Edgar Garcia: We’re going to start now, and one of the reasons why I thought the audio recording would be interesting was because I think it makes the job easier for both of us, as it’s more casual, laid-back, straightforward—just like we’re having a conversation. But also, on a more metapoetic, self-theorizing level, your book is so much about orality, and so much about the poetics and politics of orality. So I thought it would be appropriate to discuss it in a properly oral context, and just see what kinds of turns the conversation takes when it’s more open-ended in that way.
Steven Alvarez: Yeah, it makes sense. I also think that certain things will just come to mind as we go, and a lot of it will be the process of having a dialogue. And you’re someone I’ve wanted to talk to about poetry for a long time—about process and stories. So here we are, making the story, ya ahorita pues.
EG: Well, thank you for that, and thank you also for inviting me to do this interview. I’m honored to be in conversation about this book with you and also to be Fence brothers? Fence cousins? What is it?
EG: Fencies? Yeah.
SA: It’s been pretty chido to see, especially with a book like yours in the Fence catalog. Our books share a lot in common, and I think we are part of a larger cohort thinking through the traditions of poetics in the Americas, a tradition distinct from a European one—poetic traditions that predate European contact in the Americas for centuries. I think there’s a kind of school of people who are on the same wavelength, doing this kind of work, and who have the same inspiration from different kinds of texts, thinking about mythologies of the Americas, as well as people’s histories and counter movements for liberation. This says something about the larger contribution Fence is doing for experimental literature, but also how it is thinking through this stuff in the Americas and across genres.
EG: Absolutely. I’m amazed and maybe I shouldn’t be amazed because it’s right on point. I’m so happy that you mention mythology right off the bat because that was one of the main things I wanted to ask you about. And to introduce the topic of mythology as a way to ask some baseline questions about your own personal mythology: “When did you first start writing poetry, what did you want to do with it then, what are you doing with it now, and where do you want to take it—what are your future projects?” But I thought that situating such questions in mythology might be an interesting way to go about the conversation, because mythology is so fundamentally about origins. And in your writing there is a real investigation of origins—especially about the relationship between origins of the self and origins of the cosmos. And that interanimation of personal and cosmic origins in your work had me thinking about Ernst Cassirer—philosopher of symbols and myth—who said that those two aspects of origination are inextricable from one another. Stories of origin are ways of thinking critically about one’s time and place in the world. And your book—The Codex Mojaodicus—made that idea very present for me. That’s kind of a heady way to start the conversation, but maybe you could begin filling out some basics for your personal mythos: what made you start writing poetry? When did you first write poetry, and how did you know that this was something you wanted to do?
SA: This is a story about how we come to know ourselves as writers. It’s taken me a long time—first—just to even admit that I’m a poet. It’s just something I’ve never really been able to do. Not that I had any shame, or anything like that. On the contrary, I never considered myself worthy of the esteem I have for poets, “real” poets, people who I guess who are true to poetry community and the craft in time, dedication, patience, and trust. I’ve thought of myself as more like “poet in process.” It was sort of like a camino and one day I would hope to get there—one day, at last. And, yes, I call myself a poet now . . . sometimes. More often than not, let’s put it that way. But also understanding that the process is lifelong, and all poets are always in process, always growing. But to think back to when I first started writing, I was writing a lot of stuff when I was in my late teens and twenties, and I didn’t know the value of what I was doing, but I was learning and growing through poetry. Yet all of it was similar—thinking about who I was, being from the borderlands—Mexicano—growing up in a Mormon neighborhood in rural Arizona, gente in my life, and times and places that meant something to me. Just a lot of things that were confluences of my social identity, which I think I was individualizing, as we all do—social circumstances transformed into verses. Of course there are the stories that resonate from previous generations, from our families, and learning about those aspects of our identities, and then also developing various intersections of our identities with different folks: our racial identities, gender identities, class identities, and on. This all goes to say, I really didn’t know what I was doing when I started. I just wrote—never calling myself a poet publically, but thinking so in private.
But later, going to college really opened things for me. I’m a first-generation college student, now PhD and profe, but the privilege of going to college and my growth marked my poetry. This reminds me of one of the things I marked in your book, where you described attempting to write the “The Mythoeconomic Epic of the Americas.” I read that line, and I’m like, “Yeah, that’s basically what my book was too.” [laughing]. And in college, much of what I understood of my identities and how I could write began to bubble. See, my parents didn’t have those opportunities, you know. But I had the opportunity to go to college and the luxury, really, the privilege to encounter a lot of this stuff that really brought me into a different world from where I grew up in little Safford, Arizona (population around 9,500 folks). A lot of this stuff was never necessarily in the classes I took too—it was stuff that I read in class and then I realized, “I could just find the books on my own” without having to have an assignment in front of me. And then the reading really took over. And I kept writing alongside, but I just never took publishing seriously because even contests and things I tried to submit to, I always got rejected. So that was something I always just . . . I just wrote and rejection came with the territory.
