Monday, March 01, 2010

An interview with Ray Gonzalez

Ray Gonzalez is a full professor in the MFA creative writing program at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. He is the author of eleven books poetry, two books of short fiction, three collections of essays, and a memoir. Gonzalez is the editor of a dozen anthologies including, most recently Sudden Fiction Latino (W. W. Norton), which he co-edited with Robert Shapard and James Thomas. Gonzalez kindly agreed to sit down with La Bloga and discuss his new poetry collection, Faith Run (University of Arizona Press).

DANIEL OLIVAS: You have quite an extensive publishing career. Do you see Faith Run as being in any way different from your prior poetry collections? How have you evolved as a poet?

RAY GONZALEZ: I don't think it is different from earlier volumes of my poetry, though there might be more poems about rock and roll music and famous poets that have influenced me. There are probably fewer poems about the desert Southwest and El Paso, Texas, where I grew up. I think my recent work has been more surreal than my older poetry because of the influence of prose poetry, which I write a great deal now, and the impact of the ever changing poetic scene in the U.S.

DO: You divide this collection into three parts. What is the thematic purpose of this division?

RG: In general, I find it hard to read a book of poetry, cover to cover, that is not divided into sections. In Faith Run, perhaps the opening section sets up the idea of a native leaving home for good and there are various poems about the art of poetry. The second section contains most of the poems written about older poets, something about their lives in relation to mine, and what I have learned from there. The third section has most of the poems about family and pondering the idea of someday moving back home with the sense that my faith in the desert landscape must keep up or keep running with me, if I do go home. The title Faith Run is about an older poet having faith in where he came from, while at the same time believing that the modern world of writing, publishing, teaching, and editing has things to offer that mean something to someone who grew up in a very isolated part of the country.

DO: One of my favorite poems in the collection is "Allen Ginsberg's Mother" which begins: "Naomi Ginsberg went insane / and never returned to her family." You go on to talk about Elizabeth Bishop's mother also going insane. And then you talk about your own mother who "whispered and prayed / for my sins." The poem is both funny and frightening and brings up interesting connections between mothers and their creative children. Can you talk about this poem a bit?

RG: I have taught the poetry of Allen Ginsberg and Elizabeth Bishop a great deal and have learned that when a poet writes about family, and their frailty and weaknesses, that other poets are often good models about how to approach writing about such difficult topics. My mother was never as extreme as Ginsberg's or Bishop's, and she never went insane, but some people might say the deliberate censorship she played out against me represents the madness of the strict Catholic upbringing she grew up with. Such dogma does contain its own insanity, and to use it upon a young kid who was just starting to be aware of the real world, is its own story, though I guess it is universal.

DO: How did this collection evolve as a collection? Did your editor work with you in deciding which poems stayed and which ones didn't?

RG: My books of poetry take years to put together from many individual poems and Faith Run went through many versions because I am always adding and dropping poems. Though the editors never told me which poems should stay in or out, I had some good feedback from them on the order and sequences that made up the final content of the book. There must be at least 20 poems that I left out that could form the foundation for another book down the road. I have been fortunate to publish many books of poetry, non-fiction, fiction, and anthologies and people ask me how I can do it. Well, I published two books of poetry in late 2009, Faith Run from the University of Arizona Press, and Cool Auditor: Poems from BOA Editions, my main poetry publisher. It looks like I am prolific and lucky, but those two books represent almost five years of work and waiting several years for them to appear.

DO: Do you have a favorite poem in the collection? If so, can you tell us which poem it is why it is a favorite?

RG: I like the opening poem, "The Poem of One Hundred Tongues" because it is about the lifelong commitment to poetry and how, as we write, we are sending out songs and sounds and oral words to a small audience. Poets in this country can't get away from the fact they will always have a small audience for their work. I don't mean only one hundred people but, the longer I write, the more I believe that we must remain loyal to our audience and work toward a sense of community without losing sight of who we are as poets. If American culture relegates small audiences to poetry, we must nourish that and acknowledge the poetic writing process is sacred and share it in a good, sincere manner.

DO: Another one of my favorite poems in the collection is "The Cardboard Box" which is about a boy playing with, well, a large cardboard box. This is something many of us did as children, but the way you write about it, the child's experience is anything but fun. The box "was stained, smelled like blood...." I also think that there is a great loneliness permeating the poem, and there is something sinister about that box itself. Could you discuss the genesis of this piece?

RG: I wrote this poem because playing with simple things like a cardboard box often gave me more pleasure as a boy than real toys. Kids use their imaginations in this way, imagining the box to be other things, discovering solitude for the first time, perhaps. I think the poem is trying to show that simple things nourish the imagination at an early age and, the reality of blood and the suffocating world have the power to invade a child's imagination. That is one reason the boy goes back into the box.

DO: Do you have a writing routine? How does teaching affect your routine? Does teaching influence you as a poet?

RG: I don't write every day, but I write in the mornings when I can because my busy job as director of the MFA Program at the University of Minnesota and teaching wipe me out. I always write linear, stanza poems in notebooks by hand, then take them to the computer. This is a slow and deliberate process I can't get away from when it comes to free verse. I have been doing it that way for 35 years of writing poetry. On the other hand, I can sit at the computer and compose dozens of prose poems in one sitting, though I am lucky if three or four are any good. My old life in journalism and the fact I write a great deal of non-fiction and essays also influence the rapid process of writing silly, funny, surreal prose poems. It is a different way to work that has resulted in my third book of prose poems, Cool Auditor. My books of essays, like the prose poems, are composed on the computer from years of research notes and travels to the Southwest.

DO: If you were planning for a long trip where you could freely lounge about and read without any pressures, what books would you bring with you?

RG: The Collected Poems of James Wright, Pablo Neruda’s Memoirs, the Selected Poems of Charles Simic, The Collected Poems of Elizabeth Bishop, Cesar Vallejo, and probably a novel or two by Paul Auster and, of course, Bob Dylan's memoir.

DO: Are you working on a new book?

RG: I am always working on prose poems and regular poetry and have been working for years on a book of writings about the importance of rock and roll music in my life--desert island discs, dead rock stars from the sixties, adventures at rock concerts, all of them presented in poems, stories, and essays. It is a multi-genre book and a hard one to write because music is so dominant in my life and I would not be a poet if it wasn't for an important event in my early years. Sometimes, I find it hard to separate my response as a fan to the music from the distance I need to be able to write about famous cultural heroes like bombastic rock stars. In February of 1964, when I was 12 years old, I saw The Beatles for the first time on the Ed Sullivan show. It changed my life and gave me permission to rhyme words and silly lyrics I always carried in my head. I would love to edit an anthology of writers writing about the impact of music on their writing. Anthologies of poetry about rock and roll have been done already, but I would focus on more essays and stories about the impact of music on poet's lives.

DO: Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to chat with La Bloga.

[NOTE: My review of Ray Gonzalez's Cool Auditor (BOA Editions) appeared in this weekend's El Paso Times. Also, listen to Rachelle Cruz interview Gonzalez on The Bood-Jet Writing Hour.]

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