Tuesday, October 30, 2007
Mini-Interview: Kevin A. González
Kevin A. González received an MFA in poetry at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and an MFA in fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His poems and stories have appeared in Callaloo, Hotel Amerika, Indiana Review, Poetry, and Virginia Quarterly Review. His story, “Statehood,” won the Playboy College Fiction Contest. The Night Tito Trinidad KO’ed Ricardo Mayorga, a chapbook of poems, was recently published by Momotombo Press. He’s a fiction fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing.
ECC: You write both fiction and poetry. Did you start writing in both genres simultaneously? Or did you begin in one genre and then branch out?
KAG: When I was an undergrad, we had a poetry vs. fiction war going on in the Creative Writing program. It was a pretty one-sided war: it basically consisted of the fiction writers making fun of the poets for being poets, and the poets not doing anything about it. I was a poet. Of course, this was all in good fun. But still, I wanted absolutely nothing to do with fiction. Looking back, I’m not sure where that resistance came from. Maybe I was just afraid of trying it; maybe I didn’t want to put in the time. I mean, if it took me two hours to come up with a couplet, how long would it take me to write an entire story? I guess part of it is that I didn’t really realize how narrative my poems were back then. Because I used a lot of similes and metaphors, I thought that made them lyrical, but, in essence, a lot of my poems were telling stories. The truth is, I was simply very focused on poetry, on both reading and writing it. I had been from an early age. I think I started writing poems when I was in fifth grade, except that instead of calling them “poems” I called them “songs.” Never mind the fact that I didn’t play any instruments—I would write these “songs” and then recite them to myself following a kind of rhythm, a different one for each “song.” I’d write four or five every day in school: I’d just sit in the back of class and write. Most of them rhymed, and they were the kinds of things you’d expect a twelve-year-old kid to write about. You know that song “I Wish” by Skee-Lo? In 7th grade, I’d written a “song” that was very similar (same title, same repetition), and when Skee-Lo’s song dropped, I was all like, “That motherfucker ripped me off!” So, you get the idea. Later, in High School, I started referring to these “songs” as “poems.” I remember the first contemporary American poetry book I got was The Best of the Best American Poetry, edited by Harold Bloom. This is before there were any chain bookstores in Puerto Rico, and there was hardly any contemporary stuff at in the independent bookstore in the mall: it was all Henry Rollins and Maya Angelou. For some reason, I fell in love with that Harold Bloom anthology, even though I didn’t understand many of the poems. Afterwards, I went through this very naïve, pretentious stage, where I started writing imitations of Ashbery, Ammons, Hollander, Strand and Merrill. Basically, I thought the purpose of poetry was to be cryptic, so I’d put a bunch of words together that made no sense and thought I was a genius. That, and, on the side, I wrote love poems to girls I liked. Eventually, I started reading different stuff: when I got to college, my professors pointed me in the right direction. So instead of imitating Ashbery and Ammons, I started imitating Martín Espada and Yusef Komunyakaa. I guess it all evolved from there.
I didn’t really start writing fiction until I was doing my MFA at the University of Wisconsin. They have a very small program: six poets and six fiction writers, and they come in on alternating years. I was in the first poetry class they ever had, and our first workshop was actually a multi-genre workshop: it had the MFA poets and fiction writers in it, and we were encouraged to write in both genres. Ironically, I think the faculty ended up seeing that class as a failed experiment, because that was the only time they offered it. But I wrote a couple of short-shorts in that class, and after a some encouragement, I ended up taking a fiction workshop. With the stories I wrote there, I applied to Iowa, and I only wrote fiction while I was there. To be honest, that’s pretty much still the case: I’m still tinkering with a full-length poetry manuscript, but I’m primarily focused on a novel, and I don’t really think I’ll go back to writing new poems until I’m done with it.
ECC: The conversational tone and the “nowness” in these poems remind me of Frank O’Hara. Is he an influence? If not, what poets do you claim as ancestors?
KAG: I like O’Hara’s work, but I don’t really consider him to be a big influence. Though maybe he is, and I just don’t know it: sometimes it works like that, I guess. I would say that some of my biggest influences (or, at least the poets whose work I consistently find myself returning to) are: Larry Levis, Robert Bly, Yusef Komunyakaa, Ernesto Cardenal, Pablo Neruda, Federico García Lorca, Kenneth Koch, George Oppen and Silvio Rodríguez (though he’s a technically a songwriter, I still think he’s one of the best Latin American poets of the 20th Century). You know, I’m looking that list over, and it seems a little crazy, because all of those poets are so different from one another. I guess I’ve gone through a lot of stages in terms of the kind of poetry I like, but these poets are the constants, the ones I re-read often. Without a doubt, I also consider Jim Daniels, Terrance Hayes and Gerald Costanzo—all of whom were my teachers—to be major influences as well. I think this chapbook borrows a little bit from each of their respective styles and voices. I especially admire the lyricism and cadence of Jim Daniels’ Blue Jesus, the imagery and rhythm of Terrance Hayes’ Hip Logic, and I would probably say that Nobody Lives on Arthur Godfrey Boulevard by Gerald Costanzo is the book that I’ve re-read the most in my life. It’s the best poetry book about American pop culture I’ve ever read, by far.
