Monday, October 30, 2017

Interview of Hector Luis Alamo

Interview of Hector Luis Alamo by Xánath Caraza

A Chicago writer now floating on the edge of Las Vegas, Hector is the editor and publisher of Enclave, as well as a guest columnist for Chile’s Prensa Irreverente. He is the former deputy editor for Latino Rebels, as well as the former managing editor for Gozamos, a Latino "artivist" site based in his hometown. He's contributed to RedEye, a Chicago daily geared toward millennials, and La Respuesta, a New York-based site for the Puerto Rican Diaspora, plus a number of publications, including the Huffington Post. He studied history at the University of Illinois-Chicago, where his focus was on ethnic relations in the United States.

1.     As a child, who first introduced you to reading?  Who guided you through your first readings?

When my mom moved my brother and I to the suburbs, the local elementary school was named for Frost -- the first poet I'd ever heard of up to that point, and who has since become one of my favorite poets of all time. (Another school nearby was named for Longfellow.) Then in the fifth grade, a new principal, Mr. Crocker, launched an innovative reading initiative. He would open the school at seven on Saturday mornings to let kids play basketball or play on the computers in the library. He even supplied as much doughnut holes and orange juice as we could swallow. The only requirement was that we first read in silence for an hour. He, the librarian and a few volunteers supervised the whole thing, so no one ever got away with playing or eating without reading first. We could read from whatever was available in the library, so there was a wide variety. I mostly read the newspaper because that's what Mr. Crocker and this older kid I looked up to read. I wasn't much of reader myself, only looking through the science and nature magazines for kids, plus whatever was assigned in class. (I knew TV like the black of my hand, though.) So being forced to read was a lifesaver. And my brother, our friends and I kept going to the Saturday morning reading program straight through our first years of high school, eventually becoming volunteers ourselves.

The middle school I attended was named after Oliver Wendell Holmes -- the poet, not the judge -- and others in the district were named Cooper and London, which brought more literary names, if not their works, into my bubble. In my eighth-grade creative writing class the students were asked to give a presentation on a piece of literature of their choosing. I chose Poe's "The Raven," having heard it read by James Earl Jones during a special Halloween episode of 'The Simpsons.' I wanted to impress the class (and my teacher, I guess) by reciting the poem from memory, but I only managed to memorize the first two stanzas and the last. (Which wasn't too bad for a chronic slacker such as myself.) I ended up merely reading the whole thing off an overhead projector I put together, but I still raised a few eyebrows by reciting the last stanza off the top of my head. I fell in love with Poe then, and it's him whom I credit for sparking in me a love of poetry. (That same year, in a drama class, I had to perform the orchard scene form 'Romeo & Juliet' -- as the hapless heroine herself.) 'Where the Sidewalk Ends' by Shel Silverstein was my first favorite book of poetry, though I didn't see it as poetry at the time; I'm positive I didn't know what it was, only that it was fun and clever. But Poe I read and reread every year to this day. It's his lyricism, I've admired, even as an eighth-grade kid who mostly listened to rap music.

But I should stress how little I read, and how much I generally hated reading. In high school, just to be a punk, I'd refuse to read the books assigned for summer reading, taking the zeroes with the devil-may-care attitude I assumed throughout my adolescence. (My acting out was clearly a defense mechanism, but I'll save that story for another interview.)

2.     How did you first become a poet/writer/columnist?  And, what impact did seeing your first publications have on you?

In the second grade I wrote and illustrated a little book about hibernation -- which animals hibernate and how they go about preparing. It won me an award from Young Chicago Authors. Then, in eighth grade, I wrote a poem about Watergate that my English teacher made me read in front of everybody, and that was the first time I realized that I could do something that most others couldn't, though I still didn't think I could be a writer. I didn't know any adult who was a writer, first of all, or any kind of artist for that matter. All I knew was that I was different.

Throughout my school days I would also write love letters and poems to the girls I liked. And when AOL Instant Messenger came along, I spent hours talking to as many female classmates as I could, trying to get as deep and intimate with them as I could. (To say I was a bit of a Lothario would be less an understatement and more a lie; I was pathological in my hedonism, specifically during the high school and college years. Nonetheless, my skirmishes with the opposite sex taught me a lot about love -- what it is, and what it isn't -- valuable lessons for any writer-in-waiting.) I kept a journal, too, of all the drama I was creating around me. I was getting inside people's heads, and taking notes.

