A Conversation with Blas Manuel de Luna
~Eduardo C. Corral
Blas Manuel de Luna was born in Tijuana, Mexico and raised in Madera, California. He received an M.A. in English from California State
University, Fresno; and an M.F.A. from the University of Washington, where he was the 1995-1996 Klepser Fellow. During the 2000-2001 academic year,
he was the Ruth and Jay C. Halls Poetry Fellow at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where he taught creative writing. Currently, he
teaches high school English in California. He is the author of Bent to the Earth.
Your last name is Luna. But your poems rarely invoke the moon. Too obvious a subject?
Nope, not too obvious. I don't really mind obvious because I'm going to try to make a career out of it. It just never occurred to me to write about the moon.
Your book is a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. How did you find out about the nomination?
This is embarrassing, but I was at a Starbucks in Madera, California, my home town and where I still spend most weekends, sitting in front of my laptop, not getting much work done, when I decided to check my sales rank on Amazon.com. My sales, almost a year after my book had come out, were almost nonexistent, but I noticed that my book had started selling a little bit. I Googled my name, thinking that maybe somebody had written about my book on a blog, but I didn't see any new hits. Then I did a Technorati search, and there was a link to a new post on a blog called The Written Nerd.
The blogger had written about being at the NBCC finalists announcement thing, and, at the bottom of the post, she had listed the poetry finalists. I wasn't going to commit to happiness, though, until I could get confirmation from somebody. I checked my answering machine, and there were two urgent messages from my editor at Carnegie Mellon University Press letting me know that, yes, I had been nominated.
How often do you Google yourself? Don't be embarrassed. We all do it.
When my book first came out, about every five minutes, which made it impossible to get any work done. Now, maybe once a day, but I always feel horrible afterwards.
Have you received any goodies from the NBCC folks for being a finalist? A fruit basket? An engraved plaque? A piņata in the shape of a book?
I don't really eat fruit; I'm on an all processed food diet, so a fruit basket would have gone to waste. If I do get a plaque, I hope that it's small enough to carry around with me or to wear on a chain.
Before the nomination, on your weblog, you self-deprecatingly complained about the lack of interest in your book. What did you expect from book publication? How have you promoted your book?
I didn't expect anything from having my book published, other than not to feel like a complete failure, poetry-book-wise, because I'd spent a few years feeling exactly that.
In terms of book promotion, I didn't really do anything except for eventually starting up my little website. I've just never felt comfortable selling/pimping anything, even if it's my book or me. Part of it is probably that I'm just too introverted/not outgoing enough to be out there, hustling. I just end up feeling embarrassed. For example, I once got a job selling tickets for a rodeo over the phone (I was in my first year of college and I was dead broke), and I sold exactly none in the two days before I was let go.
But I did want the book to do well, mostly for my publisher, who took the book when nobody else had wanted it, and because I want to be read. So when a friend of mine from Wisconsin suggested that I start a blog, I asked one of the guys with whom I play poker every Friday what he knew about blogs and such, and he offered to design and host a website for me. Thus www.blasmanueldeluna.com was born. That's been the extent of my efforts at promotion, but I don't really know if my website had any affect on the attention that my book received, positive or otherwise.
You received an M.F.A. from the University of Washington, and you were the Ruth and Jay C. Halls Poetry Fellow at the University of Wisconsin. Can you speak about your time at each institution?
A lot of creative writing students have had positive experiences as Huskies, but my time at the University of Washington, unfortunately, was not what I had hoped that it would be. Over time, though, my disappointment with that place has started to fade, and I can recognize that there were moments when it was okay. What redeems my two years there is the fact that I got to study with some brilliant teachers: Heather McHugh, David Wagoner, and especially Rick Kenney. Rick's classes by themselves make the thing net out as a positive.
My feelings about the University of Wisconsin are much simpler: I loved everything about my time in Madison. I taught one undergrad creative writing class one day a week, and I was fortunate to have some really good students enrolled in my classes. I had the rest of the week to work on my writing, and, at the time that I received my fellowship, I hadn't really written much for about three years. I got to hang around with my fellow fellows and they were all committed and hard-working writers, and incredibly smart and funny as hell. The creative writing faculty were really kind and generous to us fellows. And most of the poems in the last third of my book were written while I was in Madison. My year at the University of Wisconsin was one of the best years of my life, probably top three. It was really cold, though.
List your five favorite similes.
What is this, a quiz? I can't think of one.
Let's talk about your author photograph. Are you still sporting a bushy goatee? Are all your ties that wide?
I've been rocking that goatee since the early 90s, so I'm proud to say that I was an early adopter. There were the unfortunate beard years of 1998-2001, but once I came back to my senses, I went back to the goatee.
And, yes, all of my ties are that wide. I'm hoping that wide ties are "slimming" because, otherwise, I might have to start working out again.