EG: Yeah. That’s something that’s very important to emphasize to new poets: “be ready for rejection.”
SA: I tell this to my students all the time but, you know, it’s something else where even though I knew I wasn’t getting published, but I knew that what I was doing felt right based on the stuff I was reading. I started exploring a lot of different writing, particularly small press journals that were coming out. I had found the poetry journals at a bookstore, then I realized I could look for them in the library, and, fortunately for me, at the University of Arizona Poetry Center. I used to spend a lot of time there, and the main campus library. And just finding different writers and in literature classes and being introduced to literature by anthologies, still reading folks like Stein and Beckett and then later finding out they both wrote whole shelves of stuff. For Beckett, for example, I found his trilogy Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable, and I was like “Wow! It’s not just Waiting for Godot. He has this whole body of work that—he evolves over time as well.” And especially how he has navigated, for example, French and English . . . I started to soak it all up. Pure joy! But, all the same, it happened where going to school really opened me up to thinking about how different writers thought about their own identities, then how mythology, history, and politics especially shaped some of the folks during High Modernism—particularly Joyce and Pound. But then also, thinking of a decolonial framework, especially of the Americas—and I think about the Americas as distinct from Europe—and the rich mythologies here, and as I grew older, and was able to spend more time with and reconnect with family in Mexico—that’s when the Mexican mythological traditions really took over in my writing. Of course finding works by Gloria Anzaldúa helped, and the work of Miguel León-Portilla. Then, then I kind of never looked back. And it’s been a good thing. So I guess—you know, I speak about aging—it’s the younger person who was first excited about writing and was trying to figure out what was going on, and then there were some stages where I had an opportunity to learn more about myself and be reflective and think about writing again. And, again, as I’ve grown older—pues puro viejito, verdad?—I’ve been really thinking about the political aspects and the aspects of bilingualism and power related to that, so it’s still going, I’m still growing, and the story continues. But I’m also happy I’m getting less rejection notes—I mean, still plenty, don’t get me wrong. But now I get invitations for stuff, and it’s amazing. A lot of this stuff that I had written that had been rejected for so many years is only now coming to life. That’s pretty cool for me because way back when, I think I knew my time would come. I reckon I still think that, verdad?
EG: I love the idea that—since I asked you about certain stories and I asked you to contextualize creation stories in your own literary emergence—I like that you kind of performed a creation story: from the biographical chaos, the form. That is, from the chaos of unequal cultural literacy, the borderlands police state, and religious and cultural multiplicity emerged this form of telling stories and of impersonation. And I very much heard that in your book—impersonation or the wearing of masks and voices, a lot of masks and voices coming into voices and leaving voices, of many racial and class registers and backgrounds. So I wonder if you could elaborate a little bit on the meaning and use for you of impersonation, masks, voices? That’s really key, I feel, to your work and you just emphasized it right now. So I would love to hear you say a few more words about how masks work for you.
SA: Claro. Actually, as you’re saying that it reminded me of what—just recently, I don’t know—I felt like I had to go back to Robert Browning. Just to some of his more famous monologue poems. These monologues are direct address to someone listening, so they’re sort of distinct one-sided dialogues. But there’s definitely one voice that’s really strong, and impersonation, and really positioning a poet’s voice somehow as a storyteller—that is, a performance, a knowing performance…of being in performance. But really I think—
EG: And sorry to interrupt you, but somehow the story is in the background right? Like the story is behind the voice and the voice is carrying the story in implicit ways, or something.
SA: Yes. The monologue sets up the context, tells the story, and the pushes on with the characterization of the voice. See, for some reason I keep coming back to stand-up comedy when thinking about this kind of one-sided dialogue. There’s a really famous routine of Bob Newhart being on the telephone, and it’s brilliant.
EG: Oh, I don’t know it. Yeah?