ECC: You refer to yourself in the second person in these poems. It’s refreshing to read poems that aren’t thrumming with the ego-centric energy of “I.” Do you use this narrative technique to wedge some sort of objective space between the emotional content and the poem? If not, what effect are you going after by using the second person perspective?
KAG: Yeah, that space was one of the reasons I used the second person here. I guess I was trying to do something a little different with confessional poetry. One of the things that irks me the most is when a reader assumes that the author is the speaker of the poem. In a way, I’m trying to resist that inclination by putting the reader in the spotlight, by addressing the reader, so to speak, because that’s part of what second person does. On the other hand, I’m being self-exploratory and talking to myself. In doing this, and calling out my own hypocrisy in the process, I’m using poetry as therapy, but instead of concealing the self-consciousness that comes with that, I’m trying to embrace it. The distance that you’re asking about (between the emotional content and the poem) is at the heart of it. All that said, I also like the immediacy of the second person: I think it lends itself well to rhythm and quick transitions, and I wanted these poems to move fast.
ECC: I’m a sucker for a great simile. My favorite one in the chapbook is: “The white punk girl stomped on your heart/ like a wah-wah pedal.” Do you remember the origins of this simile? And can I steal it?
Word of advice: don’t ever jump into a relationship with anyone you meet at a nightclub called “Inferno.” Or with someone who has a tattoo of a phoenix on their chest. Or with someone who goes by Dee Dee. That’s all I have to say about that. And yes, you can steal it, but only if you call it “borrowing” and pretend that there’s a difference between the two.
ECC: Gwendolyn Brooks once said in an interview that she pitied those writers who let others label them. How would you categorize yourself? A Puerto Rican poet? An American poet? A poet? And why?
KAG: Frankly, being labeled is not something I’m all that concerned about, nor is categorization. Not to contradict Gwendolyn Brooks, and I don’t mean to sound passive or hopeless about it, but it seems to me that, for a writer, “being labeled by others” is unavoidable to a certain degree. I don’t feel the need to fight it. I mean, I know where I’m from. I was born and raised in Puerto Rico, both my parents were born in Puerto Rico, and three out of my four grandparents were born in Puerto Rico. If someone tries to tell me I’m not Puerto Rican, I’d probably just laugh. I know where my roots are, and I know what my culture is. And because my culture is inside me, it cannot be threatened by anyone or anything. I don’t see myself as a (Blank) Poet or a (Blank) Writer. I’m from Puerto Rico, I currently live in the US, and I write poetry and fiction. Whatever people want to do with that is up to them. Call me a Puerto Rican Writer, a Caribbean Writer, a Latino Writer, a Hispanic Writer, a Writer of Color, an American Writer, a Wisconsin Writer, substitute Writer for Poet in any of those—I don’t really care. I guess they’re all justifiable to some degree.
In general, I’m not sure why the ethnicity or background needs to be connected with the fact that you’re a poet or a writer. If I were an accountant, would I be a Latino accountant? Would the two things go together? Or would I be a Latino and an accountant? I’m not sure what makes literature and art so different from everything else. I don’t think “categories” or “labels” should be used as scapegoats to justify the work: as literature, it should stand alone. Likewise, the subject matter (or historical context) by itself cannot make a work valuable as literature. Take that Poems from Guantanamo anthology, for instance. You can talk about its historical value, its human rights value, but does it have any literary value? I don’t think so. On the other hand, take a poet like Langston Hughes. Are his poems valuable because he was Black? Because he was part of the Harlem Renaissance? To me, they’re valuable because they’re good poems. Or take Roque Dalton or Ernesto Cardenal: Are their poems valuable because they’re political? Because they were Latin American? No, they’re valuable because they’re good poems. The historical context may add to that, but it can’t be asked to justify the poems; they have to be good regardless of it. Nowadays, it seems that a lot of this categorization comes from the publishing industry itself. Take anthologies, for instance. Like you, I have poems in The Wind Shifts: the New Latino Poetry, so I guess that makes me Latino. Then, this year I had a couple of stories in anthologies that use the “American” category in their title, like Best New American Voices and Best American Nonrequired Reading. So I guess that makes me American. The truth is, I’m a writer, and I just want to get my work out there. I don’t write for a specific audience, but if the fact that I’m from Puerto Rico makes certain people want to pay attention to my work, so be it. Momotombo Press, for instance, would not have published my chapbook had they not considered me to be “Latino.” Do I personally consider myself to be Latino? I’m from Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico is part of Latin America. So, I guess so. But I don’t usually (or, ever) refer to myself as Latino. If someone asks me what my background is, I say I’m Puerto Rican. It seems to me that for someone to either resist or desire a specific label, they would have to feel as if something about them (be it their background, race or ethnicity) is being either overlooked or threatened. And I don’t feel either of those things. No one can ever make me doubt my patriotism, or what I feel towards Puerto Rico. It’s something that lies so deep within that no one can ever threaten it or make me question it.
