Monday, October 28, 2019

Interview of Juan Morales by Xánath Caraza

Interview of Juan Morales by Xánath Caraza

Xánath Caraza: Who is Juan Morales?
Juan Morales: I grew up in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where I was raised by my Ecuadorian mother and Puerto Rican father. We lived just outside of the military base, Ft. Carson. When my father retired from the US military after 31 years, both of my parents fell in love with the city and mountains. After high school, I ended up studying English and Creative Writing at Colorado State University-Pueblo in Southern Colorado and then getting my MFA at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. I was fortunate to have great mentors and teachers that challenged me and helped me find open doors that included the work that went into the three books I have published so far: Friday and the Year That Followed (Fairweather Books, 2006), The Siren World (Lithic Press, 2015), and The Handyman’s Guide to End Times (UNM Press, 2018). Each book has been built on a foundation of storytelling at its heart and ways I have tried to continue challenging myself as an author in form, style, and in exploring different sides of my heritage and culture. Currently, I am in my 13th year of teaching at Colorado State University-Pueblo, where I started as the Director of Creative Writing. Now, I am the Department Chair of English and World Languages, which I have learned is a new way to support my students and colleagues. I love teaching and working with students, many who are first generation and from a similar background, but I find all of them hard-working and excited to discover that they have things to write and contribute to their community.

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

JM: Looking back, I can see myself being introduced to reading both at home and at school. My parents would regularly read the Bible and attend Bible study on Tuesday evenings. My older sister, Esther, used to read Stephen King and similar authors, so I always loved going into her room to look through at these creepy books with curiosity. Finally, my older brother would always read dense, history books in the basement in front of the turned-off TV. Without knowing it, having books around the house and seeing my family reading normalized the image of holding a book and then going somewhere else. They made it easy to get hooked.

At school, I got sucked into the world of reading even more with other classic 80s and 90s reading initiatives: the Pizza Hut Book It Program, where you’d get a free personal pan pizza if you read a certain amount of books, the Scholastic Book Fairs with the flimsy, colored, newspaper order forms with almost too many books to consider, our third-grade teacher who would always read Where the Sidewalk Ends to us just after lunch, and of course our school library, which was physically at the center of our school. I loved just about every book we read for our English classes, like The Westing Game and Hatchet, so I was excited to discover you could check out as many books as you wanted from the library. I spent most of my time in one of the library’s far corners where they kept the sci-fi and paranormal books. It gave me a great introduction to short ghost stories, urban legends, Bigfoot, unsolved mysteries, aliens, and far off galaxies. I still remember these taller books with strange extraterrestrial landscapes and spacecraft landing on planets not yet discovered. Some of them had brief descriptions of the place and why they were being explored. Other just showed space travelers en route to somewhere else. All of this moments taught me about opening my imagination and finding possibilities.

XC: How did you first become a poet? 

JM: In undergrad, I wrote fiction and poetry while struggling to figure out which one I wanted to pursue for my MFA (once I learned what an MFA was). In the end, my mentor, the poet David Keplinger, gave me a much-needed nudge toward poetry. I was still wanted to be a fiction writer, and I didn’t fully understand that I was a poet yet. I still had a lot to learn about poetry and about myself, which I got to do in grad school and over the years as a professor. To this day, I still write with my students in my journals and whenever I can find time. I also wish I had the strict writing schedule that some writers have. Looking back, I also owe a lot to my friends in high school and in the early part of college when I was doing drama and theater and when we started a ska band. The drama and theater gave me so many lessons about performance and the courage to stand on a stage with an audience. I had the chance to lose myself in characters and dialogue. Meanwhile, the band continued the lessons of performance, and it also taught me about rhythm, musicality, and the lyrical elements of creation. How poetry can intersect with punk, rock, and hip hop. It also let me exorcize the cliches, tropes, and other mistakes we need to make as young writers in order to grow.

XC: What else would you like to share with our readers?

JM: I am excited to share that
The Handyman’s Guide to End Times was named the Winner of the 2019 International Latino Book Award, Single Author in English category. I am grateful for the recognition for this prestigious award and in a category where I was surrounded by so many talented writers, who are doing important work in poetry today. I am also grateful to everyone who has supported the making of this book and the community of people who have given me the opportunities to share the book in such imaginative ways. The end times are clearly a collaborative effort. Some more readings are coming up, including a visit to Notre Dame in November to meet students, to do a reading, and some other great activities with Letras Latinas. Otherwise, I continue teaching, chairing, traveling, and trying to find time to write the next collection of poems, which is well underway.


XC: Juan, thank you for sharing your poems with La Bloga readers

JM: The following poems originally appeared in The Handyman’s Guide to End Times (University of New Mexico Press, 2018). For more information on the book and to order it, visit

The Zombie Sisyphus Dream

Lying at the bottom of
a half-collapsed
room, the floor slanting
on me. I am injured
but I punch and kick
the zombie head.
It tumbles up, pauses,
and then clatters back.
The head wears eyes
that starve, jaw full of
hungry gnashing,
the neck gone except
choice tendons dangling.

There is no boulder to push
upward here. The real hell
is wondering why
I want to stop
and greet my last marvelous error
biting through my clothes,
into my flesh,
and why I never do.

Poco a Poco

Perhaps I shouldn’t hang hopes
on five syllables, three words
caught in my mind, that say “little by little”
on the leaner days,

a song that soothes uproar like

prayers mom and dad speak for me.
Ornate like their St. Christopher medal
carefully pinned in my car, the mantra sails me
on to where I’m from, to where I’m going.

Praise for a Finished Job

Harbor away HGTV resentment
for using tools you will never afford
and for stockpiling workers.
Your pipe no longer leaks,
and you can’t find where you burst
then repaired the wall.
Because you’ve hidden it like a pro,
you can stop singing out f-bombs.
Your hands clicked your home apart
and rebuilt it like Atlantis resurrected.
Admire the glow of a small victory.

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