The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Rigoberto González about his new book Our Lady of the Crossword, cover image censorship, the BP oil disaster, and what it’s like to have a poem of yours read at a same-sex wedding.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month the Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts an online discussion with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To learn how you can become a member of the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, click here.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Ellen: To start at the very beginning, I’m fascinated by the cover. Is there a back story there? Did you have a hand in it?
Rigoberto González: Ah yes. The cover is from an artist my publisher found in Mexico. And I fell in love with it right away. There was one little setback, an “appendage” on the horse that had to be edited out, but the artist was okay with it. LOL
Honestly I didn’t even notice it the first time, but yeah, this I know about book covers. No private parts—not even on animals.
Ellen: What a find. It works so perfectly—I had been thinking it might have been made for the collection.
Brian S: Really? Everything going on in that image and they wanted to edit an appendage out?
Dana: The cover is beautiful. Pretty comical setback!
Ellen: Good point about the appendage! Too funny!
Rigoberto González: Yes, censors, believe it or not. Newspapers in this country will not print breasts or penises, but they will show decapitations. Go figure.
Brian S: I chose the book for the club without having seen the cover, but the second I saw it I was in love.
Rigoberto González: I learned this as a book reviewer, watching book cover images get rejected from publication in newspapers.
Ellen: I’m also interested in you being a reviewer! How that might affect your writing?
Rigoberto González: In positive ways. It keeps me in the know and reading. At this point in my career I choose what I want to review, which is also what I want to read. I am inspired—sometimes—other times I am disappointed that writers didn’t give it 100%. But in any case, I like to be part of that conversation, particularly about poetry.
Brian S: I’ve been wanting to ask this for a while now. When I approached you for some poems for The Rumpus a little while back, you gave me one of the poems that appeared in the book—“My First Male-to-Male Kiss”—you said that you hadn’t been writing as much poetry lately, focusing more on non-fiction. Is this chapbook the start of some larger poetry project? Have we dragged you back?
Ellen: Do you apply your reviewer’s eye to your own writing, or do you try to keep that part of your sensibility separate?
Rigoberto González: Actually the chapbook was a way to gather these loose pieces that are not going into the next collection, but which I wanted collected somehow. My next poetry project is currently in the research stages.
Ellen: To become a better writer, it helps to become a better reader. So when I see the cracks and flaws in other poems, it helps me avoid them, or learn to hide them better. But it’s difficult to be critical of my own work in the same way I am critical of a published book because that journey is complete; mine is still in progress.
Brian S: That’s interesting, because one of the things I enjoyed about the book was that it felt more like a collection of individual poems tied together by voice rather than a project. Not that I have anything against projects—I’m doing one myself—but it’s a nice variation on what I see a lot of today.
Dana: I see you’ve authored 15 books (!). How do you find a balance between reading/reviewing and working on your own writing? I feel like I’m always doing too much of one and not enough of the other. Ha!
Rigoberto González: Yes, I tend to overuse the word “project” only because “book” is terrifying while I’m still in the middle of something. A project can fail. I don’t want a book to fail.
Mark Folse: You switch a good bit between poetry and lyric prose. What is it that drives that choice in a piece? Even large parts of the Letania are, or read like, prose, starting out formally poetic? Starting and ending, literally, with a litany.
Rigoberto González: Yes, Mark, I like to move around in the landscape between poetry and prose, between the lyrical and the narrative. There is no longer either/or but rather the gray area in between is rich with opportunity, so I like to mix it up, move across the spectrum.
And to address an earlier question: similarly, I enjoy working on a number of projects—books—at once. I am currently working on two nonfiction books and one fiction.
Mark Folse: “Alfonso” is wonderful, and living on the oil-soaked Gulf Coast particularly moving to me.
Rigoberto González: Glad you appreciated that. When I first wrote it I even startled myself. I didn’t realize I had it in me to write about love. That was once of the challenges of this chapbook—to explore territory I was afraid of. One of them is love.
Brian S: I thought of you when I read that, Mark, as I thought about my daughter living there during the BP disaster.
Rigoberto González: It was inspired by the BP disaster.
Dana: I kept reading “Alfonso” over and over and over again. So deeply moving and tragic… “…defeated by the waste because we live in a place that rejects the purity of anything…”
Brian S: Mark is in New Orleans and my daughter was living in Pass Christian, Mississippi when that happened. I grew up down there but haven’t lived there since 1999.
