John Sibley Williams: Place seems to be a defining element to all your work. How do you feel place shapes your writing? How does place shape your experience of the world?
José Angel Araguz: Place can be a way of making present people and politics that matter to me. My poetry always comes back to two formative places: Corpus Christi, Texas and Matamoros, Tamaulipas. Not only is my family’s story scattered across these two places, but some of the essential issues of our times play out on this border: immigration from a variety of countries (not just Mexico), narcotraffico, and the ensuing violence against women, children, and the poor. There is no memory that isn’t tinged with darkness, with threat and danger. Even in the life my mother worked hard to provide for me in Texas, poverty and fear created a backdrop that has made me approach other places I’ve lived in with clear eyes. So even in a poem where I reference the many rivers of my life – from the Rio Grande to the Hudson and Willamette – there is a darkness to the reverie that keeps me honest and, like a river, in motion.
JSW: Another crucial aspect of your work is culture. What are the challenges in writing about your cultural background in a way that resonates universally with all readers?
JAA: I tread carefully around the word “universal.” There’s so much instability to language that to count on a poem alone, the mere words on the page, to be universal, is to invite failure. When I say instability, I mean my own experiences reading my work to various audiences. Because I work primarily in English but move between it and Spanish regularly, I find I’m always second- guessing myself. Sometimes I look out and find myself translating Spanish mid-line, intuiting a need for it; other times, I let Spanish hang in the air. In the back of my mind, I hear criticisms of both moves. If in my writing I work hard to connect through stories and experiences of culture, this ambition is tempered by the fear of not connecting. What else to temper that fear but the poem itself? The vision that leads to the necessary language(s) is what keeps things together for me. But that just leads to words on a page. It’s my readers, ultimately, and their empathy, patience, and insight that do the work of making the connections. If there is any universality, it is in this precious, unstable transaction, not in the poem alone.
JSW: So many of your poems discuss loss, be it death or emotional absence or the vacuum of cultural identity. Is loss integral to your creative vision? How do you move from loss to that tender sense of hope your poems often provide?
JAA: Absence has always been a presence in my life. That’s such a poet thing to say, no? In all seriousness, this idea of loss in my work is an acknowledgement of absence, of lack and need. Whether through death, poverty, or the forge of cultural identity, there is lack and the space lack provides. One learns to be (self)resourceful in the face of it. For a poet, the parallel would be the blank page. There is absence, lack. And for the creative spirit, there is a need to answer that lack with presence. The death of my father, for example, is something I have very little concrete information about. So, along with his physical absence, there is the absence of narrative. The book of my life, then, has blank pages where his story would be. That keeps me busy, keeps me writing. And writing keeps me hopeful.
JSW: Many of the characters in your poems are presented amidst their suffering, and the poet’s commentary is warm and compassionate. What is the role of empathy in your approach to poetry?
JAA: Empathy is everything. Being able to step outside yourself and make room for the experience another person is going through, and to just listen, that’s the key. It’s too easy and too much a trap to offer up solutions, to try to make everything okay. Sometimes things aren’t okay. That’s the crucible we’re in; sometimes all one feels is the grinding of mortar and pestle. In poetry, this plays out with having to practice empathy for yourself and the poem. For yourself, as you work things out, an image or a narrative that may be hard to dig into, forgiving your writing self for early missteps in getting the poem out; empathy for the poem means allowing yourself to step outside original intent and neat or flashy endings and make the necessary revisions that the poem asks for, really listening to the vision not just the start but also as it develops beyond you. These two things I’ve described are empathy translated as tools toward creativity. Unpacking this idea further, empathy comes into play in a third way as I often write from a place of empathy, wanting to learn from whatever subject I’m writing about.
JSW: In discussing your poem “Gloves”, Ted Kooser says: One of the most effective means for conveying strong emotion is to invest some real object with one’s feelings, and then to let the object carry those feelings to the reader. How do you imbue everyday objects and experiences with greater meaning?
JAA: In this light, the idea of imbuing feels more practical than at first it seems. For me, it means noticing a thing, staying with it. Pay enough attention to something and it imbues right back. I’ve written haiku and related Japanese poetic forms for several years now, and one thing that I’m forever grateful for is how these forms force you as a writer to sit with daily life. The door latch I lock and relock each night; the rock set in place to keep the wooden gate from winging open; the sound of car keys right before you put them in your pocket – all these fleeting everyday objects and experiences go by unnoticed, or would go unnoticed if poets weren’t there open to transcribing them. I guess I’m describing less a “how to imbue” and more how imbuement happens for me as a poet. Again, attention; listening.
JSW: As you write in both structures, how do you choose between free verse and prose poetry? Do you start out with a structural intention or does the poem let you know how it wants to look on the page?
JAA: I’m a craft geek, for sure. In terms of where a poem starts, it’ll often start in my journal in whatever formal game I’ve decided on that week/month. These days, I’m fond of working in counted verse, writing three or four words a line. While my brain is focused on word count, the creative side is allowed free reign. I do this initial writing by hand, fill up a journal, then leave that journal alone for a year or two. Then I revise out of those journals having forgotten what I’ve written. This forgetting is essential as it opens me up to revising. It is in this revising process, from handwritten to typed, that a poem comes more into its own character and form. Sometimes a poem will move between lineation and prose several times, getting revised at each turn. Where it feels natural, inevitable, that’s the final draft and shape. There are times where a poem’s shape is teaching me something. A recent poem had me wrangling with stanzas whose mix of long and short lines had me confused until it made sense. So, it’s a mix of intuition and sensed purposefulness.
JSW: When and how did you discover poetry and what has it come to mean to you?
JAA: There’s no one formative moment. I often recount how in second grade someone taught me the 5-7-5 haiku form and got me going writing haiku about ninja turtles, vampires, Greek gods, and ghosts. Later, I was in a variety of bands in middle and high school and wrote what I thought were song lyrics that failed to rhyme. Where things got serious was when I typed up a poem and printed it. This was senior year of high school. I did not have a computer at home, so the opportunity to print a poem out was rare. Looking at it printed was something special. From there, I was introduced to open mics and poetry slams. Performance remains a big factor in what I do both on and off the page. How can a poem connect? What needs to be repurposed, reimagined, redefined to connect? These are questions that still drive me. What has poetry come to mean to me? The themes of my answer speak to this: empathy, connection, hope. The instability of awkward human utterance and the human capacity to listen.