An Interview with J. Michael Martinez ~ Laurie Ann Guerrero

J. Michael Martinez's work has appeared in Five Fingers Review, New American Writing, Colorado Review, on NPR, and most recently in Quarterly West, Eleven Eleven, Copper Nickel, and Parthenon West. He is the recipient of the 2006 Five Fingers Review Poetry Prize. His first collection of poetry, Heredities (2010, Louisiana State University Press), was selected by Juan Felipe Herrera for the Academy of American Poets' Walt Whitman Award.
Laurie Ann Guerrero is the author of Babies Under the Skin, winner of the 2008 Panhandler Publishing Chapbook Award, selected by Naomi Shihab Nye. Her work has appeared in Acentos Review, Feminist Studies, Meridians: feminism race transnationalism, Indigenous Woman, Naugatuck River Review, Global City Review, among others. Born and raised in San Antonio, Guerrero hold a BA in English from Smith College and an MFA from Drew University. She teaches writing at Palo Alto College in San Antonio.

In the summer of 2010, J. Michael Martinez graciously agreed to let me conduct this interview with him. A current PhD candidate at the University of Colorado and very active in the poetry community, I knew his time was very precious, and so I would like to thank him again for sharing not only his time but his insight, his struggle, and his mindful approach to the written word.
Laurie Ann Guerrero: First of all, thank you for taking the time to give this interview. Before we get into questions about your work, would you mind giving a small background about who you are, where you come from? What kind of home did you grow up in? (How) were the arts encouraged?
J. Michael Martinez: First off, thank you for interviewing me, I appreciate the opportunity! Well, I am J. Michael Martinez, born and raised in Greeley, a mid-sized town in Northern Colorado. My father worked at a Kodak processing plant in Windsor, CO for over thirty years until his recent retirement. My mother has worked in the food service industry for over twenty years. They were avid readers when I was growing up: they would take me and my brothers to the city library three or four times a week. I read voraciously.

Encouragement in the arts came from my childhood friends. My best friends growing up were of diverse backgrounds and all were deeply invested in art: in elementary school we were all into drawing and painting and, as the years progressed, we developed our interests into poetry, art, theater, music, etc. In addition, my closest friends, in addition to being artists, were/are highly politically active. In adolescence, I attended rallies for Mumia Abu Jamal and Leonard Peltier, to protest the School of the Americas and the World Bank. Politics and art have gone hand in hand for me since the beginning.
LAG: So necessary, the union of art and politics. I believe wholeheartedly that one should not exist without the other. Neruda, in his memoirs says, “We have to demand of the poet that he take his place in the street and in the fight, as well as in the light and in the darkness.”

Getting back to your personal history, and forgive me for being presumptuous, but I’m going to supposed that, like mine, your grandparents and great-grandparents (parents?) weren’t necessarily formally educated. Can you talk a little about their history and if/how it affected your desire to write?
JMM: My grandparents were not formally educated. My grandma and grandpa, on my mother’s side, were born and raised in Laredo, Texas. They married in their twenties. My grandfather, at that time, having been a farmhand around the country, organized a nationwide network of farms where he would, as a foreman, lead a caravan of families to work. After he was married, he and my grandmother and, eventually, their family traveled the country picking fruits and vegetables for these various farms. My family eventually settled in Greeley, CO in the Spanish Colony.

Shortly after settling in Greeley, my grandfather divorced my grandmother and moved away. My mother dropped out of high school and worked to support her younger brothers and sisters. She worked full time and helped buy their supplies, new clothes, etc. They themselves worked odd jobs in the fields and beyond during their schooling, working to support each other; in many ways this collective I grew up in (my thirty or so cousins are essential brothers and sisters to me and I have enormous respect and love for my aunts and uncles) developed my deep commitment to community. In any case, throughout their youth, my uncle’s and aunt’s education was something my mother stressed. This importance was imparted to me.

