. There's the rub. They don't take your word for it.

Every year my mouth waters for free chow, but I would say to myself, "Self, where did you put that DD-214?" And Self had no idea where he'd put that form, the Armed Forces of the United States Report of Transfer or Discharge.

I know its real name because I found that darn thing the other day, just in time for Veterans Day. My own DD-214. Not a lot of people own one. Once a year it gets any Veteran who has one, a free meal. My Great Uncle Joe earned a Congressional Medal of Honor. I asked him one time, I must have been 10 or 11, if he got any money for it? Twenty-five bucks a month, he informed me. Uncle Joe had a lot of other stuff to say, too. His DD-214 probably has two pages for his medals from Korea.

A sleepy clerk at Ft. Lewis mistyped my unit as the "15th" 
This time of year I get to behold e-mail from places I frequent, like Central Grille in Pasadena,  promising me a free meal up to $15.99 because 50 years ago I gave the United States of America my body to do with as it pleased for one year, seven months and five days. Not quite two years, but they said that's what they were taking from me as they dragged me onto that bus.

According to the DD-214, this soldier was a piss-poor shot with an M14, he is a Marksman. Below that you have to take the test again. On the M16, however, he's deadly, awarded a Sharpshooter badge. It's silent on the day he had M60 machine gun training for the heck of it. He was Signal Corps, served with the Air Defenders. Had he died the Army would have given his wife $10,000. His Character of Service: Honorable.

That's all in writing. I welled up at the table reading the boxes. Sneaky quiet tears I shed for stuff the DD-214 doesn't say. That young fool with the new wedding band used to sit behind a couple of steel barrels overlooking the invasion route, armed with a field phone, a book, an M14, and one magazine of 7.62mm bullets. Had he spotted something like an enemy tank coming 'round the mountain, he would have emptied that magazine at them then scurried down the open field of fire to leap into the last jeep hightailing it to safety.

John McCrae. In Flanders Fields. click for full poem 
Even when it rained. Even when it snowed. That young fool sat up there waiting to be cannon fodder. And it rained a lot. And it snowed a lot. The book got soaked and he sat there miserably, hunkered down in mud. For hours.

Some people in our nation shirk duty when it rains.

Taking it, that's what Duty looks like, when you mean it. The pendejo named in the DD-214 raised his hand like all Veterans did, swore the same Oath every other man and woman swore, repeated the same Creed every man and woman in uniform spoke aloud their first day of training:

Excerpt, Soldier's Creed. Link in text above to full Creed.
The fellow in this DD-214 was one happy G.I. when Hq called him off the mountain to come down to civilization to run the unit propaganda mill. The DD-214 doesn't say anything about that, in fact, it says he's a Radio Operator, a Morse Code guy, not the Information Specialist in the Colonel's office. This guy got a fancy certificate from the General for his work--the DD-214 doesn't say that, either. So it goes.

I felt guilty, taking the free meal. I don't need a free meal because I was a soldier. That's not why I did that, for recognition, to be heroes like my uncle Joe and my cousin Vince--same war. If you got a medal, that's different. Otherwise, none of us merits any special treatment because we did our Duty with a capital "D". There are thousands of guys who share my good fortune, the values to aguantar and do the Duty. Then there are the people homeless, strung-out, cardboard-sign-Veterans with their hands out and getting in return an American back.

I ordered an eleven-dollar salad and the check credited $15.99. That's cool, the restaurant is giving away the max no matter what the Vet orders. If we can prove it, we're worth the cost. Barbara's entrée was list price even though she was Drafted when I was Drafted, and was just as much in the Service as I was. Peor, she suffered plenty while I had the time of my life.

Thank you, Central Grille. Ordinarily this dinner would have set me back 40 bucks with propina. So that's what I left. The workers can share the 80 percent tip.

Happy Veterans Day. I mean that.

