I first met Ruben Quesada at Writer’s Week in 2011 during my fourth year as a creative-writing undergrad at the University of California, Riverside. Christopher Buckley assigned Ruben’s first poetry collection in an intermediate poetry workshop. When I met Ruben, he signed my book and I told him that his book helped me write new poems in an imaginative way. Next Extinct Mammal captivated me for many reasons, but most starkly for the voice and unique storytelling. Ruben’s work stuck with me long after reading it. The stories in these poems focus on the mundane, like an abuela making tamales reminiscent of distant Costa Rica: “You’ve become a wrinkle
/ in the distance—a perpendicular fleck
/ in the aperture of my visual axis
/ whose surface tension you and I acknowledge / with a blurred print of our hands.”
Four years have passed and I am now a second-year MFA student at the University of New Mexico. Ruben’s poetry collection was one of the first things I packed when I moved here, and Next Extinct Mammal continues to be an important voice that I return to year after year. His book brings forth not just answers, but also questions about how we see ourselves within the world, within our communities, and inside ourselves. Next Extinct Mammal slows down time, allowing your imagination to absorb strange images through the use of simple language and a keen understanding of what it means to share a story.
I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to talk with Ruben for this interview and to learn more about his poetics and his work as an editor.
Blue Mesa Review: I understand you’re working on an anthology, Latino Poetics: Essays on the Art of Poetry, to be published by the University of New Mexico Press. Latino Poetics will be a compilation of writing that gives light to a whole new generation of Latino poets. What do you envision Latino Poetics contributing to the sense of Latino identity, and to your identity in particular?
Ruben Quesada: A lot of my work as an editor is to create space for divergent perspectives and to create space for different cultures, experiences, classes, races, and ethnicities. When I thought about this Latino Poetics anthology, I thought about who has the cultural experiences that need to be given a space to be heard. For example, you have ties to Central America via your parents and most likely have a richer understanding of the stories of those regions and so would be able to tell more about that region to capture experiences. In my understanding of my identity, I’ve found it difficult to see myself within the Latino community because my family is from Costa Rica and there aren’t a lot of Costa Ricans in the U.S. So in some ways I feel like I’m filling a need.
BMR: Do you think that the anthology will bring awareness to voices that are not often heard within the Latino community?
RQ: I certainly want the anthology to examine the idea of composition, the composition of poetry from different Latinos. I want the different Latino voices to explain how they bring their own cultural identity and understanding of who they are as Latinos to the American space. For example, one contributor—Jen—was surprised that I reached out to her. She told me that she is always excluded from Latino poetry because people don’t consider her Latina. She has a mixed background and was thankful to be included because in some ways it validates her experience as a Latino.
In the U.S. there is a grand narrative of what Latinos are like, but it’s a stereotype. So by having a collection of Latino perspectives and poems, we are going to see a spectrum of Latino experiences in America: what it means to be Latino and to be a poet. It is going to allow others to see that there is no singular Latino voice.
BMR: Have you ever felt like you had to validate your identity or identities in any way through poetry?
RQ: The last few poems in Next Extinct Mammal started exploring that side of me that I now identify as queer. Back then I was a poor Latino kid in Los Angeles and spoke Spanish in private spaces. In public spaces I’d speak English. What does it mean to be American? I am stuck in this middle space. I didn’t know much about my Costa Rican culture. I also have an American culture that I experienced through classmates and from media. My own family couldn’t teach me about American culture because they lived most of their lives in Costa Rica.
BMR: How does your identity as queer and Latino influence your teaching in the Midwest?
RQ: A university is a place of privilege. Others may not see it that way because, unlike myself, they may have come from privilege and had easy access to education, while I have worked hard to be a part of this space. You know, they see it as just going to school. I try to not be hasty because I don’t agree with many things that are happening around me in academia, but I don’t want to be the angry Latino, to be that stereotype. I try to challenge what the queer Latino man is supposed to be by defining my identity visually and defying what the Latino gay man should be like based on popular culture. All some people may see is what the Latino gay man should be like, and then they see me and don’t see a connection.
BMR: With regard to Latino poets and LGBTQ poets, what suggestions and advice do you have for MFA students who may identify as any or all of the above?
RQ: Use the time as an MFA or PhD student in creative writing to find out who you are, who you want to be, and to embrace and challenge it. I’m reminded of early writing courses I took as an undergraduate that taught me about the tradition of poetry and its many forms, and also ways in which to challenge and resist those traditions and forms. A graduate program should allow you the time and space to challenge and embrace who you are. Your community should embrace and celebrate difference. Be kind to each other outside of the classroom. Challenge each other in the classroom, because at the end of the day, the writing community is richly diverse and there are readers for everyone. Once you’re out of a program you’ll learn that we’re all part of the same family.
BMR: Do you feel that you have come a long way from when you wrote Next Extinct Mammal based on your identity as a queer Latino poet and your experience living in Southern California?