SA: He’s telling a story on the phone with somebody else and the audience eavesdrops on the conversation, but also participates in the dialogue through the reconstruction of the missing voice. That is, you can’t actually hear the other side of the conversation, the person on the other end of the line. It’s one side the audience hears, but it’s also the implication that it’s a dialogue. You don’t hear the other side of the dialogue, but you play it in your mind, and you have this interactive experience from the hole in the text. Browning’s monologues are like this, absent voices circulating in the periphery of the poem. This notion of circulation goes back to what I mentioned earlier when I described being born into a context, the context we occupy as voices surround us, circulate around us. So I had a lot of voices I’d hear when I was writing, and I think that seeing different artists who were able to manipulate the voices and impersonate others was really interesting. To really take on and embody the music of another. So that really struck me and also knowing as I moved to different places in my life, more knowledge about my own accent or accents I have, so I guess that’s my own voice in relation to other voices. And it was always this kind of sense where I could hear words, but also there were elements of registers, harmonies, rhythms, and syncopations. Like how Mexicanos speak melodious Spanish, pues. And of course these days I live in New York City—in Queens, most linguistically diverse place on the planet, so I can’t help but appreciate in what I hear with the poetry of all the borough’s voices—and not even just in art forms, but really just in everyday life. It comes when languages combine and collide as well. So on one hand, it’s about impersonation, but also I think it’s about power or how our personalities are structured and conflicted by the languages we come into contact with, because a lot of this has to do with power or dynamics between languages. So in my poems, when I use a very didactic standardized English, it contrasts with when I use different languages in relation or combination, or even conflict. I get the same sense with your poems as well—particularly in the movement between verse and prose, and across languages as well. I think there’s a sense where as we have the embodiment of different voices it also leads to the way we can mask language and really maximize its potential across languages and musics.
EG: Yeah. I definitely had that in mind, that it can’t all be said in one language, as Pound put it. It can’t all be said in one voice, and in fact, never is. Like you, I was interested in emphasizing the atmospheric with such plural vocalization. At a couple moments in your last answer to my question, you talked about voices that surround us, both in our memory and present experience. And this also returns to Cassirer, who talked about myth as atmospheric, myth as an atmospheric way of thinking, where there are things that are moving and pushing you in ways that you don’t know, and can’t control. And maybe the magic the voice and voicing is a way of capturing some of that atmosphere. With regard to the magic of voice in your book: what did you want readers to hear in it? What do you want readers to perceive with the surrounding atmosphere of The Codex Mojaodicus?
SA: That’s an interesting way to think about it. Ostensibly, I guess we write for readers—but I don’t know if I ever really asked myself, “What do I want to get out of it?” Maybe now—I’ve thought about it in the back of my mind—but it’s sort of reminds me of the elevator speech academics have to learn to speak about their projects: “Try to describe a project that you’ve been working on for a long time and put it in a few words.” Folks doing research know, it can be a tough thing to do, because you put so much of who you are and it’s in the hands of interpretation. But I would say that what I try to present is a kind of a way of thinking about mythology of the Americas, some of the politics that affect people of color—Latinx gente in this country—and have historically. But also how roots and a colonial mindset, which relates to the colón. (laughs)
EG: Did you like that joke? The joke of Colon and “talking shit.”
SA: The line in your libro, “Caca from cacao from cacahuates” is magic, buddy.
EG: Thank you, thanks for noticing that!
SA: These are things I appreciate very much —well, because are one of the joys of the Spanish language especially what people would consider lower-class, in this case mierda puns. Socially, we can have debates about language, social class, and power in puns, but poetically they are musical wordplay. So there is actually a lot of that play across the languages—I guess I kinda emphasized some of the heavy-handed stuff thinking about languages and contact in my book, but the playful part is also something… I mean, I wrote my book with a lot of jokes too. That’s why I could catch your poop jokes and really appreciate them.
EG: Thank you. I’m so glad that they resonated for because I struggled to accept that that was a necessary part of the book. And, not only to accept that it was a necessary part, but to let the joke have a place of prominence in the introductory paragraph! The pun, the double meaning, the meaning that works across languages, that builds its productive ambiguity across languages was a thing that I didn’t know, for a while, whether it was like a sound decision to go with. So I’m glad that you dig it. And I definitely felt like the jokes in your book—which, as you say, are kind of more of a standup comedy type thing—give your book very much a sense of the performative, of the vocal. So to kind of flesh a question out of that: how do you try to bring that to life in performance? Do you think that the book changes when it is read or performed aloud? Is your book different when heard than when read?
SA: The jokes are playful, and both our books share this element. We both also perform on the page. And for myself, I have to say that for a long time I have been writing for the page, exploring the graphic possibilities of language in my poems. You noticed the book also has a lot of visual elements—
EG: Well that’s another thing—typographically, the book is complicated as well. A follow-up question, then, is: “how is the typography, in your mind, related to the sound? Are bigger words louder? I am thinking here about Dennis Tedlock’s projectivist translations of Zuni oral poetry, where bigger words are supposed to be heard louder, and smaller words are more whispered—that kind of thing? Or is there some other relationship between text and sound?
