An Interview with Rigoberto González, a 2017 Massachusetts Poetry Festival Headliner
by heather hughes | March 2017
Rigoberto González is Professor of English at Rutgers University-Newark and the author of more that fifteen books across genres, including the poetry collections So Often the Pitcher Goes to Water until It Breaks, Other Fugitives and Other Strangers, Black Blossoms, and Unpeopled Eden. His dedication to literary service, advocacy, and activism includes his incredible body of reviews and critical writing featured in the National Book Critics Circle blog Critical Mass, Poets & Writers, and the Los Angeles Times, among other venues; his curation of the reading series The Quetzal Quill; his work as a founding member of the Advisory Circle of Con Tinta: Chicano/Latino Writers’ Collective; his presence on the Board of Trustees for AWP; and much more.
HH: Thank you for taking time out to answer some questions for us. You’ve written recently for the Los Angeles Times about the power of books and reading, including some of the ways that literacy circumscribed choices for your family members and created opportunities for you. To bring this around to poetry, I see your work as consistently inviting readers to participate in and experience many identities — through questions raised but not expressly answered (as in Other Fugitives and Other Strangers); or through an array of speakers with vastly different interior lives from long-time intimate partners to gay club-goers to widows to circus-runaways and more; or through elisions and fragmentations in narrative that invite speculation and urge the reader to fill in the gaps (in both Black Blossoms and Unpeopled Eden), to name just a couple of brief examples. As the urgency of the political climate continues to ramp up in the US, exposing to harsher light more and more of the inherent power dynamics behind systems like education, have there been any shifts in the way you see the relationship between reader and writer, or between reader and poetry, either in the general culture or for yourself?
RG: Interestingly enough, I have found myself trying to convince so many around me (my students and members of my writing tribe) that writing still matters because it always has and always will. That truth is sometimes difficult to assert when someone seemingly larger than us, than our collective imaginations, looms threateningly over us, interrupting our concentration with noise that causes headaches. One of my students asked me, “Should I quit the MFA program and become an immigration lawyer?” And I had to remind her that immigration lawyers aren’t disappearing; what we need is more people that can sustain us through the hard times—that can sift through the rubble to tell us what in the world is going on. I don’t want those people to disappear! We can’t have too many thinkers or artists that can help translate, communicate and express what this chaos means and how we can understand it. I’m a big fan of Twitter, and two of the statements that I’ve made recently that resonate with this question: 1. “For those who don't know how to process alienation, dislocation, oppression, marginalization, etc.—read our fucking books.” 2. “Writers keep asking if writing matters anymore. As I console my aching heart with books, important to remember this is how readers cope.” In short, the relationship isn’t more special than it was before this new presidency, but it should become more visible—underscored as an important tool that can help orient us during these troubling times—because it’s become too easy to slip into helplessness, hopelessness, and surrender.
HH: Your writing resists binary systems of thought, insists on layers and complexities and multiplicities. In Black Blossoms, for instance, some poems are explicitly located in places like New York City or Los Angeles, but others from the same book, like “The Girl With No Hands,” seem to belong both to this world and yet not. And in your most recent poetry collection, Unpeopled Eden, there’s a dialogue with the dead throughout, which effectively brings those beings to imaginative ghost-life. When writing poetry, do you have a conscious desire to inhabit not just terrestrial and fantastical places, not just presences and absences, but the in-betweens as well? How do those in-betweens influence your language and formal poetic choices?
RG: Binaries are limiting. The either/or extremes do not fit into my sensibilities as an artist who’s interested in the complexity of identities and the multiple spaces those identities inhabit. I am more interested in connection than in collision, inclusion over exclusion, contradiction above conformity of expectation. As such, when I search for the stories I don’t limit myself to the real—I allow myself to explore the dream world, mythologies, and the terrain of ghosts, which to me are extensions of reality. And once I have permission to write about those alternate spaces, I claim the freedom to make leaps with image, logic and language. I’m trying to remember how I allowed myself to walk this path toward creativity and I have to credit my Catholic upbringing and my early exposure to the Days of the Dead in Mexico with their magic and miracles, but also such writers as Juan Rulfo, whose book Pedro Páramo was a big influence when I was writing Unpeopled Eden, and the dark lyrics of Federico García Lorca, whose extraordinary similes and metaphors set a very high standard for me. For Rulfo, for García Lorca and for Catholicism and the Days of the Dead, a secular holiday, life is one long conversation with death, the living comingle with the dead at every turn. Once I transcended the fear and anxiety of listening to the dead, there was much to pay attention to and much to learn. I was asked once why I kept writing about death? I replied that it was because all of my questions haven’t been answered yet.
