The son and grandson of migrant farm workers, Rigoberto Gonzalez was born in Bakersfield, California, and raised in Michoacán, Mexico. Educated at the University of California at Riverside and at Davis, and at Arizona State University, he received a University Award from the Academy of American Poets. His first collection of poetry, So Often the Pitcher Goes to Water until It Breaks, was selected for the 1998 National Poetry Series. He received the John Guyon Prize for Literary Nonfiction from The Crab Orchard Review, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship in Poetry, and an NEA fellowship. His novel Crossing Vines was named Fiction Book of the Year and received the Editor's Choice Award from ForeWord Magazine.
His book review column on Latino literature has appeared twice monthly in the El Paso Times of Texas since 2002. A member of PEN and the National Book Critics Circle, he has been awarded artist residencies to Spain, Brazil, Costa Rica, and Scotland. He is currently a contributing editor for Poets & Writers.
I conducted this mini-interview with Rigoberto González via email.
Other Fugitives and Other Strangers takes its title from a poem by Thomas James, a relatively unknown poet. How and when did you discover James? Do you feel a kinship with his work? In what ways?
In 1993, while taking a poetry workshop with Sandra McPherson, I overheard her mention to another student a “Mr. Plath,” referring not to Ted Hughes but to a poet whose work was very much like Sylvia Plath’s—a male version of her, in fact. I immediately sought him out since, at the time, I was a Plath devotee.
I discovered in the campus library an out-of-print book called Letters to a Stranger. This was Thomas James’ only book, published in 1973 by Houghton Mifflin. He died a year or two later, in his mid-twenties. After reading and re-reading the book, I did begin to see how James could be considered a Plath derivative, especially with his use of darkly humorous metaphors, the death-wish themes, and his leanings toward formalist structures (which Plath also employed early in her writing career), but he was very much in his own element when he took on the persona poems through the male perspective.
I also suspect (but have not been able to confirm) that James committed suicide—yet another Confessional poet rite of passage—and that he was queer. The James poem from which I took my book title is called “Reasons” and I am convinced it’s a cruising poem, which is why I noted on my own cruising poem “The Strangers Who Find Me in the Woods” that it was inspired by Thomas James. Incidentally, I also imitated James by making the title poem of my first book, So Often the Pitcher Goes to Water until It Breaks, the second-to-the-last poem in the collection, just like he did with Letters to a Stranger.
So in a sense, I have built this huge mythology around the mysterious Mr. Plath, and hope to pursue some research on him for an essay I’m writing. But in the meantime I’m holding on to this constructed narrative.
Violence visits the body often in this book. And the body is often yours. The poems are explicitly gay and urgent. Chicano poets haven't written candidly about homosexuality. I can only think of Francisco X. Alarcón. Chicana poets, on the other hand, have richly explored sexuality. Why do you think Chicano poets have refrained from writing about these subjects?
Firstly, I’d like to point out that Luis Alfaro and the novelist Arturo Islas also wrote homoerotic or homosexual verse, though Alfaro is very much a performance artist and Islas’ poetry didn’t come to light until long after his death (and it wasn’t very good—these poems were mostly hate letters to his former lover). I also know that there are a number of gay Chicano poets who never published their poetry in book form (for a number of reasons) though they were writing it long before me. We fare better if we expand the category to queer Latino, and queer Latino prose, since there have been some notable anthologies like Jaime Manrique’s Bésame Mucho and Jaime Cortez’s Virgins, Guerrillas, and Locas: Gay Latinos Writing About Love. I would also like to point out Lorenzo Herrera y Lozano’s anthology Queer Codex/ Chile Love, published by Evelyn Street Press in 2004, and his book of poetry Santo de la pata alzada, which is mostly in Spanish. But within Chicano letters, (aside from Lozano y Herrera’s contributions) gay poetry is shockingly absent.
Like many others, I turned to black gay poets for guidance and education because early queer Divas like Joseph Beam and Assoto Saint were putting together amazing, unapologetic collections in the 1980s. Much later in 2000, Asian Americans organized and put together Take Out, edited by Quang Bao. But I have yet to see something that charged or political within our own gay Chicano community, even though I’m sure we have the numbers.