SA: I mean, visually, the way I represent them is that literally, visually, they’re louder because they’re larger, some are emphasized more. The page is a performance, and I don’t mean simply projective verse. I mean with graphic design at every level as performing for the page. Really, before I read folks like Charles Olson, don’t get me wrong. But what really hit me was concrete poetry. And that also falls under my time at the University of Arizona. I was taking an upper-division undergrad literary theory course, and the very first day—you know, sometimes you teach the first day of the college class and you have to have some kind of quick activity to do after you do roll and the syllabus. Some teachers just say, you know, “That’s a pain,” but some other professors want to do some kind of activity to introduce the students to the themes of the course. So the profe brought us some concrete poetry for the first day, photocopies of works from An Anthology of Concrete Poetry edited by Emmett Williams. Well, I’d never seen that stuff before—I was like, “Oh, whoa!” And the lesson was, “Is this literature?” That was the question we had to discuss as groups and a class. And I had—I guess I was really infatuated at that time with folks like some of the Romantic poets because I thought they broke all the conventions, and they were so cool. I didn’t even know folks like the modernists yet. Once I encountered folks like William Blake—see you’re a fan too—I just kind of stuck with him for a long time—and then started moving on slowly. So here we were, with this visual literature, and a kind of literature that some of my classmates had reservations calling literature. Well, right after class, I headed right over to the library to see what else I could find out about this kind of concrete poetry stuff. When I got to the library, I found more about this category called visual poetry, so I checked out as many books as I could carry. I started messing with stuff then, and I found folks like Apollinaire and Ian Hamilton Finlay in Europe, and the hermanos Augusto and Haroldo de Campos in Latin America, and the ways their poems performed on the page set my imagination on fire. Anyway—when I read aloud, however, I do perform the poems. I’ve noticed this because this is only something recent, that I’ve been asked to read poems. That never really happened before. [laughs] So I hear the poems in my mind and I hear the different voices and I perform the voices. There are places when I shout, and places when I speak softer, the accents that I’m able to do. So the performance then is in the registers I use as well. There are points where I—you know, I hear better the sense through the rhythms and embody some of the rhythms gives me a way a feeling, a kind of musical connection—a harmonizing.
EG: Blake is just irresistible, isn’t he?
SA: [laughs] He’s so seductive for young adults or, teenagers—
EG: Oh, even before that. I had a little girl, a daughter, born almost nine months ago, and in the womb she was responsive to “The Tyger” poem. When we would read the poem aloud, she would kick, push back, and move to the rhythms of poem. And throughout her infancy, when I read that poem to her she would pay attention and be captivated, because it’s just so rhythmic. It’s a poem that can’t not be sung—it can’t not be performed. It’s rhythmically engrossing. So in that way it’s irresistibility precedes adolescence or even childhood. There’s something primal, primordial about that poem.
But I stick to this point about text and sound, because the way in which you describe teaching concrete poetry reminds me of an episode in Dennis Tedlock’s 2000 Years of Mayan Literature, in which he presents concrete poetry as a way of understanding of how glyphs work. The idea there is that writing that can also be visual art—visually and conceptually dynamic, while also communicative at a semantic level. And I just want to return to that question and pause over it a little bit, because the glyph and the idea of the glyph is so important for you. And yet, interestingly, there are no glyphs in the book. There’s just the writing out of the word “glyph,” right? There’s the alphabetical spelling out the word glyph. So I wonder what you’re trying to do, what the alphabetical glyph means to you. What is “glyph” for this book, if it’s not an actual glyph on the page?
SA: Yeah—everything you said. There is only one place in The Codex where you see some glyphs, in one of the photos before the book begins. The photos, by the way, are all mine. But the research I do…I guess I can call myself a poet, but I’m also a literacy researcher and I also study the history of writing in the Americas too. And the other stuff I write about—that’s not poetry, it’s the boring academic stuff. I mean, I try not to be boring. But it’s hard—I study literacy, literacy studies—and not just literacy studies that might just be understood as education—literacy, the ability to read and write—but also literary in societies and literacy historically, also understood through political economy. Mass literacy, the ability to produce text but also the production of regimes of creating writers and readers.
EG: And whose text even gets to count as text.