One funny coincidence occurred during my sophomore year of high school. I was arrested for vandalizing a school park -- my elementary school, actually -- and as part of my punishment, along with twenty-five hours of community service, was to write an essay on what the incident taught me. The essay was to be review by the president of the park district who, as it turned out, also taught high-school English. When I turned in my essay, he complimented on my writer and told me I should focus on school. I made like I wasn't listening to him, but I was.

When I entered the honors accounting program at DePaul (being completely aimless at the time), I was extremely lonely and depressed. I'd go back home every single weekend to party with my girlfriend and our friends, and I started blogging about all of our adventures and misadventures. I had just heard about blogging -- this was at the beginning of 2004 -- and I saw it as a natural outlet for my predilection for sharing personal details about myself and the world around me. I started writing about more and more serious topics, however, and eventually launched another blog where I discussed politics, religion, philosophy and history. Long story short, I switched colleges a few times, switched my major to history, and started writing for the student newspaper at the University of Illinois-Chicago, first as an opinion columnist, then as the editor of the Opinions section. (When the paper folded, a few of us alumni even launched a short-lived replacement.) Seeing my byline in print made me realize I might actually be able to be a writer out in the real world.

I'd never forgive myself for not mentioning the immense encouragement I received throughout from a number of teachers -- two in high school, Mr. Cushing and Mr. Wool -- and especially Professor McCloskey. She not only had a deep love and understanding of history, but also held strict views on writing. She taught a course I took at UIC which taught history students how to approach the writing of their senior theses. I impressed her, according to her. She always gave me an A on our weekly papers, evening leaving a note on one which read: "You have the horsepower to earn a living with your pen!" Her encouragement was either a blessing or a curse, because it was all I needed to then decide I would write, if not for a living, then at least for life.

Still, had I known what being a writer would demand of me, I might've shied away from it. As it is now, I'm too far gone to turn back.

3.     Do you have any favorite poems by other authors?  Or stanzas?  Could you share some verses along with your reflection of what drew you toward that poem/these stanzas?

As I'm sure you're well aware, being asked to name a favorite poem, or even a favorite author, is like gazing over a field of wildflowers and being asked to choose your favorite one. It's impossible, especially since I haven't nearly read all of the great works out there. Still, there are poems and authors whose words I find myself returning to almost every week.

Poe, as I said earlier, was the first to stick, and no matter where I am, or what's happening to me, his words are always on the tip of my tongue:

And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted—nevermore!

How beautiful is that! The rhyming scheme of the whole of the whole poem is so genius, so difficult. It's Poe flexing every poetic muscle he's developed -- not only putting together an extremely complex rhyme pattern, but also telling a good story while doing it, a story about loss and hopeless despair. I'm a big fan of taking something ugly and making something beautiful. Because what else is there to do with life's ugly parts?

Then there are the last lines to Frost's "Road Not Taken," which have become a personal manifesto of mine:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Any Latino with the nerve to be a writer immediately understands what Frost is getting at here, maybe even more than he did when he wrote it.

There are a lot of poets whose words I hear echoing in my mind on a constant basis: Sandburg ("Under the smoke, dust all over his mouth, laughing with white teeth"); Whitman ("Clear and sweet is my soul, and clear and sweet is all that is not my soul"), Martí ("Yo soy un hombre sincero"); Owen (His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin"); Hughes ("What happens to a dream deferred?"); Levine ("They feed they Lion and he comes"); Angelou ("I am the dream and the hope of the slave"); Auden ("The Ogre does what ogres can"); Nas ("Life is parallel to Hell, but I must maintain"). The list goes on and on -- Williams, Pound, Neruda, Donne, Shelley, Thomas, and Shakespeare of course, but I never was a fan of Eliot -- and I'm always rediscovering poets and falling in love with their work.

