Poet Roy Guzmán talks Letras Latinas and forthcoming project with Carolina Marques de Mesquita
Roy Guzmán, a queer Honduran-born poet, visited Arizona State University as a Letras Latinas Scholar during the Desert Nights, Rising Stars (DNRS) conference in March 2018, where they agreed to discuss their 2016 chapbook Restored Mural for Orlando, and their forthcoming project with Graywolf Press as well as Letras Latinas (LL).
Our intern, Carolina Marques de Mesquita, met Roy at a DNRS luncheon honoring Letras Latinas, which is based out of the University of Notre Dame and supports the work of emerging Latinx poets and writers.
Authors affiliated with Letras Latinas explore the complex and multifaceted nature of the Latinx experience through poetry, journalism, and essays. Above all, Letras Latinas generates community and solidarity among Latinx writers and readers. The LL blog features interviews with Latinx authors and reviews of Latinx literature. It frequently explores issues of immigration, borders, identity, and language, and celebrates the literary and artistic contributions of the Latinx community.
Roy also discusses the challenges of invoking intersectionality in their work, how they transition between the worlds of literature and academia, and the significance of employing Spanglish in their poetry.
Carolina Marques de Mesquita (CM): To begin, could you give some background on what Letras Latinas is, what their mission is, and how they’ve supported your work?
Roy Guzmán (RG): Letras Latinas is an initiative that comes out of University of Notre Dame. It’s been spearheaded by Francisco Aragón, and he is a Nicaraguan-American poet who has done a lot of work for fellow writers of color, specifically Latinx poets, Latinx writers. Back in 2016, he chose me in Minnesota, two students at Notre Dame, and then there were about 4 students here [at Arizona State University], people who were basically in the middle of their creative writing MFA program, to essentially talk about cultural issues and what it’s like to navigate these very white spaces with our stories. In 2016 I was here for this conference [Desert Nights, Rising Stars], and I got to meet many different writers and also from Notre Dame, and those connections have continued on. I speak to a couple of them consistently. I was invited to come this year with Emma Trelles as part of the Letras Latinas Scholars; we’re basically the first Scholars under this new initiative.
CM: It’s interesting that you talk about how this initiative brings together writers who are talking about navigating these white spaces. A lot of your work deals with what it’s like to be not only Latinx, but also queer, and I’m wondering if you’ve found in your own life or in your writing that one of these identities, depending on the context, becomes more salient than the other. How do you navigate that in your work or in your life?
RG: Absolutely. I think that’s a great question. As someone who identifies as queer, Latinx, from a very poor background, [from] Miami, immigrant, from Honduras, bilingual, there’s all these different identities that I constantly—I don’t think I let them reconcile as much as I let them exist at the same time, and that’s something that I talk about with some writers, about [those] intersections—especially when you get published in a queer-specific journal, for instance, how do you, at the same time that you’re essentially claiming this queer identity, how do you also remind people that that identity is intersecting with brownness? It’s intersecting with bilingualness. That’s something that unfortunately in the U.S. does not get to exist simultaneously. Either people want you to wave the immigrant flag and that’s it, or wave the student flag, or wave the poet flag, and a lot of institutions prevent people from having all these different identities coexist. And for me it’s like, because I exist, I exist already within all these different identities.
CM: About a year and a half ago you published the chapbook Restored Mural for Orlando, and it seems like that work really attempted to synthesize these experiences into one as opposed to making [the Pulse shooting] an LGBT issue or a Latinx issue. What prompted you to take on this work, and why was it important to you?
RG: So this was right after the Pulse massacre, and there’s two friends I have who were directly affected by this shooting— they had two friends die at the club. And I think for me, at the very beginning, I was just in shock. Coming from South Florida, Orlando was such a magical place for many of us. So, the very beginning, of course I’m in shock. I’m in disbelief, and then what was happening was that I was noticing that a lot of white writers, cis writers, were publishing their poems reacting to the massacre and I wasn’t seeing anything by brown folks. And I’m like, “this is ridiculous.” Why is it that white people get to talk about a tragedy that really . . . is not targeting them? Just because you’re queer, that doesn’t mean you have to come into that space to try and put up a fire; you have to make room for other people first, if that’s not your community. I went through all these different phases, and I got to a point where I was angry. I was angry that brown voices, black voices were not being lifted. So I ended up writing this poem. I didn’t think I was going to write a poem. In the beginning my first reaction was, “Roy, you’re not going to write anything about this, because you need to take care of yourself, you need to take care of your people.” And then, the more angry I got, the more I started writing.
I put this chapbook together with one of my best friends, D. Allen. I graduated with them from the same program, the creative writing program in Minnesota, and we got a translator, Marco Antonio Huerta, who came from California, and then we just sort of got together, put this together, and I think we raised over 2000 dollars putting this together. We got some donations for the printing of the chapbook, and D. Allen is a bookmaker by training and by degree.