I think it’s too simplistic to say it’s because of fear or homophobia. Though that does exist in our community, I’m not sure it’s the only reason we are not more visible. Instead of answering this question, I’d like to throw out some points to ponder: Rayo, the huge Latino imprint of HarperCollins, has yet to publish something queer (even Jaime Manrique’s novel was about Manuela Sáenz, Simón Bolívar’s mistress); published gay Chicano writers tend to explore issues of race and class before moving into the territory of sexuality (and I include myself in this group); scholarship on U.S. gay Chicanos has yet to move out the backyards (pun intended) of Francisco X. Alarcón, John Rechy, Luis Alfaro, Arturo Islas and Michael Nava; Chicana lesbians have had such amazing activists like Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherrie Moraga, generating interest, scholarship, publications, etc. since the 1980s.
I believe we are at a turning point. I have seen such fierceness in the younger gay Chicanos, like the Calijotos, a West Coast writing group that puts it all out there.
I know poets hate to be asked to single out a favorite poem in a book. So I won't ask you that. But tell me: what's your favorite line in the book? Why?
I don’t know that it’s my favorite line, but I do know I’m more conscious of this line than any other when I read it aloud. I think it’s because it sounds like a tongue-twister and I don’t want to screw it up: “Music from the organ grinder driving the monkey to madness” from the poem “Danza Macabre.” Only native speakers, I imagine, don’t have to think too hard when they read alliteration in English, but I do.
You had two books come out this past fall: Other Fugitives and Other Strangers and Butterfly Boy: Memories of a Chicano Mariposa, a memoir dealing primarily with your father and an abusive lover. Did one book influence the creation of the other? Are these books in conversation?
I read a review recently in the Lambda Book Report that made some startling connections between the two books. Although they were revised at the same time they were not supposed to be published the same year. I suppose I don’t have to tell people by now that the poetry book was supposed to have been published last year with Zoo Press. Thankfully, Tupelo came to the rescue at an opportune time. I didn’t want to publish the second book through a contest because I didn’t have the energy.
Anyway, I’d be lying if I didn’t own up to the fact that many of the lovers in the poetry book are shadows or echoes of the lover in the memoir. Theses two books are companions in many ways—both of them are also my most personal works. But I was clear, from inception to completion, that I was working two different genres with distinct expectations and strategies. But the poetry definitely came first. Many of the poems in the second collection were poems I removed before publishing the first. I felt this topic I was exploring was too valuable and too important, so I dedicated an entire book to the issue of violence in gay relationships. The memoir was driven by wanting to understand another man in my life—my father.
Bob Hicok blurbs the book. Why did you pick him as a blurber? Do you have a crush on him, like everyone else in the poetry world?
Of course I’m in love with Bob Hicok, the man and the poet—everyone knows this, especially my friends Lisa Glatt and David Hernandez, who once fooled me into believing Bob had come out of the closet. I almost had a heart attack. Needless to say they are both shit-listed for another year at least. Anyway, I did ask Bob for a blurb because he’s extremely intelligent and an incredible reader. We once spent an entire afternoon in Central Park, chatting away, and once I got over my urge to jump him behind the bushes, my admiration and respect for him grew exponentially. He’s an incredible person.
You're incredibly productive. You've published a novel, two collections of poems, two children's books, and a memoir. I know you've recently finished a short story collection, another children's book and a third collection of poems. Mercy! What fuels this tremendous output? And what are you currently working on?
To begin, I don’t own a television, I don’t have Internet access at home, and I keep the cell phone off most of the time. You’d be surprise how much of the day opens up without these technological gadgets. That gives me the space and energy to dedicate myself to my many projects. I work on 4 or 5 of them at once. The more I have on my plate the more I become determined to move forward. I don’t know where this drive comes from, I simply do it.
I envy people who can toil away at one poem or one book at a time, but I’ve never been able to do that. I lose interest or become restless. When I sit at the computers, I like to have 3 or 4 files opened at once and I move back and forth. Eventually I focus on one for the evening, but in the beginning I skip around like a dog sniffing around for that perfect spot.
I’m currently working on a second collection of essays, the fourth book of poems, a young adult novel, and a biography on Chicano writer Tomás Rivera. Plus, I teach at Queens College and I still pen one or two book reviews a month for the El Paso Times. I don’t think there’s any secret. It’s mostly discipline and perseverance. I told myself I was going to be a writer, so I write. I meet many people who are writers in theory only, and they frighten me. They’re reminders of the type of writer I don’t want to become, so I push myself even more.