Mistake House: In this world of busyness and hustle culture it has become more and more difficult to make space for writing. How do you protect your writing time, and do you have any rules for yourself to keep your writing process on track?
Benjamin Garcia: Any amount of writing is considerably more than no writing, so the idea that you can only be a writer if you have huge chunks of unperturbed time might actually be a hindrance. Steal bits of time where you can get it. 15 minutes during an hour lunch. 30 minutes before bed. An hour before work. It doesn’t have to be good, or finished, or coherent. But if you don’t claim this time for your writing, something else will.
I don’t have hard rules for keeping my writing on track, just some general practices. For example, reading. If I am not writing and I ask myself, “am I reading any books right now?” The answer is almost always no. So if I feel blocked, I read. And if I feel like I can’t write anything for 15 minutes, I can definitely read a few pages in that time. Another practice is not approaching a writing session with a blank page. I usually have a note I scribbled somewhere, or a phrase that has been turning in my mind, or a single word that I meditate on. These two things are usually enough to keep my writing moving.
MH: In your interview with Dana Levin for Curated Conversation(s): a Latinx Poetry Show, you talk about your fear of readers assuming that the narrator within your poems is you, when that is not the case. You overcame this concern by deciding that it didn’t matter because there was no shame in being associated with the topics you discuss in your poetry. However, we feel that this process will resonate with other writers who may share that same self-consciousness and self-censor because they, too, worry that they will be identified as the narrative voice. Can you talk more about how you overcame this concern? Can you pinpoint places in your poetry in which this self-consciousness appeared in your poems before you overcame the concern? Are there any formal or conceptual ways you have found to signal to your audience when you are the speaker or not, or are you willing to let your audience draw their own conclusions?
BG: These are the tricks I use to get over the fear of speaker and author conflation:
- I write from a place that expects the reader to know there is a difference between the poet and speaker. If a reader doesn’t know this, that’s not my responsibility. Do fiction and historical nonfiction writers have this same concern? No one thinks Erik Larson is a murderer because he wrote The Devil in the White City. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to have this expectation of readers.
- Because as readers we should assume any poem’s speaker is distinct from the poet (unless the poet clearly states otherwise), anything I want to deny can be waved away with “it’s not me, it’s the ‘speaker.’” Even if it is me. See: “Ode to Adam Rippon’s Butt”
- Even when I say this IS me, it’s more like this is “me.” That is, a version of myself filtered through language and authorial choices that controls the information and how it’s released. Kinda like taking a selfie—it’s you, but you are in control of the angle, framing, background, lighting, etc. See: “The Great Glass Closet”
- If I am writing something that is inspired by my life, I think I have a kind of ownership over that. So that if my family didn’t want me writing about family related trauma, for example, maybe there should have been more done to prevent that trauma in the first place. Or they can learn to respect what I have done with those experiences. See: “Conversations with my Father // A Poem in Closet Verse”
- If I wrote something that is a departure from “what actually happened,” then the person it’s based on should have nothing to concern themselves over. Because they know “the real story” or the “truth” or “how it really happened”—whatever that means. See: “The Memory Jar”
- Divest yourself of any fucks. See: Thrown in the Throat
MH: You have also said that being direct is more effective than leaving things ambiguous (you use the example of suicide prevention). You also speak later about how “Conversations with My Father // A Poem in Closet Verse” is one poem in Thrown in the Throat that is lifted very directly from your lived experience. How do you approach balancing confessional and more imagined work while being direct in both?
BG: I think there is room for ambiguity, depending on the situation. Avoidance and directness are just tools available to us in our communication and the trick is to be more conscious in how we use them. What are they in the service of? In “Conversations with My Father,” the speaker is using avoidance to deflect a conversation about being gay that he doesn’t want to have—while also never lying or denying themselves. It’s something that you get really good at when you’re living in the closet. Avoidance becomes a way of protecting your identity and your integrity.
Whereas in “The Language in Question” [defying gravity after all // isn’t the same as flying], I’m interested in exploring the ways in which we avoid talking about death and suicide because of our own discomforts with these issues. Who are we protecting by avoiding these conversations, the person experiencing suicidal ideations or the person who doesn’t want to be made uncomfortable by these thoughts? How we talk about something absolutely matters. If I ask someone considering taking their own life “are you thinking of hurting yourself,” that person may be in so much internal agony that they don’t view ending their life as “hurting themselves” bur rather as a way of no longer experiencing that pain. But just because a person has suicidal thoughts doesn’t mean that they intend to act on them. So how can we help someone in this situation? I recommend everyone take a class on suicide prevention/awareness. There you might learn that studies show a person in this same situation might answer very differently to the the questions “are you thinking of committing suicide” or “are you thinking of ending your life.” Language matters. It can literally save someone’s life. And our refusal to talk about mental health openly only further stigmatizes it.