Rigoberto González: And I get emotional thinking about that because the images of those oil-soaked animals stayed with me. So I turned to human suffering because—this may sound odd—animal suffering is more difficult for me to deal with.
Mark Folse: Ah, but “Alfonso” is a more perfect metaphor for what is actually dying: a coast and it’s people, a way of life.
Brian S: I was rereading “Two Widowers in Aguascalientes” last week just after the Obergefell decision came down from the Supreme Court and found the room getting very dusty all of a sudden.
Ellen: I just happened to read “Two Widowers” that same day—such perfect timing.
Rigoberto González: Can you believe that poem is going to be read at two gay Latino weddings I know about? People are digging it.
Ellen: I was in a gay wedding last month and did a reading—I wish I’d known of this then!!
Brian S: I can absolutely believe it.
Rigoberto González: That’s so cool, Ellen.
Rigoberto González: I have a question for you all: did it bother you that there was no glossary for the Spanish vocabulary or notes about the cultural references? An editor suggested I include them but I decided not to.
Ellen: I always make use of them when books have them, but I didn’t feel like one is missing here, even though I barely speak any Spanish. My iPad is never far away to look up anything I’m confused about.
Dana: I always love a glossary, but I can’t say it bothered me not having one. It would’ve been nice to have, but I’m accustomed to using the Internet when I feel the need to reference something.
Brian S: It didn’t bother me. I figure if I want to know the references, it’s on me as a close reader to do the work and find out. Same with the language.
Mark Folse: I’ve been reading a lot of Fuentes and Urrea, on Kindle tablet, as my collegio Spanish is badly atrophied but no. Stopping to look up a word is stopping to look up a word. Period. And courtesy of Urrea, I have the Wikipedia page of Latin American obscenity and slang bookmarked.
Rigoberto González: Great, I am glad I followed my instincts. I figure I write for people who are intelligent enough to do some labor. Lazy readers are not my ideal readers.
Mark Folse: Sometimes the Spanish is best, because it makes you stop and think—for a moment—like a translator. It draws you deeper into the work.
Ellen: It’s part of the fun, figuring the hard parts out.
Rigoberto González: But like Ellen, I do make use of those tools when they are provided. I can’t resist.
Mark Folse: Like a translator.
Rigoberto González: Wow you guys are terrific. You’re hired!
Dana: I totally agree with you, Ellen! It’s part of the fun.
Brian S: I always go back to Junot Diaz talking about how people are willing to learn Elvish but freak at Spanish. I don’t ever want to be one of those people.
Rigoberto González: LOL. Junot is so good.
Ellen: And sometimes not knowing the literal meaning forces me just to enjoy the sound or rhythm.
Brian S: He don’t take no shit, that’s for sure.
Mark Folse: Urrea talks shit, and his extensive use of slang really draws you in. So don’t worry about it. Use the right word. The right readers will get it.
Brian S: Barbara Jane Reyes does that with Tagalog in a lot of her books, and finding a translator for those is even tougher. So I’ve learned to let go and just get into the rhythm of the language. One of the things I’m constantly telling my students is that they’re never going to write a poem everyone gets, or if they do, they’ve failed. They should leave someone behind every time.
Rigoberto González: I don’t use too much Spanish in my work, but in this case, something called for it.
Mark Folse: Back to my earlier question, there is a parallelism between the Crossword father and the tattooed father, and between Alfonso and Rocio Ducal. Were you thinking of that when you included these particular pieces in this collection?
Brian S: Earlier you said something about being more bothered by animal suffering than human suffering? Could you expand on that a little?
Rigoberto González: Simply stated, human suffering is articulated in language; communication is how we seek help, consolation, etc. We have not learned to understand that in animals that are not domesticated. So in terms of the oil spill, my most haunting image is of the pelicans. I wanted to understand that sense of distress as a way to reach toward that pain. So “Alfonso” helped me in a small but meaningful way.
Mark Folse: There was a picture of an oil-soaked, dead pelican almost perfectly arranged in the pose of the one of the state flag of Louisiana. It was the most heartbreaking thing I saw in all that horror.
Brian S: What time frame do these poems cover? The BP explosion was what, 5 or 6 years ago?