My list of favorite writers and authors is many times as long as my one for poets, so I won't bother mentioning them. I'll just summarize by saying that I like the so-called "minimalists" and "dirty realists" -- the aesthetic of my own life as I see it. The book that really turned me on to fiction -- which I read with pure excitement and made me want to try my hand at it -- was 'The Sun Also Rises,' mostly the Pamplona stuff, and especially his description of the bullfights. I think about that book all the time, as well as the vignettes Hemingway wrote when he was practicing in Paris. Because even though I believe bullfighting to be morally reprehensible, he was such a master writer that he made something so ugly seem so beautiful. Only a true poet can do that.

4.     What is a day of creative writing like for you?  Where do you write?  How often?

Except for the act of putting words to page, writing fiction is almost completely different than journalism. I can write an essay or article from anywhere, at any time. But writing a story -- well, that's a lot like making love. You have to put yourself in the mood or else it'll feel too mechanical, and it'll read that way, too.

I just started seriously working on short stories only a few months ago, which means I've been writing fiction at my desk almost every morning from about nine till about noon, right around the time my wife comes home from work. It's good that she comes home and interrupts me, or else I might keep writing and do nothing else, like eat lunch, read, shower, or leave the house.

I've always been a morning person, but it's taken me a few years to settle into the right schedule that works for me. Since I'm also a bit of a night owl, I used to save my writing for after dinner, when the rest of the world was quiet, asleep. It also felt sexier writing at night -- the image of a tortured writer burning the midnight wax -- and since a lot of my early writing days involved a lot of posing, I had decided that I would do my writing at night. But my days were filled with so much other stuff -- especially a lot of reading, but a lot of life in general -- that I would have almost no energy or creative juices left for writing at the end of the day.

Now I wake up, eat breakfast (almost always microwavable oatmeal), feed the dog, read a bit of the news (just to know the rumors, as Hitchens put it), kiss my wife on her way to work, and head to my desk with a cup of café con leche. It's hard to shut off the rest of the world first thing in the morning, especially coming from the blogging world, but that's what you have to do if you plan on getting anything done, to create something that's meant to last a little longer than twenty-four hours.

5.     When do you know when a text is ready to be read?

Never. It's never ready, is it? Even Whitman kept revising Leaves of Grass. It can always be written better, or you can write a better poem, or tell a better story. It's never perfect. It'll never be perfect. And that's what drives me to keep at it. I'll never write the greatest story ever, but I'm willing to try because trying is what makes me happy, what fulfills me and gives my life some semblance of meaning. My Lothario days are behind me but I'm still in love with chasing beauty -- only this time, instead of chasing after beautiful faces, I'm after beautiful phrases.

Also, you can always retell the same stories without people ever even catching on. The details would be different -- the settings, the characters, and so on -- but the stories would be more or less the same, about the same things. Isn't that what Hemingway did, after all?

6.     What projects are you working on at the moment?

I've always had a one-track mind, and my sole focus these days is on writing better short stories. There are things I can't express in a column or essay, things I can only show through storytelling, and so I'm forcing myself to become proficient in that regard. The artist in me keeps toying around with voice and setting and structure and all that, but my main goal is simply to become a good fiction writer. What "good" means, I'm not sure, but I think I'll know when I get there. Anything I achieve beyond that would just be nice.

7.     What advice do you have for other writers?

You have to decide what kind of writer you want to be and what you're willing to do -- or what you're willing to give up, rather -- in order to become that kind of writer. It'll be way harder and take way longer than you can possibly imagine. You'll get deeply depressed, suicidal even, doubting yourself almost the whole time. But keep your tunnel vision, find all of your enjoyment in the process of becoming a better writer, ignoring all the setbacks. You wanted to be a writer just to write, and nothing more. Not be famous or rich, because if those were your reasons for picking up a pen, then you're in for a very rude awakening.

Writing is very lonely. It's not going to be like young Hemingway in Paris. No, it's more like Thoreau at Walden Pond. Read biographies of writers to give you a better sense of what other people have endured for the sake of their work. Read about Martí's life; it'll keep you from complaining about your own.

And even the people who say they believe in you won't really. If you're lucky, your partner will support your dream even though they personally don't care about literature whatsoever. And other people will tell you things like, "You should write a history book for kids! That would really sell!" But if you wanted to "sell," you would've been a salesman, not a writer.

Read Bukowski's advice to aspiring writers. Read all of the advice you can find. You'll need it.

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