Rodney Gomez won the RHINO Editors’ Prize for his poem Drag Racer, published in RHINO 2013, along with his poem Cornelio Smith. An Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize finalist and CantoMundo fellow, Rodney Gomez has held residencies at the Atlantic Center for the Arts and the Santa Fe Art Institute. His chapbook, “Mouth Filled with Night” won the Drinking Gourd Chapbook Poetry Prize from Northwestern University. I caught up with him in August 2014 about his writing, work life, and current obsessions.
~Valerie Wallace, Associate Editor
VW: One of the things I love about your poems in RHINO (Drag Racer and Cornelio Smith) is the restraint of the narrator, or maybe in another light, the very subtle presence of the narrator. The story in each poem is so much bigger than the speaker. Can you talk about this in these poems/your work?
RG: Well, I suppose that to some extent I wanted the narrators in these poems to be slaves to larger issues, larger concerns, which they tell you in graduate school is a really a horrible way to write poetry sometimes, but you go where the poem wants to take you, since the poem is a sort of horse. I tried to balance the universal with the particular, and there are some very quotidian concerns running through these poems too; they aren’t just about abstract political concerns.
The tendency towards abstraction is mitigated by the reality of the stories — in these cases, I am writing about what I know to be the reality of Border living, of living in the interstice between the United States and Mexico. In “Cornelio Smith” for example, the inspiration stems from a friend of mine who lives adjacent to the border wall–the wall is literally in her back yard. I was struck by the immediacy of that wall, of that political construct come to life and bothering her, and the allegory of Cornelio came from my contact with her story.
VW: What is your everyday relationship with writing?
RG: Time for writing can be infrequent and brief. I write in numerous journals I keep and in my phone and tablet. I write whenever I can–during a lunch break at work or in the car at a stoplight.
It’s been that way since I was a child. I remember writing riddles for friends during lunch and writing during boring class time. I seldom write in long stretches. But I get cranky and anxious when I don’t write for a few days.
RG: I have been working for most of this year on a book about loss. I’m approaching it from many levels, and I’ve collected many full-fledged poems, bits and pieces, scraps, drawings, and various odds and ends. I’ve written a few short stories too, and philosophical fragments (my formal education is in philosophy). This is the first time I’ve ever set out to create a book with a theme in mind. I’m not sure where it’s going yet.
VW: What kinds of loss? What led you to this project?
RG: The origin of my loss project is the death of my mother, who passed away on New Year’s Eve 2010. We were very close. She had suffered a stroke in 2008 that left her unable to speak, walk, or care for herself. My sisters and father and I took care of her at home until her passing. During the same time, I experienced several other kinds of difficulties–job loss, massive weight gain, divorce. There was a period there of several years that my mind sort of blurred the events of my life together into something like cotton, and it’s only in the past couple of years that I’ve been able to get out of it. As with many other poets who’ve tackled this kind of project, I’m trying to make sense of what happened. I’m also trying to memorialize. The project is in its infancy, so I don’t know where it will go.
Another big idea I’ve been wrestling with lately has been the refugee situation here in the lower Rio Grande Valley. Living in Brownsville, right along the Border in Texas, I’ve been an eyewitness to so many women and children who’ve come to the U.S. to escape the violence and poverty of their homes in Mexico and Central and South America. I’ve watched the warm reception we’ve given them locally and seen the vitriol directed at them from places like Murrieta. I’m also aware of the abuse they’ve suffered at the hands of coyotes, the Border Patrol, and others. (Just a few weeks ago, a mass grave of immigrants was discovered in Brooks County just north of here.) I’ve been writing, chronicling, responding.
VW: I’m so sorry to learn that your mother passed away. Thank you for sharing what you’ve been through.
For your Border in Texas project, how do you decide when to write a poem, and when to write a short story?
RG: Confession: I’ve never published a short story! I sent my first story recently to one market. I’m still very tentative about sending my fiction out for the world to see. I write narrative poems and prose poems and flash fiction, but I’m not too sure where the dividing line is between those different animals other than length. I suppose that if I can’t sustain the imagery or metaphor or language for a long period of time, the piece is closer to poetry than fiction. But poems can be very long. Or a whole series can spring up for a particular occasion. My stories don’t necessarily have plots, so that can’t be a divider. I guess I don’t know. This is a very difficult question.
VW: Does your creative writing contain influences from your philosophical training?
RG: I don’t think that my philosophical training informs my creative writing to any great extent. The kind of philosophy I studied was what used to be called, sometimes pejoratively, “analytic” philosophy, to contrast it from other kinds of philosophy. I don’t think anyone uses that term seriously anymore, but its salient features were a copious use of formal logic, a concern for language and its uses, a great interest in science and the scientific method, and an attempt at clear use of language without jargon in presenting work. This does not mean that I don’t write philosophically. Certainly I have work that could be called philosophical in nature. This means that the poetry appears (on its surface) to tackle what might otherwise be the province of philosophy — metaphysical questions, for instance. But this is all just an unintentional rouse triggered by old habits of presenting work.
Some years ago I used to think that my poetry was just another way of doing philosophy–that is, trying to understand things using the tool of language. Those “things” were the deep perplexities of life, those absurdly huge things like love and death. But poetry is really a very poor way of doing philosophy, and it’s a horrible way to try to arrive at meaning. At least by itself. It needs to be propped up by music or religious affirmation or something. My poems were just bad. They sounded horrible. There was no music in them. I was writing those epiphany or observation poems where the poem tries to resolve itself in some insight or new perspective. But that’s the thing with philosophy–by its nature, philosophy is trying to get at some kind of understanding. But a poem shouldn’t necessarily do that. A poem is its own gem.
RG: I think I remember how I first came upon RHINO: I discovered an issue at a bookstore somewhere — it might have been in Minnesota during a business trip–and I loved the work. I decided to submit when I had some poems I thought would fit naturally with the journal’s aesthetic. RHINO to me is about superb poems that have a wide appeal. The content is not arcane, and the work can be appreciated by an educated audience of non-poets. There’s no navel-gazing there.
VM: Please tell us what poetry events and poets have inspired you most recently. And, what do you do that is NOT poetry which feeds your creative life?
RG: Right now, I am inspired by all the great current work in Chican@ and Latin@ poetry in the U.S. I follow poets such as Eduardo Corral, Rigoberto Gonzalez, Sheryl Luna, and others. Locally, the Rio Grande Valley is experiencing an awakening, with new poets publishing books and new events showcasing their talents. Some of my favorite poets live and work here. My former professor and mentor, Emmy Perez, is working on a new collection and has been deeply influential in my own work. Jose Rodriguez (another RHINO poet) has published two outstanding collections. Edward Vidaurre, and Nayelly Barrios (who I hope will release a book soon) also live here. It is an exciting time to be engaged.
A few months ago I was a featured poet at the Valley International Poetry Festival which is a public poetry gathering of local and international poets, including several from Mexico. A few weeks ago I read at a release for my chapbook Mouth Filled with Night (Northwestern University Press, 2014) at South Texas College, which is a community college that has become a home to many different poetry-related events. Jose Haske, a wonderful poet in his own right and a very powerful fiction writer, has been key to this development. To have these activities take place in the Valley, an area with such low educational attainment and high levels of poverty, is a true sign of progress.
VW: I love this representation of the words: Chican@ and Latin@ . Can you say more about the usage of this symbol?