Rigoberto González: Yes, that long. “Alfonso” was the first. These were poems that were not fitting into my other books, so I kept them in a notebook. The most recent one is “Two Widowers,” which I wrote for the collection because I wanted at least one unpublished piece in there. I never try to force poems into a collection simply because they were written/published within a certain period of time. They will eventually find their perfect home.
Brian S: You mentioned that you’re working on a number of projects right now. Do you find that they intersect at all? Or do you try to keep them segregated?
Ellen: For the ones that were published previously, do you revise them when collecting them? Or do you publish them as they originally appeared?
Rigoberto González: There’s always overlap. My mood is my co-pilot in these projects. And I always revise when I publish in a book. So versions in magazines are sometimes slightly different. I am fine with that.
Ellen: Were there any here that changed dramatically?
Rigoberto González: When the book is coming together, I work with editors, so their advice is invaluable. The poems will get better.
Rigoberto González: I’m trying to remember. Small edits. I know that in the “The Tattooed Man,” the ending changed, and it also changed in “Bodies of Little Dead Children.”
Ellen: I’ll have to look them up!
Rigoberto González: I have a terrific editor who’s worked on my last two collections. I pay editors. I never ask friends or colleagues to work for free.
Mark Folse: My middle-aged, ADHD, long-day-at-work brain will never remember who said works of art are not finished but abandoned, but it seems natural when you take it up again, to begin to refashion it.
Rigoberto González: Revision is a good impulse to have.
Mark Folse: Not knowing your publishing history, do you approach certain publishers because of an editor, or work frequently with the same publishers but search out your own editors?
Rigoberto González: Publishers have in-house editors, but I hire my own before I submit the work to publishers. They appreciate it and I feel more confident about the material. It sounds like a lot of cooks in the kitchen but not really.
Brian S: Having grown up in a very Catholic part of Louisiana, I got used to seeing “Our Lady” of just about everything, so I have to ask—is there a Lady of the Crossword beyond the poem?
Rigoberto González: No. I made her up. But it sounds like there should be!
Brian S: Side note: a friend of mine used to pronounce Our Lady of Divine Succor as “duh-vahn sucka.”
Rigoberto González: LOL
You know, I’m only culturally Catholic. So I appreciate irreverent humor.
Mark Folse: I thought the mashup of a tabloid page girl and a crossword was brilliant, and the father’s fascination a brilliant bit of characterization. And hell, there’s is Our Lady of Everything, if you look hard enough. I was drawn enough to imagery and the potential of poetry even as a child I wished I had gone to Our Lady Star of the Sea instead of boring old Pius X.
Rigoberto González: Thank you for that, Mark!
Brian S: Would you give us an advance look at what you’re working on now? Or, if you’re superstitious as many writers are, some suggestions as to new stuff we should be reading now.
Rigoberto González: Sure, I am going to Colorado to do research on the Ludlow Massacre of 1914. Google it. I am interested in place. And in the ways that place, haunted by its tragedy, resonates for me with what is happening in Mexico and in the US—all the toxic hatred, violence and death are spilling into the land. I have no idea where this is going but I know I am interested in pursuing it. So I am drawing a map between Ludlow, Iguala (Ayotzinapa), and Ferguson.
Brian S: Oh wow. And this is the poetry project you’re working on? Sounds interesting. I hope when it starts to come together you’ll share some of them with The Rumpus.
Rigoberto González: Yes. What follows unpeopled Eden? The ghosts of Eden.
Of course, Brian! Thank you.
Brian S: Who are you reading these days?
Rigoberto González: I am working on a book review (due Wednesday)—can’t say who. But I will say that I am tackling some big translations: Carlos Drummond de Andrade and Yehuda Amichai. Also, rereading some Juan Felipe Herrerra.
Brian S: Of course. The new Poet Laureate.
Mark Folse: A hard one, and not sure anyway has asked before in this forum, but if we enjoyed this small taste of your work, you have 15 books out: would you recommend another title of yours? Don’t feel obliged to answer this one but I’m asking anyway.
Rigoberto González: Yes, so thrilled about that. And timely. As crazy things are being said about the Latino community, incredible things are coming from the Latino community.
Well, I would recommend Autobiography of My Hungers because it’s also short and manageable. And if that suits you, look up my other memoirs.
Brian S: Thanks for joining us tonight Rigoberto and for this lovely book.
Rigoberto González: Buenas noches!