HH: I’m excited for your forthcoming nonfiction collection of critical works, Pivotal Voices, Era of Transition: Toward a 21st Century Poetics, which sounds like it couldn’t be more timely. Could you say a little about what’s in the collection and how it came together, how you made selections? What transitions and voices have become central to your poetics, and how does that seep onto the page?
RG: When I started reviewing books and giving lectures on poetry, I decided that I would try very hard to write about young writers. It was so unfair to see how much space was taken up in literary discussions about established writers and how little critical attention was being paid to the up-and-coming voices who were doing incredible work on the page. I had access to a number of newspaper and online venues, so I decided that that was going to be my contribution: to examine closely what these young poets were all about and why their visions mattered. I came to understand that there was a turning point taking place in American poetry: some of these writers were quickly becoming stars in the field. They were selling more books, drawing huge audiences, they were quite popular on social media, etc. But very little was being said about why their work resonated and how it fit into the larger portrait of American literature. I wrote about Natalie Diaz, Eduardo C. Corral, Danez Smith, Ada Limón, Ocean Vuong, and the current Poet Laureate of the U.S. Juan Felipe Herrera. I see in them kindred spirits, fellow word warriors who are navigating a complex political identity, who are very much invested in not only the craft of poetry, but the substance of poetry—an energy of thought and language that speaks from the center of a number of marginalized communities. I gathered these into one volume and hoped that the perfect place for them was the Poets on Poetry series with the University of Michigan Press, who were thrilled with the perspective of the book, and I was elated to be part of a series that is still teaching me so much about poetry.
HH: With fifteen+ books across genres spreading your words into the world, it’s impossible to fathom that you might not have several projects going. What’s coming up that we can look forward to?
RG: Besides the critical book you mentioned above, I have another memoir forthcoming in spring of 2018 and my fifth book of poetry forthcoming in 2019. But as I work to revise or complete those manuscripts, I have a couple of pet projects. The first is another YA novel with a gender-noncomforming Latinx character. I have been trying to write this book for about 5 years and had many false starts, and then suddenly I broke through the setback. But then another character entered the narrative and I had to rethink the whole project again. This is part of the joy of being a writer—scrapping the house and rebuilding it from the bottom all over again. The second project is a nonfiction book about my grandmother. Abuela María was a Purépecha, an indigenous community from Michoacán, our home state in Mexico. She was my guardian during my troubled adolescence and I have been waiting for the right time to write about her. It’s now been 5 years since her death, so I think I’m ready, and I am eager to jump into this project once I turn in my book of poems this summer.
HH: What have you read recently, or what might be in your to-read stack, that you’re particularly excited about?
RG: My to-read stack is outrageous. I just got back from AWP in DC and I brought back about 30 books of poetry. I wish I could name them all here but the ones I’m excited to devour are Andrés Montoya’s The Jury of Trees, Rajiv Mohabir’s The Cowherd’s Son, Charif Shanahan’s Into Each Other We Enter Without Knowing, Tommy Pico’s IRL, Mai Der Vang’s Afterland, Chen Chen’s When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities. At home I have bookmarks at various points in the reading journey of Moshin Hamid’s novel Exit West, Ottessa Moshfegh’s story collection Homesick for Another World, Robert Lowell’s New and Selected Poems edited by Katie Peterson, The Songs We Know Best: John Ashbery’s Early Life, a biography by Karin Hoffman, and the latest book of essays about poetry by Lawrence Raab, Why Don’t We Say What We Mean? Going back to the first question: if I didn’t have all these amazing people within reach, how could I imagine my place in this country, let alone this world?
heather hughes is a contributing writer for Mass Poetry who hangs her heart in Somerville and Miami. Poems recently appear or are forthcoming in The Adroit Journal, Denver Quarterly, Gulf Coast, Queen Mob's Tea House, and Vinyl Poetry, among other journals. She MLA-ed in foreign literature at Harvard University Extension and MFA-ed at Lesley University. Her other adventures include working in academic publishing and creating letterpress prints. She never outgrew her science fiction & fantasy obsession. Find her online at birdmaddgirl.com.