SA: Yeah! Walter Mignolo became the way for me to think about this tradition in the Americas. One of his most famous books The Darker Side of the Renaissance is about literacy and conquest. And also the conquest alphabetically of the Americas—the erasure of Mesoamerican texts and also alphabets, systems of writing, for example, but also cosmovisions, orientations to space, nature, and, always, time. I mean the Mayan glyphs especially, because they’re etched in stone, they have a timelessness but never really. That’s one of the things—even though the stone does erode over time, there’s the resonance—and also the visual beauty. I read a lot of Tedlock and also just some of the literacy scholars who tried to uncrack the code, as they say. They literally just learned the language. To appreciate the language itself, carrying its own poetry that is distinct in its written form. Every different alphabet system has its beauty, and the history of alphabetic writing is really quite interesting…and always visual. So with the concrete poetry what was interesting to me was that it was operating linguistically on a different level. It was more like painting, painting words, painting with symbols, but also there were different forms. There were some that were more sort of on a spectrum of being more like painting/visual art and more like alphabetic text but operating at the graphic level of significance. I think there’s Edward Sapir, the linguistic anthropologist who really got me starting to think about the way mentally envision the world, that we think differently across languages. Different language systems have different conventions, or ways of thinking. A lot of this has been disputed over the years, but there really is that emphasis of thinking how grammatically it might structure the way we order space and time, or even determine the way we think. So visually what we can see and what we can imagine, can also give us ways of imagining what language can look like beyond convention. This means exploding the alphabet. I have to admit, the way I came into Mayan mythology was always through alphabetic writing. But how I visualized the world also shifted because of the images of the glyphs as visual poetry. I started to figure this system of writing as participatory visuality, or what this type of poetics could look like. The ways I understood language started to change when I started thinking about traditions and conquests historically the movement of this continent, in general how literacy and colonialism were also very close to home.
EG: I agree with all those points a thousand times over. You’ve said so many words that really resonate with my own perspective on sign-systems, languages, and the different social/intellectual/ontological modalities that they make possible. The way in which you describe the glyph in its alphabetical presentation as being something like a reckoning with the mediation of the glyphs. We receive them alphabetically and that’s just a result of colonial historicity—but they continue to have shaping force in our imagination, making the alphabet glyphic too. That’s something that you were doing in the book that I appreciated tremendously. And since we’re on Tedlock, and he’s kind of inescapable when thinking about the transmediation of Mayan glyphs—since we’re on Tedlock, it reminds me of his point that he makes about one these moments in the Popol Vuh where the speaker of the Popol Vuh (the person whose voice is written out) has these strong indexical statements: “and here is this, and there is that, and here is this, and so on.” Tedlock understands those moments to indicate moments of indexicality, when someone was standing over a pictographic or hieroglyphic text pointing out what is happening here and there. So while we have the Popol Vuh written out in alphabetical text, in its background is literacy of the hieroglyph. And it occurs to me that we are talking again about cultural backgrounds and what pushes through into poetic form. In the background of the Popol Vuh is a hieroglyphic text. And that also seemed to be the kind of thing that was being staged in your book, too—which is a book that, in various moments, proposes to be a codex that that stages itself as a codex, as a lost codex, as a furtive codex, as a fugitive codex, pushing itself through into the form and design and of your book. In that way, its origins, mythos, or background felt very present. These things were not just content. They were form pushing their way forward into an experience of reality.
SA: Actually, I was going to say really quick about this your endnotes, your book—those are fantastic, they stand on their own. One thing I enjoyed was seeing you give props to Jose-Luis Moctezuma, the compadre there. I met Jose Luis before I met you, and I had read some of his work, and I’m super excited about his new libro Place-Discipline. When I read some of his work I was like, “Este güey sabe”—which was really cool, and then when I found out about your work and I read some of your work, especially this book—I was like “Oh yeah, there was something, something there.” Hay gente who I think were influenced by folks like Barbara and Dennis Tedlock and ethnopoetics, poets reckoning anthropology and poetics. I guess you were really still writing this ethnolinguistic understanding of poetry that’s connected with larger cultural issues, but reckonings certainly with mythology—
EG: I call it “anthropological poetics.”
SA: There you go, eso es. Yeah, anthro-poetics, that’s it. I can go with that. Yeah. And I think maybe heavily influenced by folks in the ethnopoetics movement—especially Dennis Tedlock, he’s kind of like we just have a Blake—he’s an essential voice you have to come to grips with if you follow this kind of way in language. Anthropological poetics, always poetic, always political.
EG: I love that.
SA: And back to Tedlock: of course, he’s influenced by Blake—he has his own work thinking about and of the Americas. Exploring mythology, creating a different kind of mythology, too. And maybe even a methodology of this route. Certainly, when I read his work, it influenced ways that I would use markers, these indexical markers, “And so . . . ” . . . like the bible too. The bible has a lot of these really interesting kind of moments where they indicate transitions as well, transitional rhymes in kind of a logical sort of rhyme. So there is a rhyming of ideas, or knowledge units, or something like that—parallelism. But definitely, Tedlock’s work has been really important. And also, I was glad to see that you had this kind of way of thinking and discussing and Felipe Huaman Poma de Ayala’s Nueva corónica y buen gobierno in your libro. That work speaks so much to what I also wanted to imagine to be as the found codex, the lost codex, mythological, visual, translingual, and of the Americas, in The Codex.