In Wicked (the musical), Elphaba, “the Wicked Witch of the West” sings a song called “Defying Gravity.” For me, it was important that she distinguishes between flying and defying gravity. One seems easy and carefree—flying. The other—defying gravity—seems more active and requiring vigilant effort. For me, that’s what living with depression is like. Not flying through life in a way that comes naturally for some, but defying gravity daily so that I arrive where I intend to go.
MH: You have spoken critically about the writing of Samurai Song by Robert Pinsky because he was writing about a culture from the outside. Many of your poems discuss concepts within of your identity, such as queer and Latinx. Have you ever wanted to write from the perspective of a culture outside of this identity? If you would write from a different cultural perspective, how would you go about it? Or is writing from outside a culture something that you simply do not feel should be done?
BG: I totally think it’s possible to write characters outside of your own lived experience—the trick is doing it well and with a sense of responsibility. For me, this means asking certain questions of myself, such as “why does this story/poem/whatever need to be from this perspective?” Maybe it’s a story I want to tell, but maybe I need to explore the subject from the places I have access to (have lived, been part of, am invested in, deeply researched, etc.) If this story/poem absolutely needs to be from this perspective, then “am I the best person to tell this story?” Perhaps this is about a subject matter I think deserves more attention and that I feel deeply passionate about, but might the fact that I am writing and publishing this (especially if I have various degrees of privilege) somehow crowd out the voices of people this impacts directly? If this needs to be from this perspective and somehow I am the best person to tell this story, another question I ask is “would this writing harm anyone, even if it’s unintentional or in ways I don’t understand yet?”
An example of this might be a white poet writing about police violence. While the writer’s intentions may be wholeheartedly good, would it be appropriate or appropriation to write about this as if they lived with the same fear, trauma, and injustice that a Black person does? Wouldn’t it be more helpful to amplify the voices of Black poets writing about this, since they are directly impacted in ways that someone outside of this group can only imagine? Or maybe instead of writing what often comes across as pity, oversimplification, or theft of pain, what if that white poet approached this same subject in a way that explores and complicates their own relationship to the dynamics of this violence? It’s not easy to be this vulnerable or self-implicating.
I think that even I, as a queer Latinx writer, should ask these questions of myself. Does the fact that I am doubly marginalized give me access to the Black experience? No. Maybe another way to approach this topic might be to look at how police violence impacts Latinx communities or maybe I can work to untangle the anti-Blackness within gay and Latinx folks? Asking these questions is how I came to the poem “Reasons for Abolishing Ice.”
MH: Related to the pandemic, were you able to stay motivated with your writing during this time—and if so, how? What advice could you give to other writers who may have felt writer’s block, isolation, or anxiety during this time?
BG: First, we are still in a pandemic. Be generous with yourself. Whatever writing you are able to get done, it is a lot. It is enough. Even if it was far less than what you normally do. You are enough. You are here, and that is not insignificant. This is what I have been telling my students (and myself), because we are often willing to extend generosity to others that we won’t give freely to ourselves.
I have been writing, revising, and researching during the pandemic (to various degrees of success and frustration), which has lead me into a new genre (sort of). I am writing little non-fiction pieces in verse, in the style of “The Great Glass Closet.” It’s been great to play with this medium because it allows me to do things that I normally couldn’t within the parameters of a more traditional poem. Because these essay-poems are “non-fiction,” I am explicitly stating that the speaker and the poet are the same—which is both frightening and exciting. So if your traditional go-to genre is feeling blocked, maybe try another and see what happens?
MH: As someone who is vocal about sexuality, both in your writing and in your work as a sexual health and harm reduction educator, what do you think are the dangers of not speaking frankly about sexuality, whether this silence surrounds being closeted or simply not talking about sexuality in general. On our campus, we have been engaged in ongoing discussion about policies related to sexuality, to LGBTQIA+ rights, Title IX issues, and to open discourse.