75 men stationed on Bravo Battery did two nights up on the mountain, one day down in the Admin Area enjoying amenities like hot chow, houseboys and KPs, recreation like cheap booze and traveling USO shows.
It rained a lot. foto: Dean Moler, "Arky".

Monday, November 12, 2018

Interview of J. Michael Martinez by Denise Low

Interview of J. Michael Martinez by Denise Low
Guest Blogger Denise Low
Xanath Caraza

J. Michael Martinez’s third book Museum of the Americas (Penguin Poets) has been longlisted for the National Book Award in Poetry. I received an advance copy, glanced at it, and then sat down and read it straight through. The narrator’s vision compelled me to follow this elaborate mapping. As a poet, I marveled at his fluent movements among genres, histories, embodiments, and personal stories. As a person, I felt gratitude for his creation of an open dialogue about body and its boundaries/identities, lenses of perception, privilege/oppression, and time’s imprint. This is an important book, fulsomely expressed. This internet interview took place just before the Oct. 2, 2018 release of the book.

Denise Low: Congratulations on your achievements and recognitions with this book! When I received it, I read through it at once and was so impressed by it, inspired, changed. Thank you for writing it.

J. Michael Martinez: Firstly, thank you for investing time with the book and for extending an invitation to be interviewed.

DL: The title of this book is brilliant—a collection of texts is indeed a word museum. And Museum of the Americas is a real institution. How do you relate your book and its themes to a physical museum?

JMM: During the time I was still pursuing a Ph.D., I encountered various curious historical objects: the castas, the postcards, the “Aztec” twins, the prosthetic leg of Santa Anna.  Each time I came upon these objects, they were the subject of a gallery exhibition, an object of a gallery exhibit, or, in the case of the castas, were politically vital at a pivotal time during the invention of the modern museum.  I began to research theories of perception; I began to research the origins of our modern conception of “the museum.”  I began tracing a constellation relating each of these historical objects: how they were allegories of the ethnic body, how these objects were aspects of assemblages operating to construct and socially institute certain norms of behavior in perception (whiteness, the grotesque ethnic body as commodity fetish/villain/diseased other); curiously, I also found (and more on this later) these sites of assemblage were enactments of a trans-historical genealogy of liberation. 

Reading Melville’s review of General Santa Anna’s boot, I looked into Barnum’s American Museum.  I read of the “Aztec” twins.   I read the “pamphlet” handed out at their exhibitions detailing their “discovery and acquisition,” their fictional history as “Aztecs.”  I read theories of photography and of trauma.  This was during the years leading up to and during the 2016 presidential election.  Numerous times over those campaign years, I was yelled at by passing cars to “Go back to Mexico wetback!”  I was sitting at the bar of a restaurant waiting for a friend on St. Patrick’s day when a bartender asked his coworkers (three or four feet from me), “Can you believe fucking Mexicans are out today!”  In Boulder, Colorado, leaning against my car while waiting for my fiancé outside her house (texting with her in fact), I was approached from behind by complete strangers, a very entitled older couple questioning me what I was doing in the neighborhood, stating that they didn’t recognize me, and they were concerned for their “neighbors.” Again and again, again and again, racism relies on perception; I’ve been yelled at, called a “wetback,” “a bean eater,” that “la migra” was going to come get me, in various ways all my life; one of my earliest memories, I am standing with my mother as she pulled my older brother out of a fight as a crowd of teenagers called her “wetback” and that” la migra” was on its way (racism isn’t inventive: part of its social energy goes to stabilize and maintain a privileged hierarchy, it requires a lack of creative or historical imagination, it stifles history). 