RQ: I have always been afraid of being really open about my identity as a queer Latino. Especially now, here in the Midwest, I realize that people may not like me if I am open about being a queer Latino poet. If they are going to like me, they are going to take me for who I am, and so I have realized that I just have to be happy, and that realization has come with age.
BMR: I know you have translated some of Luis Cernuda’s poetry. How did that project start?
RQ: He was a poet I discovered during my MFA. It was always Buckley asking me a lot of questions. He was prying: how is your Spanish? Do you ever use your Spanish?
He introduced me to Vicente Aleixandre and Gabriela Mistral. We also talked about la Generación del 27 because everyone knows Lorca. Lorca wrote well in both prose and poetry. He is also known because he was killed by Franco. So Buckley asked me if I was familiar with Cernuda and I thought I misheard… do you mean Neruda? When I mention Cernuda to others now, they think I mean Neruda. Buckley shared some poems with me and gave me some titles to look at and said, “This poet hasn’t been translated very much.”
Even today, there is one prominent translator: Stephen Kessler. He’s even won some major translation prizes for his translation of Cernuda. Kessler, as I learned in 2009 when I met him, isn’t a native Spanish speaker. Yes, he wins these huge translation prizes and is not a native Spanish speaker. Christopher Buckley said, why don’t you pick some poems and we’ll work on some translations? So it’s an exercise in translation, but it is also to hang onto this native language that I have. The only time that I get to use it is when I talk to my mother.
BMR: Why are you interested in Cernuda?
RQ: One thing that I find appealing about Cernuda is that he was openly gay. We know that Lorca was, but I think for a long time there was speculation that he wasn’t. When I think about Lorca and Cernuda, I think about the dynamic of being out and not out. With Lorca and Cernuda, I think a lot about contemporary gay poets like Paul Monette, a gay poet in the ’80s and an AIDS activist. I think about Thom Gunn and Mark Doty. Paul Monette won the National Book Award for a memoir that he wrote in the early ’90s. He has this great collection of poetry called Love Alone: Eighteen Elegies for Rog, all about his partner who died from AIDS, that was published in 1988. Those writers got very little attention, just like Cernuda; it was because he was so forthcoming about being openly gay.
BMR: In light of your translation work with Cernuda’s poetry and your work to give voice to his identity, do you also see the Latino Poetics anthology as a tool to preserve the intersectionality of Latinidad?
RQ: While I was thinking about this anthology, I was having a conversation about Latinidad with someone. I thought about what makes the anthology unique and attractive, and frankly I think UNM Press was attracted to the contributors. They come from a broad swath of Latinos or Latin Americans who identify as Latino/Latina poets. I think that this is a really good distinction to make: what is a Latino? What does being Latino mean in the context of Latin America? Then also, how does being Latino fit into the context of identifying as Chicano? And what does it mean to only identify as Chicano?
With these questions in mind, I think about ideology and the dominant ideologies: who are the dominant groups of people in our culture? How does their dominance construct what an identity is? In thinking about the dominant group of Latinos, one of the dominant groups in America is the Chicano population. I think the experiences that we have as Latinos will vary even if we identify as Chicano. Even if we identify as Chicano or Latino, I think what matters is that we acknowledge that we connect through similar experiences for the sake of creating strength and unity. This can be a way that we can come together. In the realm of Latinidad, if we stop marginalizing our own people, if excluding and/or feeling like a minority group is being erased, then we will open more spaces for other communities to be heard.
For example, growing up I felt that my culture was being erased. We don’t want to make someone feel like his or her identity is being erased. I use the word “erase” or “erasure” because I felt my culture was being erased when I was growing up. It’s a culture I am very proud of and I don’t want to lose that. The only things that I know about that culture I learned from my mother, who raised me, and if that gets lost, that’s my only ephemeral connection to Costa Rica.
BMR: I feel that growing up identifying as Central American and working now as a poet to give voice to the experiences and histories of my parents is a big responsibility, so I understand what you mean. At the same time, I think that my experience as the first generation in this country is different not just from my parents’ experience, but also from that of other Latino poets.
RQ: I then think about Latino organizations that exist in the American literary canon (which is so fractured): Con Tinta, CantoMundo—one is Chicano, one is Latino. We all have the same mission: to find a place in American poetry for Latinos. I am frustrated when a Latino poet celebrates being only Chicano, Puerto Rican, or any particular segment of Latinidad. There has to be a way to be more inclusive. I think that saying or using “Latino” is inclusive of “Chicano,” etc.
I understand that the Chicano movement was essential in the ’60s and ’70s to create space for us. We wouldn’t be here but for those forerunners, thank you, but now we need to change the Chicano vs. Latino divide. It has fractured us for too long. Now we have to understand intersectionality and the different layers that need to come together. We need to embrace ourselves and embrace Latinidad to define what that means for us.
