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.

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