On my father’s side, I don’t know too much. They were very internal and private people. My paternal grandfather owned a farm in Pierce, CO. Prior to that, he worked for Union Pacific Railroad. I know he was born in Parkview, New Mexico and was raised on a ranch. He was a very quiet and stern man. He didn’t speak English and, when he did speak, his Spanish was spoken in a baritone thickness. Some of my fondest memories are of my weekends spent running through his fields of corn, playing on all the farm equipment, walking with my paternal grandma as she fed the chickens. My grandmother spoke English but, even after my grandpa’s passing, she spoke little of her past. I do know she was raised in the San Luis Valley in Colorado. As for my father: he finished high school and was sent to Vietnam. When he returned he began his work in the Kodak plant.
LAG:At what point did you know you wanted to go to college, and was the idea of going to college something encouraged? What has your experience been like as an academic—in school and at home?
JMM: This is a tricky and involved question…my decision to go to college was prompted by a tragic moment. I, to be honest, hated high school for various and sundry reasons. I nearly didn’t finish. In my junior year, instead of class, I would go to the public library to read poetry and philosophy. One day, my mother gently asked me to graduate and, promising her, I did a year’s worth of work in a semester. I thought I was done with school at this point, however, a local community college offered free college courses to new high school graduates and, not having much to do that summer, I signed up for a college literature course.

I loved the analysis of literature and the conversation. This, however, was not enough for me to want to continue to a degree. The driving factor for my education came later that summer.

In the middle of that summer, I went to a party with my friends, the same group of artistic friends I’ve had since kindergarten. I remember this night both vividly and in fragments. I wanted to leave, being then an introvert and not feeling comfortable in crowds. We were departing when a crowd gathered in front of a neighboring house. A car pulled up. A man stepped out, pointed something, a loud pop. The crowd screamed and two men came stumbling toward us. One man was holding his chest and the other was following him. The one holding his chest fell at our feet and was softly gasping for us to help him. His friend was screaming at us to do something. I remember my friend, Rodney, asking if anyone knew CPR. I was in shock but I raised my hand. I went to my knees and began. Rodney and I switched between compressions and breathing. I remember the little red spot in the man’s chest, the single line of blood flowing from it. Every time I would breathe for him, he would gurgle and cough up blood. I remember the taste of his blood on my tongue and lips. I will never forget watching the life leave his brown eyes, the slack stare. His friend was crying and still screaming for us to do something. A large crowd gathered around us—some of them offering pointers as they drank their beer. The police and ambulance eventually arrived. I called the hospital the next morning: the young man had died on the way to the hospital. The bullet had pierced his heart and tore one of his lungs.

That weekend I went to the mountains. I remember standing outside and staring at the stars. They were silent and innumerable. Even in the woods I could hear the sirens. I could hear the cries for us to do something. I thought about my life. What was I doing? I read the next day in the newspaper that the boy who died had been twenty-two and was taking a year off of college to save money so he could return the following autumn.

Life is too sacred, too short, too fragile to leave to apathy, mediocrity, indulgent egoisms. I wanted then, and still, a life rich with experiences. I want to capture life in language, to have words enter my heart and pull me toward something more rich and more fragile, full of complex risk and love, toward fields of Being, more authentic and grown over with endless hope. I want to deserve my life; that is to say, I want to love. I realize as I write this, that my poems (the ones deserving to be called poems) are poor attempts to recover the moment of that man’s death, are apologies/elegies wishing I could have done more.

As for if college, the MFA and, now, a PhD, were encouraged: my parents wanted me to finish high school; my education since then has been entirely my own choice and pursuit. I pursued those classes and degrees that I have felt would make me a stronger writer. I don’t identify as an academic. I am a poet before all else. And being a poet to me means not only to write poetry but to approach life with a deep and fervent love, both serious and childlike, that my language/life is to serve life, to better existence for those whose lives are deprived of dignity and, importantly, to find joy in the existence we are so lucky to possess.
LAG: It’s fascinating, the trajectory of your life, and the hows and whys of your poetry and education. Rather, I should say, how representative: a long line of laborers—factory workers, field workers—each generation a little more educated, a little more privileged, a little more empowered by the hard work of those who came before us.

It seems to me that the violent, tragic event that happened that summer night in your community, which became the catalyst for the pursuing of your education and art, was indeed made so because of the generations of hard workers before you, a culmination of experiences made and given to the poet, you.

“I want to capture life in language,” you say, “to have words enter my heart and pull me toward something more rich and more fragile, full of complex risk and love, toward fields of Being, more authentic and grown over with endless hope. I want to deserve my life; that is to say, I want to love. I realize as I write this, that my poems (the ones deserving to be called poems) are poor attempts to recover the moment of that man’s death, are apologies/elegies wishing I could have done more.”

