Three Questions with 2015 Poetry Contest Judge, J. Michael Martinez


Recently, Puerto del Sol  had the pleasure of speaking with our 2015 Poetry Contest Judge, award-winning poet J. Michael Martinez, about identity, audience, and the poetic craft. Here’s what we learned.

PDS: Firstly, I appreciate your strategy of incorporating identity into your work. The first time I read heredities was during a lyric poetry course. The professor had us read Martín Espada’s “The Meaning of the Shovel” in conjunction with a poem from Heredities, “Xicano.” I was immediately struck with the difference. It was a good thing; I was hearing multiple voices and different approaches to writing about this identity. It made me think back to a story Paul Pedroza, a novelist, told me: one of his friends was turned down by a publisher because he wasn’t the “right type of Mexican.” What do you think they want to hear from us? How (through what form maybe) do you think they want us to voice ourselves?

JMM: Who composes the “us” you allude to?  Latin@s? The “wrong” kind of “Mexicans?” Who are “they?” Publishers?  Readers of poetry?  A specific community within poetry?  General U.S. “society?” In what way are “we” a “we?” What composes this material of the “we?” In what practical ways do “they” tend to the configuration of the “we?”  Is there a discernable violet horizon where “we” fail the boundary?

Are “we” only “we” for the collapse?

When I write, I always craft poems into various forms, of whatever aesthetic tradition I happen to be infatuated with at the moment (not limited to poetic traditions); these forms are experimentations into generating different publics; often they are failed hypothesis’ trying to step away from the very easy practical classification of “identity” made in everyday life.

I think its easy to fall prey to the shallow rewards and seductions of a kind of recognition in the publics surrounding poetry (winning certain awards, receiving certain fellowships, “knowing” and being “known” and, consequently, being seen “knowing” and being “known” in certain publics, etc.).  Those material rewards aid in the generation of a poetry public whose consciousness may be too invested in competition and, as such, a necessary relational antagonism restricting that public’s social and ethical potentials. I’m saying peeps sometimes get egos, be emotionally fragile because someone in America said something or didn’t say something on Facebook or Twitter; identity, as we represent it and are represented by it, activates as an irreconcilable rationalized and rationalizing antagonism.  These kind of social networks create publics whose immediacy to each other fails, often, a friendship’s sacrificial intimacy. I guess, what I mean to say: I’ve no interest in participating in, or generating, a public of limited ambition.

I’m thinking of how the practice of sympathy, a very concrete ethical petition of the metaphor on the writer (for me at least), is ignored or restricted for the sake of a certain kind of material achievement or recognition.

I’ve written before about the distinction between the role of writing and the role of publication (whether in a journal or in a book).  When one chooses to publish, one chooses the public.  An unspoken acknowledgement is made: the writer participates in the book entering the public sphere not only because the book is a trafficked, material good but also because the book generates a public out of and with its readers.  As consequence, the one published constructs cultural spaces of reception and recognition, a culture where identities are practically activated, spaces practically coordinating how bodies relate to each other.

Isaac Julien once stated, “I don’t see myself as being representative of any community.  I see myself as a cultural activist who tries to make interventions into cultural space and those interventions may draw on a very personal experience.”  I always see “representative” in terms of diorama, as in the literal Greek translation as, “through that which is seen.”  In this way, it’s easier to detect how the “representative” is evacuated of their individual bodily, moral, aesthetic identities and becomes, instead, the material medium by which “the community” is practically activated.  While this might be great, I can’t help but see this is like that moment at the of end of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight; that moment when Batman takes the blame in the news for the murders recently committed by an enraged and insane Harvey Dent: Batman takes the social blame and its consequences and Dent remains Gotham’s “White Knight.” Dent stands above the law he protects.  He can murder bc it is for the better good if he is not prosecuted.  Dent is no longer Dent: he is an absolved absence.  I’m not a fan of being absolved nor of being “emptied” of those characteristics particular to me.  I like Julien’s statement because the “individual” artist isn’t evacuated of their responsibility in the political role in/of the aesthetic as it intervenes into specific cultural spaces.  Their idiosyncratic identities activate and open representational spaces requiring intimacy as they produce community, identities and knowledge practices.  Darby English, in How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness, states, “Julien conceptualizes intervention as a tactic that pushes against the confines of ‘community’ not to evacuate it but to rearticulate it as a function of a larger cultural space through which thought must pass in order to finds its way to community” (43).  Community, at least in Darby’s reading of Julien, is an active and networked condition: his art resists the codification or essentializing practices oft happening within minority populations (not every Latin@ speaks Spanish, is Brown, is Mexican, or likes spicy food); his art operates conscious of its relational practices in particular social spaces; this networked condition necessarily deals with the very real social conditions inventing and invested in perpetuating social division and inequity.

PDS: What is the worst writing advice you’ve ever been given?

JMM: The advice I’ve received I’ve chosen to ignore has always been that which privileges and gives precedence to the material “success” (“how to get published, get the right job, awards and smooge make friends” kinda thing)  VS the practice of writing.

PDS: If you were to choose any other profession, what would it be?

JMM: Carpenter.

J. Michael Martinez is the author of  Heredities (2010) and the recipient of the Walt Whitman Award as well as the Five Fingers Review Poetry Prize. His work has been featured in The Colorado ReviewNew American Writing, and The Crab Orchard Review. He currently teaches at Colorado University Boulder. 

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