In Between the Valley and Elsewhere: an Interview with Rodney Gomez

If you grew up in the Rio Grande Valley, situated on the southernmost tip of the Texas-Mexico border, life was undoubtedly unique.  The heat was constant. Everyone’s mother or grandmother offered you food. And weekends were filled with trips to la pulga (the flea market) or barbecues that came together for no other reason than it being everyone’s day off. But the Rio Grande Valley, like any place, is a product of its history, and Rodney Gómez, with keen language and a lyrical awareness that pays homage to the land, people, and culture, captures not only what it means to be from the border, but the journey some must endure to arrive at a new life there. Gómez is the author of Citizens of the Mausoleum (2019), Ceremony of Sand (2019), the visual collection Geographic Tongue (2020), and Arsenal with Praise Song (2021), as well as several chapbooks. Gómez spoke to us about his poetry, the importance of history, and what it means to write during these mercurial times. 

EcoTheo Review: Your latest collection, Geographic Tongue (the newest addition to Pleiades Press’s Visual Poetry Series), renders poems in a collage of beautifully moving and haunting images. How did you come about composing visual poems? 

Rodney Gomez: Geographic Tongue stems from my love for visual, concrete, and graphic poetry. Those terms mean different things to different people, but I use them mostly interchangeably to refer to varieties of poetry that cannot be expressed except through some form of nonlinguistic imagery. Like many, I discovered Greek pattern poems, Herbert’s “Easter Wings” and Starbuck’s Christmas tree poem, among others, in graduate school. I really became wild about these kinds of works because they represented a wonderful kind of newness for me. And they also allowed me to realize the possibility of combining two of my passions. I have an abiding interest in the visual arts: I draw and also enjoy graphic design, and my MFA thesis focused on ekphrasis. So visual poetry came naturally out of the union of those interests. Realizing that there was a thing as visual poetry gave me a degree of freedom that I hadn’t had before in my writing. Many poems that hadn’t worked on the page seemed to work when I put them into some kind of visual form. (It’s the same when you discover that a poem you’ve been worrying over works better as a bop than a prose poem, for example.) Since graduating many years ago I’ve become more acquainted with recent interpretations of visual poetry and I continue to marvel at how poets use the form, so I’ve expanded my possibilities. And I continue to find the process of composing visual poems really exciting in ways that I just don’t find from black/white text.

ER: There are definitely many poems of yours that work well on the page, and early next year your collection Arsenal With Praise Song (Orison Books) will be released. Can you speak about how this book came to be? 

RG: Arsenal with Praise Song was originally going to be a book-length treatment of a small episode in Brownsville’s (Texas, my hometown) violent history. It began with a poem about the murder of the artist Alfredo Bustinza, whose work is mesmerizing but doesn’t get much attention in the Rio Grande Valley. I was drawn to him because he seemed so odd, so out of place as most great artists are. He was one of those people who exists in and of nepantla, as Gloria Anzaldúa would say—in between the Valley and elsewhere, between the art of his time and the art of an earlier era. Unlike Julian Schnabel, who was also from Brownsville, Bustinza grew up poor, unconnected, and Latinx. This probably contributed to his obscurity and, eventually, his death. Bustinza was stabbed outside a bar in downtown Brownsville in 2005. He was still relatively young (in his 40s). I wrote several poems about that occurrence and also about Bustinza’s art. But eventually my concerns turned away from Bustinza and more towards the idea of violence: how it becomes so commonplace it is not even noticed, how it is glamorized, how it becomes an inextricable part of the culture and the way people in that culture perceive the world and their place in it. I took on a more historical view with references to the many atrocities that are stitched into the Valley’s past. At the same time, the banality of violence, as represented in intimate relationships, is still a running concern in the book.

ER: Your poetry never falls short of examining the totality of its subject, whether it’s an event, a landscape, or even an object. I’m thinking of your poem “The Knife” (perhaps part of these initials poems that began the collection):  

What can you say about the knife that hasn’t already been said. It is the same knife today as it was yesterday. Even if the law decided to melt it down, it would still be a knife tomorrow. You can travel back through the history of the knife & discover the America-like violence of its birth, how it carved yokes into brown bodies & how it chose night as its uniform. The knife very quickly discovered skin, blood, & the poor. The knife is an instrument & so takes its identity from the purpose of the hand that uses it. 

As you mentioned above, Arsenal with Praise Song found its genesis in a historical event, one that although is largely forgotten is brought to the forefront with your work. How do you see the relationship between history and poetry? 

RG: The poems I wrote for the collection demanded that I tell an authentic history. Not the history I learned in my state-sanctioned history classes, ignoring things like La Matanza. The authentic history is not necessarily a retelling, however. I wrote as if I were experiencing history, not just hearing about it from far away. But my own context invariably got in the way.

History, my own history, and almost any history, is a long narrative about death, destruction, pain, suffering. It was very hard, as a poet, to confront these things. I wanted to talk about them but I was reminded constantly that as I talked I was I was limiting. It’s as if by pronouncing history it is made less mammoth. So that urge to universalize you mention is really an urge to get beyond myself and my limitations. It’s an impossible task, I know, but I think there’s value in the attempt. For me, the value was learning and also making connections to a world beyond myself even if, in attempting, I still remained an outsider.