My mother taught me a fierce dignity, to believe in “right” and “justice;” my mother taught me to stand in protest lines; my mother taught me that TO BE a Martinez was not simply to have a name, it was an ethics; after confronting the group of bartenders, I talked to the manager: that bartender was fired, and the restaurant, for real, closed down the next month; my fiancé showed up a few minutes after those concerned citizens were conducting their inquisition and, she, having lived in the area for years, revealed these “neighbors” were the strangers—they were from a neighborhood blocks away, and were known widely to neighbors as “troublemakers.”  Those racists yelling from their cars never circle back around.  Racism is a species of cowardice.  The very idea of “supremacy” itself is a species of cowardice.  They both require an aspect of a coward’s “courage:” the fictitious claim to absolute knowledge and, necessarily, a very tangible rejection of the unknown.  

I say this and, yet, in all seriousness, I know I’m lucky the older couple hadn’t simply called the police and made up some story, I’m “lucky” that, as I’ve learned to imagine and fear, I wasn’t shot bc of their racist fears—those trained presumptions instructing people to fear the “brown” body.      
I named the book “Museum of the Americas” not only because of its resemblance to Barnum and to other cultural institutions (In Denver, Colorado, there is a Museo de las Americas; it is a fantastic institution), I also named the book “Museum of the Americas” because we are live in a gallery of artifices: you see news media deploying images of Latinx peoples to train a norm of understanding into & upon a public, training people to see and, consequently, experience brown bodies in very specific manners.  Barnum was elected President of the USA: Trump is the latest in a long line of carnival barkers, selling lies and fiction to the U.S. American public about ethnic bodies.  He is caging children.  This is not new.

DL: Nahuatl, Spanish, English—all spiral in this collection. Do you feel you are contributing to a fourth language made up of parts of all three? What would you project for the future of shared languages in North America?

JMM: I love language, its material, the way language slips in and out of comprehension as it helps invent comprehensions itself.  I don’t know about contributing to a fourth language.  I do know we are creatures of symbol and allegory.  We live and swim in our signified world.  I wish more people would spend time learning some history to see how we have arrived at the terms we so freely use today.

DL: I was moved by your use of grotesque postcards of lynchings with original inscriptions on the back that are cheery greetings to friends. I experienced similar outrage myself when researching the 1780 Gnadenhutten Massacre of my Lenape/Munsee Delaware relatives. EBay offered a postcard of the monument in Ohio, which I bought, and then on the back found a florid fountain pen greeting to a man’s sweetheart. Your poems present this situation so well. Do you have any further comments to share?

JMM: As I leaped down the rabbit hole of history, I’ve seen many newspaper articles, toys, postcards, advertisements reflecting the various and sundry ways publications depicted the brown body as “criminal.”  The postcards were/are a horror made suburban.  Like you, when initially I saw the postcards at the Bancroft archive in Berkeley, CA, I was amazed at how trivial and nonchalant the messages were on the back of these grotesque depictions.  “Wish you were here!”; “From Mexico!” 
I think it’s easy to forget, because of a certain kind of political and historical distance/insulation, how barbaric our society was, how barbaric it continues to be.   

DL: People often say to me to let go of the past and embrace an assimilated, U.S. mainstream identity (especially because my Native ancestry is fragmented/fractionalized/detribalized). What would you say to challenges to forgive and forget your family’s past?

JMM: I have no idea what an “assimilated, mainstream identity” would be; is such an interpretation possible for my body?
Bruce Dean Willis notes in his Corporeality in Early Twentieth-Century Latin American Literature, "[t]he body itself can serve as an allegory, as not only microcosm and cosmos, but also region or nation, body politic, body of knowledge, history or chronicle, conflict, pain, love, gender, sex, ethnicity, class, and even spirituality.”[1] My family’s past is carried with me: my father was exposed to the pesticides collectively known as Agent Orange when he served in Vietnam.  He suffered skin ailments shortly after returning home and marrying my mother.