What you do in Heredities, I think, does this for your readers. We are pulled to something more rich, more fragile, complex and authentic. As a Chicana poet myself, and reader of Chicana/o poetry, used to a much more biting approach, I was absolutely filled by a kind of blissful delirium and, yes, hope, because of the precision, the prudence, and grace you use in the excavating, exploring, in the attempt to sort out our very complex history and, arguably, an even more complex present—that history of colonization, the renaming of peoples and lands, the morphing of tongues—all the while, presently, tasting that blood on your lips and wanting, as you mentioned, to deserve your life, to love.

Can you talk about this exploration and the decision-making aspect of Heredities and the book as a whole? For example, did you write with caution—avoiding, or trying to, tropes, etc., playing along that razor-sharp border, coping with a fear-induced vertigo of falling into expectation: too this or too that ? And what about the fire that demands we reach for our pens, the history that necessitates the use of our American privileged: the exercising of our voices? As a Chicano, how do you experience all of this; how do you negotiate your place within it?

With all of these questions in mind, I wonder, too, which poems in Heredities came first—the poems set in the present (the conversation poems between the “I” and the “You”), or the poems of the past? Did you know right away the arc you were going to take with these poems?
JMM: These are enormous questions and very difficult to answer.

I often get obsessed with the poems that begin to carry me into their methods of being: in their sound, the play of form. It is rarely content based; this is not to say an event in my life or in history, culture or otherwise does not intrude and desire to be a poem, but I rarely sit down at the computer with a story in my mind that I want to turn into a poem.

I often begin with an exercise to help me start generating language. At some point, the language begins to sing itself into different forms or different contents. I’ve learned to relinquish control of the process in these initial stages of the creation process and allow that unknown to emerge(1).

(1)An innumerable number of writers have articulated this impulse in various forms: Maurice Blanchot, in his analysis of Rilke, sees this moment of relinquishing as the process of the Open, one might invoke Julia Kristeva’s semiotic overwhelming the paternal Symbolic order, Federico Garcia Lorca’s duende passionately overtaking the consciousness, or Octavio Paz, who speaks of this radical otherness in his Bow and Lyre as ‘the other shore.’

In the end, for me, language, at this moment of relinquishing, invokes and, out of necessity, explores elemental questions. This is not that romanticized emotive outpouring (although, it may have that element), rather, the poems enter a method of critical thinking that exceeds my own conscious rationality.

Michel Foucault, in his ruminations on Maurice Blanchot, wrote, “And what language is (not what it means, not the form in which it says what it means), what language is in its being, is that softest of voices, that nearly imperceptible retreat, that weakness deep inside and surrounding every thing and every face—what bathes the belated effort of the origin and the dawn like erosion of death in the same neutral light, at once day and night.”

Language, in its Being, is the neutral light illuminating both origin and culmination. It is the house where both creation and death are exposed in their workings. It is the site often conceived of as elemental division but is truly an elemental unity. As such, it is the place of surgeries for the poet. If encountered critically and attentively in poetry, one may suture and sing this place of dual elemental processes.

With poetic language, language may be opened to reveal this light of creation and culmination (as embodied by history, cultural narratives, personal biography, etc).

And I fail. And I keep writing. I keep writing because there is pleasure in this process.
LAG: This is interesting—the idea that language, in itself, can be a (meta)physical place, a house, beaming with the neutral light of unity, where “creation and culmination” take place. That is, where we (and our work) are born, how we (and our work) grow. And for poets, poets with so many inherited (or lost) languages—Spanish, English, Náhuatl—there exists a place where we can gather together for the simple sake of “Being,” with the numerous historical narratives that “shape (our) identity like an icicle fingering down the roof’s edge” (from Aporia). That is, where the surgeries take place.