ER: Can you speak more about how you approach presenting “death, destruction, pain, [and] suffering” in your poetry to readers?

RG: I find it difficult to talk about these things directly, as they are so present in the history of almost anyone who exists in the marginalized space of the Mexican-American underclass. Violence in various forms is endemic and inextricable. I learned from my father that when he was young, it was impossible to drink from the same water fountains in school as white students. An older friend once told me how he was continuously harassed by police growing up in the 1950’s and how  people of Mexican descent were routinely beaten in Harlingen. A local official once told me about the years of hospital visits and medical consultations several members of his family endured as a result of the chemicals a local company (owned by a powerful Anglo family) used in their agricultural products and then discarded into the land, escaping accountability. These stories are numerous.

As a poet the obligation to tell is an obligation to also use the poet’s tools to tell in the way that illuminates, acknowledges, confronts, and exposes what is being told, even distantly. At the same time because the subject can be heavy the task of empathy can itself be traumatizing, so it’s easy to search for some measure of removal. But that is also a form of inauthenticity. My role is to shepherd the truth into the world with the understanding that my own wisdom is meager and limited.

ER: How does your poetry seek to speak about society and how we have come to live?  

RG: Poetry that doesn’t have something to say about the way our sociocultural institutions are structured doesn’t really interest me. On the level of spectacle, a poem whose metaphysics is solipsistic, for instance, is pretty boring. On an aesthetic level, there is rarely anything new and interesting to say about something which the writer attempts to wholly divorce from its context. This is why I find a lot of the new poetry coming out today to be exciting. There are new narratives and new ways of looking at the world coming especially from underrepresented communities. It’s also why I find poetry of the last hundred years or so to be a terrible waste of time except as a way to become knowledgeable about context. And even then, the context is dispensable because of its contingent nature.

At the same time poetry is not solely cultural critique or sociology. I am interested not only in the things said but in the kind of music used to say them. The phenomenological content is precious but it’s the impression that also gives meaning.

ER: How do you see Arsenal with Praise Song and Geographic Tongue in relation to your previous two collections, Citizens of the Mausoleum and Ceremony of Sand?

RG: Well, one thing is that you can see an evolution. A handful of poems from Ceremony are over ten years old. The poems in Citizens were written right after my mother’s passing, which was on New Year’s Eve, 2010. I was less perspicacious as a poet then and I had different concerns. I hope that I’ve become more empathetic and also more politically engaged, so those qualities are reflected in Geographic Tongue and Arsenal.

I think as I’ve become a more adept poet, I’ve grown less concerned with crafting a good poem as opposed to crafting a good expression or making a commitment. These newest books I hope are having a conversation as opposed to performing a monologue. They are less solipsistic. They are more performative in their interaction with the world. They have tougher skins. They dance, but they also like to brawl.

ER: What future projects do you have planned? 

RG: It’s tough to answer a question about the future without reference to the past. I’m probably not alone in saying the pandemic year has slowed my writing. I published four full-length collections in the past four years, and three chapbooks in four years prior to that. I also wrote two additional full-lengths that I never published and I wrote another, a book of love poems, for my wife Sara on the occasion of our wedding in 2015. So, I’ve been busy.

But in 2020 I wrote only a handful of poems. I’ve mostly been working on a handbook of life lessons and slight wisdom for my daughter who turned one this year. And reading a lot of mostly fiction and graphic narrative. (Fiction has a way of comforting me that I cannot get from poetry.) I’m also in the second year of a doctoral program, so I’ve been focused on the dissertation literature review and writing research papers. Lastly, I’ve been battling illness for over a year and just recently had surgery. The pain has made it difficult to write.

Despite all of that, I know what the next book will be. I’m taking my time with it. By necessity, yes, but also because it’s going to be a large, complex book about what it means to have personhood in the complex of the city/civilization. It’s about capitalism and racism and precarity and poverty. I’m an urban planner and have a graduate degree in philosophy, so I’m tackling themes that stem from those disciplines.

ER: What advice do you have for young writers, and what advice would you give your younger self? 

RG: I would tell my younger self to get started earlier and focus more intently on writing. I have always been a writer and poet, but I used to write very sporadically and romanticized the life of the writer. I didn’t adequately gauge the amount of work it takes to successfully realize a project. I was in college when I published my first poem in Texas Observer and I published a few things here and there in local university publications, but it wasn’t until about fifteen years after completing college that I started to take my writing seriously enough to make it a daily routine. Thereafter, I started sending work out for publication more frequently. I wasn’t asleep during those post-college years—I was writing a poem every few weeks or so—but it was a much sleepier time than now when I am constantly writing and reading. During that time, I also went to law school, received a Master’s degree in philosophy, tried out a PhD program (also in philosophy), and worked full time. But I am busier now than I have ever been and still have time to write. So, it’s very possible to be busy in a non-poetry life and still realize the things you want to achieve as a poet. If you really love poetry then you have to show that love by carving out time to read and write it. There are no shortcuts.

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