Poetry Around Us with James Ballowe

An interview series with featured poets of Fifth Wednesday Journal

Writing is Prayer: An Interview with Luis Alberto Urrea

urreaFWJ: First, let me say that FWJ is pleased to publish your recent poems in this issue.  Readers of your four novels, a volume of short fiction, two memoirs, and two non-fiction volumes obviously know you as an accomplished and prolific prose writer. But in the nineties, from 1994 through 2000, you published three volumes of poetry, along with two books of non-fiction, your first novel, and your first book-length memoir. Since 2000, you have concentrated on prose almost to the exclusion of writing poetry for publication. Do the poems in FWJ mean that we can expect a fourth volume of poetry from you in the near future.

Urrea: Poetry was definitely my first love. I won my first literary awards for poetry (Western States Award, etc). Although it is true that I haven’t published a book of poems in ten years, it is not true that I haven’t written poetry for publication. I’ve been showing up here and there in lit journals. However, these poems are part of a collection that is making the publisher rounds at the moment. I will be focusing much more on poetry, although my main job is still long form prose. You can even expect haiku/senryū. I’m on the job!

urrea-ghostFWJ: It appears that the poetry you wrote in the nineties is not too far removed from your works of non-fiction and memoir. Ghost Sickness (1997), in particular, is autobiographical, a passionate narrative of death, divorce, and the precarious life of immigrant workers — all of which you have witnessed first hand. In that book you deal poetically with hard facts of you’re life and that of immigrants. Your perspective on immigration is no doubt sharpened by the fact that your father was a native of Mexico and your mother of the United States. Today, with the walls and heavy patrols at the border and the passage of Arizona laws based on race, your poems of the nineties have proved prophetic. Did you think of your writing as a way of helping readers understand the problems caused by the sort of exclusion and prejudice that you confronted?

urrea-feverUrrea: Great question. I wasn’t trying to write in the prophetic mode or in the political mode. I was trying to leave an accurate account of our experience. You know that great Chinese saying: The bird sings not because it has a message, but because it has a song. I had a song that was particular and needed to be sung. The other stuff you mentioned started to surface in the nonfiction narratives most certainly. You can track the evolution of my decision to focus on a literature of witness as the pieces progressed. That being said, the first book (The Fever of Being) came from a very heady time and you’ll notice Sherman Alexie shows up in it. Hell man, we were just two naive scribblers driving around in a Jeep. Had to sing.

FWJ: If it’s not too simplistic to observe, it appears that the language and form of the poems we read here in FWJ, much like that of your earlier work, evolve from and are governed by the subject. “Arizona Lamentation,” for instance, makes use of clichés drawn from an amazing ignorance of history and simple stupidity and arrogance. The irony of the poem lies within the speaker’s belief that he has earned the right to grieve for himself and others. Still, this poem and “Incident Report” might appear to some readers as stereotyping. How would you respond to that? 

Urrea: What readers? After I appeared on the Bill Moyers show, I got hundreds upon hundreds of letters, emails and messages. One sticks in my mind. The title of the email was “Full of Shit.” This helpful correspondent wanted me to know that Indians weren’t really Americans but that a tribe of white Aryans was the first group of humans on the continent. Is this the reader you are worried about? I don’t understand the term “stereotyping” in this instance. If you have been embroiled in the SB1070 stupidity of Arizona, if you have had books “boxed” and removed from the hands of brown students by white power brokers, I daresay you fail to see a stereotype. “Incident Report” for example is based on an actual event. Undocumented Mexicans watching an unwanted white American get busted by the cops. Those good folks were definitely thankful that the thought police had for once passed them by.

FWJ: Throughout your career you have experimented with many poetic forms, but you seem to rely more on an instinctive way the line should read than on obeisance to form. Is it fair to say that you are more in the tradition of William Carlos Williams and Whitman than Eliot or Frost?

Urrea: When I was 12, my mother presented me with The Wasteland and Four Quartets. I was expected to read it and understand it. Good luck. At the same time, she had a collection of Rod McKuen poems from the Book of the Month club. I was flying blind here. I was coming to poetry from Jim Morrison and Leonard Cohen. The only poems I was actually reading were Stephen Crane’s. So I was hard put to figure out the differences between Eliot and McKuen. This was either literary boot camp or intellectual child abuse; I’m not sure which. I would say if you are looking for profound roots, you might think about Robinson Jeffers. But certainly, if it’s a tossup between Frost and Williams, I’ll go with my Puerto Rican doctor friend every time.

FWJ: You often complement the lyrical with the colloquial, the beauty of humanity with its darker reality. “Help Me” is a powerful instance of this. We almost see the poem being written even as the experience described here is taking place. Are such unforeseen moments your muse?

Urrea: Absolutely. The rose garden growing in a corner of the Tijuana garbage dump. This is humanity. You can’t escape it. We try but we’re wrong.

FWJ: “Darling Phyl” is a poem with many intriguing surprises. One is the division of the words “ten/Ement” and “land/Lord’s.” Another is the juxtaposition of Phyllis in the squalor of reality and the color of the July fireworks that “almost seemed/Beautiful,” the same glimmer of optimism and humanity as that of “Help Me,” when the narrator holds the cripple’s “life” in his hand: “his/birthday, his Christmas, his bed-time”. Do you look to use of language and to the intimacy of experience as evidence that the human condition is not all dark?

Urrea: Yes. Referring back to a previous comment: I wrote to the correspondent who wanted me to know I was full of shit. I told him that being full of shit is a primary feature of the human condition and perhaps he was as well-loaded as I was. When he wrote me back, he sent apologies and blessings. “Darling Phyl” has a street veneer, a kind of a sneer that hides the sorrow in it, that life can be so debased, that flickers of color on clouds of smoke are the most beautiful things in the world is somewhat tragic. But the need to stand on the corner bellowing about the tragedy seems misdirected and adolescent. So, as a writer I have to trust the moment itself, trust the reader, and trust my own composition to hit that long low trumpet note of the blues. The poem needs to end with Chet Baker feeling low at 10 o’clock on a Friday night.

FWJ: Bellowing about the tragedy is certainly not what you do. “Tecolote Canyon” reads like an ode to those intense moments when you come upon the beauty that lies deeply within the human condition. The deeper you have to dig for it, the better. In fact, this poem is not an ode as much as it is a celebratory riff, just sheer delight in the experience of writing a poem about the ride with Big T in his “midnight car.” Is this what poetry is about for you? A celebration?

Urrea: Absolutely. A celebration — and an abhorrence. Writing is prayer. In the case of Big T, a man I loved in a wide-eyed Kerouac/Cassady way, it was a slow dawning of shock and awe. I was trying to get a peek into a place I did not belong. But then, a lot of my poems and life seem to revolve around that nexus. Sometimes, you get more than what you asked for. My duty was to tell this story right, to catch the delicious vibe of language and fraternity, and also the creeping unease and alienation. We ask to see into another’s soul. We must not squeal like little piggies when we find out what’s lurking there.

Luis Alberto Urrea’s website

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James Ballowe, FWJ advisory editor, is Distinguished Professor of English Emeritus at Bradley University. His biography of Joy Morton, A Man of Salt and Trees: The Life of Joy Morton, was published by Northern Illinois University Press in 2009. In 2010, the University of Illinois Press published his anthology, Christmas in Illinois. He will be the guest poetry editor for issue 12 in spring, 2013.

This interview appeared in the Fall 2012 Issue 11 of Fifth Wednesday Journal. To purchase a copy, please visit our Store.

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