What, in your professional view as a poet and as a sexual health and harm reduction education, are the most important things for people to be educated about and to resolve concerning sexuality? Okay, maybe this is too big a question. If so, then: where should people begin in order to understand sexual health and to reduce harm?
BG: De-stigmatizing sexual health is a really good place to start. I don’t think it’s a secret that a lot of college students are sexually active. In my undergrad and graduate school experience, I never really had anyone provide me with resources for engaging my sexual health. One of the few times I saw a doctor at my undergrad institution, he mostly talked to me about my concerns for preventing pregnancy (I had zero concern about getting another student pregnant). And the only time that I requested HIV testing as a graduate student, my doctor immediately changed his demeanor toward me and became almost accusational. If that had been my only experience with STI testing, I would never have asked for it again.
So I think having these conversations, by inviting speakers, by requesting that people in medical and leadership positions have more training related to LGBTQIA+ issues, by creating spaces for these discussions, and so on, is at the core of making progress towards meaningful change. It’s also important that everyone involved understands that change is incremental and doesn’t happen all at once, and that working on these issues is a continual process, not a one-time fix.
MH: A New York Times article written in 2020 by Elisa Gabbert talks about the utilization of slashes in your poetry being more “pronounced than commas” and that this use of punctuation adds an “important sound” to the “meaning and rhythm.” Your poem “Conversations with My Father// A Poem in Closet Verse” is a pertinent example of Gabbert’s reference and illustrates the larger pattern in your poetry. The slashes scattered throughout your work also serve as the manifestation of tension in the piece. Will you talk about how your use of slashes and other playfulness with punctuation both creates and disrupts balance and expectations in your poems? How did you begin this play with punctuation in your poems?
BG: The first poem where slashes appeared was in “Ode to the Corpse Flower.” That poem opened up a whole new direction for my book. Usually on a first draft, I try to let the language come out with as little editing as possible in order to let my subconscious insert whatever it wants—to let association lead to association. “Ode to the Corpse Flower” came to me as language fragments that wanted to stay fragmented yet also connect with other fragments. I started to use the // as a placeholder until I could find a way to connect them more traditionally. At some point, I started to recognize a collage effect happening by letting these fragments retain most of their original verve and structure. The // started to play the role of line break within a line break but also as suture. By using three fragments per line and ordering the poem in couplets, I could let the chaos on the page be chaos while also giving the reader tools for navigating that space.
I think punctuation is highly undervalued and misunderstood in both poetry and prose. Sometimes people think that relying on punctuation to do what language should do is a cheap trick, as if punctuation isn’t part of how we use language. As if our daily speech doesn’t contain ellipses and commas and exclamation points. Certainly there are better uses of punctuation marks sometimes and the repetitive use of punctuation can feel like a gimmick. But whether we acknowledge it or not, how we use punctuation has a huge effect in our writing. Even Cormac McCarthy who says “there’s not reason to, you know, blot the page up with weird little marks. If you write properly, you shouldn’t have to punctuate” ignores the fact that his style of prose is highly effective precisely because of the choices he makes in using (and not using) punctuation.
MH: In 2017, after winning the National Poetry Series grant, you said that “art is a human right.” We would like for you to discuss “art [as] a human right” more fully. Why is art a human right and how does art support human rights? We ask this question not because we don’t agree with you but because we think these ideas need to be articulated clearly since the arts are often suppressed or seen as unessential or as threatening.
BG: I think sometimes art is associated with wealth and privilege because it requires what some would call “leisure time,” material resources, and some kind of instruction/encouragement. So that growing up in a low-income community, I had little access to art and its possibilities for transformation and connection through institutional means. Our school never put on a play or a musical. I tried to restart clubs in poetry and photography, but there weren’t resources to allocate to this nor adults invested enough to help these materialize. Why should people with means be the only ones to benefit from artistic expression?
It’s not that I think art can change the world, it’s that I think art can help change our connections with the world. To find ways to express yourself and appreciate the expression of others is profoundly liberating and an important part of recognizing each other’s humanity. It’s an incarceration of the mind to live without art as a way of understanding yourself and others. If we engaged in more artistic expression as a society, maybe we wouldn’t allow things like removing children from their parents and caging them at ICE detention centers. I know those two things may sound unrelated, but they are not.
