Empire of Smoke

Our interviews editor Esteban Rodriguez talks with poet Alfredo Aguilar about capitalistic world building, climate catastrophe, poetic process, and his most recent collection, What Happens On Earth (BOAAT, 2018).

Your chapbook What Happens On Earth was the winner of the 2017 BOAAT Chapbook Prize, selected by Natalie Díaz. Can you tell us a little about your book and how you came to write it. 

The chapbook is comprised of a crown of sonnets bookended with two other sonnets. While the poems don’t strictly adhere to form, I found playing with the formality of the sonnet was a useful way to organize the poems as a sequence. The content of chapbook largely deals with the ways empire building and capitalism has and continues to ravage the world and the lives of its inhabitants, with an eye towards ecological consequences. I began to write the poems shortly after Donald Trump’s inauguration, somewhere in early 2017. I can definitely say that the poems were written in part as a response to the current political climate, but I also wanted the poems to take into account history. I wanted the poems to examine how the past has come to bear on the present, as the world that exists now hasn’t arisen out of nowhere. We have been building our way toward this moment in a myriad of ways, and many instances in the poems are moments that have actually occurred at some point in time, whether its towns with oil booms or the scarcity of water.   

There is also an acknowledgement of the consequences such institutions have had across generations. As section IV of “Broken Crown for Earth on the Eve of the Flood” so soberly puts it: 

the children are born to a world that is as hot
as it has ever been & having never seen
it any other way, believe it has always been
so. they cannot imagine a sky without gaping
punctures. they stand to inherit our empire
of smoke.

In what ways do you see poetry (or literature for that matter) as a vehicle against, as Natalie Diaz puts in her foreword to your book, “complacency and denial” in our current climate? 

I think that poetry and literature has the potential to bring into light what has been obfuscated. Whether what is being hidden is something personal we’d rather not talk about, or whether language dissects euphemisms that downplay the severity and horror of empire. However, both of these examples are a matter of language. You have to decide in wielding language if what you’re writing ultimately glosses over matters or if what you are writing engages with those matters critically and directly. I feel that in the case of the latter, language has an incredible power and can move people—we’ve all seen it. And it’s largely why in some parts of the world writers are some of the first folks to be rounded up and in some cases executed. I feel that speaking and writing in a direct and engaged manner has always been crucial, but I feel that its importance is heightened in our current climate. Despite how bleak the outlook for our world can at times seem, how can we not look and speak on what we see, in all its horror and joy? 

I think that poetry and literature has the potential to bring into light what has been obfuscated. Whether what is being hidden is something personal we’d rather not talk about, or whether language dissects euphemisms that downplay the severity and horror of empire.

Indeed. Despite the losses we endure, language remains, and we must use every last bit of it to capture the horrors and joys of the world. Other poems seem, because of their paradoxical nature, quite lighthearted given the purgatorial context of the collection. For example, in section XII, the speaker goes for a haircut even as the world is about to end. How do you use or approach humor in your writing? 

Humor is something that I feel I often have a hard time with in writing. I feel humor has a lot to do with timing and I don’t know if I’m particularly well suited for it. I think when I approach humor, which is rare in my writing, it tends to use a conversational kind of language to put a reader/listener at easy and hopefully position them in a place where laughter might happen. Or I tend to kind of point to the absurd, as in the poem you mentioned. Humor is important, but I’ve found it’s really hard. The people that write humor well have a lot of my respect.

Recently, your manuscript Recuerdo was the winner of the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize. Congratulations! Could you describe your manuscript and how the process of bringing your first book into the world has been thus far. 

Thank you! The manuscript is largely about my childhood in the 90’s as a kid of Mexican immigrants, growing up in San Diego County in the shadow of the U.S./Mexico border, and the tenderness and tension in my family.

The actual process of writing the book has been a little over four years, but I’m okay with taking my time. In fact, the people closest to me were telling me I had a book at a time when I wasn’t quite ready to admit that to myself. I’ve been very fortunate that other people continue to see something in the poems I’m writing that they believe is worth sharing and holding up. I’m forever grateful for that kindness. 

What are you currently working on (poems, projects, other writing)? 

I’m currently at work on a longer poem, but at this point it’s mostly just tinkering, as I feel the work itself has more or less kind of set. 

What is your routine? What environments are conducive to your writing? 

I moved to a different state earlier this year and have a new line of work, so I think I’m also currently working on establishing a routine and figuring out when I can make time to write.

However, my previous routine consisted of me being engaged (drafting, editing) with a piece of writing in the time after work for about a week and then moving on to something else when I felt I couldn’t take or tinker with the poem further. 

For me a quiet room with a sizable window is always conducive to writing. I tend to read with my mouth making out the words and in a quiet space I feel that I can really focus on the music in language, which has always felt important to me.

If you could describe your poetic journey in a few words, what would they be? 

I would describe my poetic journey as one that has comprised by the generosity of others. I feel very fortunate that folks have been supportive of my work, especially early on when I was just starting to write poems. I honestly feel that I would not have come to poetry in the way that I had, were it not for the talented and kind folks and friends around me. 

What’s your best advice to younger poets? What advice would you give your younger self? 

Other than the advice of reading widely, I would say to listen closely to music in language. Also to be aware of what is occupying your attention. I feel the world in my phone is constantly vying for my attention, so much so that I have often caught myself and wondered “Is this what I want to lend my attention to?”

My advice to my younger self would be to just be patient. Things take the time they take.

More from Alfredo Aguilar