I’ve had a skin condition all my life, a paradoxically visible/invisible “disability.”  My skin frequently forms pustules and lipomas.  All my life I’ve wondered, suffered, bled, and seen my flesh, literally, burst open: it is grotesque.  When I was younger, I was suicidal.  Over the years, I’ve taken many medications, seen many dermatologist and surgeon. My brothers all have various kinds of skin conditions.  My nephews and nieces deal with sensitive skin. My father’s corporal account and my consequent genetic inheritance—epidermal defects originating from the U.S.’s imperial efforts in Vietnam—expresses how the perceived body may be coded with the historical consequences of a broader sociopolitical narrative.  Language and flesh play a fluctuating game of causal consequences.  For me, the body and how it is visually acknowledged and, consequently, structured (racially, aesthetically, nationally, sexually, et al) is a daily enquiry with very real physical, intellectual and psychological costs. 

I can’t forget my past.  It is literally scarred across my body.  Often, Latinx/o/a or Chicanx/o/a identity is rendered as a “wound.”  There is an emphasis on Latinx/a/o identity to be rooted in elegy and loss; this is such a classic concept of identity politics that it is almost cliché.  You see it from Octavio Paz to Anzaldua to Latinx theorists in the 21st century.   I, these days, can’t accept this.  I love my skin, I appreciate how much I’ve learned from my pains.  As a writer, I write to not make my identity always already a linguistic site of elegy, but to expand my awareness, to cultivate a broader compassion.

Further, isn't a scar less of a wound than a site of new skin?  Than a site of radical growth and healing? Isn't a “wound” necessary for ecstatic expansion?  Further, is this not what love is?  Thus, is the wound less a site of loss than an expression of metaphysical joy?

DL: What elements of this book do you see yourself working with in your present projects?

JMM: Currently, I am working on what may be called a memoir/collection of essays.  This work is certainly a catalogue of my constant obsessions: the body, language, poetry, readings of other poets, theories on aesthetics. 

DL: Thank you again for your time, your commitment, your heart.

JMM: Thank you, Dr. Low, I truly appreciate your thoughtful questions; further, thank you for the opportunity to respond. 

MUSEUM OF THE AMERICAS by J. Michael Martinez (Penguin Poets, 112 pages), published October 2, 2018 ▪ ISBN: 9780143133445 ▪ $20.00. eBook: 9780525505235

J. Michael Martinez received the Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets for his first collection, Heredities (2009, Louisiana State University Press, selected by Juan Felipe Herrera). His second, In the Garden of the Bridehouse, was published by the University of Arizona Press. Museum of the Americas was selected by Cornelius Eady for the 2017 National Poetry Series. Martinez, born in Greeley, Colorado, is a graduate of the University of Northern Colorado and received an MFA from George Mason University. His poems have appeared in New American Writing, The Colorado Review, and Crab Orchard Review, among others, and the anthology Junta: Avant-Garde Latino/a Writing. He is the recipient of the 2006 Five Fingers Review Poetry Prize and is coeditor and cofounder of Breach Press. He is a poetry editor of Noemi Press. He lives in upstate New York where he is a visiting assistant professor of poetry at St Lawrence University.

Denise Low, Kansas Poet Laureate 2007-09, is winner of the Red Mountain Press Editor’s Choice Award for Shadow Light. Other books are The Turtle’s Beating Heart: One Family’s Story of Lenape Survival, a memoir (U. of Nebraska Press) and A Casino Bestiary: Poems (Spartan Press). Jackalope, fiction, was acclaimed by Pennyless (U.K.), American Book Review, and New Letters. She co-edits Mammoth Publications, an independent literary press with a focus on Indigenous authors. She has won 3 Ks. Notable Book Awards and recognition from PSA, Roberts Foundation, Lichtor Award, and NEH. Low has an MFA (Wichita State U.) and Ph.D. (Ks. U.). She teaches for Baker University’s School of Professional and Graduate Studies. She has been visiting professor at the University of Richmond and the University of Kansas.

[1] Willis, Bruce Dean, Corporeality in Early Twentieth-Century Latin American Literature, Palgrave Macmillan, NY, 2013, Pp. 8.