EG: Absolutely. For your work it’s a true intertext.
SA: Yeah I know it’s just kind of the story of how this discovered Nueva corónica manuscript emerged over time to speak about a prior historical period. And really, with literacy studies again, I bring up that was where I was first introduced to this visual text, from the work of Mary Louise Pratt. But this text, this found text, standing up to time like stone, and I was like, “Nobody told me about this!” It just never came into reading where I went to school. So uncovering that text, then of course some of the primary sources about language and conquest became really important too.The letters of Hernán Cortés—that cabrón—I only really read the historical accounts from history books, and of course in translation.
EG: That atmosphere! It’s part of our atmosphere.
SA: It is! But it is interesting just to read those historical kind of texts for their literary value and their historical value. When you mentioned origin before, but reading these texts of conquest in the Americas are not the origin. The point of contact or the conquest was not the origin because there were people here before for many thousands of years. But we can think about the contact as an origin of the transition of the story. And it’s a story that is remarkable in ruthless bloodshed. The story then transitions to colonial rule, and subsequently, revolutions and up to the point where we are now at a neocolonial rule of the market. And I see Jose-Luis and you are on this same wave.
EG: That’s awesome. Thanks for those favorable words—they mean a lot to me, and I’ve known Jose for decades, since we were teenagers. He’s an old and dear friend of mine, and I feel like over time, our thoughts have become interactive. There has just kind of been this intellectual kinship that has developed. And when he told me about your work (he was the one who introduced me to it) it was under those terms. As in, ‘this guy also,’—this person is also a part of this. So I’m very honored by what you just said. And with that idea of transitions in mind—that is, turning from origins to future, from pasts made present to future collaborations, conversations, and possibilities—I wonder if I could bring you back to this note that you made about Edward Sapir. Specifically I want to ask you about his idea of ‘poetic indeterminacy,’ whereby he claimed that certain languages facilitate certain kinds of thinking, and therefore translation and the creative act of poetry are very important—because they force a reckoning with the emptiness of what you know, the open-endedness of language in its artfulness, and the possibility that you might always see a new world in a new flip of phrase or locution. Anyway, I want to ask you: have you seen the movie, Arrival? The sci-fi film that’s a Sapirean rendering of UFO contact? It came out something like two or three years ago—and it has, oh my god, I think it has Amy Adams in it, the woman who was in Sharp Objects? You know that HBO show? Anyways, what it is—it’s these aliens that come to Earth, and they communicate by way of these inky glyphs that no human understands. Until, finally, someone interprets them, and in interpreting them their entire experience of time changes. Suddenly, they can see perfectly into the future and past in the same instance, by virtue of a newfound literacy in these alien glyphs. And the aliens are squid-like creatures who arrive in enclosed tanks of water, they communicate by projecting their squid ink glyphs onto the wall of a glass surface. Really, somebody read a Wikipedia article on Sapir and made a movie, or that kind of thing, but it’s great. And, you know, my question doesn’t need you to have seen the film, because it’s much more general—I’m just demonstrating to you how I got to it. My question is: I felt a lot of sci-fi in your book as well? A lot of futurism, like Latinx futurism, or thinking about possibilities forecast and foreclosed, horizons and speculations? I wonder if you can maybe think for a few minutes aloud about where you think your poetry is going—and where your poetry is going? Where you would like for it to go? And where your current work is going and imagining.
SA: Well, this is all really great. I’ve got to check out Arrival—I’m pretty bad about movies, I have to be honest.
EG: Me too. But this came on my register through Sapir, because I had to see this thing that was being billed as a Sapirean sci-fi film. Something akin to Suzette Haden Elgin’s Native Tongue.
SA: Verdad? I’ll definitely check it out. The way sci-fi treats language is always very interesting. Especially when there’s contact between interstellar races. I have been trying to catch up on speculative fiction and films. And even poetry.
EG: Yes, absolutely.
SA: In sci-fi, it’s always interesting to think about how communication happens. Whether there’s some kind of device that translates the way these aliens are communicating in English. Like Octavia Butler’s work, how she handles language is always very interesting. Back to tentacles, verdad? When you said that in the film, it reminded me especially of tentacled creatures in the Lilith’s Brood trilogy, and coming into contact with humans, but also…
EG: Well also the racist? What’s the racist’s name? The big tentacle guy? The Cthulhu guy? Anyways—sorry.