In the “Aporia” sequence, you maneuver this brilliantly, both creating and culminating, and the sequence becomes a tangible example of language (and all its parts) working. It is both poem and exhibit. Would you comment on editing and revising such culminations?
JMM: “Aporia,” one of the sequences in Heredities, was written in a handful of hours and I was amused and driven as I conceived it. It was so much fun to write. This poem was and is, personally, one of the most emotionally important and vital articulations of my ethnic identity. I wasn’t thinking of writing such a poem but my language drew me toward this need. Again, I wrote the initial material language of “Aporia” in a few hours, but the editing process took years. The version in the book was achieved after three years of both major and minor edits. All this to say, I value both craft and passion.

However, poetry is an art and, hence, craft is an imperative for every poem. My poems take their final forms after laborious editing. Strategies or exercises with formal constraints allow me to channel my language like a thumb over a hose pressuring the water to flare and arc. Often times, after the initial moment of generation, I’ll leave the work alone for weeks or even months. After working through other poems and strategies, I’ll begin editing a poem I thought was complete and I’ll discover places that need revision.

As far as Heredities is concerned, I can’t tell you which poems came first or last. Up until the day I submitted the manuscript, I was editing. The poems folded in on themselves. As I worked through one or another poem, those individual poems taught me different approaches I could take on other poems.

In regards to “arc,” I did have an overarching agenda when I began writing. I began Heredities with a goal to employ the critical methods of the historical avant-garde. These critical methods excited me then and, to this day, are what attract my aesthetic interest. I thought, at that time, the literatures employing innovative strategies would be the mode most representative of my Chicano experience: testing political structures, linguistically challenging normative paradigms of meaning, rebelling against the current political realities, as well as inhabiting a semantic space that not only allows but promotes blurred representation and identity. In regards to blurred identities, in the seminal Borderlands/ La Frontera, the great Gloria Anzaldua wrote of a consciousness that inhabits a space of contradiction and fluid boundary. She wrote the Chican@, by the nature of his/her indefinite national ethnic identity (not fully Mexican and not fully of the United States), existentially inhabits a blurred field of experience. She famously named this field the borderland. The project that became Heredities proposed to examine the space of my Chicano experience and how it might be represented by employing innovative strategies. That is where Heredities as a project began.

However, that is not where it ended. I wrote a number of prose poems that are not in any way formally innovative. Again, these poems emerged like any other of poems. These poems are some of the most important poems for me in the book. They are part of me and my history. I was told by a few poets to cut them because they weren’t as “interesting.” I couldn’t. To step back, I love the work of Lyn Hejinian and James Wright, Jimmy Santiago Baca and Michael Palmer. And, finishing the manuscript for my MFA that would eventually become Heredities, I realized I didn’t buy the oft proposed oppositional dynamic of traditional/normative/narrative and experimental/innovative/avant garde modes. That discussion occurs in a particular historical conception of poetics as articulated by particular agents who have the cultural/political capital and the privileged cultural position to circulate such a narrative as if it were a universal fact.

It’s important to recognize who is making claims and where they are situated in the various economies (juridical, cultural, scholastic, monetarily, etc.) that compose our society. My essay, “Poetics of Suspicion: Chicana/o Poetry and the New,” with Jordan Windholz and the online Breach journal, critiques one of these historical narratives. And, with generosity, this critique extends to the Latin@ community.

I find it problematic when U.S. Latin@s poetics are demanded, by the broader culture and various U.S. Latin@ cultural institutions, to perform certain culturally recognized tropes in order to be visibly recognized and branded as “Latino.” I think our community is more expansive than any single aesthetic ideology or maneuver.

I think U.S. Latin@ letters is in a privileged position (historically, politically and culturally) to be able to absorb, rework and articulate plural aesthetic paradigms without contradiction (in the same book, same poem, same line). As Anzaldua and our other elders have spoken, we are beautiful contradictions. I am Chicano no matter how or what I write. The first online Breach journal and its roster of wonderful writers is dedicated to both celebrating and complicating conceptions of Latinidad.

In the end, I find inspiration in ambitious art performing critical work, works emerging from emotional and/or intellectual necessity. I am wary when any critical practice becomes an easily exploitable maneuver, becomes a symbolic commodity exchanged for prestige in the rarified culture of the poetic. I may enjoy and appreciate any art form’s interesting play of form/content but, again, I am inspired by those works emerging out of visceral necessity.

In the end, I fail in my poetry more often than I succeed. I expect this. And I love it.

Boxcar Poetry Review - ISSN 1931-1761