I think about writers like Sandra Cisneros, Gary Soto, Jimmy Santiago Baca, and Tomás Rivera—I think about African-American writers who have secured a foothold in the American poetic landscape. What are Latinos waiting for? There are great Latino poets today and have been over the last 40 or 50 years. But why haven’t we come together? Through poetry and these essays, these singular identities will give voice to what their experiences are. With this comes being self-aware of how the contributors’ culture influences others, and it is essential in the larger picture of how we fit into the larger world. I hope the anthology will embrace those different identities because it needs to happen everywhere.
BMR: What do you find most intriguing about being an editor for Luna Luna Magazine in conjunction with your vision of creating visibility for poets?
RQ: I started editing at Texas Tech—well, actually before that I was poetry editor of Mosaic and CRATE. I don’t think I got my feet wet until I got to Texas Tech, when I worked for Iron Horse Literary Review. It was then that I got to see the kinds of ways in which I could propagate or illuminate other poets who were doing work similar to my own interests but still find ways to challenge the tone of contemporary poetry.
I put it that way because I am reminded of the recent changes in Poetry Magazine since Don Share opened up a space for poets who didn’t have visibility. The editor has to remember that there is a reader for all kinds of poetry, but that doesn’t mean you should publish everything. You should keep in mind what you value about poetry.
BMR: What do you value about poetry?
RQ: As an editor I value stories. I think that all creative writing is a form of storytelling, whether it is poetry, fiction, essays, or dramatic writing. I understand that some people will disagree with this, and that is fine, but ultimately the reason we write is to get stories out into the world. I want to be able to serve the tone of the moment of contemporary poetry. That doesn’t mean that I am going to only publish Latino poets or queer poets or poets who are like me because that would be boring. At the same time, it also doesn’t mean that I am going to publish everything.
BMR: What kinds of poems are you interested in? What catches your eye?
RQ: I like to read poems that contain a story and have a beginning, middle, and end, but not necessarily in that order. I think poetry is an art and I am interested in preserving poetry as an art. Some may think that is elitist. There is a craft involved in poetry. The whole point of being a poet is that it takes energy, time, and thought processes into how you are going to use letters, put those letters into words, those words into sentences, those sentences into lines, and those lines into stanzas. Each of those elements processed together are going to create a picture that will present a story, and that story will be a representation of the human condition for future generations.
BMR: Do you envision your Costa Rican heritage and culture as becoming a part of your poetry?
RQ: My family is from Costa Rica, and I wish that I’d brought focus on them and Costa Rican culture in Next Extinct Mammal. Basically, instead of having situated myself as the center of the book, I would have liked to instead situate Costa Rica—my family’s culture—in the center of the book and looked out through that lens.
I think that there is so much that my mother’s culture has given me. I don’t think I have mined it as much, or allowed it to shine. By the time Next Extinct Mammal came out, I wasn’t ready for that. It has taken a long time to find myself and find who I am, and in retrospect to learn who I was then and now.
BMR: It’s interesting that the title of your poetry collection is Next Extinct Mammal. It feels like you are removed and now looking at yourself in the past, like you’re still figuring out who you are in the present even though you know that past self is “extinct.”
RQ: I think that is a good observation. I spent my whole life in L.A. I tried leaving so many times. When I was finishing my book I was halfway through the doctoral program in Lubbock, Texas. Once I was in Texas and I was finishing this book, Christopher Buckley helped me a lot to get it done.
BMR: Do you keep notebooks or record things on a day-to-day basis? How do you keep track of poems, stories, or histories?
RQ: I have been trying to have my mom write down her story. My mom came here from Costa Rica two months before I was born. She’s this really tiny woman. She left an abusive husband, packed up my two older sisters, and came to Los Angeles. She had an older sister and a younger brother there. They took her in and helped her out. I recently asked her to write everything down: what was life like before you got here, what was it like growing up?
I also remember asking my grandmother, who visited during the ’80s, what it was like growing up in Costa Rica. This was a way I could gather stories and understand Costa Rica through her. My grandmother would tell me stories, but they are just in my head. I asked my mom to write them down and she does. Occasionally, I will get a letter in the mail from my mom, all in Spanish. And it’s just a story about something she remembers. It’s important to me because I’m afraid that my mom will die soon. My family lives to be very old. They live until they’re in their hundreds, but I still worry.
BMR: Here is the requisite interview question: What books are you recommending right now?
RQ: I am fond of reading books about language and poetics, like Mutlu Konuk Blasing’s Lyric Poetry: The Pain and the Pleasure of Words and Radiant Lyre by David Baker and Ann Townsend. I love the imagination and story of poets like Laura Kasischke, Janice Collins, Spencer Reece, and of course, Christopher Buckley.
Ruben Quesada is the author of Next Extinct Mammal and Exiled from the Throne of Night. His writing appears in Guernica, BOAAT PRESS, Rattle, The California Journal of Poetics, American Poetry Review, Cimarron Review, Superstition Review, and elsewhere. Find him on Twitter @rubenquesada.