SA: Right, in Lovecraft. Similar, no doubt, but for Butler, there’s a speculative element that is also cognizant of race, power, and colonialism. But basically—I think in her books she keeps the names of the alien languages, and specific words in the languages. She keeps that consistent, and more of the words start to just be peppered in through English prose. Just the way that different sci-fi—well, the speculative genres—approach language is always interesting because they always begin with language as a way that’s used … historically across cultures and in imagining what can transform into utopic or dystopic ways. But really, I think so much of where I see my own work—it’s interesting that you mention speculative art, maybe it’s even more like a Latinx futurism—that’s definitely where a lot of my more recent work is. A lot of the work in The Codex is stuff I wrote when I was in my early twenties. I’m pushing forty now. So I still appreciate that stuff and I still go back to it, but it took me that long to publish some of this stuff I wrote way back when. I have way more that’s only slowly coming out—this bigger project… That sort of was a sample of around a 500, 600 page project—
EG: Let me show you two things that I have here with me. [Garcia pulls out two books.] Look at these things—it’s The Pocho Codex and The Xicano Genome.
SA: Órale pues. Well, you know, a lot of people don’t know about those little books—I’m trying to work on seeing about if I can get them maybe reissued or republished. These are some of my older books, my first books actually. I guess you can kind of think about it the way Jose-Luis and you were buddies, similar to mi cuate Francisco Laguna Correa. He’s a profe of Mexican and Latinx Cultural Studies at the University of Denver. He’s a poet maybe y’all might want to check out, I’d suggest his hybrid novella Crush Me / Ría Brava. He’s from Mexico City, straight up chilango—and he was this kind of guy that was starting his own journals, doing his own thing, and he made his own press. Everything was in Spanish, but then, I don’t know—I had sent him some stuff on email one time… I saw a call looking for poetry, a press I’d never heard of. At that time, and, well, still, I was sending out stuff left and right, so I figured I would take a shot. And he got back to me and asked for more work and then asked me if I would like to work on a book. I was like, “No me chingues.” The Pocho Codex was first, then a couple years later, he published The Xicano Genome. So they’re early ventures, a lot of stuff I was still working on, and really, a lot of stuff that comes back in The Codex as well. But of course, significantly revamped. I was still learning with those books, but Francisco as editor did give me a lot of liberties to do cool visual stuff on the inside. He’s still a really good buddy, and he’s doing some pretty chingón work too.
EG: I’m glad you got the chance to give the shout-out.
SA: Yeah, he’s buena gente, and he’s a poet, too, and a scholar—he’s doing some really cool work with Mexican revolutionary newspapers, and authors writing in newspapers for a mass audience. But with that, I think the turn went—my more recent stuff is starting to really look at speculative poetics, ways of thinking about dystopia. And a lot of that is partly because of our current political moment and our dystopian border politics. But it’s a longer work imaging a polis where climate change has spurred the movement of climate refugees and the advanced militarization of border policing, particularly the precarious movements of denizens. Policing, furthermore, of those moving people, particularly those moving people of darker skin and lower socioeconomic circumstances. So it’s kind of imagining some of the worst case scenarios of not even the total state but a kind of corporate living of total states. So that’s where I’m moving more. But I would say this about things I noticed, trends happening in poetry that I’m really excited about. There was this story in The Washington Post in September about how there’s more younger people reading poetry, that the numbers have doubled in the last five or six years. There’s a lot of excitement I think, for spoken word poetry, and recognizing spoken word poetry as the highest art form of poetic performance. That’s happening right now. I mean, Danez Smith just won the prestigious Forward Poetry Prize—in England, at that—and people understand him as a performance poet. Folks like Eve Ewing, José Olivarez, Nate Marshall. And it’s really exciting to me. And I think where you’re at, Chicago, this is, right now, where a lot of this stuff is happening. Chicago, I think, is at the center of literary culture at the moment. Those folks I just mentioned, they sing Chicago. The maestro Daniel Borzutzky, in my top tier of favorite poets, he’s singing about Chicago.
EG: It’s very vibrant here—the literary culture.
SA: Oh, it’s incredible. New York’s pretty good, don’t get me wrong—it’s always been very strong. San Francisco and LA too, at that. But I think right now Chicago is having a moment—and it’s cool to see—especially because there’s so many people of color who are at the point of really being very pivotal and important voices. So I really have a lot of admiration for the place where you’re at now, and you’re a part of that too, part of that scene. Chicago is setting the trends.
EG: I think that the future is a good note to end upon, but I have a couple more questions that might bring things to a close and consolidate some of our ideas—that are related to the last point you made about the excitement that you feel over contemporary poetry amidst our chaotic, fucked-up political moment. And I want to ask, in a very general sense, what it is that you think poetry can do in a political and social sense? What is distinct about poetry for you? What is distinct about poetry that other art forms can’t bring to the table, in terms of political and social power.