Natalie Diaz was talking about this last night—I don’t know if you went to her speech last night—but she was talking about how anger is so important, and I think it was very much sort of what triggered a lot of this work. When I was writing the Orlando poem, I was thinking “What’s gonna be my angle coming into this material?” It can’t just be me coming in there and saying, this is just in honor of the victims. I have to be very clear about what my positionality is in this material. So as I started reflecting, I was thinking about the times that I’d been there, how my family’s connected to that, how I grew up in the club scene as a very young person in South Florida, so a lot of these intersections came together. The fact that I was in Minnesota when this happened was also very disorienting, and the weekend prior to the tragedy, I had gone to a gay club for the first time in a while. I needed to write this as a way to contend with not just the tragedy, but what this meant for me and the people around me and how we move forward.
CM: Has your response to any of the discourses surrounding this event—gun violence, or anti-LGBT, anti-immigrant, anti-brown violence—changed since the publication of this chapbook?
RG: Well, I think that’s a very good question in that I think after the chapbook went out I was reminded that I needed to get this PhD, that the PhD was something I needed in order to not just talk about these issues from a creative sense, but also be informed about coalitions, about what solidarity looks like, about intersectional violence, and what that looks like too. So it changed the way I operate.
That summer, in 2016, I was on a fellowship dealing with migrant farm workers, so I was already working with these issues affecting different communities who are very vulnerable, whose rights are constantly being challenged, so a lot of that was working at the same time.
There’s this series called Queerodactyl, that’s in my book, and some of those poems begin at the beginning of that year, 2016, so, I think there was this concoction of different materials and different issues that I needed to kind of study, think about, elaborate upon.
But it has changed, and I think that it’s really interesting. Even though I wrote that poem after the Orlando tragedy, and I’ve given several interviews about the making of the chapbook, the results of the chapbook, when it comes to this gun violence, I notice that not a lot of people bring up my poem. I often think that it’s because, you know, why bring up my poem, when so many white writers have written about some gun violence, and so those are the poems that get shared, that get publicity, even though my poem very much deals with that kind of violence. What does it mean for someone to come into a space and just completely dismantle the safety of that space, if there was even any safety to begin with?
Everything is political, so I navigate these tensions, and I know why and when and where the Orlando poem gets shared, and in [the midst of] this sort of gun violence, I’m surprised that no one has talked about this poem.
CM: You make several references to pop culture icons in “Queerodactyl.” You mention Farah Fawcett, Jane Fonda, I think I spotted a Pokémon reference, and Selena. I was really interested in what significance these references have for the message you were trying to communicate in that series.
RG: I think that there’s an element of campiness to these poems. There’s an element of, a celebration of, feminism, a celebration of femininity, definitely a celebration of challenging [the] patriarchy. And I think that, especially with something like Pokémon, there’s so many queer writers and queer people who grew up with Pokémon. Selena is such a queer icon, [as are] Farah Fawcett and Jane Fonda. A lot of the work in that series deals with things like that. There’s a lot of vogueing that happens in the poems; there’s references to highbrow and lowbrow culture. And I think that that’s very much emblematic of who I am, that I love switching gears all the time.
Let’s talk about philosophy; let’s also talk about Lil’ Kim; and let’s talk about 80s pop music. I love all of those things. My boyfriend recently had his 30th birthday, and it was a Real Housewives-themed birthday. I helped him organize it, and it was really interesting, because a lot of what we were looking at and what we were thinking about when we were putting this party together was not celebrating posh culture or celebrating wealth, it was basically looking at how when you think about queerness, and when you think about belonging, so many of us grew up with TV culture, with radio culture. So these models and magazines, like Vogue, these are people that we aspire to look like and be like.
CM: I found that your poems were so accessible because, for example, these pop culture references made the more abstract things that you were trying to communicate more real.
RG: Yeah, and that’s what I am looking for – I’m looking for connection, I’m looking for, even like, even just ephemeral communities. Mary Jo Bang, an amazing poet, she did a translation of Dante’s Inferno, and in it she takes all of these figures that were contemporaries to Dante, and she switches them and replaces them with Cartman from South Park and all of these different characters that are now in hell. I love that because I think that knowledge—in order for knowledge to continue to exist and have a heartbeat, it needs to also respond to current times, whatever that means.
CM: Your degree is in cultural studies. How do you transition between the world of academia and the world of literature? You talked a bit about how these issues are always political, but I’m wondering how you navigate two fields with very different expectations on how to respond to those politics.
RG: I think one of the things that has been very clear for me is knowing that different disciplines operate with different languages. I think you’re absolutely right that it can be jarring, going from one space to the other. I did my undergrad in comparative literature and I have an MA in comparative literature. So this program is in cultural studies and comparative literature but my emphasis, my focus, is on cultural studies.