MH: In an interview in Foglifter, you said, “I think this book is about finding validation within yourself and how you respond to factors you may not always be able to control.” How do you think Thrown in the Throat helps its reader find their own inner validation? In what ways do you think your collection supplies readers with this hope and the tools for this hope?
BG: Because everyone’s experience is their own, I don’t know that I can give a reader the tools or the hope they need. But what I can show is my hope and my joy and my pain. And in this connection with the reader, maybe it ignites something in them that gives new insights into their own experiences. I think that’s one of my favorite things about writing, how it can bring more writing into the world.
MH: Throughout your poetry, florals and biological images create the shape of your work. The inclusion of flowers and animals alongside taboo subjects is illustrated in such a beautiful, inventive way. What aspects of nature and the natural world do you gravitate toward when creating new work? And why?
BG: I suppose, being queer, I am approaching nature through a queer lens. Growing up as a gay kid in a society that assumes straightness as the default, you’re made to feel “abnormal” or an “abomination” or “unnatural” when, in fact, nature is quite queer. So I’m looking for the outliers, like the peacock with its unusually impractical plumage that actually makes it easier for them to be eaten by predators. But they are willing to risk their life and be as flamboyant as a drag queen just for a chance to get laid. Or the corpse flower, that smells like shit and rotting flesh and doesn’t care if you like how it looks or smells—because it doesn’t exist to please you. That’s how I started to view my own queerness. If I am unpalatable to someone who expects a rose, well that’s just too bad. I don’t exist for them; I exist for myself.
MH: From your play with caesuras, visual structures, collage, language play, and forms (like odes) to your witty diction, your poetry is highly crafted and crafted to be both wild and pointed. You’ve said that writing in this manner can be scary but that you handled it by deducing that most of your fears were unrelated to the poetry itself. How do you recommend students of poetry work to present bold or pugnacious work?
BG: I don’t think any subject matter is off the table. It’s probably obvious that I tend to gravitate towards the pugnacious and untoward. For me, the more important thing to consider is how we write about a subject.
Yes, sometimes I am writing about stuff that might make some people clutch their pearls. But I am more interested in creating a visceral experience for someone reading or hearing the poem out loud than relying on the shock value inherent in the material. I look for opportunities to use formal elements to create intentional effects. For example, the wildness and chaos of the odes in Thrown in the Throat are only possible because of the poetic constraints I set for them.
The use of “obscene language” in poetry is nothing new, I mean Sharon Olds published the lines “the father’s cock, the mother’s/cunt” in 1980 in Satan Says. I mean, Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” is one of the horniest speakers I’ve ever heard. In my book, I am trying to explore the idea of what we consider obscene and why through our use of language. Are these “bad words” bad because we have inherited ideas that dictate our attitudes about sex and decency? Where did we inherit these ideas from? And are the real “bad words” the ones we use to oppress others, though laws, legal jargon, moral judgment, slurs, etc.?
So, I guess, my advice is to continue searching for the right form to explore your ideas, no matter how unusual or mundane you think your subject matter might be. The Cows by Lydia Davis is one of my favorite books and it’s literally just a speaker observing cows. The way the sentences unfold, the way the metaphors develop, etc. it soon becomes clear that the book is actually about how the human mind pieces the world together. It’s also strangely meditative.
MH: Do you ever play hooky? If you do, what is your favorite thing to do when you take off suddenly, as in a dérive?
BG: Falling down a YouTube hole. Or a Google hole. Or a Wikipedia hole. Maybe it starts as research, I want to know more about one particular detail of an event/object/animal/process/historical figure/etc., but then it morphs into something else. I am looking up videos of a time lapse of flowers blooming, and then I click on a video about ruby throated hummingbirds and their impossibly fast beatings wings and impossible hearts, and suddenly there is another hummingbird—in the chainsaw arms of preying mantis?!
Or I’m looking up the uses of horsehair in musical instruments, and suddenly I come across something called “the horsehair worm.” What’s that, I say, clicking the link. And I don’t see a worm, just a cricket behaving erratically at the bottom of a dirty bucket. When, suddenly, a long black wire fifteen times the length of the cricket explodes through its exoskeleton and thrashes wildly. Ta-da! The horsehair worm.
For me, this is a kind of research without a focus. The benefit of it is how it disrupts my thinking. How it introduces elements of randomness. How it mimics the associative nature of the mind. Maybe this doesn’t qualify as a dérive, but I think falling into holes is a beautiful thing. And I wish more people would—in a good way—fall in a hole.