SA: Sure. Definitely at this point where something like spoken word right now, that is where it’s at. And I credit it of course to a movement in hip-hop historically, particularly the versification of rap, as oral performance rooted in verse. Any lyrical song has always been part of what we should understand as a poetic tradition. And not just because Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize or whatever. Performers who tell the stories of folks to folks. Poets of course are in that tradition of storytellers. You think of performances, the performance of mythical poetry or heroic poetry, and that. But really, to think of the folks who were telling these stories and performing these stories, and spoken word tradition inspired by hip-hop. And what is exciting for me is understanding how young folks see the poetic potential for voicing social dissent. And also, the kind of performance of a type of genius that is lyrical in its nature, poetically crafted. To hear some of these young folks who are excited about poetry and spoken word is good news for poetry. And then—the more recent popularity of the diss track. What else is a diss track besides two grown adults throwing poetry at each other? That’s awesome, that’s it.
EG: Poetry that is also talking shit—to return to that fecal element [laughs]—reminds me that poetry creates the event that it sets out to represent. In that way, it captures the power of language to shape and shit on reality.
SA: Merry mierda. But you know like in the tradition of albures, for example, in Mexico. I think this actually caters to Latin Americans but the albur is … kind of linguistic battle, a game of albures, that’s linguistic in nature, kind of sexual innuendo battling, which is always really smart, and they’re so fun. It’s a game of wits, it’s a game of play, and always musical with a diss in mind. But it’s interesting to really to see that in this kind of way of understanding how this kind of music that was always very much about spoken poetry, overlaid with sound and rhythms, has become a part of a mainstream way of thinking about poetry. I think we’ll see more about how social media has expanded the poetry community. Twitter has especially brought a lot of this stuff where opening up different audiences, and really, just putting authors in contact with each other that were segmented in ways or not finding their books in the same places at the bookstore.
EG: I have one question which regrettably has to be my last because I have a meeting in nine minutes. But let me ask this question, because I think it’s an important one and a nice way to wrap things up while sending them off, which is: what are you reading right now that is keeping you alive? That is inspiring and sustaining you? That you’re finding your soul is saved by?
SA: You know actually I just picked up this book There There by Tommy Orange. It’s a beautiful, polyphonic novel portraying Native American folks in Oakland that moves between the points of view of different characters. I’ve really been enjoying his work, and he’s coming to St. John’s University, where I teach, on October 8th , Columbus Day, but we’re going to recognize it as Indigenous People’s Day, and I’m glad the university invited him to come speak. I’m going to be in conversation with him, so I’m really excited about that. His debut novel has kept me going, and if you’ve never read his opinion piece in the LA Times about Thanksgiving, it’s worth checking out.
EG: Wonderful. I think that your note on There There is a wonderful way to say ‘Here Here’ to this conversation. And thus to close it. Thank you for welcoming me to talk with you about your book. Thanks for the favorable, kind words about my book. It is a delight to be involved in the Fence project together, and with our colleagues, friends, and comrades (met and unmet) across presses and places who are on similar vibes and wavelengths.
SA: And bienvenido to the Fencie family.
Steven Alvarez is the author of The Codex Mojaodicus, winner of the Fence Modern Poets Prize. He has also authored the novels in verse The Pocho Codex and The Xicano Genome, both published by Editorial Paroxismo, and the chapbooks, Tonalamatl, El Segundo’s Dream Notes (Letter [r] Press), Un/documented, Kentucky (winner of the Rusty Toque Chapbook Prize), and Six Poems from the Codex Mojaodicus (winner of the Seven Kitchens Press Rane Arroyo Poetry Prize). His work has appeared in the Best Experimental Writing, Anomaly, Asymptote, Berkeley Poetry Review, Fence, Huizache, The Offing, and Waxwing. Follow Steven on Instagram @stevenpaulalvarez and Twitter @chastitellez.
Edgar Garcia is a poet and scholar of the hemispheric cultures of the Americas, primarily during the 20th century. He examines the fields of Indigenous and Latino studies, American literature, poetry and poetics, and environmental criticism. Winner of the 2018 Fence Modern Poets Series award, his collection of poems and anthropological essays on hemispheric migrations—Skins of Columbus: A Dream Ethnography—will be published by Fence Books in 2019. His book of scholarship on the contemporary life of the seemingly antiquated sign-systems of the Americas—Signs of the Americas: A Poetics of Pictographs, Hieroglyphs, and Khipu—is forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press in 2019. Garcia is Neubauer Family Assistant Professor in the Departments of English and Creative Writing at the University of Chicago.