What compelled me to go to this PhD is that it’s very much interdisciplinary. The way that the program defines itself is that it could be—not just interdisciplinary, but it could be anti-discipline, so it does challenge what we think of as genre or discipline. I have found very, very good people, one of the people that I’m working with is very knowledgeable in poetry and Marx[ist] thinking—so that has been very useful to me in terms of thinking about Marx, thinking about resistance, thinking about creating new visions, new temporalities, thinking about [for instance] if we are to think about sustainability, what that looks like for different communities.
This program at University of Minnesota has given me a lot to think about so far. It’s my first year, but the program is very much something like American studies. I’ve already taken classes in women, gender, and sexuality; Chicanx/Latinx studies—. All these programs and disciplines that are very interdisciplinary, to me, speak not only on a creative level but definitely in an academic sense.
CM: Can you tell me about your book, a collection of poems forthcoming from Graywolf Press? Can you tell me what your goals were with this book, and maybe what you hope readers will take away from it?
RG: I’m still in disbelief that this is happening. It’s coming out at the very beginning of 2020, and Graywolf is based out of Minneapolis, so I feel very lucky that I’m working with a local press who has basically been putting out some of the most forward-thinking texts [such as those] from Claudia Rankine, or Maggie Nelson. I feel very blessed in that sense.
The collection itself is definitely looking at my Honduran identiy vis-à-vis migration. There’s a poem in the book that was published in Superstition Review here at ASU, and I think that that’s one of those poems that very much speaks to a lot of what happens in the collection. [It’s] very personal, dealing with public issues. There’s the threat of the Queerodactyl, these poems that pop out of different places—. Even what’s happening in that series, there’s a lot of mobility and flux happening in them. A lot of the poems are very personal, they’re experimenting with different forms. There’s a couple of persona poems. There’s some long poems that I’m very excited to have a wider audience look at, because they definitely take political language, and repurpose that language. Looking at immigration is a huge thing in the book.
The first year before this book comes out, there’s definitely gonna be a lot of revision, thinking about structure, thinking about how to let some more air into the manuscript, and then the second year is going to be more production, thinking about the cover, thinking about touring, things of that nature. And I think I have found an amazing, supportive team at Graywolf. They really care about what they publish, and they really build intimate relations with their writers, so I’m excited about that.
CM: Do you think that this work responds to contemporary cultural and political discourses in the same way as Restored Mural for Orlando? Or do you think there’s more distance between you and these issues in your next project?
RG: There’s definitely a lot of poems that have a direct response to the political fiasco that we find ourselves in. I don’t mention this president’s name at all. I refuse to name him, and I don’t think his name appears anywhere in the book. But there’s George W. Bush, who makes a cameo in the book, and I end up contending with a lot of his State of the Union speeches and how those speeches essentially fabricated this notion of “danger” and terrorism around immigration and immigrants and refugees; I contend with that. There’s some poems that deal with rape culture, some of them directly, [others] indirectly. There’s a long poem that deals with sex crimes in the Catholic church as well. Border issues are things that I contend with. Hurricane Mitch, which devastated Honduras, is a figure and metaphor in the book.
CM: It’s interesting, because it still feels very current, but you’re dealing with a lot of things that happened 10, 20, years ago. In that way it’s historical, but still very contemporary.
RG: Yeah, there’s a lot of research that I ended up doing. Even in the Queerodactyl poems, they use a lot of science, and I’ve had to learn terms, figure out how to deploy those terms in the manuscript. [There’s] political language and artistic language. [Also] a lot of giving myself the freedom to also incorporate Spanish or incorporate Spanglish in a way that I don’t need to translate it for other people. I’ve had very good mentors who have stood by me and said “You don’t have to do the translation for a monolingual audience. You can do whatever you want.” That’s been very good. I’m interested to see—because I think with Graywolf that’s been something that’s excited them as well—I’m interested to see what that leads to by the end of this year of revision.
Roy Guzmán is currently pursuing a PhD in Cultural Studies at the University of Minnesota, and holds additional degrees from the University of Minnesota, Dartmouth College, the University of Chicago, and Miami Dade College. Roy’s work has received three Pushcart Prize nominations, five Best of the Net nominations, and has been included in the Best New Poets 2017 anthology. In 2016, Roy developed the chapbook Restored Mural for Orlando in collaboration with poet and artist D. Allen and translator Marco Antonio Huerta. The poem responds to the Pulse massacre in Orlando, and can be ordered here. Roy’s first collection of poetry will be published by Graywolf Press in 2020. Read more about Roy’s work here.
Carolina Marques de Mesquita is an intern with Hayden’s Ferry Review. She is currently pursuing dual bachelor’s degrees in political science and English literature through Barrett, the Honors College at ASU.