ECC: You invoke two Puerto Rican athletes in these poems: Roberto Clemente and Tito Trinidad. What about them specifically appeals to you as a sports fan? As a poet?
A lot of the poems in here are about my father, and my father and I have always related through sports. As much as we may argue about other things, sports have always been a constant thing we can bond through. Ever since I was very young, we’d watch boxing, baseball and football together. In a way, that’s how I see these two poems tying in to the rest of the work, in a thematic sense. But, to answer your question: I think, first of all, that there’s something very poetic about boxing. More than any other sport I can think of, there’s something about it—the rhythm, the simplicity, the rawness, the conflict, the test of wills—that appeals to me as a poet. It’s a sweet science. The characteristics of the sport aside, I think the role it plays in Puerto Rico is very interesting. Essentially, Puerto Rico is an American colony, and the people there have settled for that. There’s a sense of complacency, of stagnation. And Puerto Rico, as a nation, does not become as united, or as nationalistic, as when Tito Trinidad (or, more recently, Miguel Cotto) steps into the ring. While the fight is on, the streets are literally empty. Afterwards, if the Puerto Rican fighter wins, the streets get all crowded, people start shooting off fireworks, waving flags all over the place. All that repressed nationalism comes out, and there’s something that’s both beautiful and heartbreaking about it. That sentiment, more than anything, is what appeals to me as a poet. As a sports fan, Trinidad was simply one of the most exciting fighters of the last 20 years. He was a knockout artist, and he won his first 40 fights and titles in three weight classes before he was ever defeated. Okay, here’s the difference between the poet and the sports fan: if you read the poem “The Night Tito Trinidad KO’ed Ricardo Mayorga,” the speaker of the poem is at home, drinking a beer, just having watched the fight on TV and feeling angry and frustrated, despite the victory. Well, the truth of the matter is that I flew to New York City that weekend and shelled out a month’s rent to get a ticket to that fight. And it was worth every penny.
Now, the thing about Clemente: he doesn’t only appeal to me as a sports fan, he appeals to me as a human being, as a model. Not only was he one of the best baseball players that ever lived, he always remained very modest, and was a great humanitarian. Right before Christmas in 1972, there was a massive earthquake in Nicaragua, and Clemente started putting together relief flights from Puerto Rico. The thing was that Somoza’s government in Nicaragua was so corrupt that the aid was not getting to those who needed it. So Clemente decided to go on one of these relief flights to ensure that the aid reached the earthquake survivors. It was New Year’s Eve, and the plane fell into the ocean immediately after takeoff. He died having gotten exactly 3,000 hits, which is a great milestone in baseball; and who knows how many more he would’ve gotten. I’m from Carolina, the same municipality as Clemente. Then, I went to college in Pittsburgh, which is where he played his entire career. It was incredible to see how much the people of Pittsburgh revere Clemente, even to this day, just like I did growing up in Puerto Rico.
ECC: We both appear in the anthology The Wind Shifts: New Latino Poetry. Which poet in the anthology surprised and delighted you the most?
KAG: Of all your questions, this one’s the hardest. I think it’s a fine anthology, and, like one of the blurbs says, I don’t think there’s a single weak voice in the group. In general, I thought the anthology was a bit heavy on narrative poetry, so the poets that ended up surprising me the most were the ones whose poems were more lyrical, more subtle, and who did more interesting things with language. I liked how Brenda Cárdenas interweaved Spanish and English in her poems, for instance. I liked the subtle lyricism of Emmy Pérez, Paul Martinez Pompa and yourself, Eduardo. There. That’s what you wanted me to say, didn’t you? I hope you’re pleased. I mean it, though.
You can read and hear some of Kevin's poems here.