The cover of your book is one of your photographs. You also write fiction. Do you consider yourself a poet first?
Definitely a poet first. I never took a fiction workshop, I studied photography for about five years, but I studied poetry for much longer than that.
Why did you pick this particular photograph for the cover?
After the title for my book was nailed down, my editor, Gerry Costanzo, asked me to think about what art I may want for the cover. I thought about looking for something from Edward Weston, my favorite photographer, but none of his work really went with what was contained in my manuscript. I decided then to shoot the cover myself, so, on three separate weekend days, I drove around the back roads of Madera County looking for an image of an agricultural field that went with the title. The cover image that Gerry had suggested, a peach orchard a few miles from where my parents live, was also my favorite, so we went with it.
In one poem you write "I long for images." Does this longing stem from your interest in photography?
Part of that longing does come from photography, from the artistic drive to create images that photographers share with poets. Part of it has to do with what I call the "art buzz," that joy that one feels when one encounters and engages something that is beautiful. Another part probably has to do with the idea that memory is primarily a collection of images, visual or otherwise, so with that line I'm also saying that I long for memory.
You address Robert Capa, a war photographer, and Sebastião Salgado, a photographer of displaced people, in your book. Do you consider your poems that deal with field workers and Mexican immigrants as an extension of their work?
What Capa and Salgado are doing is witnessing, to say that this happened here, and, keeping in mind that a poet's not a documentarian, I do think that a type of witnessing is going on in some of my poems. There's a big difference, however, between what they do and what I do. They're out there, in the dangerous and ugly world, and I'm in front of my computer.
You worked in the fields with your family. Field work is hard and dangerous work but the workers always find ways to entertain themselves. What's your most amusing memory from your time in the fields?
Once in a while, a guy would be up in his ladder and reach too far for a piece of fruit, over-extend himself and lose his footing, and either have to half-jump to the ground or into the tree, at which point everybody would hoot in derision. Basically, the low-level derision that goes on when you get a bunch of guys together and one of them screws up.
Your book doesn't begin with an epigraph. Was this a conscious decision?
Yes, but not because I didn't want one. When I searched my memory, there really wasn't one that would make sense as an epigraph for the entire book. Maybe people could just pick one out themselves and write it in.
Do you consider yourself a Latino poet? A Chicano poet? Or do you reject these labels?
I don' t reject these labels, or any others, because they don' t have anything to do with the work, at least not on my end. I would have trouble with these labels if they were imposed in order to limit or too easily define a writer.
I' m a Chicano poet, definitely and proudly. But I think that I rep many other crews. I' m also a Fresno poet, a working-class poet, a Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing poet, I was even in an anthology of Washington poets, and I' m probably in other crews about which I don' t know.
When did you discover Chicano/a poetry? What's your favorite poem written by a Chicano/a poet?
Being from Fresno, I discovered Chicano poetry through the work of Gary Soto, a Chicano poet from Fresno who went to Fresno State, like I later did, and who studied with many of the same people with whom I studied. It had to have been in the summer of 1990, after my first Fresno State workshop, taught by Peter Everwine, who told us to read as much poetry as we could. I started going into the stacks at the library and reading as many poetry books by Fresno poets (a group to which I hoped to belong) as I could.
My favorite poem by a Chicano is "the rains have left and ernesto is dead," a poem written by Andres Montoya. The poem is from Montoya's beautiful book, the iceworker sings,
and the poem eulogizes Ernesto Trejo. I was in classes with both of these poets at Fresno State, and they both died of cancer, so this poem means a lot to me.
Your book contains a handful of moving poems about your father. Has your father responded to these poems?
My father, while a great reader, doesn't read in English, so the only way for him to respond to those poems would be for me to translate them to him as I read them. I don't know about you and your dad, but my dad and I would both be mortally embarrassed to have to share that kind of experience. You know how men tend to be, Mexican or otherwise: dumb and afraid of talking about their feelings for each other.
You reveal the names of a girlfriend, a nephew and two brothers in your poems. But you never reveal the name of your father. Why?
Mostly out of convention. I was taught never to address one's father by his name, so I'd feel weird to do so in a poem.
List your five favorite novels.
In alphabetical order:
Catcher in the Rye
One Hundred Years of Solitude
The Story of Lucy Gault
To Kill a Mockingbird
Name the last book of contemporary poetry that took your breath away?
Joshua Beckman's Things are Happening,
especially the first poem, "Lament for the Death of a Bullfighter."
What's the funniest joke you've heard recently?
After the 2000 elections:
Do you know what really scares me?
- That George Bush is only one heart attack away from the Presidency....
Eduardo C. Corral
holds degrees from Arizona State University and the Iowa Writers' Workshop.
His work has recently been honored with a "Discovery" / The Nation Award and a MacDowell residency.